The moment that always scares me when I’m making a smocked dress always comes when I’ve got to cut away my smocking for the armholes.
Typically, the instructions say something like. “Block smocking. Trace armholes using pattern guide. Zig-zag inside the tracing. Cut.”
Sounds easy enough. How hard can it be? Well, smocking is stretchy. It doesn’t like being manipulated as you steer through the curves. It distorts under the presser foot. It stretches and shifts. And it’s next to impossible to get both sides perfectly symmetrical because the fabric is always moving. So suffice it to say, doing it the ‘standard’ way has caused me lots of grief over the years.
So I’m going to share my completely unorthodox method of cutting those pesky armholes. I’ve never heard of anybody else doing it this way but since I discovered it, I’ve given up doing armholes and neck the old-fashioned way. It uses my secret weapon, freezer paper, and makes marking and cutting those armholes darn near painless.
If you’re a quilter, you’ve probably used freezer paper before. It’s a thick, plastic coated paper that can be used to wrap meat and other items destined for the freezer and protect them from spoilage. But it has lots of other uses, too, particularly in quilting, where it’s often used in appliqués and as guide for quilting shapes. You can mark it with a pencil, cut it easily with regular craft scissors into all sorts of shapes and trace through it. Best of all, because one side of the paper has a plastic coating, when you apply heat from an iron, it temporarily adheres to the fabric, making it stiff and easy to handle.
You get where I’m going with this?
Here’s what you need to block a smocked yoke using my freezer paper method.
- completed smocked yoke, gathering threads removed (if there is embroidery, it should be completed after the armholes are zig-zagged and cut out)
- chosen pattern with blocking/armhole guide
- sewing scissors
- freezer paper
- smocking board or other flat, pinnable surface like an ironing board
1. Trace the blocking guide with the armhole shapes (and neck, if you’re doing a full smocked yoke) provided by your specific pattern onto the freezer paper. The paper side should be right side up; the shiny plastic side on the bottom. If your pattern only provides a half width guide, make a full width pattern. It can be helpful to mark the CF/CB on the guide, either with a ruler or by folding the freezer paper template in half.
2. Draw the seam allowances around both armholes and the neck, if applicable. Cut away the seam allowances from the armholes and neckline only.
3. Pin the smocking face down on the smocking board. Block the yoke to the width indicated in your chosen pattern, being sure to keep the edges straight and the top edge even. I like glass headed pins for this, as I don’t have to worry about melting the pins inadvertently.
4. Hold the iron above the smocking and steam the pinned piece thoroughly. Let cool. Leave pinned to the board.
4. Lay the freezer paper guide on the back side of the cool, blocked smocking. Different blocking guides will have you align your pattern differently. In my case, I aligned the bottom of the guide with the lowest row of smocking. You want the guide to be accurately centred; count the pleats visible at both the right and left side. Adjust as necessary until the guide is as straight and even as possible.
5. Following the directions on the freezer paper, adhere the freezer paper template in place. Start with the armholes. Be careful not to crush the pleats at the bottom of the smocking as you work.I have found the best results when I hold the iron in place for a count of 7-8 seconds on a cotton setting, with no steam; experiment to see what settings work best for your brand of freezer paper and iron.
6. Let the freezer paper cool. Remove the pins from the smocking. When you pick up the yoke, it should be stiff and the freezer paper evenly adhered. If any points are loose, just touch the tip of the iron to re-secure. It is fairly hardy but still remember to be gentle with the piece, as you don’t want the freezer paper to detach before you have sewn the zigzag stitching.
7. Using a zig-zag stitch (L 1.8-2.0, W 2.0), stitch just next to the freezer paper template. The yoke will be stiff and you will be able to pivot easily around the curves. No stretching. No distortion. Hoorah!
8. Turn the piece over and check that your armholes are symmetrical. Do they curve at the same points? Do they cross the same rows at the same point? If necessary, do a second pass with the zig-zag stitch to compensate for any small discrepancies between the two sides so that they are identical. Check the neckline in the same fashion if you are blocking a full yoke design. Carefully peel away the freezer paper template when you are satisfied with the shaping.
9. Now for the moment of truth. Cutting. Cut just outside the zigzag stitching. I promise the smocking and pleats won’t unravel, because they’ve been secured by your stitching. So cut already!
In the close-up from the right side, you can see that thanks to the freezer paper, the pleats are very straight and undistorted. They haven’t stretched out of shape at all. Nor are there any markings that need to be removed. Much easier, in my humble opinion.
Here is the yoke, with both armscyes cut out. It is now ready to be sewn into the dress. Follow the contruction instructions for your individual pattern from this point on.
I hope you find this tutorial useful and that it makes prepping for armholes in your smocked garments easier.