How to make skirt supports

Hoops, bustles and nylon undergarments were often used under skirts to add fullness and shape that reflect the progression of woman’s fashion. Creating the appropriate shape and volume of a skirt is vital to its interpretation.

It is not always obvious where the centre front of a skirt should be and it is common to find fastenings in poor condition due to the strain placed at this point. Always check the measurements of the skirt waistband as these have often been altered and may not align with the dimensions of the bodice in a multiple piece ensemble.

Avoid the temptation to use collection undergarments to display historic dress as these are valuable items in their own right. There are times when the production of crinolines and bustles similar in construction to that of period originals could be sourced or made, but in general, the easiest and most sensible way to create shape and support for skirts is by attaching layers of gathered nylon net on top of a tube petticoat.

Mount for dress with a large bell-shaped skirt. Petticoat has stitched channels with a steel hoop.

Dress, 1858, by Eliza Wrigley. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (PC000829)

Exercise: Create a tube petticoat

The tube petticoat extends the shape of the torso towards the floor in lieu of a pair of legs. The tube will stop the net underpinnings from collapsing under the dress stand. They are simple to make but a specialist boning material called Rigilene is needed.

You will need:

  • Calico

  • Rigilene

  • Fabric and paper scissors (for Rigilene)

  • Glass headed pins

  • Sewing machine

  • Ruler and tape measure

  • Thread

Step 1: Measure the waist to hem of the skirt at the shortest point (usually the centre front). And the hip circumference once padding is complete. These dimensions will give you an approximate length and circumference of a basic tube petticoat.

Step 2: Cut out a corresponding piece of calico. Fold in half on the straight of the grain and then seam the open edge and press flat.

Step 3: On the reverse of the fabric mark 3 x parallel lines, 25cm apart starting 3cm from the bottom edge and at a right angle to the fold.

Step 4: Using a large zig-zag machine stitch sew through the Rigilene boning onto your marked lines. Ensure the boning curves upwards (like a bowl) as you stitch it onto the inside of your calico tube. Overlap the cut ends of the Rigilene and stitch to secure.

Step 5: Turn the tube inside out so the boning is on the inside. Fold the 3cm at the hem of your tube around the bottom band of boning and secure with a running stitch.

Step 6: You can either use pinking shears to maintain a raw edge at the top of your tube and stitch the petticoat into place or stitch a channel in which to insert a tape. This can then be used to tie your petticoat onto the dress stand. Be aware that the second method will add bulk around the hips and possibly the waist.

Tube skirt. Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

Exercise: Make a gathered net underskirt

Nylon is generally available in a few weights. For best results and to create a smooth but sturdy shape at least two weights are needed. A heavyweight base and a finer top net. On average, 4-6 metres of net per layer are needed to make a full skirt shape.

You will need:

  • Reference material

  • Paper and fabric scissors

  • Nylon net

  • Glass headed pins

  • Sewing machine

  • Ruler and tape measure

  • Thread

Step 1: To create a long enough length join together pieces of net cut roughly to the longest waist to hem measurement. Overlap the edges by 1-2cm and stitch these together flat, one on top of the other.

Step 2: Using the largest stitch length on the machine, run two parallel lines of straight stitching along the top edge of your joined pieces. The top threads (or bottom threads) can then be pulled out to gather the net up to the desired length and fullness.

Step 3: Secure your gather by attaching the net to a cotton tape using a large zig-zag stitch between your parallel gather lines. This tape can then be used to tie the net onto the form if tape ends are left long.

Gathering an underskirt. Photos by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

To help a garment slide onto voluminous skirts and protect it from the rough raw edges of the net it is always advisable to finish skirts with a top layer of habotai silk (nylon lining fabric can also be used if budgets are tight).

Finished mount for an 18th-century gown. A fibreglass form was cut down to achieve this shape. Photo by Sam Gatley. Te Papa

The top skirt can be made in a similar way to the net layers but with seamed joins and the hemline stitched to finish.