Constructing a Dress of c. 1775: The Skirt

The following post was written about three years ago for the online magazine ‘Your Wardrobe Unlock’d’. It is the second part of a two-part series detailing the construction of a late C18th silk gown. The first part is here.

As we examined last time, bodice construction techniques can be very diverse. When it comes to petticoats and skirts, however, these variations appear to become less frequent, and a generally accepted method becomes predominant.

In this article, we will examine all these methods step by step, completing and adding the final flourishes to the gown.  As with the bodice construction, both the methods used in the skirt and petticoat, and the trimmings described below, are heavily based on the same example in the Snowshill Collection.
The Petticoat

The first stage is to take the measurements for the petticoat lengths (you ideally need a friend to help you at this stage).

Put on all your relevant underwear (shift, stays, panniers or bum roll, under petticoat, stockings and shoes).

Then take a tape measure and slip it under the waist band of your under petticoat at the centre.

Pull the tape measure up until the bottom of the tape measure is just touching the floor, and read off the measurement at the waistline of your petticoat. In this case, the measurement is 40” (100cm) for the front.Measuring the petticoat length

Repeat this for the side and back measurements. In this case, it was 42” (105cm) at the side and 41” (102.5cm) at the back. We will use this information later.

You should also take this opportunity to decide on the finished length of your petticoat. Work this out for the centre front.

Late eighteenth century petticoats were on average around 4” (10cm) off the floor, but can be both shorter and longer.

Measuring the length at the back

Take your two petticoat lengths. Make these both the same length as your side measurement, plus 4 or 5” (10-12.5cm).

Make sure that the top and bottom edges are cut straight, as this is essential for a successful petticoat.

Pin the side seams of these pieces, so that they make a tube. Remember to leave a gap at the top for the pocket slit. The needs to be around 9” (23cm) on the finished garment, so needs to be about 12” (30cm) at this stage.

Beginning the skirt

Stitch the side seams using a half backstitch, with a ½” (13mm) seam allowance, up to the point marked as the bottom of the pocket.

Turn under a half inch seam along the bottom straight edge, and secure with a small running stitch.

Turn the pocket slits in once if using a fabric with a good neat selvedge, or twice if it is a cut edge, and secure with a small running stitch.

Sewing the pocket slits

Petticoat Trimming

Cut four strips of your fabric the same width as the petticoat and 10” (25.4cm) deep, and sew them together down the short edge to create one long strip.

The original gown in the Snowshill collection generally has a scalloped and pinked border to its trimmings. Unfortunately, I am not lucky enough to own a scalloped pinking stamp (they have been available in the past from numerous suppliers, though none currently has any in stock as far as I am aware). Therefore, I had to compromise. First I created a scalloped stencil and drew around this down both edges of my strip.

Drawing the scallops on the trimmingNext, take a pair of normal craft pinking shears, or use a pinking wheel on a wheel cutter, and go around the marked scallops.Cutting the scalloped edging

Once you have cut the scallops down both sides, you need to pleat it up.The original had box pleats, and that is what I have done here.

Use the shape of your scallops to help keep the box pleats even. There should be one box pleat per scallop. Pin these pleats in place.

Pinning the pleats into place

Finally, attach these to the bottom edge of the petticoat.

The bottom of the trim should come just above the hem. Let the trim overlap slightly to mask the meeting point.

Tack the two edges together inside one of the pleats.

Attach the pleated trim to the skirt

Pleating up the Petticoat

Find the centre front of the petticoat and fold it down the centre front line.

Take the finished skirt length you worked out in stage one, and measure this up from the hemline.

Mark this with a pin.

Marking the center front

Now is when all the other measurements taken in stage one come into use: in our example, 40″ (100cm) at the front, 42″ (105cm) at the side and 41″ (102.5cm) at the back.

Say that the difference between the top of your fabric and the mark you just made at the centre front is 8” (20cm). We know that the difference between the centre front and the side finished length is 2” (5cm) in this case, so the difference  between the centre front and side top-of-fabric-to-waistline measurement also has to be 2” (5cm).

Therefore, the side would have a waistline 6” (15cm) below the top of the fabric. The same goes for the back: there the length we need is 1” (2.5cm) shorter than the side, so there has to be 7” (17.5cm) between the top of the fabric and the waistline at the back.

Mark out these points on the fabric with pins, filling in the space in between with a gentle curve.

Marking the gradual slope of the waistlineSlit down the centre front and centre back of the petticoat from the top of the fabric to the waistline.

Cut down the center front and back to fold the fabric downFold the top of the fabric backwards, wrong sides together, along the line marked,  removing pins as you go. Press into place.Fold down the fabric to create the waistline

Pleat up the front panel so that it equals just over half of the required waist measurement.

Use knife pleats, working outwards from a central box pleat.

Pleating up the waistband

Using a small, neat running stitch, attach the pleats onto the waistband.

The waistband can be made of cotton or linen tape, or a self fabric strip. It should reach all the way around the waist and tie comfortably.

Attaching the pleats to the waistbandEncase the pleats using another piece of tape which is whipped over the section of the waistband to which the pleats are attached. Encase the pleats using another piece of tapeRepeat these steps for the back section of the petticoat. Your petticoat is now complete!The completed petticoat
The Skirt
Next, cut skirt lengths. In this case I used a full width for the back section, cut at waist to floor measurement plus 10” (25.4cm) and two half widths at the same length for the side backs.

Stitch the two side backs to the long edges of the back section using a half backstitch.

Next, take a tape measure, and decide how much you want your skirt to extend beyond the petticoat at the front. It should be longer than the petticoat, but not quite reaching the floor.

Transfer this measurement to your skirt pieces, adding an inch (2.54cm) for the hem and 3” (7.5cm) for the waistline, marking the point with a pin.

Create a gentle curve from this point to the centre back. Mark this with pins, and then cut.

Cutting the skirt

Fold under an half inch hem along the front edges of the skirt and along the curved bottom hem.

Sew this with a small, neat running stitch.

Hemming the skirt
Trimming the Skirt

Next, more trim is needed. As with the petticoat trim, this is created using four widths of the fabric, in this case, and is cut using the same scalloped pinking method. The trim is 4” (10cm) wide.

Pin the trim into box pleats, again using the scallop shapes as a guide.

Double scalloped trim for the skirt

Pin this down both front edges of the skirt, cutting to the required length.

Turn under at the bottom to hide the raw edge.

Stitch down the centre using an even running stitch.

Pin on the trim down the front of the skirt

Pleating the Skirt

Fold under the top edge of the skirt, using  the same method as used to create the petticoat waistline.

Turn under the front edges 3” (7.5cm), and, in this case, the centre back should be turned under 5” (12.5cm). Again, slit the centre back to this point.

The pleats are then pinned into place. The Snowshill dress, unusually, has box pleats, which is what I have used here.

Folding under the top of the skirt for pleatingMake sure that the trim is on the outer side of the box pleat. Make sure the trim is on the outside of a pleat

Return to the bodice. Turn under the waistline hem half an inch (13mm) and pin in place.

As this dress is to have cord with which to polonaise it up, at the side back seams these cords need to be inserted into the seam. Each cord should be around a metre long in total, and doubled over to create a loop.

Whip stitch around the bottom edge of the bodice, making sure that the cords are securely held in place.

The Polonaise cords

Then take the skirt and, right sides together, pin this to the bodice. The skirt should finish a few inches before the dip at the centre front.

Whip stitch this onto the bodice, making sure that all layers are caught into the stitching, and the the cord is kept to the inside.

Whipstitch the skirt to the bodice

Trimming the Bodice

Finally we move onto the trimming of the bodice. Cut a width strip of scalloped pinking, this time only 2” (5cm) wide.

Once again, box pleat this up.

The Bodice trimPin this around the neck edge of the bodice so that it slightly overlaps the neckline. Pin around the neck edgeStitch it into place using a running stitch. Make sure not to catch the drawstring. Stitch it in placeNext cut a width only 1” (2.5cm) wide for the cuff trimmings. Alternatively, a flounce or gathered cuff could be used. A narrow scallop for the sleeve cuff

In this case, a slightly different kind of trimming technique is used.

Using a running stitch, stitch the first scallop shape flat to the cuff and fasten with a back stitch.

Next, run a running stitch only though the trimming for the next scallop, then gather this up and sew it to the sleeve.

Sewing the sleeve trimming Repeat this until you are all the way around the cuff. The finished trim on the sleeve cuff

Create a strip the same as used for the neckline trim, and attach to the front waistline.

Finish it at the same point at the skirt trim starts.

Trimming the waistline

Finishing Touches

Finally, create self covered buttons to hold up the polonaise loops.

Attach these to the outside of the dress at the same point that the cord is attached to on the inside.

The skirt can then be looped up by hooking the cord over the buttons.

Buttons for the polonaise cords


The finished gownThe final point is about fastening. In Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1, the dress that this is based on shows hooks and eyes, however in Nancy Bradfield’s Costume in Detail and in the original garment, no sign of this fastening is present. Instead, it is most likely that the garment was pinned closed edge to edge. This is a tricky process, and there are various options.

1. The two front edges can be pinned to each other by overlapping them. This is possibly the easiest option, but rather unsightly.

2. The two front edges are pinned edge to edge by running the pin between the two.

3. The front edges are pinned directly to the stays underneath, which causes the least stress on the fabric.

While these petticoat and skirt construction techniques are more universally prevalent, there are alternative options at various points. The binding of the top of the petticoat, for example, could also be done using a self fabric strip, or by using a single strip of linen or cotton tape which is folded over the pleats.

Unusually on this dress, the skirt was box pleated. This is a relatively rare way of pleating up the skirt at this time, and the prevalent technique was to use knife pleats, as with the petticoat. The polonaising can also be achieved using alternative methods, such as loops and ties inside the skirt.

Lastly, the trimmings described here are simply one of hundreds of variations seen on dresses of the period, although they are representative of very commonly used techniques, and typify the level and style of trimmings used in this period.

Overall, this dress and the construction techniques used provide a detailed and accurate account of one method of eighteenth century dress construction.

This entry was published on February 1, 2013 at 8:00 am and is filed under Eighteenth Century, Reproductions, Women's Dress. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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