Smocking for adults – 1940’s blouse is finished!

posted in: Finished projects | 10

What an interesting project this has turned out to be. A quirky embroidery pattern – Briggs transfer  P621-D677 “Smocked Blouse” – has allowed me to recreate a look that might have been worn during or after the war. The exaggerated shoulders of the era are complemented by a small waist, defined make up, rolled hair and neat earrings.

The design and pattern

The 1/6p pattern
The 1/6p pattern

Apparently this Manchester-based company made embroidery patterns under the Penelope brand that were also supplied as Occupational Therapy for disabled ex-service people following the Second World War. They were available to buy separately but many of the patterns were sold originally in Needlewoman and Needlecraft magazine which seemed to thrive during the 1940s.The blouse pattern itself  was more a vehicle for displaying embroidery skills and selling embroidery cottons and wools rather than a particularly clever design. It’s not really a designer item – more the kind of thing most women would more or less be able to draft themselves at home, and make up from a fairly small piece of fabric.The layout is given for a 36″ piece of cloth.

The most important feature is the iron-on smocking pattern, printed on one side front, and then separately for the other side. These tiny, perfectly spaced dots, are the guide for gathering the cloth at regular intervals, prior to embroidering them with the coloured smocking embroidery thread. In order to preserve the pattern I used a washable felt tip pen and a ruler instead, but I have used these iron on guides previously (on the wrong side of the fabric) and they are just great. You can see the pattern is fairly simple, and I traced it off and made no alterations. I wanted the authentic look. For current taste the blouse is perhaps a bit too blousey – its pretty full across the body, being tucked firmly into the skirt for waist shaping. The collar is long and pointy, the sleeves full, pleated and nipped in at their hems. The blouse does right up to the neck with a press stud.

2014-07-23 06.09.38The fabrics and materials

I chose a fabric with a distinctive waffle weave as I had hoped to use this instead of the ironed on dots. After experimenting the size was too petite, and actually the grain line was with the CF not with the top of the yoke, so I had to abandon that plan. But I was very pleased with my purchase from Simply Fabrics. The cotton is light, it’s a nice bright white and it was just perfect in terms of weight for this project. It was highly obedient throughout the whole process of construction. My embroidery cottons were not the finest quality – I bought a selection on Clitheroe market for a low price. I chose a set of colours to go with a range of skirts I already have – bottle green, navy blue, brown, red, and two shades of turquoise. I used some dear little Liberty’s buttons that Bianca gave me for my birthday. Although the background is light yellow rather than white the tiny floral print picks up the blue, red and green.

Sleeve pleats, smocking and buttons
Sleeve pleats, smocking and buttons


The first task was the smocking. I measured out 1/4 inch squares with my washable felt tip, and gathered up the “quills”. I didn’t do this quite correctly (only reading the instructions after I had done the job). In addition I decided against the proposed colour scheme, using colours I happened to have. Also I simplified the smocking pattern as I wanted to do it while watching the cricket at Lords. I told myself that I would make the blouse again in silk, with more subtle colours, following the smocking pattern to the letter. I often do this when making compromises or mistakes. I think “oh well, I will correct that on the next, better version”. Still despite the departure from the instructions I made a reasonable fist of it, and still managed to watch India begin to take England apart.

Once completed I could make up the garment. The instructions suggested back-stitching the smocking onto the yoke! I was surprised to see this. I wondered if there was an assumption the whole item would be sewn by hand. Most other seams are specified as French seams, but I did this on the machine. Also I went over the back-stitching with the sewing machine. No interfacing was suggested, but I couldn’t contemplate button holes without a little support. I created machine button holes. As is the case with many older patterns the instructions are sparse – the assumption being that everyone would know how to “space 5 buttons with corresponding button-holes down fronts”. No interfacing was specified for the collar so I left that out.

The other thing I left out were the “pair of sleeve supports”, which are not currently on sale at my village haberdashery. In fact there isn’t a haberdashery any more. And I don’t live in a village. But to be honest while I like puffed sleeves I didn’t need to have them overly jutting. Instead I just put four box pleats into the sleeve instead of simple pleats. This gave a little more structure.

I got enormous pleasure out of making this “smocked blouse”  – working with a crisp white cotton gives a special pleasure – and really felt in touch with the type of woman who might have made it up in the past.

1940s Biggs Transfer "Smocked blouse"
1940s Biggs Transfer “Smocked blouse”


10 Responses

  1. Jenny

    What a satisfying project. The fabric is just right for it and those buttons are very sweet. Pity about the cricket. If only everything in life was as satisfying as sewing.

  2. Kbenco

    Cricket is very good for smocking, or knitting…
    How lovely to see smocking in an adult garment. I am rather fond of smocking, and when making my children’s clothes last decade, generally hand stitched the smocked piece to the yoke in order to arrange my pleats nicely above the top row of smocking, – then machine stitched, usually with mini piping. Maybe this avoidance of pleat flattening by machine was the intention for the backstitching instructions? I have a few 1940’s” patterns” with smocking, but they are usually just drafting instructions and a photo of the finished smocking, nothing like your actual printed pattern.

  3. fabrickated

    Interesting point Kbenco about not flattening the pleats – although it called for “light pressing” which I avoided. I was fascinated to see your extensive smocking posts on your blog.

  4. thornberry

    This is especially lovely. Smocking is something that i haven’t tried, although I own enough books and magazines on the topic to be able to give it a fair crack. So nice to see it so effectively used in an adult garment.

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