Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: 1780s gown & petticoat

The Petticoat.

November 24, 2007: Style & Fabric.

In the 18th century, as I'm sure most of you know, the word petticoat was used to refer to what we would now call an "underskirt." Since most gowns were open in the front, a petticoat was a necessary part of most ensembles.

For more formal garments, the gown and petticoat matched. For less formal ones, they often, I might even say usually, did not. And as the 18th century progressed, more "casual" styles moved into the mainstream of fashion and became formalized, so the likelihood of an unmatched petticoat seems to be greater as the decades pass.

Unmatched fine petticoats came in two basic flavors:

1) Taffeta or another light, crisp material, usually with a deep pleated flounce above the hem;

2) Thin silk quilted in elaborate designs to a wool or linen backing with batting in between.

Since quilted petticoats are labor-intensive to say the least, I'm making the first kind.

My gown fabric is in perfect late-18th-century colors: clear butter-yellow brocaded with the occasional rose-pink, pale-green, and sky-blue flower. I went with a shot-silk taffeta in pale spring green for the petticoat. The colors in the photo are fairly accurate, but you can't appreciate the iridescent quality of the taffeta - it looks so much duller here than in life.

I'm normally not much of a green wearer, but this is coordinates beautifully with the brocade, and all my costuming instincts told me to go with it.


Here's my layout. I had about 3 1/3 yards of 55"-wide silk taffeta, and I wanted a decent ruffle on it. Petticoats usually had a main ruffle anywhere from about 8" deep to 14", although if there was more than one they might be narrower - and they could occasionally be very deep indeed, such as half the length of the petticoat. In width, most of the measured examples I found were about double the width of the skirt, although I have seen photos of examples that appear to be more like 1 1/2 times the width of the skirt. I wanted a nice full one, though, so I went with double.

I'm also tall, so even with the quite-short length at which these petticoats were worn - well up on the ankle - I needed a minimum of 42" in length. When planning yours, remember that you must measure the length over your bumroll or hip pads. This adds substantially to the overall length of the skirt!

At right is my layout. Extant petticoats tend to measure about 110-120" around, which works out beautifully for 2 widths of 55" fabric. Now, 18th-century silk fabric widths identified in Costume Close-Up and Patterns of Fashion run between 17 and 24 inches. To approximate this, the dotted lines in my layout represent extra seams I've added to create 18" panels.

For the ruffles, I needed 4 widths. (You could get away with 3 widths at a bare minimum.) I just divided the remaining fabric by four, which resulted in 8 3/4" deep ruffles (labeled on the layout as "flounces," although strictly speaking a flounce is cut on a curve).

I belatedly discovered that it would have been good to leave a couple of inches for a self-fabric waistband. I thought the waistband should be a linen tape, but it turns out that these were used on quilted petticoats more than this style. However, it doesn't show, and many waistbands were replaced later, even in period (I imagine they wore out or required resetting for different waist sizes) so I'm not going to lose sleep over it.

April 24, 2008: Getting It Together.

So here's a rather primitive sketch of how the petticoat goes together. I'm not sure if it's clear, but the front panel and the back panel are on completely separate waistbands. Koshka-the-cat has, as usual, an excellent explanation of how these petticoats are put on. At first glance, it seems that you might tie the front and back ties together at the sides, but in fact it doesn't work like that at all. Really, once you've seen an 18th-century petticoat in action, it's much easier to understand how Regency-era "bib-front" or "apron-front" gowns work.

Briefly, you first position the back waistband and bring its ends around to the front, where you tie them together. Then you position the front waistband just above that knot and bring its two ends around to the back. Some people like to bring the front ties to the back, cross over, and back around to tie in front, but I prefer to keep the ties well hidden in the back. Decide which before cutting your ties!

I started sewing the seams. As I mentioned on the gown page, 18th-century silk garments were sewn mostly with undyed linen thread; matched silk thread was used only for areas that wouldn't take any strain, such as trims. So with linen thread I sewed my side seams as narrowly as possible - just the width of the selvage - in a running stitch with the occasional backstitch to secure it. Remember to leave gaps at the top, which serve both as pocket holes and as plackets to allow your hips through the waistband.

Then I marked my faux seams to make each 55" width look like three 18" widths. I did not rip these panels down, because if these really were 18" widths, those seams would have neat selvages, not raw edges. I think that taking a vertical tuck the same width as the side seams looks - and acts - more like a proper, selvaged seam.

Next I hemmed the petticoat. Again, a simple running stitch and a narrow turn-up is correct. The references to hems in Costume Close-Up all say that the bottom hem is "turned up" 1/4" or whatever, which implies that it is only folded up once, but after looking at pics of extant examples, it seems fairly clear that hems were folded up twice, hiding the raw edges. This is natural, since as anyone who's done a fakey, get-me-to-the-event-on-time hem knows (ahem), raw edges rub against your legs or petticoats and wind up with raveling threads hanging down everywhere.

As with the gown, I tried more or less to replicate the stitch length and spacing seen in the wonderful closeups of 18th-century gowns in the book Fashion in Detail. I used silk thread for this, because linen showed rather brightly against the green and because it doesn't need to bear any strain. Linen is probably the more typical choice. Since I don't have a local source of good silk sewing thread, I used raveled thread from my material. It's a little weak (I can't load up a long length on my needle as I normally would for hemming) but it's strong enough for the no-load hem and it certainly is a perfect match.

May 6, 2008: In the Pink.

To take a break from all the handsewing, I decided to make my ruffle. As I explained above, my ruffle is 8 3/4" deep; on the narrower side of average, but well within normal depth for this period. And it is two times the width of my petticoat.

I will mention that although I created false seams in my petticoat body to imitate period fabric widths, I did not bother with my ruffle. Unlike the smooth expanse of petticoat, the seams in the ruffle just don't really show, so I didn't think it worth the bother. Besides, for all I know, ruffles might have been cut up the fabric sometimes instead of across - for example, an 18" wide silk could have been split in half up the roll for two 9" ruffle lengths - thus reducing the seams quite a bit.

The most common treatment for the edges of these ruffles, almost exclusively, is pinking. This, of course, is cutting a jagged or curving pattern into the raw fabric edge to keep it from raveling while creating a decorative border. It only works with very tightly woven silks and wools, so don't try this on your cotton petticoats! Taffeta is the ideal material.

Period pinking was performed with a device that looks like a curved chisel with scalloped edges. Patterns varied, but the most common were tiny little curves or zigzags that combined in an arch or half-circle. Below are some wonderful close-up examples of period pinking from Historical Fashion in Detail. The first example is from 1760-65, the second from the 1760s (but made from a silk of the 1740s).

I don't own a pinking punch, so I relied on modern pinking shears. The only problem is that they just produce a tiny zigzag along the edge of your material - no typical 18th-century curves. Although extant garments use this kind of straightforward pinked edge, it's mostly on narrow trims (less than perhaps 2" wide), not on deep borders - as in both examples above.

After trying the pinking shears and being completely dissatisfied, I realized I could use them to create the look I wanted if I was just very slow and careful about it. I decided I wanted scallops that were roughly 1 1/2" across, and so for convenience I worked out what size to make them to come out evenly on between the seams on my fabric. It worked out if each scallop was just a little over 1 1/2" but under 1 5/8". (These are largish scallops, but I liked this scale on the petticoat. If I were pinking for sleeves or narrower trim, I would make narrower curves.)

I stitched all my ruffle pieces together into one long strip with narrow seams and pressed them open. Then, on the reverse side of my fabric, I penciled a tick-mark every fat inch-and-a-half, and lightly drew a horizontal line 5/8" back from the edge. I then started carefully cutting with the shears, starting at the intersection of horizontal line and tick-mark, curving up to the raw edge, and curving back down to the next tick-mark intersection.

It's very fiddly because I was freehanding a curve, and the hardest part was that I couldn't cut the whole scallop in one cut of the scissors; I had to use two cuts (one up to the raw edge, one back down to the mark). This meant that for the second cut, I had to make sure the zigzags of the pinking shears were tracking in the zigzags I'd already cut, or I made mincemeat of the top of the scallop. The result is not perfectly even, but then, the original 18th-century examples are not punched perfectly evenly either.

I was pretty happy with it. And after a mere 290 or so scallops, I had a complete ruffle, ready to go on my petticoat.

April 18, 2009: Feeling Ruffled.

I wound up wearing my petticoat to the first event with a slapped-on waistband and without its ruffle. The fakey waistband was due to a lack of linen tape, and the missing ruffle was due to my brain melting down when trying to make evenly spaced pleats in my ruffle. Eventually I just got frustrated and put the ruffle aside.

When I came back to it and started tinkering again, I finally realized the source of my confusion. The ruffle is exactly twice the width of the skirt, so I was thinking that I ought to be able to use the "divide and conquer" method: Fold ruffle in half, fold skirt in half. Mark fold lines with pins. Fold each half in half again. Mark. Divide again, mark. Etc. Eventually you have the skirt marked in, say, 32nds, and the ruffle also divided into 32nds, but the ruffle's sections are twice as wide as the skirt's. You match all your pin marks and fold the extra ruffle material into place, and you have a ruffle that's evenly distributed all the way around.

What was throwing me off was that I had essentially divided each half of my skirt into thirds with my faux seams. So I wanted to start by dividing my ruffle in half and then into thirds, which sometimes fell on the seam lines and sometimes didn't. Then I could go for the "half and half again" method from there. Phew!

As to how to handle the extra material, there are several options. Later 1780s and '90s petticoats often have simply gathered ruffles. Pleating is the most common treatment, especially box pleats of various widths and frequency. The ruffles are almost always attached an inch or two below the top edge, and sometimes there is an additional tack-down another inch or two below that.

Gathered flounce, from Vintage Textile; pleated flounce, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I went for a pleat pattern very like the mustard-yellow version above. Here it is sewn on, with no pressing:

I initially thought I would leave it "fluffy" like this, but now I think I'm going to press the pleats, at least above the stitching line. From what I can see in contemporary illustrations and paintings, either way is okay. Extant petticoats tend to have very flat ruffles, but that may be only because they've been crushed that way in storage for 225 years.

One of the things I didn't like about this costume when I wore it the first time was that the petticoat, despite the crisp taffeta, tended to collapse against my legs. Well, as soon as I got the ruffle on, a light bulb went off. It's amazing how much body that pleated ruffle adds to the hem. And I should have realized that sooner, because in dresses of the late 1870s through 1900s, a small, pleated ruffle is added to the inside of skirt hems purely to make them hang right.

Another thing I now understand is that the ruffle makes the petticoat a lot heavier. Whereas the taffeta seemed flimsy and inadequate to be used as for a visible, unlined skirt before, now I realize that the weight of the ruffles would drag down the petti if it were made in a heavier material.

So Waisted!

The last thing to complete on the petticoat was the waistband. The typical pattern for petticoats is box pleats at center front and center back, with knife pleats radiating out to the sides. I looked at all the examples I could find and tried to determine a good average from extant petticoats that still have their original pleating. (Be aware that a lot of 18th-century petticoats were at the least remounted on new waistbands, such as the one from the Museum of Fine Arts shown below, and many more were rejiggered completely into gathered, back-opening garments in the 1840s.)

I settled on 3 inches for the width of my central box pleat, with 8 knife pleats per side, each about 3/4 of an inch wide. Considering that the total circumference of the top of the petticoat is almost exactly four times my waist measurement, each pleat has a lot of fabric behind it - there's quite a bit of hidden overlap.

I used a half-inch-wide linen tape folded over the top edge, with quite a lot left over on each side for tying. Linen tapes are extremely strong and flexible, and make excellent ties. As I mentioned at the beginning, I think non-quilted petticoats probably usually had self-fabric waistbands with linen ties added at the ends, but I realized this too late - my fabric was all used up. It doesn't show, anyway, so I'm not worried about it... especially since so many waistbands were replaced during their 18th-century lifespans.

Because the linen tape is fairly thick and so were my layers of pleats, I did not try to sew through all layers at once; instead I whipped the waistband down on the outside, then on the inside. This also made it much easier to control all the layers and make sure all the pleats were caught up properly inside the waistband.

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Copyright 2007-09 by Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.