Sewing an 1830s Corded Petticoat

Do you want to look like a human handbell? That’s the fashionable silhouette of the 1830s, and the corded petticoat is here to make it happen.

Of course, you don’t need one. You could just layer 6 or 7 standard petticoats like most people did prior to the popularity of the horsehair crinoline. Or you could make do with a quilted petticoat. You could even—gasp—choose to not be fashionable and adopt a narrower silhouette, a far more practical choice for women engaged in farm or factory work.

In fact, The Workwoman’s Guide of 1838 barely mentions corded petticoats, only noting on page 104 that some people like to buy petticoats “with cotton runners, woven in them at the bottom…to make the dress stand out.” It doesn’t even merit construction details. In any case, a home sewist making one at the time would likely have chosen to do fewer rows of cording, rather than hand sewing 50+ yards of stitching.

Yeah, that’s how many I did by machine to make this. I sewed half a football field.

Abby Cox, in her excellent tutorial for American Duchess, estimates that she used more than 90 yards for hers, so it depends a great deal on your height and how densely packed your cording is. Her video is invaluable and was my main source for construction. Previously, Patreon subscribers to their YouTube series had access to the pattern she used, but it’s not available anymore—and you don’t need it! The instructions are really clear, and it’s a simple garment, despite taking so long to make.

Corded Petticoat, American, 1830s. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Corded petticoats. Genessee Country Village and Museum.

I also looked at period examples. Each one is different from the next, but they do tend to space the upper cords out more than those made by sewists today, with more densely packed cording only near the hem. Clustering them up and down the whole petticoat in sections of several rows at a time—which we do a lot of nowadays—isn’t exactly wrong. However, it wasn’t as common as one would think from looking at costume blogs.

Most instructions, such as Abby’s, recommend cutting four panels of 45” fabric at whatever your desired length is. The length should be long enough to extend from your waist to mid calf, plus more to account for hemming and any shortening caused by the cording. Be generous with your length! It’s easier to trim length from the top than it is to add more. I added an extra four inches for a total of 30 (I am short), which was only just enough. Five would have been better. Here’s a diagram of how the panels are sewn together:

You’re essentially making a lined tube, with the lining and outer fabric sewn together at the bottom and everything open at the top. Like a bundt cake tin, but with cording inside instead of batter. The open top will allow you to slip the cord in easily between the two layers. It helps to flat fell the seams that will be on the inside of the tube, so they don’t flip over and bunch up when you are sewing the cord in. I did leave the top 6” of my side seam open on the outer layer, though, so I could make it into a placketed pocket slit (the inner fabric layer will get sliced off above the cording, but more about that later). I plan to include pocket slits on my tucked petticoat and my dress, too, so I can reach the tie-on pocket I’ll be making.

To help me place everything, I marked off four-inch sections on the outside of the tube. My bottom two sections were made with Great Lakes Cordage 10/32 cotton piping. The top four used 4/32 cotton piping, also from GLC. Using smaller cording as you go up makes for a prettier petticoat that is more comfortable to sit on. Smaller cords are also much less likely to create visible bumps on the outside of your dress. The reduction of visible bumps is why you will also want to wear one or two standard petticoats on top of your corded petticoat.

Each of my sections is a continuous coil of one piece of cord. This would probably not have been done in the 1830s, when the cording was frequently already woven into the fabric. However, it provides a better structure for the garment, with fewer “break” points in the cording where it could lose its rounded shape. It’s also easier to sew. In addition to using continuous cords, I staggered my starting points for the sections to avoid creating any breaks.

I strongly recommend using a zipper foot, which makes the sewing itself a breeze. In fact, it was so easy and dull that I ended up listening to about a dozen podcasts just to keep my brain active. The one downside to the zipper foot was that I couldn’t use my trusty walking foot, so there was some horizontal slippage between the two layers as I sewed. I remedied this by switching the direction I was sewing each time I started a new section.

The cord is too big to go under the zipper foot, so I had to completely unscrew the foot each time I switched directions.

Once I finished the cording, I sliced off the top of the lining fabric, turned it under, and stitched it down to the outer layer. Since I did this several inches above the top row, it acted almost like another row of cording, helping the petticoat to keep its rounded shape. I then marked the top center back and made a six inch vertical slit that I narrow hemmed. You can do this at the side if you prefer, but it needs to be somewhere so you can get the petticoat on and off. (Only now as I’m typing this do I realize that I could have done a side closure instead of a back closure, rather than an additional placketed pocket slit. Oh well.)

Next, I sewed three rows of gathering stitches close to the top. I did three instead of two since I wanted tidy gathers that looked more like cartridge pleats. One row was above the line where I planned to attach the waistband, and two below. A few notes about gathering here: (1) Use strong thread, especially if your fabric is heavier like mine. I used topstitching thread, and am certain the threads would have broken during the gathering process if I hadn’t. (2) If you have a selvedge edge at the top of your fabric, slice it off, because it is too tightly woven to pull gathering threads through. (3) Gathering it to the right length is finicky, but if you’re off by a little bit you can always adjust your buttonhole placement to compensate, or use a tie closure. Tie closures are also a great choice if your waistline tends to fluctuate.

The next step was to cut and sew my waistband. I wanted the width to be 1.25”, so I doubled that and added ½” total seam allowance. For the length I added ½” total seam allowance to my corseted waist measurement, plus another 1.5” for buttonhole overlap. It’s vital to use your corseted measurements for this, or else the petticoat will be too big, sitting low on your hips rather than at your waist. I then folded the band over and pressed it. I also pressed the ¼” that would be turned under on the inside of the waistband.

Right sides together, I lined up the waistband with the gathered edge of the petticoat, pinned it down, and stitched ¼” below the top edge. I pressed that up and pinned the other half (with the seam allowance already pressed) to the inside. To finish it, I topstitched it down from the outside, although you can stitch in the ditch if you prefer. Or, if you want a more historical method, you can whipstitch the waistband to the skirt by hand, passing through each gather as you go.

I figured this was a good opportunity to do my first hand-sewn buttonhole, so I found this tutorial and did a few practice runs before making the buttonhole with the same topstitching thread I used for the gathers. I finished the petticoat off with a shell button, and it was complete!

I’m really pleased with the final product. The cotton twill adds a nice amount of structure, and the cording stands out just how I hoped it would. It is BIG, and won’t even need any starching. According to my six year old, “This looks big enough for a baby dragon.”

A final note: If you want to launder your petticoat, don’t do what I did and prewash your fabric but not your cording. This garment is now destined for a life of dry cleaning.

Also, if you have one of these hanging out in your house, I’m all ears for storage suggestions. Mine has been living on a chair in the corner of my dining room for months now, because I genuinely don’t know where else to put it.

Pattern: No pattern, but I used the American Duchess instructions linked above.


Happy sewing!

– Kate

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