Sewing Pleats 101
Updated: Aug 21
By and large, there are only two types of pleats: folded pleats and basted pleats. While there are many subcategories of pleats, each with their own names, the way the pleats are made sorts them all into these two types.
In this post, we'll explore these types of pleats, looking at both how they're made and why you might want to use them in your projects. This won't be an entirely comprehensive list as there are a few, less-common types I've left out. However, this post will definitely get you through the basics.
In my next post, Pleats 102, we'll walk through all of the math needed to calculate fabric lengths, pleat width, and number of pleats. This math won't be included here, however, as I will include equations for multiple arrangements of pleats, including stacked, overlapping, and separated pleats. There's also a downloadable formula sheet!
All of the sample pleats made for this post are made from the same home décor fabric used to make my wrinkle free placemats. Each piece measures about 13 inches by 4 inches. Each folded pleat measures 1 inch in width as do the cartridge pleats. Black thread has been used on all samples for visibility in stitching.
While most of the discussion in this post focuses on garments, these pleats are the same for all types of constructions.
Without further ado, let's make some pleats! Use the links below to jump to the pleat you're looking for:
Folded pleats are, in my opinion, the easiest type to make. While there are many varieties of folded pleat, they are all essentially made up of a little zig-zag of fabric in slightly different combinations. I've separated folded pleats into two families: knife pleats and box pleats. Spoiler: one box pleat is actually two smaller knife pleats facing opposite directions, so the method and the math are identical.
Tips for all folded pleats:
(Tip 1) Use a pin or needle to help turn pleats tightly. This is particularly useful when you want your pleats to be exactly the same size or are working with fussy fabric.
(Tip 2) Use more pins. I use one pin for very small pleats, but typically try to use two pins per pleat. When stitching, pleats tend to try and rotate off their axis under the foot of the sewing machine. Using extra pins helps avoid this.
(Tip 3) Pin perpendicular to the edge of the fabric. Many people pin along the stitching line - don't. If you pin parallel to the fabric's edge, the fabric can move along the pin and slide out of place. This is more common with lightweight fabrics and very heavy fabrics. Pinning perpendicular to the fabric's edge not only does a better job of keeping the fabric where you placed it, but also:
Creates room for more pins (and better holding overall)
Lets you sew over the pins as long as you're stitching slowly. Yes, really. I have never broken a machine needle this way. As long as your pins are straight and perpendicular to the stitch line, your needle should go right over them.
(Tip 4) Use a gridded mat (like a cutting mat) or a ruler to keep your pleats a consistent width. You can, of course, also play with mixed widths for a different effect.
Folded Pleats Math Essential:
Because all kinds of folded pleats are shaped the same way, they have the same math! Isn't that great? The basic concept is that each folded pleat uses 3 times the amount of fabric as its width. So if I make a 1 inch wide pleat, it will use 3 inches of fabric.
We'll do a deep dive into the equations (complete with printable formula sheet!) in Pleats 102, so be sure to follow the blog by filling out the form at the bottom of the page so you don't miss it!
With that in mind, let's dive into ways to make a folded pleat.
The Knife Pleat Family
Basic Knife Pleats
The knife pleat is the most basic type of pleat. They can be made right next to each other or with some space between each pleat. In different sizes and applications, knife pleats can be called by a few different names:
Tucks - very small knife pleats, typically spaced apart if there are multiple.
Pin tucks - many small(ish) knife pleats with space between them, stitched into place at both "ends" of the pleat - think Victorian shirtwaist.
Darts - used to provide shape, usually at the bust or waist. While these are made using a different method from typical knife pleats, once stitched into place along the seam, darts are still a subcategory of folded knife pleat.
To make a knife pleat, fold the fabric over itself and back again to make a Z shape at the edge. Pin in place. That's it! To make pleats very quickly, you can pinch the fabric and fold it over.
An important note - knife pleats have a direction. Generally, we perceive the top folded edge to be the direction in the line of pleats. The direction can be used to lead the eye towards or away from something as I did in my post on How to Sew a Cloak. Consider which way you want to lead the viewer's eye when beginning your pleating.
Basic knife pleats, with or without space between each pleat, are typically used in areas where the fabric needs to be gathered in without increasing the volume or lifting the garment as it moves away from the body. Garments use these pleats most often along the waistline, but they also sometimes appear along the shoulders or neckline. The dress shown here, made from the McCalls M6696 pattern, uses spaced knife pleats along either side of the waist. Each side of the skirt faces the pleats towards the center line, directing the eye away from the waist side for a very mild slimming effect.
Stacked (AKA Overlapping) Knife Pleats
Stacked knife pleats are the same as the basic knife pleat, but instead of one pleat beginning where the previous pleat ended, the folds which make up the pleats are stacked on partially on top of one another. When stitched into a seam, stacked or overlapping knife pleats look like very small basic knife pleats. The key difference is that stacking the pleats partially on top each other allows a very large amount of fabric to be gathered into a much smaller area. Knife pleats can be fully stacked to make a "double" or "triple" pleat, but this is less common than overlapping pleats.
As with the basic knife pleat, overlapping knife pleats do not force or lift the fabric away from the seam. This makes them perfect for pleating large amounts and bulky fabrics with as little volume as possible. For example, 18th century historical evening skirts and dresses commonly include this type of pleat.
Topstitched Knife Pleats
Topstitching is a technique we'll see again with box pleats, below. Essentially, the pleats are the same, but they are stitched down along their top folded edge to hold them in place. The image to the left shows two samples with knife pleats going in opposite directions. The sample on the bottom is topstitched.
To do this, make your knife pleats and baste or stitch along the top to hold them in place. Add pins parallel to your stitching line farther down the pleat to hold the pleats in place. If you want to do a long topstitch, you will likely need several pins along each pleat's edge. Mark how far down you want to stitch each pleat. Now topstitch along the top folded edge of each pleat until you reach the marks. Done!
The topstitching maintains the decreased fabric width farther down the piece. This technique is most commonly used in skirts to produce a more dramatic flare out at the hip line. Skirts like this were very popular in the 90s and early 00s and are, for some reason, making a comeback in 2022. The skirt in the image to the right is currently for sale by Verdusa on Amazon (not an affiliate link).
The Box Pleat Family
Basic Box Pleats
As spoiled above, box pleats are actually made up of smaller knife pleats facing opposite directions. The image to the left shows four basic box pleats. Box pleats can be made right next to one another or with some space in between.
To make a box pleat, I find it easier to work on the wrong side of the fabric. Mark the side edges of your box pleat and the center. Now make a knife pleat on each side with the folded top edge along the center line and pin in place. Flip the fabric back over so the right side is facing you. Done!
Even though they gather the same amount of fabric per pleat, the effect is different in that box pleats provide a little more "pop" away from the seam than plain knife pleats. This makes them useful for adding horizontal volume in places where the fabric won't be supported by another layer.
Box pleats can also appear where knife pleats begin to go in opposite directions, like at the center back of a skirt as shown in the image to the right of the same McCalls dress.
Inverted Box Pleats
Make a box pleat. Now flip the fabric over. Congratulations, now it's an inverted box pleat! Side note - sometimes these pleats are simply referred to as "inverted pleats."
The only difference between a basic box pleat and an inverted box pleat is which side of the pleat is considered the right side. With many pleats in a row, the only way to tell which is meant to be used is by looking at the pleats at the edges of the section. For a basic box pleat, the last pleat in the row will be a knife pleat visible on the right side of the fabric. For an inverted box pleat, the last pleat in the row will be a knife pleat visible from the wrong side of the fabric.
Topstitched Box Pleats (Basic and Inverted)
Topstitched box pleats are made using the same method as topstitched knife pleats and have a similar effect.
Make your box pleats - either basic or inverted - and baste or stitch across the top to secure. Flatten your pleats and pin along them parallel to the stitching line. Mark how far down you would like the topstitching to go. Now topstitch along both sides of the box pleat, stopping when you reach the marks. Done!
Topstitching box pleats has the same effect as topstitching knife pleats - it lengthens the narrowing effect of the pleats farther down the piece.
You can see topstitched box pleats most often in, you guessed it, the skirts of the 90s and early 00s and for some reason also the skirts popular in 2022. The skirt shown to the right is currently being sold by Walmart (non-affiliate link).
This type of pleat is also sometimes used to make pencil-silhouette skirts that flare out at the bottom, making the skirts easier to walk in.
Double and Triple Box Pleats
Less common than single box pleats, double and triple box pleats are simply made by stacking two or three box pleats on top of the other. These stacked pleats can be made in both the basic and inverted ways.
As with basic box pleats, I find these easiest to make from the side with the knife pleats on top (the right side for inverted pleats). Make a basic box pleat and pin in place. Make identical knife pleats on top of the pleats just created and pin in place. Repeat as desired. If you make very thick pleats, hem clips may work better than pins and you might want to consider hand basting the pleats before stitching the seams.
Similar to stacked knife pleats, stacked box pleats allow you to condense large amounts of fabric into a very small area. Inverted stacked box pleats can create dramatic, sweeping areas of fabric like those seen in the trains of 1900s ballgowns. Stacked regular box pleats can create additional lift away from the wearer without needing an extra layer underneath. The image to the right shows a triple regular box pleat (the one trying to run away from the table), an inverted double box pleat (front and center) and the regular box pleat sample for comparison.
Basted pleats are more straightforward than folded pleats in that there is no math involved. Well, technically you can use some math to figure out the fabric width before and after gathering if (a) you really need to know that and (b) you're willing to make a gauge swatch. This is really only necessary if you're trying to pleat a LOT of fabric down into a much smaller width, like with a historic reproduction gown, for example.
Generally, no math is required here and eyeballing will do just fine for distributing the pleats.
Basted pleats are made by sewing a basting thread along the edge of the fabric, then pulling on the thread to gather the fabric along it. The gathers are then moved around to be evenly distributed along the length of the gathered part of the fabric, pinned in place as part of the seam to be sewn, and then stitched down.
Gathers are appropriate anywhere fabric needs to be condensed into a smaller width to fit a seam and are common in just about every article of clothing. For example, while the skirt of the dress shown to the right uses knife pleats (and one box pleat at the center back), the back of the bodice provides room for arm movement with some gathers into the yoke along the shoulder center below the neck.
Tips for all basted pleats:
(Tip 1) Leave a small thread tail at the beginning AND the end of the area to be basted. This will let you pull and gather the fabric from both sides. While this may feel unnecessary, I can promise it's extremely helpful when working to pin a gathered piece to a non-gathered piece in places like a waistband or shoulder seam.
(Tip 2) Always run at least two basting threads. This serves two purposes:
Produces a much more even gather that behaves itself well.
Provides a lifeline in case one of the threads snap.
I like to run my basting threads at about 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch from the fabric's edge. Note that for cartridge pleats, which we'll discuss in a minute, you might want some additional basting lines to keep your pleats together even farther away from the seam.
(Tip 3) Use a pin to "stroke" your gathers. Stroking the gathers helps to distribute them more evenly and provides an opportunity to manually manipulate the fabric into the correct folded shapes when it wants to squiggle all over the place. This technique is particularly useful for light and delicate fabrics. For heavier fabrics, I typically use my thumbnail.
(Tip 4) When gathering fabric to fit along a seam, pin the edges of the basted fabric (before actually gathering but after running the basting threads) in place along the seam. Mark and match the centers (and quarters and eighths, if appropriate) of the fabric about to be gathered and the flat piece of fabric. Now gather the fabric, using the flat piece and your pinned markers to help evenly distribute the folds.
Gathers (by machine)
To gather fabric by machine, first set your sewing machine to the longest stitch length possible. The length varies by machine - my machines allow for 5mm and 7mm so I usually use the 7mm machine to do any gathering needed. Pull out a few inches of the threads before beginning to stitch. Do not backstitch at either end of the fabric. Sew along the fabric about 1/2 inch in from the edge. Leave a few inches of tail when trimming the threads at the end. Repeat, stitching 1/4 inch from the edge.
Once away from the machine, pull on the bobbin (bottom) threads of both lines at the same time and press the fabric to move along the threads. Continue to adjust the fabric as needed and pin in place.
You may want to machine baste over the seam and check it before stitching the seam into place with the final stitch length. Remove any visible basting threads after finishing the seam.
Gathers (by hand)
Compared to machine gathers, hand gathers are slower but smoother (you'll know what I mean when you try them both). They can absolutely be worth the extra time for important seams and key details. The image to the right shows a comparison with machine-made gathers on the left and hand gathers on the right. Both are made using two lines of basting.
To gather fabric by hand, thread your needle and tie a sturdy knot at one end. I recommend using the longest (but still sharp) needle you have. Begin on the right side of the fabric and sew a running / basting stitch along the fabric about 1/2 inch from the edge. Keep your stitch length as consistent as possible - I like to aim for about 3/8 - 1/4 inch stitches. Leave a few inches of tail when trimming the threads at the end. Repeat, stitching 1/4 inch from the edge.
Once both threads are placed, pull on both lines at the same time and press the fabric to move along the threads. Continue to adjust the fabric as needed and pin in place.
If you will stitch the final seam by hand, consider using more pins than you think you need or run a basting-length backstitch along the seam between the basting threads to hold the fabric in place while you work the final seam.
If you will stitch the final seam by machine, you may want to machine baste over the seam and check it before stitching the seam into place with the final stitch length. Remove any visible basting threads after finishing the seam.
Tips for hand gathering:
(Tip 1) If the fabric being gathered is heavy or the length is very long, try coating your thread in beeswax to add some strength. Run the thread (after threading through the needle) over a piece of beeswax to coat it, then press under a cool iron for a few seconds to melt the wax into place. This will help prevent breaking when you begin to gather the fabric.
(Tip 2) Although it can be very tempting to "gather as you go," don't. It will use more thread to stitch the basting lines first, but you'll get more even stitching between your two lines this way. Also remember that since you're using a single thread, it can be recovered on removal and re-used for more basting later.
Cartridge pleats are sometimes synonymized with gathers, but there are key differences. The image to the right includes, from top to bottom, machine gathers, hand gathers, and cartridge pleats for comparison.
First, cartridge pleats are much larger. These pleats are a capital vertical squiggle where gathers are their lowercase counterparts. Second, when stitched into a seam, only the top "loop" of the cartridge pleat is stitched down where gathers are sewn all the way through. Third, the basting threads for cartridge pleats can be left in after sewing the final seam where they are removed for gathers. The final difference is that cartridge pleats can compress A LOT more fabric than standard gathers. This makes them perfect for voluminous skirts and incredibly dramatic sleeves and capes.
Note: If using cartridge pleats to provide extra "lift" away from the body, consider padding the pleats with some batting or interfacing to stiffen the pleats further.
To make cartridge pleats, decide how large the peats will be - the pleats shown in the sample are 1 inch. Mark along the fabric's edge at this interval all the way across the piece to be gathered. Thread your longest sharp needle and tie a sturdy knot at one end. Beginning on the right side of the fabric, stitch a very long running / basting stitch 1/2 inch from the fabric's edge, using the marks for stitch length. Repeat 1/4 inch from the fabric's edge. Consider repeating again with a third and even fourth line of basting if you want the cartridge pleats to maintain their shape farther away from the final seam. The sample shown has 3 lines of basting.
Once all threads are placed, pull on all lines at the same time and press the fabric to move along the threads. Continue to adjust the fabric as needed and pin in place, pinning right sides together to only the tops of the loops. Stitch into place by hand, catching each of the cartridge pleat loops 2-3 times (or more for heavy fabric) with a whip stitch.
That's all for now, friends! Be sure to follow the blog of my next post, Pleats 102, where we'll explore all of the math equations for folded pleats and briefly discuss gauge swatching for basted pleats.