How to sew a historical petticoat out of a bed sheet

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So you were asked to a local Renaissance Fair. Or you fell in love with all the fancy costumes in a Netflix historical drama. Then you start researching. You’re overwhelmed with bodices, stays, bum pads and layers of clothing that make up these extravagant costumes. Don’t fear! Certain items are so easy to put together that I would consider this particular project for even a beginner.

There’s no pattern required for this project. I repeat no pattern in sight. You can even pull the top sheet off your bed if you’re tired of it and want a new one. Or you’ve gone to the local thrift store and found a beautiful sheet that you can turn into a 17th century petticoat.

When I ran across this method years ago, I thought it couldn’t be that easy. I had bought undergarment patterns and petticoat patterns from Truly Victorian. Up to this point I had relied on such conventions as patterns. I didn’t know if this method was even going to work. I gave it a try and now that’s the only way I make my petticoats because it’s fast. No matter how much weight I gain or loose, the petticoat will always fit me perfectly.

That is one of the things that I value about historical methods of tailoring and dressmaking. The garment can be easily altered to fit your form. But that’s another article for the future.

Materials:

1 Top Sheet (king or queen size)

Matching thread

Extra Wide double fold bias tape or ribbon

Your sewing machine

Fabric shears or even regular scissors that are sharp enough to cut fabric

Measuring tape

Straight pins or clips

For this tutorial I thrifted a king size top sheet for 3 bucks. The first thing after washing your sheet is to determine the grain of the fabric. You take a portion of the fabric between your hands. Now stretch it, if there’s no give to the fabric then that will be the length of your petticoat. The stretchy way will be the width of your garment. My fabric doesn’t have much of a stretch either way. I just picked one side as my width and the other as my length. Also take into account that if you’re working with a top sheet. One side is going to be longer, that longer side is going to give you the width you need for your skirt.

Ideally you should have 50-60 inches length depending on how tall you are. Sometimes it’s best to just drop your tape measure from your waist to the ground. Note that number then add five inches to account for the hem and the waist band. 90 to 100 inches for the width for your panel of fabric. This is to account for your waist size and seem allowance on either side. Don’t worry if it’s a little less than that. I wanted the nice hemmed part of the sheet to be my hem for my skirt. That only left me with a width of 87 inches.

Most historical costumes from the 17th century are worn with a bum roll, stays and a shift. These pieces are not required if your going the Ren Fair. Nobody is going to come up and mention that you’re wearing a Victorian Era corset with a 17th Century skirt. 9 times out of 10 this is the only bodice your going to find on sale there. Considering in the Medieval Era, women mostly wore kirtles and shifts, it’s all about what makes you happy.


Cutting the two panels

For this project, I just cut the fabric by measuring my length every twelve inches or so across. Make a guiding mark so you don’t cut wrong and end up with one panel shorter or longer than the other. I would advise that you iron at least the sides of the panels so it’ll be easier to attach them together.

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Now sew the sides together! Pin right sides together. Leave about 7-9 inches open at the top in order to get to some pockets underneath. Press your seams! Ironing is your friend. Decide on if you want to do a zig zag stitch, overcast stitch or use pinking shears on your unfinished edges so they don’t fray. I just folded my seams under and stitched down either side.

Roll the edges of the open top sides that you left open at the top in a couple times. Top stitch around this opening to finish off the slits that allow you access to pockets. If this is your first Ren Fair project then I would suggest wearing shorts underneath so you can access those pockets.

Finishing the top of the panels

Gathering the top is easy. You set your sewing machine to a long stitch, on mine it’s 4. Now sew across the top about 1/2 inch down then 1/4 of an inch down. So that’s two rows of stitches. I would suggest not doing what I did and leave too much room at the top. It’ll be harder to attach the waist band with that extra material at the top.

Leave one side open. In other words don’t back stitch at the end of each of the two rows that you’ve sewn. Leave the tails of the rows long so you can pull on one of the strings and not loose the end. Then just start gently pulling on one of the rows. That will give you a nice even gather at the top. Measure the gathers down to half your waist measurement plus a couple inches to account for the overlap.

You can also pleat your skirt. Starting with the center of the panel, pleat away from the center as shown. I did a box pleat at the center and then knife pleats on either side.

Pleated version

Gathered version

Making the waistband

Attach the ribbon (or bias tape) to the top of each panel leaving about 5 inches on either side. These are your ties. You can make the tie on the front panel longer in order to wrap around to the front. I prefer to keep the front tie, tied in the back. This is so you can hide this bow underneath your bum pad. It’s always nice to have less bulk in the front. Since this is usually an undergarment, you can quickly stitch down the ribbon to one side. Fold over the top and stitch down the other side to make a suitable waistband. The sides of the ribbon are already finished so you don’t have to worry about it fraying.

With the bias binding, just unfold one side and stitch that down. Fold the bias binding over before top stitching it down. The alternative is to hand stitch using a slip stitch on the inside which is also fairly fast.

Ribbon Version

Excuse the messy stitch rows, this literally was one of my first projects.

Bias Binding Version

Sewing the hem

Finally you can sew the hem so try on your garment and mark the hem at the bottom. It is easier to get another person to help with this. You can also hold your measuring tape at your waist. Then look in the mirror to see where you would like your petticoat to fall. This can be a little difficult for the back but manageable.

Another option is to put everything on your dress form if you have one and measure that way. Since this is an undergarment you can mark it about 2 to 5 inches off the ground. This is so it doesn’t peek out underneath your top skirt, remember to account for your hem! Depending on how wide you want your hem to be, this can be 1/2 an inch to 3 inches.

It is also historically accurate to have your petticoat be your top skirt. So about a couple of inches above the ground will suffice. The front panel will be shorter than your back panel if you are wearing this garment with a bum roll/pad. Just gradually cut the bottom of the skirt to account for this.

Now fold up the bottom by 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the bottom of the skirt. Press this on your ironing board as you go so you don’t end up with an uneven hem. Fold again, press and sew your hem. You can then stitch this the easy way, straight stitch set at 2 and just run it through your machine. You can also look up how to do a blind hem stitch on Youtube. That’s if you feel like you have free time to do this by hand.

And you’re finished!

You can always add a dust ruffle at the bottom or lace if you’re feeling adventurous.

The mystery of how dressmakers put together clothing became less of an impossible achievement. My research took me into so many avenues of sewing. I even finished my first pair of stays recently! These are the light version of a corset that predates the Victorian Era.

It doesn’t take another person to make fittings or some master tailor to make something beautiful for yourself. Now you can wow your friends when you show up to the Ren Faire already in costume. When I made my first petticoat, I realized that it would go under the rest of my outfit. Nobody passing by would see it. I knew that I made it to the best of my ability at the time. As you grow, you learn more interesting and complicated techniques.

Making clothes for yourself is rewarding. I keep everything I sew and now that I’ve gotten better at it, I can go back to my earlier projects and make them better. As you learn more, the less you waste, you can remake old costumes or alter garments you’ve thrifted. Fabric is versatile and you don’t have to throw something away because it’s old.

The great thing about this particular project is when you start adding other pieces like the bum roll/pad, pockets, a shift and stays, the skirt is just one part of the whole. The whole thing isn’t as hard as you thought. At the end of the day, it’ll be a staple to every future project you take on.

Happy sewing! Don’t forget that you’re going to make mistakes in making a garment. You can just rip out the stitches and do it again.

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