Shirts to Creep Into
By Wendy Hughes
At one time smocks were the status symbol of the day, as common as the present day sweatshirt. It appears that everyone, from the cattle drovers who drove their sheep across Wales to the markets in all weathers, to the shepherds and farm-workers throughout the land wore the traditional smock with pride.
During the 1700 -1800s they were so versatile that they could be seen on every worker, including those sporting a wide straw hat that frequented the hiring fairs. They were in a variety of colours -dark blue, brown or green smocks for working in during weekdays, pure white ones for going to chapel, get married or attending a special occasion, and of course there always a black one for funerals.
Interestingly the smock has a long history, although no one really knows how or indeed when the smock began life. The earliest smocks that we know were a simple shift like garment that came onto being in Anglo-Saxon times, but the idea of a shift or tunic like garment goes back much further, possibly to Celtic times. In the first century our ancestors, were wearing a garment called ‘crys’ – a straight tunic tied around the waist. These tunics were made of heavy home woven linen and dyed ochre or brown with the native lichen dyes.
When the Romans arrived on our shores they too were wearing tunics, and the basic shift shape persisted through the generations with variations and names such as sherte, shift and chemise. The Anglo-Saxon called the garment a smoce, which means when translated ‘a garment to creep into’, which is a very apt explanation. It is thought that the Anglo-Saxons
were the first to pull the smoce over his head in the same way that the 19th century shepherds and farm workers pulled on his smock.
These versatile garments were extremely hard wearing, protective, warm, and beautifully embroidered with each pattern holding a special meaning. They were embroidered in rural homes up and down the country during the long winter evenings as the women sat round the embers of the fire story-telling, sharing the gossip of the day, and singing traditional songs and hymns. Many of the feather and knotting stitches became deep rooted in tradition, and it is not know why they became so richly embroidered, although the craft must have become an ultimate status symbol, with each woman vying with each other for the most elaborate design.
One explanation could be that perhaps the fullness of the course material billowing out from the neckline became too uncomfortable for the wearer, so the smocking or embroidery held the gathers closer to the chest. By the end of the 1700s these gathers were embroidered by a strong linen thread of the same colour as the smock, and the type of embroidery indicated the wearer’s occupations. For example, crooks, hurdles and sheep for a shepherd, trees and leaves for a woodsman, crosses for a gravedigger, cartwheels and whips for the waggoners, and flowers for the gardeners. Some smocks became works of art and have been handed down as family heirlooms.
The smocks were buttoned at the front and had a large cape-like collar to protect the
wearer from the wet and misty conditions, especially in Wales. The smocks were knee length for the ‘warreners,’ who made a living catching rabbits and would need to kneel down to set snares, whilst the ones for the drovers and shepherds were longer and usually made of wool to keep them warm in the cold winter nights. Even in the summer months the hems of their smocks were sodden as the drovers and shepherds made their way through the marshlands. Underneath their smocks they wore trousers made from Welsh flannel, and in order to protect the trousers from getting wet they wore knee-length stockings.
In some areas the smocks were made of linen, a natural material that was grown, spun and woven at home. In different parts of Wales it was known as drabbit, or hempen homespun and it went through a variety of treatments to make it less harsh. Gradually linen became finer and softer, as the combing processes improved.
The summer fields around the old county of Radnorshire were blue with flax, which was then dried and hand harvested and taken to the looms at Tyn-y-Waen, where a family called Price spun it and made up the linen into ready-to-wear smocks. At the time, early 1800s, the only supply of ‘ready-made’ smocks came from the Price family. The bundles of cut out smocks were sent to local cottages where the women made up the smocks for a sum on money, around four or five shillings for each smock, and often employed other women to embroider the collars at one shilling a pair. These ready-made smocks could be seen regularly being carted to a tailor in Knighton, where they were sold, with the option of an extra pair of embroidered collars for replacement. The smocks made in this district all seem to have been buttoned and to have had the large embroidered collars, but some had in addition a smaller collar. In 1826 a Newark smock-maker started cutting out smocks in butcher blue and stamping on the designs before embroidering using metal markers. A completed smock would cost a farm-worker two weeks wages, but I am sure that any man would prefer to wear a smock made with love and care by his mother, bride to be, or his wife.