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Cartridge pleating provides authentic shaping to many seventeenth century garments, including petticoats, ruffs, and gowns. This style of pleating can be recognized by its distinctive figure-8 fold. Although it is a time consuming and labor intensive process, the actual method of forming the pleats is simple.
Finish fabric edges
Hem the top edge of your fabric. You can just use the selvage, but a hem looks neater and if you pleat through the hem, the pleats will stand out farther. Also hem any edges that will show, such as the front of an overskirt or all four edges of a ruff. Alternately, you can line the fabric which will also make the pleats stiffer and stand away from your body more.
Mark the wrong side of your fabric with dots at intervals as far apart as your pleats will be deep. Mark a dot with chalk on dark fabric and a washable fabric marker on light. For the second row of markings, measure down 1/4 inch from each dot in the first row and mark a second dot. If you made a narrow hem at the top edge, use the hem as a guide from the top and mark on the edge of a small piece of stiff paper (a business card works well) 1/4 inch from the top edge of the card. If you made a wider hem, or lined the fabric, use mark your card 1/4 inch from the top and another 1/4 inch from that mark.
Also mark the halfway point on the top edge and the one-quarter and three-quarter points. This will help you keep track of things when it’s time to stitch the pleats to the band.
Sew gathering threads
Now you can begin sewing. I find it easiest to sew both rows at the same time so I can gather the material as I go and use a shorter thread. Thread 2 needles with a doubled piece of thread, about your armspan long. Anything longer will get much too tangled, but it should not be shorter than the finished length of the pleated area. Wax the threads and knot the ends.
Starting on the wrong side of the fabric, go down at the first dot in the first row and come up at the second. Continue like this, repeating for the second row. Make sure that the threads are doing exactly the same thing in both rows. If the thread comes up through a dot in the first row, it needs to come up in the parallel dot in the second row. When you find your thread getting short, gather up the fabric until the thread is long enough to continue stitching. When you reach the end of the row, secure the needles, but don’t knot the thread yet.
You will need something on which to sew the pleated fabric, such as a waistband or neckband, depending on the garment. Measure the appropriate body part while wearing the necessary foundation garments. Add seam allowance and overlap to this measurement and make the band in what ever manner you like. Be sure to finish all edges. Mark the halfway point and the two quarter points, just like on the pleated fabric. Also mark where the overlap begins.
Now pin your pleated fabric to the band. You want the outside to be smooth with the pleats sticking out on the inside. Pin the fabric at the edges, center point and quarter points. Even out the pleats. When the fabric exactly fits your band, tie off your threads.
Stitch the top of each pleat to the lower edge of the band. I’ve found it useful to start at both ends and pass in the middle, thus stitching each pleat twice for extra security.
When the pleats are securely sewn, you need not remove the gathering threads. They help to maintain the shape of the pleats.
Congratulations! You’re done!
The basic points of cartridge pleating are: finish edges, mark the stitching dots exactly parallel, stitch and gather the pleats, and sew to a band.
How do you know how much fabric you need for a cartridge pleated garment? The magical formula follows. A little experimentation on your part is necessary.
To summarize: ([(pleat depth X 2) X pleats per inch] X measurement) ÷ 36 = fabric yardage
An example: I want to make a ruff with a pleat depth of 2 inches and my neck measurement is 13 inches. With cotton muslin, there are 5 pleats to the inch.
2 X 2 = 4 X 5 = 20 X 13 = 260 ÷ 36 = 7.22 or 7 1/4 yards of fabric.
Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560-1620. London: Macmillan, 1985. Photographs of actual garments with patterns. Many examples of cartridge pleating.
Ashelford, Jane. Dress in the Age of Elizabeth I. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1988. A fashion history illustrated with portraits of both men and women from throughout the era. Great for pictures of accessories and ruffs.
Caterina da Monticello [Joyce Cottrell]. “Flat Pattern Basics for SCA Period: Skirts,” Compleat Anachronist 40, November 1988, pages 1-10. Has a very brief discussion of pleating with diagrams for cartridge pleating.
Enriqueta de Reyes y Mora. “Ruffing It! Making the Perfect Elizabethan Ruff.” Gulfport, FL: Queta’s Closet. Instructions for making cartridge pleated ruffs. Describes a different technique for marking and sewing pleats. This contains the magic formula for pleating ruffs and a pleating ruler for easy marking.
Winter, Janet and Carolyn Savoy. Elizabethan Costuming for the Years 1550-1580. Oakland: Other Times Publications, 1987. This book has a theatrical, rather than historical slant, but it does have directions with diagrams for cartridge pleating a skirt.
Morwenna Westerne lives and sews in Elizabeth’s England. Abigail Weiner spends too much time hand sewing and embroidering when she isn’t reading dead languages.