Costume Construction Techniques


Before the invention and popularization of the sewing machine, almost all clothes were hand sewn, either by the woman of the house and her daughters or servants, or by a professional seamstress or tailor.

Most home sewing technique and methodology today is influenced by, if not based on, factory production sewing. therefore, it is done in ways that are best accomplished by machine. these are not necessarily the best or most usual techniques for historical costume.

While I'm a great fan of the sewing machine, there is no substitute for beautiful hand finishing. Try to plan the time for it into your project. yes, it can be tedious, but that's what TV is for. Doing handwork makes a virtue out of watching trashy TV. If you're not a TV person, I suggest Books On Tape. Or do it the period way, get together with your friends, and gossip while you stitch.

I strongly recommend that you make a muslin for any new pattern. This simply means making a test garment from an inexpensive fabric, such as muslin. Historical costumes need to be very closely fitted, and are different in cut from those you may be used to. Make your mistakes on the cheap stuff!

Cut your muslin with extra wide seam allowances, at least 2" side seams and 1" everywhere else, so that you have room for adjustments. You don’t need to bother with facings or other finishing. If the garment has set in sleeves, be sure to put both sleeves in, as it can affect the fit.

For garments that need to take strain, such as boned bodices, cut your muslin out of something heavier, such as duck or canvas. Stitch temporary bone casings to it if needed.

  If you need to fit a laced garment, make a pair of "fitting strips". Use several layers of canvas, 1 1/2" wide, as long as your laced area. Insert large grommets and machine baste to the garment so that the grommets lie where the lacings holes should be on the finished garment. These can be used on the muslin or for fittings on the garment, and can be reused for years.

Fitting strips


Most theater costumes are made by making a muslin, marking all the seam lines on it, and fitting it, marking any changes. After the fitting, the muslin is used as the flat lining, and all the stitching lines are clearly marked without showing on the outside.

Flat lining is also called underlining. Flat lining allows you to mark the inside of the garment without its showing, to attach bone casings and other notions, and strengthens the garment. It is useful for changing an insubstantial fabric of the right color and pattern into one with the right drape and heaviness.

Piping is widely used as a costume construction or decoration technique, especially on stiff garments that need reinforcing. Depending on the period, it can be plain and unobtrusive, or it can be a decorative feature.

  flatlined bodice, with bone casings, piped bindings, and jumbo hooks and eyes

Piping must always be cut on the true bias. The cord that fills it can be cable cord, as sold in fabric stores, but other materials work well. If you want a very soft, small cord, knitting yarn works well. For a stiff cord, sash cord or synthetic twine can give a good effect.

To make and apply the cord, you need either a zipper foot or a special piping foot. Most sewing machines come with a zipper foot.

"Piped binding" is a common technique . The piping is made with seam allowances at least 3/4" wide. It is stitched onto the right side of the seam line as usual, but rather than being finished with a facing or full lining, the seam allowances of the garment only are trimmed and graded to 1/8". the piping seam allowances are then turned to the inside, turned under, and hand stitched to the flat lining. this gives a very clean, defined edge. the piping cord stabilizes the edge and keeps it from stretching, and the extra layer of a lining or facing is eliminated. Most stiff boned bodices and corsets are best constructed this way, as it eliminates the need for turning the garment.

Many garments fastened with rows of hooks and eyes. For women the hooks go on the right side, overlapping the eye portion, which is on the left. For men , the opposite is true. (the mnemonic for this is "Women are always Right on top: Men are just Left over") . For an opening that meets edge to edge, without overlapping, such as the front of a 16th century bodice, alternate the hooks and eyes. This will keep it from unfastening.

Unless your overlap is quite generous, you need the bar type eyes, not the loops. Unfortunately, these are becoming quite hard to find, and I sometimes resort to buttonholed bars (French tacks) instead. Hooks and eyes should be sewn on with heavy thread, using a buttonhole or blanket stitch.

Commercial hook and eye tape can be purchased, but it is difficult to apply it without machine stitching showing.


Period buttonholes were, of course, worked by hand. This is a skill worth mastering, as hand buttonholes look very different from machined ones.

Gauging, or cartridge pleating, was common method of attaching a very full skirt to a bodice or waistband, or sleeves to armholes. For an excellent tutorial on cartridge pleats, see________

Laced fastenings were used from very early times, however, metal grommets were not invented until the 19th century. Before that time, lacing holes were made by piercing a hole in the fabric, and overcastting the edges. Sometimes this was done over a metal ring for extra strength. If you do this, use a plain overcast stitch, not a blanket stitch, which will wear out quickly. You may want to soak the stitching in Fray-check when you’re done for extra strength.


If you decide to use grommets, be sure you have enough thicknesses of fabric between the two parts. Add a strip of heavy canvas if you’re not sure. If your top layer of fabric ravels or is flimsy, back it with a strip of fusible interfacing first.

Cut the smallest hole through which you can force the grommet. Despite all of these efforts, grommets often pull out, or the fabric ravels away from them. at this point, you can give up and overcast the grommets with thread, which will look much more period.

grommets overcast with embroidery floss


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