If you have ever worn a sari, a skirt made of accordion-folded tulle, or even a kilt, you have worn clothes that featured pleats! Once you start looking, you will see pleats in store windows, in cute outfits worn by strangers on the bus, and even in your closet! Different types of pleats for skirts and dresses add shape and volume to all kinds of outfits.
A pleat is a shaped fold in fabric, usually pressed or stitched into place. Many different styles of folded pleats add volume to skirts and dresses. These folds come in many different shapes and sizes, ranging from a regular accordion shape to a cascading, tapering shape.
In this article, you will learn how pleats are made. You will also discover the 17 most commonly used pleats for skirts and dresses. Finally, you will find tips for sewing your own pleats!
What are Pleats?
Pleats are folds that shape a garment. These folds can have a large or small size and a rectangular, triangular, uneven, or even rolled shape. You can find many different styles of pleats across a wide range of kinds of clothing, from skirts and dresses to pants and jackets.
Pleats give clothing a more full shape. For example, a pleated skirt has tight folds near the waist. Nothing holds the folds in place lower down in the skirt, meaning that they can flare out around your knees or ankles as you walk, allowing you freedom of movement.
Because pleats provide so much extra volume, pleated clothing typically uses way more fabric than a fitted piece of clothing.
Some of the oldest recorded images of people wearing clothes show that people used pleats as far back in time as in the ancient Babylonian and Egyptian cultures! In fact, the fancy clothing found intact in thousands-of-years-old Egyptian tombs contains elaborate folds in fine linen garments.
Later in fashion history, this type of fold that doubles fabric over itself was called a plait. Eventually, our word “pleat” emerged, and the 1800s and early 1900s saw an explosion in the types and styles of pleats used to create couture fashion.
Today, many pleats come preset in synthetic fabrics that can hold a set shape forever. All-natural fabrics typically require ironing to create neatly folded pleats.
17 Different Types of Pleats for Skirts and Dresses
In the fashion industry, you will find roughly seventeen different kinds of pleats used in skirts and dresses that have specific names and designated uses. These include the accordion, knife, and cascade pleats.
That said, to pleat fabric simply means to give it a folded shape, so you can go crazy and create all manner of unique folds if you so choose. High fashion uses this kind of elaborate, origami-like fabric manipulation far more often than ready-wear clothing, though.
If you like to sew, you will probably encounter a much smaller handful of pleating styles regularly. You can check out those types of popular folds in the section on the most common types of pleats later on in this article.
This overview will give you an idea of the shape and uses of all seventeen pleats used in skirts and dresses!
1. Knife Pleats
By far the most common form of pleat, knife pleats describe an outside and hidden inside fold made by folding over a flat rectangle of fabric on the garment’s surface. Knife folds often have a fairly broad width, as the smaller version measuring a half-inch or an eighth of an inch gets termed accordion and crystal pleats. Box pleats also use two knife folds facing in opposite directions.
Almost all styles of pleating have some similarities to the basic knife fold! You can spot knife pleats in nearly every type of clothing imaginable. Skirts use them, dresses use them, fancy blouses use them, even men’s dress slacks use them!
2. Accordion Pleats
Accordion pleats have narrow, evenly spaced parallel folds, usually no bigger than half an inch. While you may see garments that use just a few accordion pleats, more often these symmetrical folds come preset in fabric and make up the entirety of a garment.
Accordion fold skirts, for example, have hundreds of tiny folds held in place at the waistband and then swirl out into a more open zigzag shape at the hem of the full skirt.
Technically, accordion folds are a smaller version of the precise knife pleat. Factory-style pleating or heat-setting machines usually create these folds. Synthetic fabrics hold the shape more easily than all-natural fabrics.
3. Box Pleats
Box pleats use two knife pleats facing in opposite directions so that the open sides of the folds meet in the middle. From the front of the garment, this looks like one wide, flat fold tucked under at each side. You can find box pleats in the type of plaid skirts popular for school uniforms, as well as at the back of a classically cut men’s dress shirt.
You will find box pleats in many types of clothing, as this simple double fold conveniently adds a bit of volume to many different styles of clothing. The simple box pleat is one of the most popular and commonly used of all pleat types in modern fashion!
Unlike accordion folds, box pleats often appear on their own, rather than as a repeating series of folds. They usually have quite wide folds and look decorative, as well as adding extra fabric to a garment.
4. Cartridge Pleats
Cartridge pleats, also called gauging, use multiple rows of exactly measured basting stitches to gather many precise, tiny folds of fabric into a small space. The method works a lot like using a gathering stitch, except that the rows of basting stitches require careful measurement to create tiny folds instead of uneven gathers.
Cartridge folding doesn’t get used a whole lot in modern clothing. A couple of hundred years ago, when women wore long, full garments like petticoats, cartridge pleats provided the sturdy gathered fullness necessary for such bulky clothing. Today, anyone interested in costumes or historical reenactment often sews this style by hand.
5. Cascade Pleats
Cascade pleats use a tapered, vertical fold that gets larger as it cascades lower down the garment or simply folds at a slanted angle in repeating symmetrical folds. Some styles of saris use this type of fold to shape six or more yards of silk into a wearable design!
In technical terms, cascade pleats are thin sunray folds that fall at an angle toward the bottom of the piece of clothing. You may also see these folds called sunray folds, sunburst folds, or sari/saree folds.
6. Crystal Pleats
Crystal pleats have the distinction of forming the smallest, sharpest pleat commonly used in clothing. These folds use the style of a knife fold but in a tiny ⅛ of an inch width.
These thin folds all face the same way and have a symmetrical width. To make them, you pinch together the required amount of fabric and fold the material to one side. These small folds look a lot like fluting, though fluting almost comes from a commercial factory machine.
You see these used most often for pleated skirts or to add a sort of crimped texture to a thin, gauzy material in a dress.
7. Fancy Pleats
The rather broad category of “fancy pleats” covers the intricate and sometimes elaborate folding designs used in couture clothing or for formal evening wear. Some of these methods include contortion pleating or decorative pleating meant to add texture to a garment instead of adding volume.
Another designer-level style you may have heard of is called Fortuny pleating. This method, usually employed on a whole bolt of fabric at a time, creates tiny, uneven folds in silk or polyester faux silk.
8. Fluted Pleats
Fluting creates a gathered sort of flounce in clothing. This technique often uses a device called a flutter, but you can make fluted pleats by hand with care and patience. These small, rounded folds create a slightly stiffer drape of lace or fabric than simple gathering but still require tiny, precise folding and stitching.
You see hand-made fluted pleats in beautiful doll clothes and sometimes in decorative touches on ready-wear clothing, too. A pencil skirt might get a fancy update with the addition of a flirty fluted hem, for example!
9. Graduated Pleats
Graduated pleats flare out toward the bottom of the fold, meaning that the folds include more fabric at the base than at the top. This tapering creates a lovely silhouette perfect for people with many different kinds of body types.
Sunburst pleats are a type of graduated pleat. These folds require careful measurement when made by hand, as you can imagine!
They look really lovely and decorative, though, and provide a lot of room for movement in a skirt. You might find these folds in loose sleeves on a dress, but most often, you will see them in an especially elegant pleated skirt.
10. Honeycomb Pleats
Honeycomb pleats, also called honeycomb smocking, creates a honeycomb-like pattern of tiny gathered folds spaced out in rows across the fabric. This decorative touch remains popular for fancy children’s clothing today. It may pop back into style for women’s fashion at any moment as well–it had its heyday during the 70s when peasant-style blouses were in high demand!
To create this unique, decorative series of folds, you mark a square grid on a piece of fabric. You then use a needle and thread to connect all four corners of each small square to each other. The result looks a bit like shirring but does not use elastic thread and machine gathers.
11. Inverted Pleats
Inverted pleats are inside-out pleats that place the folded portion on the outside of the garment instead of the inside. For example, an inverted box pleat places the flat, large fold on the inside of the garment and the two folded-over edges of the fabric on the outside of the garment. This creates a swishy, hidden divot of fabric behind the folded edges.
Though it sounds tricky, you make inverted pleats just as you would a regular box or knife fold. You simply flip the fabric over and work on its opposite side!
Many, many clothing styles use inverted pleats. This type of fold adds volume to the garment without any obvious folds on the surface of the clothing. Lots of skirts, dresses, and even draperies use inverted folds!
12. Kick Pleats
Kick pleats are a type of inverted pleats commonly used on knee-length and A-line skirts. Sometimes, you will find these hidden folds at the lower back of a skirt to give your legs more wiggle room. Alternatively, you may find them spaced out around the whole lower portion of the skirt to create a fuller, more flexible hem.
Sometimes you will even see another color added inside the inverted kick pleat for some added style!
Kick pleats may take the style of an inverted box pleat, or they might stand alone as inverted knife pleats.
13. Kingussie Pleats
This unique series of pleats takes its name from a Scottish town and is used to fold kilts to make them ready to wear. The central pleat in the series is a large box pleat, with knife pleats added on at each side until all the plaid fabric forms a neatly folded line ready to be belted around the waist.
You may also see this pleating method simply called “kilt pleats.” Of course, these days, most kilts come sewed in a kilt shape with handy zippers and preset pleats. Traditionally, the wearer made all the folds by hand in a long, flat rectangle of plaid and then belted it into place!
14. Mushroom Pleats
Mushroom pleats are almost exclusively machine-made and preset in fabric. They have a looser, more linear shape than Fortuny pleats and create a whimsical, elegant type of fabric popular for formal wear. Unlike Fortuny folds that work best in silk, this style holds in synthetic materials like polyester.
Can you make this type of fold by hand? At the turn of the 20th century, all pleating was done by hand or by using specially designed handmade machines! Of course, this happened before the invention of synthetic fabrics.
Some synthetic fabrics do require commercial machines to easily set the folds. For that reason, and to save yourself a lot of time, you may prefer to buy premade mushroom pleat fabric.
15. Plisse Pleats
Plisse pleats start like cartridge pleats but are held by dampening the folds with water and then drying them under a weight. Today, you see this technique used most often in a special type of material called plisse fabric. You may also find this material called crinkle crepe.
Plisse pleats show up often in couture garments, as do many “fancy” folds of this nature. You could, in theory, create your own plisse fabric using a fine tulle-type material and creating your own cardboard pleating board, but this takes many hours of labor!
16. Rolled Pleats
Rolled-up pleats literally roll up a tube of fabric. This makes a very voluminous, puffy pleat that looks quite bulky. An organ pleat is a type of repeating rolled pleat, sometimes used for puffy, full skirts.
This special method does use a ton of fabric, as the fabric rolls over itself to create each tubular pleat. Perhaps for that reason, it isn’t as popular in off-the-rack clothing as a flat pleat. That said, you may find it in couture clothing or even create it yourself to make period-authentic clothing if you like vintage styles!
17. Sunburst Pleats
Sunburst pleats look a lot like graduated pleats but are cut on the bias of the fabric to create a uniquely flared style. These beautiful folds look like rays reaching out from a more tapered center to a broader bottom. You might see this type of fold used to create elegant short sleeves in a dress.
Most often, fancy sunburst pleats show up around the hem of a skirt for an elegant, flared style. They narrow at the top and widen at the bottom for a swirly, high-volume kind of skirt that looks much more elegant than a simple gathered skirt!
What Are the Most Common Forms of Pleats?
The most common types of pleats in off-the-rack clothing are knife, accordion, and box pleats. Kick pleats and inverted peats also make a strong showing.
You will find knife pleats pretty much everywhere, from pockets to skirts to sleeves. Knife folds have a sharp, pressed edge and typically provide a little extra volume for ease of movement in a garment.
Accordion pleats show up in what you might simply call a pleated skirt–a skirt that has narrow, symmetrical folds all the way around.
Box pleats have many uses. You find them a lot in the lining of a jacket located at the upper back or at the middle back of a dress, where they give extra room for arm movement. You also see them at the waist or hip height on a skirt to add volume and allow leg movement.
Kick and inverted pleats often (though not always) get used toward the lower edge of a skirt, especially a fairly tight skirt such as an A-line or a pencil skirt. This allows for more easy walking. Or kicking, of course, as the name suggests!
What are the Types of Pleated Skirts?
You can use pleats in many different types of skirts, but the most popular types of pleated skirts are the kick pleat skirt, the accordion-pleated skirt, and the A-line inverted pleat skirt. In recent years a type of maxi skirt or dress using box pleats has emerged, and this one seems increasingly popular as well.
Kick pleats, as you now know, add a little flare of extra fabric at the lower edge of a skirt. This makes walking much easier! Kick-pleat skirts range from the plaid schoolgirl skirt to elegant wool pencil skirts with one or two hidden kick pleats at the back of the skirt for discrete added volume.
Accordion-pleated skirts are circle skirts or elastic-waist skirts made out of preset pleated fabric, usually in a lightweight satin or some form of tulle. These skirts have a lovely flare and look stylish in both knee-length and ankle length!
A-line skirts can look overly simplistic, but the addition of inverted pleats gives them comfortable volume and a bit more visual appeal. You may see the folds located at the waist or hip or knee height on a skirt.
How is Pleated Fabric Made?
Most pre-pleated fabric comes from factories that use chemicals to freeze the material permanently in long rows of accordion or mushroom folds. This process can vary depending on the type of fabric, though.
Synthetic materials will melt when exposed to high heat, making the chemical process more necessary. Natural fabric may permanently be set under heat or pressure.
Typically, only light, thin, or translucent fabrics do well with permanent pleating. You can buy these specialty fabrics from large online stores like Mood Fabric, though you may also find a small selection at your local sewing store.
How to Sew Pleats
If you’re just starting in the world of pleat-making, you should probably begin with a basic knife pleat. This handy fold will teach you the basics of pleating methods, and you can branch out to more complex folds as time goes on!
Most sewing patterns give directions on pleat-making, but sometimes patterns have vague steps or even leave out details that beginning sewers wouldn’t know.
You can follow these simple steps to create a basic knife fold in any garment!
- First, you will need to mark your fabric with the pleat markings on your sewing pattern. Typically, these look like dotted parallel lines. You can use pins, a sewing pencil, or chalk for this.
- Next, fold the fabric with the right side facing up toward you. Match up the lines you just marked by moving one on top of the other in the direction of the arrow on the sewing pattern. The lines should align perfectly, one on top of the other.
- Pin or clip the fold in place. Quilting or sewing clips come in very handy for pleating, as you can easily remove them while sewing!
- If your fabric can handle ironing, press the folds in place to give them a defined edge.
- Use a basting stitch on your sewing machine to sew along the top edge of the folds, usually half an inch from the raw edge of the material.
- You can now sew the pleated piece into the rest of the garment!
Pleats fold the fabric to add volume, decoration, and texture to a garment. Knife, accordion, and box pleats have the most popular style for use in off-the-rack clothing, but many intricate forms of pleating exist in couture clothes.
Some forms of pleats primarily exist just for certain types of clothing, such as Kingussie pleats for kilts and cascade pleats for sarees. Many types of skirts and dresses use various folding styles, especially kick pleats to widen a skirt hem and box pleats at the middle back of a dress.
Have you ever sewn a pleat? What style of fold did you use? Leave a comment below to let us know!