Smocking Tips for Beginners

What kind of needles are best to use for smocking? How many strands of floss do I need? And what fabrics tend to smock the best? If you’re new to smocking, you likely have a few questions along these lines. In Martha Pullen’s book The Joy of Smocking, she shares answers to help you begin your smocking journey:


Needles – Generally, a #8 crewel embroidery needle is used in smocking. For smockers with bad vision, it may not be comfortable to thread a #8 crewel needle with three or four strands of embroidery floss. If this is the case, us a #6 or #7 crewel needle.

Some needles work better for certain fabrics. For example:

a. For fine batiste or batiste blend, use a #8 or #9 crewel needle. Use a smaller size when using fewer strands of floss.

b. For fine to medium fabrics, such as broadcloth or quilting fabric, use a #7 or #8 crewel needle.

Personal preference for some smockers is to use milliner’s needles. These needles are long and have a straight needle eye opening. Other smockers prefer to use #7 darners.

Embroidery floss – The general rule of thumb is to use three strands of embroidery floss when working with fine to medium fabrics. However, there are exceptions:

• For a different look with fine fabrics, try using two strands. It is pretty and delicate.

• For picture smocking, most designers recommend four strands.

• For some heavier fabrics, such as corduroy and velveteen, use up to five or six strands. Experiment with heavier fabrics to find the right weight of floss for the desired look.

• It is perfectly acceptable to use Pearl Cotton #8 for smocking.

In order to prepare your embroidery floss for smocking, you must first make sure that it is put on grain properly. All thread has a grain. With DMC floss, it is easy to make sure the floss is on grain properly. Look at the two paper wraps on the embroidery floss. One has the round DMC symbol. The other has the color number and a picture of two hands pulling the floss out of the package. Follow these directions. Place your left hand on the floss, and with your right hand, pull the floss out of the package. Always knot the end that you cut. If I am smocking, I separate all six strands, then I put three strands back together and knot those three strands. I put the other three strands back together and knot those at that time also.

If for some reason you forget which end you cut and therefore, which end to knot, here is a simple solution. One end of the floss “blooms” more than the other. The cut end of the floss does not fuzz out as much. The knot will go on the less fuzzy end.

Needles also have a right and wrong side. Think about sewing machine needles that only go in one way. If you have difficulty threading a needle, flip it to the other side. One side will usually thread more easily than the other.

Fabric – Some favorite fabrics to smock are the blends of 65 percent polyester and 35 percent cotton. Sometimes, a higher polyester count does not pleat well. However, using all of the half spaces on the Pullen Pleater, we have pleated lingerie – 100 percent nylon – without a pucker. Ginghams, Pima cottons, 100 percent cottons for quilting, challis, Swiss batiste, velveteen, soft corduroy and silks are also good for smocking.

Fabrics, such as calico prints, which are 100 percent cotton, should be washed and dried before pleating. Fabrics with a polyester content generally do not shrink, and thus do not need to be washed prior to pleating. It is not necessary to pre-shrink Imperial batiste, Imperial broadcloth, 100 percent Swiss batiste (Nelona, Finella, Finissima), wool challis from Switzerland and velveteen.

NOTE: When a 45-inch piece for the front and one for the back of a yoke dress is necessary, it is easier to tear those skirt lengths first and pre-shrink them separately. Then, pre-shrink the remaining fabric from which the bodice, sleeves and collars will be cut. It is easier to pre-shrink and put fabric “on grain” in smaller pieces.

For more smocking tips and instruction from Martha, be sure to check out her book, The Joy of Smocking, or video workshop, Smocking with Martha Pullen, both available in our online store.

Happy Sewing,

3 thoughts on “Smocking Tips for Beginners

  1. Sandrea White

    Wonderful information. I have a question. How full can you make a bishop? When I make a yoke dress I like to use the entire width of the fabric. Selvage to selvage for approximately 90″ It’s so nice a full. What’s the limit on a bishop? I saw one pattern that was 63″ with no side seams. I only have fabric that’s 45″ and my pattern has a side seam, front and back and angel wing sleeves. The front is wider than the back. Can I add to this pattern for more fullness?

  2. Vicki Rushing

    Martha, Have just started heirloom sewing and desperately need some help. Trying to make pintucks. Have a Brothers pacesetter3700 machine with 2.0 /80 twin needle and 7 groove foot. No matter what I change for the machine settings nothing works. Some tutorials say to run threads together some say separately. Could that be the problem. Have made these earlier this summer, but do not know what I did differently. Also, Made a baby bishop with French seams and tried to use a decorative stitch above lace insertions worked fine until I came to the French seams. The machine “ate”my fabric. Any suggestions Baby is due soon so I desperately need some help. Vicki Rushing. Email:


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