A 1910s costume, part eight: the skirt

This post is the eighth 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.

At the beginning of November, the UK went into a second national lockdown. In anticipation of a month of staying at home, I bit the bullet and completed a rather larger order for all the supplies I would need to complete my 1910s project. It turns out that I wildly over-estimated my productivity as it is now mid-December and I have only just finished my skirt but I guess it was still worthwhile getting all the orders over in one fell swoop.

As I can’t seem to go even a couple of days without sewing, I got stuck in with my remaining mock ups whilst I waited for my order to arrive. After finishing my mock up for the blouse, I got started with my skirt. As with most of this project, the pattern I selected is one by Wearing History – the 1916 skirt which comprises part of the 1910s suit. I really threw together this mock up, I just wanted to a vague idea of the construction and fit as I knew that I was going to use more time consuming construction techniques for the real thing.

The pattern pieces and my mock up fabric.

Like the other original 1910s patterns I’ve used from Wearing History, the instructions are pretty sparse and require a fair bit of prior construction knowledge. There were some parts of the instructions (namely the internal belt and front placket construction) which confused me but I was able to refer to Wearing History’s ‘Suit-a-long’ blog series for more in depth instructions and photographs. The only alterations I made to the pattern was to add 1/2″ to the side of each skirt piece (to accomodate wider seam allowance and a cumulative 1/2″ addition to the waist measurement) and I also decided to cut the skirt pieces to the longer skirt length (approx 29″) to give myself plenty of hem allowance.

The mock-up blouse and skirt.

In the meantime, my order of supplies had arrived. I fell in love with the Berwyn 100% wool fabric from Textile Express – it has a tiny black and green herringbone pattern which feels very appropriate for the early 20th century. This is a gorgeous fabric but unfortunately it really doesn’t photograph well on my phone camera – especially with the long November evenings – I will aplogise in advance for the dodgy photo quality of my progress shots! I had to order 6m for both the skirt and jacket and I decided to hand-wash the wool in cold water to pre-empt any shrinkage. Have you every tried to handwash 6m of wool? This is a labour-intensive task at any time of year but I was doing it in November – it took about 3 days to dry.

I took over the washing line for a little bit.

Before I could actually get started on the skirt, I had to finish the blouse. It was important for me to be able to try on my mock-up again with all the garments I had made for the outfit up to that point so I could make sure it was sitting right. The difference in fabric weights between mock-ups and the real thing can make a significant difference so it never hurts to do extra try-ons. I was still happy with my decision to add a bit of extra room around the waistband – I also tried on the mock-up without my corset to check that it still felt comfortable as I do intend to wear this skirt as an everyday part of wardrobe.

Trying on my mock-up with my completed elsie blouse.

One of the decisions I made early on in my skirt research was to flat-line my skirt. At a opportune time in my research, costuming youtuber Karolina Żebrowska uploaded a video of her making a 1905 Edwardian golf suit in which she flat-lined her skirt and commented on how much difference it made to the skirts structure. This is a technique that I was aware was used in the late Victorian era (thanks to Bernadette Banner) but I didn’t know that it was still used in the early 20th century. I couldn’t find evidence of flat-lining in the contemporary texts I have been referring to but I decided to do it anyway as I thought the extra structure would appropriate for a tailored skirt.

I flat-lined my skirt with a medium-weight black cotton. I decided to cut this out first so that I could add the adjustments to them and use them as pattern pieces for the wool – The chalk lines show up much more clearly on the cotton. I was pleasantly surprised that this skirt only had four pieces – the front, the back, the decorative external belt and the internal belt. I cut out one external belt piece out of the cotton to line it and the internal belt out of the cotton as it is less bulky than the wool.

As the wool is striped, I was far more concerned about the grainline when cutting out these pieces than the cotton. I cut the back piece on the fold but cut each front piece out separately, using the selvedge as a guide to make sure the pieces were straight along the front. The last thing I wanted was for the stripes to be wonky where the front pieces overlapped. I left the selvedge edge which extended further than the cotton which turned out to be a great piece of foresight as I could fold it over before folding back the placket to leave a clean edge.

I used the lining pieces as my pattern pieces for the wool.
The overhanging selvedge edge.

Before starting actual construction, I had to flat-line the lining and main fabric together using long pad-stitches. This is a technique that I picked up from Berndatte Banner’s videos – attaching the pieces with long basting stitches reduces the risk of ending up with bubbling where the lining and main fabric aren’t matched up perfectly. It takes a fair bit of extra time but was definitely worth it. I started from the middle of the piece then worked my way out so I could smooth out any bumps. As I am not experienced with this technique I used my metre stick to draw rows across the piece so that I didn’t end up with swerving lines.

Long pad-stitches – a great way to use up spare polyester thread.

I was also really worried about the bias edges of my skirt pieces stretching so I folded them back over themselves in a sort-of concertina on my ironing board – again, the sewing table of my dreams will have to wait.

Making do with a narrow ironing-board.

As you can see, the flat-lining really does create so much difference in the structure of the pieces – the piece on the right has been flat-lined and the one of the left is just the wool.

The difference flat-lining makes.

With the flat-lining complete, I could finally get on with the construction of the skirt. First step was the front placket. This pattern has two options for the front closure: either buttons all the way down the front or a placket which extends 9-10″ down the front of the skirt. I chose the latter.

First I folded back the front edge of the skirt 4cm (approx 1.5″) on both the left and right front skirt pieces and felled them down. Then I sewed a narrow line of topstitching (using the edge of the foot on the machine as a guide) on the edge of the right front skirt piece approximately 10″ down.

Pinning back the placket.

Then I overlapped the two front skirt pieces right over left – the overlap is 5cm (2″) – and pinned it in place. My placket is approximately 9″ long so from this point I continue my line of topstitching to the bottom of the skirt. Doing the topstitching this way makes it look like one continuous seam.

Pinning the front skirt pieces together – I used the stripes as a guide.

On the inside, I felled down the edge of the other side of the overlap from the bottom of the placket to the hem.

Felling down the underlap of the placket.

Next, I sewed together the side seams of the skirt. I had increased the seam allowance from 1cm to 1.5 cm so that I could fell down the edges. At first I sewed the seams with a low-tension stitch but I was concerned that this wouldn’t hold the weight of the skirt and may break over time. I increased the tension and re-sewed the seams and I was far happier with the result. Before felling the seam, I cut down the cotton lining by about half to reduce bulk.

Felling skirt seams – I had to do this four times and each seam was 39″.

With the skirt seams complete, my next step was to put together the internal belt of the skirt. First, I had to gather up the back of the skirt. I did this by hand-sewing three rows of gathering stitches between the notches: the middle one marks the seam line which I could use as a guide when putting the skirt and the belt together, the other two lines are approximately 0.5cm away from the seam line.

Gathering stitches.
Pulled-up gathers.

The internal belt is the part of the skirt that I agonised over the most. I consulted Wearing History’s video about internal belts, as well as a blog post about an extant 1910s skirt and another about the internal belt construction of the c. 1916 skirt. Honestly, these give me a clear way forward but I was thrown off by a reference to hooks and eyes on a internal belt in Butterick’s ‘The Dressmaker’. On my mock-up I had simply ignored closures on the internal belt deciding that it was future Rachel’s problem. Future Rachel pondered over it some more, and I even consulted Lauren from Wearing History for advice. I finally decided to just pick a method that suited me after reading a segment from Juditha Blackburn in which she claims that ‘there are various ways of attaching the skirt to the belting, any one of which may prove satisfactory’. Its reassuring to find evidence of there being not one perfect historical method – it seems that as long as it worked then it was a valid method.

Something that I did pick up from all my research was the importance of a well-fitting and structured inner belt. If the belt is not well fitting then the skirt wouldn’t hang right and if it was not stiff enough then it would collapse under the weight of the skirt – this was especially concerning for me as the combination of the wool and cotton makes for a heavy skirt. Butterick’s ‘The Dressmaker’ recommends silk or cotton for an internal belt and the example in Wearing History’s blog uses grosgrain ribbon. I couldn’t find grosgrain ribbon the right thickness and I thought I needed something thicker than the cotton I had used to line my skirt. Instead, I decided to line a piece of the black cotton with tailor’s canvas. This is an interfacing I haven’t used before but I’ll be using it a lot in my jacket and it worked perfectly to stiffen the belt.

Before attaching the tailor’s canvas to the belt, I basted the V shaped darts which shape the belt and marked the crossover at the centre front. Then I tried on the belt both corseted and uncorseted to make sure the fit was snug but not too tight. When I was happy I placed the canvas over the cotton and sewed the darts through both layers on the machine.

Trying on the belt.

To finish the edges of the internal belt, I double folded the hem at the bottom and cross-stitched it in place. For the remaining edges I simply folded the edges back and cross-stitched those in place. I only double folded the hem because the other edges would be whip stitched to the skirt – the lower edge will hang free.

Finishing the edges of the inernal belt.

The method I used to attach my internal belt is the most similar to the method used in the Wearing History blog. I folded down the top edge of my skirt by 1.5cm and placed the internal belt over the top. One of the differences between mine and the method from the Wearing History blog is that I sewed the belt over the placket rather than underneath. This doesn’t make any great difference to the skirt, I just decided to do it this way instead. I also hand sewed the waistband in place rather than machine sewing it. I found this to be easier, especially over the bulky gathers at the back.

Sewing in the internal belt.

Once I had attached the belt, I tried on the skirt to check the fit. I did notice that, even though the belt was the right size, the weight of the skirt was causing the belt to warp and sag. To fix this, I sewed a row of running stitches through the waistband and skirt about 1cm from the top of the skirt. I was concerned that the skirt was too bulky around the waist, especially with the gathers at the back but the external belt smooths the line of the back of the skirt creating a more flattering silhouette.

If you look closely you can see the small line of running stitches – it’ll be covered by the belt anyway.

Now I could move onto the far less daunting task of sewing the external belt. At first I had intended to fold the edges of the wool over the tailors canvas and sew those in place and then face it with the cotton. I quickly realised that this wasn’t going to work. As you can see from the picture below, I had to cut notches into the wool to fold it over the canvas which left me with not enough seam allowance – particularly where the curves meet at the ends of the belt.

So I decided to take a different route. However, I apparently got so in the zone making this belt that I forgot to document the process at all! What I did instead was baste the tailors canvas to the wrong side of the wool, sew the cotton and wool together right sides together, leaving a gap at the bottom, turn it inside out after cutting notches into the seam allowance then push out the points and curves.

However, I had one last woe to overcome with the external belt. I realised that the small and high tension stitches I had been using up to this point didn’t suit the curved belt as they kept splitting on the top seam. So I turned the belt back inside out and resewed the seam with a longer and lower tension seam. Then I hand-sewed the gap at the bottom of the belt closed.

The failed belt attempt.

Next, I decided to hem my skirt. There was a couple of methods I considered for this. In her video, Bella Mae hems the skirt by cutting a separate hem piece which she sewed to the skirt right sides together then folded inside. This is one of two methods described in Butterick’s ‘The Dressmaker’ but I decided to go with the other, which involves simply folding up the hem. I let the skirt hang overnight in case of stretch and my Mum helped to mark where the hem should be so that my petticoat would not show underneath – we settled on 37″.

Marking the hem.

Before sewing my hem, I sewed a basting stitch along the edge of the skirt so that I could gather the hem to fit – as the skirt flares out, the piece I was folding back was too wide. Once I had done this, I sewed the hem with a cross-stitch. The wool doesn’t fray much at all so I didn’t finish it with any tape or by folding it over.

Pinning up the hem.

With the hem complete, I could finally take out my long basting stitches which kept the lining and the wool together – this was a very satisfying process.

Next I could start trimming my skirt. I had decided to decorate my skirt with a 1cm wide synthetic velvet ribbon (sacrificing historical accuracy for cost effectiveness here). I wasn’t going for any over-the-top trimming with this garment, just two rows of ribbon on the bottom of the skirt and a row around the belt which would complement black velvet buttons.

At this point, I realised I could actually use the velvet ribbon to cover the line in the skirt created by the edge of the hem. To attach the ribbon, I simply used whip stitches, and I overlapped the edges to mimic the overlap of the front skirt pieces. I sewed the second row of velvet trim in exactly the same way and I made sure to check that the nap of the velvet was going to the same way on both rows. This is a small detail but one I know would’ve annoyed me if I’d gotten it wrong.

The first row of trim.
The second row of trim.

Trimming the belt was a much more challenging task due to the curves and points at the ends. In September, Costuming Drama uploaded an installment of her Hogwarts Express bustle dress project which included an in-depth tutorial of how to create corners with trim. As I’d watched this video a couple of months before doing my own trimming I actually ended up doing it sort of backwards but it still worked!

To create the corners, I folded the trim under itself at a right angle to create a triangle at the edge (as seen in the photograph below), then folded the trim back to the right side again keeping the triangle edge in place. It was a little fiddly and perhaps the method used in Costuming Drama’s video would have been easier but I’m so pleased with the overall effect – I achieved the sharp corners I was after and it looks fantastic for a first attempt.

Folding back the trim.
Shaping the trim around the curves.
The finished belt trim.

With the end of the project in sight, I moved on to the buttons and buttonholes. I’m using a black cotton velvet from Textile Express for features of my 1910s jacket and the buttons so I cut out the pieces I needed for the jacket first to make sure I was using the velvet efficiently. I didn’t want to get to the point where I wanted to cut out the collar for my jacket and find a circle cut out right in the middle. However, before I cut anything out I had to press the velvet – which was an arduous task. If you press velvet like a normal fabric you risk crushing the pile and ruining the velvet. Ways to get around this include using a needle board (which I quickly learned were over £100) and sort of suspending it in mid air. I went with the latter as I don’t have a spare £100 lying around for a needle board.

I ended up using hangers to suspend the velvet from my wardrobe and using my iron like a steamer – it was difficult and a bit ridiculous but I made it work.

My velvet-ironing set-up.

Making the buttons was super easy – I used a button covering tool from Minerva which made the whole process so much easier. I also sewed a row of gathering stitches around the edge of my velvet circle so that I could draw it in around the button before placing the back on it. The only issue I had was that the pile of the velvet was pressed down when I made the buttons but I just used the small brush on the end of my chalk pencil to revitalise it.

Velvet buttons.

I chose to do bound buttonholes instead of sewn ones because of the placket – in some places it was about 6 layers thick including the cotton and interlining. I found a tutorial in Butterick’s ‘The Dressmaker’, included below, which looked pretty straightforward. I’ve only had one prior experience with bound buttonholes – on my Roman Holiday dress – but the fabric on that dress was far thinner and slippery which presented its own challenges. I decided to do a practice run because I was terrified of ruining the skirt. It turned out pretty well so I got started on the real thing. At first I made my buttonholes 2cm wide for my 2cm buttons but they were a little tight! I recut the wool binding and expanded the button to 2.5 cm wide and it worked perfectly. I sewed the binding along the slash by machine then finished them by hand.

The 1910s tutorial.
Marking out the buttonholes.
Placing the binding.
The buttonholes from the reverse.

The pattern for the skirt intends you to attach the belt with buttons but once I had sewn on the trim, buttons wouldn’t have suited it – the inner wool portion of the corners was too small to accomodate 2cm buttons and would’ve obscured the trim which I had worked so hard on! Instead, I used poppers to attach the belt and this works just as well.

Marking the popper placement.

For a skirt with only four pieces, the construction of this skirt was pretty complex! Of course, the construction methods I chose were totally self-inflicted but it was so worth putting in the extra effort both for such a simple skirt and one that is tailored. I love the trim, the extra detail really elevates the skirt and the black velvet buttons pull it all together. The wool definitely makes for a very heavy skirt so I may add extra supporting stitches to the back but it’ll take a few test-drives to see how it wears. I also need to add a hook and bar to the top of the placket to keep the stripes aligned but that’s a very minor thing. Overall I’m really happy with it, it looks super authentic to the era and I know it will become a staple in my winter wardrobe.

I can hardly believe it but the next installment of this blog will be for the last garment in this project – the jacket. Stay tuned…

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