Sewing skirts, especially prairie skirts with three or more levels of gathers is one of my favorite sewing projects. The Bernina #16 foot makes these skirts a breeze. If you don’t have a Bernina machine, gathering feet are made for Brother, Singer, Elna, and other sewing machines, too.
When I first learned to sew , I was taught to run a basting stitch along the edge of the fabric that needed to be gathered, then ease the fabric by gathering it on the basting thread.
This is not difficult, but for something like a prairie skirt, it takes hours. With the gathering foot, I can do this one of two ways.
- To gather only one layer of fabric, I can stitch 1/4″ from the fabric edge. The amount of gather depends on the length of the stitch. If the gathering is not full enough, I can run it through the machine a second or third time, depending on the weight of the fabric.
- Or, I can gather and stitch at the same time by running one layer of fabric, the one not to be gathered, through the center fold of the foot, and the one to be gathered underneath the foot.
The amount of gather depends on the length of the stitch. The video below will explain how to regulate the gathers. This foot is also great for creating shirring in a garment or throw pillow, as well as gathering tiers when sewing skirts.
Prairie Fashion Style Skirts
Prairie fashion style skirts are skirts with layers of deep ruffles, reminiscent of the homemade skirts worn by women in the 1800’s. Ralph Lauren brought them back into style in the late 1900’s. In Lauren’s rendition, the prairie skirt was usually worn over an eyelet lace petticoat that peeked from beneath the bottom edge of the skirt.
Prairie Skirt Tutorial
To make a prairie skirt using the Bernina number 16 gathering foot, cut one rectangle the width of your hips plus twelve inches by 1/3 yard. Brother and Singer also have gathering feet for their sewing machines. Each subsequent row of fabric needs to be two or three times the width of the one preceding it, so you may have to piece some rows. Usually, I start with the measurement for the hips, then cut the fabric to make the second row two full widths of fabric (36″ to 45″) by 1/3 yard. The third row will be three full widths of fabric by 1/3 yard.
Sew the two fabric strips for the second row end to end (only on one side). Sew the three strips of fabric for the third row end to end, but do not connect into a circle. Iron the seams open. I know this is a pain, but it really is important. An alternative to ironing the seams open is to use a serger to finish the seam.
Using the gathering foot, sew along one long edge of each of the second and third rows. Using the regular presser foot (I use Bernina number 20), sew the gathered edge of the third row to the un-gathered edge of the second row. One row may be longer than the other when they are sewn together. This happens due to the amount of gathers in the gathering stage. More gathers reduces the width of the strip. Don’t worry about this. It will be corrected later.
After all the gathering is completed, carefully arrange the sewn fabric and adjust the fabric so that the bottom of the gathered section is lined up with the exact top of the same section, then trim the excess off of each row. Sew the trimmed ends together. Now you should have a gathered tube of fabric.
At the top, turn the fabric under 1/4 inch and sew down. Turn it another 1 1/2 inch and sew to make a casing for the elastic. Do not sew shut: leave an opening to insert the elastic. Measure elastic to fit your waist plus 2″. Cut the elastic and thread it through the casing. Stitch the ends of the elastic together, and sew shut the opening.
Cut another piece of fabric 1/8 yard wide the width of the bottom layer of the skirt. Do not gather this layer. Be sure to trim this to be the same width as the bottom of the bottom tier. Sew it together into a loop. With right sides facing, sew this layer to the bottom layer of the skirt. Press all gathered seams up toward the top of the skirt.
Press the un-gathered seam at the bottom down toward the bottom of the skirt. Instead of sewing a skirt hem, on the last attached fabric strip, fold under the edge of the fabric 1/2″ and press. Pin this to the seam above the edge, capturing the bottom seam inside. This will help prevent ravels on this seam. This seam can be hand sewn or stitched on the machine. I prefer to machine stitch it, since it would take forever to hand stitch around the full width of the skirt.
To prevent raveling, from the top side of the skirt, topstitch each gathered seam 1/4″ from the seam using a straight seam and taking care to catch the seam. If you prefer, you can use the embroidery stitches on your machine to embroider instead of using the straight seam, as was done in the image here.
Be aware that it takes at least twice as long to use an embroidery stitch as a straight stitch. Also, you will have to go slow enough not to deform your embroidery stitch.
I usually make this skirt in cotton. The only part I ever iron is the very bottom row. The weight of the skirt will pull the rest of the wrinkles out. Also, this is a good skirt to pleat broomstick style. Depending on the fabric used, this skirt can be dressed up or down.
Prairie Style Lace Petticoats
If you need prairie style lace petticoats, you can use the instructions above. You might want to decrease the width of the tiers, since it will be worn beneath another skirt. You can either make it with white cotton fabric embellished with eyelet lace, or you can purchase eyelet lace fabric, which should also be embellished, at least at the bottom, with a band of gathered eyelet lace.
Though not required, wearing a lace petticoat beneath a prairie skirt gives the prairie skirt more body, and helps it to hang better. And white lace peeking from beneath your skirt occasionally is a charming addition to your skirt or costume.
The video below will show you how to use the Bernina No. 16 gathering foot.
More Great Prairie Styles
For more great prairie fashions and styles, Modern Prairie Sewing: 20 Handmade Projects for You & Your Friends has 20 projects that not only look great, they help increase your sewing skill by introducing gussets, box pleats, and more!
Sewing skirts is particularly fun when you are sewing a long skirt style such as a tiered prairie skirt. Please let me know if you use these instructions to make your own skirt.