The Rebecca Riots

During the nineteenth century, when smock frocks were commonly worn by many men, they could also be used by those engaged in ‘criminal’ activity to prevent easy identification and facilitate a disguise of sorts. The Rebecca Riots were a series of protests against tolls charged to use local roads, as well as general poverty and poor conditions, in rural west Wales.  Protesters called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’ probably after a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them’ (Genesis XXIV, verse 60). In 1843 the Rebecca Riots were reported in the Gloucestershire Chronicle.  A mob of around a hundred people had assembled in Nantgarredig, near Carmarthen.  They were disguised, with their faces blackened, and wearing smock frocks, carrying implements to use as weapons.[1]  The smock frock had almost become a uniform so that the members of the ‘mob’ were no longer individuals but could act as one to carry out their aims.  It was also reported that a group of twenty-four men, some ‘dressed in smock frocks’, came down the Fishguard Road to over-run and destroy the Prendergast Toll near Haverfordwest, demolishing the gateposts and signboard.[2] 

The ‘riots’ have become infamous as the men who took part were often reported to have dressed as Rebecca, that is in women’s clothing. This ‘cross-dressing’ was also commonly used to take part in popular customs, part of the carnival ‘world-turned-upside-down’ order. Popular custom and popular protest shared characteristics such as disguise, using masks or blackened faces, and the transvestitism of men dressed in women’s clothes. Politics and protest could be integrated into customary celebrations, for example, mumming plays, May Day, Plough Monday and Whit week[3], the processions and gatherings of local communities giving an opportunity to air grievances, even if underhand and not overtly displayed.  However, in reality, the white gowns that many of the Rebecca rioters were said to have been wearing were probably smock frocks, which were widely available in Wales, especially in Cardiff and in the border region.[4]  The smock was white, loose, cheap, could stand-in for female dress and was usually commonly to hand for male labourers.  It was also symbolically complex, it’s meaning dependent on who was reading it.  As a symbol of rural poverty and oppression for some wearers, it is not unsurprising that it was used for popular protest.

[1] Gloucestershire Chronicle, 15 July 1843.

[2] Worcestershire Chronicle, 26 April 1843.

[3] K. Navickas, ‘”That sash will hang you”: Political Clothing and Adornment in England, 1780-1840’, Journal of British Studies, 49, July 2010, pp. 559-64.

[4] For example a smock frock was stolen from a house at Tredegar, see Hereford Times, 3 October 1863; and another similar case  at Llanddewi Rhydderch, near Abergavenny, see Hereford Times, 12 December 1857.  Smock frocks and hats were raced for at Abergavenny when waiting for the first sod of the Newport, Abergavenny, Hereford railway to be cut, Hereford Times, 31 January 1852.  See also M. G. Rees and C. Stevens, ‘Smocks in the Welsh Folk Museum Collection’, Medel, vol. 3, Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, one in the collection from the Dolgellau region, worn by a farmer and made by his daughter, p. 35, no. 45327/1. 

The Realism of George Clausen

George Clausen (1852-1944) was an English painter who studied in London and Paris, influenced there by the naturalistic school of artists, particularly Jules Bastien-Lepage.   In the late nineteenth-century, he completed a body of work depicting English rural workers.

Clausen sketched on the spot and supported his portrayal by using photographs, catching people going about their work. He was one of the first to depict real workers, albeit in a somewhat heroic and idealised light. Reviewers of his paintings still read into his depictions ‘characteristics’ of the ‘peasantry’, one man wearing a smock frock said to represent ‘fatuous stupidity’ for a reviewer of his work shown at the Dudley Gallery.  Clausen practised this naturalism from the 1880s, providing a literal representation of the subject, presenting labourers in their particular environment, demoting any narrative in favour of true representation, documenting the authentic scene with no thought of the picturesque.  The smocks that he depicted rural labourers wearing were workwear, often short, and much plainer than the smock of popular imagination.  The man cutting mangolds in a field [see Winter Work, 1883-4, Tate Gallery, ] has a plain smock on, tied at the waist for practicalities sake, the flash of his red neckerchief alleviating the khaki tones of the scene.  Clausen painted the people that he saw around his home at Childwick Green, Hertfordshire, taking an impartial view of their lives. 

However, his focus on everyday life reflected his anti-elitist sympathies, his work part of the New English Art Club formed from 1886, which aimed to create a large exhibition where all artists could vote unlike the elite Royal Academy. [1]  Sharpley Bainbridge, a manufacturer of ready-made clothing from Lincoln was a patron of Clausen and also owned fifty paintings by Birket Foster, known for rural landscapes.  Such male entrepeneurs were the agents of change transforming the countryside, yet displayed images of that disappearing world on their walls and in their galleries.  These rural depictions were part of urban life, the demand for prints of such images coming from city dwellers. In general, they offered a salve to the pressures of modernity with representations of timelessness and tranquillity and the hope of a natural life to restore the spirits.  Then, as today, they were a fantasy, those who had to make their living from the land unlikely to see this narrative. Rural counties around London became the centre for this artistic endeavour, with rural objectification helped by the railway which linked villages to London with ease. 

By the early twentieth century, Clausen’s original realist depictions had become a national archetype of healthy outdoor labour, aspirational for all, whether living in the town or countryside.  Clausen himself, a war artist during the First World War, seemed to drift away from such representations, his later landscapes often figureless. 

[1] K. McConkey, Sir George Clausen, R.A., 1852-1944 (Exhibition Catalogue, Bradford Art Galleries and Museums and Tyne and Wear County Council Museums, Bradford and Tyne and Wear, 1980), pp. 11, 31-2 .

See also:

A Fishy Tale…

As I have noted in my previous blog about milkmen [], the white smock frock was a useful overall for those involved in food production and food selling, being washable and durable as well as suggesting cleanliness and hygiene.  It frequently turns up in sources dealing with the fish trade.  Of course, the maritime smock, worn by sailors and fishermen, which was plainer and shorter than the traditional smock frock, may have influenced this. [see illustration below, James Clarke Hook, Crabbers, 1876]  However, those involved in the fish trade seemed to favour a hybrid garment, somewhere in between the two versions.


(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Joshua Cristall depicted the Fish Market on Hastings Beach in 1808, with long white plain smocks visible on several men at a time when smocks in general were not so embellished.  [see illustration below, V&A collection]  Indeed, when Joseph Foster died in 1909 in Hastings, it was noted that he had worn a white smock frock at his stall in the Fish Market in the Old Town,[1] so this was seemingly a tradition for some fish sellers there during the nineteenth century.


They also seem to have been worn by those in the London fish trade.  In a description of Billingsgate Fish Market in 1872, those who carried the fish from the transport to the auctioneers were described as clad in corduroy and smock frocks with sou’westers and wooden clogs, finishing off their practical outfits.[2]   A fish salesman, Edward Soloman, wore a dirty smock frock when he entered the breakfast room of the Three Tuns Hotel in Billingsgate, contrary to hotel regulations, and was turned out by the landlord.[3]  In 1881, a man put a white one on to sell fish in Billingsgate Market,[4] so white smocks seem to have been not uncommon.

Butchers too had a long association with the smock, the blue one in particular linked to the trade.  As smock manufactures diversified and specialised, particular smocks were made for the butchery trade which would have been less embellished than a traditional smock frock.  Edwin Butler sold ready-made clothes in Birmingham High Street, his stock in the mid-nineteenth century including butchers blue smocks.  In a dispute and alleged assault between a butcher and a Jewish salesman in Gloucester, the butcher was described as wearing ‘a dirty smock frock’.[5]  Even today, traditional butchers wear a white or blue and white striped coat as an overall, which seemingly has a lineage back to the smock.  Butcher’s blue has also become a particular type of colour still used for aprons and textiles associated with kitchen usage.  The smock continues to influence workwear even today.

[1] Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 16 October 1909, p. 9, where he was noted as a strong liberal and ‘ardent teetotaler’, a member of the friendly temperance society ‘Sons of the Phoenix’.

[2] Derby Mercury, 12 June 1872.

[3] Pall Mall Gazette, 8 January 1870, p. 2, London.

[4] Nottingham Evening Post, 29 October 1881.

[5] Gloucestershire Chronicle, 10 January 1846.  They were still wearing them at the end of the century, see a slander case between a butcher and a meat salesman in London, Illustrated Police News , 26 March 1898.


A sub-section of the criminal fraternity, the highwayman, found the smock frock very useful to wear.  This may have been partly as a disguse.  As it was worn by so many men the garment tended to equalise appearance and make them indistinguishable from other smock frock wearers.  As in the case of the high vis jacket today, all witnesses remembered was the smock frock, and no other details.[1]  As early as 1784, two highwaymen were at work outside Salisbury brandishing pistols to rob a horse chaise and a post chaise [a fast carriage].  One was wearing a blue round frock, the other a dirty white round frock.[2]  An attempted robbery of a gig on the road by a man disguised in a smock frock with a handkerchief over his face and large slouched hat, was fought off by the traveller in the carriage, Mr Fayerman, a surgeon from Norwich, using a whip in 1816.[3]

During the 1820s and 1830s, the smock was commonly used by many men including criminals. In 1822, George Church was robbed of a silver watch on the road near Aldbourn, by two footpads, that is robbers without horses, the men ‘dressed like farmers’ labourers, in smock frocks’.  A fifteen guinea reward was offered for information leading to arrest.[4]  Mr Johnson of Ashbourne in Derbyshire was robbed of nineteen sovereigns near Manton in Rutland in 1828, by three men looking like a ‘lower class of hawkers’, two dressed in smock frocks.[5]  In 1834, just outside Salisbury, ‘a tall athletic man, disguised in a mask and white smock frock’, stopped Mr Beckingsale, a shopman travelling on a horse, held a pistol to his head and asked for his money and his watch.  The robber escaped, although only with eighteen shillings and the watch.[6]  In 1832, David Abraham, a hawker of jewellery from Birmingham, was returning home with goods and money worth £107, when he was robbed by two men on the road, one with a pistol who was wearing a white smock frock over a blue coat.[7]   Four men dressed in white smock frocks also attacked the elderly Roderick M’Grigor and his son returning home to Iver from Uxbridge, stealing a silver watch and other silver money.[8]

In 1857, it was still being used as a disguise, a man shooting Mr Ovenden, a draper, with a pistol on the road between Nutfield and Warwicktown, Redhill, in Surrey and stealing his money. The draper had given the man, who appeared to be a labourer, a lift in his cart before he turned on him on a lonely part of the road demanding his money or his life.  The draper first thought it a joke but was then shot.  A large reward of £100-200 was promptly offered for information, the suspect carefully described by Mr Ovenden, as wearing a short navigator’s slop or smock frock, ‘very much worked about the breast and neck’.[9]  Many smocks would have been relatively plain and ready-made with little to distinguish one from another, so where there was something different to note, this was remembered.  However, it appeared to be a successful disguise with few reports of the capture of any of these ‘highwaymen’.

[1] See also the gilet jaune protests in France,

[2] Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 19 July 1784.

[3] Norfolk Chronicle, 5 October 1816.

[4] Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 23 May 1822.

[5] Northampton Mercury, 20 September 1828.

[6] Sherborne Mercury, 24 February 1834.

[7] Coventry Herald, 28 September 1832.

[8] West Kent Guardian, 2 December 1837.

[9] Cheltenham Chronicle, 24 February 1857.

‘Dead Stonebreaker’

How the smock frock was depicted by artists has, to some extent, been dependent on the contemporary political situation. During the Napoleonic Wars, and especially during the blockade, at its strongest between 1807 and 1809, agriculture, and the production of food to feed the nation, were inherently patriotic with model labourers depicted in smock frocks.  During the difficult period of the 1840s, with the rise of Chartism and labour movements and the ever-present threat of rural starvation, few agricultural paintings were exhibited, seemingly out of place. Instead, genre scenes with the domestic affectations of the labourer, the myth of the virtuous peasant, contented, pious and devoted to farm life, were welcomed into middle-class homes as a balm against threats of revolution and Chartism.  From the late 1840s and 1850s, an awareness of rural poverty and distress began to permeate artists’ depictions, the Pre-Raphaelites, founded in 1848, striving for naturalism, rejecting the earlier approach of the virtuous peasant’s happiness.

In 1857, Henry Wallis, who was connected to the Pre-Raphaelites, painted ‘Dead Stonebreaker’.  For Wallis, this reflected the consequences of the unfavourable external conditions of society, contrasting with his most famous painting, the ‘Death of Chatterton’, which focussed on the personal internal struggles of one man and his supposed suicide.  The ‘Dead Stonebreaker’ depicts, as a review put it, ‘A man in a smock frock…dead upon a stone heap’.  The contemporary reviewer was sceptical about the subject, suggesting that if the painting wasn’t so titled, the viewer would just think the man asleep: ‘There are no indications of unusual poverty or disease about him, to warrant such an end; for his smockfrock is in very good condition for a stone breaker’s; and judging from his face, we should pronounce him to be both healthy and well fed.’ However, a review in the London Daily News was more compassionate: ‘Poor wretch, all his path in life has been beset with thorns! But he is at rest at last; no one waits for or will seek him; no one will miss him. His … face and low brow, tell of stolid ignorance and abject misery. He has never been a poacher or housebreaker; or come to London to be refined into a swindler and pickpocket….He is very dead.’  Although this subject struck a chord, the dark hues of the painting did not find favour with this critic.

The painting showed man’s oneness with nature, the stone breaker expiring with the day, a stoat on his foot.  The rural setting focussed the attention of the viewer on what were perceived to be rural problems:  the inhumanity of stone breaking, often work given to the able-bodied poor in a workhouse, and so the implicit criticism of rural poor relief, although also reflecting an universal concern for the poor.  The geographically remote setting provided a detached scene for universal issues to be played out with the indirect criticism of industrialisation.  His dress, including the short smock, is workwear, suggesting hard manual labour rather than a rural idyll which, despite the backdrop, it is not.

Such socially conscious art continued to develop, showing the down trodden reality of many labourers’ lives and became increasingly popular, collected by middle-class merchants, industrialists and professionals. Influenced by French artists such as Jules Breton, this movement reached its peak in the 1880s with the paintings of George Clausen, who using photography, drew labourers from life, although by this point, the smock frock was infrequently worn by them.


dead stonebreaker

Mending and Maintenance

The ‘biographies’ of garments is an expanding research area, as the personal and physical relationship that we have with our clothes is investigated by academics.  How people care for their clothing, both today and in the past, can perhaps give us a small insight into how they regard their own garments.  In this era of fast fashion, where clothing is a cheap commodity that can be readily changed and thrown away, it is easy to forget how expensive and valuable clothing was, even the most common garments costing at least a week’s wages.  Smocks, like other working garments, were easily stolen, often by other working men, and sold and exchanged for cash because of this inherent value.  For this reason alone, their monetary value, their maintenance was a routine task.

However, the pride shown in clothing by working people during the nineteenth century is also visible in the smock by the very fact that it is often embellished, for example with embroidery, suggesting that their appearance and decorativeness was important to their wearer.  They could be cherished enough to passed on generation to generation.  Of course, there is some differentiation between those worn for best and for rituals such as weddings and funerals, and workaday ones, which were likely to be plainer and worn until they fell apart into rags, which could then be sold and recycled.

Looking at surviving smocks though, you can see the care taken to repair damage, to maintain the garment and keep it wearable.  The wear patterns of clothing, as a memory of the wearer, is both old fashioned object analysis and a fashionable topic itself, with the current FIT exhibition in New York, ‘Fashion Unraveled’, with its focus on altered, unfinished and deconstructed garments.  The imperfections and flaws of a garment are highlighted to emphasize the emotional as well as the economic impact of clothing for its wearer. Visible mending, as a way to enhance a garment and stop it from becoming obsolete and thrown away, has also had a new surge of interest.  Led by artists such as Celia Pym, the old skills of darning and mending, which all girls once learnt, are being re-learnt by people today.

The smock was made to be durable and guard against wear, one of the purposes of smocking in the first place, but in surviving smock frocks, wear patterns are often similar: fraying around the cuffs, holes in the skirt and the smocking rubbed and starting to become undone. A smock I recently examined in the Somerset Heritage Centre (see above) had the most beautiful visible mending with a series of holes all edged with blanket stitch.  Other areas were also patched and darned, suggesting the desire to maintain and preserve the use of the garment as best as possible (see below).  Even ordinary working clothing was required to last extensive periods of time, with its relatively expensive cost, so mending clothing was part of the everyday schedule.  It is a skill which has been forgotten but as debates around the effects of fast fashion grow, one that many are rediscovering.



photographs @



A Gang of ‘Thimble Men’

As the smock frock was so widely worn by working men, it could be a useful disguise for swindlers and criminals.  The game of thimblerig was one such scheme used by gangs who roamed the country to try and gain money, especially in the early 1830s.  1834 seems to have been a particularly bad year for this.  The game was, and is, well-known, the thimblerigger using sleight of hand to move balls or pellets or peas about under three cups or thimbles and asking the spectator to bet on where the final location was.

Around Wolverhampton, a gang of nine men were using nut shells instead of thimbles, the ‘sharpers’ [or swindlers] always winning.  Each played a part and dressed in appropriate clothing to draw people in to participate.  The ‘actors’ wearing smocks tried their luck and, having won, drew in the real customers, who, of course, lost.  A similar gang  were ensnaring people on the remote fell road between Durham and Gateshead, the gang variously dressed as a pedlar, a fashionable man, a sailor and a carter in a smock frock.  Engaging people they thought might be trapped in conversation, and telling tales about how they had just lost, or just won, at thimblerig, they would lead the unwary to the game where they were inveigled to join in.  There were tales of people losing all they had in just a few minutes.  One tea hawker, a man who travelled around remote areas selling tea door to door, often to people who did not have other access to such provisions, lost twelve sovereigns [a gold coin with a value of one pound] in six minutes, the proceeds of his sales which he was taking back to his employer in Newcastle.

Race courses were another forum for this trickery, a report about a very similar gang working the crowd at Chelmsford Races in July 1833 with a stock of characters from ‘a Bond Street exquisite’ to a labourer in a smock frock, acting as procurers and decoys, resulting in hundreds of people being ‘plundered’ of their cash.  It was obviously a situation which continued, William Frith depicting the fraud in his monumental painting of Derby Day, 1856-8, in the Tate Gallery.


The newspaper reports connected the gangs with other criminal behaviour from pick pocketing to living with prostitutes, but it was a ruse that clearly continued to be worthwhile, the smock frock playing its part in the deception, helping to define people by their dress, in this case wrongly!

All the fun of the fair

The annual Michaelmas Fair has just finished in our nearest town and although it is now all dodgems, haunted houses, terrifying rides to take you up into the air and drop you, flashing lights and loud music, such fairs follow a long tradition and were an important part of, and release from, the working calendar for labourers.

A report about a fair in May 1857 in Boston, Lincolnshire, was printed in the Stamford Mercury.  Held over several days, there were prizes for farm animals, cattle, sheep and pigs, which were also bought and sold.  Alongside the serious business was the pleasure fair, Wombwells, well-known for their travelling menagerie, presenting an exhibition of exotic animals and Chipperfields offering a circus.  A pig weighing 105 stone was displayed, which was nine feet long and insured for 150 pounds.  Other attractions were listed: ‘performing monkeys and dogs, knowing ponies, ‘industrious fleas’, twin calves, giants in smock frocks to make them look bigger, microscopic and stereoscopic exhibitors…a host of photographers’, which, of course, was still relatively novel.  Music and theatre were also an important part as was the slight edge – pick pocketing was rife and ‘suspicious characters’ ever present.


Many of the patrons of the fair would have worn smock frocks, as seen also at York Fair above, Lincolnshire a county which contained several smock frock manufacturers and known as a place where they were frequently worn.  At the fair, they were used as a disguise to help the ‘giants’, their capaciousness no doubt helping to disguise some trickery.  They were probably used by the criminal fraternity too, both to help mingle inconspicuously in the crowd in order to pick pockets, as well as being useful for hiding any stolen property in their large pockets or just underneath.  Poachers, for example, in the same period used them to hide hares, birds and other animals from detection. Deception and disguise fully in action.




An Encounter with William Gladstone

In June 1891, William Gladstone, the former prime minister and in opposition until the following year, paid a visit to Holmbury St Mary, near Dorking in Surrey.  He attended church on Sunday, whilst staying as a guest of fellow politician, E. F. Leveson-Gower, whose family had first built a country house in the village in 1860 and had done much to promote the area as a country retreat for the wealthy but within easy travelling distance of London by railway.

In a report which appeared in several newspapers, on leaving church Gladstone was ‘accosted by a local carrier, attired in a smock frock’.  The carrier shaking hands with him,  ‘ventured a few remarks upon the poor-law out-relief system’, it would appear in much the same way that members of the public are now occasionally able to ambush electioneering politicians about various causes.  Gladstone had become more liberal over the course of his career, the investigative journalist, W T Stead summing this up in 1892:

At home his chief exploits have been the reform of the tariff, the establishment of Free Trade, and the repeal of the paper duty. He was the real author of the extension of the franchise to the workmen of the towns, and the actual author of the enfranchisement of the rural house holder. He established secret voting, and agreed to give effect to the Tory demand for single-member constituencies. It was in his administration that the first Education Act was passed, and that purchase in the Army was abolished. He has done his share in the liberation of labour from the Combination Laws, in the emancipation of the Jews, and in the repeal of University Tests.

W. T. Stead (The Review of Reviews, vol. V, May, 1892) p. 453.

The G.O.M., as the newspaper referred to him, that is the ‘Grand Old Man’, was seen as a friend of the working man in the days before the Labour Party, both in the town and country.  The carrier, emboldened by his first contact, and acting against type as a stupid, boorish smock-frock wearer, then wrote a letter to Gladstone outlining his ideas on the out-door relief system and the incumbent government proposals on it.  Delivering it to the house where Gladstone was staying, he also gave some home-made butter to Mrs Gladstone.

Both the letter and the butter were acknowledged by Mrs Gladstone, but nothing was heard from the G.O.M. himself, the newspaper reports suggesting that maybe he had run out of his postcards.  Gladstone was a well-known user of postcards and many survive from his hand. Growing in popularity since the Newspaper Postage Bill of 1870, postcards were at first seen as ridiculous, having no privacy, insulting in their briefness to the receiver, and debasing the art of letter writing with their necessary brevity.  For Gladstone, the economy of both the space and the cost seemingly appealed to him and he used them widely.  The Times reported on the history of the postcard on 1 November 1899, noting that Gladstone had ‘made countless numbers happy by the receipt of a card bearing his well-known writing’.  Thus by the end of the nineteenth century, they were seen as ‘most useful’ and ‘indispensable’, the text messages of their day perhaps?  The newspaper report in 1891 remarked somewhat sardonically about this encounter in Surrey however, that Gladstone ‘ought to have sent his customary postcard giving his views on butter-making’ to the carrier.  Although a swipe at Gladstone, it also perhaps, backhandedly, re-enforced the view for newspaper readers about those wearing smock frocks – they would understand comments about butter making, not Gladstone’s answer to a query about poor law proposals, despite evidence to the contrary.


The Embroidery of Smock Frocks

Smocks, by the very nature of their construction, are decorated garments.  If unpicked, the smock would consist of rectangles of fabric both for the sleeves and the body.  Manipulating the fabric, gathering it up to form some kind of shaping, at the cuffs and across the chest, was brought about by smocking.  This gave it ornamentation with a sort of honeycomb pattern and texture, along with a degree of elasticity.  The garment was then decorated further with embroidery.


There are, of course, differences in the quality and design of embroidery work on smock frocks: some were workaday and relatively simple and probably ready-made; others were for Sunday best or for a particular occasion and would be finely worked either by female relations or professional needlewomen.   All had some kind of embroidery though, even if somewhat plain.  It may seem strange to us today, that working men’s dress should be so ornate.  Embroidery was a skill taught to girls, particularly over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was a way for women either to embellish pieces for male family members as a sign of love and affection, or to earn a living.  If done domestically, it could also be a method of personalising garments.  Although the smock has often been put into the category of folk embroidery and compared to embroidered folk dress in continental Europe, men’s dress was often embellished with embroidery from the Medieval period onwards, certainly in the mainly elite examples which now survive in museum collections.  For instance, the embroidered waistcoat had a long tradition in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so in this context, the wearing of embroidery by men was not unfamiliar.

Writers about smocks have often tried to explain the symbolism of the patterns that appear on the garments, for example, suggesting that certain symbols were linked to particular trades and so could identify the profession of the wearer.  Although this may be true in some cases, generally the same patterns appear in smocks regardless of a particular individual’s circumstances, some probably passed around a family or community.  Lack of evidence about where smocks have come from and who wore them in many surviving examples, also makes this a difficult theory to pursue.  Where smocks were produced in large numbers, the pattern was drawn on and then worked, so smocks from one area may have similar patterns.  In Newark, a town associated with smock making, metal pattern blocks printed the design onto the fabric which was then given to out-workers to embroider.


Interlaced and repetitive geometric patterns seem to have been most popular using roundels, spirals, zig-zags and diamonds, in usually no more than three different stitches, often including feather stitch or chain stitch.  Naturalistic motifs, such as flowers and leaves, found their way into more ornate examples, along with designs such as hearts and crooks.  These were all worked in the ‘box’, the panels either side of the smocked area.  Thus the embroidery added to the surface texture and the smock’s character.  It was normally done in the same coloured thread as the base fabric, although there are a few examples with contrasting thread colours.  The embroidery played a practical role too, adding more padding to areas where protection was needed from wear.


The embellishment of the smock frock with embroidery gives the garment, what we now consider, its essential character.  The care and time needed for this stitching on what was principally work wear or a working overall, indicates how important the smock was for both its makers and wearers.