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The 19th Century farmer's smock

Is it because I am an Earth sign of the zodiac? Probably not! But over many years, I have tried to buy traditional farmers' smocks whenever I can.

Of course, there are serious collectors of these 'rare to find' items, so I only get one when I am lucky! In this instance, I was very lucky indeed, because I bought two together, clearly belonging to the farmer's sons.

The smock worn by farmer's endured through the 18th Century and 19th Century, only dying out as a working garment when farm machinery made them too dangerous to wear, around the turn of the 20th Century. I would just love to find an 18th Century version, but not sure I would know how to date it. The only hint of a change was in the first quarter of the 19th Century, when very simple decoration became more profuse.

For men working on the land, many of whom made their own working garments, the design of the smock is so clever. Made of sometimes homespun, but always linen or hemp, they were meant to withstand heavy scrubbing to wash them. Their construction was not only simple, but designed to make the fullest use of every scrap of fabric. This is because all the shapes are based on rectangles and triangles. The front and back, two large rectangles, the sleeves two narrow rectangles, the cuffs, tiny rectangles! In fact, the only shaping required was around the neck - even the collar pieces are rectangles. The only difference is in the underarm inserts, these being triangles, but usually double layered ... and therefore, squares!

The shaping of the garment is achieved solely through the use of smocking, exactly the same at both back and front.

The farmer would cut his cloth out, then make a series of dotted line marks on the area's to be gathered. Then, with strong thread, the dots would be picked up with a needle in evenly spaced stitches, all along the row. The end threads were then gathered up into beautifully even and regular pleats, on which to embroider.

There are a wide variety of smocking stitches, which makes smocking so much fun to work. The tightest pattern is outline or stem stitch, usually worked at the edges of the smocked panel to keep the pleats in place firmly. Cable stitch is another pattern that simply decorates along the lines of the dots.

For variety, one can then make wave patterns between the rows, and two rows of wave pattern back to back make a d diamond pattern!

On these two sweethearts, we can see all of the above:

Once the smocking design was in place, the pleating yarns can be completely removed, and the farmer is left with an 'elastic' panel that can expand and reduce, no matter if he has too much dinner, or none at all!

Each child smock here has smocking panels to the front, back, each sleeve and at the shoulders, and above the cuffs. This gives great comfort in arm movement and also allows us to see the lovely 'puffing' of the sleeve in the middle!

Now, during the 19th Century, the smock became more decorative by the addition of 'boxes'. These were flat, un-gathered panels, that are sited to the sides of the smocking

So, as shown above, these little smocks have a single box of flat embroidery to each side, [front and back], and then to the shoulders, cuffs and even the collar:

Some say that the motifs on each smock signify the trade of the farm worker, But I am not expert enough to identify them. What does seem to be true, is that each area of the United Kingdom did use an identified colour dye for their smocks. I always prefer the natural un-dyed linen, but this is purely personal.

It seems that all farm workers kept at least one smock for 'Sunday worship', no matter how humble they were. And this, I am sure, is why they survive today. I suppose that as the 'Sunday Best' smock became worn, it would be demoted to a working smock and a new 'best' one produced.

Later 19th Century smocks were made by sewing machine, which is when I lose interest. In my romantic mind, they simply must show the original rustic and firm hand stitches inside.

With these two, they are each original, but the one going to Ebay has later had some seams re-stitched with a machine, and an extra hem piece added as the boy grew taller, again done with a machine. Such a shame, but we can still see some of the original work inside.

Both are exactly the same back and front. This again, is so practical. To save on endless washing, the farmer would get the front dirty, and then simply wear it the other way around until both sides were equally messy. I love these little details.

This pair are almost certainly for Sunday Best. Firstly, because one has little MOP buttons, which would not be used on a working smock. But also, [and here my imagination flies again!], each one has vague blue staining, which I am QUITE SURE will be from quill pens used in Sunday School.

To read more about smocking I recommend Marsh. G. '19th Century Embroidery Techniques' [see The Study - Book List for full references] through which I learnt so much. In addition, most general embroidery books will have a section devoted to the art of smocking..

More special infant clothes to blog about soon!

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