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Bernina 830 and a Renaissance Petal Skirt

It’s getting close to Renaissance Festival time here in Houston (Texas Renaissance Fest starts pretty soon!) — and we’re hard at work building new costumes.

I’ve been going as a working class Cheesemaker — while my wife has been a standard Wench. We’ve made her Wench skirts from long rectangles of fabric — maybe three to four yards — with an elastic waistband. That means the hem of the skirt is fluffy and swirls wonderfully — but it also means the waist and hips are pretty crowded with the same length of fabric all bunched together.

This year, we decided we’d try a petal skirt. The idea of a petal skirt is that the waist will be much shorter, while the hem can still be long and swirly. Furthermore, the shape of the petals forces the skirt to curve over the hips. Plus, we can use petals of different colors for effect — something we’ve always done by layering skirts of different colors or by tieing multi-colored sashes to the waist.

Here’s a finished sample of a petal skirt. This isn’t the one my wife will wear — the colors don’t match her bodice — but I wanted to knock one together to figure out how to make it. Hobby Lobby had a sale on calico cotton solids, so why not?


You build a petal skirt by cutting a number of petals. I chose to use four different colors of fabric — that means I can use four petals, eight petals, 12 petals, or 16 petals to make the skirt.

First, I figured out how wide I wanted the waist to be. I wanted to keep it large enough to fit over the hips — so that suggests a waist of about 40 inches (her hips aren’t that big, but I wanted to have some slack!)

If I use four petals, that would mean a petal top width of 10 inches — way too wide, plus only four colors is dull.

Eight petals suggests a top width of 5 inches — that would work. Twelve petals would have a top width of about three and a half inches. Not too much difference from eight, plus I like the color effect of twelve petals.

I decided to use a top width of 4 inches — at worst that’ll make the waist around 48 inches — and it’ll bunch with my elastic waistband. Sounds large, but still much less than my old 100 inch rectangular skirts! Also, I could experiment with only 8 petals — a 36 inch waist would also work, but I couldn’t visualize how 8 petals would look. I’d cut for 12 petals, but perhaps use only 8.

Next, I needed to know the widest part of the skirt. If I have 12 petals, a 12 inch width would give me a width of 144 inches — plenty enough! Ten inches would probably work as well. However, if I decide to use 8 petals, then a 10 inch width would only be 80 inches — perhaps not enough to swirl right? I’ll cut it 12 inches wide — that’ll give me 96 inches if I only use 8 petals.

(Note: I’m ignoring seam allowances in these calculations — this is an experimental cut and I just want to get it close.)

Here’s what a basic petal will look like — about 4 inches wide at the top, continuing down for a few inches, then a gentle “bell like” curve to reach the 12 inch maximum width. It then drops back to the center line in a straight diagonal cut. I could have curved this, but thought it would be too big a pain to hem (I hate hemming curves).

You can tell from my Paint drawing above that I can’t draw. Here’s what my freehand cut-out petal pattern looks like.

I used a sheet of newspaper for the pattern. I folded it in half, from top left corner to bottom right corner. This gave me my petal length (real scientific, right?) I then cut a straight top two inches long (since it’s folded, it’ll be 4 inches when I unfold it), then marked a point six inches from the fold line about six inches from the bottom of the fold. I cut a diagonal line from the bottom to this six inch point, then freehand cut a curved line leading up to the two inch straight cut.

Unfolded, it looks kind of like a really wide necktie!

I bought a yard and a half of fabric in four different colors. I folded each color so that three layers would fit under the pattern. I then stacked three of the colors on top of each other, then placed the pattern on top. I could have stacked all four colors, but I had cut one color first just to check things out.

I used a rotary cutter, so cutting the nine layer stack was like a hot knife through butter. Since the fabric was stacked, all the pieces were identical.

At least, that’s what should have happened. What I mistakenly did was cut the fabric so that a selvage end ran across the top. I felt this would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about finishing the waist. However, this meant I had to line up the tops of all the stacks perfectly — which of course didn’t happen. To top it off, one of the fabric’s didn’t have a selvage end (how did that happen?) so I had to finish the tops anyway!

In hindsight, I should have arranged the pattern so that I cut around all four sides, not only three sides. That would have ensured all petals would be the same length.

It turned out that only one petal color was a tiny bit longer than the others, so I didn’t worry about it.

And here are four cut-out petals!

My plan is to assemble the petals four at a time into panels I’ll end up with three panels of four petals each. Then I can experiment with joining either two panels or three panels to make an eight petal or a twelve petal skirt.

I set all the petals off to the side, then pulled one petal of each color. Time to start thinking seriously about the color arrangement — I want to have all four panels be identical (as far as red-black-green-yellow)

I decided to serge the curved portion of each petal. I normally would use French Seams, but for no particular reason decided to serge things instead. It might have been the thought of doing 24 lines of curved French seams that led me in that direction. It only took three or four minutes to serge all 12 petals — would have been considerably longer French seamming!

And here’s a serged petal! Note I used a drastically contrasting color for the serger thread! No reason other than this was what was in my serger — I figure you’re not going to see the serger thread anyway, so why try to match things up. I normally have a grey or black thread loaded — don’t know what I was thinking when I loaded it up with red thread!

You can also see the curve of the petal sides a little better here. Note that I didn’t serge the diagonal at the bottom of the petal. No real reason why not to — I’m planning on a folded hem, but could have serged and then folded it. In hindsight, that would have been a little quicker, but I’m not real good at folding a hem over twice. It took me a little longer to do it that way than if I would have serged it, then folded once.

What might have looked even better would have been to serge the diagonals in a multi-color thread and just leave it unhemmed.

Anyway, I didn’t do that — maybe next time. I did a simple double-fold hem for the diagonals (fold over 1/4 inch, then fold over again, then sew). Since I was hemming a diagonal, that meant corners sometimes stuck out a bit when folding them over. I just trimmed off the excess when I needed to.

This meant the point of the diagonal was kind of bulky at times — hem one side and it’s only three layers of fabric. Hem the other side, and it’s now six layers of fabric at the point — unless you fold things over to make the point match up, then you may have as many as 12 layers of fabric.

This isn’t a problem for the Bernina — except that I found it worked best when the thick point was the last part to flow under the foot, not the first part. In other words, it worked better when the feed dogs pulled the thick piece through rather than trying to push it through.

Once I figured this out (took a couple of petals to do so — I’m a slow learner!), I just took care to fold the hems so that I’d start sewing from the side to the point on the second hem.

CAUTION!!! At this point, your petals now have a wrong side and a right side!!! The wrong side is where the diagonal hems are folded under. Take note of this when you’re matching the petals together to make a panel! (Yes, I learned this the hard way!)

Once you’ve hemmed all the petals, you’re ready to join them together. Double-Triple-Quadruple check your color pattern (I’m using Black, Red, Green, Yellow) and begin by joining right sides together!

That means the folded part of the hem will be on the inside of the skirt, the flat portion will be on the outside.

I admit I pinned everything together. I was on a Margaret Islander phase for a while when I didn’t pin anything. Everything I made came out almost right — I found that the time I saved on not pinning was spent fixing messups. The Islander scheme works — I’m just not good or patient enough right now for it!

I set the pins and planned to use a 1/4 seam allowance — I figured this would be like joining quilt panels together. I ended out using about a 1/2 seam allowance — just was a little easier to keep my seams straight.

Once you’ve pinned the first two petals, open them and attach the succeeding colors, one at a time. Remember to check your color arrangement, and remember to double-check your right side/wrong side. I ended out having to rip and resew after I sewed on petal in the wrong way!


Just to make extra-extra sure, flip the panel over and check your color order from the right side. Yep, it’s Black-Red-Green-Yellow!

Note that since I’m using four colors, it’s affected my math when computing my petal size. If I was only using three colors, then my panels would contain only three petals. That would mean I’d have a three panel, a six panel, a nine panel, a twelve panel, or maybe a fifteen panel skirt. You’ll figure out your petal maximums and minimums the same way — look for a workable waist size and a decent widest skirt part size. The wide part should be at least 100 inches or so — the waist size should fit over your hips, but could be at least 12 to 20 inches larger if need be.

Time to sew the petals — try to keep your seams parallel to the curved sides of the petal. This was easy for me because of the serging — I just kept my sewing foot butted up against the serge line.

Sew from the “top” (the narrow part) of the petal down to where the diagonal begins. Do NOT sew down the diagonal — we don’t want to join that part of the petals!

Once you’ve joined the first petal, go on and do the others. Again, try to keep your seam lines consistent; that’ll help things swirl symmetrically.

I’m using a contrasting color thread in the Bernina. It helps the seam lines show up in the photographs, plus (except for the seam line) it’s not going to show anyway.

I used to be real anal about matching thread and fabric. That’s pretty much impossible with different color petals! If it really bothers you, try for a thread color that compliments the different colored panels.

Or … just don’t worry about it!

Here’s a completed panel from the right side!

Note how the petals poof out a bit along the sides — they don’t want to lay flat. That’s because of the curve we cut — this’ll help the skirt flow over the hips.

You can skip this step — but since I’m not going to finish my serged seams any further, I decided to press them open. Since these seams are curved, you’ll need some sort of ham or a rolled towel to iron over.

You can see the length mismatch with my red petal! Next time, I’m going to cut along the short top side to ensure the lengths are identical!

Press the seams open along all four petals.

This is actually the first time I’ve had a chance to use my Tailor’s Ham. That probably helps explain why so many of my projects end out kind of mediocre!

Once you’ve reached this point, you’ve completed one panel. Go ahead and do the same thing for the remaining petals, but don’t join the panels together yet. You’ll end up with three panels consisting of four petals each.

And . . . if you’ve double-triple-quadruple checked — all three panels have the same color order AND all the hems face the same way!

Now that I’ve finished three panels, I’ve pinned them together and set them on Lulu (my wife’s dress form) to get an idea how they look. I wish Lulu could twirl — I don’t have a feel for whether to use two or three panels.

Later when my most reluctant model (my 16 year old daughter) gets home from school, I’ll prevail on her to model them. I can hear her groaning now.

Note that you can see where I’ve serged along the waist of the garment. Like I said earlier, I had planned to leave this unfinished because I figured it would be all selvage lines — but somehow one of my colors just didn’t have a selvage. So … I ran the top of each panel through the serger.

At this point, I could fold over the waistband to make a casing for a piece of elastic. Or, I could make a button hole, fold the waistband over for a casing, and insert a cord for a tie. Since it’s multi-colored, you could make a good case for folding over a casing. I decided I wanted to make a contrasting color waistband, though.

If you wanted to use a fold-over casing, you might want to add an inch or two to the top of each petal. Keep the width the same (four inches here) for the length of this extra length.

(a little later) Okay, daughter got home — surprisingly, she didn’t grouse or grump over modelling! Will wonders never cease? Anyway, she did the twirl thing and … three panels is definately better than two panels. So … it’ll be a 12 petal skirt after all!

Since I’m using all three panels, first thing I do is sew the three panels together. Remember, match right sides and be careful about the color order!