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Agricultural Smocks

What is a Smock?

A smock-frock or smock is an outer garment traditionally worn by rural workers, especially ploughmen, shepherds and wagoners.  They were most commonly worn in the midland and southern regions of England and parts of Wales.  The purpose of the smock was to protect the wearer from the weather and their clothes from getting dirty.

There are three styles of smock:

  1. Reversible or round smocks – both sides of the smock are identical, so there is no obvious front and back.  The advantage of this is that the smock could be turned around if the front became too dirty.
  2. Shirt smocks– have an opening which runs for part of the length of the front of the smock, fastened with buttons.
  3. Coat smocks– the opening runs the full length of the front of the smock which fastens with buttons.

The Origins of the Smock

Medieval illuminated manuscripts, such as the Luttrell Psalter, show agricultural labourers working in plain, loose garments similar in shape to the 18th and 19th century smocks that have survived today. 

By the early 18th century the smocks we are familiar with were being worn, usually by men and not just for work – very ornate smocks were worn to hiring fairs, for Sunday best or for getting married in.  It is likely plainer smocks were worn for every day work, but it is the ornate ‘best’ smocks which have survived to be held in museum and private collections.

How was a Smock Made?

Smocks were traditionally made from unbleached cotton and linen.  Most smocks are cream, beige, stone, or buff, but some regions had their own colours, such as blue (Newark, Nottinghamshire) or olive green (East Anglia).

Smocks were usually made by women.  The fabric was cut in rectangles to avoid wastage.  The ‘smocking’ is the gathering of the fabric, which is then stitched in place.  This gave the garment flexibility and strength where it was most needed – the chest, shoulders and wrists.  Some smocks were oiled to make them waterproof and most have a large collar for extra protection from the weather.

It is believed the embroidered designs on a smock depict the occupation of the wearer and helped advertise their trade at hiring fairs, for example shepherds’ smocks may be decorated with sheep or crooks, wagoners’ with cart wheels or ploughmen’s with furrows.  These designs could well have been passed down the family and the stitching was usually done in a matching thread, although occasionally a contrasting coloured thread would be used.

The Decline of the Agricultural Smock

By the mid-19th century rural workers began to leave the land to work in factories in the industrial towns and cities, but it was dangerous to wear loose garments near to moving machinery and so the wearing of smocks began to die out.  However smocks were still worn in more remote parts of the country until the 1920s.  As Margaret Hale, a character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South (1855) observes when she arrives at the northern manufacturing city of Milton from the rural south there were no smock-frocks…they retarded motion, and were apt to catch on machinery, and so the habit of wearing them had died out’.  (Penguin, 1986, p. 95)

As soon as smocks began to decline in popularity amongst the rural workers they became very fashionable with the middle classes.  The influence of smocking appeared as decoration in women’s and children’s wear and ladies wore smocks as decorative overalls for light work.  Smocking had its biggest revival in the 1970s and can still be seen in clothing today.

Highlights from the Smock Collection

Wedding Smock (LCNUG : 1927/104

Wedding smocks were usually made by the bride-to-be and worn by the bridegroom, but this example is a ladies’ wedding smock.  It is dated 1844 and the maker was Mary Johnson of Heighington, Lincolnshire.  The smock is made from white linen and has pearl buttons on the edge of the collar and bottom of the V neck.  The smock was donated with spare sets of 12 blue glass buttons and 12 wooden buttons.  The initals ‘WK’ have been worked into the embroidery.

Newark Blue Smock (LCNLL : 2006/56/1-2)

A reversible or round smock dating from the 1840s.  It was worn at Mount Farm, Kirkby Laythorpe, near Sleaford, Lincolnshire.  The dye from this smock was made from woad, a plant, and the embroidery is in a contrasting brown thread.

Wagoner’s Smock (LCNLL : 1967/116)

A mid-19th century beige cotton twill smock owned by G. Codling, a wagoner  of Nettleham, Lincolnshire.  On each button is a picture of a wagon and the name ‘G. Codling’.

Shepherd’s Smock (LCNLL : 1973/5212)

A plain cream linen man’s smock with no smocking or embroidery.  This smock was handed down to Mr Tayton, a shepherd boy, from his father who had worn it for some time.  It was worn on a Sunday to cover working clothes – only the head shepherd was allowed to wear a decorated smock.

Shepherd’s Smock (LCNLL : 1977/655.1)

A grey cotton twill smock worn by George Potter, a shepherd at Greetwell, Lincoln.  Mr Potter was born in 1856 and came from Boston, Lincolnshire. The embroidery is in blue thread and includes a diamond pattern with featherstitching on the collar.  The button on the right pocket is marked with the image of a sheep.


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Last updated: 18 February 2011

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