Sunday, 14 October 2012

Beaded smocking

When I first saw smocking and shirring it didn't feel like my cup of tea. Too cutesy, too time-consumer (yes, I know I work with time-consuming techniques like seedbeading and embroidery all the time), too traditional, too often done on boring white cotton to make sugar-sweet toddler clothes with pastel embroidery. I could go on, but I think you get the gist...

But since rekindling the love of hand embroidery -- via bead embroidery -- I've spent a lot of time contemplating what it is I want to create with my embroidery. I've especially thought about surfaces to embroider (there's a reason this book and this one are near the top on my wishlist) and how to create inspiring dimensional surfaces, e. g. using decoupage, paint, image transfers and "trapped object" techniques. Both to do something different from the traditional embroidery we all learned in school and to create a good starting point less daunting than that pristine, blank canvas many artists hesitate in front of.

When I recently saw Phiona Richards' pearl book sculpture and then, the other day, some american and canadian smocking -- which is different from the smocking/shirring I've usually seen -- and particularly when seeing this I started thinking: what if I use smocking techniques to either create a surface for my bead embroidery or use it to make the beadwork (partially or fully).

And all that put together that made me stitch these little samples on a dotted fabric.

First I really messed up and created this little sample: didn't stitch it right and then the beads downed in the pleats. Still, probably useful for a less strict and almost freeform style.

Then I made this one. A better sample (and a bigger one, using 8 mm beads instead of 4 mm), but I should've added extra pleats on the sides.

...which I did in this sample. Just missed one thing: it'd be better so start with just one bead in the first row and then increase the number, the same way I ended it on the right.

I then thought: what if I use bicone-shaped beads instead of round? They'd fill out the spaces in another way. So I got some square bicone beads (aka pyramid beads) and gave it a go, creating my last sample of the day. Probably should've taken more care to get the fabric and beads even, but I hope you can at least see the difference in style/pattern when changing bead shapes.

This is also the only sample I did stitching through instead of along the squares.

Here's an overview of all the samples. I bought the fabric after having see a lot of gingham embroidery, aka chicken scratch, and thought the squares and dots in the pattern could be interesting to work with. It wasn't until I got my sequins out that I also started thinking of actually using it. And now it ended up a good candidate for smocking as I could use the pattern instead of marking up a grid (to stitch after) by hand. Now the whole piece of fabric will be designated to some sort of experimental sampler.

This was a lot of fun -- though I have to learn the techniques a bit better, didn't exactly go by the book when doing these. My way works too, but it probably wears down the embroidery floss harder than it should. So I'm going to find some various tutes, read up on the smocking chapter in Jane Davis' bead embroidery books and then hopefully I'll have some more -- and better! -- smocked beadwork and/or jewellery to show you in the future.

Though as for bracelets, I'll probably keep pursuing this technique instead, which I wrote about in a previous post (uhm, no it isn't finished yet... Was focusing too much on beads and too little on thread when I last went shopping). No fabric edges etc to worry about there.  I have had ideas about stitching beads to pleated shibori ribbon, but that'll be different from smocking and more along the line of what e.g. Alyson G. does -- or perhaps even something inspired by this from Cold Feet Quilter.


This has also inspired me to prepare a post about smocking with beads for my other blog. In researching it, I rediscovered Tinctory -- and could kick myself for forgetting about that gorgeous, beautiful smocked jewellery. If you haven't seen her jewellery, be sure to check out her Flickr page and/or blog.

Finding her work again, I returned to my musings of surfaces: for some time I've thought of using more hand-dyed materials, particularly fabrics etc as embroidery bases. As there's a certain pleasure in doing as much of the work myself I even considered that I might have to learn how to dye. But first of all, if I were to delve in to the world of hand-dyeing I'd only use natural dyes -- and they can fade, especially if not used right or picking the wrong materials, so there are many skills to learn. Second, learning that would take time as it's a whole new area for me, time and energy I rather spend perfecting my skills in beading, embroidery and metalwork. It could be fun to attend a short course or hang out with some dyers for a day and dye a bit, but nothing more than that. No, it's probably better to begin by finding good sources for hand-dyed fabric and fiber, preferrably using natural dyes and sharing my ideas on colours/aesthetics, and buy already dyed materials. At least for now.


UPDATE: As I've been asked about, I thought I'd just show a quick pic of how the beads are stitched. Basically, you just add a bead to every other stitch when making the pleats.

Original pic stolen from the smocking how-to guide on Tipnut. Altered by me.
The above mentioned blog post on smocking/shirring with beads can be found here. Blog in swedish, but many/most links go to websites in english.


  1. Interesting samples. They don't remind of toddler frocks at all. I like them. I wanted to learn how to dye with plant derived dyes etc., but it is rather complicated. Too time-consuming to learn. Milka

  2. Thanks! Newbie samples in every aspect and perhaps not the pieces I'd like new visitors to see (I can make prettier things, I promise!), but it was fun and I hope that shows.

    Yeah, natural dyes do seem fiddly and complicated. Sometimes you just have to sit down and make a choice of what to focus on and what to just buy in from someone else. And after all: I can still paint and glue and transfer images even if it's not as eco-friendly so it's not like I can't do anything to create my own altered fabrics.

  3. Hi There,

    Could you please do a tutorial, or tell me where I could look at it

    1. Hi, sorry about my very late reply... (haven't been keeping up with this blog lately I'm afraid). One day I might have the time to do a tutorial, but so far I've either not had the time or thought it wasn't something worth writing a how-to about. I whipped up a simple pic outlining the process at the end of the post now. Don't know if it helps. Basically, when sewing the pleats, you add a bead to every other "space".

      The original pic, without beads, come from this website with instructions:


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