Pleated to Perfection

Diane Shewchuk, Curator

While we are staying home these days, many of us have pulled out our sewing machines to make masks. One of the methods of making masks is to make pleats in two rectangles of fabric that have been sewn together. This reminded me of the yards and yards of pleats that were stitched to create many of the Victorian dresses in our collection.  

When looking at the dresses, I was struck by the numerous ways the fabric was folded, pressed and stitched to create elaborate design elements.  My sewing machine often struggles to sew through four layers of fabric when pleating. Now think about what it would be like to do this by hand and how important the thimble is to push a needle through layers of fabric that are perfectly spaced apart. The skirts and bodices in our collection include examples of both machine and hand stitched pleats. Many of us are working with cotton right now, but the dresses I’m showing you are made of silk satin and silk plush, and are often lined with a stiffener like glazed cotton.

Many different types of pleating techniques were used in historic clothing. There are plenty of seamstresses who reproduce historic clothing with online tutorials that will guide you through the process of making each type of pleat. This page from the Bloomingdale’s 1886 catalog shows a selection of spring and summer skirts with borders of pleated decorations. In the nineteenth century pleats were called plaits. You will probably note that the skirts range in price from 64 cents to $1.95. An 1886 dollar is worth about $27.46 today. (Click each image to enlarge.)

Dress with Pleated Border

Some of the most common pleats are knife pleats that face the same direction. The Institute owns an amazing dinner dress made about 1877 that incorporates rows of satin knife pleats that are stitched diagonally along the bottom of the skirt and train. The gold, jade, pale coral and pearl color palette of the pleats perfectly matches the brocade overskirt. This simple idea of the striped pleated border truly creates a wow factor.


The silk satin underskirt is both shirred down the center front and pleated at a diagonal. The ensemble would have been just as glamorous with a plain front, but the manipulation of fabric creates additional texture and sophistication. The underskirt is flanked by brocade panels that incorporate Japanese fans into the design. Although this dress does not have a label, it undoubtedly came from a leading dressmaker and must have made Katharine Livingston Stuyvesant Butler (1844-1891) feel regal when wearing it.


Amethyst Ensemble

Mary Laura Wheeler Gray (1846-1887) of Oswego, New York paid attention to one of the stylish trends of the time when she acquired this two-piece dress made around 1883-1884 of two fabrics of the same color, a lush deep amethyst.


Pleated, long vertical sections of silk satin and a plush fabric alternate on the skirt creating texture and depth. Panels of the purple velvet were folded into box pleats. This type of pleat has edges that face in opposite directions. In between, the plain satin was folded into knife pleats that face each other leaving a flat area in between. Both the satin and plush are fairly heavy weight and would have been difficult to press without scorching especially when using the heavy flat or sad irons of the late nineteenth century.  


A narrow woven tape is stitched behind the pleats a few inches above the hem to secure them in place. 


Satin Wedding Dress

This two-piece dress was probably worn by Lucy Wright Burrell (1817-1891) of Salisbury, New York, when she married Lorenzo Carryl in Herkimer, New York, in 1842. Self-covered buttons decorate the knife pleated bands, which follow the V- shaped neckline over the bust creating a shawl-like effect. The pleating does not continue around the back of the bodice. What a vision Lucy must have been in this romantic dress that is completely hand-stitched.


A similar treatment of knife pleats is used on the upper sleeves. Each of the four pleats is accented with a matching button and a single small rosette adds a final touch.


I’ll share examples of cartridge pleating in the future.

The dresses:

Dinner dress with pleated border, unknown maker, silk satin with silk brocade and lace, 1877-1878. Gift of Mary Buchanan Sanford Edmonds, 1947.32.2A-B

Amethyst ensemble, unknown maker, silk satin and silk plush, 1883-1884. Gift of Elsie Gray Townsend, 1947.43.4A-B 

Wedding dress, unknown maker, silk and cotton, 1842-1843.  Gift of Eliza Ives Raymond and Dora R. Haight, c1940.459.55A-B      


April 24, 2020