Ninon’s dress: the skirt

Unlike most seamstresses, I like to make the skirts of my ensembles before I make the bodices.

My skirt is 150″ wide. My research revealed that anything from 115″ to 150″ is period accurate, but I really feel that I needed to size-up, as modern bodies are bigger than 17th c bodies. Hunnissett recommends 140″, but I wanted my dress to be quite sumptuous, and even with a boned bodice, my waist is bigger than the average 1950s actress she was writing for!

I thought about having a train for the skirt, as many portraits show them, and there is a lot of information available on the sumptuary laws for trains in 17th c France. As Ninon wasn’t nobility, her legal train allowance would have been relatively short in any case. However, this turned out to be irrelevant as I’m a little tight on material, and want to be able to dance in the dress, so I’m skipping the train. My research suggested that even ladies of leisure only wore trains for the most formal occasions, so I’m satisfied with my choice.

I cheated and just cut one 150 long piece of material from the length of the fabric so I would only have to hand-stitch one skirt seam.

I’m using a yellow-gold cotton thread on the entire ensemble.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find silk thread in the right colour, and already had the cotton in my stash.

For the seam, I used backstitching, and then finished off the raw edges with a sort of whipstitched rolled felled seam.  I don’t have any proof that the later is period accurate, but the way the edges of the duchesse silk satin rolled in on each other made it the only practical way to finish them, and I don’t think that spending an extra two hours steaming and ironing to get a period finish would have been in period spirit!  And there is some whipstitching on the Bath Dress.

My backstitched and rolled felled skirt seam

I’m quite pleased with the backstitching – 6- 7 stitches per inch, and they are all quite beautiful and even.

Pretty little stitches

The seam doesn’t look quite as beautiful as a machine seam from the right side, but it still makes me very happy.  In fact, so happy that I heard angels sing again when I finished it.  This project is awesome.

The seam from the outside, still very pretty

I just have to look at that seam and I feel euphoric.  It’s like drugs for seamstresses!


My one seam goes up the centre back of the skirt, and then is open for the last 8 or so inches in order for the skirt to be put on.

With the seam sewn, I looked at how to gather my skirt into the waistband.  I had a few options.

The gathering of the Bath dress has been described both as bound cartridge pleats, and as controlled knife pleats, which is kinda the same thing, and kinda not.  They look more like knife pleats to me.  Kendra says she thought the pleats of the Bath dress were at least 2″ deep, but I think they are much shallower.

So, cartridge pleats, or knife pleats?  Deep or shallow?

Portraits of the era seem to show two options: narrow cartridge pleats, or wide, deep knife pleats.  Unless the wide, deep knife pleats are actually deep cartridge pleats slightly sewn to one side, and held far apart by the stitches at the top…hmmm…

A Couple, 1660-61, Bartholomeus van der Helst

The pleating on this skirt looks nearly identical to that of the Bath skirt – narrow bound cartridge or controlled knife pleats.

Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, 1652, Bartholomeus van der Helst

Mary’s skirt is definitely tight, narrow cartridge pleats.

Abraham del Court and Maria de Keersegieter, 1654, Bartholomeus van der Helst

I’d say that Maria’s skirt, like Louise Henreittes, is wide knife pleats.

Gerrit van Honthorst, Portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm I, Grand Elector of Brandenburg and his wife Louise Henriette of Oranje-Nassau (1627-1667), 1645-1655

Louise Henriette’s skirt seems to be quite wide knife pleats.

Jeanne Parmentier (1634-1710), Bartholomeus van der Helst, 1656

And then what the heck is going on in our anonymous lady’s Jeanne’s skirt? (Thanks Isis for identifying the painting!)  They don’t lie flat like knife pleats, but they aren’t even and controlled like cartridge pleats?

With a plethora of options, I decided to sew big, wide cartridge pleats, and then to flatten them to one side, to form knife-pleats.  See.  Told you that bound cartridge pleats and controlled knife pleats were almost the same thing 😉

Marking my grid for cartridge pleats & my threaded needles

Pushing my cartridge pleats to the side, and pinning them down like knife pleats

I used a strip of the duchesse silk satin for my waistband, backstitched it to the front of the pleats with right sides together, flipped it over, and then whipstitched the waistband to the inside.

The waistband whipstitched to the inside

From the outside my pleats look like deep knifepleats, but the cartridge stitches help control the way they hang.

My pleats, with a glimpse of the control threads in the folds

The effect is very similar to what we see going on in the paintings.

I still need to bind or sew the back placket, and attach my double set of waist cords.  The first set will come from either side of the flat space in front, and will tie around the waist before the bodice goes on.  The second set will be sewn to either end of the back opening, and will tie the skirt closed after it goes over all the side tabs of the bodice

The opening in back, with a little finishing needed

I hemmed the skirt with a simple double fold, whipstiched hem.  My hem is exactly even all the way around, and I really hope I don’t run into problems where it drags on the ground in front because the front waist is dropped slightly.  If so, I may try to take it up from the waistband, just folding the excess over as in 18th century petticoats.

My simple, pretty whipstitched hem. The fold is .5", and them 1.5"

And that’s what it looks like so far.  I put it on Isabelle with my 18th c stays, to give a bit of the right body shape.

Back view. It needs a bigger petticoat

Darn.  Now I wish I had done a train!

Love those pleats!


  1. Oh, yummy! This dress is going to be so delicious! I periodically crave a mid-17th c dress myself. Can`t wait to see your`s all finished!

    For possibly future reference, however, skirt seams don`t need to be sewn with backstitch. I`ve examined quite a number of 18th century dresses (I suspect general construction techniques had probably been similar for several centuries by then – or do you have info to the contrary?) and all skirt seams are sewn simply with running stitch because they experience little to no stress. Thus, several running stitched skirt seams could be sewn in the same amount of time as one backstitched seam (I know this from experience, lol); you don`t have to finish the edges because you use the selvedge, and the nap of the satin would then run up and down like it`s supposed to.

    Your skirt looks gorgeous as is, and from the photographs the horizontal direction of the nap is neither apparent nor problematic. This is just something to possibly consider in future – if it`s something you weren`t already aware of.

    • Because there is only one seam on this skirt, and it experiences a lot of stress up top where the opening is, I needed to reinforce a lot of it – but I certainly could have sewn the bottom portion with just a running stitch but I got carried away with how pretty my backstitch was 😉

      Unfortunately, the selvedges on this fabric are fringed, and don’t look or feel good if you leave them loose. I’m actually cutting all the selvedges off each piece as I use it. So I would have had to finish each seam if I had done 3 panels. This was one of the main things that influenced my decision to have only one seam – that and colour gradients from piece to piece, and how to use the fabric best. I’m not sure I made the right decision (you’re making me second guess myself!), but oh well, it’s done.

      • Oh no, don’t second-guess yourself! You had ample reason to make the decision you did. I wouldn’t want to hand finish multiple skirt panel seam allowances either. Oh wait! I just did this weekend for my wedding dress. Seven seams (14 seam allowances), the cb & sb up to about 1.5m+ long. Yeah…you don’t want to do that if you don’t have to. Thank goodness for Downton Abbey on DVD!

        My main concern was the grain/nap. However, if it looks as good in person as it does in the photos there’s nothing to worry about! This is definitely much better than having it cut up if there’d be jarring shade differences between panels.

        I do assume, however, that you’ll be cutting the bodice cross-grain as well so they match.

          • Funny, I wasn’t too sure how much I liked the look when I was at the beginning; but when I finished I loved it! It looks so neat, tidy, and ………. intimately/lovingly….organic somehow. But I won’t be doing it again any time soon!!

  2. Lol,i know how you feel about the stitching.I get so happy when I sew really nice and even stitches. 😀

  3. Dear Leimomi,

    Oh, those pleats! So beautifully done! They will catch the light and softly glow, and hold nicely. Way to go.

    Agree with Carolyn on the seams though; it’s really fast to do running stitch, with an occasional backstitch to hold things in place. I generally get a needleful of running stitches, then end the run with a backstitch before repeating.

    *What* a dress this is going to be; really special.

    Very best,


  4. Beautiful fabric, wonderful gown, and I love your backstitch.

    I am still learning and I found this site trying to find out the difference between a knife pleat and a cartridge pleat, I thought it was quite a clear explanation:

    To me cartridge pleats are similar to a pleating technique that you use to create ruffs. The way the pleat is attached to the waistband, sleeve armhole, or neckband in the case of a ruff, determines the shape of the ruffle you end up with. I wonder if by sewing the pleats down the way that you have, hasn’t turned the cartridge pleats into knife pleats. Have a look at this link and tell me what you think? The way the pleat is attached to the waistband etc, seems to be as important as the gathering of the pleat. Anyway let me know what you think, and don’t hate me for being picky, I don’t mean to be critical, just wondering.

    • That’s exactly why I said that bound cartridge pleating is almost like controlled knife pleats – because if you bind (completely cover the top edge) your cartridge pleats, you either have to have really shallow pleats, or push them all to one side, which basically makes them knife pleats!

      So while ordinary cartridge and knife pleats are quite different, there are variants between the two that blur the line.

  5. Tamsin says

    Wonderful – thanks for all the fascinating details. This is very exciting to follow.

  6. Oh, wow! I can’t wait to see you in the finished masterpiece. The gorgeous gold does make me think “steampunk”, possibly because it reminds me of both Neal Stephenson’s Baroque book series, and all the gold bullion and science in that series, and of this dress from the steampunk cartoon Girl Genius:

    • Oooh…now maybe I can have a steampunk bodice and a 1660s bodice and a 1630s bodice to go with the skirt!

  7. I do my petticoats and skirts firt too. 🙂

    And I do quite a lot about the lady. Her name was Jeanne Parmentier, 1634-1710. She was married to Louis De Geer the younger. De Geer was one of the richest noble families in Sweden during the 17th century, which Jeanne’s dress certainly underscore. They were originally a Dutch famile that came to Sweden in 1627. If I recall correctly, Jeanne came to Sweden when she married. The artist is Bartholomeus van der Helst from Holland. The painting is mounted on a wall at Leufstabruk castle, north of Stockholm.

    • Haha! Sewing kindred spirits!

      Thanks for all the info on the painting! I was pretty sure it was a van der Helst, but didn’t have more info. I’m going to include it in the post now.

  8. KC says

    Well, if the pink dress if the dress from hell, then this is obviously the dress from Heaven.

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