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Skirting the Issue: How to Draft Skirt Patterns

So how about a circle skirt?  This is almost as easy to draft, if you have a large enough piece of fabric and a calculator.  A circle skirt is actually two concentric circles, like a big ol’ flatty donut.  The outermost circle is the hem, and the innermost is the waist.  Great.  So we just draw a circle that’s 4″ around, right?

Well, almost.  It’s hard to draw a circle that’s a specific size around.  It’s easy to draw a circle of a known radius, which is the distance from the absolute center of the circle out to any spot along the edge.  Technically, to find this, you would take the square root half of the result of dividing your waist measurement by 3.14.

(Thanks to Anna-Carin for the quick catch: I want to convert the waist circumference to a radius using the formula C=2*r*pi. Unfortunately, I used a different formula – pi*r*r, aka “pi r squared”. It’s a find formula, if you want to get from a radius to an area, which is when you’d take the square root of dividing your number by 3.14.  A decent calculator has buttons for all of this, and the process inside my head looks something like: 4-slash-squiggly-hut-enter-steam-shovel.  Squiggly-hut and steam-shovel being the keys for pi and square root, respectively.  The later should be perfectly obvious to anyone who ever read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  And yes, I’ve gratuitously ‘fessed up to a mistake merely to avoid deleting a perfectly good Mike Mulligan reference…)

In the case of the wine bottles, the “waist” is the neck of the bottle, which goes straight up, so I just measured and came up with a 5/8″ radius.  Armed with that number, we do the following:

setup string
Tie a slipnot in a piece of string, and secure the knot around a pin. Measure out the desired length of your skirt (9") plus your waist radius (5/8"), plus seam allowances and hemmings (we're skipping). Wrap the remainder of the string securely around a pen. The pen should be 9 5/8" from the pin, in our example. (Yes, my ruler is off in this shot!)
placing the pin
Fold your skirt fabric in half lengthwise, then in half widthwise so you have quarters. Carefully, transfer the pin/string/pen setup and place the pin right at the corner.
drawing the circle
Holding the string taught, use the pen to draw the circle. Right now, the string is acting as the radius of the outermost (hem) circle, and the pin is the exact center of the circle. Be careful to hold the pen straight up. I usually go over this 3-5 times, just in case I wibbled somewhere.
Drawing in the waist
To draw in the waist opening, use your ruler to mark a series of ticks at your waist radius (5/8", in this case) from the corner your pin was in..

Carefully, without shifting the layers, cut along the outer line, then cut out the waist. You should have a big ol’ flatty donut looking shape.  If this were a real circle skirt for a real person, incidentally, you’d probably have to cut it in two halves to fit it onto fabric.  You’d also need to fuss with a seam allowance at the waist, and some form of waist mounting and also a slit at the waist so you can get the darn thing on.  A hem would not be a miss, either.  After all that, you might have something like this:

circle skirt worn by a doll
A finished circle skirt, on something resembling a human figure...

You can see the major difference between the drawstring and circle skirts here: there’s almost no bulk at the waist, even though I’ve got a waistband (which adds five layers of fabric, all told – a lot for a doll this size!)  There’s an awful lot of fabric at the hem, however.  It looks a little short, for two reasons: first, it’s standing away from the body because all that extra fabric has to go somewhere. The nature of circles and cones says that as things move out from the ankles, they also move up – each point essentially falls on a giant bubble around the body.  (Imagine, if you will, that your skirt hem is being attacked by a slightly crazed spirograph…) Secondly, this skirt was cut to be ankle length on a doll who is permanently set to wear killer heels, since ankle length is always safer to walk in.  Yes, I know, the doll doesn’t walk. You’ll notice that the thumb of her right hand is also tucked into the the side slit of the circle skirt, which is there so that it will go on over the shoulders.  Technically, her thumb is in the placket/hidden pocket (plocket?) that hides the slit. She doesn’t need pockets, particularly, because they don’t carry lipstick and wallets and loose change, but, you know, I like to make the more-than-complete example.  It’s an OCD thing….

Now, here’s the huge problem with a circle skirt:

waste from cutting circles
Circle skirts waste fabric.

Next: The Secret Life of the Gored Skirt….

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  1. Denise
    Denise October 1, 2010

    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. Denise
    Denise October 1, 2010

    Thank you! Thank you!

  3. missa
    missa October 1, 2010

    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…)

  4. Irmgard
    Irmgard October 5, 2010

    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…)

  5. missa
    missa October 5, 2010

    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!)

  6. Anna-Carin
    Anna-Carin October 9, 2010

    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!

  7. missa
    missa October 9, 2010

    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!

  8. pip
    pip September 15, 2013

    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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