Monday, December 12, 2005

Your Basic Dickens Skirt

These are the directions I wrote last year for sewing volunteers who were helping us make skirts, slightly condensed and updated to include the drawstring,which we found to be pretty much a necessity. I thoughty I'd share them here, as this is pretty much what we did for all the skirts (except the Belle skirt...that was an exception) we made, regardless of the pattern for the bodice. I probably should add that from now on we will also be incorporating inseam pockets, just in case someone wearing the skirt should need a microphone transmitter at any time. Sorry I don't have any photos of the process...maybe later.

Directions for Sewing a Big Pouffy Skirt

This skirt works great on stage for early Victorian (i.e., Dickens- era) productions. It is a pull-on elastic waist skirt and quite simple; I’ve included directions for adding a drawstring to the elastic waist (increases size flexibility), but you can just put the waistband seam in the back and skip all the references to the drawstring if you prefer.

Fabric required: First, determine the skirt length:

Skirt Length = Waistline-to-floor measurement, plus 5/8” seam allowance at waist, plus desired hem allowance. (note: if a full slip is worn under the skirt, it will pull the length up a bit)

Waistband width = 2 x elastic width + 2 x 5/8” seam allowances (1 ¼”)+ ¼” casing ease. I recommend using elastic that can be sewn through, as you will sew through it twice to create the casing for the drawstring.

*Important Note* - If the lady who will wear your skirt has a hip measurement that exceeds the width of the fabric you will need to cut another strip the width of your waistband and piece them to the desired measurement, so you would have to add a second waistband width to the needed length of the fabric.

For 45” fabric, the fabric required will be 4 x the skirt length + the waistband width. For instance, my skirt length is: 41” (waistline-to-floor) + 2" hem  + 5/8” = 43 5/8”, which is just slightly less than 1 ¼ yds; I’m planning to use 1 ½” wide elastic (note: I suggest hefty elastic; this will be a heavy skirt) so my waistband width will be 1 ½ x 2 + 1 ¼” (5/8” seam allowances along the length)+ ¼” (turn-of-the-cloth allowance) = 4 ½” = 1/8 yd. So my skirt would require 4x 1 1/4yds + 1/8 yd = 5 1/8 yds…but I’d buy 5 ½ yards, in case it shrinks a bit in pre-washing, and also to allow for crooked cutting at the fabric store. (I’ve had to cut of a lot of fabric to square edges in the past!). For 60” fabric, the same formula applies, but you only have to multiply the waist-to-floor measurement by 3. (note: this will yield a skirt that is approximately 176” – 180” at the bottom.)

Cutting out the skirt:
Straighten the edges of the fabric before cutting, so that you have an on-grain line to cut on. The best way…albeit tedious…to do this is to pull a crosswise thread completely out of the fabric and carefully cut along the resulting void in the fabric. Of course, if you have a plaid, you can just cut along one of the horizontal bars.
From one straight edge, measure off the distance required for the width of the waist band (in my example above, that would be 4 ½”) and cut straight across the grain, either by pulling another thread or using a rotary cutter and ruler.

Now, for 45” fabric, measure and cut four Skirt Lengths as determined above
For 60” fabric, you only need three Skirt Lengths

Cut the waistband length on the cross grain such that
Waistband Length = hip measurement + 2” (for hip ease)+ 1/1/4” (5/8” seam allowances). The Waistband width was determined by the elastic width.

*Important Note Repeated* - If the lady who will wear your skirt has a hip measurement that exceeds the width of the fabric you will need to cut another strip the width of your waistband and piece them to the desired measurement.

You’re done cutting.

Skirt Construction: (Note: these directions are for conventional machines; if you have a serger, you’re probably advanced enough to figure it out the serger techniques for yourself)

Seams: Simply lay the right sides of the fabric together and sew all the panels together along the long, selvedge edges. The seam allowance width here is not important…just make sure you use the same one for all the edges and you include all the selvedge (the coarser woven part of the edge of the fabric) in the seam allowance. ½” will probably be sufficient, but sometimes the printing doesn’t go all the way to the edge and you may have to use as much as a ¾” allowance so as not to have a white line along the seam. Press the seams open.
For the seam that closes the waistband, choose one edge to be the ‘wrong side’ of the waistband and make a mark 3/4” from this edge on the seam line. Now, fold the waistband in half lengthwise and make a mark at the exact middle of that edge. Make another mark 1/8” in from the middle mark, on the same half of the waistband as the first mark. The first mark and the third mark show where to leave the opening to insert the elastic. Put right sides together, and sew the waistband seam, leaving the area between the two marks unsewn (backstitch securely at the marks; this opening will get stressed when you put the elastic in). Press the seam open and, for less aggravation later, machine baste the seam allowances down (this will keep them out of the way when you’re putting the elastic through) Fold the waistband in half lengthwise, WRONG sides together, and baste it ½” from the raw edge.

Attaching the skirt to the waistband is probably the most patience-requiring step!
First, quarter mark the waistband…fold it in half, with the seam on one fold. This will be Center Front, so the drawstring is easily accesible to the wearer. The other fold is Center Back; put a pin there to mark it. Then, re-fold the band so that the Center Back mark is matched to the seam and put pins on each of the resulting folds. Now you have the waistband marked into four equal lengths.

If you’re using 45” fabric, you have four seams already marking the quarter divisions and you’ll be matching the seams to the marks you made on the waistband. If you’re using 60” fabric, though, you’ll have one seam on the center back and you’ll have to fold the fabric just like you did the waistband to get the other three marks. Note that the Center Front mark will be in the center of the panel opposite the seam chosen to be Center Back.

Using your favorite method for gathering large amounts of fabric, gather the skirt pieces to the waistband, matching the quarter marks. The side of the waistband WITHOUT the opening in the seam will be the right side, which you will match to the right side of the skirt. For the 4-panel skirt, match any seam to the seam on the waistband…for the three panel skirt, match the seam to the Center Front mark . (this will be much easier if you turn the skirt wrong side out and pin it so that the skirt is outside the waistband).

Now, DON’T FORGET to set your sewing machine tension and stitch length back to normal, and slowly stitch the skirt to the waistband on top of the 5/8” gathering stitch.. When you’re done, pull the skirt off of the machine and clip the threads and inspect the seam you just sewed for puckers or other sewing errors…if you find any (the most common will be that fabric that shouldn’t be in the seam got caught in it), carefully unpick those stitches, straighten the fabric and re-stitch it. Once everything is stitched down well, remove any basting that shows on the right side and, for security’s sake (this is going to be a heavy skirt) stitch the seam again, right on top of the first stitching. Then, to finish the edge of the seam, zig-zag stitch the raw edges together. Press the waistband up away from the skirt, press the seam toward the waistband.

Now, cut the elastic so it is about three inches smaller than your HONEST waist measurement (it needs to fit snugly to support the weight of the skirt) NOTE:  If you're using very firm elastic w/ less than 1:1 stretch ratio, cut it a little larger..up to no more than 1/2" larger than the actual waist measurement, so that it's just slightly smaller than the waist after closing the circle.

Using a large safety pin or bodkin, thread the elastic through the casing, being careful not to twist it. When it’s through (again, make sure it’s not twisted) overlap the ends ¾” – 1” and sew them together, using a crossed box for security (sew a box over the overlapping portion of the elastic, then sew from one corner to the opposite corner, along the edge to the adjacent corner, and cross back to the opposite corner again). Stretch the waistband to pull the elastic completely inside. To make the drawstring casing, lengthen the stitch length and topstitch about 3/8” from the top edge all the way around the waistband, stretching the elastic to fit as you go. Repeat this step at about 3/8” above the waistband seam. This just keeps the drawstring from slipping around to the top of the waistband, which is uncomfortable and unattractive. Using a pin or a bodkin, thread the drawstring (cord, twill tape or ribbon) through the waistband. Remove basting stitches at the opening.

Now all you have left is the hem! First, zig-zag along the whole lower edge of the skirt to keep it from raveling (a better finish would be to press it under ½” and stitch it, but I’ll admit that would be tedious. Go for it if you feel patient) Put the skirt on over the pouffy slip with the shoes on you plan to wear, and have a sewing buddy (or just someone who’s around the house) pin mark the skirt ½” above the floor. Remove the skirt and measure the edge to the pin…that’s the hem you need. Press up the hem all the way around; you can fuse it down w/fusible webbing, or straight stitch it on the machine…that’s up to you. Fusible DOES come undone after a while...

Now, breath a sigh of relief…your skirt’s done!


  1. I'm making a basic frontier woman's dress ala 1859. I have the bodice finished and am trying to figure out how to add the skirt the best way. My daughter found your site and recommended I look it up. I did, and it's very helpful. It will be even better when you have pictures, especially of what the elastic/drawstring looks like on the inside.

  2. I didn't get any photos when we made these before; when/if we get around to working on Dickens-era costumes again, I'll be sure and do some photography! Glad you found something useful!