Smocking Tips: Martha’s Cat and the Courthouse Story

Earlier this week, I shared a few beginning smocking tips with you from Martha Pullen’s book The Joy of Smocking. Today, I’d like to continue that lesson with Martha’s Cat and the Courthouse story. This story is a fun way to remember how to know whether the thread should be above the needle or below the needle (and when) in smocking stitches. You can watch Martha tell this story in the clip above from her Smocking with Martha Pullen video, and we’ve included the written story below as featured in The Joy of Smocking.

Note from Martha – Many beginner smockers get frustrated with the rule: When you move up, the thread is down, when you move down, the thread is up. For a beginner, this is the most difficult concept to learn. I made up a simple, and very silly, story to help beginners remember this principle. I was a little embarrassed the first time I told the story, but several years and smockers later, I can honestly say the story works.

Setting – A courthouse with lots of tall steps leading to the door
Characters – A Tabby cat with a very long tail, and Martha Pullen
Time – During business hours

Tabby Cat wants to drive a car and knows she must first have a driver’s license. Martha Pullen drives Tabby Cat to the courthouse and parks at the side of the building to let Tabby Cat out. Tabby Cat climbs the long steps until she gets almost to the top. There, she remembers that you have to have money to pay for a license. Tabby Cat turns around, climbs down the long flight of steps and goes back to the car to get some money from her purse.

cat and the courthouse

Important points to this story:
Point A. Tabby Cat’s tail is the thread.

Point B. When Tabby Cat climbs stairs, her tail points downward (fig. 1). In smocking, when the needle is moving up, the tail of the thread is down.

Point C. When Tabby Cat climbs down steep stairs, her tail points upward (fig. 2). In smocking, when you are moving to take a stitch downward, the tail of the thread is up.

Point D. When Tabby Cat turns around at the top of the stairs, at the landing, her tail swings around before she can begin to climb back down the stairs. This symbolizes a top cable before the wave or trellis moves downward. When Tabby Cat turns around at the bottom of the stairs to begin upward, this symbolizes a bottom cable before the climb back up.

Find more smocking tips and tutorials, check out Martha’s book, The Joy of Smocking, or her Smocking with Martha Pullen video workshop. We also have a great selection of pleaters and needles, embroidery floss and endless smocking patterns, tips and inspiration in Australian Smocking & Embroidery magazine.

Happy Sewing,


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