Abstract Measurements of total, incremental and progressive strains associated with the development of small scale crenulation cleavage in some low-grade metamorphic rocks from Australia and Switzerland are applied to a discussion of the mechanical significance of the cleavage. Limits are placed on the amount of incremental and total slip or simple shear possible along the cleavage by the observation that the XY principal plane trace of bulk total crenulation strain coincides within 4° of the crenulation cleavage trace in all cases where this strain has been measured or estimated. The measurements are made on eight specimens using deformed porphyroblasts, crystal fibres in pressure-shadows around pyrite and flattened folds and include deformations with coaxial and non-coaxial histories. Further measurements derived from pressure-shadow fibres (eight specimens) show that the style and orientation of incremental deformation are essentially independent of the crenulation cleavage, except for a limit (43°) to the obliquity of the principal incremental extension axis during a given cleavage episode. The only special deformation related to the cleavage is the coaxial one. An indication of passive cleavage behaviour at high strain is shown by the progressive strain history of one specimen. Evidence for passive rotation of a transected axial plane is shown by another. A model is proposed to account for these observations, especially the conditions necessary for initiation and continued development of a new cleavage fabric. Some further applications of existing strain measurement techniques are described: of the R f / Ø f method to heterogeneously superposed tectonic strains and of an improved procedure of t′ α / α flattening analysis.