Petticoat Pitfalls for Grand Panniers

Well shoot, this didn’t work….

Don’t you just love when you finish up a project, perhaps the first part of an ensemble, something you’ve maybe done numerous times before, only to put it on and go “uh-oh?”

I threw together my 1720s-1740s Robe Volante petticoat this weekend. It went so fast – I measured, I shaped the top, I knocked out the hem, I pleated and bound and was so pleased, so very pleased. Then I put it on only to see an ill-shaped lump of skirt hanging in all sorts of weird ways. What had gone wrong?

I made the mistake of assuming I could construct an early 18th century petticoat for wide hoops the same as a petticoat from the later 18th century. What I discovered, though, is that the common method of knife-pleating the waist, leaving the sides open for pocket slits, and tying front-to-back doesn’t work at all with wide hoops because the fabric just falls off the sides, creating a saggy appearance and a hugely uneven hem.

A big lump o’ petticoat with an uneven hem – what went wrong?

Back to the drawing board. Okay, so how *were* they constructed, then?

There are precious few resources for just petticoats from the first half of the 18th century, but I found a couple that showed the fullness over the hoops at the top being controlled either by gathering or pleating horizontally out from the waist. This presents a challenge with pocket slits – they simply can’t be put in-seam the way we’re all used to because they’re part of the problem with the petticoat collapsing on the sides.

So…what to do?

You’re probably familiar with this image from The Met:

The Met, petticoat from a Robe a la Francaise, c. 1760-70, 2009.300.903a,b.

The accepted theory is that these drawstrings controlled the height of the *hem* and allowed the petticoat to be worn with different sizes hoops, but after experimenting with this I’ve found this drawstring method to be much more clever and complex. The drawstrings appear to have very little affect on the hem, but they *do* serve double duty controlling the fullness of the fabric over the hoops and creating a pocket hole at the side body at the same time. It’s an ingenious way of creating the effect of a yoke without actually making one, which would have used more fabric.

I made my drawstring sections 15 inches long on each side but they could have been longer. I’m not entirely sure what the right ratio of drawstring-to-pleated-into-waistband should be.

If I’d made my drawstring sections longer I might’ve had more hole for my pockets – I didn’t get this construction exactly right but it’s better than it where I started.

I also discovered, after doing all of this wrong multiple times, that the shaping across the top breadths is much less than usual. The sides with the drawstrings need to be fairly straight, but there’s a dip at the centers front and back so that the hem is relatively straight. Even with messing about with that, my hem still curves up a bit at the sides. Luckily this is reflected in some original prints and paintings so I feel solidarity with the mantua-makers of the past who weren’t getting it right every time either.

I didn’t include measurements here for how to pleat into the waist, how much for the drawstrings, how much to dip the waist front and back, because these all depend on your panniers.

Here is a little diagram showing the construction of these drawstrings. Most notably there are no pocket slits either cut in or left open at the seams. The pocket slit/hole is created entirely by the top edge of the petticoat when drawn up. Seeing it flat like this I have to marvel at the simplicity of it.

Before on the left, After on the right – you can see it’s got a much, much better shape. I didn’t get it exactly right at the top with the drawstrings but it’s a big step towards better.

Those clever, clever Georgians!


  • sam b

    June 22, 2020 at 6:04 PM

    I just finished a petticoat with these adjustable ties, mostly based off your powder-blue habit skirt, but I put pocket-slits in the side-seams anyway, below the ties. The slits are slightly smaller than I'd normally make them, but this way I can wear the petticoat with no supports or a bum-pad (tied snug against the waist) and still reach my pockets.

      • Jacki

        May 18, 2022 at 9:26 AM

        Thank you for this! It is so helpful! I couldn’t find any information anywhere about how to deal with petticoats over large hoops.

        So here’s my question: this is going to work great for my petticoat. But then…if I’m wearing an English gown over top, would I utilize the same loop trick, or stick with pleats and pocket slits? I feel like the drawstring would be unsightly…

  • Alicia

    November 17, 2021 at 3:18 PM

    Hey Lauren, how much fabric would you recommend for this skirt to get this effect ? I am always spending hours agonizing on how much to buy of a precious silk once in the shop … ( And let’s assume my paniers are about the same size as yours). Thx ! Alicia

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