Period Pleats

Although this is a relatively small part of Historical costume, used almost exclusively for gathering skirts and sleeves to a waist or armscye, it is one which several people are confused about. The main reason for this confusion lies not in the complexity of pleating (for it is a very basic skill, easily learned), but because it is a process difficult to describe in words. The difference and variety in pleating--knife pleats, box pleats, rolled pleats, stacked pleats, cartridge pleats--really does require illustration to help get the picture.

Here you will find pictures and description of the several types of pleating common to historical costume.

Knife Pleats
This is considered one of the most basic types of pleating, and is used even today in skirts and gowns. It can be definitely dated to the 16th century, though earlier use is likely, and has been commonly used for basic gathering purposes. Smocks were gathered to neckbands using this type of pleating. Petticoats and skirts were gathered to waistbands. Some large hanging sleeves were gathered to an armscye in this fashion.

Knife pleats produce a smooth line down from the gathering point. In other words, a knife-pleated skirt doesn't "spring out" from the waistline, but rather falls straight down.

The "classic" knife pleat, shown to the right, has a 3 to 1 ratio: that is, three inches of fabric will make one inch of finished pleat. It doesn't matter how wide or narrow the pleats are; if they look like the picture to the right, the 3: 1 ratio will remain the same.

In some 16th century gowns, deeper knife pleats were used. The depth of the pleat was two pleats, three pleats or even four pleats deep. A picture of this is shown to the right. This allows more fabric to be pleated to a band or bodice, and produces a fuller skirt. It also makes for a bulkier seam.

Box Pleats
Box Pleats are one of the most popular types of pleats for Italian Renaissance and 16th century costume. They are, basically, two knife pleats "back to back". They are seen nowadays on some skirts.

Box pleating is used by many for skirts and petticoats which will be worn over bumrolls, and is used to pleat large sleeves to armscyes and pleat the skirts of italian renaissance gowns to the bodice. Box pleats are often wider than knife pleats, but the basic 3:1 ratio remains the same--3 inches of unpleated fabric makes one inch of pleated fabric.

Box pleats have more "spring" to them than knife pleats. Box-pleated skirts tend to puff out from the waistline slightly. They are also good for thick fabric, such as brocades, velvets and heavy wools.

If you're short fabric, you can get the effect of box pleats by pleating as shown to the right--very shallow box pleats. Naturally, you won't have the fullness that whole box pleats would give.

In some cases, where extra fullness is desired, you can do "double box pleats", also called "Stacked Box Pleats", shown to the right. This type of pleat requires five inches of fabric to create one inch of pleating. It will make the fabric spring out even more from the seam, and produce deeper pleats. It also creates more bulk at the seamline. This type of pleat is very handy for creating small neck and wrist ruffs--if one edge of a 2-inch-wide band is pleated in this fashion, the other side will produce very nice figure-eight ruffles.

"Stacked Pleats" are another variety of box pleat. Instead of the edges of the pleat meeting in the middle, they overlap eachother for the whole width of the pleat. They are similar in nature to rolled pleats, and a picture of a "stacked pleat" is shown in the picture below. It is the pleat to the right.

The two types of pleating listed above are the most commonly used by people. Below are a couple of "specialty" pleats, used to achieve particular effects.

Rolled Pleats
This type of pleat, which creates long, tubular pleats running from the waistline to the ankle, is not commonly found. In fact, there is no hard and fast evidence that it was used at all prior to victorian times. Nevertheless, it achieves the look of the pleats found in several 16th century portraits and pictures , particularly those of Lucas Cranach, better than any other kind of pleating I've tried.

The concept behind rolled pleats is simple, if somewhat hard to explain--take a large pinch of fabric, fold the pinch up until you're back to the fabric, and lay it flat. One person mentioned using a large serving fork for this purpose--place the fabric between the two fork tines and start twisting the fork, rolling the fabric as you go. To the right is a picture of the finished pleat. The one to the left is a rolled pleat. The one to the right has been called a "stacked pleat" (see the section on Box Pleating Above).

This type of pleat requires more fabric than box pleating or knife pleating. The minimum amound needed for one pleated inch is 5 inches of fabric. Depending on the number of rolls you make per pleat, this can go up to seven. Needless to say, this can create a very bulky seam line. Some people prefer to finish the top of the skirt before pleating it, and then sewing the pleated edge to a finished bodice.

Cartridge Pleats This is a different kind of pleat than all of the pleats described above. Basically, a length of fabric is gathered into even gathers and the top edge of the gathers whipstitched onto a waistband. You can visit the Tutorial on Cartridge-pleating for more pictures and instructions on how cartridge-pleating is done.