Friday, January 14, 2011

How I Turned a Bed Sheet into a Victorian Petticoat

I finished my latest steampunk project yesterday. I made myself a silver petticoat to wear to my next event. I can't claim that this was wholly an original idea. I used the pattern and instructions posted here at The Anticraft as the basis for my skirt.

I made a one of these skirts a couple of months ago in black. I used fabric I bought at Wal-Mart for $5 for a 5 yard bolt. When I finished with the pattern instructions, I found that the skirt only came to my mid-calf, so I had to add a 9 inch panel at the top to make it long enough. I have gotten a lot of use out of the finished object.

From sewing

But this time I wasn't using fabric that came off a bolt. And that changed the process significantly. One of the great things about steampunk is how the culture embraces creative re-purposing. Yes, you can go out and buy beautiful steampunk clothing and objects, but you're likely to get more praise for something you made yourself. There's a process of training yourself to see potential materials everywhere. So when I bought two sets of sheets at Target on Black Friday, I already knew that the flat sheets would become new wardrobe pieces. (We only use fitted sheets in my house. Which is just damned convenient for me.)

I knew that I needed to modify the pattern for length, as I did before. And this time I didn't want an added tier at the waist. Because I was using a sheet, and not a bolt, I had the option of simply making the large skirt panel longer. (You're prevented from doing this on a normal bolt of cloth due to the 45" or 54" width.) That would have been the simplest way to do it. But I wasn't happy with that. I had to make it more complicated. I decided I would do three tiers of ruffles instead of two. I knew (since it mentions this in the original instructions) that to add a third layer would mean it had to be double the fullness of the layer before it. That's a lot of added fabric. But, hey, I had a whole sheet!

The smart thing to do at this point would have been to decide what length measurement I needed and then figure out how many tiers of what height I could cut from my sheet. But since I avoid any kind of math, I didn't do this. I just decided to make 11" tall tiers and started cutting. To further complicate matters, the instructions don't give a measurement for how long their tiers are. They just have you use all the fabric you have. You cut three tiers: one for the top ruffle and two sewn together for the bottom ruffle. Since my fabric was tall but not as long, I had no idea how many strips I was going to have to put together for each tier. I'll worry about that later, I thought.

At the end I had a choice. I could cut one more 11" tier or two 9" tiers, and I went for two nines. It's a good thing I did, because I don't think I would have had enough for three tiers otherwise. But let me make this simple for those who come after me. Cut one piece of fabric 18" tall by the width of your sheet. Then cut the rest into strips 10" tall. That way all your tiers will be nice and even, unlike mine. For the actual cutting I spread the sheet on the floor and used my acrylic ruler, a yardstick, and a disappearing ink marker to draw my lines. But if you don't have a disappearing ink marker, you could use a sharpie. No one is going to see the very edges of your fabric anyway. I'm horrible at cutting straight lines, so mine still ended up a little wonky. That's ok, it mostly doesn't make a huge difference and you can always clean them up later. It would doubtless help if you don't have a cat attacking the sheet while you're trying to mark straight lines on it.

The next step was actually the most time consuming. The original instructions don't tell you to do this, and I didn't the first time, but I recommend you stitch around the edges of all your pieces with a zigzag or overlock stitch to prevent fraying. My material started fraying badly almost immediately and I want my skirt to last. There's an optional lining in the instructions to help protect the raw edges from wear, but I prefer doing this rather than buying more fabric and adding an extra layer. Chances are good I'll eventually wear this skirt when it's 90-100 degrees, after all. Because of the shear yardage of edges, this took me several days to do. (I also am limited in how much sewing I can do at a time by my back pain.)

Then it's time to figure out what pieces go where. Follow the instructions for the top of the skirt and sew that part together. I played with my tiers a bit to see how full I needed them to be to look right. What I ended up with is this:

First ruffle tier: one sheet width long (one strip)
Second ruffle tier: two sheet widths long (two strips)
Third ruffle tier: four sheet widths long (three strips)

For the actual construction, you pretty much follow the instructions as written. I didn't hem my bottom tier first because I wasn't sure how long it would end up being or how much I would need to take up. That's why my last two tiers are shorter than my first one. One was the 9" tier and the bottom had a couple of inches removed so the length would be right. NB: I am 5'11" and this skirt brushes the tops of my shoes. You will have to adjust for your own height, either with the number of tiers or by shortening the length of the top skirt section.

The gathering of the ruffles is easy. You run a line of your machine's longest stitch across the top of each tier and pull one of the threads to pucker the material. A couple of tips: especially for the longest tiers, do this stitching in two or three separate lengths of thread. It's difficult and time consuming to push ruffles of several yards of material on one thread. Shorter lengths are easier to ruffle, and less catastrophic if you accidentally snap a thread. Also, don't just ruffle the hell out of the tier and then try to attach it to the fabric piece above it. You will have to unruffle it to make it fit correctly. Instead pin the tiers to each other at a couple of places and ruffle it until they are the same length. Otherwise you'll end up like me, having to pin and unpin your layers over and over in order to get everything right.

Sew the layers together, and you have a skirt! But wait. Does your skirt still kinda look like it was made out of rumpled bed sheets? Cause mine did. But I have a secret. Starch! Thanks to steampunk, I have discovered the wonderful world of starch and I'm afraid I might be getting a little addicted to it. I had no idea there was something that totally changed the feel, shine, and wrinkle resistance of fabric like this. Presumably generations older than mine knew about starch, but I feel cheated that no one ever told me about its wonders. But seriously, a real 19th century petticoat would get most of it's floofing power from being starched withing an inch of its life. And not only did the spray starch I used on mine make it drape better and got rid of the wrinkles, it took the ordinary cotton and made it look like a much more expensive material.

From sewing

I'm really excited to put this skirt together with the bustle over-skirt I made in November. I'm putting together a whole black and silver outfit for a party on Jan 22nd, so there will be pictures then.

If anyone ends up making one of their own, let me know. I'd love to see pictures.


  1. Hi Violet,
    I just recently finished on of these too and also had to add another panel to the top! :) lol

    but easy peasy.... darn frills took a while though, such a huge amount of fabric for the bottom frill... karen

  2. Next time you want to gather ruffles in addition to dividing the length of gathering stitches, use heavy duty thread IN YOUR BOBBIN ONLY. Nothing is more frustrating than gatherin yards and yards only to have the pull-up thread (the bobbin thread) BREAK.

    It's also wiser to run two rows of stitches. If you're using a 5/8" inch seam allowance (as is most common in modern clothing) then set your first row at 7/8" and your second row at 3/8" inch. You now have a stronger base to pull up your ruffles and a tighter, neater gather to boot.

    Finally, what do you do when you're pulling up your gathering threads and they get longer and longer and...? Put a pin next to the threads and wind the threads around it in a figure 8. The threads will stay put while you're pulling up the next section of gathering.