Excelsior Plaiter

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Quite a few years ago, my Grandma gave me a sewing tool that she’d had for a number of years. She wasn’t exactly sure how it was used, but she always liked the look of it, which is why she scooped it up at a thrift store. Back before I was probably even born, she had my Uncle paint an oil still-life of fruit on it. I remember it hanging in her dining room when I was little, but I can’t say I thought much of it.

Fast-forward to us packing for Portland, and I happen upon this again. When I flipped it over, I couldn’t believe that I’d forgotten about it!

My Grandma had tried her best to preserve the instructions on the back of it, but whatever she coated it with has since eaten the frail paper. From what’s still there, I can tell it used to be an Excelsior Plaiter, patented on February 28th, 1876. It originally sold for $3.00, and was used to make knife plaits (pleats), bon plaits, double box, triple box, diagonal point plaits, fluting, french quilling, and Parisian plaits, which were highly popular at the time.

I can still read some of the instructions, but I’m scared of moving the plaiter around too much, because more paper is about to come off.

For right now, it sits on my wall, above my Great-Grandfather’s dresser. Everyday I look at it and debate trying to use it to create tiny pleats and tucks on a skirt or shirt. I can tell from the burn marks on the wood that someone definitely used it at some point, which makes me want to try it out all the more!

I tried to research the Excelsior company, and thru the Library of Congress, I found a photo of the original tailoring shop.

And thanks to the wonder of Ebay, I found a plaiter for sale. However, I can’t quite see the instructions, and the price is far too hefty for me to pay just so I can play with it!

So what would you do? Scan the back of the piece, cover up the oil painting and try to use it? Or leave it up on the wall and out of harm’s way?

I wonder if I search the patent office if I’ll come up with anything interesting…

  • Oh wow, that is super neat! What a great piece of history!

    I’d try to use it 🙂 (and then I would burn myself and start swearing. And sweating). Then I’d hang it back up and never touch it again.

    • But what if I use it and then get addicted? And then pleat EVERYTHING? I’ll end up looking like a tall Shirley Temple, that’s what.

      I don’t know if you would burn yourself. You push the fabric between the tiny iron arches, and then almost use a smocking technique to hold them in place. Then again, I’ve never witnessed you wield an iron, so I many not know what I’m talking about. 😉

  • Laura J.

    I wonder if it might be worth contacting the person selling it on Ebay to see if they would be willing to scan the directions for you? Probably a long shot, but might be worth asking.

    • That’s kind of what I was thinking, because the patent office yielded nothing. I guess it can’t hurt to email them, and if they say no, then I’ll have to email them pictures of me crying. I’m sure it will help to change their mind.

  • Allysn

    I used to work at the National Archives, and since you’ve documented what is there and there seems to be no chance of saving what is left on there I would go ahead and use it. Since the paper is on wood anyway it won’t last. There are so many things in that paper which will make it deteriorate on its own and throwing wood and whatever your grandma used hasn’t helped. If you wanted you could save the pieces that come off and put them on an acid free sheet of paper with a mylar sheet around it. This would just preserve what is left.

    With something like this, it’s best to preserve what is left, but I think at this point your grandma would be happier about you using it and getting good use out of it.

    • That’s a reaaaaally good point. The paper keeps peeling off, and you can’t even really read it, so I don’t know why I’m so concerned about keeping as much of it on there as I can. It’s just going to keep falling off! I think I may try to type up what is readable, in case the Ebay seller never replies to me with instructions from her plaiter. Should I sand it down and remove the oil painting too? I thought about just wrapping it in muslin to *sort of* protect it, but I’m not sure that really matters…

  • Liz Quaday

    I believe that your plaiter is missing some parts. I would guess that there were a series of small metal rods that came with it that would slide underneath the loops along the edges – one rod would span the entire width of the board. You would put a strip of fabric on the board, slide the rods along at regular intervals, all the while folding the cloth back and forth to make regular pleats. The rods would hold the pleats in place until you reached the end of the board. Then you would take a hot iron and iron the fabric with the rods holding the pleats in place to set the pleats. You could even baste them in place at that point. If you needed a longer piece of fabric pleated, as in the case of a strip of pleating around the bottom of a skirt, you would simply slide the rods out when you were done ironing and basting, move the fabric down, and continue the process until you had the total length you needed. Actually, a similar pleater design is used today for those of us who make doll costumes that use a lot of pleated trim.

    • I know the types of pleaters you’re talking about, Liz, but mine is bit different. The loops on the edges overlap in such a way that you could not put a rod thru them, however small it was. The instructions on the back of the plaiter instruct you to insert a needle in various ways, such as “under the cloth on the third space and inserted on the fourth space”. I’m hoping the Ebay seller will give me more information on using it, but if not, I’ll probably look at the doll pleaters you mentioned. I had forgotten about those! Thanks for the reminder!

  • Carol Foote

    I have/own a complete plaiter. My problem is that the instructions are worn and hard to read. The parts missing from yours are thin metal blades that are in the shape of the letter “P” with a long tail the length of the board. These are fastened on one end and lift to allow the material to be laid on the board and then the blades placed on the cloth to form the pleat. When all the pleats are formed, the material is then ironed over the set blades to set the pleats in place. If any one has the instructions, PLEASE share a readable copy with me-hand written, typed, or scanne! I am a Civil War Living Medical History Teacher/Reenactor and use items like this to teach the next generation our past.
    Thank you,
    Mrs. Foote,
    Chief Matron of the Dietetic Kitchen, Department of the U.S. Army
    2nd Division Field Hospital, Army of the West

    • Hi, Carol. I know what type of plaiter you are referring to, but mine is quite different than one that requires the thin metal blades. According to the instructions on the back of mine, the metal loops are used to pleat the fabric, and even prior to pressing, the pleats are to be sew with a needle and thread. It details the sewing of the pleats on the back instructions, and the method is similar to smocking. Have you considered asking another Civil War reenactor if they have instructions for you to look at? While researching my plaiter, I found websites belonging to several reenactors and doll makers who all used the plaiter you described. Good luck!