Smocked dresses were an important feature of my wardrobe when I was little. I have photos of myself wearing them when I was very small and cannot really remember a time when I did not have a smocked dress for best. Most of us probably associate it with shepherds’ smocks but in New Zealand it was one of the commonest ways of decorating girls’ clothing. Remember that virtually all our clothes were ‘home-made’, i.e. our mothers used to sew all our summer clothing and quite a bit of our winter wardrobes too although my mother, who was not naturally interested in dressmaking, drew the line at winter skirts and anything involving tailoring.
As this photo was taken before I turned two, I cannot remember this dress at all.
She used to smock our best summer dresses, making them from Liberty lawn libertylondon.com or voile and choosing the fabrics was something we were involved in from an early age. My mother often combined smocking on the front of the bodice with feather-stitching around the collar (usually Perer Pan collars until we were about seven) and possibly cuffs.
Here I am aged two years and ten months. This dress which I hope you can see, had a round collar, puffed sleeves and a band of smocking on the upper bodice. It appears in a number of photos as I think it was my main summer 'best' dress.
I also remember smocked dresses made from Viyella for winter. Viyella was a soft fabric made up of 55 per cent merino wool and 45 per cent cotton. wikipedia.org./wiki/Viyella I remember that we regarded Viyella as very posh and so its companion fabric, Clydella, which contained more cotton was also a staple of our wardrobes. Our winter school uniforms at primary school level included cream Clydella shirts although our uniform at secondary school had white cotton shirts. I was ill quite a bit when I first started school and even ended up in hospital with pneumonia so under the Clydella shirt I wore a vest (cannot remember what it was made of) and a Liberty bodice. When I changed schools at the age of eight, I found hardly anyone at my new school wore a Liberty bodice and I fought hard to give it up. Hastings, where we lived first, was very flat with a dry climate. This meant it had hard frosts and very cold winters and of course there was no central heating, only coal or wood fires, so everyone wore a lot more clothing than today. The summers were hot by NZ standards (and still are - as I write Hawkes Bay is threatened by drought). I am sure Liberty lawn was a good choice for summer clothing. When I lived in Canberra in the late sixties I rediscovered the joys of Liberty lawn.
Smocking is an old English embroidery technique which apparently was particularly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It pre-dates elastic although I think by 1950 it was just used decoratively. We had dresses with smocking on the bodice which then meant the skirt fell as though it was gathered. To smock a dress you began with a sheet of printed dots which you ironed onto the fabric. Then you made rows of running stitch through these dots in order to draw the fabric up. You need to start with three times the width of the finished piece of fabric. Once drawn up you hand embroidered patterns onto the fabric, using a variety of stitches, catching the fabric across the ridges you had formed. We always used stranded cotton for this, I think two or three threads from a hank of six strands. As a teenager I learnt to smock by making a dress for a toddler in our extended family. I did this in school sewing lessons but I remember that other people in my class thought it was all a bit odd and the technique became much less popular around this time (the end of the 1950s). Today you are most likely to see smocking on the clothing of upper class children although it also had a Hippy connection at one point and I can remember planning to make a proper adult’s smock at some point in the 1970s. It never happened though.