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Decorative box pleating

This decorative trim technique has been used for centuries on clothing and furnishings and was very popular in the 18th century. Often seen worked on ribbon, it can also be made with prepared bias-cut strips (see Other Techniques) or a fabric tube pressed flat. There are many folding variations to the Basic Method, several of which are included on the following pages.


Material and Design Notes

  • Use fabric that takes a crease well and which is not too soft, such as cotton lawn or silk dupion.
  • Allow for a length of ribbon, fabric strip or tube a little more than three times the length of the finished pleats; for example, for 30cm (12in) of pleating, use a 100cm (39¼in) length – this allows for a few centimetres (couple of inches) at each end of the pleating.
  • The pleats made must be exactly the same width as the ribbon or fabric strip used. The example given is based on a 6cm (23⁄₈in) wide fabric strip, so the half-pleats will be exactly 3cm (13⁄₁₆in) deep.
  • For the folding techniques to work correctly, the pleating must be precise. The pleats should be close together and completely square.

1). First make a pleat measure from a piece of lightweight card – in this case approx 5cm (2in) wide by 15cm (6in) long – and mark a line HALF the width of the fabric strip from one end, which is 3cm (13⁄₁₆in) in this sample. This marked line will be your guide when making the pleats.

2). Start with the fabric strip the right side up and mark 6cm (23⁄₈in) – or the width of your fabric strip – along from the end with a pin. Place the card measure so the drawn line is on the pin. Fold the fabric strip over the measure (folding to the left) so the new fold meets the marked line. Hold in place and remove the measure. Pin vertically to hold the pleat. This is the first half of the first box pleat.


Box pleating on vintage rayon grosgrain ribbon.


Box pleat on ribbon.

3). Turn the fabric strip over to the wrong side. Hold the measure so that the marked line is on the fold. Fold the strip over the measure again so the folds meet. Remove the measure and pin the pleat.


4). Turn over and repeat with the marked line on the fold and continue, turning the fabric strip over each time, until you have enough whole pleats or run out of fabric. The folding direction should follow the diagram below.


5). Press the pleated strips flat. Use chalk or vanishing pen to mark a line down the centre of each strip and machine sew along the marked line to secure the pleats in place. Alternatively, use the marked line to sew the pleated strips directly onto a backing fabric, such as a cushion cover or an item of clothing.


By using transparent silk organza strips rather than ribbon, the box pleat becomes ethereal and light. The strips are cut on the bias which allows the pleats to curve beautifully whilst not fraying.


Folding variations for basic box pleat

Once the box pleats have been made, the pleats can be pressed or left unpressed then manipulated, folded or stitched into many different designs.

Pinch top

The tops of each pleat are stitched together. Lift the top layer of the top and bottom edge of the pleat and bring together at A. Use tiny stitches to secure the two sides at the mid-point.



Pinch top.

Point to point

Fold the opposing corners of the pleat over to the centre line and press to keep them in place. You can stitch the folded pleats into position if you wish: fasten the thread on the reverse side and bring the needle up from the back, make a couple of stitches then fasten on the back.



Point to point.


These are made in a similar way to Point to Point, but this time each corner of the pleat is folded to the centre and stitched down.



Squares, pressed.


Squares, unpressed.


Take the centre bottom edge of the pleat, top layer only, and lift it up so point A meets point B, holding the bottom of the pleat in place. Press the folds flat so that what was the bottom edge of the pleat becomes the vertical ‘mouth’ of the diamond.


Squashed diamonds

Work in the same way as the Diamonds variation, but this time take the centre bottom edge of the pleat, top layer only, and lift it only half way up from the centre line, then press flat so the bottom points meet.


Diamonds (left) and squashed diamonds (right).

Sawtooth diamonds

Lift the top edge of the pleat and fold over to the bottom edge. As you do so, allow the underside folds at either side to fold back into triangles so that points A and B are in the correct place as shown on the diagram. Repeat.



Sawtooth diamonds.


Lift and fold the top edge of the pleat to the bottom edge. Allow the underside folds on the left-hand side to fold back to make a triangle, but on the right-hand side, press the underside folds flat to form a triangle pointing in the same direction.




Up and down triangles

Make the first fold as for Sawtooth Diamonds, lifting the top edge to the bottom edge and allowing the underside folds to make opposite triangles. Then fold the top layer only of each corner to the centre – points A and C to point B. Press flat and hand sew in place if required.



Up and down triangles: you can make all the folds in the same direction, or alternate top and bottom as shown.

Tuck under triangles

Make Up and Down Triangles, then fold points A and C underneath towards point B. Press and hand stitch if required.



Tuck under triangles.

Diamond fold back

Make Diamonds and press flat. Lift the top of the diamond and fold down from point A to point B leaving the underside folds in place. Press flat, then fold back partially so point C comes to the centre at point D.

Turn the work through 180 degrees and work the same technique on the lower half to complete the fold. Stitch at the centre if required. To keep the folds soft, do not press during construction; use finger pressing only, and then stitch the final fold.



Diamond fold back.

Points to centre

Lift the top edge of the pleat and fold so point A meets point B (slightly off centre) and the lower folded edge lies along the stitching. Repeat to fold the bottom edge of the pleat.



Points to centre.

Points to centre offset

On the top edge, lift the top layer of the pleat so point A comes to point B (in the centre of the pleat) and press the folds flat to form a triangle. On the lower edge, bring point C to point B, making sure the raw edge is vertical. Press the triangle flat.



Points to centre offset.

Points to centre overlap

On the top edge of the pleat, lift the left corner A and fold down to point B, allowing the underside pleat to fold back. Press flat. Repeat on the lower edge, bringing C to D, once again allowing the underside pleat to fold back. You can choose to overlap the top fold over the bottom fold, or vice versa as preferred. Press flat.



Points to centre overlap.

Half star

Working on the left side of the pleat, fold the top edge to make an arrow fold (see Arrows); press. Then, holding the triangle flat (where the arrow points), fold the pleat back over from point A to B so the folded back triangle is hidden under the top part of the pleat. Fold from point C to D, revealing your first fold. Press and sew in place if required. Repeat on opposite corners.




Half star.

Half star spaced

Repeat the Half Star fold on both the top and bottom edge of the left side of the box pleat. Leave the other half of the box pleat unfolded. Move on to the next box pleat and repeat, folding the left side only.


Half star spaced.


Make the Half Star fold on all four corners of each box pleat.



Decorative box pleat variations

Spacing out the pleats and combining different techniques on the same piece can be very effective. Experimenting with different pleat widths, spacing and folding techniques can create new, exciting effects.

Box pleat spaced apart

Following the Basic Method, make a box pleat but leave regular gaps between each pleat: in this sample a gap half the width of the pleat was left.


Box pleat spaced apart: here, the pleating is folded and pinned, then the whole piece is stitched directly to the base fabric.

Double and triple box pleats

Follow the Basic Method but repeat the folding on steps 2 and 3, twice for double pleats and three times for triple pleats.



Double box pleats


Triple box pleat.

Side-stitched triple box pleats

Make a triple box pleat then fold the top two layers together vertically, and stitch just at the sides.



Side-stitched triple box pleat.

Knife pleat and box pleat combination

Knife pleats can also be stitched along the centre and folded as box pleats to create more variations. This technique works well on straight grain strips or extra wide ribbon.

Basic centre-stitched knife pleat

This version of knife pleating is made in even measurements, half the width of the piece of ribbon or fabric being pleated. This, combined with centre stitching, makes it work in much the same way as box pleating as far as folding variations are concerned. It is effectively half a box pleat repeated in the same direction.

Use a card measure or a ruler to get the correct size of pleat. In the sample shown, the fabric width used was 7cm (2¾in), so each knife pleat is 3.5cm (13⁄₈in), that is half the width of the fabric used. The fabric will be reduced to one third of the original length.

1). Fold the fabric back over the end of the ruler to fold at the marked point, which is 3.5cm (13⁄₈in). Pin the pleat in place top and bottom.


2). Remove the ruler and place the half-width measurement where the underside fold is. You cannot see this fold so lift the fabric carefully to check the placement. Fold the fabric back again to the 3.5cm (13⁄₈in) mark. Pin as before, then repeat as required.


3). Machine sew along the centre of the pleats. Press if required.



Basic knife pleats made on crisp organic cotton.

Exploring folding variations

Many of the manipulations so far described can also be worked on knife pleats and knife and box pleat combinations. One basic sample is shown but many are possible.


Triangle or chevron folds: Working on the top edge, fold the corner of the pleat to the centre, bringing point A to point B; continue to create single triangles or repeat on the lower edge for chevrons.



Triangle (left) and chevron (right) folds.


Knife and box pleats can be combined to create new folding variations. In this sample there are three left-facing knife pleats and two right-facing knife pleats, creating a box pleat off-centre. Each pleat is folded in the chevron method with the box pleat creating the Pressed Squares variation.

Project Idea : Box Pleat Neckpiece

I created this piece whilst experimenting with the possibilities of box pleating using stiff silk organza. It is a dramatic, show-stopping piece. This example is quite large, but a smaller version would be more wearable: keep the length the same but use a narrower strip, and make smaller box pleats.


Technique : Box Pleat Pinch Top
Material : Silk organza

  • Using bias-cut strips of silk organza about 6cm (23⁄₈in) wide, make the basic box pleat all along the length (see Basic Method).
  • When the pleats are complete, DO NOT PRESS. Adjust to the correct length to fit over your head and join into a circle.
  • Pinch the top of each box together following Pinch Top and hold with a tiny stitch or spot of fabric glue. Repeat on the reverse side with the opposite boxes.

Spaced and irregular box pleats

Tall, narrow box pleats are folded and manipulated in different ways to the regular square pleats as they cannot be folded to the centre to create square variations.

Rectangular box pleats point to centre

In this sample, the pleats are made half the height of the fabric to create tall, rectangular pleats from a straight-cut tube of cotton fabric.

Prepare as for Basic Method and stitch along the centre. Take the top edge of the box pleat and fold to the stitched line, A to B, allowing the edges to fold out into a diamond shape.


For the twisted variation, take the centre of the bottom pleat at point A and fold to point B. Press flat. Repeat for the top pleat in the opposite or the same direction.



Adding a twist to the folds creates a kite-shape that can point in either direction. Try making them in sets of four with the points to centre for a star-effect.



Rectangular box pleats point to centre (left) and twisted variation (right).

Rectangular box pleats triangle fold

In this sample, the pleats are 5cm (2in) high but only 3.5cm (13⁄₈in) wide, creating unsymmetrical folds. The folds on the left side are made using the Points to Centre fold and those on the right, use the same method but in the same direction top and bottom, not reversed.


Rectangular spaced pinch top box pleats

In this sample, the pleats are spaced at regular intervals, and the spaces between pleats are the same width as the pleats. The sample is made using a tube of bias-cut fabric and this creates soft folds best left unpressed. Bring the bottom and top edges together and sew by hand as in Pinch Top.


Rectangular box pleats triangle fold made on biascut silk.


Rectangular spaced pinch top box pleats made in a tube of bias-cut silk.

Dips and diamonds

This sample is based on a 19th century skirt trimming made of crisp violet silk. The tall box pleats are made in the usual way, but the pleats are just half the width of the fabric. The distance between each pleat is the same as the height of the fabric.

1). Cut a length of fabric 24cm (9½in) wide and approx 1m (1yd) long. (To create a longer piece, join pieces together.) Fold in half with right sides together and sew into a tube; press and turn out. Alternatively, simply fold and leave the bottom edges raw as in this sample.

2). Starting at the right side and 6cm (23⁄₈in) in from the raw edge, make the first half-pleat 3cm (1¾in) wide. Make the other half of the pleat, then continue spacing the pleats 12cm (4¾in) apart, using the diagram for guidance on how to measure. Continue to the end of the fabric length, then sew along the centre. Remove all pins and press flat.



3). Make the small folds first. Take the top edge of the box pleat and fold to the stitched line, A to B, allowing the edges to fold out into a diamond shape Next make the deeper folds. Lift the top edge at point A and bring to point B allowing the underside folds to open back out. The underside folds should not break on the stitching line but approx 1.5cm (⁵⁄₈in) above the stitching line. Press flat.



Dips and diamonds made in a wide strip of straight-cut silk folded in half lengthways with fold shown here at top.

Lined tuck box pleat

This sample is made using tucks folded flat to create box pleats. The effect is much the same as Rectangular Box Pleats Points to Centre but as the box pleats are made with tucks, no stitching is visible on the front.

Note : The lining technique can be used with any of the construction methods and is not specific to this technique.

To create a lined fabric, cut two pieces of fabric on the straight grain the finished height plus 2cm (¾in) and three times the length plus extra for ends if required. Sew the two pieces of fabric right sides together along the long edges, using a 1cm (3⁄₈in) seam allowance. Press the seams flat, then press open, and turn the piece through to the right side.

Press the edges again, trying to keep the lining and front fabric even. Create evenly-spaced tucks following the directions in Tucks. The spaces should be the same width as the tucks, as shown in the diagram. Press the tucks open and flatten out so that they butt up to each other in the same way as Basic Method box pleats.

Now fold over the top edge of each tuck towards the centre allowingn the edges to fold out into a diamond shape. Repeat along the bottom edge.




Lined tuck box pleat : silver silk lined with purple cotton for contrast. Both fabrics should be similar weight and not too thick.

Fabric Manipulation
150 CREATIVE Sewing Techniques

Ruth Singer