Story of the Big Skirt

The story of the Big Skirt:

Sometime on the morning of Thursday, July 20th [1995] I came up with a wild plan to make a big fancy skirt for my wife while she was travelling in the UK. I immediately started laying out pieces with a computer drafting program.

By Friday afternoon, I had a good idea what I wanted to do, but I was very apprehensive about what I didn't know and the size of the project. I composed a long message to rec.crafts.textiles.sewing which described the project and asked some very open questions. I was open to any and all advice.

I started receiving responses that very night, and they were still arriving regularly a week later. I was overwhelmed by the kind and thoughtful responses by the r.c.t.s regulars! I'm something of a Usenet veteran, I guess, and most Usenet crowds are not so helpful. [PICTURE!]

One of the most sensible things which people advised me was to get a real pattern and make that before trying the big skirt. This was probably excellent advice which I disregarded completely, because I was really excited about getting started, and I'm hopelessly stubborn.

Saturday morning I called all the fabric stores in Cambridge and compared prices. I found one which was pretty close (I don't have a car; I rollerblade everywhere.) and had good prices. By that afternoon I had bought 8 yards of 54" white, lightweight cotton, some new needles, and some thread. (The needles were the wrong size for my machine, but I learned that later.)

I cut fabric Saturday night and most of Sunday, until I had 16 gores of 45 degrees each, with a 34 inch outer diameter, leaving 1 inch extra all round. I drew the pattern right on the fabric in pencil; I figured that it would wash out, and it would be inside anyway. Cutting and marking took a lot longer than I would have guessed!

I spent hours praticing on the scraps. A charming woman named Kay had described french seams to me (via email), and it sounded good to me. The whole project succeeded because I share the typical programmer's secret perfectionism, and I practiced everything before doing it for real. (except making a whole practice skirt!)

Then I started sewing the gores together. I made sure to always sew from the bottom up, which someone suggested to help keep the bias seams from stretching too much. I wasn't too concerned about this, since the gores were only 45 degrees each and I cut them all with the middle of the gore parallel to the selvedge. (So the seams were all 22.5 degrees from both the lengthwise grain and the bias.) Plus, I was determined to use french seams for everything, which I guessed should help keep the seams from stretching. I sewed the gores into 2 circles of 8 gores each - all french seams - and then remarked the center circle for the waistband, since I hadn't gotten everything lined up properly.

By this point I had gained a lot of confidence, because the french seams looked great and it was starting to look kinda like a skirt.

Anyway, despite the advice of my mom, (among others) I decided to make the waistband be two pieces of elastic, one above the other. (I said I was stubborn.) I was concerned about how heavy the skirt would be, and I didn't think a narrow waistband would look right.

Anyway, by Tuesday or so I went back to the fabric store and bought 2 yards of 1 inch wide elastic, 4 yards of 60 inch wide, bright green cotton, and some matching green thread. (Green is my wife's favorite color.) It's a nice color; bright enough to be festive, but not too bright.

The waistband I made by cutting a 7 inch wide band of the white cloth. Folded over, I stitched it into 2 loops for the elastic to go through, which left about an inch extra. I then attached the two circles together and french-seamed the waistband to the main part of the skirt. In the process I goofed: the last 3 inches of the seam were crooked, and partly closed off the elastic path. I should have taken those last few inches back out and stitched it again, but I'm dumb. I figured that it would be better to cut the elastic into a 3/4 inch strip which would fit past the narrow part instead. In hindsight, this was probably a Bad Idea(tm). I also made the waist narrower than I probably should have, but time will tell on that score.

After that I hung the skirt by the waistband to let it stretch along the bias while I worked on the ruffles, which took several days.

I also started cutting the green fabric into the ruffles. I wanted to make semi-circular ruffles from the beginning (even before I knew what to call them. Many people told me about easier ways to make ruffles, but I don't think they would have looked right, and I'm stubborn! But I did decide to make them smaller; my first plan was to have 9 inch ruffles and a floor length skirt, but I went with 5 inch ruffles instead. So I cut 20 inch diameter circles with 10 inch diameter holes in the middle. I cut 12 of them and a bunch of partial ones. It took a long time.

When I finished cutting the ruffles, I hemmed them. I hadn't hemmed something since 8th grade, and I certainly had never tried to hem a curved edge. It was somewhat more challenging than I imagined. I noticed that the manual for my machine described a "hemming foot" attachment. It sounded too good to be true; I went and bought one. I described my machine to the woman at the store; we agreed that my machine was a "high foot" machine, so I bought the "high foot" attachment and some lighter needles. But it was really a "slant foot" which was marked wrong. I took it back, but all the high foot attachments were really slant foots marked wrong. The saleswoman said they probably had high foot attachments downstairs but she didn't feel like searching for it. She offered to call me if they found it later, but I was so irritated that I told her not to bother. I bought the right one the next day from a different store for $5 less.

I tried endless practice seams with the narrow hemmer. Some turned out great, but I couldn't ever get it to work very reliably. Eventually I gave up and just hemmed it all by cutting little nicks every few inches, folding it over, ironing, folding again, iron again, and sew! I did this for all ~850 inches of the ruffle circumference, and a bunch extra, since I didn't know exactly how much I would need. Somewhere in there the belt on my sewing machine broke, so I did the last 120 inches by turning the wheel by hand. (I bought a new belt for $1.05 the next day from the store that sold me the right narrow hemmer: ) I then sewed the circles together so that they made one loooong curvy-ruffly strip - also french seams.

I also discovered that the green fabric was very unfriendly to my needles. I only had 11's and a dull 16. The 11's would jam and break fairly quickly - I'm still not sure why exactly, but I broke all 4 that I had bought. The 16 lasted a long time, but it made lots of noise and pulls in the fabric. Eventually it broke too, so I went to the fabric store and bought an assortment of sizes. A 14 seemed to work great and I used one for the entire rest of the skirt without breaking it or pulling the fabric. [PICTURE!]

Since my hem on the ruffle wasn't perfectly even, I laid it out and marked 5 inches in from the edge the whole length of the ruffle. I then corrected the marks on the bottom of the main part of the skirt, and sewed the ruffle to the skirt! Since the bottom was ~427 inches inches around, this seemed to take a long time too. Especially since it was tricky to line up, due to the curve of the ruffle. I left the last part undone, until I did the last gore-seam so I could make it line up right with the other side.

So I put in the elastic and was about ready to close the circle! One problem- my machine would not sew through 2 layers of elastic. No problem, I thought, I'll just sew that part by hand - but I had no hand needles! All the sewing I had done so far had been on the machine, and I didn't have any non-machine needles. I knew that I had some around the apartment somewhere in a mending kit, but I couldn't find it. (My wife probably has it in Europe!)

Anyway, I cut the back off a machine needle with a pair of pliers and used the 1/2 inch fragment. I was determined to not have to go back to the store! Fortunately, I had bought those needles which were the wrong size. Before putting in the elastic, I cut off the extra waistband, ripped some of the seams out from the middle, and turned it under. After joining the elastic, I began a french seam to close the last gores, and stopped near the bottom to finish attaching the ruffle. Since the skirt was almost closed, it was easy to line up the ruffle exactly right. Then I ironed and trimmed the ruffle seam, and french seam'ed it in - all the way around. Just doing the last part of this took several hours.

Then I finished the last french seam down from the waist all the way to the bottom of the ruffle. Then I dug out my needle shard and hand sewed the join in the waistband casing, and 'touched up' the seam vertices. I trimmed the loose threads, and it was done!

I thought about throwing it in the wash to finish it, but I'll wait until after she sees it! [PICTURE!]

I spent the next half hour putting it on and off, and dancing around to see how it felt. It is very full. It looks great, isn't too heavy and feels cool. The elastic seems to have just enough tension to hold it up. The waist however, is barely large enough to go over my hips, and I fear it will never go over Sheryl's hips. (We're about the same size, but shaped differently!) She can probably pull it down over her head and wriggle into it though. I think I could put in a zipper, but I'll give it to her and let her decide. It is done.

Then I wrote this.


-Dan Risacher