Smocking The Basics: Pleating

Updated: Nov 7, 2019



As I explained in The History of Smocking Part 1 and The History of Smocking Part 2, smocking is embroidery on pleated fabric. That of course means that you need pleated fabric, so today's post is all about pleating - both by hand and machine and the resources for both. Unfortunately, the pleats used in smocking cannot be formed by simply gathering the fabric with a sewing machine. The pleats are formed by rows of parallel gathering threads all starting and stopping in the same place. Traditionally, this was done by hand, and if you want to try smocking, you might want to just hand gather the fabric. While it may seem tedious, the gathering is done with a simple running stitch. Many smocking designs only require 5 or 6 rows of gathering, and I would bet you that while you are sitting there watching your child's soccer game, swim meet, music lesson, or sitting in the car pool line, you could have the necessary piece hand gathered. If you want try try hand gathering, the easy way is to pick a fabric with the grid built in. Quarter inch gingham is perfect. Below is the piece of gingham I hand pleated for my SAGA Artisan submission to pass level 1.


A regular stripe also works. With a stripe, use a removable fabric marker to draw the lines. (see below) Iron on dots are also available for just a few dollars.


To hand pleat, simply thread the needle (use quilting cotton if you have it as it is stronger) and stitch a running stitch along the row. You can stitch an even running stitch as I did on the gingham above (same amount of thread on both sides of the fabric), or if you are using dots, or the stripe, stitch an uneven running stitch (more thread is on the wrong side of the fabric). The pleats should be 3/8 of an inch or 1 cm apart. 1/4 inch also works.


When stitching an uneven running stitch, work from the wrong side of the fabric, and just take a bite of the fabric picking up the dot, or in my case, the stripe. When you are done, knot off the threads by twos on each side and pull up the pleats to the width specified in your pattern!

Of course, the easy way to pleat is with a pleater! Today, Amanda Jane from Australia and Read from South Africa still produce and sell pleaters. In the United States, you can purchase a Read pleater from Creative Sewing and Smocking, and The Tosca Company. All Brands sells both the Read and Amanda Jane pleaters. A new pleater is over $300 and therefore a substantial investment, but there are a few alternatives! First of all, many SAGA chapters have a chapter pleater. Members can simply sign it out and take it home to pleat up whatever they need. Second, used pleaters are plentiful. It may take you a few weeks, but keep your eye on Ebay, your local Facegroup marketplace and Craig's List. There are several pleaters available on Ebay today as I write this post!



A pleater is a simple machine and with a little elbow grease and a new set of needles, a used pleater will serve you for many years! For instructions on maintaining your pleater, I highly recommend The Pleater Manual, if you can find it. It is no longer printed, so keep an eye out! I have both a Little Amanda and a Sally Stanley pleater. I have friends who are very happy with their Read pleaters. If I were purchasing a used pleater today, I would try to purchase one of those 3 brands. They are all solid pleaters, with gears made of brass, and will serve you well for many years. Some pleaters have parts made of plastic and I would avoid those. My Little Amanda has all half spaces where my Sally Stanley has 1/2 full spaces (1 cm apart) and half with half spaces ( 1/2 cm apart). I prefer the Sally Stanley. When pleating, to keep the fabric on grain, the edge of the fabric is guided along one groove, and a line marked on the fabric is lined up with another groove. With the half spaces I find there are two many grooves for the eye to follow, and it is more difficult to keep things lined up, but this is just my personal preference.

This brings us to the subject of needles. Different pleaters take different needles, and different size Read as well as different size Martha Pullen pleaters take different size needles! Since the Read and Amanda Jane pleaters are still being made, the needles for them are being produced as well, so that again argues in favor of purchasing one of those two brands. Amanda Jane needles fit the Sally Stanley. The generic needles marketed for the Sally Stanley do not work well. You can read about my experience with the generic needles here. Pink Hollybush carries both Read and Amanda Jane pleater needles.

Now that you have tracked down a pleater and want to give this a try, The Pleater Manual is the book that you need to own. The author explains the different pleaters, pleating different fabrics, and pleating every possible area of a garment. Judith Adams, an amazing smocking teacher from Australia, has produced a You Tube video for SAGA that walks you through the beginning steps of pleating, and SAGA offers a correspondence course on pleating if you would like additional help. You can also read all about pleating knits in this series of posts. Finally, if you just want to give smocking a try before you commit to any type of pleating, or just want to get to the smocking, then consider one of the pre-pleated kits from Pink Hollybush Designs or a pre-pleated insert. You still have to do the smocking and sewing, but the pleating is taken care of for you! Next week I will cover reading a smocking graph! Have a great weekend!


#smocking #smockingtutorial #pleating

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