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Shepherds Smocks.

Alison Sofield, Volunteer Collections


When looking at the history and evolution of clothing we tend to regard women’s clothing as the yardstick for measuring changes in dress style. Male clothing through the centuries has tended to follow the pattern of breeches or trousers usually with a shirt like garment topped by some sort of jacket.


However, the Museum holds two interesting items of male attire worn in the agricultural sector, shepherds’ smocks. These smocks are the forerunner of today’s overalls, designed to protect the wearers clothing, especially when working with animals in the outdoors.


These garments were largely worn by shepherds or waggoners and were generally made of homespun linen or hemp. The smocks were generously cut to allow for various body shapes, and smocking was used at the cuffs shoulders and chest to give further movement. Smocking is where tiny parallel pieces of the material are gathered up with a tacking stitch. The small ridges that result are then embroidered over, usually with a herring bone or fly stitch and then the gathering stitch is removed. This technique allows the garment to stretch. As well as the smocked areas, the collars and yokes both back and front were embroidered in a thread that matched the white or cream fabric. The styles of smocks varied from county to county. For example, the Sussex smock was reversible, eg. the front could be turned to the back to spread the wear. Smocks from this area were also considered to have been the most elaborately embroidered.  These smocks were worn through the 18th century but had largely disappeared by about 1870.


Of the two smocks the Museum holds in its Textile Collection one is at least 160 years old, it would have come to New Zealand from England and was subsequently donated by a Miss Bethell. The condition of the smock is fairly fragile and has obviously seen much use. It has linen covered buttons, likely over bone and splits in the side seams to allow for access to pockets. 


The other smock is in much better condition and fully reversible. It is traditionally smocked and embroidered with bone buttons. Both smocks are completely handsewn with flat fell seams. A tribute to the women who so painstakingly stitched them.


Textile conservation can be quite a headache for Museums to manage as it is not the practice for garments to be either washed or mended in order to maintain the original integrity of the item. Ideally all textiles should be stored in a temperature and light controlled as well as a pest free environment on padded and covered hangars. Garments that are heavy should be stored in boxes wrapped in acid free tissue.


Even though the wearing of smocks by shepherds had disappeared by the beginning of the 20 century they reappeared in the form of children’s clothing as a useful garment to wear over good clothes, mainly for girls. 


By extension is this where aprons developed from or were they around long before smocks? An interesting question.