Extravagance Unfolded – The Knife Pleat, Part 3

In this installment, we’ll make a few comments in regard to knife pleat construction. Knife pleating is relatively simple but it requires a meticulous attention to detail and patience (and a lot of steam and pressure)- to use it effectively, you will need to work slow and methodical but with each project, you will gradually build up your skill and speed.


In pleating, it is important to first consider the quantify of fabric that will be used. Here at Lily Absinthe, we compare pleating for clothing with pleating for drapery and it’s all about the proportion. In draperies, window widths are measured by “returns.” Cheaper draperies will have a 1.5 return (a return is 1.5 times the width of window). Average quality draperies run a 2 to 2.5 x return (e.g., 2 to 2.5 times the width of the window). For the highest quality (what we use here at Lily Absinthe) is a 3 x return (e.g., 3 times the width of the window). As you can see, higher quality will require significantly more yardage and this applies to clothing.

In order to achieve optimal pleats, steam and pressure are essential- a good iron is essential. During the 19th Century, one of the primary means of pleating was accomplished by the fluting iron. These could range from the manual devices to full-blown machines:

Fluting Iron1



No matter what their construction was, they all worked on the principal of applying pressure to shape of “crimp” the fabric into the distinctive knife-edge pleat shape. Heat is an essential component and provision was made to heat up the cylinders through the insertion of heating irons which was iron bars that were heated up over a heat source, typically a stove or similar. Also, the fabric was pre-treated, usually with a mixture of water and starch, and this aided in permanently setting the pleats. Finally, to help maintain the pleats’ shape and prevent movement, the individual pleats were often tacked down.


The above comments are somewhat cursory but if you want to know more, there are a number of good tutorials that are available online and even some video demonstrations on YouTube. Knife pleating was one of the most common decorative styles used for late 19th Century dresses and was used liberally along hemlines, cuffs, and collars and it’s definitely one of those style elements that should be give serious consideration in any dress design of the period.

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