An Afternoon at Specialty Pleaters

On the 24th of November, myself and a dozen others  spent the afternoon with Simon Zdraveski, his interns and 90 years worth of pleating history in a small factory in the industrial inland of Williamstown, Melbourne. It was both magical and a bit sad…

Some of you might be familiar with this article about Specialty Pleaters from Broadsheet – and if not, it’s worth the read. There are approximately 12 pleating businesses left in the world – Australia has two of them – and they’re all struggling to stay alive as industry moves away from labour-intensive processing, moves what little specialty work there is left offshore, or just don’t know of it’s existence.  

Simon Zradevski, in the Specialty Pleaters workshop

Even one of the last volume customers of the pleating world – school uniforms – is moving away from this trade as our kids’ school clothing policy becomes increasingly casualised – track pants and polo shirts, compared to the button up shirts, ties and pleated kilts that I grew up wearing on the daily. 

The factory space itself is filled with pleating mold forms going back goodness how long knows – none of it has ever been catalogued – autoclaves and custom-built steam ovens, and four or five pleating machines – all of which bar one have been decommissioned. A treasure trove of possibility that will soon be lost – Simon currently operates Specialty Pleaters to cover overheads, no wages (not even his), and that even is a challenge. 

Hokum Australia recently did an indiegogo campaign to help raise funds to continue to keep Specialty Pleaters alive – with the option to donate or buy a pleated silk twill print scarf – which I believe were partly inspired by Hermès scarves, but with printed designs more in line with Hokum’s distinctive style. They’re stunning – and I’m really quite sad I didn’t know about it before it ended! Simon mentioned that Hokum will potentially sell the scarves online (albiet at full retail price) in the near future… I was lucky enough to see the first pleated scarves come off the machine for those of your who were lucky enough to secure one – they’re stunning!

TECHNICAL LOWDOWN – Machine Pleating
Machine pleating is obviously used for bulk pleating work – producing far greater volumes with less human contribution. Interestingly, it relies on a combination of heat and pressure and produces pleating instantly, unlike pleating by hand which is a 24 hour process using heat and steam. 

But as with hand-pleating, the fabric is still sandwiched in between two layers of paper for machine pleating – protecting it from direct contact with the machinery.  

The heat and pressure create a totally different result – with machine pleated fabric having much stronger profile, compared to the softer outcome of the hand pleated method. It also appears to impact the hand of the fabric. Below shows the exact same fabric that has been pleated with both techniques as a comparison – machine pleated on the left, hand pleated on the right:

But pleating is one of those things that really cannot be well communicated in a 2D medium – I’ve saved a lot of my short-length videos on Instagram stories – I’ve also spent more time than I care to admit figuring out how to insert videos into this medium, so I hope you enjoy them!

TECHNICAL LOWDOWN – Hand Pleating
These days – pleating is more of an artform than a business – relying on custom skilled hand work to keep it visible – which means these businesses need to be creative to be commercially viable.

Hand pleating is a gentler technique that gives a softer look, using heat and steam to create this. You can pre-hem your fabric before pleating by hand – however this is best for hems on the straight grain. For hems on a curve – like the circle skirt of a sunray pleat – it’s best to hem post pleating, once it’s been hung to let the bias fabric sections ‘drop’. Ideally though this would potentially be left unhemmed, or run through with a baby-lock stitch (which does detract slightly from the sharp end finish, creating a soft wave to the end pleats).

You may recall that back in my very early sewing days – I had a skirt pleated, and by Specialty Pleaters too. But knowing what I now know – I’m embarassed by how little I was charged for the work… and then I went on to talk negatively about the outcome without understanding the reasons why what had occurred, happened. I’m hoping I can somehow atone for it through this write up. I’ll get to that shortly!

Hand Pleating is a 24 hour process, requiring more than one person when the panels being pleated are large. The fabric is placed between two paper forms, then folded up, secured, then placed inside a steam oven (time and temperature dependant on fabric). Once it comes out of the oven, the wrapped up form must then cool overnight to ensure all the moisture has been removed from the paper. These ovens are custom built – costing anywhere between AUD$50k-110k. 

The paper (285gsm, with a wax protective coating which is no longer available in Australia) form molds themselves are a precision work of origami art, with even a simple box pleat pattern taking days to complete.  Simon has a few forms by a colleague in Egypt – Shady Mohammed from Global Pleating – created these two below, and many more – his Instagram page is a delightful trip down the rabbit hole for anyone who loves a bit of mind-boggling 3D origami geometry!

I’m grateful that some of the artisans in this space are willing to share their art form – as I doubt you’d ever be able to go behind the doors of the better known European pleaters like Maison Lognon – which Chanel have just bought out. Regardless, Shady’s pleating form creation is just incredible! Whilst there is definite benefits to keeping IP close to your heart in new and emerging industries, when the art form is losing traction and dying – I do believe the opposite is true – to attract people back and invigorate interest to keep it alive. 

One of the more bonkers mold forms is the ‘Artichoke’ Pleat, which we were able to see. I took the videos in a series of successive bursts (so I could put them on Instagram) – but I’ve also uploaded the videos here if you’ve like to see them. I can easily believe that it would take half a day to get the fabric and second form all into place before popping it in the oven!

This would make an amazing flutter sleeve on a blouse!

ATONEMENT FOR MY PREVIOUS COMMENTS ON PLEATING
Simon, to his credit, has stopped the business from charging rates that are unsustainable, in an effort to operate on commercial terms. Now I am better informed, I am quite ashamed of how much I was charged by the previous owner of the business for my two sunray pleats – something like $40 for the pair. $20 for a single long sunray pleat – when you consider the labour and production time involved – is just wrong. 30 minutes of labour to get the fabric in the form, then the costs of heating up the auto-clave, then time spent packaging it back up to send back to me – is not $40 worth of product. 

Plus, I sent in my fabric in a satchel bag – so the fabric would have been crushed and creased – and needing pressing before putting it in the form – which I also wasn’t charged for.

Simon now requests that fabric sent in is rolled up with tissue paper and put in a mailing tube, which he can then send it back in – pleated fabric can’t just go back in a satchel bag! 

I was also utterly unfair about the un-evenness of the hem – at the time I was green enough about sewing to have no understanding of the impact of bias cut fabric, so I’ve since updated that post to reflect this better. 

My Anniversaire Amour dress (from back in 2012!!!), featuring a sunray pleated circle skirt.

FABRIC
It appears to be common knowledge that you can’t pleat natural fibres – which is incorrect. You can pleat any fabric – including tulle (but excluding net. As soon as you get more ‘gaps’ than fibre, it’s not an option). 

Mariano Fortuny was a pioneer early last century with pleating silk – the highly secretive patented mushroom pleat – allowing a radical amount of movement for those wearing his rather simple but form fitting garments. His techniques were all done by hand (synthetics and pleating machines were not invented until mid-last century) with incredibly accuracy and consistency. International Pleating (New York) have a wonderful article on Fortuny Pleating. What is incredible is that this silk hand pleated fabric still holds its shape today, with several museums around the world showcasing Fortuny’s infamous Delphos gown

Image of Fortuny Pleating via Susanna Galanis

I think what has been lost in translation is that pleated synthetic fibres are far more durable – and can withstand today’s methods of ‘dry’ cleaning. There are no chemicals used in the pleating process – just heat and steam (and pressure if you’re going the mechanical route) – so for natural fibres, applying heat and steam overwrites the previous fibre memory of being pleated. Synthetic pleated fabric can be cold hand washed and drip dried in the shade – making them far more practicable for todays use. Silk fabrics can be beautifully pleated – one of Simon’s intern’s showed us a a few samples – the drape is incredible!

Typically lighter weight fabrics are used – like in the above left image (showing off the pleating technique that took Issey Mikaye to fame). Thicker/heavier weight the fabric can also be used – like in the above right image, however there is a need to use proportionally larger pleat patterns, meaning the fabric is unlikely to ‘snap back’ into shape like the smaller pleating. You can see how the pleats gently fold out in the teal crepe fabric. The video of pink fabric below is quite similar to the hand of Issey Miyake pleating:

With hand pleating, the smallest you can really go is Australia is 1cm pleats. Perhaps you could go smaller, but the mold forms don’t exist… With machine pleating – you can get down to 3mm – which turns any fabric into an incredibly structured form, like below (which can only be really seen in motion). 

1cm hand plated panel

A WORD ABOUT DRY CLEANING
It’s not really ‘dry’. Perhaps more accurately – no water is used. Instead, solvents are used to draw out dirt and impurities, then garments are heated and dried to remove the solvents (which have a far lower evaporation point than water). Which is fine for synthetics, but not pleated natural fibres. One of the things I’ve been trying to find in Melbourne – a really really good dry cleaner. Somewhere to take my French Jacket, for example. 

Thanks to Simon – I now know where I’ll be going, as there are apparently two in Melbourne who still follow original methods:
 – Syndle Dry Cleaners (various locations) who only do bridalwear, and
 – Domain Dry Cleaners (in South Yarra).

Melbournians, you can thank me later ;)

INSPIRATION
One of the ladies I met during the course of the afternoon – Gail – is an incredibly talented sewist who has already worked with Simon twice for two dresses she’s sewn – both of which have been worn at Fashions on the Field for the Melbourne Cup. I’ll see if I can get some pictures of her frocks to share with you! 

I left some green fabric with Simon at the end of the afternoon to have a specialty pleat made up for a skirt, and also discussed with him a more ambitious pleating option that I’m currently sourcing the right fabric for… I predict there is going to be quite a few pleated skirts in my future!

I’m feeling my sewjo coming back – thinking about how fun it will be to wear the above this summer! I’m thinking a midi-skirt for this one – and I look forward to sharing it with you soon!

And I’ll leave you with a few images I’ve pulled from Pinterest… and the knowledge that Tatyana will be hosting a pleated garment sewalong for ASG members in December, details to be announced soon!

Image via ThePhilophiles – which references this as a Celine shirt? Stunning!
I’d like one of these, please. 
Fun with sleeves! Image via Pinterest. “Coperni Femme | Fraise shirt with detachable, modular ruffles in crisply crimped cotton poplin”
I’m so into the white shirt and pleated skirt feels. Victoria Beckham, image via The Daily Mail
Source unknown. This garment is particularly reminiscent of The Makers Aterlier Asymmetric Gather Dress, as worn by Anna! This is a new-to-me pattern company – and I love their stuff.
Source: Unknown. Status: Stunning.
Burberry Prorsum Pleated Silk Dress, via Clothes-Fashion.com (more pictures of this beauty in the link!)

And lastly (but not leastly) this fabulous wrap-skirt creation, designed and made by one of Simon’s interns, who is a student at RMIT. I love how she has adjusted the alignment of the front wrap to get the pleats on an angle, but at the back they are straight up and down!

Note: I paid for the privilege of attending this session with Specialty Pleaters. If you don’t live nearby and are keen to have something pleated – get in touch with Simon – as postage is totally an option (just rolled up in a tube to prevent creasing!)
Also – there is another wonderful blog post about pleating
here, if this interests you! Thank you to Mrs Mole for bringing it to my attention.

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13 thoughts on “An Afternoon at Specialty Pleaters

  1. Pingback: M5972: Anniversaire Amour Dress « poppykettle

  2. Wonderful post and so many ideas. I take my pleating projects to International Pleating in NYC, which has a similar setup. The owners, Leon and George Kalajian, have written a book: Pleating: Fundamentals for Fashion Design. It’s not a how-to manual but an illustration of using pleating in design. Fortunately they will also work by mail order for those who aren’t close to NY. I agree that the cost of having panels custom pleated seems very low when you consider the amount of work/time involved. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Ah yes, I remember Simon mentioning their book! And that it was a bit of a pleating-through-time family history tome, it certainly sounded fascinating. I adore your work and blog Mary – thanks for stopping by :)

  3. This is an incredibly educational post! Thank you for researching the topic. Is there any information on how pleated silk or other natural fibres can be cleaned in order to maintain the pleats or are they considered uncleanable – in the end, I wasn’t sure from what you wrote. Not living in your part of the world, I wouldn’t be able to use the dry cleaners mentioned and therefore, would like to know a little more about the natural fibre process as I hunt about for suitable fabrics and cleaners. The more complex pleating examples you showed are stunning and I would love to have one created for myself.

    • I’m probably a little out of my depth here – but I recall hearing Simon say that natural fibers – especially the lightweight silks – can really only be spot cleaned or air dryed, as the risk of the hand pleating being undone is high. But a wool crepe for example, could likely withstand the process and be pressed back into shape to a degree. I do recall my wool school uniform kilt always being so lovely and sharp when new, but overtime the pleats soften as the fibres relax (and that was dry cleaned). Hope that helps!

  4. great blog post and you are fortunate to have this near you. I hope they can survive. Long ago I took some classes here in the SF bay area and we sent fabric off for pleating, I made two skirts, including a black wool skirt which I still have and the pleats are perfect. Of course that company is long gone. Those inspiration images are fantastic!

    • I hope they do, too! I’m planning quite a few different pleated projects so I can at least support and utilise the expertise and equipment whilst it is! Did you blog about those skirts? I’m going to have to search through your archives now!

  5. Thanks for the detailed post. Fascinating. Also thanks for the dry cleaners! Look forward to seeing the fabric made up.

  6. Thank you for delving deeper into this subject. The mind boggles at how many designs of pleating can be done but also sad that this is a fading technique. Seeing a perfectly pleated and sewn garment is just mesmerizing!

  7. Awesome post! I’ve often wondered about pleating things and shied away because I had heard only synthetic fibres could be used. Plus, I’m still recovering from the box pleats of the 1980’s…
    And many thanks for the dry cleaner info.

  8. Aaaaaah it looked sooooo good! So glad you got to go. Hope he continues to run the workshops and thrilled to be getting my scarf soooon! Xx

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