This tutorial is dedicated to Corinne Pleger who taught me the beauty of cartridge pleating in July 2000.
Cartridge pleats are eye-catching! Neat little pleats stacked in a row, stitched together and standing at attention. Those little pleats do a heck of job too with getting an enormous amount of skirt fabric into a tiny waistband!
If you’re ready to tackle this common method of pleating in the mid-19th Century, let’s get to work on how these pleats are actually made. Although cartridge pleats are found on sleeve caps in the 1830s, we’ll stick to gauging skirts in this tutorial.
Cartridge pleats (also known as gauging) are used when a large width of fabric needs to be fitted into a small space. As opposed to the other types of pleats, cartridge pleats are seen throughout historical fashion but practically disappear in the late 19th Century. Because they are completed by hand, they didn’t work in the new, mass-produced, assembly line garments.
Cartridge pleats are characteristic of historical sewing. Found on straight panel skirts of the late 1830s through 1860s and on full sleeve caps from the 1830s to 1860s, these pleats are very easy to create and can be adapted to all sorts of fabrics.
The skirt to apply cartridge pleats and finished waistband
Buttonhole or strong glazed thread that matches fabric
Long hand needles such as embroidery
Marking pencil/pen or Tiger Tape
Safety pins or long ball head pins
Cartridge pleats are made from 2 or more rows of uniform hand basting stitches run along the top edge of the skirt. The rows have to be exactly matched for perfect pleats. The stitch threads are pulled up to form the pleats that are then whipstitched to the waistband.
Cartridge pleating stitches are placed in evenly-spaced rows. The stitch marks vary and will change with different fabrics and for assorted projects. Make a sample using different markings on your specific fabric to find the best placement.
The spaces between the stitches can also vary for how full you want the pleats and the bulkiness of your fabric. Wool will have wider spaced stitches than cottons and silks.
Step 1: Determine Area for Cartridge Pleating and Prep
Piece your skirt panels, finish the hem, then mark the allowed skirt length from the hem up to the top at center front, center back and sides. Allow an additional 5 inches for the pleated top.
Finish the raw top edge of your skirt before folding to the inside for pleating (see below). You can trim with pinking shears, run a small machine stitch, sew a narrow hem, zigzag, or serge the edge.
Fold the skirt top to the inside a few inches allowing for the skirt length needed as mentioned above. Fold at least 1 inch to the inside and even more for additional support. Keep this turn under within 5 inches or so. This amount will taper around the top of your skirt in accordance to your marked lengths.
A machine edgestitch on the fold of the fabric is a modern tip that provides support and makes the whole pleating process easier.
Step 2: Mark
The first row of stitching works best at 1/8” to 1/4” down from the top fold. Additional rows should be between 1/4” and 3/4” down from the previous row, depending on fabric weight. The stitches themselves vary from 3/8” to 3/4” apart. Use these 5 tips, including how to mark your pleats, to keep them from looking like gathers.
Using a ruler, mark the entire length of fabric to be pleated with dots spaced according to your project. Mark all rows of stitching. Note: This will take some time – be patient!
A nifty sewing tool is Tiger Tape sold with quilting notions. The narrow tape is marked in 1/8″ lines. Place the tape along the skirt edge to make your dot marks. Remember to keep all dots in line with each other – along the horizontal rows as well as vertically (most important).
Step 3: Sew Pleating Threads
Cut a very long piece of thread. This should be nearly the length of the flat skirt width but could be shorter if you remember to pull up the pleats as you sew.
Use strong thread such as button thread or millinery thread. These pleating threads will remain in the fabric holding the pleats in place. If the thread breaks – the pleats come out.
Thread a long needle, such as an embroidery or millinery needle, and make a firm knot, leaving several inches of a tail.
Begin on the correct side of the skirt at the opening and make your stitches at each dot. Weave in and out of the fabric. Do not tie off the thread when you reach the end of your markings.
Repeat for additional rows. You can sew up to 5 rows depending on the fabric, but most 19th Century skirts have two to three rows. Some people find running all the rows at the same time faster than sewing each row separately.
Step 4: Finish Waistband and Pull Up Threads to Fit
Finish your waistband separately before attaching the pleats. The recommended width of your finished waistband should be 1” to 2”. You can also use a length of twill tape for the waistband.
Quarter mark your waistband and skirt. This will help space the pleats evenly.
When all the rows are sewn, grab all the thread ends and pull up together. Align right sides together of the skirt to the waistband. You do not need to pin every pleat but only every few to keep the pleats in place. Spend some time working out the pleat spacing. I like to pin every one to two inches.
Step 5: Sew To Waistband
Start attaching pleats to the waistband or tape using an overhand whipstitch. Sew two stitches into every pleat for a secure hold.
Finish by re-threading a needle onto the long tails left at the starting point and push them through to the wrong side. Tie the threads together.
After sewing, fold the waistband up, kicking the bottom fold of each pleat out. The top of the pleats will sit flat against the body.
If your pleats are very wide on the inside, you can fold them to one side (check from the garment’s right side to see which way you want them to lie) and tack down on top of each other on the inside. This will make them look more like flat knife pleats.
And if you are overthinking how to do all these pleats, take a look at my article here to ease your head.
I now have a full online class about creating cartridge pleats in a 19th century skirt project.
Have you cartridge pleated before? What do you think about the technique? Feel free to share any other tips you might have from your own sewing experience.