How to Do Smocking

Updated February 21, 2017

Smocking is seen on dresses, skirts, shirts and many other items. Smocking uses embroidery stitches to hold gathered cloth in even folds. With a litle instruction you can soon be applying your needlework skill to smocking a clothing item for yourself, a friend or loved one.

Choose a simple project for your first try at smocking. Suggestions include a basic square yoke dress for a little girl or a baby bonnet.

Pleat the garment. There are several ways to do this. Iron-on smocking dots are one option, but can be challenging and can make it difficult for a beginner to maintain a proper gauge. Smocking pleaters are another option.This device looks like a pasta maker with a row of needles. Roll the fabric through the pleater and it stitches the pleats for you. It can take some practice, though, to get pleats straight.

Contact a local smocking shop to pleat the garment if necessary. They can do this for you, usually at a cost of three to five dollars per garment.

Check your gauge when pleating. The general gauge is 3:1 which is three inches of fabric to one inch of pleated fabric.

Unpick the first three pleats on both sides, and this will create seam allowances.

Tie off the pleats, two at a time.

Redistribute pleats evenly. Then you can use a comb to align the pleats correctly.

Thread the needle with three strands of cotton thread and tie a single knot at the end.

Begin smocking on the second gathered row. Avoid catching the gathering thread in the smocking. You will need to remove this gathering thread at the end of the project, and if it gets caught in the smocking, removal will be difficult.

Imagine the pleats as a row of V's. Starting just above the gathering thread, but under the fabric, pull th needle up through the bottom of the second V, or pleat. The needle should now be in the valley to the left of the second pleat.

Insert the needle back through the first pleat from left to right. Now you're ready to start stitching.

Bring the needle up to the left of the first pleat.

Keep the thread under the needle, and pick up the second pleat as you insert the needle from right to left. As you finish the stitch, give the thread a gentle tug upward.

Keep the thread above the needle as you pick up the third pleat. Insert the needle from right to left. As you finish the stitch, give the thread a gentle downward tug.

Repeat these stitches across the row.

End the row by placing another stitch in the final pleat and leave a little loop as you pull the thread. Run the needle back through the loop and pull the thread to create a knot. Trim the remaining thread to 1/4 inch.


If you're uncomfortable with the idea of pleating your own garment, or want to just get started with the needlework, you can also purchase pre-pleated garments from sites like If you choose to use a smocking pleater, gingham is a good fabric to practice with. Keep your stitches straight by using the gathering thread as a guide. There are many other stitches to try. The cable stitch is a simple straight stitch and good to start with. If smocking becomes something you really enjoy and excel at, you can even look into programs to further your skill. The Smocking Arts Guild of America offers an artisan program that allows you to challenge yourself and explore more about smocking.

Things You'll Need

  • Fabric
  • Thread
  • Iron-on smocking dots (optional)
  • Smocking pleater (optional)
  • Pleated garment
  • Cotton thread
  • Needle
  • Pattern (Optional)
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