Was it Actually Honeycomb Smocking on 16th c. German Clothing – The Great Debate!

Note to the reader. This article is still under development and just represents a discussion I’m having (probably with myself). 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. 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 diamond surface or top stitch embroidery on tight small pleats (pers comm. July 2021). This is mundanely also refereed to as smocking. 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. It helped -inspired my most recent shirt (hemd) project.

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 honeycomb 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 garb, 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 surface embroidery or top stitch on pleats in an extant garment at the Museum of London. 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.

What is surface embroidered or top stitch pleat-work? This is were a shirt or apron is tightly pleated and then an embroidery pattern is stitched on surface or top of the pleats. The pleats 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. There is a good discussion on pleating and how-tos in Fitzarbeit Buchlein – The Pleatwork Book.

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. When you look at paintings, there is no evidence of honeycomb smocking I have found. Generally, when you enlarge an image of a painting, there is evidence for top stitched patterns on tight pleat-work.

It could be that the honeycomb smocked style was a style worn by lower classes or Landskencht and ladies of the tross. Perhaps that is why there are no 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.

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 over pleat-work.  I would like to create more garb, half shirts, partlets, shirts, and aprons, with the surface embroidered pleat-work diamond motif to investigate. However, I definitely think there is merit to the idea that the visual evidence and sewing in extant examples point to diamond top stitch embroidery on pleat-work at least some of the time. Then again, those wood cuts do look a lot like honeycomb smocking.

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!


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.

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…