OMG – piping! Some costumers cringe even just thinking about piping, others squeal with delight. Or some are simply: “What’s the big deal about piping?”
What’s the big deal?!?
Well… everything! Piping is THE historical definition of design lines AND the support of seams that receive so much wear & tear. (Remember, our ancestors made their clothes to last a good long while.)
And in reinforcing those seams it keeps the fabric firmly fitted to the figure. This makes pressing those seams easier. (Yeah… we all want easier sewing steps.)
So let’s look at where you apply piping, how it’s made, and also dealing with the cut ends.
Piping – The Basics
Think of piping on a cake. You know, those fancy, fluted edges. Makes them stand out, right? Piping in clothing does the same thing. It consists of cording (usually narrow) covered by a bias strip of fabric.
It is best to use true 45° bias whenever possible; however, you can cheat a little and use a less-true bias if fabric is short. I don’t recommend cutting straight-grain or cross-grain strips to make piping. It just won’t work when you have curved areas of a garment to fit a curved human body.
Piping bias can be cut from the same garment fabric or be a similar or contrasting fabric. Generally though, the fiber (silk, cotton, wool) is the same although can be nicer than the garment fabric (cotton fabric with silk piping but never silk fabric with cotton piping).
For the inside cord keep it small. A 1/4″ width is usually too much for a bodice but could be used effectively on a skirt as trim. For piped seams, keep it small – from a tiny 1/16″ to about 3/16″.
Where to find piping on 19th Century garments
Piping is mainly used on bodices and upper body clothing. It is rarely used in skirts, but don’t assume it didn’t exist there. For a truly historical and finished look, piping is needed in seams on the bodice: shoulder, armhole, side back, and sometimes on center openings, but historically not usually on side seams. Depending on what time period you are making, the amount of piping and where it is used will vary. See the era descriptions below.
Regency: They were just getting into piping in the very late 1790s and early 1800s. But in a few years piping was everywhere! They used it in shoulder seams and on back princess seams. You’ll see it around armholes and also collars, cuffs and wrist hems. Skirt seams, however, were not piped. Generally it stayed on the bodice and sleeves of dresses, coats, pelisses and spencers.
1830s into 1840s: Piping stayed quite popular in these decades and into early Victorian years. Same as with Regency, piping existed on bodice seams – adding in the side seam too sometimes– and on the sleeves at the armhole, wrist and down the inner sleeve seam.
Piping was also used to support the edges of pleated bertha collars and around all sides of cuffs. It was huge in the late 1830s to band down the upper sleeve portion and highlight all the details of the sleeve design.
Piping was added to the neckline and bodice lower edge too. And double piping was an often used detail on the center back and/or center front seam of the bodice.
1850s & 1860s: Piping stayed similar to that of the 1840s but was more subdued and functional, although still emphasizing design lines like the dropped armhole placement. Not all shoulder seams were piped, same for necklines in their finishing. Fitted lower edges of evening bodices (those not in basque style) were much piped.
Bustle Era 1870s: Piping was still used in the 1870s but reserved to armholes, occasional side back seams, cuffs and bodice lower edges. Double, and even triple, piping was HUGE along bodice hems, many times in contrasting fabric. Sometimes the bias was left flat with no cord along the inside.
Piping also appeared on skirts when the Trim Explosion Era started in the late 1860s. Although here it was for decoration and not strictly within seams to reinforce them. Generally the skirt piping was all applied on the surface with edges covered by more trimming.
Cuffs, collars, and false or vest fronts were especially highlighted with contrast piping.
1880s & 1890s: Piping was fading from use in the 1880s but can still be seen on originals on collars, cuffs and armholes. Although still seen on some 1890s bodices, it was not as widely used.
How to Make Basic Piping:
Again, do not cut straight strips of fabric for your piping; they just do not work and make your work look shoddy.
Draw a line parallel to the selvedge of your fabric. Then using a ruler with a 45 degree line marked or other clear ruler where you can pick out true bias, draw in lines to the width of bias needed to cover your cording. You can cut with scissors or rotary cutter. Be careful to keep the fabric straight as it can easily stretch on the bias edges that you’re cutting.
Depending on the amount of fabric I have and bias needed for the piping I’ll vary how long to make each marked strip before cutting. Sometimes I’ll mark clear across the fabric width to avoid a seam in the piping. But most often I’ll keep the strips to about half the fabric width or between 20″ and 30″ long.
Next, piece the strips together (e.g. seam them into one long strip). You can also make the piping the approximate length of the edges to pipe rather than make one long strip then cut as needed.
Use 1/4″ seams on the diagonal ends to piece. The ends of each bias piece will stick out where the two strips match at 1/4″ (or other seam allowance).
[You can, of course, make continuous bias where you avoid piecing strips individually. You simply draw in the cut lines, sew the selvedge & ends together in one seam then cut along the lines. You can find loads of examples on how to do this usually on quilting tutorial sites. Google or search Pinterest.]
To make the corded piping, fold the strips of bias lengthwise, wrong sides together, and insert cording into the fold. Pin tight along the cording placing pins parallel to the cord.
[There are some dressmakers who make piping without pinning and more snaps to them! However, for me personally, I find that the bias slips too easily on me creating skewed bias around the cord if I don’t pin it all first. As with all sewing, do what comes easiest for you and produces the best look.]
Using a zipper or piping foot, baste the cord tightly into the bias. (If you don’t have a piping foot for your machine you must go get one now! Amazing tool.)
A handy trick after making the piping is to use a 1/2″ metal bone and rotary cutter to trim the bias down to an exact 1/2″ seam allowance for easier sewing. I love using this trick – thank you to my friend Bridget for showing me years ago!
How to Sew Basic Piping:
Pin the piping to the garment edge with the cord just to the outside of the seamline – very important. (The basting line of the piping should be on top of the seamline of the garment.)
Use a machine piping foot or zipper foot to baste the piping to the garment. After your seam is sewn you can grade the piping bias along with the garment seam allowances.
When pinning around curves such as around armholes use steam from your iron (be careful!) to guide the bias into place. Keep the cord just to the outside of the seamline! On very curved armholes (like the front curve of a dropped shoulder bodice) you may need to clip the bias a little, up to the basting, to allow it to lie flat.
Anytime you sew piping it is good practice to trim the cord AT seamlines or where the piping overlaps itself or other piped areas. After pinning the piping to the garment, gently open the basting stitches at the cut ends and trim the cord. Try to trim right at the seam. It’s okay if you trim a little more but be sure to trim enough so it lies flat.
How to Sew Piping Enclosed within Seams:
Enclosed seams include areas where the piping ends meet each other like armholes or cuffs.
The piping should start/end at a discreet location such as under the arm or towards the back. Trim the cord inside then overlap the edges, pulling them up away from the seamline. (The bias edges will go beyond the seam allowance and will be trimmed after sewing.)
You can also fold under one end of the bias (after trimming the cord) and inserting the other end into it to create a smooth finished edge. This manner creates more bulk as you are layering the bias together.
Adding appropriate piping to a garment will boost your dressmaking confidence as well as show you are attentive to the finer details. It adds such a nice historical touch to your clothing and speaks volumes about your skills. Be sure to add it to future 19th Century projects!
Do you pipe your Regency and Victorian costumes? Or are you new to piping? What’s your next project that calls for piping?