Gathering Threads

Book Review: English Smocks by Alice Armes

Posted by on Apr 25 2010, in Book Review, Smocking

I have plans over the next several months to post reviews from time to time on interesting books on smocking, vintage sewing and other related titles from my library. No rhyme or reason to my collection – they’re simply titles I’ve collected over the years that I’ve found useful, interesting or inspiring, and wanted to share my thoughts on.

In particular, I thought I’d touch on some great antique books that I particularly like. It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in buying the newest title, just because it’s new, but there are a wealth of books out there from years past that can serve as inspiration, too.

First out of the gates, a funny little book called “English Smocks with Directions for Making Them” by Alice Armes.


Don’t be put off by this drab cover, because beneath its unassuming, mid-1920s dun cover is a wealth of fascinating history on traditional smocks.

The book explores the history, traditions and embroidered motifs that make up 19th century smocks. True workhorses, these durable garments disappeared from the English countryside with the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

I have an undated, likely first edition, copy that dates to around 1925; reprints were issued into the 1970s by the publisher and they’re readily available from used booksellers online.

The book is a fascinating window into the ‘true’ roots of smocking and it’s chock-a-block with great information. A mixture of clear line illustrations and black and white photos supplement the text, with many of the featured garments from the V&A’s collection at the time.
At times, the language can seem unfamiliar – Armes does use the older, English terminology – reed, not pleat, chevron, not wave stitch – but the illustrations are such that it is easy to discipher her meanings. She includes diagrams for all of the major embroidery and smocking stitches employed on period smocks, plus cutting diagrams, suggested materials and recommended order of construction for a typical smock.


All of this is great information, to be sure, but what makes this book for me are the more than twenty accompanying stitch diagrams that Armes compiled during her research. Each smock that she includes in the book has a meticulously detailed embroidery schema tucked separately into the endpapers of the book.

From a Buckinghamshire gardener to a Shropshire woodsman, there are a plethora of embroidery designs to inspire. They could be used to recreate exact historical replicas (certainly, I can imagine living historians using these designs) to sewers looking to embellish their own projects with some often whimisical and original designs. My sheets are as crisp and white as the day they were printed – what a great find!


I’ve yet to make a traditional smock a la Armes but understanding the roots of this embroidery tradition gives me a great respect for its practical and durable roots. Definitely a book that can’t be judged by its cover!