Stefanie John


Interview with pleating specialist STEFANIE JOHN

Ms John, please tell us about the beginnings of the fabric-pleating workshop Gießmann. When did you start working here?

The Gießmann pleating workshop has been in existence since 1986 and was founded by Michael Gießmann. At that time, he had learned the trade from his father, who already had a workshop for pleating fabric. He was also a mould maker himself.

After his death, my mother, Sigrid Gießmann, took over the workshop in 1992. At our busiest times, in the 1980s, we had up to seven employees. At that time, the Gießmann pleating workshop was a company with many large orders. Companies like Seidensticker and Jil Sander had their designs pleated by us.

In 1992, the new trend product was the crushed shirt, which could not be ironed. The shirt was first pleated by hand and then steamed in an oven. The customers could then crumple up the washed, still damp shirt themselves, tie it tightly and put it on the radiator to dry. This was when I first worked here for a few months, because we had so many orders. It was so crowded here with the shirts that we had to take the pieces home to dry for lack of space. I quickly realised that pleating can be hard work, but also a lot of fun. That was a fun time.


How long does it take to learn the profession?

Unfortunately, pleating is still not a profession with an officially recognized apprenticeship. From my point of view, however, you never stop learning. I have now been working in pleating for nine years and am constantly learning new things. It’s important to have someone who can show you the basic techniques. But a lot is also a personal preference. My mother, for example, is much braver with the machines. I don’t dare to fold a fabric five times and run it through the machine. I fold it three times at the most – lest it get stuck in the machine and the fabric starts to burn. We work with temperatures up to 180 degrees [Celsius]. My mother is much more relaxed. She prefers to work on the machine anyway, while I prefer to work by hand with the art forms. So, we balance each other wonderfully and don’t get in each other’s way.


What is the creative process in pleating?

When designers come to the workshop, they usually show me pictures as a starting point. As a pleating artisan, you learn to read other people’s pleats and understand how the pleats run. But because of the different fabrics, it will always be a little different. That’s why you have to work with the final fabric from the beginning. Most of the time it works like this: the designers have an idea; we pleat; it and then it goes to the tailors. We try things out together until it suits everyone. The work always involves some trial and error. It is a collaboration with all parties, where everyone really plays an essential role. The fabric supplier is also very important – you have to rely on the quality of the material provided. But until the end, there is always trial and error, making, adjusting and realizing the ideas.

Apart from the physical calm and concentration needed, the work takes time and patience, which is why hand pleating is not suitable for fast fashion. Even the cooling of the fabric takes a lot of time. You have to observe these times. This makes the difference in quality, and allows a pleated piece to be worn for a very long time.


You have worked for big names in German fashion like Jil Sander, Wolfgang Joop/Wunderkind and some other designers like Merch Mashiah and Hien Le. Today you work mainly for opera and ballet productions. How has the nature of your commissions changed over the years?

Even in the past, there were many commissions for the theatre, but now they make up 92 percent of our work. These days, the big companies have almost everything pleated abroad because it’s simply cheaper there. In the 1980s, it was not uncommon for us to receive orders from the fashion industry in series of two thousand to five thousand forms. That is much less common today.

My experience is that neither theatres nor young designers have enough know-how about pleating. This quite clearly also prevents the use of this technique. Theatres still use pleating the most because of the flexible application possibilities, and they also ask for them. With us, people can come to the company to learn, to look and to touch. Once, for example, we had the Semper Opera from Dresden visit us. The costume department went on a company outing to Berlin and involved us. So many things that are impossible to explain over the phone can be communicated in person.


Do you have a favourite memory from one of your fashion collaborations?

I’m always happy to have new challenges and surprises. For example, the Wunderkind company had commissioned us to do an elaborate production in our family workshop and pleating kiln. I myself had only been working there for half a year, and my mother was away at the time. At first I didn’t think I could manage the production on my own and wanted to turn down the order altogether. In the end, I dared to do it and was very proud of myself when I finished this complex work independently and everyone was happy with the result.

I also particularly enjoy it when customers come to us with great fabrics that I haven’t seen before. Fabrics that change and take on different colours depending on the way you pleat them. These are surprises that give me great pleasure.


What is special about pleated fabric for you?

Pleated fabric is great for a very flexible use. The pleats give a fabric so much structure that it is suitable for very different applications. A pleated garment is always something special. Minimalist, theatrical – anything goes! But unfortunately, only a few truly appreciate this.

There are customers who buy a piece of “fast fashion” and then bring it to me to have it touched up. Often, I even offer to do the work for the price of the garment, because it usually does not involve a lot of work. But most people refuse, because the cost is still too high for transforming what was originally a cheap garment. I am not willing to compromise, and I know the value of our work.


What are the challenges to the craft of pleating?

A major problem is the lack of mould makers. The profession is going extinct. There are fewer and fewer companies still making pleated shapes. I know of two, but one stopped operations in February 2021. One thing that would help the preservation of the craft would be to create a European database with addresses. Otherwise one will hardly have any contacts left in the field in the future. A broader network would allow people to give each other a helping hand.

Fortunately, we already have around 3,500 moulds in various sizes at the Gießmann pleating workshop. We have horizontal pleats, vertical pleats, sunray pleats and pleats that you haven’t even seen before. This is the fine art of the craft, coming from our previous collaboration with theatres. Entire choirs have been dressed, which is why so many forms came together from a particular batch. But a big challenge is the decline in orders from the fashion industry. We urgently need to come up with something to change this.


Due to the nature of the fabric, pleated fabric is not necessarily considered sustainable. Is that one reason why the fashion sector is so reluctant to use it?

The fact that pleated fabric holds up best in synthetic materials is an obstacle for many in using this technique. It’s important to us that you can enjoy a pleated garment for a long time and that it doesn’t break. But polyester simply works best, and for us, this is actually also a form of sustainability – the fact that a pleated dress can be worn for decades. Unfortunately, few people see it that way. We are open to experimenting with all materials and have also started working with recycled polyester.

Unfortunately, it often happens that lecturers from fashion universities send their students to us with the task of pleating with silk. They have to buy expensive silk that often doesn’t pleat well at all. This incurs very high costs for the students, and they do not enjoy their results because they are not sustainable. Having this sort of bad experience early on then discourages young designers from continuing to work with pleats.


Where do you see the future of the art of pleating?

It would be important to integrate the art of pleating into university teaching. We offer internships, but we can’t even begin to offer what lecturers could teach. Students often come to us with lots of ideas but without any prior knowledge. Of course, I am happy to explain the steps in advance.

At the same time, many of these processes cannot be understood only intellectually and theoretically. The best way to understand the process is in the making, which is why it should be part of the training. Moreover, many students only get the idea of working with pleating towards the end of their studies. In retrospect, most of them say: “If we had known beforehand how the craft works, we would have used it much more often.” Only through increased involvement in teaching can we keep the pleated handcraft from going extinct.