Was it Honeycomb Smocking on 16th c. German Clothing – Or something else…

Updated 5/17/2022 – Holy Folk Shirring Batman!?!?!? This article is still under development and just represents a discussion I’m having (with myself) and research place holder. I do not to host any references and try to provide primary source reference links. In the event a link is broken below, please let me know and I will try to update it accordingly if the source is still available. See the reference section for documentation referenced in this discussion.

Tailor and Seamstress by Erhard Schon, 1525-1530

Last year I finished an overly complicated and probably inaccurate early 16th c. shirt (hemd) (for more than the smocking, I will discuss that elsewhere) loosely based on the woodcut Tailor and Seamstress by Erhard Schon, 1525-1530 from Landsknecht Woodcuts: Kriegsvolker im Zeitalter der Landsknechte (Johann, A. G., Enkevoerth, B., & Falke, J. v., editor M. McNealy, 2013). In my project, I interpreted the diamond shapes seen in early 16th c. German shirts and aprons as honeycomb smocking. Why did I think it was honeycomb smocking?

As I was finishing my documentation for an SCA A&S competition, I had the pleasure of meeting with Marion McNealy and SCA Viscountess Rowan Perigrynne (thanks to a Patreon membership) to discuss research and fashion in early 16th c. German Lands. The question arose “was it honeycomb smocking in the hemden (shirts) and schürzen (aprons)”? Both researchers suggest that what we see is likely not honeycomb smocking but rather some other embroidery techniques (pers comm. July 2021), diamond surface or top stitch embroidery or pattern darning on tight small pleats or shirring or a combination methods. Rowan shared with me her example of a halbschürze (half apron) with tight shallow pleating and a trellis top stitch diamond pattern that lines up well with woodcuts and paintings (link hopefully coming soon…). It inspired my most recent shirt (hemd) project. I have recently discovered European folk shirring and will definitely be researching this methodology more.

What is surface embroidered or top stitch or pattern darned pleat-work? This is where a shirt or apron is tightly pleated and then an embroidery pattern is stitched on surface or top of the pleats.

For pattern darning the shirt or apron is also tightly pleated and a pattern is weaved onto the top by alternating to the top of the pleat to the middle or back of the pleats. There are excellent examples of historical pattern darning on Lee Ann Posavad’s blog, Medieval Handywork, and how-tos for these techniques with more details in Fitzarbeit Buchlein – The Pleatwork Book and on Thimble and Plumes Youtube channel. The pleats in are not as deep at those I used on my “probably inaccurate 16th. c. hemd” project. They appear to be shallow and tight. I can only find some low resolution unverified images that might indicate the method that was used to pleat clothing in this time period.

Shirring is a pleating technique where the pleats are created using multiple rows of gathering thread to create a pattern. The gathering threads remain in the finished section, there may or may not be top stitching. I have recently discovered some examples of Italian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian folk shirring on the webs, and started to think of shirring as a likely technique used in some German shirts and aprons from the 16th century (I’m sure someone has likely already figured this out, I just stumbled across it recently and I’m very excited!). The US English version of “Shirring” does not capture this style I’m referring fully, I hope to have some names for it in other languages soon to fully capture it. There is some amazing work people have up on Pinterest and Facebook, particularly “puntu vanu ricamo sardo” board belonging to Patricia Pela’ on Pinterest and Polonets Olga soulful handmade. I’ve created a gallery on Pinterest of some of the awesome works I’ve ran across. In the The First Book of Fashion Matthaüs is described wearing a shirt with a pleated shirt that could be “Italian Shirring”  (Rublack, Hayward, & Tiramani, 2015, pp. 295). Additionally, the shirt example photographed and described by Jenny Tiramani from 1550s at the Church of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples has a chevron shirred pattern (Rublack, Hayward, & Tiramani, 2015). The pattern below by Polonets Olga soulful handmade stands out to me in particular as a possible culprit for how that pattern was achieved in some images of shirt collars.

There is a lot of imagery of shirts and aprons with diamond patterns in the edges, collars, and sleeves of early 16th-century German Lands. These images include paintings, carvings, woodcuts, and drawings.

Tangent warning – The examples of ladies shirts, maybe half shirts or partlets, not full shirts, especially if very fine linen is being used. This is a whole other conversation… See Textiler Hausrat: Kleidung und Haustextilien in Nürnberg von 1500 – 1650 (Zander-Seidel, 1990). An important thought Marion McNealy pointed out is think about fabric expense and class versus rigors of washing something touching the body (pers comm. Sept. 2021). Also see textile finds fabric descriptions from Lengberg Castle (Nutz & Stadler, 2012) and the fabric discussion in Drei Schnittbücher: Three Austrian Master Tailor Books of the 16th Century (Barich & McNealy, 2015).

I am aware of only one extant example of honeycomb smocking, a boy’s shirt from Alpirsbach Abbey located at Alpirsbach in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, from the second half of the 16th century. The smocking is inside a shirt sleeve cuff, which creates a narrowing like elastic (Fingerlin, 2001, p. 753) (see below). It is not visible on the outside of the sleeve, and the method is not the same technique where threads run along the other side of the pleat to travel to the next row. Additionally, it occurs a bit later than the height of the popularity of the diamond embroidered styles seen in German Lands (1500-1535). However, this example shows a smocking technique similar to modern honeycomb smocking existed, and it was used on shirts for shape around this time. Is it possible it was more widely used in clothing, and there are just not extant survivors? Shirts and smocks, and clothing in were used and reused, and recycled into other things like rags and paper.

16th. c. Extant example of embroidery on tightly pleated cuff.

There is an example of embroidery on pleats in an extant garment at the Museum of London. From the available pictures and info it is not clear if it is top-stitch or a darned pattern, maybe probably darned? It is suggested to be a wool cuff found at in an archaeological site on Worship Street, Finsbury, London (1500-1599). Although it is not a German example the pattern is very close to patterns available in German Modelbücher 1524-1556: a compilation of eight German needlework and weaving pattern books (McNealy, 2018) and it visually is close to a lot of the imagery of the time.

Modern pleating machines replicate these pleats well, a pleating machine is composed of cranks with needles and creates pleats 1/8 – 1/6 inches deep. Although, there is not clear evidence of how it was done in the 16th century, some suggest there could be some unknown pleating tool yet to be discovered by researchers (McNealy pers. com., July 2021). I agree with this line of thinking. Visually pleating machines produce pleats very close to those seen in paintings and other images.

The woodcuts and drawings, in particular, tend to look similar to a modern honeycomb smocking on initial evaluation. Many creators have interpreted the pattern as honeycomb smocking and created 16th c. German shirts and aprons in this manner, including myself. In my discussions with researchers the topic of the “community” effecting accepted styles seen in reenactment comes up a lot. Marion McNealy pointed out that early on before the internet, often times people recreating garb for Landsknecht reenactment were relying on photocopies of woodcuts which which lack the detail (pers. com. September 2021).

Looking back at my own work before I got involved with an organized reenactment community, I made a lot of garb with top stitch pleat-work. I noticed over the last couple years I did more and more honeycomb smocking styled garb. Which got me questioning if my involvement with reenactment groups lead me down the path to honeycomb smocking? Honeycomb smocking is popular in some Landsknecht reenactment circles, and for a while there I was going that route in my sewing adventures. However, I have veered back into the interest in middle class 16th c. German garb. None the less, this discussion and realization got me questioning my assumptions. 

Very evenly spaced pleats at the edges of the honeycomb smocked section.

When you look at the base of the pattern formed in honeycomb smocking, you see the pleats will be spaced at the widest point of the end of the design.

Upon closer examination of famous woodcuts and drawings, I noticed that the pattern is not always clearly uniform. Unfortunately, woodcuts and prints don’t always have the detail needed for a thorough assessment. There could always be a gathered stitch at the base of the embroidery changing the pattern, so no way to be sure. When you look at paintings, there is no clear evidence of honeycomb smocking I have found. Generally, when you enlarge an image of a painting, there is evidence for pattern darning or top stitched patterns on tight pleat-work or shirring.

It could be that the honeycomb smocked style was a style worn by lower classes or Landsknecht and ladies of the tross. Perhaps that is why there are no clear paintings showing details and no extant finds of honeycomb smocking in aprons and shirts. Honeycomb smocking has a very elastic quality to it and could be useful in clothing worn by people that are performing more manual work outside. Simple pattern shirring also can be done in diamond patterns and could be the method used to create those repeating patterns seen in the woodcut aprons and shirts, it may still keep some elastic properties. I plan on to investigate this further for sure!

Albrecht Dürer (1514). Melencolia I, Engraving, Germany. 
Hans Brösamer (1521) Portrait of Hans Dürr, Oil on panel, Germany.
Hans Krell (1534) Porträt des hessischen Landgrafen Philipp I, Oil on panel, Germany 
Ambrosius Holbein (1518) Portrait of a Young Man, Oil and tempera on wood panel, Germany. 
1520 Mary of Habsburg, Queen of Hungary wedding dress (Hungarian National Museum)


I am still undecided on the whole honeycomb smocking versus diamond surface embroidery versus diamond pattern darned over pleat-work, and adding in my new obsession folk shirring. What if it was all like folk shirring and darning, with some top stitches just for stabilizing the pleats… Marion McNealy pointed out there was no one way anything was done and there was a lot of reverse engineering going on (pers. comm. 2022), perhaps all the methods were around and combinations were used. Short of a time machine, I don’t think it can be definitively stated that what is modernly known as honeycomb smocking wasn’t a thing in the clothing from this time and place. The woodcuts, drawing, and paintings sure do look like folk shirring a lot of the time. Ultimately go with whatever works for you and don’t fret, do what works best for your needs and achieves the desired look. This is just a discussion and research place holder for me and those that might be interested. I know I’m super excited about are researching and playing with folk shirring. I have seen a lot of Eastern European, Italian, and Sardinian styles that are really spot on for some 16th c. shirts and aprons.  I would like to create more clothing, half shirts, partlets, shirts, and aprons, with the surface embroidered, darned pleat-work, and shirring in diamond motifs to investigate.

Although it is not a shirt…. This bag from around 1650 from Sweden in a lovely green velvet is very much so surface honeycombed smocked…

from the collection at https://livrustkammaren.se/en/home/
The Royal Armoury –Livrustkammaren museum in the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden. 
more info https://www.europeana.eu/en/item/2048007/Athena_Plus_ProvidedCHO_Livrustkammaren_37572

If you know of awesome examples, primary resources, or want to discuss anything presented in this article feel free to contact me and send it my way, contact me! Also if you know the names for that style of folk shirring or have sources or want to share your work please hit me up!


Barich, K., & McNealy, M. (2015). Drei Schnittbücher: Three Austrian Master Tailor Books of the 16th Century. Nadel und Faden Press. Print.

Fingerlin, I. (2001). Textil- und Lederfunde. In K. T. Stuttgart, Alpirsbach Zur Geschichte von Kloster und Stadt – Textband 2 (pp. 715-817). Baden-Württemberg: Landesdenkamalamt – Baden-Württemberg. Print.

Johann, A. G., Enkevoerth, B., & Falke, J. v. (2013). Landsknecht Woodcuts: Kriegsvolker im Zeitalter der Landsknechte. (M. McNealy, Ed.) Nadel und Faden Press. Print.

McNealy, M. (2018). German Modelbücher 1524-1556: a compilation of eight German needlework and weaving pattern books. Nadel und Faden Press. Print.

Nutz, B., & Stadler, H. (2012). How to pleat a shirt in the 15th century. Archaeological Textiles Review, 54, 79-91. Print.

Rublack, U., Hayward, M., & Tiramani, J. (Eds.). (2015). The First Book of Fashion: The Book of Clothes of Matthäus and Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg. Bloomsbury Academic. Print.

Zander-Seidel, J. (1990). Textiler Hausrat: Kleidung und Haustextilien in Nürnberg von 1500 – 1650. München: Dr. Kuntsvel. http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/3451/ Digital Download of Print Accessed Mar. 2, 2019.

Marion McNealy
Patreon – https://www.patreon.com/marionmcnealy
Website – https://www.marionmcnealy.com/ or http://www.curiousfrau.com/
Youtube – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCottAiHUgOCGsbJ79N2sgsA

Rowan Perigrynne
Links coming soon…

Lee Ann Posavad
Website – https://medievalhandwork.wordpress.com

Thimble and Plume
Youtube – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCR2kA4KdLKQAvzSt3rZLX5g

Polonets Olga soulful handmade
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