Smocking Fabric – Techniques and patterns (Beginner’s guide)

Learn how to do smocking on dresses with this simple tutorial with basic smocking stitches, which you can combine to form different patterns

how to do smocking

I have always been fascinated by smocking done on my girls’ dresses and always thought it is too difficult to do. Realistically it is a little bit difficult to do than other embroidery work but the effort is worth it.

I have given this post the title beginner’s guide because even I am a beginner and learning along as I go. Hope you also find some value from it and start smocking all the fabric in sight.

Frocks with smocking done on the bodice

What is smocking ?

Smocking is a design technique to control the fullness in a piece of fabric, with beautiful embroidery stitches. To do smocking, regular gathers (or pleats) are taken on the fabric with long stitches on the back and very small stitches in the front.

Most of the time other embroidery details like flower designs are done along with smocking. 

Which fabric is best for smocking ?

Linen, crepe, silk, lawn cotton, ginghams, velvet, chiffon, lace , knits. You name the fabric and it has been smocked by women in earlier times

A light to medium weight evenly woven  fabric with a smooth surface is ideal for smocking. You can choose plain or printed cotton, poplin, cotton lawn, silk, satin, cotton blends, organdie,  lightweight denim and lightweight wool blends.

A beginner can choose a checked cotton fabric as there is already a guideline for you to gather the fabric evenly. I am assuming that you do not have a pleater. A knit fabric or a velvet fabric as a first project would be difficult to tackle. A plain fabric can also be taken, if the guidelines for the pleats are correctly made.

smocking is best done on checkered fabric

How much extra cloth is needed to do smocking ?

You need atleast 3 times the cloth for the width of the final piece. ie if you want a final smocked piece of 10 inches you need to take 30 inches cloth to do the smocking. But then it also depends on the tightness of the smocking stitches. If you make very slack stitches the cloth needed will be less. Add the seam allowance as well.

Which thread is best for smocking ?

Smocking stitches are done with regular embroidery thread. On silk clothes use silk thread and on cotton fabric use cotton thread.

I love to use Pearl cotton thread for smocking as it has a nice sheen to it and the 2 ply thread is thick enough to stand out.

Colour of the thread – A simple color scheme works well for smocking, which should look elegant rather than tacky. Pastel colors work best on light-colored fabric. Keep the thread ( two strands of the thread) near your fabric to see if it suits you. One or two colors, two or three shades of the same color are all preferred for smocking.
I use three strands of thread for the smocking stitches; for a thicker effect, you can choose four strands.

How to prepare fabric for smocking ?

Preshrunk/ prewash the fabric before smocking. It is true that unwashed fabric looks best when smocked but shrinking of fabric is a possibility. So prewashing the fabric is necessary.

Take the cloth along the lengthwise grain of the fabric

Professionals add a light fusible interfacing to hold the pleats, especially for thin fabric.

How to gather fabric for smocking ?

There are three ways you can gather the fabric

  1. Hand gathering
  2. Machine gathering
  3. Using a pleater

Machine gathering is easy. Checkout this post on gathering fabric. Make basting stitches and gather. But the problem is that machine gathering doesnot give even pleats.

It is very very important that you get even gathering ; which means the pleat on the first row and the second row should be the same for all gathering. The pleats should all line up vertically. 
This is the most important thing that qualifies the beauty of smocking. 

If you have a pleater all the problem goes away. The pleater does the job beautifully.

Hand pleating is the next best option, though it tests your patience.

A smocking transfer available in the market can make this process easier. The smocking transfer consists of a series of evenly spaced dots on a paper which can be transferred to the fabric with heat. You get different types of smocking transfers with differences in the spacing of the dots. For very fine cloth small spacings are more suitable and this will give shallow pleats.

How to use the smocking transfer?

  • Read the instructions thoroughly on the transfer cover
  • First of all cut out the smocking transfer to the size of your fabric.
  • Place the fabric wrong side up on the ironing table.
  • Place the smocking transfer right side down on the fabric.
  • Press the iron on the transfer. Do not iron.
  • If all the dots are transferred on to the fabric take it off and use.

smocking grid lines

Hand marking – Marking the dots yourself is the next option;  a slightly cumbersome task but for a passionate sewist who wants to smock very badly this is the best option, unless you are doing the smocking on a checked fabric.

When you mark, remember to leave extra fabric at either ends – you need seam allowance.

Mark smocking lines on fabric

Measure and mark the dots with a ruler and pencil on the wrong side of the work. You have to ensure that each stitch is set directly under the same stitch in the row above and the rows of stitching are all same distance apart. The rows are marked slightly longer than the column marks.

1/2 inch apart rows which are 3/4 inches apart in height

Make running stitches through the dots and at the end of each row leave thread tails hanging down.

Make running stitches along the marks

Gather the fabric. Tie two thread tails each at the end, making sure the pleats are tight. Cut off the thread tails. 

Gather the stitches and tighten the stitches

Basic rules of smocking

  • The gathering thread is to be used as a guide to keep your smocking stitches even and straight.
  • At all times make sure that the needle is held straight /horizontally – parallel to the stitches and perpendicular to the pleats and valleys.
  • Ensure that the gathering thread is not caught in the smocking stitches. When everything is done you may find it difficult to cut it off.
  • Always make sure that each stitch is directly below the one above it.
  • Crewel needle – of sizes 5 to 8 – are suitable for smocking.
  • The bottom of the pleat is called the valley.
  • Come to the front of the fabric through the valley of the first pleat. Begin the row by inserting the needle right to left into the first pleat (to secure the knot), then go on to pick the next pleat.
  • With every stitch, take one third of the pleat with your needle above the pleating thread.
  • Always keep the floss in the same position throughout the row – above or below the needle. Don’t lose track of the position of your floss. If you do your smocking stitches will be a disaster.
  • Keep the tension even throughout.

Steps to smocking

Step 1

After the fabric is gathered count your pleats. You need an even number of pleats.

Now mark the  center two pleats. The center of your smocking is actually the valley between these two pleats. You can make a mark at this place with a small stitch or using the chalk. This is a very important step in smocking.

Step 2

Skip the first gathering row for smocking stitches. You can use this row as a guide for the further stitching.

Also Leave 3 pleats to either side – to account for seam allowance. If you have already left seam allowance do not bother.

Step 3.

Come up from the side of the third pleat (or the first pleat if you have already left seam allowance). Bring the needle up through the left-hand valley of the next pleat. Insert the needle back through the  first pleat – the one you will be starting the stitch with (from left to right) keeping the needle parallel to the gathering thread.

I assume you will be working from left to right. Left handed people will be working from right to left.

I always start with a  row of stem stitches first to hold the gathered fabric in place. You can make one or two rows of stem stitches like this to hold the gathers firmly in place.

Step 4

Do the smocking stitches. The common smocking stitches are described and illustrated below.

Smocking stitches

The most frequently used smocking stitches are

  1. Outline stitch/ Stem stitch
  2. Wheat stitch
  3. Cable stitch
  4. Wave stitch
  5. Diamond stitch

Outline stitch/ Stem Stitch

This resembles a rope. It is made the same way as the embroidery stem stitch. Usually this stitch is used at the beginning of the smocking – as it holds the gathers tightly. Each stem stitch picks one pleat of the fabric and joins it to the next one.


stem stitch smocking
stem stitch smockingBring up the needle through the first pleat, to the left of the pleat. Pick up the next pleat , at an angle and come up at the middle of the two pleats. Continue doing the same thing. Remember that the thread will be over two pleats

One important thing to remember as you make the Outline stitch is to always hold the thread in the up position after each stitch (above the placement of the needle). In the stem stitch the thread is in the down position.

Wheat stitch

This stitch is a combination of the outline stitch and the stem stitch.First the outline stitch with the thread in the up position is made and then immediately under it the stem stitch is made – the second row of stitches is made basically in the same spot but just underneath. This creates a wheat shape pattern, with a slight angling of the needle.

Cable stitch

cable stitch
This stitch is made the same way that the embroidery cable stitch is done
This is similar to the stem stitch but the position of the thread in relation to the needle is alternated to make this stitch
First the thread is kept below the needle, then for the next stitch the thread is kept above the needle.

Ensure that you are placing the needle in the same place along the row consistently so that you have a straight even line of cable stitches

Wave stitch

wave stitch
This is a very elastic stitch perfect as the last stitch in the smocking, because this stitch lets out the tightness of the gathers ( If that is the effect you want for the last row of smocking)


wave stitches used in smockingAfter making a straight stitch between two pleats, go up and pick up the second pleat and the next pleat ( keep the needle horizontal) . Now go up and take up the third pleat and the next pleat. Keep the thread under the needle.


wave stitches used as smocking stitches in a frock

Diamond  stitch

diamond smocking stitch

1. First mark the top and bottom levels for your stitch. This stitch should be level with the marks at all times.

2. Make an under cable stitch level with the bottom mark. You have the needle in between the pleats now
3. Go on to take the second pleat in level with the top gathering thread. The thread should be under the needle.
4. Now bring the thread over the needle and make a cable stitch at the top mark
5. Thread still over the needle, move back down to the bottom mark and pick up this third pleat again.
6. Thread under the needle, stitch a bottom level cable.

Checkout this video to better understand how this is done.

All other stitches are variations of these basic stitches. You can make different combinations and patterns if you master these stitches.

Step 5.

When each row is completed make back stitch on the single pleat at the end ( do not take two pleats to finish the stitch). Knot at the end. 

Step 6

If you want to make a center design, Do so on either side of the center valley you had marked earlier (as the center of the smocking).

Any other small motifs should be made counting the pleats  from the center valley for a beautiful even look.

If you want to loosen up the gathers towards the end of smocking honeycomb stitch or the wave stitch is used, because of the stretchiness of this stitch.

Step 7

After the full smocking stitches are made, cut away the gathering stitches carefully with a seam ripper.

Use the steam setting on the iron to set the pleats. Do not press the iron on the pleats. It will flatten your pleats. Holding the iron just a little bit away with the steam setting on will make the pleats look good.

The most important thing in making beautiful smocking stitches is to do all your stitches with consistency. Always making your stitches even and smooth, placing your needle along the same plane pleat after pleat. This will create the most beautiful pattern from these simple stitches.

Checkout this Pinterest board for some inspirations to make your own smocking patterns and designs

How to add smocked fabric to your clothes

There are two ways of doing this. You can make the smocking on a pre cut pattern piece or Do the smocking on the fabric and then cut the pattern. I would be doing the second method unless it is a square piece of pattern

The smocking stitches look really simple but they can result in some very complicated-looking exquisite embellishments on clothes and accessories. These are results of consistency in making those simple stitches. Practice and consistency can surely bring on the results.

Sew beautiful blog has an interesting technique of making smocked polka dots. This technique makes smocking stitch on the backside to keep the pleats in place and then uses smocking stitches to make small polka dots on the front side of the fabric. It is beautiful. Worth a try after the basic stitches are learned.Check it out here.

Some books you may wish to read on smocking

  • Classic Smocking – The Cheryl Lohman Collection
  • The Book of Smocking – Diana Keay
  • A to Z Sewing for Smockers (Australian Smocking & Embroidery magazine)
  • Geometric Smocking -Juliet Macdonald
  • English Smocking- Children’s Corner
  • Ellen McCarn On English Smocking
  • The Pleater Manual – Sarah Douglas
  • The Busy Mother’s Guide To Sewing Children’s Clothes – Nancy Coburn
  • The How-To-Book of Heirloom Sewing by Machine -Nancy Coburn

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Author: Sarina Tariq

Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Smocking Fabric – Techniques and patterns (Beginner’s guide)”

  1. Hi Sarina,thank you for your marvellous post.
    I have one query/confusion.Afriend told me to gather pleats tighter as to make the width to be embroidered less large than required to allow for loosening after pulling out the gathering threads.Is that true?

    • Hi Preeta,
      There will be some extra width when you remove the gathering thread; thanks for sharing your knowledge

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