The Wonderful World of Smocks

I doubt there are many local history museums without an agricultural smock (or five) in their collections. These loose, cotton or linen garments were fairly ubiquitous in parts of England and Wales for hundreds of years, their popularity dying out during the Victoria era when the loose nature of the garment became dangerous when people started working near machinery. It is wonderful that a type of garment worn for hard labour survives as often we only see the ‘special occasion’ pieces of dress that are kept carefully by families and handed down.

We don’t have any provenance information for our smock here. It’s dated c 1900 but was likely earlier as they were falling out of fashion by then. This smock is made of cotton and beautifully smocked and embroidered with a matching thread. The wide collar is typical and helped keep the weather off the owner.

Smocks were usually made with large rectangles of cloth (so as not to waste any fabric) and so they didn’t swamp anyone like a poncho they were shaped by the smocking at the neck, shoulders and wrists which strengthened the garment. Some were reversible and could be worn back to front as well. They were worn mainly by men working in fields or with animals and, just as smocks are used nowadays, saved their wearers clothes from the worst of the dirt and weather. 

I’ve only just started learning about smocks but what strikes me is how, as with many of the clothes worn by labourers, they signalled so clearly what work the person did. If you picture someone in a smock like this they are probably in a field and wearing boots, maybe at a plough or watching a herd.  Smocks were often embroidered as well as smocked and the stitching could show what specific work the wearer did. For example, crooks might be embroidered if it was for a shepherd, furrows if a ploughman. Our lovely example has a design along the side of the yoke as well – the spirals look like they could be wheels. The zigzag design could be seen as having little grain patterns incorporated within? Maybe I’m reaching here and it’s just a nice design! Thoughts?

By Margaret Barratt – Visitor Assistant