Taking a Stab at Knife Pleating

Today I took a stab at knife pleating my petticoats. Since some of the other ladies might find the technique helpful, here's a little tutorial.

Knife pleating is a basic technique most commonly seen in catholic school girl uniforms, kilts & those tiny things cheerleaders call skirts. The unidirectional folds produce a flat front that does not spring out from the waistband the way gathers or cartridge pleating does. Despite the narrow pleated area and straight line you still get a nice fullness below the pleats.

During the GAoP knife pleating was the way to go for petticoats. I'm not a huge fan of pleating in general. Nor gathering for that matter. I have a terrible time with making it even enough for my taste. However, in the effort to be period correct, it's knife pleating all the way.

fabric to pleat
fabric marker or tailors chalk
pins if you're picky
ruler with one inch and 1/2 inch markings

Start with the piece you wish to pleat. This is a standard 3-1 knife pleat, meaning that 3 inches of fabric become 1 inch of pleat. Now if you're doing you math that means a 30" waistband will need 3 times that (or 90") if pleated properly. If you're like me you'll need less. My finished pleated piece always ends up to big, no matter how much math I do.

Lay out your fabric and find the center. Mark in your preferred method, I like to iron & stick a pin just so I don't forget. Place cats strategically around fabric so that it doesn't move!

Cats as fabric weights

From the center measure 1" to the right, make a mark. From there measure 1/2" over & mark. Measure 1" from there, mark, move another 1/2", mark. See the pattern? You're making a series of 1" and 1/2" wide sections. Keep going until you reach the end of your half. Now go back to the center & repeat, until you reach the left hand side.

Mark your pleats

Congratulations, you've just marked out all your pleats. From here you have two choices, you can fold without snipping or you can snip at each mark. I prefer to snip. It seems to make the folds easier to form and lay flatter. Some daring sewers even snip without marking in advance, gasp! The trick is that these don't have to be deep cuts, a less than 1/4" snip is enough.

Snip snip snip

Now comes the fun, folding! Start at one end, it doesn't matter which. I usually end up starting at the end that I ended up at after snipping. Otherwise I'm crawling back & forth constantly! Find your first 1/2" section from the end. That part goes in the middle of the pleat "sandwich" if you will. Pinch the 1/2" section together with the 1" section closer to the center. Fold this down onto the 1" section towards the end. Pin to hold in place.

This is mid-pleat. You can see the 1" section on the bottom and top with the 1/2" section as the middle layer in the sandwich.

Fold your pleat sandwich

Alternately you can do this while on the machine & skip the pinning. Simply fold a pleat or two at a time, holding in place while you sew them down. I personally prefer pinning because I'm a butter fingers and even with pins tend to drop pleats.

Keep folding 1/2" sections in between 1" sections until you reach the center. You'll notice that you end up with a wider section at the center. Don't panic, that's the way it should be. That little fold in the front makes it lay nice and flat across the stomach, yet lets it flare over the hips.

The center

Now go to the other end, and start pleating again. Continue to fold your pleats towards the end, i.e the opposite direction that you pleated the previous half. When you have successfully pleated your entire piece it should look something like this.

a pile of pleats

Now we get to secure the pleats with stitching. If you're of the very particular historical sort, you'd be pulling out the needle & thread and hand sewing all those nicely pinned pleats. I am not that particular, so we'll be machine sewing the pleats, thank you. I've found that for me it's best to start in the center & sew with the direction of the folds. This seems to keep the pleats from folding back on themselves under the presser foot. The only trick is to make sure that you are stitching below the snips you made earlier. This is where it's important that those were tiny cuts. If you tried to sew over them, you'd loose all your pleats & all that crawling around on the floor would have been for nothing!

Stitch those pleats

Now I like to sew a second line of stitching about 1/4" down from the first. This gives me the chance to refold any pleats that got away from me during the first run and I like how it produces a slightly flatter waistband area. On skirts such as school girl style or cheerleader style, the second line of stitching is much further down. This forms a flat fronted waist and hip area yet leaves a nicely flared and full skirt. That's what makes those skirts so darned cute!

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Now you can finish your project as needed. For me I'll be sewing two knife pleated panels together and adding linen tape waistbands to create a basic linen petticoat that ties in the front and back. Then I get to do it all over again with two other lengths of linen. Yippee!

Hopefully this little tutorial has helped everyone add a new classic technique to their sewing skills book. Now get pleating!


  1. Thanks for the tutorial! I could probably do this if I had any cats. I hope you don't mind that I linked to your tutorial.

  2. Thank you very much! I've been looking for a pleat tutorial for a Sailor Fuku costume from Japan, and couldn't find ANY! Thank you!!

  3. I just wanted to say Thanks for all the great info I was able to finish my very first knife pleated petticoat for the Fort deChartres trade fair.

  4. Thank you for the tutorial. I was browsing the internet when I found this and I find it really helpful.

    Kind Regards from a fellow costumer currently residing in the 19th century.

  5. What a nice tutorial! I especially like the bit about the cats holding down the fabric. My kitty is always willing to help in this way when it comes to sewing! Unfortunately, he also likes to remove pins...

  6. Thanks so much for your helpful tutorials. I confirmed the knife-pleat technique and finally 'got' rolled hems, all within one week.

    I very much miss my last cat's 'help' with sewing projects. Enjoy yours!

  7. Thank you for this! I suddenly forgot how to pleat today and your post saved me

  8. Thank you for your tutorial!! :) My cats would definetly be willing to "help." :)


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