A 1910s costume, part 6: the petticoat

This post is the sixth in a series in which I endeavour to create a historically-accurate late-1910s outfit to the best of my ability. From using an antique sewing machine, finding modern patterns of historical designs to using contemporary sewing manuals, this project is a huge challenge and one that I’m super excited about. I hope you will enjoy following along with my baby steps in historical costuming.

After completing the corset cover for this project, it was with great excitement that I began planning the petticoat – the first proper skirt I will make for this outfit. Between drafting my own pattern and making a design with so much detail, the process of making this petticoat was arguably more complex than making the corset!

Up until I started researching the petticoat project, I had intended to make a white petticoat; all the extant examples I had found were white and I was kind of working on the assumption that all undergarments were either white, ivory or cream. However, whilst I was scrolling 1910s petticoats on Pinterest I found this image:

This is a contemporary advert from 1918, showcasing a vibrant array of colours and patterns. Now I was in a quandry: did I make my petticoat from white cotton or did I take the opportunity to make something brightly coloured? As this is an advert, these were products that were available to women of the time and, upon further research, I learnt that women in the 1910s wore brightly coloured petticoats as a sort of fun secret! Of course, the colour and material of a woman’s petticoat would have depended on what she could afford but the option was there. I think I had already made my decision in favour of something brightly coloured but I decided to consult Instagram and the results were pretty decisive.

Now it was time to decide on a fabric. The advert specifies that the petticoats displayed were made of cotton-backed satin but this wasn’t something I was able to find. Satin from this period would most likely have been made from silk but I was torn between cotton and silk. This decision was mainly a financial one as silk is very expensive. I didn’t want to buy polyester satin as I am trying to avoid synthetic fibres and it isn’t historically-accurate. I had begun to give up on my dreams of a luxurious silk petticoat when I stumbled across a gorgeous plum silk dupion on Amothreads that was only £10 pm! I couldn’t believe my luck. I briefly fell down a rabbit hole investigating whether silk dupion was used in the 1910s but I decided to just buy the silk for three reasons:

  1. It was only £10 pm,
  2. My research was inconclusive – some websites said it wasn’t available until the mid 20th century and others said it was available in the 19th?
  3. because of a passage I found in Laura Irene Baldt’s Clothing for women; selection and construction. (Philadelphia, London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1916). She writes: ‘Silk is very generally used for petticoats to be worn with tailored suits and dresses of wool, silk and linen’ (p.274). I’m intended to make a wool suit for this outfit and I’m not going to argue with a published 1910s seamstress.

I decided to make this project 100x harder by partially drafting my own pattern. I had fallen in love with the pink petticoat from the advert and I simply had to have it. I decided to base my design on the Truly Victorian TVE14 Late Edwardian Petticoat; both designs have the same princess seams down the front.

My next step was figuring out how long I wanted the petticoat to be. The Truly Victorian pattern is an appropriate length for the first decade of the 20th century and the early 1910s but is too long for c.1918. Deciding on the length I wanted the petticoat to be involved a consultation with both my Mum and my Grandma (who contributed via video call from Australia) and between us we decided on 34″.

My analysis of the advert continued as I tried to figure out the how wide the detail on the petticoat should be. It looks like approximately 1/3 to 2/5 of the petticoat is made up of ruffles and pin tucks so I decided to make my detail panel about 22″ wide. Then a lot of maths ensued. I decided that each ‘band’ of detail, including the space between the pin tucks, should be approximately 1″, from this I worked out how wide each panel would need to be. I went over this many times, with many diagrams. I also switched from imperial to metric as it suited me – it made sense at the time.

Maths.

I made my pattern pieces by slashing and spreading the pieces to create space for the pin tucks. My poor Truly Victorian pattern got truly mauled in this process. I also used the dust ruffle pieces to make my own ruffle pieces by making them narrower.

First I created my front and back panel pieces.
Then I marked where the pin tucks would be.
Then I slashed and spread them.

As I was making my own pattern, I decided to make a mock up – very wisely anticipating mistakes. This was a very rough process but it revealed multiple errors. For one thing, I hadn’t taken into account that my back panel pieces would not have a seam in the middle like the main skirt pieces, so they ended up being far too wide. I also investigated two ways of making pin tucks. Firstly, I tried marking on all the lines for the pin tucks, both where they would fold and where the seam would be. This ended up not being very neat so I decided to mark and sew them one at a time – this did work better but would create a different issue later on.

The first method of making pin tucks.
My *very* rough mock up – I used metallic sharpie to mark the pin tucks.

The biggest issue revealed in the mock up process was that the angle of my panel pieces was incorrect – creating a peak at the seam. I’ll show how I rectified this below:

The strange angle.
The discrepancy.
I added small triangles to each pattern piece so that they would meet on a smooth curve.

Now that I was happy with my mock up, I moved on to the silk. Cutting it out was a bit of a pain as I don’t have a cutting table and trying to keep silk on grain when cutting on carpet is tricky to say the least. Silk also frays very easily so I decide to baste the edges of all my pieces on the machine before I started construction.

All my prepared pieces.

It was whilst basting these pieces that I had an epiphany and finally solved the tension issue on my machine. Unsurprisingly, it was entirely user error. I don’t know how I didn’t pick up on this from the many YouTube tutorials I’ve watched about how to thread an antique singer machine but when the instructions say to run the thread between the tension discs, it really means between. I didn’t realise that you can pull apart the tension discs using the lever below to run the thread through them – even when I took the whole tension mechanism apart to clean it. So what I had been doing up until this point was sewing my garments with no tension on my thread. It’s a wonder I managed to make anything at all!

The first part of the skirt construction was very simple. I sewed all the main skirt pieces together using french seams and sewed up the back about 3/4 of the way. I then felled down the back seams.

The main skirt pieces.
The felled back seam.

Now I could get started on the pin tuck panels. I decided to make panels 1 and 2 first and sew them together before sewing them to the main skirt. As I mentioned above, I had another issue when it came to making pin tucks: the cumulative losses from tiny inaccuracies in measuring the pin tucks meant I was losing between 0.5cm-1cm at the bottom of each panel. I thought I could fix this by using a chalk pencil instead of my tailor’s chalk – in the hope that it would make my measurements more accurate – but I still ended up with losses. This really disheartened me as I was so worried that my design wouldn’t work but in some ways it worked out for the better! I connected my panels by sewing them right side together then felling down the seam allowance. The losses at the bottom of the pin tuck panels actually worked like grading the seam allowances to reduce bulk! Nevertheless, if I were to do pin tucks again in a self-drafted project I would add perhaps add 1-2cm of insurance at the bottom of the piece to account for cumulative losses.

Marking pin tucks.
The seam allowance should have been 1.5cm, you can see how it’s uneven.
Felling the seam.

Now that panels 1 and 2 were sewn together, I could sew them to the skirt with the same method: attaching right sides together and felling the seam. I used pins to make sure I matched the centre front and centre back evenly.

Attaching tier 1 and 2 to the skirt.
I basted them together before sewing because the seam allowances were no longer even.

Next, I had to tackle the first ruffle. I had already prepped the ruffles by sewing the three panels that made them up together with french seams. Now I had to hand-fell approximately 3m worth of hem. The process of attaching the ruffles involved a lot of handstitching: as well as hand-sewing the hem, I gathered and basted them to the skirt by hand. For the top ruffle, I also then had to hand-baste the third pin tuck panel on before machine-stitching them all together. Finally, I felled the seam allowances. It was a very involved process but worth it for the perfectly positioned ruffles.

Felling the ruffle.
Pinning the gathers in place.
Attaching the pin tuck panel over the ruffle.

With the third pin-tuck panel attached, the end was nearly in sight for the skirt details. I just had to sew on the last ruffle. I tried a slightly different method this time: instead of pinning the ruffle at 4 intervals at the centre front, centre back, and sides of the panel above, I pinned it at 8 intervals. This gave me greater control over the gathers and helped me to get them even. Also, on the first ruffle I sewed a line of gathering stitches between each of the three panels which made up the ruffle. This was quite difficult to manoeuvre between the four intervals. So this time I divided the ruffle into four and sewed a row of gathering stitches on each quadrant. This made gathering the panel far easier. Felling the seam allowance of the ruffle once I had attached it to the skirt was quite difficult because of the gathers but I persevered!

Attaching the ruffle at eight intervals across the pin-tuck panel.
Felling the ruffle.
The completed details.

With the skirt complete, I moved on to the waistband. As the waistband acts as a channel for a ribbon closure, I was really conscious of the raw seams fraying on the inside. I tackled this in a number of ways. Firstly, I sewed a tiny hem on the short ends of the waistband – I had to cut a new longer waistband piece for this, and utilised the selvedge this time so one edge wouldn’t fray. I also hand-sewed the selvedge edge over the raw edge of the seam attaching the waistband to the skirt. This made the waistband a little bulky for my liking but its not too bad at all. Finally, I folded over the waistband to the wrong side, sewed it down and threaded through a ribbon.

Re-cutting the waistband.
Whip-stitching the selvedge over the raw seam.
Whip-stitching the waistband down.

The petticoat was almost complete but there was one final step I wanted to complete. I had concerns about the centre back seam: it looked fragile and I didn’t trust it not to split. To reinforce it, I cut a 3cm square of silk, basted down the edges and sewed half of the diamond on the right side of the seam and half on the back. Now the stress on the back of the skirt will fall on the reinforcement piece rather than the seam!

The untrustworthy seam.
The basted reinforcement square.
The completed reinforcement.

And with that, the petticoat was complete! This was a really fulfilling project: I had a lot of fun and I learnt a lot. One of the ways I levelled up my sewing during this project was by finally buying beeswax! Beeswax is used to coat thread before hand-sewing; this smooths down the loose fibres, minimising the risk of thread breaking or knotting. It’s amazing and I now swear by it. I also finally fixed the tension issue with the machine and picked up useful pattern drafting skills! There was a huge amount of hand-sewing in this project but I really enjoyed taking the time to do that extra bit of basting and felling for a really clean finish. I’m really pleased with the finished result and, whilst my petticoat is not a direct copy of the one from the advert, I think you can see the inspiration.

I like to think that this is so neat I could wear it inside out!

Now I’m finally done with undergarments! Next step is outerwear and, first things first, I think I need a blouse…

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