History of the Quilted Skirt

If necessity is the mother of all inventions… then figuring out how to stay warm is as good a catalyst as any. Our ancient ancestors created a simple yet highly effective technology that kept people warm, and enabled them to migrate to otherwise uninhabitable corners of the globe. Our ancestors figured out that sandwiching lofty natural fibers, such as wool or cotton, between two layers of cloth, then stitching the layers together, would create a highly insulating fabric known as quilting.

Generally, we associate quilting with the cozy bed coverings that our grandmothers made, but not necessarily with clothing. There is evidence that quilted fabric was actually worn in China and Europe as far back as we have been able to trace. Quilted petticoats and skirts, as it turns out, have played an important part in fashion history, providing much needed warmth along the way.

Folkwear's cozy and beautiful 206 Quilted Prairie Skirt is the link to the old ways of designing warm clothes while providing ways to make modern versions of this classic.  We hope you will find inspiration in this blog to make a version that is all your own. Be sure to check out all the additional historical information and tips provided with the pattern.

Photo of Molly in Folkwear 206 Quilted Prairie Skirt w Mnt background
Molly in her lovely quilted skirt.

 

You do not have to be a master quilter to enjoy making this skirt. The quilting can be done by hand or using a sewing machine, or a combination of both. Or use a pre-quilted fabric like the skirt featured and modeled above. Folkwear’s very own Molly made her skirt out of a jacquard fabric (pre-quilted look) from Merchant & Mills!

The design you choose can come from your own creativity, inspired by traditional quilting, or somewhere in-between. Use a fine fabric like silk or velvet, for a fancy evening out. Or make an everyday quilted skirt out of wool, cotton, flannel, denim, fleece, or linen for any activity made better when encased in your very own wearable quilt. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

white quilted skirt - close up on the quilting
Folkwear's 206 Quilted Skirt sample, close up on on quilting design included in the pattern.

 

Let's learn more about the history that inspired the 206 Quilted Skirt pattern and why this garment was so popular for so long!  And, we hope you will make your own version and enjoy a truly personal statement piece that will add warmth to any wardrobe.

 

'The birthday cake' by the 19th century German genre painter Pancraz Körle.  1875
'The birthday cake' by the 19th century German genre painter Pancraz Körle.
1875

 

The history of quilted petticoats or skirts can be traced to at least 1644 in Europe. It is possible these garments were worn a early as 1530. This period saw the advent of an extremely important innovation in clothing. For the first time since the Minoan culture of Crete some three thousand years previous, long gowns with voluminous bell skirts, shaped by bulky petticoats became popular in Europe. This popular new skirt design was split from the waist to hem, displaying the lavish pleated petticoat underneath. This split created a long upside-down “V”, a mirror image of the “V” shaped neckline.

This Renaissance split-skirt fashion persisted until about 1630, when women were still exhibiting their magnificent undergowns by holding up their long skirts while walking. After 1670, skirts became even more full and reached to the ground, splitting again in the front to reveal richly worked petticoats underneath, which, according to the famous English diarist, Samuel Pepys, was often the most ornate and expensive item of the dress. Elaborate methods were used to hold back the overskirt to make the most of the precious petticoat; a particularly ornate procedure was to bunch up the overskirt like a bustle and fasten it in place with a ribbon attached to the shoulder of the bodice.

Detail from the portrait of Mr and Mrs Atherton by Arthur Devis c.1743. Walker Art Gallery
Detail from the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Atherton by Arthur Devis c.1743. Walker Art Gallery

 

These petticoats were made of three layers; a bottom and top layer, with batting made of wool, cotton, or linen sandwiched in the middle, the layers were then stitched together resulting in a quilted effect. Petticoats were worn not only for layering warmth but to create a desired shape and structure to the skirts worn over them. Batting or wadding as it was also called, often did not extend up the entire length of the petticoat, leaving the waistband free of extra bulk. All kinds of extra padding were used during this era to enhance the natural body form, depending on the desired effect and style of the day. Quilted petticoats served through the addition of extra padding and a top layer that smoothed out and concealed any combination and variety of hoops, panniers, bum rolls, etc., hidden underneath.

Caraco jacket in printed cotton, 1770-1790, skirt in quilted silk satin, 1750-1790

Caraco jacket in printed cotton, 1770-1790, skirt in quilted silk satin, 1750-1790

During this time, fashion changed in incremental steps, which in this case, helped to ensure the petticoat to remain as popular as ever throughout Europe. However, it would be in eighteenth century England, that the quilted petticoat hit it’s peak in popularity. It seemed just about every lady was wearing one! This was in part due to the cold damp weather of the British isles and the availability of a broadening range of fabrics made possible by the expanding trade industry. These fabrics included cotton, linen, silk, and wool. Hence, the quilted petticoat would become synonymous with the Georgian Era. This popularity extended to France and America as well.

During the Georgian Era, a change occurred in fashion that brought petticoats out of hiding and to the visible foreground. Petticoats were now worn as the outer most layer, often with many separate crinoline layers made of cotton or linen underneath. This quilted petticoat design was typically tied at either side of the waistband, with gaps in the side seams that allowed for easy access to a pair of pockets worn underneath. Learn about the History of the Pocket here. This visible quilted petticoat was so popular that it translated to all segments of society, from nobility to laborers.

Well-to-do ladies wore their gowns open at the front, not unlike a stage curtain that revealed and showed off the highly prized, elaborately stitched, decorative statement piece underneath. This staging or framing showed off the petticoat typically in a contrasting or matching colored fabric made or silk or satin. Fabrics made of vivid and highly saturated colors in red, pink, blue, green, and yellow were highly fashionable. Shades of white, silver, and gold fabrics were very popular as well.

Blue silk petticoat
Pink silk petticoat

 

The hand stitching used could vary greatly to create patterns and designs that ranged from simple to elaborate. Geometric patterns such as stripes, and diamonds were common. More realistic motifs such as florals, animals, swirly flourishes, even scenes and landscapes were popular, as well. Usually the most elaborate and detailed stitching work was centered at the front of the petticoat where it was the most visible. The amount of details on the remainder of the skirt would vary depending on how much of the petticoat was visible due to the drape of the curtaining fabric used to set it off. The more elaborate stitches and quilting designs were very much an indication of wealth and status. Fine and elaborate petticoats could take months if not years to to make, therefore an extravagance only the wealthy could afford. Even among the rich a used petticoat was a welcomed and prized gift.

The outer most display of the petticoat may have been the focal point of the outfit and an indicator of the status of the wearer, however the underneath or backing was not an overlooked afterthought. Just because the underneath side of the petticoat or skirt was not seen, did not mean it was denied creative consideration. 

Granted the underneath or backing material of petticoats was not as elaborate as the featured side, even for the wealthy. This was in part due to a modest nod towards economics and practicality for those with more than enough means. The underneath side was not seen, so cheaper fabrics like sturdy linen or calico cotton were used. The underneath sides of historical petticoats often demonstrate how more common fabrics were combined to express whimsy, sophisticated color and texture combinations, while providing a possible insight into the individuality of the maker or wearer -- no matter their economic status.

Because women had little opportunity to express themselves creatively as individuals and had very little true privacy, their clothing became an outlet of individual expression and control. Throughout history, we often find hidden elements left behind in women’s garments that reveal a secret peek into the personalities of the individual who wore them.

The wealthy women who wore these beautiful garments and the poorer women who made them, lived lives on polar ends of the social and economic spectrum. While some wealthy women crafted beautiful hand work and sometimes made their own petticoats, this was generally work relegated to the poor. It was not only the fine fabrics their gowns were made of, or the degree of detail and artistry in which they were stitched, that separated the classes. Petticoats had a way of revealing the story of the haves and have nots.

etching of woman wearing quilted petticoat working in fieldA romanticized depiction of field work.

Makers of these fine garments were paid a pittance for their talents and labor. It was not a lucrative way to earn a living by any means. It took copious amounts of time to create such works of art and the rewards were barely enough to survive on. The poor women who created such stunning beauty for others to show off, were not only denied a fair wage for their efforts, but denied the ability to indulge themselves in their own talents.

Poor women made many fewer and simpler versions of petticoats for themselves and their families. These petticoats were made of everyday durable fabrics, like calico cotton, wool, and rough hewn linen. Their petticoats were much more practical to fit their lifestyles. Figure shaping under paddings encumbered and restricted the movement of women who worked and labored. The extra expense of such unnecessary items were not a priority to the poor. Therefore, petticoats were worn more simply and plainly, due to the need for practicality and warmth. Aprons generally tied or looped at the waist, replaced the fancier framing fabric counterparts of wealthy women's outfits.

 

Metropolitan Museum; 1850 American; Silk and Cotton
Metropolitan Museum; 1850 American; Silk and Cotton
Metropolitan Museum; British Petticoat
Metropolitan Museum; British Petticoat
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Underneath petticoat Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Underneath of above petticoat.

 

Poor women may have not been able to afford the fabrics they would have chosen, but that did not keep them from paying attention to the aesthetic of the days fashions. Just like their wealthy counterparts, poor women were interested in fashion and took pride in displaying their knowledge of current fashions the best they could. They used the best fabrics they could acquire for the outer layer of their petticoats and they economized for the underneath layer, often creating charming and sophisticated displays of artistic talent. Often these petticoats were made of a miss-match of what ever fabric they had on hand or could be traded with other women. This did not mean these women lacked in displaying a sophisticated design sense. Besides needing fabric that could withstand the rigors of physical labor, they simply did not have the luxury of extra hours to spend on their own clothes. Their stitching was much simpler and less of it, because of the time required to do more. Simply stitched channels were often the extent of any quilted details. Despite having to make do with what they had or could afford, these women still managed to make petticoats worthy of admiration.

Even though quilted petticoats were hugely popular among almost all women of the period there was a harsh distinction none-the-less. Women of polarizing economics may have been bound by a desire to partake in fashion on whatever level they could afford. However, their common bond may have only been a shared warmth provided by their quilted petticoats, but little else.

Eventually this practical fashion made it's way to the "new" world, where women on the cold prairies wore these skirts - and where Folkwear got the inspiration and samples for our pattern.   

Clothing has always held more meaning for women that just protecting one’s body from the elements. Even when women have been denied beauty due to their economies, they have found ways to create their own. I hope you find inspiration in making something beautiful for yourself or someone else and continue to forge the bond that unites those who appreciate what it takes to make something from nothing.

The Folkwear 206 Quilted Prairie Skirt Pattern is the perfect canvas in which to celebrate your own creativity and at the same time recapture a bit the spirits of our ancestors. As always we look forward to seeing what you have been inspired to create!

Photo of Molly back of Folkwear 206 Quilted Prairie Skirt