‘It’s Not A Frock, It’s A Manly Smock!’ Smocking, Smocks and Smocked

Recent renovation!

The saintly Ann De Courcy had offered to do some repair work to our smock, a real Yateley heirloom, but ended up re-working most of the back and front (a 100 metres of thread was used! Wow!). And so clean (nearing Mark 9:3 for brilliance) ! We thoroughly thank Ann for the enormous amount of work that went into our smock. I did press Ann to add her name in stitching to the smock to mark her part in its history, it’s so tucked away that it took us ages to find it.

A Bit O’ History

The shape of a smock is not unlike that of the Roman ‘tunica’ which was still worn in Saxon times in England. Illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages depict labourers working in loose fitting garments reaching to their knees, very similar to the 18th and 19th century smocks that have survived.

From the 17th century, illustrations of smocks, as protective over-garments worn usually by men, became more common. A playing card of 1676 shows a wagoner whose smock is described as ‘straight and rather full, worn to just below; the opening (at the neck) reaches almost to the waist and there is a small turned down collar; there is no smocking or decoration.’ Smocks were worn as overalls and were the usual outdoor clothing of rural workers especially shepherds and wagoners who were exposed to the full force of the British climate. In Wessex they were made of bleached linen or coarser cotton twill, but in other parts of the country they were sometimes dyed, blue in the Midlands, olive green in East Anglia. Some smocks were oiled to make them almost waterproof, and most had several layers of material over the shoulders and a wide thick collar like a cape for extra protection.

The Yateley Smock

The delicately embroidered decorations on the front panels of country smocks were thought to distinguish the occupations of the wearers; shepherds’ smocks for instance were thought to bear emblems of crooks, sheep and hurdles, while carters’ smocks had wheels, whips and reins. The smock currently in use by Yateley Morris Men was made especially for a past Yateley Fool (the wonderful John Farrant), see if you can guess his occupation from the designs on the smock!

Thomas Hardy in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ describes the rural scene in which ‘stalwart ruddy men and boys were dressed mainly in snow-white smock-frocks, embroidered upon the shoulders and breasts in ornamental forms of hearts, diamonds and zig-zags’. It is likely that these specially decorated smocks were far too good for practical use in heavy agricultural labour but were for Sunday best, perhaps made as love-tokens.

In 1874 Hardy noted that the ’long smocked frocks and the harvest home…nearly disappeared’. Smocks continued to be used until the 1920s on remote farms. Today most surviving smocks are found packed away in tissue paper in regional museums. It is still possible, though, to see a smock in action by joining Yateley Morris Men in one of their public displays of dance.


Much of the needlework on a smock is purely decorative, however where the material is gathered at the chest, back and wrists the smock becomes very flexible, comfortable and practical. The current wearer can testify to that!  The gathers can be performed in a number of ways and many smocks (including the smock currently worn by the Yateley Fool) display different gathering styles. It goes without saying that making a good quality smock is technically demanding and very labour intensive.

The Yateley Fool’s Smock

The smock currently in use by the Yateley Fool was made specifically for John Farrant by John Irwin who joined Yateley Morris Men in c. 1976.  He became interested in making smocks and it is believed that he made 10 or 11 different smocks, gaining experience and expertise with each one he made. If you have one of these smocks or know where one is please let us know! John Irwin was quite a character. He cycled everywhere and could be heard coming as he always wore his bells. John Irwin gave the smock to John Farrant one Boxing Day and was finishing the last of the Dorset Buttons in the pub, very appropriately.

383731_10151164602655718_407378852_nJohn Farrant was dancing at Thaxted one year and an American was in the crowd who followed Yateley Morris Men most of the day. He was fascinated by the smock and during the afternoon approached John and asked to buy it, offering a very large amount of money. Fortunately John was not tempted. Many people do not believe that it could have been made by one of our men and John F had great difficulty in convincing people!

Sadly John Irwin died at an early age. His quart pewter tankard was presented to Yateley Morris Men by his widow, Sue. It is now presented by the squire to the Yateley Morris Man of The Year and is beautifully engraved. I am sure that John would be pleased to know that both his tankard and one of his wonderful smocks are in active use!


Tuesday 8th May 2007 was a dark, wet and windy night in Herriard, Hampshire. The bleakness of the evening was only lifted by the warmly welcoming interior of the excellent ‘Fur and Feathers’ and the unbridled vivacity of the dancers. One knowledgeable group showed particular interest in the Fool’s manly smock and an informed discussion followed.

1656386_675503469230090_1980052791917971805_nMention was made by the Fool of the ‘trivial’ wear and tear sustained to the smock over 25 years of energetic use. The Fool was aghast to learn that the damage was far from trivial and that he might need to learn to wield needle and thread! Many of the ‘gathers’ were failing, unkind (but probably accurate) suggestions as to the increasing girth of the fool being the cause were brushed aside.

Over more excellent Fuller’s beer and more red wine, Barbara Jeremiah  (our needlework expert) very kindly offered her expertise to undertake some restoration work and prevent the Fool and smock from literally unravelling. The offer was very quickly and very gratefully accepted. The smock was then borne away in to Herriard’s dark night……..

Gathers re-gathered, buttons re-buttoned, stitches re-stitched and cuffs re-cuffed (?!) the smock was quickly back into use. The restoration work and further wise words from Barbara on smock care should ensure another 25 years are required before another smock MOT is due.

We are really very grateful to Barbara for her work on the smock which, it transpired, was far less straightforward than originally thought. It’s a pleasure to be able to acknowledge our thanks publicly. At the Fool’s insistence, Barbara has added a new thing to the smock to mark the works of her expert hands.

See if you can find the monogram ‘B’ on the smock!

Further Restoration

Acknowledgments and thanks to John Farrant, Maggie Lawrance,  Monty, the AA and Ordnance Survey for information in this article.

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