Skirt Side-Pleat (and Under-Skirt) Construction

Many folks find the skirt’s side-pleats the hardest part of construction to wrap their head around.  It’s probably the part that’s farthest from typical fashion construction, so this is understandable.  I’ve been wanting to make a photo tutorial of these steps for a while, and have finally been able to take some photos while working on a dress this month.

I’m starting at the point after the skirt front and back have been finished separately (see photo of backs below).  In the 3rd Ed. patterns, this is step 37.  For reference, the skirt I photographed is a stiff single-panel (View VI in 3rd Ed.).  For a better fit on this specific dancer, I’ve added a couple small pleats in the back.  You’ll also notice that I’ve bound the center-back seam allowance in lining fabric.  This is because I hate seeing the contrasting seam allowance underneath when the dancer kicks.  In this case the seam would have been black on gold…so noticeable!  I believe these are the only two ways in which the photos differ from the original pattern.

1. Basting to the Under-skirt
Baste a skirt back to the under-skirt back.  Stitch along the dropped waist seam line using a machine baste.  I didn’t in the photo, but I’d advise continuing the stitching down the side edge as well.

Since I have a stiff front skirt, I’m not using a front under-skirt.  I just basted along the dropped waist seam line to make sure it’s visible.  If you’re making a soft front, you would baste the skirt front to the front under-skirt, in the same way as the back.

2. Stitching Front and Backs Together
Now we have 3 pieces, one front and two backs, with under-skirts attached.  With right sides together, pin the backs to the front at the sides (I threw my ruler in to show that the front is underneath…it’s hard to tell with the black velvet.  The ruler is not related to the task at hand). The order of layers here is, bottom to top:
1. Front Under-skirt (if using.  I’m not.)
2. Front Skirt
3. Back Skirt
4. Back Under-skirt
Of course with the under-skirts basted to the skirts, it’s only two functional layers; the front and back.

For best results, I’d recommend lining up the side-pleat line first, then pinning the seam based on that.  Because I did some alterations to the shape after constructing my backs, the shape changed a bit and the edges of my pieces don’t line up exactly.  The side pleat is pretty deep, so it’s not the end of the world if I lose a 1/4″ at the edge.  It’s much more important that the pleat-folds line up with each other.  In an ideal world both your pleat-folds and your seam edge will line up, but it doesn’t hurt to check just in case.

Once you have stitched the seam, trim seam allowance to about 3/8″.

3. Binding the Side-Pleat Seam
Bind the seams sewn in the last step either with bias tape, or a strip of your lining fabric (strip can be cut on the bias, but on grain will work too).  Be sure to use thread that matches the lining fabric…this will be seen!  Once you’ve finished with this step, keep the seams flat as they have been since step 2.

4. Tacking the Side-Pleat
The skirt is now all in one piece, but we haven’t yet made the pleats defined.  On each side of the skirt, double check that the side-pleat fold-lines are lined up with each other.  Draw them in, if you haven’t already (mine is that shadowy brown line…my disappearing marker is starting to die).  Pin through the top few inches of the fold line to keep it from shifting.  1/16″ away, stitch parallel to the line starting 1/2″ above the seam line and ending 1/2″ below.  You can do this either by hand or machine.

5. Pressing the Side-Pleat
The skirt is now complete, but the most important step still remains.  We need to press the pleats into the skirt, so that it gets its distinctive shape.  If you skip this step, the skirt will look weird and bulbous, even if it was constructed correctly.  Fold both front and backs along the side-pleat fold lines and press well.  Use caution with velvet; you don’t want to crush the pile.

The skirt is now complete and ready to be sewn to the bodice. Remember to fold the bulk of the pleat towards the front before stitching to the bodice, as shown below.

If you have a lightweight machine that has trouble with bulk, try our alternative method for stitching the dropped waist seam.  I’ll leave you with a couple photos of the completed side pleat.

Happy sewing!

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