Those fabulous Civil War-era dresses came by their bell shape honestly — yards and yards of fabric, with some generous help from a hidden hoop underskirt. Sewing an overskirt is easy enough — so how hard could it be to make a proper hoop petticoat?
I started my adventure with an online pattern, found here. It was, well, a great start!
But after two days of trial and error (and a fair amount of hair-pulling), here is my own version of a Civil War hoop-skirt pattern, along with tips, suggestions, and a few mistakes to avoid!
Fabric: 3 yards of strong cotton (avoid anything that would stretch easily), at least 32” in width
Bias Tape: 11 yards of 1-1/4” to 1-1/2”-wide bias tape (or use 1” tape and fold it open prior to stitching)
Boning: 11 yards of ¾” flat plastic boning (plumber’s tape was my solution! See photo below.)
Extra stiffening for bottom hoop: ¼” flexible but firm plastic tubing (aka vinyl sprinkler line)
Lace Trim: 10 feet of 4” to 6”-wide lace (washable)
And (of course) Thread; Hooks-and-eyes; Buttons.
Cut out the three pieces as shown. (I used 16” for my A and B; next time I would probably make them 18” wide instead.) For the waistband length, measure your waist and add four inches.
Run a double row of long gathering stitches at the tops of pieces A and B.
Pull threads to gather the top of piece B. Then with right sides of A and B together, sew the top of B to the bottom of A, adjusting the gathers on B as necessary. Press the seam up, and stitch again on top of the gathers to hold them in place. Then sew the lace trim along the bottom of Piece B.
Fold the skirt with right sides together, and stitch the back seam closed, leaving the top 5 inches open (unstitched). Finish the edges of the 5” opening by zig-zagging the cut edges, and then fold the edges to the inside of the garment and top-stitch along both sides of the opening.
Fold the waistband in half, wrong side out, and stitch the two short ends. Turn right side out and press so you have a straight line along the top of the band. Mark the correct dimension for your waist (where the waistband will overlap), which will leave a tab of about 3 or 4 extra inches.
Attach one edge of the waistband to Piece A, with right sides together, adjusting the gathers as necessary to fit. Turn the waistband right side out (turning the loose side of the waistband inside the skirt), pin in place, and then top-stitch on the right side, running your stitches all the way to the end of the tab. Finish by adding two hooks and eyes on the square edge, and a button and buttonhole to secure the tab.
Turn the skirt inside out. Stitch four rows of bias tape equally-spaced down the skirt, starting with a row just above the lace trim (at the bottom of Piece B). Add a second row of bias tape about half-way up Piece B; a third row on top of the gathered seam; and the fourth row mid-way up piece A. At the end of each bias tape row, leave 2” to 3” of extra tape loose at the back seam so it’s easy to insert the boning.
Note: Be sure when you stitch down your bias tape that it leaves you an open tube more than 1” wide in which to insert the boning, or you’ll be fighting with it for hours! (Voice of experience here!)
Insert flat plastic boning in each of the four bias-tape tubes, leaving about 4” excess at both ends to play with. Caution: do not use the thin mesh boning material commonly sold at fabric stores; that may work great for corsets and other lightweight stiffening uses, but it does not provide the necessary stiffness for a hoop petticoat! It’s also horribly expensive (voice of experience again).
The best plastic boning material I found was polypropylene hanger strap (aka plumber’s tape), available at most hardware stores. It’s cheap; it’s tough; it’s waterproof; and it holds its shape. For the very bottom row, additional stiffening will be needed; I added flexible vinyl ¼” sprinkler line, taping it to the flat boning material prior to inserting it into the bias tape tube.
Now comes the fun (actually not-so-fun) part — trying to get that bell-shape look just right! There’s no easy way to do it; it just takes trial and error. Adjust the length and gather of each row of boning until you are happy with the look. And (voice of experience again), don’t cut it until you are sure you have it right!
Once you are satisfied with the shape, cut the boning to size, overlapping the cut ends by 1” to 2” and tape the cut ends using electrician’s tape to hold them securely. Then cut away the excess bias tape and hand-stitch each row closed.
Voila! A simple hoop skirt you can make at home to properly show off your Civil War dress creations!