This is the handout that accompanied my beginning pleatwork class, taught at the Royal University of Meridies, July 2016.

Smocking, known in period as pleatwork, was the Middle Ages answer to elastic.  Not only is it decorative, it’s also a way to constrict lots of fabric into a smaller area, particularly the neckline and cuffs of shirt or gowns.  It has been documented in art as early as the Lutrell Psalter made during the first half of the 14th century and was in use well thru the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is still used mundanely to decorate children’s clothing.  Most patterns in use modernly are not period, but there is evidence of the three stitches you will be learning today: honeycomb, trellis/wave and outline.

In period there were several ways for the pleats to be formed: “gathered pleating”, “fold pleating”, or “press pleating”.   Fold pleating appears to be the earliest form of pleating and is done by folding the pleats, then pinning or sewing them into place.  Press pleating is done by folding the wet fabric into pleats and then pressing it together as tightly as possible until dried.  There are several theories about how this was done, but so far no extant manuals or definitive press pleating tools have been discovered.  The method we will be using today is gathered pleating, which is still commonly used today.  It consists of marking dots at specific intervals, then gathering them together with thread to create the actual pleats.  In period, these dots would have been made using chalk, or by poking small holes into the fabric.  Personally, I prefer to use Frixon markers, which come out of the fabric with water, or heat from an iron – they can be purchased at most office supply stores, or on Amazon.

Today, we will be using a piece of needlepoint canvas as a guide and washable markers to create the smocking dots.  Before making your final piece, I recommend making several “samplers” – use your canvas to mark your dots at different intervals to decide on what size you want your designs to be, and how much fabric you will need for your finished project.  The practice piece I have given you has the dots marked with 2 squares between each.

Once your fabric is marked, you will need to have a piece of thread for each row that is at least as long as the fabric.  You will want to make sure that there is a very big knot at the end, to prevent it from pulling out of the fabric as you gather all of them together.  Some people prefer to tie all of their gathering strings together once the fabric has been gathered – if doing a wide area of pleatwork, I usually tie them separately, or together two at a time to prevent the area from distorting.  Once your fabric has been gathered, you are ready to begin smocking!!

If you are going to be smocking something that is larger, like an apron, you may want to begin with a stem stitch, to ensure that your pleats will stay at a regular distance.  I find that this is particularly helpful if you are doing a wave, or trellis stitch where the pleats need to stay at a uniform distance between each other.  The stem stitch (shown below) is the same as an embroidery stem stitch.


The most common and easiest of smocking stitches is the honeycomb.  The most important thing to remember when using the honeycomb is that it must be done with an odd number of rows in order for the design to come out completely.  The honeycomb stitch is started by bringing the needle up from the center of a pleat, bringing it down in the center of the next pleat, and going around twice.  The next step is to bring the needle up into the center of the pleat that is in the row below and to the right, bringing it down in the center of the next pleat and going around twice.  Continue on by bringing the needle up thru the center of the pleat that is back up a row and to the right, bring it down in the center of the next pleat and go around twice.  This pattern will be continued up and down until both rows are finished, then you will knot your thread off and move to the next row down!  The honeycomb stitch can be modified to make shapes that are more like lozenges, or straight pleats.  The size and depth of your honeycomb is determined by the amount of space you leave between your dots and rows – the more room, the larger and shallower your combs.


The second stitch is the wave, or trellis stitch.  If the rows remain unjoined, with room inbetween and the rows peak at the same places, they will be a wave stitch.  If the waves meet and peak at alternating places, they will form a trellis.  The stitch is the same, but the placement of the stitches will change the pattern.  To begin the stitch, bring your needle up at the center of the top pleat, then down into the center of the next one.  Bring your needle up into the center of the same pleat, just below where you entered the pleat, then bring your needle down into the next pleat.  Repeat by bringing your needle up into the center of that same pleat, just below where you entered the pleat.  When you have reached the bottom of your wave, you will bring your needle up into the center of the next pleat slightly ABOVE where you entered your last pleat.



Pleatwork/smocking examples:


Figure1    figure1


Figure 2    figure2

Figure 3    figure3



Figure 1: Schoen, Erhard, Title: Der Schneider als Landsknecht und die Näherin, Detail – The Seamstress, Date: ca. 1535

Figure 2: extent hemd cuff Date: ca. 16th century, Alpirsbach Monastery

Figure 3: Luttrell Psalter   1320 – 1340 England



Nutz, Beatrix (2012). How to Pleat a Shirt in the 15th Century: In Archaeological Textiles

Review 54, pages 79-91  


Posavad, Lee Ann (2003-2005).  “Cut and Construction of the Pleatwork Embroidered

Shirt”, article


von Lubeck, Genoveva (2015). “Pleatwork in the 15th and 16th Centuries: An Introduction

To Pleatwork (m.k.a. smocking)”, article


Enkevoerth, Count August Johann Breunner. (2013) Landsknecht Woodcuts:

Kriegsvolker im Zeitalter der Landsknechte. (M. McNealy, Ed.) pg. 24

ISBN: 0615919944


Smocking by Penelope, A Needlecraft Publication (vintage) (via: www.tipnut/smocking)













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