It is no secret that drapery can add polish and refinement to any room, but when it comes to choosing a style, the options are endless: pinch pleat, grommet-top, pole pocket, inverted pleat – the list goes on. One traditional, but often-overlooked window dressing is hand-smocking, an embroidery technique used to gather fabric to create a ruffled repeating diamond pattern that, in curtains, runs the length of the header.
Unlike other embroidery methods that were purely decorative, smocking is unusual in that it was often worn by laborers. Developed in England in the 13th and 14th centuries and used extensively in apparel through the 18th and 19th centuries before elastic was available, smocking allowed practical garments for farmers and other workers to be both form-fitting and flexible. It was also employed in garments like cuffs and necklines, where buttons were undesirable.
The use of smocks declined among farm workers in the late 1800s, but the embroidery technique later became a popular specialty detail added to high culture dresses and tea gowns. Decorative English smocking resurged in the 1920s and became even more popular in 1940, when the smocking pleater was invented, saving time and making it possible to use the technique on a variety of fabrics. Soon designers were inspired to add smocking embellishments on a variety of garments and, finally, curtains.
Due to its intricacy, smocking is best used on light- or medium-weight fabrics; solid silks and cottons are most common, but those with small or simple patterns work well without overshadowing the delicate details, and historically cashmere, pique and crepe de Chine were also smocked. According to Good Housekeeping: The Illustrated Book of Needlecrafts, “any fabric can be smocked if it is supple enough to be gathered.”
Hand-smocked curtains evoke an old-world, casual elegance that coordinates with many decor styles, but is most often combined with dressy feminine country or cottage-style decor. For best results, hang smocked window coverings with a decorative curtain pole or track using drapery hooks.