Sunday, May 23, 2021

An 1895 Godet Petticoat With Boning and Stiffened Frills: Trials With Forms of Boning, Cables, Reed, Rope, and Steel

You still with me on this petticoat journey? It's an extraordinarily long one, isn't it? The goal of figuring out how to make a godet petticoat with the proper flare is no longer me trying to make a costume, it's trying to figure out how original methods might have actually worked. After all, we have read about them, seen them in photos and film; let's see one in action.

(By the way, if some of the pictures aren't set to the middle of the page and the text looks wonky, I cannot seem to fix the HTML; the code view won't allow most of my edits and the "Compose View" tools don't always work as they should. It's annoying.)

Last post I added a buckram-stiffened tall hem facing to the seamed-up silk petticoat, creating a perhaps unnecessary understructure to hold the boning/whatever and haircloth frills that are supposed to create the silhouette we're after. It's not likely that I will quite reach the look of the lady in a frame from an 1890s film clip, standing in Plaza San Marco in Italy, feeding the pigeons, but that remains the goal.

From a workaday conservative silhouette to a fashionable silhouette

You can find all of the posts describing the design and construction of this petticoat on the 1890s Costume & Research page, under the header 1895 Silk Godet Petticoat With Multiple Hem Stiffeners and Stiffened Frills.

This post describes the set of experiments I made on the bottom of the petticoat while winter still had its hold on Kentucky, and then a second round in May. I tested some of the means that dressmakers had employed to achieve amplitude and that are explicated at length in the posts 
By the way, almost all of the posts in the series have been edited and expanded over the last year as I have returned to the primary resources looking for answers to questions that would come up as this project proceeded. There's nothing like making a garment to make you ask new questions, is there?

Also in the experimemtal mix were some unusual modern materials, because I wanted to see if recycled materials might work.

What Shape Do I Want to Create -- The Godet Look Physics

I wanted to echo the shape of Isobel Mallon's moreen and haircloth-frill petticoat* and add just a few of the lovely godet flutes present in The Delineator haircloth petticoat. Okay, clearly not as many godet flutes as the Delineator model which is brimming with them. More like two or three flutes. And with the boning or wires creating a lightweight result. After all, writers of the day complained about how heavy haircloth petticoats and interlinings were and how hot and tiring to wear.

This is a complicated shape to create, because the boning or wire or rattan has to both hold the skirt out at front and sides but also be flexible enough to collapse into godet plaits in the back when those flutes are forced into position by being sewn to elastic tapes set in 2-3 rows down the back. It truly is a physics problem because the boning or stiffening has to be good at two things, not just one.

We know that creating this shape using other means than building it entirely out of hair cloth or grass cloth is possible because of all the period magazine, newspaper and book content discussing the matter that I have uncovered, and of course the sample of Warren's Skirtbone.

*Note: The Ladies Home Journal petticoat description said that the petticoat had a godet cut, but the illustration doesn't show fully formed godet plaits up to the top of the petticoat like the Delineator design has. A godet shape could also be obtained by gathering the back of the skirt, according to some sources I've read over the lifetime of this project. A petticoat with a drawstring arrangement in the back would do the job, and because the magazine description and illustration did not include godet flutes all the way up to the top of the petticoat, I am inclined to think that the design was intended to use the drawstring method.

Were Wired Petticoats Usually Round? I Don't Know

However, I do NOT know how many petticoats that sported wires or boning were shaped with godet plaits. Yes, people took patents out for underskirts in the godet shape, but I don't know if any made it to market, and doubt any did or magazines and advertisements would have trumpeted it. None of the textual evidence is clear about what shape was created when boning or wires were used in petticoats as opposed to wired or boned outer skirts. For all I know, most petticoats stiffened in this way looked rather like a variety of hoopskirt, and only the outer skirt had the godet shape. Take the example of the petticoat and its matching outer skirt sold by Live Auctioneers. We don't know how the auction company mounted the garments, and so the petticoat may be held out by modern means, but it could be boned or wired...but not in a godet plait shape.

1890s brocade petticoat and outer skirt. Live Auctioneers, 2019.

I don't have extant examples or images of godet-plaited petticoats held out with boning or wires yet for evidence. I do have images of extant wired skirts with the proper effect. The search goes on :}

It's only as the project has worn on that I've realized that I might be creating an outlier petticoat.

Ah well, it's all a journey.

As we learned in Petticoats with Crinoline, Ties, Bones, Wires, we could insert boning into the bottom to help hold the petticoat out. I thought about Isobel Mallon's directions in "Comfortable Dressing in Summer" (Ladies Home Journal, July 1895, p. 21):

I would advise a skirt of mohair, cut exactly as if it were a dress skirt, and stiffened with five rows, quite close to each other, of the narrow whalebones that come for this purpose. They are mounted in the center of a braid that, extending beyond the bone on each side, makes it easy to sew the bands in position. This bone is pliable, as the best quality of whalebone is used, and it certainly will hold the skirt exactly as fashion dictates."

Lots of other sources, which I have documented in the Period Methods to Add Skirt Fullness post series suggest needing only one row of boning or wire. I decided to start with just one row of boning.

Here's where we get to have some fun. The search for a good boning product that would allow the petticoat to undulate rather than stand out like a hoopskirt has been many months long.

Some ideas were dismissed:
  • Warren's Skirtbone is no longer made or sold, and it's too valuable an historical notion to use in a skirt. Warren's Featherbone is too big and stiff for the job.
  • We'd never want to use baleen.
  • Regular steel boning and tutu wire are too stiff.
  • Very thin and flexible zip ties connected with duct tape might work, but I'd have to buy some and test it. Zip ties of the quality used for corsets are far too stiff.
  • I thought of the wire option, also common in the period. 
    • Most easily available fine wires hold a bend when you put one in them (which feature is called memory). We don't want that for sure.
    • We definitely don't want that springy jewelry wire for stringing beads because it's is too thin unless braided, and then it would become quite expensive to use. 
    • Sailboat stay wire for small dinghies was a thought, since I am familiar with it from my sailboat, but it won't produce enough curve for the organ or godet pleats.

That left the following stiffeners. I inserted each of them in turn at the bottom of the faced hem of the petticoat:
  • round spring galvanized wire -- more of a wire rope, because it's composed of many wire strands
  • two kinds of boning
  • rattan cane
  • PET material from milk jugs (yes, really)
  • Cat5 cabling (desperation time)
  • 1/4" diameter nylon rope, to stand in for 1.25" thick silk cord which was out of budget
  • And one more.
Meanwhile, I had pinned and sewn the top of the petticoat into three box pleats and created three ersatz godet plaits with pins and bias tape straps on the inside. Two plaits is the minimum used originally: dressmakers sometimes created many of them across the back of the skirt. Then I stuffed each plait, in line with period suggestions to use stuffing to help hold the plaits in a rounded shape. To hold the stuffing, I pinned the plaits shut. I won't do that for the final plaits: they need to be open in back and I haven't worked out how to hold the stuffing in there. The resulting plaits are not shaped well, frankly. They need a lot more work.

Some pictures:

The pinned godet plaits. You can see that there are two box plaits. The silk shantung has enough body to ensure that there is already a bit of roundness to the pleats.

Here are the finished plaits from the inside. The plaits are controlled by being sewn in place with elastic. Here, I am using just a single row of bias tape as a placeholder.

Here are the placeholder ersatz godet plaits again from the outside, with the top 12 inches or so (a quarter yard, per instruction from Ladies Home Journal, stuffed with washed and carded wool from my sheep, Lana and her daughter, Nina. Real godet plaits are prettier. They are wider at the top, and less crazily tube-like. You can see, however, how the back at the hem begins to form wide flutes. They are far from perfect, but the idea is there.

PET Milk Jug Strips

This was the first experiment, about which I was really excited in fall of 2020 when I ran a first test. PET is the acronym for polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic increasingly used as food packaging. It recycles easily, it can be melted at low temperatures, and it's really bendy. I cut up milk jugs into roughly 1" wide strips, literally ironed the strips together into a four-yard length, boiled them in a pot for a few minutes to relax the milk jug shape, and wrapped them around a steel water bottle to cool into a spring shape. I made two strips, one from Kroger milk jugs, and one from thicker Sam's Club milk jugs.

The pieces of milk jug "boning" were nested next to the bottom seam, then held in place by oh so many pins. The petticoat was the mounted on the dress form to see how the edge held. I compared it to the period photographs and film clips of how 1890s skirts moved.

I was so excited about the potential victory that I videoed it...but never used the video because, well, the PET strips didn't work.

  • The Kroger thinner milk jug strip gave the petticoat hem some shape, but it wasn't great.
  • The Sam's Club milk jug strips partially reverted to their old shapes when the plastic cooled, and created too stiff a line anyhow.
Here are some pictures.

A roll of the processed milk jug "boning".

Now for how it looks on the petticoat.

Results, front.

Oog. The front of the petticoat is collapsing. The milk jug boning doesn't have enough strength to hold the fabric out.
Result, back. Yuck.

It's hard to tell from a distance, but only one godet plait has been held out; that's the two sides of the skirt flaring out in imitation of godet plaits, but in the wrong place. Failure.

1/8th-3/16ths Diameter Galvanized Wire Rope

Well, that experiment lasted oh, five minutes. Wayyyy too stiff: it turned the petticoat into a sort of hoop shape. Besides, it added more weight than was good. Maybe a smaller diameter wire might work? Didn't follow up, because entering a store during the height of COVID spread wasn't going to happen (I am immunocompromised due to a kidney transplant so that it's super-easy to get sick).

The results:

Here is the wire. It's the same stuff I used for the sleeve puffers.

The back when the wire rope was threaded into the bottom of the petticoat hem. The spring was just too much: it created one giant swoop of fabric that ate the godet plaits, and would overpower whatever ties I created under the skirt to hold the flutes in position. Failure.

Very Thin Split Cane

Dee-saster. I used split cane, which is rounded on one side, flat on the other. Not only was the cane so stiff that it wouldn't hold godet plaits, but it's quite brittle: I broke it several times. It's also so light that the petticoat hem wouldn't stay even. Soaking it would strengthen the cane, but again, it wanted to go all hoop-like.

Here are the results.

Here is the front. It's rounded but the slides collapsed. Wish I had a picture of that.

Here is how the cane at the bottom of the hem looks in back. Meh. Once again, the cane boning eats the godet plaits, and creates swoops at the sides. When I forced the back swoop into two godet plaits, the cane argued with me and then broke. You can also see that it's so light that the hem won't stay even at the bottom. No go: failure again. 

Recycled CAT5 Cabling

By this time I was getting punchy, having spent probably 5 hours over several days readying materials, and sitting on the floor threading whatever material I was testing into the hem, then pinning it like crazy. A trip to the basement hunting for options produced this silly idea, but you know, it created massive flutes! Just a little too big for our purposes. I've always wanted an internet-ready skirt, haven't you?


Here is the CAT5 cabling; it's ordinarily used for internet service. It has a little bit of spring to it, but not much.

Here is the cabling threaded through the hem in the front. It creates nice swoopy folds, but we don't want that in front, we want a nice flare! Still we could plug it in, right? :}

Here's the back view. Nope. The cabling is trying unsuccessfully to follow the lines of the two trained box plaits, but there is a giant "in-swoop" to the inside of the petticoat. Again, failure.


It's pretty soft for boning as Quinn of The Quintessential Clothes Pen warned, and doesn't give a whole lot of support in bodices, but people are using it to stiffen ball-gown skirts, so it seemed I'd better test it. Ordered a roll of 50 feet for a few dollars, and tried it. Was feeling good about the material's chances so took the time to sew it into the buckram-stiffened hem. What a bloody -- literally -- mistake. Blech.

The Rigilene boning comes plain. I decided to encase it in twill tape, thinking I could sew the tape to the buckram right at the bottom of the petticoat hem.

Here we are in the painful process of sewing the Rigilene into the 4-yard hem.

Here is the front of the petticoat after the Rigilene has been sewn in. Underwhelming. It sort of flares, but also collapses. The sides collapse inward, too, so that the petticoat has little backward thrust. Once again, wish I had a picture of that. Would a second layer help in the front and sides? Probably, but it already weighs a bit. I was worried that it would add too much weight.

The back. I bet I could train the plaits into place with the second row of elastic sewn to the edges of the plaits inside the skirt, so it sort of works. Well, one criterion has been met, but not the other.

At this point the plaits had been stuffed, by the way.

At the time, I counted the Rigilene boning as a failure. In retrospect, with multiple rows of it in the front and sides, it might have worked. Someone else might want to have a go. It's inexpensive, especially if you already have yards and yards on hand.

Nylon Rope

By now, it was mid-March. Several period sources suggested using silk cording on the exterior of fashion skirts to impart simultaneously some stiffening and some visual interest. Silk cord is available, but it's terribly expensive and I couldn't find anything in the 1.5-inch-diameter class. Since so many cords for centuries have actually been silk wrapped around a less expensive material, perhaps that's how the original 1890s cord was made.

Anyhow, being lean of purse, some 1/4"-diameter nylon rope in the basement looked like a good candidate. I cut it into the four-yard length, unstitched the Rigilene and pulled it out, and slowly coaxed the rope into the hem bottom.

Hey, we had some nice undulations, but the front a sides were too likely to collapse, so I ran another length on top of the first cord around the front half of the skirt. Again, feeling good about the chances of this being the solution, I sewed it again, and added more blood spots to the silk. Nice.

I made a 2-minute video about it. Watch it if you like. (If the video is not visible, please follow the link:

The results were not bad, really. There wasn't a whole lot of backward thrust in the petticoat but it did look rather like the silhouette of the Ladies Home Journal illustration. The rope is heavier than I wanted and I think that decreases the amplitude obtained. It was a decent if somewhat underwhelming candidate. We can't count it as a failure, any more than we can count the Rigilene as a failure. Unfortunately, you will have to take my word for the rope working, because I blanked out and didn't take photographs. After all this work, to miss documenting the results. Disappointing.

The Project Sits Because I'm Unhappy With the Results, Until...Eureka!

The costumer hack had worked but wasn't the boning I had promised. It was frustrating. The Rigilene was modern boning and in my view then had failed, and the reed was historical boning and it had failed too. Modern steel boning or tutu wire would produce a hoop effect, I knew for sure.

I had the wild idea of purchasing a whole bunch of chicken feathers and processing them into homemade Skirtbone by core-spinning them on the spinning wheel with thread, for example, or using the information out there in the original patent. What a huge project replete with pitfalls that would have been.

So the project went dormant. The petticoat left its spot on the mannequin and was banished to the shelf of an upstairs closet. We had three ice storms in a row, and then a week later springtime arrived. One day in April I decided to return to any primary source I could turn up about the wires: patents, newspaper articles, catalogs, advertisements, legal papers, magazines, surely more information would turn up. Although jeepers, in this overall project I've had to have spent over a hundred hours combing through primary texts and writing up thoughts afterwards, just like in the graduate school era. I guess you can't take the historian out of someone, even after they change careers. It's a rather insatiable urge, satisfied with little hits of dopamine, I suppose, whenever a lead turns something up.

Back to history of this project. I struck gold this time and edited the Petticoats with Crinoline, Haircloth, Ties, Bones, Wires! post on April 25. Several quotations and an extant dress gave me what I needed. Here's one of them:

From a syndicated article appearing in The McCook Tribune (January 12, 1894):

A swell dressmaker confessed recently that the reason why some of the flaring skirts hung out around the bottom with such a graceful flare was because of a flexible steel a quarter of an inch in width which runs through the hem. Some of the latest silk petticoats have two of these wires run through the folds, one at the hem and another a few inches above.

Flexible steel is spring steel, which is ubiquitous today in industrial applications. 1/4" wide, too; that intimates that it's flat, not round. Because it's pretty narrow, and flat, and super flexible, it is likely a very thin steel. I was off to the races (an apropos choice of phrase because the thoroughbred racing Spring Meet at Keeneland was on just then). I was looking for an inexpensive source that wouldn't require me to talk an industrial supplier into selling oompty-tiddle feet of whatever. After rejecting a whole slew of options as out of my league, it seemed that repurposing an existing light industrial or consumer product was the way to go. A reel of steel fish line used to run electrical cords through walls looked promising, but it's pretty strong stuff, as I found by watching videos of electricians using it in houses.

And then, it hit me. I probably had the stuff already, in my house, all this time. Have you guessed?

It's a thin steel measuring tape, the miniature purse size that I carry around everywhere, ready to measure lumber, furniture, fabric. Pulled mine out, waved it around, bent it. Ooh! It bends into narrow flutes -- so it meets criterion #1. It springs back into a soft curve -- so it meets criterion #2. Plus, it's light as a feather. Holy cats! Eureka! (Maybe) I have found it!

I pulled up a ten-foot Stanley brand 1/4" steel measuring tape online, and bought two. So here's the experiment.

1/4" wide steel measuring tape 

After ripping out the stitching (again) that held the rope at the bottom of petticoat hem, I disassembled one of the measuring tapes, to find that not only did it hold the steel tape, but a nice long length of plain spring steel in the same bendiness and size. That's the steel spring that drives the pull of the measuring tape itself. It meant that I had more than 10 feet of steel in one container and would need only one measuring tape to create the four yards needed to go round the petticoat hem. I cut the steel off the reel, unhooked the measuring part that's barely attached to the spring part, overlapped them and duct taped both sections together, measured out just over 4 yards (12 feet) so there would be overlap once the steel was threaded through the hem, and duct taped each end, both of which were sharp.

Then the metal strip was nested into the bottom of the petticoat. It was a slow go threading it in because there was no way I was going to take out the finished stitching holding the buckram. I'd had enough of that. One of the twins helped guide it through -- it's so thin it wants to try and bunch up.

The results? At last. Even with ersatz godet plaits, you can see that the measuring tape offers the front and sides of the petticoat the desired flare. The back? It can be guided into the handsome godet plaits.

Here are pictures.

The spring steel from the disassembled measuring tape, with the second measuring tape (still whole) beside it for comparison. It's a small measuring tape that you can hold in the palm of your hand.

Here you can see that I have run the final length of spring steel into the petticoat. The ends, protected by duct tape, just overlap each other. I could have used fabric and thread to bind the ends, but did not. Patience with the endless project is waning by this point.

Here is a view of the petticoat from just off the front. You can see that the front and sides flare out. The final darts haven't been set in the waistline, the yoke isn't in to strengthen the top, and the second row of steel isn't inserted above the first row yet, but we have a good shape emerging. The steel is super-light, but heavy enough to hold the hem pretty even.

Here is the side view. Do you see how the back-thrusted cut of the petticoat shows? That's the line of original godet petticoats. You can imagine just how excited I was to see this. All those illustrations in magazines and advertisements, they weren't exaggerating too much, were they? Do you see the rounded end at the back? The steel can curve pretty tightly. Good.

Here's the back. Now, I freely admit that the ersatz godet plaits have been eaten by the spring of the wire. However, I had removed the plait stuffing, and the interior placeholder elastic godet shaper, so there's nothing but two box pleats to create the shape. Why did I do that? You're not supposed to change the experiment from trial to trial. Dumb move on my part. You can see a curve emerging, however, at the top of the petticoat, and we already saw the tight curve on the side view. 

The back looks like a failure on first inspection, but I was still excited. It was the only material to create the back-thrust effect, and I could see that the spring steel was capable of holding a tight curve. 

I then held the wire in my hand and moved it into the shape of two funnel shaped godet plaits, and the steel moved easily and without resistance. 

This material, despite the lack of complete plaits in the back, I counted a better success than the others. Not only did the overall front and side shape appear, and hints of the back plaits, but it was made of a close approximation of the period material.

Now I need to build the real plaits and hold them in place with three rows of elastic sewn inside the the petticoat, and probably stuffing. Two rows of elastic will not be enough. Then we'll have another gander at it.

Here's a video tour of the pre-finalized petticoat hem. (If you cannot see it, please see the link:

Mmm, I've just noticed that the buckram is tipping in towards the interior of the skirt. The fix, below!

The Petticoat Project's Next Steps

The next step is to add a second row of spring steel at the top of the buckram so it won't tip inwards and to strengthen the flare. The second row of steel will perhaps go only on the front and sides, perhaps all the way around. Then I will test the look by making a beta test of the godet plaits. This is likely to take some experimentation, because the measurements in the German skirt pattern assume a smaller waist measurement than I have.

While the rest of the petticoat has been handsewn, except for the frills to come, stitching through buckram has been a miserable experience, so the spring steel will be threaded through channels sewn on the Willcox and Gibbs machine.

Then it will be time to sew the godet plaits into their final form, and to figure out how to stuff them so that they will hold their shape when the outer skirt is placed over them.

After that, add a placket behind one of the box pleats, and sew on the hair cloth frills after box pleating them. I made the frill strips back in March. Then finish the waist with a yoke. Still a lot to do, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel! Boy, won't it be good to finish at last! I don't know how long this will take, however. Summertime is here, the boys are out of school, and so there is a lot going on.

Hope you have enjoyed this part of the adventure. It took months and months, but it's so nice to have come up with a material that I believe is pretty close to the original. I'd like to schedule a visit with a museum in Ohio or Indiana at some point if they will allow it and see if a wired extant skirt is available for inspection. Then we may finally have full closure to this long-lasting puzzle.


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

Huzzah that is SO clever!!!!

Rosa said...

So glad you succeeded in the end! Fingers crossed for you it goes smoothly from now on. So looking forward to seeing all the layers when you are done:-)))

ZipZip said...

Thank you both! Finally have energy for the project again...when stuff keeps mot working it's easy to want to chuck it. :) When things go right, then you have some giddy moments.

Very best,


Kleidung um 1800 said...

Dear Natalie,

what an amazing experience! I was always fond of the idea of learning by doing or experimenting until: "heureka!"
Thank you for not giving up and especially sharing your experience of each new attempt! Who would know that not the material on the sewing table, but actually a tool would be the solution? Now I'm not experienced at all in the techniques of the era, but could the hem hold two different materials, instead of just one running all the way around?

Hope you will have more "giddy moments" with your ongoing research!

ZipZip said...

Dear Sabine,

Exactly! Who knew... found it pretty funny actually.

One of the experiments used rope: one layer going all around and second just front and sides. Thought I might do this with the wire. Butvthe frills weigh a bit, and period sources mention multiple rows in petticoats, so will probably put the second all the way around, too.

Sure am hoping for more giddy moments, but who is to say, when something is so experimental?

Very best indeed,


The Quintessential Clothes Pen said...

I felt many 'oh no!'s reading the first few trials in this latest installment of the Petticoat Adventure. But the end is triumphant! Who would have thought of a tape measure? But it does make sense! It's a wonderful idea! So glad you're continuing on with your research and experiments.

I hope you and your family have a marvelous summer, with hope, joy, and lots of sunshine!


ZipZip said...

Dear Quinn,
Good morning! Sometime this summer there should be a bit of time to advance in the Great Petticoat Adventure...good title you came up with, by the way! Except a little Regency project came up, if I can squeeze in time to do it before the Jane Austen Festival!

May your summer be Delight itself and time along your amazing shoreline,