The World of Smocking

Stroll through the history of smocking and discover the beauty and simplicity of this art form with the New York Public Library.

Smocking is a form of needlework that can be described as a form of “ornamental shirring, the gathered material being worked over with colored threads to form a pattern.” 



Smocking is an old English handicraft with its origins in the agricultural life of England.  The smock frock was a man’s loosely fitting garment made of linen that was gathered for elasticity and allowed for freedom of movement for the peasant man in his agricultural work.  It was a characteristic mark of English country life.  Sold cheaply and found read-made in village shops, it was a common outfit of the rural agricultural laborer.  

While tracing the history of smocking far back is hazy, it is perhaps believed to originate from the Anglo-Saxon tunic, which was a commonly worn garment in England. 

Smocking became fashionable through the artistic dress reform movement of the Pre-Raphaelites during the 1850s and 1860s, an avant-garde group of citizens with the likes of Morris and Rossetti in its circle.  Smocking came to be viewed as the healthiest form of dress, being the most comfortable and practical, and giving “freedom to the limbs”.  It came to be romanticized as a noble form of dress, both graceful and beautiful, and removed from fashion.

Smocking proved popular in children’s wear with one of the earliest references dating back to 1879.  One noted in 1887, “It is also curious that while the smock frock, with its pretty stitching, is going out among the peasantry, it is coming in among fashionable circles. Smocks for children, elaborately stitched, are very much in use in families with a turn for tasteful dress, and many ladies, especially those aesthetically inclined, wear dresses ornamented with smocking.” 



As The Women’s World in 1888 noted, “How pretty are those old English smock-frocks that have of late years become so fashionable for children of all ages! The smocking is perfectly elastic and the frocks are such a pretty shape...” 

Since smocked outfits were not fitted, but loosely fitting, allowing for movement and growth of the child, they came to be considered an extremely useful children’s garment.   The beauty of the work depends on the evenness of the gathering of the smocking, which provides for its elasticity.  An English rule of thumb for the amount of material used in smocking is to allow twelve inches of material for three inches of smocking.




Dress your little ones in timeless smocking at The Open Road and discover our heritage      dresses  


With many thanks to the New York Public Library for the information.  You are an invaluable and treasured resource.