The importance of flatlining skirts cannot be understated. Although, there is a time and place for using underlinings or a lining or both. Or even leaving off linings altogether and simply relying on hem facings and petticoats to keep the silhouette in place.
A lot of the commercial patterns out there for Victorian costumes won’t even discuss the process of using an underlining with a skirt let alone mention it. They rely on using separate linings or just assume the dressmaker knows what they’re doing.
But to make a 19th century skirt consists of a little more than just sew the side seams, turn up the hem and stitch, and slap on a waistband.
The basis of underlining is to support your fashion fabric in the hand of the fabric, layers of trim, and the fashionable silhouette.
Sometimes your fashion fabric is sturdy enough on its own to not need an extra layer of support. But if you intend to make a tailored skirt or one with lots of trims mounted to it, you’ll be happier by backing the fashion fabric with an underlining.
How to Flatline Skirt Panels
The process to add an underlining to your skirt is fairly straightforward. To flatline you cut both the fashion fabric and the underlining fabric from the skirt panel pieces. Then you lay each matching panel together, wrong sides together and baste around the edges.
When flatlining skirt panels I recommend only basting the long, vertical edges and leave the waistband and hem edges open. After seaming, those edges can be basted together if needed.
You’ll want to follow the grain when basting the layers together. For skirt panels this generally means from hem up to waist – from the widest part of the piece to the narrowest.
Keep your basting stitches slightly within the seam line, too, for easy removal or to prevent them from showing on the right side of the garment. At this point it’s super easy to finish the raw edges with either serging or pinking. Or do a hand whipstitch after the seams are sewn.
After flatlining, give the edges a quick press before continuing.
From here on, in the construction you treat each double layer as one piece. Sew up the seams, mount trims and finish with hem and waistband. Yes, the edges will be exposed on the inside. This is period correct to leave as is or add a full lining.
Fabrics for Skirt Underlinings
Good fabric options to mount to the back of your skirt fashion fabric vary (don’t they all!). It really depends on your fashion fabric – how tightly woven it is, the weight, if it’s thin or heavy.
Generally for skirts you can use plain cotton muslin or calico, lightweight twill, poplin, cotton organdy or silk organza. These are my favorites. Linen can be used but make sure to pre-wash once or twice for maximum shrinkage before cutting. You want fabrics that won’t stretch out over time.
I’ve learned over the years that our modern fabrics are simply much heavier than our Victorian ancestors’. So be cautious when selecting an underlining fabric. Play with samples of that silk or wool fashion fabric to see what lays great behind it. That twill may seem like a good choice under a quilting cotton, but it may risk making the skirt awfully heavy and bulky.
Sometimes less is more. You might be surprised at how a thin cotton organdy can give so much body and structure to a skirt. Keep your mind on lighter fabrics rather than heavy materials.
When You Can Skip the Underlining
Yes, there are times you can get away without flatlining your skirt.
Generally, you can leave off the underlining IF you have two or more petticoats that can support your skirt and the silhouette. Petticoats (of which, I widely promote the wearing of) not only help produce the historical silhouette you want but keep the skirts in place. Kind of a backwards idea but it’s true.
Another time to leave off the underlining backing is for sheer dresses. That’s the point of sheers – to keep them light and airy. With these you MUST wear multiple petticoats for support.
If you don’t want to flatline, most often you’ll want to put in a deep hem facing to support the hem and shaping. Keep those petticoats on too!
Specific 19th Century Eras to Flatline Skirts
Regency – no need for flatlining skirts. Although, some bodices will do well with it; the skirts don’t need it. Use petticoats to support the slender silhouette.
1820s & 1830s, Romantic Era – Coming off the slim look of the Regency most skirts, even those cut from light cotton prints, don’t need a full underlining. This is one reason deep hem facings started to be applied. Think of a hem facing as a short underlining fabric mounted just around the hem area.
These Romantic ancestors needed to keep the skirt flare but didn’t want to weigh it down with linings. Petticoats and hem facings… your friends in this fun era. However, if you have heavy rouleux or applied trims so popular in this time, you may want to consider fully flatlining each panel.
1840s to 1860s, Early & Mid-Victorian Era – Skirts of these decades tend to be flatlined with basic polished cotton. Early years were coming off the deep hem facing period and you’ll find originals with both a full underlining and deep facing. Again, it’s all to support the silhouette and fashion fabric. Keep overskirts and wide ruffles light with no underlining but mount on top of a fully flatlined skirt base.
1870s & 1880s, Bustle Era – Yes. Flatline those panels but keep the underlining fabrics lighter than you think. Skirts draped over wire bustle shapes will hang much better when flatlined.
Overskirts are beautiful when backed by organdy or silk organza. It gives them a little bit of body but keeps them light. Not all overskirts need the extra support. Although, some bustle dress designs are rather intricate and will need the structure underlinings give. Play with your fabrics keeping your design in mind.
When making sheer bustle dresses you can get away with the skirts not mounted to anything – keep those petticoats around though! Or merely flatline the foundation skirt, if you need it, keeping the overskirt in just the one fashion fabric layer.
1890s, Late Victorian – These skirts can definitely use the structure underlining provides. Although, some heavy fabrics like wools and twills only require hem facings. Remember that each layer you add to the skirt the heavier it becomes. Did I mention how petticoats are your friend? 🙂
A Tip to Reduce Your Fashion Fabric Yardage Requirement
Now here’s a cheater method that is actually historical correct. In some designs, especially layered looks like in the Bustle Era years, you can cheat on your skirt panels by cutting your expensive fashion fabric short but using a full panel of underlining fabric.
Cut your main skirt panels out of a sturdy twill, poplin or polished cotton. Then, flatline your delicate fashion fabric ON TOP of it at only the sections that will be seen.
You’ll often times see original underskirts with their tan polished cotton underlining visible and the silk mounted to just the hem sections. The overskirt covers the top portion of the cotton so why waste the silk fabric on that area?
The above picture is a skirt side panel with a sheer striped fashion fabric pinned to the top section of the full-cut underlining fabric panel. The white cotton underlining will be covered with ruffles around the hem. – No need to waste fashion fabric when it’ll be covered!
So next time you’re sewing Victorian skirts, consider flatlining each panel to give support to the trims and help produce that wonderful period silhouette you’re shooting for. You’d be surprised at the difference it makes for construction and also the final look of the garment.
Do you flatline your skirts? Have you missed this essential sewing construction step before then realized it later just how valuable it is? Have you made a skirt too heavy by flatlining? (I’m still learning this one…)