18 February 2015

The Complete and Total Beginner's Introduction to Sewing: How Clothing Works.

This post is about clothes.

Basic clothing starts with a rectangle of fabric. You can take a sheet, cut a hole in the middle, put it over your head, and have a poncho.
Then, if you want, you can sew the sides together, and have a tunic.
(Clicking on pictures will enlarge them.)

But what if you want sleeves?
You'll need to add two smaller rectangles.

If you follow the above diagrams, you will end up with a functional tunic. But it won't fit very tidily. You'll have trouble raising your arm freely: the whole tunic will rise with it.
Also, if you want a really modest garment you'll want some way to fill in the neckline once you've gotten it over your head.

How do you turn a rectangle of fabric into modern-looking clothes, clothes that fit like the ones you have on?
To do that, you need to cut that rectangle into lots of funny-looking pieces.

I think I'll make a series of posts explaining how that happens.
This series was inspired by an online discussion of how to make costumes for Purim.
A couple of women were saying they'd like to make skirts, and wondering how to use a pattern.
There are some online tutorials for using a pattern that make it sound very complicated; maybe I'll write a simpler one. For now, though, I just want to give an overview of how that pattern is going to take you from a flat piece of fabric to a three-dimensional garment.
I'm going to link to some pictures of completed garments, but take no responsibility for the content of the links, k?

We'll start with a skirt, because skirts are simpler than tops.
So, without further ado...

What Is a A Skirt?

Look down at the skirt you are wearing.
A skirt is a tube of fabric.

There are two issues that a skirt needs to address.
1.)  The opening at the top needs to be narrow enough that the skirt will stay on.
2.) The opening at the bottom needs to be wide enough that you have room to walk.

The basic shape of a skirt, therefore, is a trapezoid.

In between the opening at the top and the opening at the bottom, you have to get the skirt from narrow to wide. There are a few ways to do this.

1. Start with a rectangle.
2. Fold it in half and sew the long end. Now you have a tube.

It isn't a skirt yet, though, because it would slide right off the person.
We need to address issue no. 1: narrowing the top opening.

We can narrow the top of the tube with gathering, or gauging, or pleating, or darting.

Run a line of stitching around the end that will be the top. If you pull on the threads you just sewed, that end of the tube will narrow, like the mouth of a drawstring bag. This is called gathering.
You often see gathering nowadays on children's dresses.

This is what a gathered skirt looks like.
The coat here has five lines of gathering in it, creating a bunched effect.

is like gathering, only it is done more carefully than gathering. I'm in the middle of trying it for the first time, so I can't give a better description yet. Gauging was a very popular technique for shaping skirts in the mid-19th century. It'll come back into fashion eventually.

I've never done smocking or shirring, but I imagine they are other forms of carefully controlled gathering. Smocking, like gathering, is especially popular on children's clothing.

means to fold the fabric at the top and sew down the folds.
Now the top is folded and the bottom isn't. So the top is narrow and the bottom is wide.

There are different ways to make these folds. The skirt in the drawing is knife-pleated: all the folds go the same way.

Pleats don't all have to go the same way. You can pleat half a skirt to the left and half a skirt to the right. In the center front and center back you will end up with two pleats facing each other (two pleats facing each other is called a “box pleat”). The baby currently crawling around my feet is wearing a skirt like that. (Kind of funny – box pleats are very square and professional-looking, everything a baby isn't.)

Or you can alternate left-facing and right-facing pleats, so that all your pleats are box pleats.

Or you can do two left-facing pleats and then two right-facing pleats and so on. These are called stacked box pleats, because it looks like the boxes are stacked on each other.
You can stack up lots of boxes. Three or four or five left-facing pleats and then as many right-facing.

(I often think that a skirt with a single inverted box pleat in the center would be a good alternative to the Turkish trousers that girls' schools sometimes use to simulate pants for their performances: it is reminiscent of pants and has the tailored look of western clothes.
There is a skirt with a single inverted pleat in a picture here (scroll down to skirts). )

You can sew the folds into place not only at the top but also part of the way down the skirt; these are “stiched-down pleats”. School uniforms often have stitched-down pleats.
Searching online for school uniforms will turn up lots of examples of stitched-down pleats.

You can use just one pleat. You can use lots of pleats. You can go wild and mix pleat styles in a single skirt.
And, they don't all have to be the same size. You can alternate small and large pleats, or create some other pattern, or go wild and make each one different, though I suspect that would look like carelessness unless every other detail of the skirt was impeccably tailored.

is taking bites out of the fabric. If you are wearing a blouse, it probably has darts in it.
What is shown below is not actually how you sew darts: really, first you sew and then you cut. But it illustrates the principle.

These are all ways to narrow the top of a rectangular tube.
But you don't have to start with a rectangle.
In fact, starting with a rectangle can often result in an undesirably bulky skirt.
You can start with a couple of trapezoids, and sew them together instead. Say, two trapezoids.
Or three trapezoids. Or six. Or eight. Trapezoids are called gores. Gores are popular in skirts for adults. I especially like the way the lines fall out in six-gore skirts.


(you have to round off the bottom of the pieces if you want a nice even bottom edge.)

 Circle skirts
If you have a huge piece of fabric, like a sheet, you can just cut out a big doughnut and drop it over your head. That's a circle skirt. Circle skirts are my favorite kind of skirt.
Most fabric is too narrow to provide the whole doughnut at once. So you cut out a quarter- or a half-doughnut or two and sew the edges together, just as with the trapezoids in a gored skirt.

Mix Things Up
The techniques I showed you with rectangles are not limited to rectangles. You can make a circle skirt and then pleat the top of it. You can make a gored skirt and gauge the top of it.

There's a third issue that skirts need to address. Forget the second issue, the wide bottom, for a minute.
Issue no. 1 is that the skirt needs to be narrow enough at the top to stay on.
But, here's issue no. 3: the skirt also needs to be wide enough at the top that it will fit on in the first place.
The two are not compatible.
The skirts that I've drawn so far will stay on, but none of them will fit onto an adult. We need a way to widen the top to get the skirt on and then narrow it once the skirt is on.

We do this with closures, or elastic, or a drawstring.

Closures are easy to explain.
You cut a slit in the skirt and then shut it with something.

When you want to get the skirt on, you open the zipper or the buttons or frogs or hooks-and-eyes or snaps or lacing or... invent a new closure if you want.
To narrow the opening so the skirt will stay on, you close the zipper or the buttons or frogs or whatever it is.

Nowadays one seldom sees laced clothes other than sneakers, which is a pity.  This  is not a great example because the lacing is part of the bodice rather than the skirt (nor is it cut to lace all the way closed), but you could shut a skirt with lacing too.

Elastic is simpler to insert than you'd think.

You make a tunnel (a “casing”) along the top edge for it to live in. Hold onto one end of the ribbon of the elastic, thread the other into the tunnel until it pops out the  other side (it helps to weight that end with a diaper pin), and sew the two ends of the elastic ribbon together.

Essentially, you've gathered the skirt.
It should fit comfortably without being stretched. The stretchiness of the elastic is just to let you into the skirt.

A drawstring is the same idea but you can untie it to get it on, so the string doesn't need to be made of elastic.

We still have Skirt Issue no. 2: the bottom needs to be wide enough that you can walk in it.
If you start with a wide rectangle, or a couple of trapezoids, or a semi-doughnut, you won't have this problem. But let's say you started with a narrow rectangle of fabric, so narrow that you didn't even have to narrow the top at all, and now you want to widen the bottom so you can walk easily.

One way to do that is with godets.


Cut a slit into the bottom. Your slit is just a line. Fill it in with a triangle. The bottom of a triangle is wider than the bottom of a line. Thus, you have widened the bottom of the skirt.

The blue dress here has a skirt with godets.

Another solution is slits. Slits are just unfinished godets. I think they look cheap.

Godets are the opposite of darts. To make a dart, you take a pie-slice out of the fabric. To make a godet, you put an extra pie-slice into the fabric.

Other Shapes in Skirts.
We've seen skirts made with rectangles, trapezoids and semi-circles, and triangles.
What about other shapes?

These would make interesting gores. Or godets.

This dress has a simple gored skirt, it's just made of unusually shaped gores. Such fun.

Elastic skirts.
This is not an aesthetic I care for, but yes, you can make the whole skirt out of stretch fabric, so that it is narrow enough to stay on at the top and really should be too narrow to get into or to walk in, except that it stretches when you walk. Basically, you are walking around all day in a very soft rubber-band.
I think stretch skirts are atrocious.
Of course, a stretch skirt doesn't have to be that narrow; you can make a very full, flared skirt out of stretchy fabric.

Straight skirts (“pencil skirts”)
Or you can decide that you don't actually need to walk at all, and just make a skirt out of two narrow rectangles sewn together, and then stand still all day.
Remember to leave extra time whenever you have to go somewhere, because your skirt will make you take such tiny steps that it will take twice as long to get anything accomplished.
I remember these were fashionable about five years ago. Maybe they still are. Why do women do this to ourselves? There are so many more practical and beautiful alternatives.

Besides, it's not like we've exhausted the options.

Let's get complicated!

Tiered skirts.
This is another way to take a skirt from narrow to wide.
A tiered skirt is any number of trapezoids, of varying widths, attached to each other. Basically, you sew three skirts together.

Here they are. We'll start with rectangles and gather them.

First we pull the drawstrings, and then we sew them together.

A tiered skirt doesn't have to be three gathered rectangles.
Most tiered skirts that I've seen are gathered, but they don't have to be. You could tier five gauged skirts, or five pleated skirts, or seventeen gored skirts with godets, if you really wanted to.

These coats  have gored skirts with a few rows of tiers at the bottom. Pretty pretty pretty.

Wrap skirts
Wrap skirts are tricky to explain, since they take their shape from being worn.
Basically, take a rectangle. Attach a long ribbon to the top.
Wrap the rectangle around yourself. Poke a hole in the ribbon, bring one end of the ribbon through, and tie it to the other end.
To get a nice even bottom edge you need another scrap of fabric; but why the geometry demands this, I have not figured out.
Q. I see that the top is tied closed, but how do you keep the bottom from flying open? A. Yeah. That's why I don't make wrap skirts. We could experiment with really heavy or staticky or textured fabric like velvet and see if it behaves better. Until I find a better solution, my only suggestion is to sew it closed.

I mention wrap skirts at all, though, because they have one good quality: you can poke a new hole in the ribbon whenever you need it, and wear the same skirt before, during, and after maternity.

Starting with Patchwork Instead of Big Pieces of Fabric

You don't have to start with big rectangles or trapezoids. You can start with a hundred tiny pieces, and sew them together to make rectangles or trapezoids.

What else can we do with skirts?

Well, if you wanted to do something edgy, you could make them asymmetrical, though I think the asymmetry tends to shout down the personality of the wearer.
Another way to create asymmetry in a skirt is to put a train in the back to sweep the floor.

You can put petticoats (which just means more skirts) under a skirt, or sew stiff material to it on the inside, to make it stand out like a lampshade.
A dress like this would have been worn over petticoats.
So is probably every skirt on this website.
The skirt on this is supported by wire scaffolding.

You can put another layer on top. That's pretty.
Most of one skirt on top of another. I love divided overskirts; I think they look botanical.
You can do
with draping that second layer on top.

This week at a wedding I saw a white skirt of tiered gores with a sheer black circle skirt over the top. The effect was very elegant: because circle skirts are so full they tend to fall in graceful folds; here it created black and white stripes.

You can cut out shapes at the bottom, like medieval dagging (the standing man in blue has dagged edges), or the Flower FairiesTwo layers.

You can add pockets. Pockets I am in favor of pockets (except during Elul ;)

I haven't discussed edge finishes. Except on elastic-waist skirts, every skirt I've shown you typically has its top edge enclosed in a “waistband”; that is, a long ribbon-like length of fabric at the top. And the bottom edge would be folded under and sewn down (“hemmed”). Edge finishes look nice and keep the fabric from fraying. There are many subtly different ways to finish an edge.

But what I really like to do with skirts is... trim them.
Sew a band of different-colored fabric round the hem.
Sew on beads and bangles and buttons. I think there was a fad a few years ago for unnecessary buttons. (There was also a ghastly fad for unnecessary zippers. Seriously? I go out of my way to use what is called an “invisible zipper” no matter what, when I have to use a zipper at all. Why would you want to see a row of plastic tracks interrupting the drape of your textile?)
I rather suspect that in the next few years we will see all kinds of interesting things dangling off hems... like acorns and artificial berries.
Sew on ribbons. Zigzag ribbons are called rickrack. You can bunch up ribbons; it's called ruching.
Sew on braid.
Because lace trims are associated with underskirts, at the bottom of a skirt they can look like something is showing that shouldn't, so I don't use them... but they are nice on underskirts.
Embroidery. Embroidery is extremely time-consuming but I think there is no trim so beautiful.

Some crazy brainstorming
Once you have the “vocabulary” of skirt construction, you can mix things up or invent new shapes.
Two thoughts occurred to me recently:
1.) Loops said that for Purim she wants to dress up like mishloach manos. So I'm thinking of cutting out a dozen wine-bottle shaped godets, and filling the space between them with a different color. I might experiment with box-pleats to see if I can put the wine bottles in boxes, as it were. And then I might sew a bunch of corks around the hem.

Another thing I might like to try, so that she looks like a basket of mishloach manos, is a woven fabric treatment that looks like basket-weaving. Something like this.

2.)  I wonder whether it's possible to make curved pleats. I might experiment and see if I can make a sand-colored skirt with pleats that look like barchan dunes.

I won't do anything that ambitious, actually. But I would if I had nothing to do all day but dressmaking.

3.) This. You can see it's just different shapes sewn together in tiers. 

Quiz time!
Look down at your skirt again.
Remember the three issues of a skirt.
Issue 1: The top needs to be narrow enough to stay on.
Issue 2: The bottom needs to be wide enough that you can walk.

How does your skirt get from narrow to wide?
Is it made of rectangles, or is it made of trapezoids or semi-circles? Does it have some narrowing technique at the top (and if so, which)? Does it have godets at the bottom? Does it stretch? Or is it a combination of two or three of these?
Or is it, in fact, impossible to walk in?

Issue 3: The top also needs to widen enough to let you into the skirt.

How does the top of your skirt widen to let you in?


  1. what is different between kilts and skirts?

  2. normally kilts are wear for men ans skirts are for women.

  3. I just saw this; sorry! It's a great question.
    A kilt is a wrap skirt: it's a rectangle of fabric that you wrap around yourself and then fasten.
    Kilts happen to have pleats sewn into them. So it's a pleated wrap skirt, which is cool.
    What is the difference, then, between a kilt and a skirt? -- Nothing! A kilt is a type of skirt.
    You will note that being a skirt does not automatically make something a women's garment.

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