Gathering Threads

Book Review: English Smocks by Alice Armes

Posted by on Apr 25 2010

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!

Blue, Blue, My love is blue!

Posted by on Apr 18 2010

Have you seen the latest issue of Sew Beautiful?

It’s gorgeous! with a capital ‘G’.

Kathy Barnard, the editor, has really come up with a winner with the May/June issue, all built around the theme of blue. Of course, I might be a wee bit biased, since one of my garments is featured in the pictorial. I designed the blue linen romper, with whitework embroidery and I understand from the powers that be that the embroidery design is on the pull-out.
But I don’t just design for magazines, I read ’em, too, and this is definitely one I’ve already got projects earmarked for.
The cover dress, in particular, has me in a fabric-induced frenzy. It’s just so…rich looking. I met Judith Marquis, the designer, last fall, at the SAGA convention in Indianapolis. We were, along with another woman from B.C., the ‘Canadians’; she’s very funny and very approachable. And very talented, too, as evinced by the multiple contributions to this issue.

I’m also glad to see a lot of patterns that adapt well to everyday sewing in this issue, too. Not that I don’t love heirloom styles as much as the next gal – I do – but low-key wearability has to be considered, too.


This day dress, for instance: although it features a lot of handwork in the article, I can easily see the pattern itself worked up in a cheerful poly-cotton print. A bit of rick-rack, or maybe some simple lazy-daisy flowers and le voila! A cool sundress with an easy vintage vibe.

Or this lovely bishop, tapping into the accessory du jour, rick-rack.

rickrack bishop

Bishops aren’t work free – there’s always a fair bit of smocking around those necklines, but I like how unfussy this version is.

And finally, for the world’s cutest swimwear, check out this bikini:


I had a green and white gingham bikini just like this when I was two. Somewhere, in the depths of my parents’ photo albums, I’m sure there are pictures of me, with an equally svelte toddler figure, splashing in the water at the family cottage. I am so going to have to make my niece this bathing suit.

I’d sworn I wasn’t going to add one more thing to my sewing project list this spring but that’s what an issue like this does: it forces you to add to your TBM list. πŸ™‚

Smocking – the New International Language?

Posted by on Apr 11 2010

Hello, my name is Claire and I have a problem.

Don’t worry! Nothing too serious. I just have an minor addiction to collecting craft and sewing books. Harmless and yet… There’s something so relaxing about curling up with a book and recharging, gathering inspiration, or planning the next project, wishful or otherwise πŸ™‚

I’ve got a pretty respectable collection, and it’s a nice mix of vintage texts and contemporary titles.
Now though, I’ve got a new obsession.

Because it turns out smocking may just be the new international language – in Japan, at least – and I am a woman obsessed (or seriously tempted) by some seriously cute new titles I stumbled across though the wonders of Google.

First off, the awkwardly translated title, “Girl’s Smocking Dress 100-130cm”

Girl's Smocking Dress

I just love the pink counterchange smocking on this cover. Isn’t cute? The photography and graphic design are very different than the styling we see in English language magazines and designs. But even the brief look I’ve been able to snatch says that most of these titles are very well illustrated, with good visual step-by-steps.

Or these anonymous books of classic yoke dresses:

Smocked Yoke Dresses

Smocked Yoke Dresses 2

Of course, often the titles are only printed in Japanese. My knowledge of the language ends at ‘sushi’ and ‘wasabi’, so sometimes I can only guess what some of the books are really called. But the title of “Girls at a Recital!” is enough to get me forking over my hard-earned yen, just because of its whimsical moniker. Isn’t that a lovely cover? And those pleats are to die for.

Girls at a Recital!

Finally, because I giggled when I found it, check out this well-known title:

A-Z Smocking

Proof, I think, that smocking really is the international language. Now all I have to do is resist the urge to order these titles from Japan, no less. So help me out – has anyone bought any of these books? What did you think of them? Were you able to tackle the projects despite the language divide and did you learn any new techniques or see new styles? I’m dying to know!

What’s Old is New again

Posted by on Mar 10 2010

It probably comes as no surprise that I’m a bit of a vintage pattern enthusiast. So when I spied this pattern on Ebay last week – a McCall’s Smocktop pattern from the early 1930s – I knew I wanted it. A whopping $4 later, it was mine. Ah, the thrill of a bargain.


In addition to the absolutely adorable illustrations and like-new condition, I was immediately drawn to the unusual smocked sleeve treatment. It’s a very interesting variation on the traditional bishop that I’d never seen in any of my other period pattern books since it comes down over the sleeve. The short-sleeved version in particular is extraordinarily adorable, with a clever ruffle along the lower edge.

The pattern itself is actually a transfer. In the days before pleating machines, smocking was generally done in one of two ways: pleats were hand-gathered along a pre-marked or eyeballed path or they were smocked flat, where the pleats were formed during the smocking process by picking up dots that were ironed onto the fabric in a pre-designed pattern. It was cheap, quick and readily made up without any special tools or skills beyond an elementary knowledge of smocking stitches.

This pattern uses the latter method. The iron-on transfers appear to be unused. But rather than chance it with 80 year old transfers, I’ve decided to recreate the plate using my pleater. Interesting enterprise? Yup. Easy? Not so much. It’ll take some careful planning because the curved arm scye prevents anyone from simply rolling and pleating the straight neckline like a traditional, pre-seamed bishop.

Instead, I’m going to be using the seamless method of pleating a bishop, adding and removing needles as I pleat each piece and actually starting in the middle of the each sleeve piece, in order to compensate for the curvature. I’ll actually have to put the needles in and thread them after I’ve started rolling the sleeve pieces through.

And before you ask why, because I’m an over-achieving glutton for punishment, that’s why πŸ™‚

But rather than focus on the challenges, check out the fabrics I’ve found:
sewing 001

First up, an adorable cotton print with tiny coral tulips. Although I’d orginally thought I’d make this dress in a solid colour, these prints were just too cute to pass up. And at $2/m they were a great deal, too. It’s got a very retro feel, and paired with the coordinating DMC flosses, I think it’s going to be perfect for this design. It’s crisp, with a bit of body, but it’s not heavy or bulky like a quilting cotton.

But the day got better. Much, much better. Because while I’d fallen in love with little blue check version the moment I saw it, where in the world was I going to find just that plaid to make something like it?
Uh, try my local Fabricland. I was there this morning, picking out the tulip fabric, when I saw this absolutely, without a doubt perfect fabric. And 60% off to boot. Fate doesn’t need to hit me over the head for me to get the point. It followed me to the cutting table and just jumped into my basket. It’s a light, 100% cotton fabric, very soft and delicate. It should pleat up like a dream and while I’ll certainly have to make a petticoat for wear underneath, the opportunity to recreate that cute pattern illustration was just too perfect to pass up.


So tonight I’ll be cutting out two versions. And don’t worry; I’ll be taking pictures of my pleating process so you can see how I handle this unusual pleating challenge.

I’d like to thank the Academy…

Posted by on Mar 08 2010

OK, so I didn’t watch the Academy Awards last night but let me tell you, that’s what I felt like saying when my mailman arrived on Friday afternoon and dropped off a very auspicious package.

My very first article in Threads magazine.


Huh. That seems a little too blasΓ© for such a momentous occasion. Italics, perhaps?

My very first article in Threads magazine.

Better, but still not quite capturing in print the giddy emotions that coursed through me at the sight of that bulky, white envelope.

*cartwheeling and backflips* MY VERY FIRST ARTICLE IN THREADS MAGAZINE!!!

*dusting off my hands and hoping the twinge in my back goes away soon* OK, that’s better. And what an issue it is!

There are a ton of fantastic ideas and projects – a new method for making embroidered lace on natural fabrics, some great seam treatments and, of course, the greatest article ever written on sewing rainwear. πŸ™‚

Well, OK, that might be a slight hyperbole but my mother will back me up on it, woncha, Mom? But I am really pleased with the article on sewing rainwear that I wrote – I think (I hope!) people will find it useful. And I am a featured contributor!

I’m proud of every article I write; I write them to the best of my abilities. But there’s something so august, so substantial about Threads magazine. I’ve been reading (and re-reading) my issues for years. There are sewers and designers in there that I admire. A lot. So getting to join their lot is a real thrill for me.