This piece was originally written for the Tender Stores newsletter. If you would like to sign up for our occasional mailing list please click here.

On Pleats and Darts

The history of woven clothing starts with a piece of flat fabric (felted, knitted, and leather garments are a different matter), and the simplest garment would probably be a pinned cloak or perhaps some sort of sheet with a head hole. As soon as your aspirations get beyond that you need to create shape, either by adding fabric in or taking it out. If we go back to our cloak, and simplify the shape of the wearer to something like a wine bottle, we can see that in order to fit around the body but not fall off the shoulders, we either need a neck-sized tube with lots of extra fabric sewn in to allow for the size of the body, or a body-sized tube with enough fabric taken out to pull the top in close to the neck. Somewhat counterintuitively, the way to add volume into a garment is usually to take shape out, rather than to add fabric in. An alternative analogy to the bottle-shaped cloak, and presumably also a fairly early development in fabric manipulation, is the drawstring bag: the body needs to be big enough to be useful for carrying things, and the opening needs to be small enough that the things don’t fall out.

Type 117 Knitted Pyjama Trousers are shaped wide, and pulled in at the waist in the same way.

A drawstring can either be adjusted in use, as with a bag or trousers which need to be opened and closed, or can be employed to create ruching during the sewing process- as in early shirt sleeves, very wide up the arm and gathered to a narrow cuff, sewn in place with a stripe of lace. Some formal shirts, still, are drawn at the cuff in a series of very small gathers. Somewhere between these options are semi-permanent drawstrings, which are usually set initially and then tied off and left alone: curtain gathers are like this, as are traditional formal hats, which used to have laces running through the inner band to adjust the fit to the owner’s head (ratchet bands on industrial hard hats do pretty much the same thing). I don’t know but I would guess that the little bow of ribbon that you often see at the inside back of hats is a vestigial nod to these adjusters.


If early shirt sleeves were originally ruched, or gathered, to reduce their width down to a narrow cuff, the standard cuff treatment now is a set of pleats. A pleat is a fold of fabric which is trapped at one or both ends, usually into a seam or hem, but left open along its length. Shirt cuffs are usually single-ended, trapped into the cuff edge and opening out into the sleeve- the amount of fabric in the fold makes the difference in volume between the wider body of the sleeve and the smaller cuff. A Tender shirt cuff has a single large pleat either side of the opening, which is cut directly into the sleeve seam so that the cuff opens underneath the wrist:

The constructional equivalent of a shirt cuff, trousers are often brought into a sewn-on waistband, allowing for a roomier top block (the thighs, seat, and crotch) and a clean waistband that pulls the garment in over the hips. In tailoring, if the fronts of the trousers are shaped they usually have a pleat or pleats in the middle of each front, and a dart or darts at the back. A dart is the same as a pleat, but rather than being caught at one end and left to hang open, it is sewn closed (usually from inside the garment), then pressed flat and often topstitched. Depending on the thickness of the fabric, the folded inlays may then be cut away. The advantage of a dart is that it gives a cleaner finish to the outside, which can also have a pocket sewn over it, as on the right side of these type 140 Cross Cut Trews Shorts. However you lose the flexibility of a pleat, which can hang closed or pull open as necessary. Darts need to be run off carefully when they are sewn: too abrupt of an angle results in a pointed end visible from the outside, known in tailoring as a ’tit’.

Pleats are quite often found in the front of tailored trousers, but they don’t really work with Tender’s diagonal front pockets, and to date I’ve not used them in the front of trousers. For type 122 Pleat Back Trousers and Jeans, however, I used the position and function of a tailored seat dart but opened it up as a soft pleat. The pleats face inwards, towards the back seam, the equivalent of front ‘English’ pleats (facing inwards towards the fly) as opposed to ‘European’ pleats, which face outwards to the side seams. The back pleat means there can’t be any back pockets on this style, but I like how the pleat sits with no pocket underneath, and how it relates to formal trousers for braces, usually cut without back pockets and pulled up at a similar point, where the back brace button sits. I’m really happy with how these have come out in deadstock English-woven corduroys, and my own pair in 16oz selvage denim is one of my favourites.

Where trousers volume is reduced up into waistband, jeans jackets often have pleats down in the waistband, so that the fit neatly at the waist but have more room in the body. The back of the type 903 Double Breasted Jeans Jacket has two outward facing ‘European’ pleats into the back of the waistband:

A double-ended pleat is open at the middle but trapped closed at both ends. If the size of the fold at both ends of the pleat is the same, then no change in shape takes place from one end to the other, but the middle section can expand and contract. This style is often seen on vernacular American jeans jackets (for example Levi’s types I and II), and I’ve never been entirely sure why: the pleats are usually sewn closed at regular intervals, and it would be an unusually shaped wearer that would need a small chest (at the yoke seam) and waist (at the waistband) but space for expansion in between- maybe a very specific pot belly. It could be purely decorative, in the tradition of pleated bib-front shirts. I can’t find any references to it now, but I remember seeing old photographs of American children’s clothes, possibly Shaker, which had multiple pleats across the sleeves and down the fronts, which could be opened to expand and lengthen the garment as the wearer grew, then sewn back up for a younger relative.

The 901 Pleat Pocket Jeans Jacket reverses the standard front pleat, and makes it much wider, forming a large hand warmer pocket on each front, without adding any panels or seams to the construction:

In a standard formal shirt, pleats are usually put in to the back, below the yoke, to allow a little extra fabric across the back, improving freedom of arm movement. Most Tender shirts are cut without yokes, and are pleated directly into the collar seam, at the back of the neck, either with an inverted box pleat (two inward facing pleats positioned so that the touch):

or with a single large asymmetric pleat, as with the type 462 Millwheel Shirt:

Equivalent to these shirt back pleats, but more overt, ‘action back’ pleats are a standard feature of certain sports jackets, cut in at one of both shoulders, for reaching forward to shoot a gun on traditional British hunting jackets, or to ride a horse (Wrangler jeans jackets). These pleats are typically held back from inside with a strip of elastic, so that they don’t stay opened when the arms are relaxed. A similar idea (although loosely based on a nurses pinafore I saw at the Fashion Museum in Bath) the front and back panels of the type 473 Sack Shirt are cut very wide and pulled in with deep pleats at the shoulder seam:

I haven’t discussed shaping through seams, which is the most obvious technique, although historically less preferred, as unlike pleating or darting it involved irreparably damaging the fabric, which could otherwise be reused and was more valuable than the garment itself. A last word, then, to a particularly subtle way of taking out shape, which I particularly like: where a fabric’s warp and weft shrink differently they may be sewn together flat and then allowed to create shape when the garment is washed. Waistbands are usually cut down the piece of fabric, where the waists that they fasten to are usually across the piece. In this hemp-wool-cotton Bull Denim type 602 Edited Jeans Vest the waist is softly, but definitely, gathered into the waistband, which has pulled in as the cotton warp yarn retracted when the garment was dyed:

This piece was originally written for the Tender Stores newsletter. If you would like to sign up for our occasional mailing list please click here.