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Re-create Couture Pleated Silk Organza Panels

The students in my couture sewing seminars are always presenting me (and themselves) with interesting challenges. It’s fun for everyone in the class to see how things are worked out. My student Cheryl Marsh tackled something interesting just the other day, and I’d like to share it with you.

Cheryl was inspired by a dress designed by Oscar de la Renta with a standard application of quilting; hand-finishing the seams on the inside, a hand-picked zipper, applied trim, and pleated silk organza panels, which are the stars of this tutorial.

She needed to make six pleated panels of various sizes: the front yoke, the two back yokes, two short sleeves, and a long horizontal panel for the bottom of the skirt. We calculated roughly how much silk organza she’d need for each panel, and she got to work. While the pleats we created were slightly bigger than those in the original dress, we liked the idea of using a blocking board’s 1-inch spacing. We did a quick sample, and we were happy with the result. We did need to figure out the best way to produce the pleats, and here’s what we did:

Fortunately, Cheryl brought a 20-inch-by-30-inch blocking board to class. It had a sturdy padded surface with a clearly marked 1-inch grid, perfect for aligning and pinning the pleats in place. (She bought it at a chain store for about $30).

Begin by pinning all four sides of an organza strip to the blocking board, aligning the raw edges along the printed grid.

Next, chalk the foldlines. She used a Chakoner for this.

There are lots of similar markers around, but I find this type disturbs the fabric the least. We simply wanted to skim over it, leaving a narrow chalk line behind.
We chose to use white chalk because we were worried any other color might leave a residue. Unfortunately, the chalk wasn’t particularly visible for sewing in our sample.

Since chalk tends to rub off quickly, we hand-basted the chalked lines.

Then, we carefully pinned the pleats and sewed them by machine.

Clearly, they needed to be pressed, and we didn’t want them pressed to one side, as it would have revealed the machine stitching. Instead, we wanted the seamlines centered out of sight on the underside of each pleat.

It’s impossible to do that without some sort of a tool, so we made a template to slip into each tunnel as it was being oriented and pressed. We tried a strip of thick paper cut from a manila folder, but it got flimsy quickly. Cheryl dashed off to the store, bought a thin plastic mat, and used her rotary cutter to cut a strip of plastic the width of each pleat tunnel.

She even managed to cut the plastic so that there was a line down the center to serve as a pleat pressing guide. It helped orient the seamlines as she pressed each pleat.

Once the pressing was done, it was back to the blocking board for a little more work.

Each pleated panel was pulled taut on the blocking board, firmly pinned, carefully aligned, spritzed with water, and left to dry.

Once dry, the panels were unpinned and muslin pattern pieces put on top.

As the panels are sheer, we couldn’t risk any carbon marks showing, so we knew we’d have to mark the stitching lines another way. As shown below, it is clear that the seam allowances were trimmed off the muslin pieces. The stitching lines defined the edges.

Next, we thread-basted around each muslin section easily, marking the stitching lines onto each pleated panel

All in all, it wasn’t a quick process, but the results are lovely, and now the panels are ready to be sewn to the body of the dress.

My thanks to Cheryl for her hard work and her willingness to share her efforts, and to fellow student Susan Shildmyer for the photographs.

Has your sewing been inspired by couture designers, techniques, or elements? If so, which designers have had the most influence on your sewing? What couture elements have you tried to re-create?


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  1. User avater
    RedPointTailor | | #1

    Fabulous! Absolutly great! I know it costs a lot (really a lot of) time but it is really worth it! Susan - you are amazing!

  2. User avater
    MysteryWoman | | #2

    Susan, this is gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. Thanks so much for sharing this with us -- I'm going to use this for one of projects in my monthly challenge group. There are so many possibilities with this. The edges could be stitched down with decorative thread, or a ribbon could be inserted into each pleat. Or the pleats could be embellished with beads and sewn into place. And on and on . . . What a beautiful element to any garment. See you at the American Sewing Guild conference in DC in August!

  3. HarmonyQ | | #3

    This reminds me of a French sewing technique called 'Nun's Pleats.' It is a lovely detail that is well worth one's patience. For ironing the pleats open, there are plastic and metal tools for making your own bias strips. Quilters use these constantly. I prefer the plastic and they are sold in sets with different widths. These insert into the pleats perfectly for ironing. No need to make your own. Conveniently, you can find on the market ones which have the center opened up for easy seam alignment.

  4. User avater
    SueatMagnolia | | #4

    Hello Susan and Cheryl. Lovely result and well worth the time and effort. I concur with HarmonyQ. Clover produce a set of plastic rods in varying widths for pressing accurate tubes - just perfect for this application.
    The other tool I would try using is a fine tipped marker from Pilot Pens. It's called an 'Erasable Pen' and you get it from stationers, supermarkets etc. here in Australia. I'm sure you can get them in the USA. It comes in a range of colours and produces a fine line. It's beauty lies in the fact that heat from the iron erases it completely. The packaging states that it will only reappear in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Centigrade. So unless you are wearing the dress in the Antarctic (or the Arctic, in your case) you are pretty safe.

  5. kne5017894 | | #5

    Is there a photo of the finshed garment? I was not able to find and would love to see how the pieces looked once assembled.

  6. manella | | #6

    Hi Susan, Forgive me if I seem a bit dull, but it kind-a come with age. But, what happens after you base around the muslin? I would also like to see the finished product. I couldn't make out the details from the photo. Dull eyesight also comes with age :). I thank you in advance for your response.

  7. darlen0383 | | #7

    this is stupendous..! can you also show us the "illusion necklines"?

  8. Cinsred5 | | #8

    Nice detail work! If you want to see a close up of the inspiration dress, hold down your Ctrl key while you rotate your mouse button to scroll and increase the size of the page, you should be able to see the yoke and hemline details much better in the picture.

  9. SusanKhalje | | #9

    Sorry I don't have a picture of the finished dress - it was one of two projects Cheryl was working on in class, so her focus with this was to master those pleats. The dress was a sheath of black and cream houndstooth wool, done a la Chanel, with parallel lines of quilting and hand-finished inside lining seams. There will be fringed bias strips of the wool around the neckline, the seamline where the pleated yoke joins the top of the dress, on either side of the pleated band that's along the hemline, and along the bottom of the pleated sleeves.

  10. User avater
    Yumjo | | #10

    Hi Susan,
    Interesting challenge and so many possibilities for it's use. I've always loved pleats of any kind. I've used this technique on a couple custom christening gowns I've made with bridal satin instead of organza. It's more difficult to press the satin because you can't see when the pleat is centered over the seam to press it, but it's do-able. Also, the pleats were half the size because the dresses were smaller. The inspiration dress reminds me of one I had and wore in the early 60's.

    Thanks for sharing, Ymana Johnson

  11. user-2393070 | | #11

    Makes perfect sense. Off to get a mat board to make the template! I have several pieces of organza just waiting for this treatment.

  12. AnnaRae | | #12

    A thank you to Cinsred5 for the computer tip. I've often wondered how to enlarge images. A big help!

    Lovely project, Susan and Cheryl. Thank you.

  13. User avater
    jennyebner | | #13

    Many years ago I did a similar process with a silk fabric, and made a jacket. I never thought of trying to have the pleats not be to one side or the other and I love the way you did these pleats. Thanks for the tutorial.

  14. User avater
    shaunpollock | | #14

    wow very nice stuff loved it

  15. User avater
    slmendes | | #15

    Beautiful and inspirational work on these pleats! They are just lovely. We hope to be able to see photos of the finished dress someday!

  16. User avater
    EmilyBint | | #16

    The result looks quite impressive. I can't even imagine how much work you've done to achieve it. And the couture dress looks very elegant. Great choice.

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