The Never-Ending Petticoat

A flannel petticoat

A flannel petticoat

This petticoat felt like it took forever. Really, I guess it was only a couple of weeks, and much of that was the hem. God, the hem. >_< We’ll get to that.

So in a bid to bring our brutal winter* to an early end, I started work on a flannel petticoat. Maybe it was the delirious speed at which the corset came together, but I was not feeling patient. That was probably a big part of the problem.

Anyway, this petticoat is based pretty much entirely on the instructions in The Home Needle, (p. 37-38). She is mostly describing a regular muslin petticoat (Er, “white skirt,”), but does give a nod to flannel petticoats:

“A flannel skirt is made shorter and scanter, and has a muslin yoke. For this, three yards, or even less, will suffice. The seams, after being run evenly together, are pressed open on the wrong side, and fastened down with the stitch known as herring-bone or cat-stitch. The bottom of the skirt is often finished with elaborate embroidery in silk ; but a neat hem, headed with a row of chain stitching, either in silk or linen floss, is sufficient for ordinary purposes.” (The Home Needle, p. 38)

I managed the shorter, I think not so much the “scanter,” since I pretty much followed her instructions (later in the book) for cutting out a regular skirt, and didn’t down-scale my fullness much/at all. Though I only did one set of side-gores for the skirt, not two. This petticoat will pretty much work over a bustle, whereas I get the impression that most flannel petticoats were for wearing under the bustle, to keep the legs warm. Not 100% sure, though.

A yoke. (rear view.)

A yoke. (rear view.)

So, phase one: I winged a yoke. According to Mrs. Church, a yoke should have the straight grain at the front and be cut in a single piece with the bias at the back—I, however, added a side-seam, because cutting a curved yoke in a single piece like that seems like it wastes a lot of fabric. My yoke still wound up rather over-size, so I wound up taking it in a lot at the back opening. I stabilized the waist seam with some ratty old rayon stay-tape from stash—not period, but non-bulky and thrifty, so I’ll take a half point for that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

My flannel was 54″, and Mrs. Church’s instructions mostly assume a fabric around 27″ wide, so I basically cut it into skirt-lengths and then sliced those in half lengthwise. Maybe not the best way to maximize my fabric usage, but anyway. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Skirt diagram

Skirt diagram

The skirt consists of three gored panels plus a rectangle for the back; the front I cut on the fold, angling from what seemed like a good width at the top out to the full width at the bottom. As per Mrs. Church’s instructions, I cut the side pieces from one length, with an angled line to make two identical pieces, wider a one end, narrow at the other. ย The back is just a long rectangle of my fabric “width” (artificially narrowed) x skirt length.

Tucks & lace

Tucks & lace

Since I was going for a shorter petticoat, I didn’t add to the length to accommodate my tucks. I measured, marked the folds, and stitched them in place on the individual lengths before sewing (or should I say, running) the lengths together. Incidentally, just in case I forget this, the formula for the distance between tuck folds is y=3x+b, where y is the distance between folds on the flat fabric, x=the width of the finished tucks, and b=the space you want between tucks. (Tyo is doing linear equations in math right now. ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

Cat-stitched seams

Cat-stitched seams

Once I had the skirt panels run together, I catch-stitched (which I am assuming is the same as cat-stitched) all the seam allowances open. This was the first part that seemed to take FOREVER. They do look nice now, however.

According to Mrs. Church, petticoats which have yoke & buttons (which are better than drawstrings as there is less bulk at the waist) invariably fasten at the back. The only problem with this is that there isn’t any back seam in my petticoat (since I used a single back width). Now, maybe Mrs. Church didn’t mean at the centre back exactly, but I don’t know. However, while Mrs. Church doesn’t cover it,ย Plain Sewing and Amateur Dressmaking (1887, p. 11) has a brief passage covering how to make a slash placket, which basically involves adding a pleat at the bottom to give you the overlap. I think. It’s possible I am completely not understanding what they described; I did my best to follow along, anyway. I turnedย one edge of the slash under twice, narrowly, and then make a big pleat at the other edge to cover the gap. It feels pretty much like a cheater’s solution, but it works.

Buttons & placket

Buttons & placket

I put the front of the petticoat onto the yoke smoothly (no gathering), relying on the back gathering to get everything to fit. I kinda really like this method of skirt fitting. One of these days I will work on those crazy Victorian gathering techniques that all seem to involve making multiple lines of perfectly-even stitches and then stroking each of the resulting pleats to maximum perfection before meticulously stitching each one down. For now, though, I just gathered.

Back View

Back View

Because my yoke is pretty wide, I went with three buttons on the back. The buttonholes are hand-worked, not that my hand-worked buttonholes have any degree of grace or beauty; I also worked them backwards, so the edge that the buttons pull against is probably the wrong one. Oops. They are functional, however. They, also, took forever, as did digging through my massive garage-sale-button-stash (thank you, Mom) for the perfect plain white glass buttons.

And now, we come to the albatross, the Waterloo—the hem. Ugh. Scroll up a bit and re-read Mrs. Church’s words: “… a neat hem, headed with a row of chain stitching, either in silk or linen floss, is suficient for ordinary purposes.”

Chain-stitched hem. Started bad, got only slightly better.

Chain-stitched hem. Started bad, got only slightly better.

So, of course, I had to look up chain-stitching, Fortunately, she had a diagram. OK, I can do this. It’s pretty simple. It also pretty much only looks good if the stitches are teeny-tiny short (the fact that I was using cotton thread, not linen or silk floss, might be a part of this), and teeny-tiny-short-stitches were really hard to get through all the thick layers of my flannel. Not to mention proceeding at even more of a snail’s pace. I also (eventually) figured out that the only way I could keep the chainstitch even was to mark its position with wash-away pen… there is some meandering before I hit that desperate point. No, I’m not going back to fix it.

The hardest part, mentally, aside from the not-terribly-decorative nature of my “decorative hem”, was that it’s not an invisible hem. I hand stitch my hems invisibly all the freaking time, and it’s not a problem, but doing this visible hem (and having it not look AWESOME) made me want to stab my eyes out with the needle. Or just run over to the sewing machine and SEW THE FRICKING THING BY MACHINE. Because then it would be done, in five seconds, and LOOK BETTER.

Ahem. But this is supposed to be about the process, right? If I just want to whip up a costume that’s a whole different beast… this is trying to reproduce, or at least experiment with, period techniques.

It's hard to get a good picture of bustle-bum.

It’s hard to get a good picture of bustle-bum.

Anyway, I did eventually get it finished. And I like how it looks, although it doesn’t look particularly like what comes up when I google “Victorian flannel petticoat.” Two more minor things remain: I would like to add an elastic across the inside to pull in the back (as Mrs. Church recommends), and/or some slits in the side so the ties for pulling in the outer skirts in the same way can pass through.

I’m excited, though, to make a light-weight version next, with ruffles on the butt. And a proper bustle, of course. And after that… (ulp!) after that, I have to begin thinking about the dress! O_o



*OK, February and the first week of March were brutal. Before and after, the weather has been lovely.



Filed under Sewing

10 responses to “The Never-Ending Petticoat

  1. This looks amazing! You must have the patience of a saint with those instructions and all the fiddly sewing.

  2. I cannot believe you have the patience for this. These days, if it’s not made of jersey, I can barely be bothered.

    • Ah, yeah, I feel ya. I keep wondering what I’ve been doing, because I have no new clothes… and then I remember, oh yes, it’s all petticoats. >_< and yet, they're kinda eating my brain so I'm going with it… for now. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Lovely! As a side note, no matter what thread you use, chain stitching only ever looks good if each stitch is painstakingly teeny tiny. And remember, no eyeball stabbing over your fabric. The blood stain is a killer to get out. ๐Ÿ˜€

  4. What a load of work! I’m very impressed with all your costuming efforts. I think I would have been very tempted to just use the sewing machine…

    I made a Victorian style petticoat once, before I even had my blog (and used the sewing machine throughout. I was only going for the look then). I used the Butterick pattern for a bustle dress. That petticoat had the same gores-and-gathered-back design but it didn’t have a yoke. Instead, you had to make a waistband from a piece of grosgrain ribbon. And it opened at center back but that was made easy because there was a seam there which was simply not sewn all the way up. No idea how historically accurate that was though. I believe those patterns are supposed to give a reasonably ‘period’ look but are not really like the real thing.

    P.S. V Reed, there’s a very easy way to get your own blood out of fabric: Use your own spit. Don’t ask how I know ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Heather (Thing I Make, Plus Rocks)

    Oh wow, this looks fantastic. I really admire your dedication to keeping it traditional and not just zipping the whole thing through the sewing machine! Catch-stitched seam finishing! Hand stitched buttonholes! Chain stitched hem! Holy crap woman! Fantastic. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Wonderful. Thanks for these detailed blog accounts! I met you this past Sunday at the Marr Residence where you were sewing (yet another petticoat, this time in cotton?) Thank you for giving me your blog address!

  7. Pingback: The Second Petticoat | Tanit-Isis Sews

  8. Pingback: Small and purple coats | Tanit-Isis Sews

  9. Pingback: Coatember | Tanit-Isis Sews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s