Sunday 12 July 2015

How To Make A Victorian Bustle Skirt - The Easy Way

I'm very proud of my Victorian bustle skirt. It wasn't very hard to sew, so I want to share my self-made pattern and the basic instructions, so others can enjoy this lovely type of skirt!

What you need:

5 meters of fabric of your choosing, preferably something that drapes nicely. I used taffeta.
4 meters of plain cotton ribbon. Can be any color, it won't show!
A short zipper in matching color. Mine is 22 cm long.
A button, hooks and eyes or a snap button for the waistband
Sewing machine
Needle and thread
Chalk to draw on the fabric
A piece of plain white paper
Iron and an ironing board
Plenty of pins
A dressform or a friend to help you

Please note that to get the best silhouette for the skirt, you should have a long tulle petticoat and a bustle cage. Both are easy to make yourself, and can be used with many long skirts for added fullness. Petticoats are not expensive to buy either. I made the bustle cage myself, here's a post with pictures of it and a link to the tutorial I used. Before this, I was using a simple pillow to get the effect and it worked nicely too, so you can take a shortcut here if you want!

If you want to wear the skirt with a corset, you should use the corset as an undergarment so you can get the bustle to sit at your natural waistline. It's basically down to what sort of silhouette you prefer, but having the bustle start at the natural waist accentuates the waist, and makes you look taller than with a lower bustle position. Wearing a corset on top of the skirt also flattens your bustle. The best bodice to wear with this type of skirt is a short one that flares out at the natural waist. My bodice is sewn with a Truly Victorian pattern you can find here. The main thing that makes the bodice work perfectly is the little pleated tail that gives plenty of room for the bustle.

For fabric, the best ones are fabrics that have a shiny surface, like my taffeta, so the millions of little pleats and ruffles show well. The fabric should not be very heavy, because there will be a lot of it.

I drafted the pattern based on a bustle skirt I own, made by Fan + Friend. The pattern is not exactly the same, but the general structure follows that of the Fan + Friend skirt. They had done the bustle a bit differently and had a decorative ruffle on the sides of the bustle, for which I was way too lazy.

The red lines mean the folded side of the fabric. Etu is front and taka is back. Turn. is the bustle part and the unmarked piece is the front side of the upper skirt, the pleated apron. The main thing is to have plenty of fabric, so if you are in doubt, rather cut pieces too large than too small. You can always pleat the excess fabric on some seam or another. In addition to these pieces you need a waistband that is the measure of your waist (or corseted waist if you plan to wear the skirt with a corset) + 3 cm, and fabric for the pleated ruffle at the bottom. My ruffle is 9 meters long and 15 cm high.
Basically the skirt has an underskirt with a pleated ruffle about 12 cm tall and an upper skirt consisting of a pleated apron and a bustle that's gathered on five cotton ribbons hanging from the waistband. There's a side zipper that's sewn on both upper and lower skirt, and a waistband that has a snap closure. For more comfort in crowds, there's a loop of matching satin ribbon sewn on the underside of the train so it can be lifted up by putting the loop on your wrist (thanks to Kerttu for adding this last minute!).

An important thing to note! Make sure you take into account the shoes you plan to wear with your skirt! I wanted to wear heels, but mistakenly measured the hem to sit right on me with no shoes on. This way, the skirt ended up being too short with heels on, so I ended up having to take apart the whole waist to add some fabric to the skirt. Naturally I only noticed this after I had the whole skirt finished.

I did some adjustments and fixes while making the skirt, so my process was not as straightforward as it could be. I don't have pictures of all the steps but I'll do my best to explain each one.

The skirt consists of six pieces: upper skirt front (the apron), upper skirt back (the bustle), underskirt front, underskirt back, underskirt hem ruffle and the waistband. The picture below shows the pieces on a finished skirt.

First, lay your fabric on a flat surface, fold it in the middle and draw the pattern on it using a measuring tape. Cut the skirt pieces and a waistband, but don't cut the pleated ruffle yet.

The Underskirt

1. Sew the side seams of the underskirt but leave room for your zipper on one side seam.

2. Iron the waistband so you can pin it on your dressform. If you don't have a dressform, have a friend help you and use pins to secure the waistband on yourself. If you have certain shoes in mind that you want to wear with the skirt, put them on so you can measure the hem to be the right length.

3. Pleat and pin the underskirt on the waistband. Put most of the pleats on the sides and back, you don't want extra bulk on your stomach area.

4. Check the length of the hem. If you have the skirt on a dressform, double check that the dressform in set to the height you will be with the shoes you want to wear with the skirt. Choose how high you want the pleated ruffle to come and, if needed, cut the hem so that it has an extra 1-2 cm for attaching the ruffle. On the front side, the hem should just touch the ground when the ruffle is on. If it's longer, you will trip on it when walking. And trust me, you don't want to shorten the ruffle, so be careful with the measurements here.

5. Cut the fabric for the ruffle. I made a 15 cm high ruffle and pleated it in alternating sections of 5 cm and 2 cm. Some people prefer box pleats for a symmetrical look, but I took the easier route and did just regular pleats. For my pattern, 9 meters of unpleated fabric was enough for the hem and a little piece was still left over. I suggest ripping the pieces instead of cutting them, that keeps the height exactly the same for the whole piece.

Tip: If your hem is not the same length as mine, but you want to use the same 5 cm pleats with 2 cm of fabric folded under the pleat, you can calculate how much fabric you need when you know that 60% of the length of the unpleated fabric will be the length of the finished ruffle. So 5 meters of fabric is 3 meters of pleated ruffle, 10 meters is 6 meters of finished ruffle and so on.

6. Sew the fabric for the pleats so that you have one continuous piece. Finish one edge, either with zigzag or by folding it. Iron for best results.

7. Iron and pin the pleats. Take your piece of paper and fold it in the pattern you want your pleats to be. For easy ironing, you can use the paper as a guide for the fabric. Just tuck the fabric in the folds of the paper and iron over it all. Pin the pleats into place an iron again without the paper to make sure the fabric gets enough heat to keep the pleat well. Move on to the next section and repeat. Make sure to pin the raw edge that will be attached to the skirt, not the finished edge. This is the most time consuming and boring part of the whole process, so stay strong! When the pleats are done you have done most of the work.

Tuck the fabric into the folds of the paper, iron and pin the pleats in place.

8. Sew the pleated edge of the ruffle to secure the pleats.

9. Pin the ruffle to the hem of your skirt. Try the skirt on or try it on the dressform at this point to make sure the final length of the hem is correct. If it's not, you can shorten the hem by attaching the ruffle higher, or add length by sewing an extra strip of fabric on the waist edge of the underskirt. Once you are happy with the length, sew the ruffle on. I found it easiest to hide the seam in the ruffle by placing it on the side of the skirt but it's not very noticeable anyway, so don't worry if the seam is somewhere else.

10. Carefully take the waistband off the underskirt but pin the pleats you made to the skirt edge so they stay put. Sew to secure the pleats. You underskirt is now done!

The Upper Skirt, or Bustle and Apron

1. Cut six pieces of your cotton ribbon. Pin them on the top side of your underskirt in the following pattern: 1 on the center back, 1 on the side where there's no zipper, 2 side to side to the side that will have the zipper. 1 to each side on the back between the side ribbon and center back ribbon. You will gather the side fronts of the front part of the top skirt, and the bustle on the back of the top skirt on these ribbons. If you have a very full figure, you might want to consider adding a few extra strips of ribbon, if it looks like the ribbons are very far apart. The closer the ribbons on the back side are to each other, the tighter and basically fluffier your bustle will be. See the picture below for how the ribbons should lie on your underskirt.

Cotton ribbons pinned to underskirt, seen from the back.

The length of the ribbons is up to you. On the sides they dictate how low the pleated sides fall and on the back you can gather the bustle as low as the ribbons go. A a general guideline, since cotton ribbon is cheap, leave it long so you can cut it shorter later when you can see how the pleating looks.

2. Pleat the front of the upper skirt. Pin the waistband on the dressform and pin the underskirt on it. If you don't have a dressform, put it on yourself and have a friend do the pleating (or the other way around if you are roughly of the same size). Take the piece of fabric you cut for the front part of the upper skirt. You can finish the edge of the piece now if you feel confident that the length is right. If you are not sure, pleat it first and see how it looks, cut if needed and finish the edge last.

Once you have the underskirt on a person or a dressform, locate the cotton ribbons you pinned on the sides. Pin the top edges of the front piece of the upper skirt to the ribbons so you see how wide you finished apron should be. Sandwich the ribbons between the upper skirt and the underskirt. Pleat and pin the top of the piece, once again concentrating the pleats on the side area rather than on the center where they would make you belly look fluffy. Now you have the width of the front part of the upper skirt (=apron) mapped.

Pleat and pin the sides of the apron to the ribbons on the sides. These pleats should fold upwards for the best look. There's no one best size for the pleats, try what looks best to you, just pleat and pin until you are happy with the look.

Ribbons lay on the back of the underskirt.
The front of the upper skirt is pinned to the
waistband and pleated to the side ribbon.

3. Sew the front piece's pleats. Carefully unpin the ribbons from the underskirt and the upper skirt from the waistband, preserving the pleats. Sew to secure the pleats and make sure to catch the cotton ribbon when sewing the side pleats. The edges will be sewn together with the back side of the upper skirt, so don't worry about finishing them yet.

4. Sides of the bustle. Once again put the skirt on your dressform, yourself or a friend. Pin the pleated front piece of the top skirt on the waistband. Make sure you have the cotton ribbons pinned on the underskirt: you should have one in the center back, one on the side where the zipper will be, and two between the sides and the center back.

Take the piece you cut for the back of the upper skirt. Pleat and pin the top edge so it matches the underskirt. Now you want the pleats to be mainly in the center so you will have plenty of fabric for the bustle. Sew to secure the pleats and pin the piece back on the waistband, sandwiching the ribbons between the upper skirt and the underskirt.

Start work on the bustle by pleating the edges of the back piece to match the sides. These pleats should face downwards, not upwards like on the front part. Pin the pleats to the free cotton ribbon on the side where the zipper will be, and straight to the edge of the front piece on the side where there is no zipper. Try what size of pleats work best for you, the general rule is that there can't be too much fabric!

Front of the upper skirt is pleated and sewn to the side ribbons.
The back of the upper skirt (the bustle) is pleated and pinned to the
side ribbon.

5. Sew the side pleats. Sew the pleats to the cotton ribbon on the zipper side, and sew the back piece of the upper skirt to the front piece of the upper skirt on the side where there is no zipper. Put the upper skirt back on your dressform to continue with the bustle.

6. This is the creative part! You aim is to gather the bustle to the cotton ribbons. Use pins to see how it will drape, and when you are happy, attach the fabric to the ribbon with a few hand sewn stitches. There's no rule to how tightly you should gather or in how many places the fabric should be sewn to the ribbons, just pin and see what you like. I suggest wearing your bustle cage / other padding / pillow, and a petticoat to see what the silhouette will be like with the undergarments you plan to wear with the skirt.

The cotton ribbon lies flat on top of the underskirt.
The back piece of the upper skirt is gathered on the ribbon to
create the bustle. The picture shows only one ribbon, but the
finished skirt will have three ribbons done with the same

When you have gathered the bustle, finish the edge of the piece. If you have extra energy or are just a little bit off in the head, you can add a ruffle to the bustle edge too.

7. When you are happy with the bustle, move on to the boring part. Take your zipper and sew it on so that it's attached to both the upper skirt and the underskirt. (Google for specific zipper instructions, I suck at them!) Sew the rest of the side seam on the upper skirt.

8. Pin the waistband on to make sure it fits. I prefer a waistband that folds over so I can hide all of the ugly unfinished top edges inside them. All that matters is that you have a sturdy waistband that closes securely with a snap or hooks and eyes or a button. No one will see what's under it anyway. If the waistband doesn't fit, check if the problem is in the band or in the skirt. If the band is too long or short, shorten it or cut a new one. If the skirt is too wide for the band, just add a few pleats somewhere to make the width fit. Make sure to have a 3 cm overlap on the waistband for the closure.

When you are happy with the fit of the waistband, sew it in place, making sure you catch the cotton ribbons so they take the weight of the bustle and the pleats. Add the closure type you want (snaps are easiest if you ask me!) and you are all done.

9. Put your new skirt on and admire yourself in the mirror. You did it!

The instructions are quite long but the process itself is not very complicated. Just two skirts with one side zipper, and the top one is pleated at the side seams and gathered on ribbons in the back. Here's some more picture to help you with the details!

Underskirt with ruffle in place.
This side of the skirt has the zipper, but it blends in nicely.
Me, Jukka and Nina. Jukka took most of the pictures of the outfit, thank you! The pleats on the side of the bustle show well in this picture, and also how they are made in a different direction than the pleats on the sides of the apron.
Here I have the train held up with a loop of satin ribbon.
In this picture the pleats on the apron are going the wrong way.
The bustle gathering shows well.
Detail of the bustle.


  1. This is so awesome! *___*
    Thanks for the tutorial, now everyone can be a gorgeous victorian bustle lady <3

    ~ Frillycakes ~

  2. Wow. Thanks for the tutorial!
    It was a long time ago I made dresses for medieval events, and I've been thinking of beginning again but another era. This is amazing and I'll print it and study. Would love to get my hands on fabrics and sewing machine again!

    Much appreciated! / Ingrid Rakel

    1. You are very welcome! I love sewing projects and want to help others enjoy them too!

  3. That is really lovely! Great job.

  4. OMG! Finally some one that speaks geek in fashion for me lol, now I can finish my skirt I've been confused on for over a month now,your site is going on my vid when I'm done with it so others that try to make this can do it an learn both ways. Thanks a bunch!!!!!!!

  5. OMG! Finally some one that speaks geek in fashion for me lol, now I can finish my skirt I've been confused on for over a month now,your site is going on my vid when I'm done with it so others that try to make this can do it an learn both ways. Thanks a bunch!!!!!!!

  6. Thank you very much for the great tutorial! It's exactly what I#ve been searching.
    I made the skirt of black velvet and it is a heavy monster :D My sewing machine didn't always manage so many layers of thick fabric so I had to do some parts by hand. Some seams and the inner sides do not look perfect but the skirt looks great.
    Thanks and greetings from Germany!

    1. Thank you so much! A black velvet version sounds gorgeous!

  7. Thank you!!! You help me a lot with my wedding dress with your tutorial.:D

    1. You are very welcome, I'm glad I could help!

  8. This is soooo awesome, thank you for sharing! I have just one question, when pleating the skirts to the waistband, what kind of pleats are you using? Thanks!

    1. You are welcome! I use a box pleat in the front center and back center, then just regular pleats towards the side seams. You should have most of the pleats near the side seams in the front to avoid having excess bulk in the stomach area. In the back you need the most fabric in the center. Smaller pleats look nicer than big ones!

  9. Thank you so much for this tutorial, its inspired me to have a go at making my own. How much seam allowance have you allowed for please? Plus to help me gage drop is the 111 on the side seam straight down with no flair added in? 😁

    1. Happy to be able to help, you are very welcome! I used about 1 cm seam allowance, in inches it would be about 0,3 inches. The 111 cm side seam is for the base skirt, I made it to reach all the way to the ground so I have some extra when I put in the ruffle at the bottom. It does need some extra to allow for a poofy petticoat. I found it easiest to just try the skirt on a dress form to check the final length.

    2. Thank you. That was very helpful. Guess I know what I'll be doing this weekend, lol.

  10. So insanely gorgeous. Going to make this for my future wedding. You are an inspiration!! Now to start fabric shopping and find a good dummy.

    1. Quick question -- the bodice link you have above is not found.. any update on that? I absolutely adore this and want to replicate it. TIA!

  11. You have just saved my wedding! Thank you for this!!

  12. Do you have any suggestions for good fabrics to use other than taffeta? I want to make this skirt but I don't know fabrics very well yet haha

  13. Hello- please tell me the bodice pattern number- the link no longer works with the new TV website.
    Gorgeous dress and bustle!!

  14. Merci beaucoup de Normandie en France pour votre travail d'explication.
    La réalisation et son rendu sont très réussis!!! BRAVO

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Fantastic pattern to follow wish I could post a photo of the gorgeous skirt I made following this diagram!

  17. Can't wait to get started and try this!! Thank you. My family goes to Castlefest (Netherlands) I haven't seen any proper instructions/patterns like this.

  18. You look so beautiful!


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