ONCE A MONTH, women from five counties get together to share their skill in a craft that is hundreds of years old.
They are members of a smocking guild -- the Thread Bearers.
Smocking is a type of hand sewing in which diagonal embroidery stitches are used to make very small pleats in fabric. The technique is often used in baby clothes, doll clothes and women's nightgowns.
Guild members -- from Howard, Carroll, Frederick, Montgomery and Baltimore counties -- range in experience from a few years to several decades.
"I like sharing ideas and techniques," says Carol Sturgess of Glenelg, "and learning the right way to do something from some who have done it a lot longer than me. It's a very talented group."
Sturgess, who is self-taught, has been smocking for 20 years. When her daughter Jennifer was a baby, Sturgess made little dresses. Jennifer has just graduated from college. Now Sturgess makes dresses for two granddaughters.
Pat Estes of Mount Airy is the guild's president. She is fairly new to smocking, taking it up when she joined the group two years ago.
"You don't have to smock to be a member," Estes said. "We teach our members."
The group meets the third Thursday of each month in Sykesville, at the Smocking Bonnet, a small house converted into a shop. Kathy Hamblet, the shop's owner, is happy to provide space for the gatherings.
The shop is filled with racks of lightweight fabrics -- pastel and bright solids, calicoes, ginghams and muted plaids. It contains shelves and racks of colorful thread, embroidery floss and ribbons. One wall is covered with patterns and publications such as Sew Beautiful, Australian Smocking and Creative Needle -- everything a smocker could want.
In a meeting room, the women conduct their business. They schedule speakers, share their work, teach each other and participate in community service projects.
They make plain fabric dolls about 15 inches high for patients at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. The children can draw on the dolls or dress them as they like.
The Thread Bearers also smock gowns for stillborn babies to be buried in.
Although none of the guild members knows the specifics, most believe smocking began in Europe, probably England, several hundred years ago. It is practiced all over the world. The Smocking Bonnet regularly receives phone orders in Portuguese from Brazil.
In the United States, smocking is most popular in the South.
"Smocking can be as inexpensive as you like," said Lisa Kokes of Ellicott City, noting the low cost of thread and fabric. However, she acknowledges owning a pleater, which costs about $150.
A smocking pleater, a machine about 15 inches long, has fine metal guides that make tiny folds in the fabric and push it onto as many as 24 needles. Using the device, a 12- to 14-inch piece of fabric can be pleated in a matter of seconds. The most time-consuming part of the operation is threading all the needles.
Woodbine resident Rose Alexander says she used to iron a pattern of hundreds of dots onto her fabric and by hand "pick up" each dot with needle and thread to create the pleats. Now she uses a pleater and sews the decorative design into the pleats.
The Thread Bearers' next meeting is at 9 a.m. Nov. 18. Anyone interested in joining the group can contact Penny Runyan at 301-596-7333 or Pat Estes at 301-854-9075.
Last week, Howard County Conservancy presented an award to Diana Lobien and Bo Sun, winners of the John L. Clark Arboretum Design Competition. Their design will be used to install an Honors Garden at Mount Pleasant in Woodstock.
"I like the design that has been selected, and my brother would be pleased," said the conservancy chairman, former state Sen. James Clark Jr., who established the arboretum in his brother's name. "I congratulate the winners."
The design uses a wagon wheel theme -- in keeping with the history of Mount Pleasant, which was a working farm for two centuries. From above, the layout looks like one small wheel within a larger one, although the small circle is not centered in the larger one.
A pavilion with seating will be on the highest point of the arboretum, with a gathering area for presentations at the lowest point of the bowl-shaped terrain.
"The wagon wheel is an everyday tool," Lobien said. "The spokes give it strength. There will be small and large spaces suitable for different kinds of gifts." Donations of commemorative plantings to honor individuals or organizations will be accepted.
The competition called for a design for the 3-acre "Honors Garden." Applicants were asked to submit proposals that could be installed over time -- and to recommend plants representative of the period from 1850 to 1950, when the farm was most successful.
The plan is to incorporate the wagon wheels into existing features of the land, Sun added.
Joyce Kelly, chairwoman of the arboretum committee, said the judges were impressed with the quality of the design submissions, which were displayed around the room at Mount Pleasant, the house where the conservancy makes its headquarters.
"Thanks to Diane and Bo for considerable donation of their time to take the next step," she said.
Lobien and Sun will refine the design and be involved with the grading plan for the site. Grading will begin as soon as permits are obtained and a contractor selected.
Planting could begin next spring.
Lobien, who lives in Neavitt on the Eastern Shore, and Sun, a resident of Ellicott City, are associates with LDR International -- a Columbia-based land planning and urban design company.
Howard County Conservancy is a local land trust that works to preserve the open spaces, rural environment and agricultural resources of Howard County.
Middle-schoolers are invited to a book club meeting from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Long Gate Shopping Center. The club is organized and led by children from Mount View and Lime Kiln middle schools.
"The Music of Dolphins" by Karen Hesse will be discussed.
Future meetings will be held on the first Wednesday of each month through May, on a drop-in basis. No registration is necessary.
Information: Lorraine Quinn, 410-313-5545.
Manor Woods news
Manor Woods Elementary School will hold its sixth Halloween parade for pupils, parents and teachers at 1: 30 p.m. tomorrow.
On Nov. 4, the school will hold a book fair at Barnes & Noble from 6: 30 p.m. to 8: 30 p.m.
Teachers will read stories and poems. A performance by the school band will end the evening.
Congratulations to the children from Manor Woods who have been named to the Howard County Children's Chorus: Elliott Coffey, Lisa Alban, Megan Wark, Meghan Madden, Eric Luh, Danny Shin, Katelyn Fuller, Morgan Ferretti and Kelly Harrigan.