Living History

In Character Part II: The Skirt

The skirt, it could be argued, is where this all began.

In December, 2013 I started volunteering in the village. It began with Dickens of a Christmas, and an hour spent combing the wardrobe for something that would fit. I finally wound up safety pinning myself into a black skirt that was two inches too long and eight inches too wide. The following morning I bought three yards of black fabric from Joann’s, and by the next weekend I had a skirt that fit. From that point on, I began a quest to use few and fewer borrowed items, wanting instead to have quality costumes that fit, were clean, and suitable to both me and my character.

Lucy’s skirt is 100% cotton, with a gray-on-black print. I made the mistake of not getting the print approved by the wardrobe mistress ahead of time, but she did approve it after the fact. For the 1860s, you want a geometric print. By that, I don’t mean one that is all circles and triangles and acute angles, but rather one that is easily repeatable, since the printing technology wasn’t as high tech as we have now. Plaids were very popular, tool.

I went with black for several reasons: First, it goes with everything. When I was first starting out, I discovered that of the three blouses in wardrobe that fit me, two had black accents and one was solid black.

Second, Lucy is in a perpetual state of half-mourning. In proper Victorian society, the period of mourning (for women) lasted 1-1.5 years, depending on who had died. In this case, it was her fiance. Typically, a woman who has lost her husband would spend at least 6 months in plain black garments with little to no jewelry, and then slowly add in more color and ornamentation. Even though her fiance died in 1861, just after the start of the war (the village is now set in 1865), wearing black, especially when she travels, is her way of showing that she is off the market and doesn’t wish interference from strange men. It allows her to focus on her work, rather than fielding the social minefield that is finding a husband (which she doesn’t want, but that’s an entirely different story).

Third, this specific fabric is somewhat ubiquitous. I’ve seen it every time I’ve gone to Joanns for the past five years. I knew that if I needed more, it wouldn’t be hard to find.

Also, I just like black.

The skirt itself was super easy to make. I’m lucky in that at my height and proportions, cutting a 45″ wide piece of fabric in half lengthwise was the perfect length for the skirt. I could have gone a little bit longer, since it stops about 4-6″ above my ankles, but it was common at the time for women to donate the bottom 4-6″ of their skirts, dresses, and petticoats to the war effort to be used as bandages. Since Lucy works for/with the sanitary commission, I have no doubt in my mind that she would do so without hesitation.

Bellow, I’ve written out a basic summary of what I did. This skirt fits someone who is about a US size 10-12, and 5’4″ tall; you will want to adjust your material to meet your own needs:

3 yards of 45″ wide fabric, preferably cotton.
2 large hook and eye closures

measuring tape
sewing machine (optional)

1. Wash, dry, and iron fabric.

2. Measure your waist. I measured once with my corset, once without. I took the larger measurement and added 2″.

3. Cut a piece of skirt material that is your waist measurment + 2″ in length, and 4″ in height. I usually cut this piece parallel to the cut edge of my fabric to prevent waste.

4. Fold the waistband in half lengthwise and iron.

5. With right sides together, close off the short sides of the waistband with 1/4″ seam allowance. Set it aside.

5. Trim any excess from your yardage, so that you are back to working with plain rectangle of fabric again.

7. Fold lengthwise (as it would have been rolled off of the bolt), and cut along the fold line.

7. Place the 2 pieces of fabric end to end, and sew together so that you now have 1 piece of fabric, about 6 yards long.

8. Hem to desired length. Some prefer a blind hem, but I just did a double-rolled hem and ran it through the sewing machine on a small stitch, since I don’t have a blind hem foot (and there was no way I was hemming 6 yds by hand in a week!)

9. Using the largest stitch available, baste along the top (raw) edge of the skirt. Do not backtack at the start or end, and don’t trim the thread too close to the fabric. Leave about 6″.

10. Now for the rouching. Slide a pin into one side of the seam you just made, and wind the loose thread around it figure 8 style to secure it. On the other end, give your bobbin (bottom) thread a tug, carefully sliding the material down towards the pin. This will take a while. Put in a movie, don’t rush it (or your thread will break), and just take it easy. If one side gets too tightly gathered, move the pin to the other end, secure your thread, and keep going. You are done when the gathered top of the skirt is about the same size as the waistband.

11. With about 1/8″ seam allowance, run the gathers through the sewing machine to secure them. I use a medium sized stitch for this part.

12. Right sides together, stitch the waistband to the top of the skirt. It should completely fill the waistband from seam to seam, with no leftovers.. Go slowly, making sure that you catch all of the pleats. I like to do this part gather-side-up, so that they don’t get caught in the feed dogs and I can see what I’m doing. If you have to tweak the length of the skirt to match the waistband, then you can do it by doing tiny pleats or carefully snipping a stitch or two to let them out.

13. Check your work. Raise the waistband to make sure there are no weird gaps or puckers where the gathers went someplace they shouldn’t. If they did, just pick out the stitches for 1/2″ on either side, overlap a stitch or two, and re-sew.

14. Hand sew the inside of the waistband to the inside of the skirt.

15. Right sides together, sew up the back of the skirt, stopping about 6″ below the waistband.

16. Turn the raw edges between the seam and the waistband in, and sew. Repeat on the other side of the opening.

17. Try on the skirt, with corset and without, and mark the placement of the hooks and eyes.

This is a really good basic skirt, but there are a few things I want to change for my next one: I would add pockets, for a start. Second, the nature of this pattern adds fullness without a hoop skirt, though it can be worn over one. When I make my next skirt, I’ll do the panel method, so that there is a little less bulk around the waist.

One of the great things about civil war era costumes is that for most of them, you can get away with sewing rectangles.

Well, that was a lot longer than I thought it would be, but I hope that it was helpful/interesting! Sorry that there were no pictures to go along with the instructions. I’ll try to add some later, though I don’t intend on remaking this skirt any time soon.

Leave any questions in the comments and I’ll try to address them!