Friday, May 29, 2009

SAAS (Sewing at Any Size): Making a Gored Skirt

In continuance of my rant about the lack/price of basic wardrobe elements, I’m starting a series on clothes that anyone can sew without buying a pattern or learning complicated techniques. My intention is not to turn anyone into a seamstress or master of haute couture, just to help us all collectively thumb our noses at anyone who expects us to pay $60 for a simple skirt in cheap, ugly fabric.

As I go along, you can access the entire series by selecting SAAS from the topic list on the left hand bar of my blog. Eventually this may become an E-book, so while you’re welcome to print this for your own use, please don’t re-print it or publish any part of it anywhere.

At this point I have plans to do entries on skirts (peasant, gored/paneled and wrap), very basic tops and simple dresses, plus a few accessories like sarongs and scrunchies. I might get into some costumes later in the series.

While I give instructions for a sewing machine you can hand-sew most of these if you don’t have one (it’ll just take longer). You can also buy one of those hand-held sewing machine for $20 that only does one or two stitches. You do have the option of using fabric glue to put these together, but it isn’t the best option. Fabric glue will not hang as well, last as long, or look as good as sewing the garment with thread. You can give it a try on test fabric to find out if you think it’ll work for your look.

The instructions may be irritatingly simplistic for more advanced sewers, but I’m catering to the readers who don’t already know how to sew, while trying to include variations for those who do. Instructions are also in non-metric. My apologies for those in countries with a more rational measurement system.
Test Fabric
Always make a rough draft! Use super-cheap fabric or even bedsheets and curtains from garage sales to make a trial version of something before you waste your good fabric. You want to be able to fit, adjust, clip, or replace bits to get the best possible fit, and some expensive fabrics are very unforgiving of this process. Believe me, it's worth making twice to get it right. Once you have a finished test garment you can pull it apart and use it as a pattern. You can trace the outline of the pieces onto any fabric and make several versions of the same skirt; always knowing it will fit because you fixed any fit problems in the rough draft. Always use long, loose stitches (basting stitches) on the rough draft so that it can be picked apart later. When you make your final skirt, use a basic straight stitch (--------).


Most of the skirts for sale are gored skirts, whether A-line, pencil or miniskirt. Gores are panels that are narrower and the top and wider at the bottom. The variation you see in fit, flippiness and patterns are all variations on a very basic model.

First you need four measurements. Your waist is wherever you normally wear the waistband of your skirt. Your hips are the widest point below that. The length from waist to hem is the length you want the finished skirt to be. Don't suck in your belly or stand at rigid attention for these measurements; just measure your actual body, relaxed. After all, fudging the numbers will only result in a poor fit!

Distance from Waist to Hip:
Length from Waist to Hem:

Next you need to decide how many panels you’d like. If they’re all going to be the same fabric I’d recommend 4-6 gores. If you want to make each panel a different color or fabric for a funky look, you can go with more gores, but remember they’re more work. You might count the number of sections between seams on a favorite skirt, or do a Google Image search for “gore skirt” to get an idea of how it looks.

I’m going to give instructions for a four-gore skirt, which is really the minimum for a good fit that follows the rounded shape of the body. More gores or gores that are wider at the bottom will produce an A-line skirt, while gores that are closer to a square will give you a pencil skirt. You can adjust the instructions below to any number of gores simply by substituting that number anywhere you see “four”.

Adjust your measurements:
Add two inches to your waist measurement and divide the total number by four (this number will be referred to as W for waist)

**Note that this allows 2 inches of "ease" to get the skirt on and off. If your hips are more than 2-3" larger than your waist you'll want to adjust this number wider. You can always take fabric off if you make it too large, but it's a PITA to add it ON if you make it too small.

Divide your hip measurement by four (this number will be referred to as H for hip)
Use your Waist to Hem number (this will be referred to as L for length)

Using your test fabric and a pencil or marker and straight edge, draw three lines onto the fabric:

Use the measurements above for the length/width of the lines. The distance between W and H should be your Waist to Hip measurement.

Now draw a trapezoid around the three lines, using W as the top of the shape and extending the bottom down to the end of L. If your hips are wider than your waist, make sure the sides of the trapezoid clear both ends of the H line. It should look something like this:
Now add ½ inch to every edge of the trapezoid. This is what’s called a “seam allowance” because it represents fabric that will be on the loose side of the seam when everything is stitched together.
Congratulations, you have a pattern! Still using your test fabric, cut out four copies of this, using the outermost (dashed) trapezoid for the line to cut.

Note: It may occur to you as a time saver to fold the fabric into quarters so that you can cut all four pieces at once. You can get away with this on the test fabric, but when you make the final project you want to cut every piece with the fabric facing the same direction. This is more obvious when you have a pattern (the pattern on half the pieces will be upside down if you cut on folded fabric) but even fabric without a color pattern has differences. The threads may be woven in a particular direction, resulting in a difference in the way the light hits it from each angle. This extra step of cutting out all the pieces with the fabric facing the same direction will result in a more professional-looking end result.

Pin the four gores together at the long end, ½ inch in from the edge (just like they’d be sewn). Step into the circle and hold the skirt about 1/2” below your waist. Does it fit well? Is it too tight or too roomy anywhere? Too long? (Remember the finished skirt will be ½" shorter when you hem it and the waistband will gather the top). Now is the time to adjust the size of the trapezoid. You can cut away more fabric from each gore (try to cut the same amount from each panel to avoid looking lopsided and remember to leave that half-inch seam allowance on all sides.) If it’s too small or short, you may have to cut new panels from your test fabric (which is why we use test fabric for the first try).

After adjusting the panels, fold the bottom of the skirt up ½”, iron it and pin or stitch the hem with long, loose stitches you can easily rip out later (this is called "basting"). Check the length again.


There are generally a few options for a skirt waistband without involving zippers or buttons. I’ll describe the basics of an elastic waistband and a drawstring waistband (we’ll address wrap skirts and ties in another entry).

Add three inches to your waist measurement. This should be the same as the circumference of the finished skirt plus one inch. Cut a two inch wide strip of fabric to this length.
Skip the next step (adding fusible interfacing) for your test fabric skirt if you'd like, but follow the directions in the final version. If you're only working with your test fabric, skip down to where you stitch the two ends of the waistband together. If you're using test fabric make sure you use the basting stitches (long, loose stitches that are easy to rip out later). When making your final skirt, use a standard straight stitch.

Lightweight fusible interfacing is available at any fabric store and many box stores that have a craft section. It is a layer of synthetic material that irons onto your fabric to make it stronger and help it hold it's shape. Cut a length of it to the same dimensions as the fabric (you can lay one on top of the other and cut both at once).

Follow the instructions on the fusible interfacing. Generally there’ll be a coated and plain side to the fusible fabric. One has heat-activated adhesive that melts onto your fabric. Place this side against the “backside” of your fabric (the side you don’t want to show, also known as the “wrong side”)

(Note: if you’re using synthetic fabric, place a square of test fabric (preferably cotton) or a square cut from a paper grocery bag between the iron and the fusible. This will protect your real fabric from melting or scorching).

Iron the fusible onto the wrong side of the fabric per the instructions on the package. You’re done when you cannot separate the two with gentle tugging.

Fold the raw edges of the waistband over the fusible (about ¼”) and stitch to create a clean edge.

Stitch the two ends of the waistband flat together like this, leaving 1/4” seam allowance:

Now take the loop of fabric and fold it lengthwise with the fusible on the inside so that you have a 1” wide loop of folded fabric. Iron this so that it has a nice crease (use the protective square of paper or fabric as needed, to keep your fabric from melting or getting shiny with the heat).

To attach the waistband to the skirt, you want to turn the skirt right-side out (so that the other seams are inside. You will be pinning the waistband upside down on the right side of the skirt, so that when it’s flipped up into position the seam will be on the inside. That’s easier to show than to explain, so here’s the step-by-step.

First you will turn the skirt right-side out (the way you’d wear it, with the seams on the inside).

Then you place the waistband like so (dashed line is the raw edge, solid line is the folded crease):

Pin the waistband where it is, with the raw edge matching up to the top edge of your skirt gores. When it is matched up, stitch it onto the skirt.

Flip the creased edge of the waistband up so that the seam is turned inwards like the seams between the skirt gores. Iron it so that it lies flat.


This can be a length of ribbon or string, or you can make it from the same fabric as the skirt. Simply cut a thin (1/2” to 1”) strip of fabric one and a half times the length of the waistband. Fold it in half lengthwise with the “right” side together (i.e. it’ll look inside out). Run it through the sewing machine to stitch down the long side, leaving both ends open (like a long tube.)

Attach a safety pin to one end of the fabric and tuck it inside the tube. You’ll be turning the fabric tube inside out. Feed fabric onto the safety pin and slip it over itself so that the safety pin moves down the tube. When you get to the other end you should be able to just pull on the safety pin and the whole tube will turn inside out. Once it does, tuck the ends under and stitch the tube closed (or knot it).


Depending on the size and stretch of the stretch of the elastic you choose, your length may vary. The absolute simplest way to cut the elastic to the proper length is to wrap it around your waist. It should fit comfortably without being so loose it falls off. Generally you’ll want it at about half it’s maximum stretch. When you determine that length, add ½” and cut.

Feeding Elastic or drawstring:

Find the seam where you sewed the two ends of the waistband together. Use a pin or seam-ripper to remove several stitches (just enough to fit the large safety pin through the opening).

Pin one end of the drawstring or elastic to the waistband. If it slips inside you’ll have to pull the whole thing out and start over. Pin the large safety pin to the other end and push it through the opening in the waistband seam. Continue to feed it through the waistband (if using elastic make sure it’s not twisting as you feed) until you come around and back through the original opening.

If you’re using a drawstring you need only even out the ends and you’re done!

If you’re using elastic, you need to make sure the elastic lies flat all the way around the waistband and hasn’t twisted anywhere. Pull a good length of elastic on both ends so that you can work with it without the skirt getting in the way. Lay one end flat across the other end, overlapping by ½”. Run through the machine several times, or hand stitch several lines across the overlap as so:

Tuck the elastic through the opening in the waistband and make a few small stitches (this is easiest to do by hand) to close the opening in the seam. You’re done!


Pick the skirt apart and use the gores you adjusted as a pattern piece to cut the fabric you’ve chosen for your final skirt. Follow the same directions as for making a test skirt and you should have a fabulous something that fits you just right.


KarenElhyam said...

Wow, what a helpful guide. I've never sewed (I don't even know if that's the right word!) anything in my life, but suddenly it seems doable! Thank you so much for this, and I'll let you know how it goes when I finally work up the courage to try this out.

Sexy Witch said...

OMGS your teh awesome (1000)!. I've recently started sewing and getting into refashioning and making my own clothes, but am frustrated by the lack of plus size patterns. I will definitely be following this series and if you give tutes on how to make costumes I will love you even more! Talk about synchronicity!

Nudiemuse said...


I am printing out your instructions for my sewing related collection of stuff.

You. Are. Fabulous.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this!

Anonymous said...

I just got into sewing and refashioning and this is just perfect! :D

Piffle said...

Oh, so cool; I was so sad when Fat Chicks Sew vanished a while ago.

Jumping up and down in excitement. :) :)

Dinaya said...

sniff sniff. NO sewing machine.

CTJen said...

I love this. I am going to dig out my sewing machine RIGHT NOW and make one. Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.

spoonfork said...

Thank you!

I was planing on going to the fabric store tomorrow and buying a simple plus-sized pattern and a couple yards of the cheap stuff--just to make sure I'm not crazy for thinking I can make my own clothes.

You've given me an easy pattern that will fit me and confidence that I can do this.

I guess it's meant to be!

spoonfork said...

'Planning,' not 'planing.'


jen said...

This is SO cool!!! Thanks a bunch... just in time for summer:)

Anonymous said...

They say that when the student is ready, the master will appear. I saw the coolest boutique in St. Augustine yesterday and bravely walked in and inquired if they carried plus sizes. Heck no!

I vowed today that I would figure out how to thread that sewing machine and make my own pretty dresses. I am an absolute novice, and your instructions made perfect sense. And now I know that a "gored" skirt is not one that has been stabbed with a bull's horns.


Meijusa said...

I have a suspicion that I might be obtuse, but how do I get in and out of the skirt if the fabric is not elastic?

Thanks a lot for this series, I have been contemplating to sew my own clothes (what with store-bought fattie clothes being mostly of the frumpy variety) and got lost in dreaming about designs, but now I'll actually get me to a sewing machine!

JoGeek said...

Meijusa: the waistband being elastic or drawstring should allow you enough ease to get in and out. If your hips are much bigger than your waist, make the top of each panel wider so that you can pull the skirt up over your hips. Then it will be gathered in by the waistband to fit your waist. You can adjust the fit when you make the rough draft.

andrea said...

awesome, sewing is such a great hobby, you can make stuff that you really like and that really fit

Anonymous said...

I think you might get better results (at least, I seem to) by sewing the waistband to the wrong side of the fabric first. Sew the right side of the waistband fabric to the wrong side of the skirt (with the edge towards the top of the fabric), fold it up along the seam, make the top fold, fold the bottom over a bit, then sew so that the seam is an even distance above the bottom fold. That way, the only seam you see on the outside is the neat, careful one you did to sew the outside of the waistband on... though I may be doing the entire waistband differently, I don't use fusible interfacing...

Also, with most fabrics, if there isn't a directional pattern, you can get more skirt out of the same fabric (I like long full skirts...) by alternating the pieces. That is, cut one piece out with the bottom towards one edge of the fabric, then flip your pattern around and cut the next piece out with the bottom towards the other edge.

And it never hurts to baste zig-zags around the edges of your pieces before you sew, so that the fabric won't fray in the wash.

And if you're at all unsure about the elastic length you need, pin and test it *before* you sew it, especially if you sew it kind of obsessively like I do...

And, especially if you're using fairly wide pieces, I think your hemline can get a bit odd (it'll be a hexagon afaik), so it can be a good idea to make an *intentionally* uneven hemline--scoops, points, etc.

(sorry 'bout the novel. I've made 2 gored skirts so far, and am plotting more)

TechieMomma said...

Just wanted to say "THANK YOU SO MUCH" for your post. I am a plus size woman and above average in height. This is my favorite style skirt and now I can have it fit the way "I" want. :)