Last week I had the pleasure of running an intensive two-day design and making workshop (or ‘hack’), exploring methods for revitalising the traditions of the English smock and English smocking.
This was a valuable opportunity for me to investigate revitalisation through creative activity, and to test and share the ‘taxonomy of revitalisation strategies’ that I have been developing throughout the Design Routes research project.
About smocks and smocking
The smock has been described as ‘the most important garment in the history of English folk costume’. During the 18th century it developed - probably evolving from earlier undergarments - into a protective overgarment worn by agricultural workers. Smocks are characterised by areas of ‘smocking’ - intensely pleated fabric, secured by decorative stitching - and by areas of surface embroidery. By the late 19th century the smock was declining in popularity, although smocking was reinvented as a hobby needlework technique, frequently used for babywear.
Today, despite the resurgence of interest in dressmaking and sewing, there doesn’t seem to be much smocking going on - perhaps because it can only be worked by hand, and is a pretty slow process. (People often confuse smocking with shirring, a much quicker method of gathering using elastic thread and a sewing machine). And, in my experience, the tradition of the English smock is not well-known.
I selected smocks and smocking as the source material for the workshop because of their flexibility. There are various elements of smocking that could be used as a basis for experimentation: the intensely pleated fabric, the patterns stitched into the pleats, the traditional smock garment shape, the embroidered motifs, and so on.
About the workshop
Nine people were involved in the workshop. All had skills and experience in textiles but they came from a range of backgrounds: staff and students, professional and amateur makers, textile designers and garment makers.
The loose challenge posed to the participants was ‘to revitalise the English smock and/or English smocking’. To explain further, I offered my definition of revitalisation: ‘Revitalisation initiatives bring new life to a cultural form while aiming to retain, or even enhance, the social, historical and aesthetic values associated with it.’
We started the first day by trying out the basic technique of smocking, guided by textile artist and all-round stitching expert Ruth Singer. As the day unfolded, we started to experiment with different materials and stitches, and through discussion we generated a broad range of revitalisation ideas.
I shared the draft taxonomy with the group to provide inspiration, and on day 2 I was able to map the diverse ideas we had generated onto the various strategies contained within it.
These ideas included a beginners’ smocking kit for children; a fabric woven with regular ‘running stitch’ threads to eliminate the initial step of the smocking process; a ‘mash up’ of smocking with Indonesian textiles; a ‘Leeds smock’ … and many more!
“Thank YOU for such a great workshop! I really enjoyed it and it was lovely to meet so many fantastic people.”
“I shall certainly be continuing to experiment and go on to use my particular take on smocking in its various forms.”
“It was really good fun and very inspiring”
“Can’t stop smocking!”
Outcomes and analysis
In immediate terms the workshop has contributed to the development of the taxonomy of revitalisation strategies, helping me to identify areas for consolidation and improvement. A final version of the taxonomy is now well under way.
I’m hoping to find a way of communicating the diverse ideas generated during the workshop as a means of illustrating how flexible the taxonomy is, and how many different approaches can be developed from a single starting point.
I’m also looking forward to analysing the rich conversations which took place during the process of making, concerning tradition, revitalisation and ‘scaffolds’ to support individual activity. I have many hours of audio recording, and a fab time-lapse video, to draw on.
Thanks again to all the participants in the workshop!