Introduction: Smocked Evening Bag / Purse
Does the word “smocking” conjure up images of little girls’ dresses from a bygone age, made in cotton gingham embellished with hand embroidery worked over a series of pleats? Think again, smocking can be a lot more interesting and contemporary. In this project you will learn how to work a waves pattern in Canadian smocking while making an evening clutch or wrist-strap bag in satin. The waves look the same either way up, so the smocked fabric can form both sides of the bag without the need for a bottom seam.
This type of smocking (also known as lattice or North American smocking) is worked from the back using a grid marked on the fabric. The stitches are unobtrusive, leaving the dramatic texture they produce on the face of the fabric to do all the talking.
The finished bag measures about 8" wide by 7" high.
What you need
- Light to medium weight satin fabric – ½ yd of 36” wide fabric will make 2 bags
- Light weight iron-on interfacing, preferably white (again, ½ yd is enough for 2)
- Contrasting fabric and suitable iron-on interfacing – about 9” x 6”
- Lining fabric – about 9” x 14”
- Optional - very firm, non-fusible interfacing or buckram, about 9" x 14"
- Strong sewing thread to match the main fabric
- Sewing thread to match the contrast fabric and lining
- Dressmaking scissors
- A soft pencil and a coloured crayon or tailor's chalk
- A zip/zipper to match the contrast fabric, probably 8" long but see Step 5
- Pins, needles, iron, etc
The contrasting fabric should contrast in texture with the satin, and can also be a contrasting colour. Velvet, linen and wool flannel are all suitable.
Step 1: Cutting and Interfacing
Cut a 17” wide by 14” long rectangle from the satin fabric, on the straight of the grain. Since satin is so slippery and fluid, it’s best to pull a thread in each direction to ensure you get perfect straight edges and right-angled corners. Just cut along the line of the pulled thread.
Before cutting the fusible interfacing, test it by ironing a small piece onto the back of a scrap of satin. You may need to experiment with different iron temperatures, pressing times and damp or dry pressing cloths to find the best combination of variables to attach the interfacing securely without the heat distorting the fabric. You may even need to try a different interfacing, as some will bond at a lower temperature than others. I found that a cotton setting on the iron, a damp cover cloth and 10 seconds worked for my satin/interfacing choices. Make a note of what works for you.
Cut a rectangle of interfacing the same size as the satin rectangle. Again, take care to get the sides straight and 90° corners. Then iron it onto the back of the satin.
Step 2: Marking the Grid
The next job is to mark a ½” grid onto the interfaced side of the satin. A soft (2B) pencil is perfect for this job as long as the interfacing is white, otherwise you’ll need to use chalk or a pale coloured crayon. Now that the interfacing is stabilising the satin it shouldn’t stretch or slip, but nevertheless be sure to draw the grid accurately by marking half inch increments along all 4 sides and then joining them with a straight edge.
You will probably find that the rectangle is slightly smaller than it was, as a result of the fusing process, and its edges may have become wavy; don’t worry, just mark as many ½” squares as possible starting close to one edge - don’t measure from the edge itself unless it is still perfectly straight. You can use a sheet of printer paper to make sure the outer corners of the grid are square. Aim to end up with a 16.5”x 13.5” grid but don’t worry if it is ½” smaller in one or both directions.
With the fabric laid out face down in landscape format (wider than it is tall) and using a coloured crayon or chalk, mark the diagonal lines shown in red in the diagram. It’s not necessary to mark the arrowheads, or the blue dotted lines, or the numbers, just the red lines themselves. Start with the square that is in the 3rd row down and the 3rd column from the left, ie leaving a border of 2 empty squares all around the rectangle as in the diagram. Complete the whole grid, repeating the chart as necessary in each direction. Unless you care about symmetry it doesn’t much matter whether you end with a column of upwards-pointing or downwards-pointing arrows, just fit in as many as you can. (If you do care, end with downwards arrows to get a whole number of waves across your bag.)
Step 3: Smocking
The smocking is worked from the back in a continuous path from top to bottom, then bottom to top, top to bottom and so on, moving sideways across the fabric. For a right handed person it’s easier to work from left to right, starting in the top left corner, but left handed sewers will need to reverse the directions. Refer to the chart from the previous step: red arrows show the smocking stitches, blue dotted lines the loose stitches linking each arrow to the next one in the sequence. The numbers show the order in which to work for a smocked piece that is only 4 waves high and 2 waves across. This bag has 12-13 waves from top to bottom and 7-8 across, so just keep going down the first column until the last arrow is done and then work back up the next column. Similarly, the pattern repeats across.
Satin can be quite unforgiving if you have to unpick it, so it would be a good idea to practise using a grid drawn on a scrap of cotton if this is your first attempt at this type of smocking. Once you are happy that you know what you are doing, then work on the satin.
Using thread to match the satin and starting at the red circle at the beginning of arrow no.1, take 3 tiny stitches across the corner of the grid, in the direction of the arrow, to secure the end of the thread. Be sure to catch a few threads of the satin fabric itself as well as the interfacing. Give the thread a little tug to check it’s not going to slip or pull out, you may need to take an extra stitch here (and elsewhere) if your thread is particularly smooth. * Then take the needle across to the end of that arrow and again take a tiny stitch across the corner of the grid, in the same direction as the arrow. Draw the thread up tightly so that the two corners of the grid square are touching - pinch the fabric together underneath with your left hand to help the process. Take a small stitch through both layers (or all 4 layers, strictly speaking), then another small stitch through just the second layer (the fabric at the end of the arrow) to secure. That’s the first “smock” done.
Now take the needle across to the start of arrow no.2 and take a tiny stitch as before, but don’t pull the thread tight because this big stitch between arrows needs to be a little slack to avoid distorting the waves pattern. Take 2 more small (and tight) stitches in the same place to secure the thread. Repeat from * until the entire grid has been smocked. It’s quite quick once you get into the rhythm of it.
Taking the stiches in the direction of the arrow, not across it, means that when you pull the thread tight it is pulling in the right direction and is less likely to make a hole.
When you need to join in a new length of thread, try to arrange to do it at the top or bottom of a column, then any visible stitches will be hidden in the bag’s seams.
Step 4: Pleating the Edges
When you have finished smocking, trim away any excess fabric on all 4 sides. Cut along the second grid line beyond a row/column of stitches to leave a 1” border all around the smocking.
You need to get rid of the fullness in the fabric around the edges of the piece. At the top and bottom this is done by bringing the fabric together to form a ½” pleat on the right side at the top/base of each wave (see photo), or a ¼" pleat at the end if you finished smocking with a half wave. Tack the pleat on the right side, then squash it down, centring it over the line of tacking to make a box pleat. Pin the pleat in place close to the outside edge of the fabric (in case the pins mark the satin). Once all the pleats have been made along an edge, tack them in place just outside the grid line that is ½” away from the top of the waves, then press.
At the sides, form the excess fabric into neat knife pleats on the right side. Again, tack just outside the grid line that is ½” beyond the last wave and press.
Go over the whole piece using your fingers to manipulate the fabric to make the wave pattern as smooth and perfect as possible. This is best done from the back, pushing a finger into each of the little square pockets that have formed.
Step 5: Zip Insertion
Measure the smocked piece, including the un-smocked border. It should be approximately 9” wide by 10” high. The smocking process shortens the width more than the height for this waves pattern.
Cut two rectangles from the contrasting fabric (observing the grain), each the same width as the smocked piece and 3” high. Apply fusible interfacing to the back.
Assembling the bag, including inserting the zip, is best done on a sewing machine, but can be done by hand if you don’t have a machine because the seams are all quite short. In any case, you can give your bag a “bespoke” look by hand sewing with a small running stitch instead of topstitching by machine.
The zip needs to be 1¼” shorter than the width of the contrast fabric and the smocking. If you have to shorten a nylon zip, drop a spot of superglue (cyanoacrylate) on the closed teeth just below where you want it to end and then cut away the excess below the glued zone once it is dry.
Attach the first half of the zip by placing it centrally along one long edge of a piece of contrast fabric, right sides together and the edge of the fabric level with the edge of the zip tape. Sew close to the teeth. Attach the zip to the other piece in the same way. Press the seam allowances away from the zip and tack them in position.
Step 6: Attaching the Smocked Section
Now attach the zipped top part of the bag to the smocked piece of satin. Sew first one top/bottom edge of the satin to a long edge of the contrast fabric, then the other top/bottom edge to the second side of the top of the bag, making a tube.
Sew with right sides together, taking a seam of about ⅜" or a little less. Remove the tacking holding the box pleats in place.
Press the seam allowances upwards (towards the zip), being careful not to iron the smocking, and tack them in place. If you wish, hand stitch the allowances in place close to the seamline, or topstitch on the machine.
Step 7: Optional Wrist Strap
Interface a strip of satin fabric and then cut a 16” by 1½” rectangle from it on the straight grain. Fold it in half, right sides out and long edges together. Iron the fold to crease it. Open out the strip and then fold in one long edge to the central crease and iron in the new crease. Repeat with the second long edge. Finally, fold the strip along the central crease to hide the raw edges and create a ⅜” wide strap. Pin or tack and then topstitch close to both long edges.
Fold this wrist strap in half to make a loop and pin it in place on the outside of the top of the bag, about ¾" below the zip, on the side where the zip pull is when the zip is closed, with the loop on the bag and the two ends protruding beyond the side. (Refer to photo.) Adjust the length of the loop to suit your wrist/hand.
Alternatively, use a short length of ribbon or braid to make a much smaller loop. Make a detachable wrist strap as above, but join it (preferably with a diagonal seam) into a loop before folding the raw edges to the centre. It can then be attached to the ribbon loop using a dog-lead clip or a split ring.
Step 8: Side Seams
Open the zip at this point, at least partially – very important. Then with the tube inside out (right sides together) and the zip at the top, stitch the side seams from the top to the bottom taking a ½” seam allowance. You may need to squash the top edge a little to deal with the extra width created by the zip.
Trim the 4 corners diagonally to avoid bulk, and also trim the rest of the side seam allowances if necessary. Turn the bag right side out and finger-press the seam allowances open or use the tip of the iron vary carefully to avoid flattening the smocking.
Step 9: Lining and Optional Stiffening
You may prefer a bag that holds its own shape well, in which case you will need some very stiff non-woven (and non-fusible) interfacing or buckram between the outer bag and the lining. With the bag inside out, measure the distance between the side seams. Turn the bag the right way out and measure the distance from one top edge right under the bag and up the other side to the second top edge, not including the width of the zip. Subtract ¼" from both measurements and then cut a rectangle of stiffening to that size.
Fold the stiffening in half, short sides together, without creasing the fold line. Hand sew the side seams using a herringbone stitch, butting the edges together (see photo). Check that it fits well into the bag - it should slip in easily with the top edge stopping at the zip tape. If necessary, trim away some material from the top edge and/or one of the side seams (in which case that side seam will have to be re-sewn). Then replace the stiffening in the bag.
Measure the bag as above and add 1” to both measurements for the seam allowances, then cut a rectangle that size from the lining fabric.
Fold the lining to bring the short sides of the rectangle together, right sides in, and sew the side seams. Take a ½” seam for the first side, but make the second seam allowance more generous if necessary to allow for the thickness of the stiffening - the lining should fit smoothly into the bag.
With the lining in the bag, fold the top edge to the wrong side so that the fold line just reaches to the line of stitching that attached the zip, and pin it. Then remove the lining, trim the lower corners and press the seam allowances open, also creasing the fold you pinned. Trim away any excess fabric at the top edge to leave just ½” folded under.
Place the lining inside the bag (with the stiffening in place, if used), wrong sides together. Pin the turned-under opening edge of the lining around the zip, level with the line of stitching. Slipstitch it to the zip tape by hand, being careful to avoid any stitches showing on the right side or getting too close to the teeth.
Step 10: Finishing
Hand stitch through all layers (the outer fabric, zip tape and lining) close to the seamline, all around the zip. Remove the tacking.