Smocking is the process of making embroidery stitches over a series of small, tightly folded pleats. This process has been around since as far back as the Renaissance era, although nothing was ever written down until late in the 19th century. While the patterns are as different as the material they can be stitched on, the basic instructions are the same for each pattern. You must first pleat the fabric, and then tighten the pleating stitches to begin smocking.
Marking the grid
If you are among the lucky, you already own a pleating machine. For the rest of us, the only other option is to hand stitch the pleating stitches to gather the material into neat little evenly spaced pleats. To do this, you will need a water soluble marker and a ruler. Start with a square piece of fabric on which you will draw 2 lines. These lines need to be in a different colour or darker than the others, so you can quickly find your centre line.
Lay out the material with the right side facing down. You are going to draw a line across the top about 7.5 cm (3 inches) from the top of the fabric -- more or less, depending if you are going to sew the smocking into a dress or bag. Then find the centre of the top line you just made, and draw a line vertically as far down as you want the pleats to go. Then, out from the centre line, make additional vertical lines in equal distances of 6 mm (1/4 inch). Traditional smocking is spaced in odd increments. The spaces are 4.5 mm (3/16 inch) with rows that are 7.5 mm (5/16 inch) apart. To simplify this process, you can use 6 mm (1/4 inch) spaces and rows 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) apart. You will be drawing a grid pattern on the fabric to see where you need to pleat.
Once you have all the lines going down, you can then turn the material to make the other lines for the grid. A 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) from the top line draw another line, and then move down 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) and make another line. Continue this process until you have the grid drawn.
Pleating gets easier the more you do it. You will begin with the line directly under the top line you drew first. Still on the wrong side of the material, place the needle just to the right of the first vertical line. Pierce the fabric and come back out the left side of the vertical line. You want the thread to follow the horizontal line and dip under the vertical line. Loosely knot both ends, and continue down each line using a new piece of thread. You will basically be following the horizontal line with breaks for each vertical line.
It will look like this: ||| ||| |||
Once you have the stitches in you can pull the thread tight to pleat. You will need to keep it tight while you knot the ends again to keep the fabric together. Turn the fabric over to begin your pattern.
There are numerous patterns available, ranging in difficulty from beginner to advanced. The one thing they all have in common is the pleating. A good one to begin with is a smocked bag. For more information or greater detail, view the illustrated stitches in the first Resource.