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Skirting the Issue: How to Draft Skirt Patterns

So how do you make the skirt fullness fall smoothly? There’s two options:

the spokes on a wheel
A quick look at the spokes on a wheel will tell you that enough triangles of the right size, inserted closely enough together, will make a circle.

And, indeed, most of the Herjolfsnes dresses and the Moy gown have triangular insets at the center front/back seams as well and the side seams, and sometimes at other seams too (often in the guise of an angled cut to the piece itself).

But what if you don’t want all those seams?  Well, the answer is a curved seam at the waist itself. We saw that in the circle skirt. But the skirts in Benvarre’s Banquet clearly don’t have the fullness of a circle skirt.  In fact, Salome’s skirt (rule of thumb: in art, the chick holding a head on a platter is generally Salome) show’s only a slight conical shape, with a more pronounced angle at the back than at the front. And that means that someone, somewhere, knew what they were doing and really understood related curves and conic sections. (Which, incidentally, is why I get so giddy-geeky about this.) Here’s what you need to know:

If you take a rectangle...
slashed rectange
...and you cut from the bottom almost all the way to the top...
slashes spread can manipulate it, spreading the strips apart as though a triangular gore had been added. Notice that this puts a rough curve in at the top.

My flat pattern teachers called this the “slash and spread” technique, and spent a lot of time repeating the mantra “cut to but not through”. If you read my bit about why the basic bodice draft doesn’t work for everyone, then you know you can make a rectangle into a section of a cone by folding out triangles. This is the same thing, but we’re making a rectangle into a cone by adding triangles to the pattern.  In both cases, doing it right means that all the lines that appear straight horizontal on the body are slightly curved on the pattern.

Now, I really doubt that tailors back in the day were using the slash and spread method. Materials were a touch more expensive, I hear, and waste was discouraged. Thing is, once you think to cut the skirts separately from the body of a gown, it’s just a teensy little leap to get to a proper gore.  Ready?

setup for gore
Take a skirt with triangular insets, and center it on a folded piece of fabric. (I'm a hair past center, because I read ahead in the script...)
marking the gore side
Using a straight edge, mark off a line following the angle of the gore. The line should match the length of the body of the skirt - notice that it extends above the current waist!
waist line
Draw a line at right angles to the new side line, connecting it to the former waist line. This angle is the basis for the curve we need.

Just like that, we’ve mimicked the effect of the slash and spread technique. To make the waist curve, we just smooth out the angle between the two lines, just like we made the hem on the first gored skirt by smoothing out the weird bits with a gentle curve.

Next: Comparing Gores to Everything Else…

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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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