The Smockworks is a new Yorkshire brand reviving the art of smocking through its hand-crafted premium denim smocks. Stephanie Smith talks to its Holmfirth founder Louise Stocks-Young.
In the days before elastic and Lycra, smocking – a network of stitching to control the fullness of fabric and allow flexibility – gave clothes a freedom of movement, essential for those who laboured on the land.
It’s thought that agricultural workers’ overgarments, made from linen or jute cloth, originated from the 13th century, although smocks were also made for occasion dressing too, and smocking became decorative as well as practical.
Today, smocking is on the Red List of Endangered Crafts compiled by the Heritage Crafts Association, of which Prince Charles is president. Hardly surprising considering the work involved, first marking dots on the back of fabric in vertical and horizontal lines to create regular pleats, then stitching, then drawing together the fabric to the desired width and adding decorative stitches on the front to finish.
Deceptively simple, the true smock dress is, undeniably, a thing of beauty. More than this, it is comfortable and wearable – a practical, functional dressing solution as relevant today as it ever was.
Louise Stocks-Young has worn a smock dress on most days for most of her adult life. So determined is she to revive the craft of smocking, she has designed her own smocks and founded her own brand to make and sell them.
“The Smockworks truly did grow out of my love of the smock dress,” she says. “One in particular that I wore to death. I love the volume style, easy dressing – nothing to worry about.
“Another passion of mine is denim. Real denim, not the stretchy type that dominates so much of the women’s market, but proper quality denim.
“I also became intrigued by the intricacy and beauty of smocking. Not the type you see on baby clothes but beautiful lattice and honeycomb smocking. I started to hand smock 10oz and 12oz raw denim, which I reluctantly had to admit was too heavy but it was definitely a fusion moment.”
Launched this month, The Smockworks is a premium womenswear brand that focuses purely on smocks (or Simply Working Dresses, as the brand tag-line has it) featuring smocking or smock detailing. There are four styles, with names that pay homage to their origins: The Sunday refers to the best smocks once kept for wearing on the Sabbath, often with a smocked back panel. The Mayfield remembers a particular style of linen smock worn by men in Mayfield, East Sussex – there’s a 1779 version in the V&A Collection. The Patch is so-called simply because of its patch pockets and the Honeycomb refers to the matrix of smocking featured on the garment.
“I wanted each one to have its own individual personality,” Louise says, adding: “All of the dresses have pockets. I call it smock style, that really simple one-piece dressing, functional, wearable volume, so you don’t have to worry about anything.
“I’d never quite been able to find the right thing. As you get a bit older – I’m in my 40s – you don’t want to look girly, you want to look grown-up, in something that has a sophisticated edge.”
Originally from Boston Spa, Louise studied for a degree in Photography, Journalism and Media at the London to London College of Printing. “I was always into fashion, and knew that was the area I wanted to go into,” she says. After graduating, she began working for PR consultancy Fashion Monitor, and was part of the founding team of the Fashion & Textile Museum, which opened in 2003, working alongside Zandra Rhodes. Louise says: “She had real clarity about who she was and her individuality, and was very single-minded about what she wanted to achieve. I definitely took that you can be your own individual and make your own path.”
The first exhibition at the museum was My Favourite Dress, for which 65 international fashion designers each created one dress. Louise especially loved the design by Issey Miyake. “I have always had a love of Japanese design and volume and shape. It’s the simplicity of it and also the clever construction.”
After working for the Arcadia Group handling PR at Burtons, Evans and Dorothy Perkins, Louise moved to trend agency The Future Laboratory. By now, she was married to Jason Stocks-Young (they met as teenagers at a nightclub in Leeds). Jason had a successful career in creative digital marketing, but in 2008, the couple decided to make the move back to Yorkshire, so they sold their flat in Whitechapel and moved to Holmfirth, with Jason embarking upon a complete career change as he studied leather working. Now he has his own company, JS-Y Leatherworks, using traditional crafting skills to make leather accessories including bags and belts. Last year he took part in the BBC TV documentary series, Made In Great Britain, hosted by Steph McGovern, celebrating traditional crafts.
In a beautiful and atmospheric workshop at Woodend Mill at Mossley in Saddleworth, Jason also runs his Diamond Awl leather working courses, assisted by Louise, and now they also work side by side on their own enterprises.
Louise says: “I found the job market up north was very different, but that was a turning point for me to do something different and explore things that I don’t think I would have been able to explore if I had been in London.”
She began lecturing, first teaching Fashion, Media and Promotion at Huddersfield University and now teaches at Sheffield Hallam University, where she is a part-time lecturer in Fashion Management and Communication. She feels she gains much from working with her students. “It keeps that energy and interest in your subject in quite a different way,” she says. “It’s quite dynamic – it’s fresh, new thinking coming through and it’s quite a privilege to be part of that.”
Jason’s experience also inspired Louise to consider launching her own business. She says: “He’d set up JS-Y Leatherworks and Diamond Awl, and what I saw from that is that he’d made a decision, he’d made a career change and actually, if you start small, you can create something exciting and sustainable.”
At the leather-making workshops, she also met several designer-makers forging a new path. “It was people who had had really good careers, but were looking for the next phase. They wanted to work for themselves and were passionate about creating something made in the UK. Even if it’s a slightly different pathway, anything is possible. Just starting is the key thing,” she says.
And so, bringing together her love of denim and volume style, she began to create the prototypes for her smocks. At first she wanted to use premium denim woven in the UK, but this proved impossible to source, so she turned to Japan, visiting the country with Jason and meeting a manufacturer there. “As a small start-up, it’s really challenging sourcing fabric in small quantities,” Louise says. “I found the Japanese were really willing to have those conversations.”
The mill she chose has been weaving denim for more than 100 years. “It’s about craftsmanship,” she says. “What I love about Japanese denim is you that get really beautiful quality and tones of indigo. I’ve chosen three shades, the palest sky blue, mid indigo and the darkest midnight indigo. It has a lovely weave and it’s a mid-weight denim with no stretch so it will age really well and the dresses will get better and better as you wear them.”
For the four styles of smock she knew she wanted to make, she worked with an experienced Yorkshire pattern cutter to create the samples and realise her designs. Now the smocks are hand-made to order by a small network of highly skilled makers based in Yorkshire and Lancashire. Each is crafted by one person from start to finish. “That was really important to get the quality and level of care,” Louise says, adding that finding skilled makers has been a problem. “There is a lack of skill – pattern-cutting, making, machinists – it’s not always an attractive route for younger people and I am hoping that, in a small way, The Smockworks will help kickstart that love, seeing manufacturing as a desirable career option,” she says.
Each smock takes six to eight hours to make. Two styles cost £550 and two cost £650 each. Louise says: “The cost of the garments reflects the value and the skill that goes into making them. They are an investment piece. I do think, in the fashion industry, it has got a little bit skewed, what we are paying for as customers. Transparency is a great thing – as much information as you can give the customer into what goes into the garment, then the customer is making a truly informed choice.”
Now The Smockworks is up and running and the smocks can be ordered via a swish new website (Jason’s digital design skills are still being put to good use). Louise is also looking for showroom space and independent shops to showcase the smocks.
Now she can wear her own smocks every day, and she does often with her beloved Red Wing boots. She works in them and dresses them up to go out in them. Nothing could be easier, more practical, more flattering or more versatile, while reducing wasteful production, reviving skills and helping build a future for small scale British manufacturing. Louise says: “I am still at the beginning, but I am enjoying the adventure.”
The Smockworks is at www.thesmockworks.co.uk