Sewing an 1895 Walking Skirt

My dear reader, over the past year I have endeavored to create a historical wardrobe to wear everyday based upon the fashions of the 1890’s through to the 1900’s. This of course has been a slow process, but one that I have greatly enjoyed! At this point, I am ready to add a very sensible staple piece to my wardrobe, a black wool walking skirt.

In the 1890’s, you can see shift in the ‘ideal silhouette’ from the protruding bustle skirts to the puffed sleeved bodices, nipped-in-waist, and bell-shaped skirts. This was to be the era of readily available ready-to-wear clothing, female independence, the New Woman, bicycles, sports wear, the Gibson Girl, and new technologies. In essence, this was a transitional decade from the rigidity of the Victorian era to the New Century. (Franklin, 2019)

Frances Benjamin Johnston‘s Self-Portrait (as “New Woman”), 1896.

With more women joining the workforce and engaged in athletic activities at the turn of the century, these women needed an outfit that was practical, comfortable, and casual to wear. This gave rise to the skirt and shirtwaist (blouse) combination. As we look at this ensemble with our modern sense of what we deem as comfortable and practical, a long, full skirt doesn’t appear to fit the bill. However, for these women transitioning away from the bustles and hoops of the previous decades, wearing a skirt that doesn’t require either (except for some light padding to support the weight of the pleats or gathers in the back of the skirt) is very practical indeed! Not to mention, the hemline of the skirt could either be at a fashionable full length or up to ankle length for practicality.

Staff of the Mechanics Institute Reference Library in 1895: Sourced from the Toronto Public Library

Some key features of the walking skirt include:

  • Multiple gores that skim the hips and gently flare out at the hem, giving it the bell shape.
  • A smooth front panel, helped with the straight-front shaping of the S-bend corset.
  • A narrow waistband, to help reduce any bulk at the waist and ensure a narrow waist silhouette.
  • A good amount of pleats or gathers in the back of the skirt to provide the fullness required to achieve the silhouette.

Drafting the Walking Skirt

The drafting instructions for the Dress Skirts from The “Keystone” Jacket and Dress Cutter (1895) by Charles Hecklinger

For this project I wanted to try my hand at some pattern drafting from period source material. I followed the ‘Dress Skirts’ instructions from The “Keystone” Jacket and Dress Cutter (1895) by Charles Hecklinger to draft the skirt pattern.

The wording for the drafting instructions did take a few reading-overs to understand, but overall, it was manageable to follow. Before I began drafting, I took my waist and hip measurements while in my S-bend Edwardian corset with the hip padding. My measurements were as follows:

  • Waist: 31″
  • Hips: 45″

Once I had my measurements taken, I could easily insert them in place of the example measurements given in the drafting instructions. Hecklinger gives the options for drafting the skirt with two different amounts of skirt fullness: The Bell Skirt and The Umbrella. I followed The Bell Skirt, which provides a smaller amount of fullness in the back of the skirt.

Materials Used for the Skirt

For the walking skirt, I used the following materials:

Construction of the Skirt

When it came to sewing this skirt, I was very bad and did not make a mock-up of the skirt… which is why I was thrilled when the end result fit so well! I do not advise skipping the mock-up step of the sewing process, even if its not your favorite part of the project.

To begin with, I cut out the drafted pattern from both the black wool and the plaid lining material. I flatlined the two layers together so the materials don’t slip and slide around while I sew the skirt panels together. All of the seams in the skirt were flat-felled with tiny whip stitches to enclose the raw edges.

Flat-felled seam on the interior of the skirt.

As with any practical garment from the late Victorian era, generously-sized pockets were a necessity. I used the same pocket pattern drafted from Bertha Banner’s Household Sewing with Home Dressmaking in the walking skirt, just like I used it in the 1908 Ladies House Dress I made last autumn.

I encapsulated the raw edges of the seam of the pocket with French seams. The pocket is anchored to the waistband to help support the weight of anything placed in the pocket. This is perhaps one of my favorite sewing ‘tricks’ that I’ve learned since I began historical sewing.

The hem facing and the hem itself required a bit more attention to its construction. A stiffening material used as a hem facing (on the inside of the skirt at the hemline) was needed to help support the skirt and provide the shaping needed to achieve the bell silhouette. Tarlatan, a thin, starched, open-weave muslin, was used to face the bottom 12″ of the skirt. This was whip stitched to the lining fabric so you couldn’t see any stitches from the outside of the skirt. Please note that you cannot wash tarlatan. If you do, you will wash away the stiffening agent and will be left with a gauzy material.

The tarlatan added to the bottom of the skirt and whip stitched into place.

Once the tarlatan was in place, I finished the hem by binding it in 1 1/2″ black velvet ribbon. It was common practice to bind the hem with a wool braid, brush braid, or a velvet ribbon to help protect the material beneath because it was much easier to replace a binding than to repair damaged fabric.

I used a running back-stitch to attach the velvet ribbon to the hem. Please ignore the cat hair! 🙂

And finally, the hooks and eyes were sewn on as the closures for the skirt. This is normally the final steps that I dread to complete, which is so silly because its maybe 15 minutes of sewing and then its done!


This will not be my last walking skirt, I have a brown tweedy wool on hand to make another before the start of fall. Like the 1908 Ladies House Dress, this is already an excellent staple in my historical wardrobe.

My dear reader, would you try sewing a walking skirt as well? Or what would you consider to be a staple addition to your own wardrobe? I would love to know!

-Bethany


References

Featured Photo, [Four African American women seated on steps of building at Atlanta University, Georgia]

Franklin, H. (2019, August 01). 1890-1899. Retrieved April 03, 2021, from https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1890-1899/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s