Skirting the Issue: How to Draft Skirt Patterns

Two Basic Skirt Shapes: Rectangle (left) and Circle (right)

How much is there, really, to say about skirts? They’re pretty basic. I’ve never really been one to make patterns for skirts, because, well, I’m lazy, and it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to whack out a rectangle. Somewhere back in the primordial fog of my early costuming experience, someone told me, “Gored skirts aren’t period. They waste fabric.” And I believed her, because it was easier than doing my own research or making with the thinkies. And shame on me, because it turns out that you can get through most of your costuming life if you know how to draft three basic skirt patterns. ¬†Ready?

Two Basic Skirt Shapes: Rectangle (left) and Circle (right)
Two Basic Skirt Shapes: Rectangle (left) and Circle (right)

All skirt panels are cut in one of three shapes: Rectangle, Circle, or Conic Segment. That last one sounds pretty math-y, but it’s really just a hybrid shape somewhere between rectangle and circle. We’ll talk about rectangle and circle first, and then deal with the in-betweens.

wine bottles used for this demo
My models for this demo: two wine bottles.

Wine bottles are a pretty good stand in for the lower half of a human – the shape gives me a waist and hip area, without the inconvenient addition of arms and shoulders…. ¬†(These are 2007 Sangiovese and Cabernet by my hometown vinter, Lynfred Winery. Both are, incidentally, excellent wines, courtesy of my friend Steve.)

Any skirt requires (at least) three basic measurements:

waist measurement
Waist, taken at the smallest part of the torso.
hip measurement
Hip, taken at the widest part of the nether-region (ie, below your waist).
length measurement
Intended Length. We're working with a "long skirts era", so we're looking at a skirt that goes from the waist to the ground.

Based on my wine bottles, for this demo I’ll be using the following measurements:

  1. Waist: 4″
  2. Hip: 9.5″
  3. Length: 9″

Next: Drafting the Rectangular Skirt….

8 Comments

  1. Wonderful tutorial! It explains so much to me! Such as: why the skirt on my first Irish dress, while simple to make with its rectangle skirt panel, look awful when I wore it!

  2. You’re welcome! I’m glad it helped. :) Check back in the next couple of days – I’m working on an ebook on the specifics of drafting gores. It will include info on controlling fullness at the waist and hem, and how to draft gores to match specific angles. (Just in case anyone is trying to reproduce that darned Alcega farthingale…)

  3. omg, I think my brain just exploded from the brilliance of this post! (actually, it first exploded when I read that (paraphrasing) gored skirts were wasteful of fabric. um, whut? you get a LOT more bang for your buck with gores! :)

    Thank you for yet another incredibly fabulous tutorial!!!!

    (I will say, though that I think there *are* some examples of rectangular skirts later period, but that they appear to have *way* more than 2 or even 3 times the hip measurement… especially mid-16th c German dresses…)

  4. Thanks, Irmgard – you’re totally right. There are regions and eras that do go back to the rectangular cut. (The Pompadour styles are my fav example. There are gored examples, but the height of the era makes amazing use of rectangle skirts and an extremely sophisticated bodice cut to make that back-that-flows-from-the-shoulders look work.) I think it’s fair to say that no one in the 1500s too advantage of the gore for a totally smooth, controlled skirt like the Spanish. The rest of Europe started to put far more fabric into the tops of their gores.
    I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! :) (ps – I think the notion that gores are wastful comes from modern cutting plans, were we waste fabric to avoid extra seaming. We forget that aesthetics have changed over time!)

  5. Am I right in assuming that when you use the square root in calculating the waist radius, you start out with the crosscut area of the waist, as supposed to the more frequently used waist circumference? ;-)

    I’ve followed your site for some years, and I really enjoy your writing style – and being prone to perfectionism, I appreciate your healthy attitude to research vs cutting corners! Can relate to the sewing/programmer background too. I love the idea of historical style clothing, though unfortunately I can’t see a place for it in my life at the moment. I based gowns for my wedding and MSc degree ceremony on designs in Patterns of Fashion 2, and they really made me feel very special!

  6. Hi, Anna – You’re correct, and I’m all wrong – I really meant to use the circumference formula instead of the area formula. Yipes! Thanks for the great catch. I’ve corrected it in the post. You know the really silly part? I have pictures of both my calculator and my notes showing that I was doing the circumference formula. (I double-checked, because the base of the neck of the bottle is a hair larger than the top, and I wanted to make sure I had a good number.) I think I just really like square roots…
    Thank you!

  7. This post is just wonderful. I found your site when researching patterning and I am so glad I did! I appreciate the passion you have for the art of clothing and the evolution of fashion aesthetic. I hope your web store will be up soon so I can check out your e-books.

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