Preface: I’ve been studying pleatwork (known modernly as smocking) for several years now. In 2014 I wrote a research paper called “Techniques of 15th and 16th Century Pleated Undergarments” which discussed the nature of pleatwork and the various stitches that create and secure it. I didn’t put the paper online, however — instead, I fussed over it. Well, it’s time to share my research. This is the first of many posts about pleatwork. It’s not my research paper, but it contains much information pulled from it.
An Introduction to 15th and 16th century Pleatwork
For early modern Europeans, life was not too short to fold their underwear. As the “Little Ice Age” crept into 15th and 16th century Europe and access to materials increased, underwear became bigger, cozier, and, in some cases, fancier. The linen undershirt, known in the German states as a hemd, began to employ a larger and larger amount of fabric, which needed to be gathered and secured at the neckline and wrists. One solution was to gather the fabric into small corrugated folds, also known modernly as cartridge pleats, and then secure those pleats in place. An analysis of 15th and 16th century undergarment pleating and recent research reveals important fabric gathering and fold securing techniques: fabric was corrugated and secured in different manners and gathering threads, when employed, were not used as the sole means to secure the finished work.
Pleating fabric was not a new technique by the late 15th century when the more voluminous undergarments began to appear. Evidence of cartridge-pleated undergarments appears in 21 of the 52 graves excavated in Birka (Hägg, 12) dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries. Pleats appear in other garments beyond this, as well, including the 13th century pleated wool fragment from Sankt Peder in Sweden (Kusmin), and the 14th century woman’s gown with a pleated front found in the Uvdal Stave Church in Norway (Guhnfeldt). Yet it isn’t until the late 1400s that we see cartridge-pleated garments appear regularly in surviving artwork and extant garments of the era.
Renaissance portraiture is marked by innovations that more realistically portray their subjects, including attention to natural light and shadows, which is very helpful in identifying and analyzing pleated undergarments. We are fortunate to now have access to extremely high resolution scans of portraits which portray very detailed pleats, including Selbstporträt by Albrecht Dürer in Prado (1498), available at a resolution of 19,047 x 24,047 pixels in Google Earth, which is over 600 ppi (300-500 ppi range is about the limits of the human eye). In addition to this, more highly-detailed paintings give us important clues, including Bürgermeisters Jakob Meyer und seiner Gattin Dorothea Kannengießer by Hans Holbein (1516), Portrait of a Young Man by Ambrosius Holbein (1518), and Portrait of a Boy as Saint Sebastian (1490s) by Giovanni Antonio Boltrafflo.
Extant garments with pleats are few in number, but they do exist and there have been some recent, well-documented finds. Important finds include the 14 pleated textile fragments found at Lengberg Castle (Austria) in 2008, two pleated shirt fragments from Kempten (Germany) in 2011, two pleated linen shirts found in Alpirsbach (Germany) in 1958, and a pleated wool cuff dated to the 15th/16th centuries. Key to this research is an article published within the past several years in Archaeological Textiles Review, How to Pleat a Shirt in the 15th Century, by Beatrix Nutz which indicates pleating sizes and methods of securing folds. Two books, Die Ausgrabungen im Mühlberg-Ensemble Kempten (Allgäu): Metall, Holz und Texil by Rast-Eicher and Klaus from 2011 and the earlier Texil- und Lederfunde by Ilse Fingerlin, show extant textiles with three different techniques of securing folds. Photographs of 15th and 16th century extant garments with pleats, currently housed in museums around the world, are also helpful to a certain extent. Much credit and gratitude goes to Lee Ann Posavad for her pioneering work into pleatwork embroidery.
The purpose of this guide is to understand how the pleats in the late 15th and 16th century pleated garments were actually created and secured. While it is possible for to create a pleated garment that looks similar to those portrayed and found using modern smocking techniques, there is particular interest in the techniques employed in the 15th and 16th centuries, which includes how the folds were formed and how the folds were secured. Special attention is paid to the idea that gathering threads, when used, were later removed (or covered) and other means were employed secure the folds. To this end, I have analyzed photographs of extant garments, photographs of high-resolution paintings, and peer-reviewed archaeological journal articles, with the goal of creating a well-researched guide that can be utilized by those who wish to confidently pleat authentic 15th and 16th century style undergarments.
Next Section of Understanding Pleatwork: Creating the Folds