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Demonstrations>Sewing Tech>Cartridge Pleating

Typical skirts in period were around 75" to 120" of fabric. Men's breeches could contain almost as much fabric... that's a nightmare waiting to happen when you try to pleat all of that fabric into a waist band or bodice. In most cases, it's virtually impossible. If you are able to do it, the results are less than visually appealing, causing the seam to be much more bulky than is necessary and probably resulting in many swear words and a loss of much blood from fingertips.

How did they do it in period? This is where the magic of cartridge pleating comes forth, to rescue both our sanity and our fingers from certain doom. The following demo shows the basics of this wonderful technique... once you try it, you'll want to use it for all your pleating and that's ok. Cartridge pleating shows up on sleeves, in capes, caps, and bags as well as breeches and skirts Let's go!

The Working Layers -

I'll be illustrating two ways of doing things in this demo. First, however, let's talk about the components of a typical skirt of pair of breeches. There's the shell layer or outside fabric, illustrated here in black. There's the lining layer or inside fabric, illustrated here in yellow. The red strip is a piece of felt which was used in period to beef up the pleats. This strip is not necessary unless both your shell and lining fabrics are very thin.

In period, the most common way to make a skirt was to put both shell and lining fabric together, flip over the raw edges to the inside, and stitch the lining almost to the edge of the shell, as show in the illustration to the left.

This type of treatment sealed the edges and sewed the fabrics of the skirt together in preparation for cartridge pleating. If extra beefiness was required, the felt strip was then inserted on the inside, butted up against the seam edge.

The way that I typically run my skirts together is similar but doesn't require any hand sewing - I will place the shell and lining fabrics right side to right side and run a seam along the top of the skirts, press it, turn it and then press it again so that I've accomplished the same thing. Once this is done, I'll insert the felt strip if it's necessary. The illustration to the right shows this action along with an inserted felt strip...

Prior to Pleating -

After the shell and lining are together (and the felt strip inserted if required), we are now ready to pleat. Because you are pleating a great deal of material and will be tugging on the thread you are using, you will want to use fairly sturdy thread. These pleating threads will be left in the garment after it's finished so you will want to get thread that is fairly close to the same color as the shell fabric. It doesn't have to match exactly but does need to be close. You will also want to get heavy duty upholstery thread; the kind that is impossible to break with your hands. We will be using this thread not only to do the pleating but to also tack the skirt or breeches onto the bodice or waistband. Why such strong thread? For breeches, you could probably get away with less but for a skirt, it's imperative that this thread be able to hold up when someone inadvertently steps on your skirt as you are walking... it will happen and if the thread breaks, the skirt will pop off the bodice, leaving a large gap.

Find a nice medium sized needle that will allow the thread to pass easily through and get a thimble. This will save some wear and tear on your thumb through the whole process. When you load up your needle, give your self a length of thread at least three times the circumference of your waist. Load the needle, double the thread and tie a strong, stable knot in the ends. Locate the center back of your skirt or breeches and mark it with a pin as illustrated in the photo to the left.

We will pleat up only one half of the skirt or breeches at a time. The reason for this is that it is much easier than pleating up the entire skirt and it allows us to fuss with the skirt halves separately when we are fitting it to the bodice. For men's breeches, the same technique can be used, starting with the center back seam.

The Pleating Process -

I am really poor at math so I do a minimal amount of it by choice and by design. I've discovered, over the course of making several garments, that the width of my thumb is perfect for spacing pleats for a skirt. If you are really energetic, good at math and want to figure out the proper width of space between each pleat, divide the width of your skirt minus the circumference of your bodice waist by the circumference of your bodice waist.

As an example, say your waist is 28" and your skirt width is 120". 120 minus 28 = 92. 92 divided by 28 = 3.28. So the space between each pleat needs to be 3.28". This is a lot so you can further divide this by two and space each pleat by 1.64" or 1.5" if you want to round it off. You can then mark the skirt every 1.5" prior to pleating...

I just use my thumb and follow the edge of the skirt, making sure I catch the seam allowances as I do my running stitch.

After the line of thread is running stitched from the center of the skirt to the front edge, I then pull it tight, making the skirt pleat together like an accordion. The illustrations below show the line of running stitches prior to pulling, what the pulling looks like on the inside and what it looks like on the outside.

If the shell and lining are particularly thick or if you are using a felt strip, you will probably want to run two needles in the pleating action, side by side. It will look like the illustration below. Two pleating threads provide much more stability and make the pleats longer.

After the running stitches are in and have been pulled, pleating the one side, you can either tie them off temporarily and do the same for the other side, or you can measure the bodice or waistband from center back to front edge, pull or release the running thread until the pleated material is the same length, and finish off the running threads by tying them securely and hiding the tails. I like to do one side, temporarily tie it off, do the other side, and then fuss with both sides until the whole thing fits whatever I'm going to be pleating it to. Then I permanently tie off the running threads and hide the tails.

Tacking On -

Next comes tacking the pleated material onto the bodice or waistband. I usually use the same thread as I used to do the pleating threads. As mentioned previously, it doesn't need to completely match the shell fabric but should be fairly close. Place the finished seam of the bodice or waistband and the pleated material, right sides together. Grab your thimble because this is where it can get a bit tough on the hands. Using small, tacking stitches, as illustrated below, place two tacking stitches per pleat and tack the pleats to the bodice or waistband. The photos below illustrate this process...

Once the entire skirt or breeches have been tacked on to the bodice or waistband, you will notice that the pleats hang a little stiffly away. What I usually do, prior to hemming the skirt, is to gently pull the pleats down and away from the bodice or waistband, to encourage them to hang a bit nicer.

The photo to the right shows this action and also shows just how little of the tacking stitch can be seen from the outside. With literally hundreds of tacking stitches done with a strong thread, you can take very small bites of fabric when tacking without worrying that the skirt or breeches will rip away.

Viola! Cartridge pleating... happy tailoring!

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