A smocked blouse

The first couple of months of this year were mostly spent on a project which I’d wanted to do for a long time, a reproduction of this lovely reform blouse in the Amsterdam museum:

Amsterdam Museum: Reform blouse

I’ve loved this blouse since I first saw it. In particular the smocking, which is the embroidery holding the pleats together. You often see this type of smocking in items of the ‘reform’ movement, as it gives garments a lot of flexibility, as well as this hand-embroidered touch which was so popular for the style.

A while ago, Michelle from Clockwork Faerie released her pattern for her version of this blouse. I immediately got it, because I’d been looking at this blouse for so long that anything to make the guess-work less was very welcome!

Michelle’s version, of which she released her pattern

The original blouse is described to be made out of crepe de chine. I’d never worked with that, but I figured that if I was going to spend the time smocking, I might as well use the best fabric I could find (it helps that the smaller yardage for a blouse than a dress makes it more affordable!). I ended up ordering black silk crepe de chine from Sartor fabrics, as well as silk embroidery floss. I decided to make my blouse in black, because at the end of the day, I know I’ll get more wear out of something black than something purple.

And then the project got put on hold for a bit, as other things came up. Beginning of this year, I finally started on it. First up was the mock-up. When I got the pattern it was a single size only (it has since been graded), so I wanted to check whether it would fit as-is. My measurements were fairly similar to those indicated and it’s a loose fitting garment, but still. I opted to use the template for the top to cut a separate piece, and to gather the bottom part to that, to check the fit. I put a belt on top to see how it would work tucked in. Although it looked odd made up like this (in old sheet fabric…) it worked quite well size-wise, so I went ahead with it. For those planning to use this method: know that the smocking will have quite a bit of stretch in it, which the template cut out of plain cotton does not, so using a stretch fabric for the smocked part might be even better to check fit.

Next up was figuring out how exactly to do the smocking… The pattern doesn’t include smocking instructions in detail (it’s ‘go smock now’) , so in the end I bought a book. The A-Z of smocking was pretty much the only one I could find in the Netherlands, but it turned out to be a great book. It describes all the stitches you see on the blouse and many more, in very detailed step-by-step pictures. If you want to do English smocking (pleat first, then embroider on top), I definitelly recommend it. It’s not a guide which will start with ‘step 1’, because the book is alphabetical, but if you want to look something up it’s great.

The only main question I had left was: how far apart should I space my gathering stitches? The book was frustratingly vague on this, just saying to ‘use your pleater’ (these machines go for 300 euros and up, so I didn’t get one), or ‘use dotting paper’ (impossible to get in the Netherlands), or ‘use the spacing as indicated on your pattern’ (I didn’t have one). In the end, I found the progress notes of Laurance Wen Yu-Li which she kindly shared via Facebook. She used a cotton fabric which is different from mine, but with the notes of 6mm wide 1cm high I at least had an indication of where to start experimenting. (Go check out her version of this blouse, it’s amazing, and there’s even a matching skirt)

I ended up making two samples to test the stitch spacing and practice smocking. The right example I did first and was 7mm wide stitches. Those were too wide, so I did another one in 4mm wide. This ended up just a little too narrow, so I opted for 5mm in the end. I also drew out completely how the different stitches would have to fit on my fabric, how high they would be corresponding to the ‘rows’ of the stitching, and how many of them I’d need where. I ended up doing 15 gathering lines 1cm apart, which fit well.

Knowing how to start, I cut my fabric, serged around the edges, and stitched the shoulder seams. Then, I could start the gathering. This involved a lot of drawing lines with my ruler, a lot of wobbly crepe de chine which moved all over the place (the stuff is beautifully drapey, and horrible to draw straight lines on), and in general just a lot of time. Just drawing the grid took me hours. I opted for a grid rather than dots, as this was quicker. After the drawing came the gathering. I did it in two parts, as otherwise my gathering threads needed to be insanely long. So I did all 15 threads untill I ran out of thread, gathered them all up enough to get some slack again, and then did the final part. All in all, this process took a couple of days at least. To give you some idea: the whole width of fabric did not fit on my living room table, nor on my ironing board. That little round shape in the right picture? That’s just the first armhole, so the ‘flat’ part on my ironing board is only about half of it.

I ended up doing most of the work over weekends, as I had to do it with the piece lying flat, and putting it away & picking it up again would mean re-ironing, re-starting and even the danger of the chalk fading. It did make for a good tv-watching activity! With the lockdown at the beginning of the year, I had the time…

When it was done, I could finally gather up the threads, following the template on the pattern. This was definitely one of the most satisfying moments of this project, as this is where it actually starts to look like something with shape!

I tried it on just in case, it still fit, and so I evened out the gathers, wrapped the thread around the needle at the end to anchor it in place, and started the embroidery!

In total I used 4 different types of stitches on this yoke. There’s a single chain stitch at the very top. Then two rows of honeycomb stitches just below to form the small triangles. The larger triangles are wave diamond stitches below each other, 6 for the top part, 7 for the bottom part. The more solid stitches in-between and at the bottom are each 4 rows of trellis stitches closely spaced together. It was sort of cool to find that I could directly find all of the stitches used on the blouse in my book.

The smocking took a while, but was also really fun to do. Once I had the stitches figured out it was quite meditative, and it made for light sewing. I started out using a thimble, but the one thing I found was that the silk embroidery thread snagged on absolutely everything, including the thimble (I have a plastic one, and it’s been used enough to be in a bit of a rough shape). So I ended up just ditching the thimble which worked fine with such thin fabric. I used a single strand of the thread for everything but the very first chain stitch, and this worked well with the embroidery thread I had. The one other thing to be careful of was the tension, as you don’t want to pull the pleats closer together than they are layed out to have it keep shape.

Fast-forward a couple of months during which I took my time, and the main smocking on the neckline was done! I took the pictures below before I removed the white gathering threads (as you can see I embroidered between thread 2 and 14), as that was a bit scary to do for the first time!

This was around the end of March, and I suddenly realized that I had two options to wear the blouse end of April and beginning of May. So it would be great if I could finish before then… Cue me speeding up a bit!

I’d decided fairly early on in the project to not use the sleeves in the pattern, but go for a look more similar to the original blouse. I ended up taking the sleeve pattern for my Edwardian lace blouse (which were in turn adapted from a Wearing History pattern), and widening that one to match the rough ratio of fabric-pleated down fabric that I wanted. The sleeves are basically straight down from the arm hole, with just armhole shaping. The lower arm is then gathered down to fit the lower arm snuggly.

Once I had the sleeve pattern figured out, it was back to drawing lines and gathering threads!

In-between working on the sleeves, I also did the collar. The original has this beautiful point detail which is also on the pattern. I ended up narrowing the collar a fair bit to fit my neck better, so my points ended up a little more to the outside than on the original (I took the width out of the center back after doing the stitching), but I’m pretty happy with how the stitching looks in the end!

To do the embroidery on the sleeves, I basically had the easter weekend. I spent time with family, but brought the smocking with me, as it’s a good activity while sitting on the couch. I finished the smocking beginning to end in a couple of days like this, and at the end of the weekend they were both done! I was really happy with that, as by that point I had about 9 days left to finish the blouse, all of which either included a full work day or day-long activities.

This is a look at the finished sleeves in the blouse. I ended up ‘hemming’ the blouse by turning over the bottom edge and including this in the gathering and smocking. I’d cut the sleeves with the selvedge at the bottom, and this was light enough for this to work beautifully. Can you spot the line of where the selvedge ends in the right picture?

I set the sleeves and added closures in the final evenings. The center back is sewn up to a point, and then attaches with snaps below the smocking. The collar has hooks and bars to stay put, as this is the only part which might receive some tension.

And then she was done! I opted not to finish the bottom beyond a serged edge. The original has a waistband, but I prefer the versatility of tucking it in, and arranging as I see fit. This way I can pull it out more for the 1905 edwardian blouse effect, or wear it more tightly if I want on other occasions.

To show a bit better what it looks like when worn, I pinned a tape on top in these pictures:

I really love how the smocking turned out. I had a lot of fun making this, and I can definitely see myself doing a project like this again in the future.

I’ve now worn the blouse twice. Once with my green sil 1895 skirt, and once with my 1905 high waisted wool tartan skirt. Two very different looks, but both I really liked!

With the green skirt (Thanks to Peryn for the picture), tucked in a bit more tightly.

And with the tartan skirt, tucked in so that it’s more ‘pigeon-breast-y’ (Thanks to Niklas for this picture):