I had a customer reach out to me who is just getting started smocking and she asked if it was necessary to thread the pleater each time that you pleat fabric. That question and it's response prompted this post and video. If you prefer to listen, the video is below but my tips are written out as well.
So, first let's answer the question and the answer it both yes, and no!
The pleater must be rethreaded each pleating session, but it is possible to pleat multiple items before rethreading the needles.
My customer also asked if it mattered how the pleater was threaded and if owning a thread box helped. It doesn't matter if the pleater is threaded from the top down, or bottom up, or if a thread box is being used. The pleated piece passes through the pleater, so it is now between the pleater and the thread. The only way to set it free is to cut the thread or unthread the needles, both of which mean that the pleater must be rethreaded before one can pleat again. You can pleat multiple pieces and then set them all free at once.
When pleating multiple pieces before rethreading, you are limited to pleating items that need the same number of pleating rows, or pleating additional rows for some items and removing the pleating threads for others, assuming that the fabric doesn't mark. While it is possible to pleat one item, remove the bar and then remove the unneeded needles, I find that when the needles are threaded and I remove the bar, the needles always seem to fall out.
So assuming that you want to try pleating several items in one go, here are some tips:
Tip 1: Have a separate spool of thread for each needle.
When I began smocking, I had one or two spools of quilting cotton and I cut lengths of thread for each needle. Instead invest in a spool of thread for each needle so the thread can just feed through the needles.
Tip 2: Have a method to keep the thread from tangling.
This is the purpose of the thread box. It keeps each of the spools of thread separate from each other and feeding through the needles. If the thread gets tangled, and you can't get it unknotted, you will have to cut the threads, rethread and possibly re-pleat the piece.
Tip 3: Keep all tension off the pleater and the needles.
As you pleat multiple pieces, the weight of the pieces that have been pleated places tension on both the needles and the pleater itself. Even the slightest tension can cause a needle to break or a thread to pull out of the pleated piece. Reduce the tension by having something, such as a table, to support the pieces that are already pleated.
Also, keep an eye on the thread as it is passing through the needles. If the thread starts to have any tension, pull thread out from the spools to relieve the tension. One way to help reduce the tension on the pleater and to support the pieces already pleated, is to pleat away from you rather than toward you so the table is there to support the pleated piece.
Tip 4: Make sure to have enough thread for blocking the pleated pieces.
When pleating multiple pieces, it is easy to pleat one piece, move it off the needles all scrunched up and move on to the next piece. This is fine for pleating, but it is necessary to spread the pieces out before cutting the threads or you may not have allowed enough thread for blocking. For example, if pleating a sleeve, the sleeve needs to be able to be flattened out once pleated in order to hem the sleeve. If enough thread was not allowed to do this, the sleeve will need to be re-pleated.
So what is the limit on the number of pieces that can be pleated? Well, theoretically, there isn't one. I remember a SAGA teacher who would pleat her kits from one end of the house to another. However, I do want to give a word of caution. Even with a pleater box, it is easy for the pleating threads to get tangled up in the raw edges of the piece that is being pleated and now if you can't get it untangled, all the work of pleating has to be redone. Personally, I usually only pleat 2-3 items before rethreading the pleater. This brings me to tip number 5...
Tip 5: Time how long it takes to rethread the needles, it may not take as long as you think!
This past fall I pleated over 100 ornament strips for Pink Hollybush and they were all pleated two at a time. I could thread those needles quite quickly and that was threading 11 needles. If you are only threading 5-6, it really won't take long and may be quicker that trying to move multiple pieces along the threads. Remember when a piece comes off the pleater, it is scrunched up, it needs to be spread out and moved along the threads. The next piece is then pleated, and now both pieces need to be moved along the threads. I find it easier to just rethread than to continue moving the pleated pieces along!
I hope these tips will help you become a more efficient pleater! For more pleating help, check out these pleating posts with videos: