No Pleater? No Problem!


Hand pleating for smocking without iron on dots or a pleater.

If you live in the south like we do you know how important smocked garments are to a little girls’ wardrobe. For those of you not blessed to live in Dixie smocked dresses and John-Johns are a church staple. Bishop dresses with smocked lobsters, watermelon, and bunnies are practically a uniform. I love bishop dresses. I love the feminine drape, the versatility, and the sheer girlishness of them. Unfortunately these lovely dresses come with not so lovely prices.

When I first got it in my head to make a bishop dress my research stopped me short. Apparently I was going to need a $300 pleater and a paper pattern, neither of which were in my budget. Eventually I found a tutorial for pleating by hand without a pleater but when I went back to actually try it the blog it was on had vanished from the internet. I remembered the basic idea and set out to do it on my own.

Pleating and smocking can be used as part or a bodice or part of a bishop. I’ll be posting a full tutorial to make a bishop dress in the future but for now I wanted the hand pleating tutorial to be out there for the world.


1 yd of fabric (for a 12-18 month dress) you may need more based on your measurements. More on this in a minute.

Clear quilting ruler and cutting mat. The mat isn’t 100% necessary but does make it much easier.

Frixion Eraseable Markers or Tailors Marker

Embroidery or Quilting Needle

Thread in a contrasting color to your fabric

Step 1: Pleat a Swatch

The next step is to pleat a swatch. This is VERY important. Do not skip this step!

Start with a 7″ x 3-4″ square. Tearing the fabric is preferable but if you must cut be my guest.

A pleat is simply a small fold in the fabric. Your goal is to create lots and lots of very small, very even pleats. You do this by sewing an even basting stitch all the way across the fabric. When working with gingham I go over the white square and under the colored square. I don’t know what made me do this originally but it worked so I went with it.


Taping the swatch down ensures it won’t shift


You can draw dots or a grid, both work.

If you are working with a different fabric you’ll need to draw a grid on the wrong side of the fabric before you can pleat. This is where the clear quilting ruler and mat come in handy. The easiest way I’ve found to draw the grid is to take your fabric and tape it to the mat so that it is lined up with the ruler. You want to line your ruler up with the lines on the mat, NOT the lines you’ve drawn. This will ensure your lines stay straight. Draw the grid approximately 1/2″ from away from each side. You’ll need 4-5 horizontal lines and as many vertical lines as it takes to go across. When you are finished it should look like this.


Line the ruler up with the mat not with previous lines.


Finished Lines (with bonus armholes drawn on)

Once the grid is drawn you are going to go up through the first corner and across the fabric horizontally picking up every half square. You can pick up every other square but it will result in a fatter pleat. You can also draw a grid made up of 1/8″ squares but it will take forever and honestly I don’t have it in me. Make sure you leave a long tail on both ends of the fabric. I made the video below showing exactly how to do the stitching. If you’ve ever hand quilted it’s very similar to that.

IMG_7057      IMG_7064

When you’ve finished sewing across all the horizontal lines the real fun begins. On one end you’ll need to tie your gathering threads together. I always do this on the end I started at but I don’t know that it actually matters for the swatch. Grasp the threads from the other end and gently pull all of them evenly. The fabric should gather like magic! I will admit that generally while pleating I pull the gathering threads in just so I can see it.

Once your fabric is gathered to an even tight pleat you’ll need to measure it. Remember that it started out at 6 inches. My pleating generally ends up right around 1 inch. This makes my pleating ratio 6:1 (Isn’t math fun?). Make sure you find your own ratio but don’t worry about it being exact. Round it to the nearest 1/4 inch.

Repeat this process on the fabric being used for your dress and then smock.

If you’ve never smocked before I suggest checking out some books from your local library or watching the Martha Pullen videos on Youtube. You can follow a smocking plate but I find it much more fun to design my own patterns.


Finished Product!


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