Gathering Threads

Updating a Grace Knott Classic

Posted by on Mar 21 2014, in Smocking, WIP

I’m always a little suspicious of pristine cookbooks.  Sure, if it’s brand new and I’m browsing at the bookstore, pretty pictures and pristine, crisp pages are wonderful.  But if someone recommends a cookbook and their copy is immaculate, without a smudge of flour, or a smear of batter, I start to wonder just how good the food really is.  At my house, the cookbooks I use regularly look like they’ve served in the trenches, but that’s OK because it means they’re being put to the use they were intended for.

Should I apply the same logic to smocking books? If so, my copy of Grace Knott’s classic, “English Smocking,” comes with decades of recommendation behind it, too. Before it was mine, this was my mom’s copy, printed in the late seventies; my sister and I wore dresses smocked with designs from this book when I was a little girl in the mid-eighties. And my great aunt Lois (who was Martha Stewart before Miss Stewart was even a glimmer in her parents’ eye), smocked for her step-daughter in the 1940s using an earlier edition.  Grace Knott really established smocking and kept it alive before its revival.  This book is well-loved, to put it mildly.

I think there’s a tendency amongst smockers (and I’m certainly guilty of this!) of preferring the shiny glossy designs of recent publications.  The colours and fabrics are up to date and it’s so easy to envision the finished product, thanks to the step by step photographs.  Old designs seem kind of daunting, with their spare, written directions and dated colour schemes.    Yellows and browns?  Ewww.  Orange and green?  Yuck.  How could anyone smock anything so old-fashioned?

So, do you think my lastest smocking project looks out of date?  Because I sure don’t and yet, it’s a design that was published almost four decades ago.

All I’ve done is change the colour palette and switch out the wrapped roses and stacked cable baskets for bullions and open herringbone.   And suddenly, the symmetry and classic proportions look timeless and fresh once again.

There’s a lot of wonderful detail in this plate – colours and stitches are built on top of each other to give a wonderful sense of depth and complexity.  This was certainly a very involved design but totally worth it, I think.

The baskets are one of my favourite details:  Big, three colour roses, surrounded by smaller bullion buds, detached chain and a smattering of pink french knots, all sitting in a herringbone stitch basket.  The basket, if I do say so myself, was a stroke of genius.  Not only is the texture a dead ringer for actual wicker but it serves a secret purpose as well.

That’s because herringbone is one of the must-stitches for smockers submitting their garments and samplers for Level 2 Artisan evaluation.  When you add in the fact that bars and spools are also required stitches, this plate was a perfect fit.  And since most contemporary designs shy away from spools and bars – trellis and wave stitch definitely predominate – finding a plate that I could use on my partial yoke dress example made choosing a vintage design like this a no-brainer.

Of course, I still have to construct the dress but that will have to wait until I finish my term papers (on Dorothy Wordsworth and Lucy Hutchinson, in case any of you have any interest in either Romantic poetry or early modern translation).   So there you have it, a classic design updated but still true to its smocking roots!



  • Lynn Poulin

    So pretty Claire–I love your colours and the open herringbone stitch WAS a stroke of genius! Thanks for sharing and I’m sure the evaluators for the Artisan level will be blown away!

  • Claire

    Necessity is the mother of invention sometimes, Lynn. Making sure all of the required elements are used between the three garments was like a big game of tetris. 🙂

  • Oh Claire!! I LOVE your version so much better than the original…it is GORGEOUS! I adore those pretty PINK bullion roses, surrounded by smaller bullion buds & PINK french knots…pure perfection. BRAVO!
    The herringbone baskets are beautiful too.
    Well done!!

  • Claire

    Thank you, Rett. You always say the nicest things. I just hope the finished product will live up to your high expectations 🙂

  • Marilyn

    I have the same book and hesitated to use some of the patterns. Your fresh takes on the geometrics have certainly opened my eyes to combining parts of old and new patterns. Thanks !

  • Claire

    I’m glad, Marilyn. The thing I particularly like about Grace Knott’s designs is how you can use elements to work narrower designs, too. A few rows on a sleeve, a deeper combination on a yoke or around a bishop.

  • Susan

    I am so happy that I just found your website/blog! I smocked years ago and now that I have a grand daughter, I am smocking for her. There is not much info out there anymore! I’ll have to look at some old posts that you have! Smocking is a beautiful needle art. Thank you for sharing!

  • Susan

    P.S. I love the smocking graph paper. What a great idea!

  • Beautiful. I love your baskets of roses.

  • Claire

    Ooh, a new granddaughter, Susan! There’s lots of scope for pretty smocking with a new baby – enjoy!

  • Goodness!!
    This must be the non plus ultra of smocking. My mouth fell open literally with admiration, it is beyond beautiful.

  • Claire

    I’m glad you like it, Esther – it wasn’t a fast project but it was very satisfying to see all the pieces come together.