Back to basic Geometry Class. Think parallel lines, perpendicular lines, right angles ;)
Here are my hints for the perfect cable smocking stitch:
~Pleats. Pull the pleats up so they are next to each other but not squished. Think of soldiers in formation, standing at attention.
DON'T WORRY! The pleats will pull out (expand) along the gathering threads after you smock. Remember it is the unused portion of the pleat doing the stretching, not the actual stitches.
When you get to the far side, pull the gathering threads to the original side (left if you are right handed) so the pleats at that side are standing tall too.
~Floss. Strip the floss to begin smocking being sure to keep the threads in the same direction as floss does have a grain. I'm not too anal about only using floss in one direction especially on something simple like an ornament. (I know, gasp!)
I feel it is more important to keep all the strands in THAT line in the same direction.
Once you start to smock, you will twist the floss with every stitch you take.
Draw the needle down to the fabric and restrip the floss. How often? It depends on the stitch. I AM pretty anal about this and tend to restrip every 10 stitches or so.
~Needle. The smocking police, as mentioned before will not be at your door. Use what needle is comfortable to YOU. Some people prefer a #7 or 8 crewel, others darners. Personally, I am not a fan of huge diameter needles for smocking. You are doing delicate work, having a delicate needle in hand does help. You needle's diameter should be equal to the diameter of the fiber you are using to stitch.
~~~Finally, the actual stitch! Once you have the above taken care of and your stitch is still looking like chicken feet walking across the fabric, try these tips.
~If you are catching the gathering thread in your stitches, err to the north or south of the gathering thread. This will help you see the gathering thread yet not catch it. ~Be CONSISTENT with where you place every stitch. Either stay ON the ROW, ABOVE the Row or BELOW the Row. It doesn't matter, just stay perfectly parallel to the gathering thread.
~ Stitch depth is ideal at the top 1/3 of the pleat. We are spliting hairs here. There are sometimes only 6-8 fabric 'threads' in a whole pleat! If your stitch is looking skimpy, try taking a slightly deeper stitch.
The key is to be consistent!
~Stitch through the same amt. of the fabric of the pleat on both sides of the pleat. It is very easy to angle the needle upward taking one or two threads less on the exit side of the stitch. Keep the needle LEVEL going through the pleat.
~Keep the needle perfectly parrallel to the gathering thread with EVERY stitch. Be careful not to angle upward or downward on the gathering Row.
I know these last two details seem the same. They are not. One is referring to the needle horizontally and the second is dealing with the vertical placement.
You need the two to be exactly square.
~ Tension! I find this is often the biggest culprit. Your stitches should be surface embroidery between/over the pleats. You do not want to pull the pleats together (squishing them) nor let them hang loose.
By pulling your pleats together and trusting the unused pleat to do it's thing, you can relax about your tension.
~Fabric! Batitste is finer than broadcloth obviously. But it does make a difference in the way your stitches look. The batiste needs the finer needle, gentle hand and proper tension. Broadcloth is far more forgiving.
~Floss! (part 2) Brands do matter! Anchor floss, although more expensive than DMC, is smoother and gives better coverage. White floss is especially bad! Try smocking a cable row with each of the brands and you will see & feel the difference. Even if you can not afford to switch everything to Anchor, at least do it with the whites. You will be happier with your smocking.
~Magnification. I know, a tender subject. But sometimes our eyes aren't what they used to be. PLEASE! At least try one level up of magnification when doing hand work. You will be amazed at the difference in your work.
~Finally, sometimes we just need practice.