When is Trim Applied to a Garment?

When is Trim Applied to a Garment? | HistoricalSewing.com

1883 antique skirt with trim tacked to the finished skirt base just below the waistband

Do you love trim and passementerie? But of course you do! It’s one of the delicious elements that draw us to 19th C. clothing. I mean, gored skirt panels are rather similar no matter what decade you’re studying, but the *trim* is really what sets styles apart.

When we are trying to reproduce historical fashions we start by breaking down our inspiration garments into various bits. This includes the trims.

Because sometimes the trim is simply slapped on (a shock, I know, for Victorian); others meticulously applied during construction. So how can you know when to sew on your trim and when to leave it for the end? Time for research!

Trim on 19th C. garments is not really like trim on modern garments. Google search for how to apply trim to a garment and you’ll end up buried in a mess of “just pin the trim in place and sew” or even worse for us costumers: “use fusible hem tape or stitch witchery.”

Granted, those down-and-dirty methods will get trim onto your project. But we make Victorian clothes. Careless application of trim just won’t cut it. There’s got to be some method to the madness that is Victorian trim, right?

There is. And you start at the beginning.

Ribbon trim ending in a seam on a sleeve

Ribbon trim was hand tacked to the sleeve while flat so the ends were enclosed within the seam

When creating 1800s dresses or coats or whatever, you must think of the big picture and then focus in on the trims, or at least have an idea of the trim you want to apply. You have to do this because some trim needs to be enclosed within a seam or a hem or a neckline.

Thinking ahead of time will allow you to plan for when to mount the trim so you avoid the whole turning-under-the-raw-edge-and-hand-finishing thing. Not that hand sewing is wrong or bad, but so you have a more finished look to your project.

Pinning Lace over Pleats on Underskirt Hem

A narrow pleated ruffle was top sewn to the skirt first over the finished hem. Now the lace ruffle is pinned to hide the top of the pleats.

Ribbon, Pleatings, Ruches & Other Separately Finished Trims

These trims are some of the easiest to figure out when to sew them on… usually this happens at the end. Topstitching by machine or basting on by hand works well for these trims. They really are the “slap-on” kind of embellishments.

If you are being particular about your stitches being seen on the inside of the garment, think about mounting the trim after all the construction, and then whipping a separate lining into place to hide all the innards.

Although, you’ll find plenty of antique examples where you see tacking threads on the inside. So either way, covered or visible, both are period correct (if that is a concern for you).

June 1862, Godey's Lady's Book

Flat trim mounted after the skirt seams are sewn. June 1862, Godey’s Lady’s Book

If you have a design, say, a Greek key or ruffle, that goes around the hem of a 1860s skirt first sew all the skirt panels. Then mount the key trim by hand or machine. Overlap the trim ends at a back seam. Finish the hem with a facing. Apply the waistband.

1842 -skirt trims sewn up to the waist

1842 – skirt trims sewn up to the waist

If you have trim running vertically from skirt hem to waistband such as designs in the 1890s or 1840s, after you sew the panel seams, apply the trim from hem to the raw waist edge. If you think about finishing your hem before you jump into the trim, you can also run the trim to the hem raw edge then finish with a facing, enclosing the raw trim edge.

Velvet & lace trims on edge

The lace was machine stitched on first to the bodice edge then the velvet ribbon hand tacked over it. The bodice raw edges were finished with bias on the inside.


Pinked ruffle edges

Skirt ruffles that have been pinked at the edges when cut and the top layer folded back to hide them; they can also be hand hemmed as they get placed on the garment


I used to be really insane (or perfectionistic) about my ruffle trims that go all around a garment area. I’d carefully calculate the cutting the strip of fabric to gather up so it would match my skirt or sleeve cuff perfectly.

Yeah… then I realized it didn’t matter. Simply overlap the edge and it’ll be fine. And it works!

Usually for ruffles that go all the way around simply gather up your fabric then place it on the garment starting at a back seam or point. On the raw end, make a narrow hem or pink it first.

Turn back the pinked or hemmed edge before you pin to the garment. When you come back around, overlap the ends about an inch or so then turn back the end on the other ruffle edge before pinning down. The turned under and overlapped ends will be nicely disguised within the ruffling.

Finishing box pleated ruffle

The ruffle was box pleated then mounted over the hemmed skirt. When the ruffle wrapped back around to meet the starting edge, the edges were quickly hand sewn together then a smaller stacked box pleat was made to take in the excess fabric. As a whole you can’t notice the smaller pleat and the stacked folds are well hidden.

If you are pleating trim, when you come back around turn back the other end and make pleats to continue the pattern as best you can. (In the whole scheme of things no one will notice if that little area is slightly off balanced from the other pleats.) You can also do a quick hand sewn running seam on both ruffle edges before making the final pleat or two.

1873 Ruched Ruffle Construction

The back ruffle on a 1873 skirt was made in sections starting with the hem ruffle gathered and mounted to the finished hem of the larger ruffle piece. The top was then gathered in several rows and mounted flat to the main foundation skirt. The ruffle side edges were basted to the skirt raw edges so they could be enclosed. The hem ruffle was set back from the seam allowance so it would not be caught into the seam (left). You can read more about this dress project here.

If you have a ruffle that ends at a seam like the above small hem ruffle on the ruched back ruffle, finish the end first. Mount the ruffle to the skirt with the finished end right at the side seam stitch line. Since the ruffle will have width at the bottom it will be easy to pull over the side and hand or machine in place along the seam.

You can leave the ruffle side loose too, but I think at least basting it to the garment will produce a more finished look.


Pleats pinned into skirt seam edge

A knife pleated ruffle is pinned in place onto the front of a skirt. The ruffle is trimmed to match the skirt side seam edge so it will be completely enclosed. (See full dress here.)

Trims in Seams

The obvious tip here is to apply the trim before seam construction. So how do you know that? It goes back to knowing the big picture of your costume before you even begin.

Think about or sketch out where the trim ends. Does the placement need to be adjusted so it can end at a seam?

1900 Wool dress with tucks & tab trim

c.1900 Wool dress with skirt tucks & tab trim; held at LACMA

This c.1900 skirt has small tucks that were sewn first around the front of the skirt panels. You can see they end at the side back seam where the pleats start (lower right). The lower flounce was then sewn on and the tabs machine stitched completely over the tucks.


It’s all about layering. Break down your idea to the bottom layer and build up from there. This is especially important if you have a complicated design. Sketch out your thoughts to bring clarification.

And remember to allow for adjustments as you start playing with fabric. Sometimes trims just don’t work the way you want. Be flexible. If anything, you can always come back and hand sew it on. :-)


Have you made a particularly difficult costume with embellishments that needed a road map? What was your result? What changes did you have to make?


  1. says

    I’m one of those who loves to add lots of trim, and usually by hand, and its the last thing I put on because I usually don’t plan on what and where I put it until its done and I can step back and look at it.
    And now looking at some of the trim ideas you posted photos of here, my fingers are itchy to make something I can do them on.

  2. K. Winter says

    My current project (a lavish Queen Elsa dress for my Frozen-mad niece) has made me realise just how early I start my trims: I start at the pattern level, and work my way out. I plan my costumes like an architect working on a blueprint, or a general planning battle strategies. Right now I’m puzzling how to finish the bottom hem/s, if I’m going to sew the crystal organza overlay directly into the skirt seams, but not have them attached at the bottom. BUT before I do an of that, I need to decide whether I’m going to embroider giant snowflakes on the overlay by hand, by machine, or at all! Maybe I should start with the sleeves, because I know what I’m planning to do there with cutouts, underlaid appliques, and rhinestones. All this for a fun dress-up costume for a cute kid who needs a bit extra attention, since she’s just got a new sister…
    Damn I wish I’d had an anal-retentive perfectionist seamstress as an aunt when I was a kid!

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