How to Draft Circle Skirt Patterns
This morning, a reader posted a question to my Facebook Page (Costuming):
"Hi! Skate dress question for you... in the book you illustrate beautifully several options for skirts but don’t go into circle skirts much... unless I missed it. Any suggestions regarding figuring out sizing and how to cut them out?"
I started replying in a comment. After a while, I decided that a wall of text wasn't going to cut it - this requires photos. So, here we are!
Before I get started, a bit of a disclaimer: This tutorial is going to be for a quick and dirty way to do it, with the most basic equipment possible. Just paper, a ruler, and a pen/marker is all you really NEED to draft a circle skirt. Much like most things with sewing - and life, I guess - there are optional items you could buy, that will make you life easier. After the base tutorial, I'll discuss a few of them. Again - TOTALLY not necessary, just nice. If you're going to be doing a lot of costuming, they will be items well worth the investment.
On that note, another disclaimer:
This site is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for the site to earn fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites. While I'll only ever link to items that I, personally, wholeheartedly recommend, I do need to put that disclosure out there!
Anyway, let's get to the tutorial!
Before starting the drafting, you need to know:
- The hip circumference (which will be the actual hip measurement of the human, not the pattern (Use hip rather than waist, to allow the wearer to pull it on over the hips)
- How much gathering you want at the waist line of the skirt.
- Desired length of skirt at sides, front, and back (from the waist seam, not the actual waist).
When it comes to supplies, you will need:
Paper - I like wide craft packing paper (office supply stores), or rosin paper (home improvement stores).
A pen or marker
To Draft The pattern
Multiply the hip measurement by whatever factor you want for the gathering. For instance, if you want the gathering to be such that you have twice the fabric as the actual hip, multiply by 2. For 50% more fullness than if actual hip size, multiply by 1.5, etc etc.
Then, take that number and divide that by 3.14 - that gives you your diameter. Divide by 2, there's your radius. As you're not likely to end up with a number that's nice to work with, feel free to round up to the nearest 1/4". For the sake of example, let's say you end up with something that ends up becoming 5", after rounding.
Then, take a large sheet of whatever paper you'll use to pattern - I tend to use really wide craft paper - and decide if you want to pattern with side seams (half circle) or not (full circle).
For a Half Circle Pattern
Fold the paper in half. The fold is your center line, either front or back - you'll do this one for each.
You're likely going to need to square one edge, from that fold, to work on. To do so, draw a line that is 90 degrees from the fold, as pictured. While I like to use a square rule for this - as pictured - you can always use a squared edge of something else to get that line started - even a piece of paper:
Once you have the line drawn, cut through both layers of paper, trimming the raw edge off the end. This new raw edge will become your side seam:
Measure out the radius measurement (5", in this example) from the point of the fold, to both the folded edge and the raw edge:
You can measure out further points in between, as well - can temporarily fold the folded edge to meet the raw edge, unfold, and use that line as another guide to measure along. For the side with the two raw edges, I find it best to fold each layer in to the center, individually.
Connect all the dots in a smooth curve, this is now your waist line:
Then, starting at the curve you drew, measure out from that circle and mark the side seam length along the raw edge, and the center front or back measurement along the fold:
If these are the same, you can do the same as you did for the waist line - fold it in half one or more times, use the lines as guide on where to measure - always out from the waist line, not the folded center point.
If you're doing a longer center measurement, you can do all the folds, but there will be more math involved.
For the fold that connected the center fold to the side seams - that is, the line halfway between the fold and the raw edges - mark a measurement that is halfway between the side and center measurements. So, if your side seam is 10 and your center is 15, this would be 12.5* Whatever number you come up with, mark that number next to the mark for the measurement, to keep track.
Then, mark other halfway points the same way. The fold line halfway between that first halfway point and the raw side edge will be the difference between those numbers - so in this case, 11.25. The one between the drawn midpoint and the folded center would be 13.75 in this example, etc.
When you've got that all sorted, connect the marks with a smooth curve:
Carefully cut the pattern out - through both layers of paper - and that's a half circle pattern.
Repeat the process for the other half circle pattern needed, if that center measurement is different.
For a Full Circle Pattern:
Two ways you can do it, and which you pick will depend on the width of the paper you’re working with, and the length of the skirt you’re drafting.
1. Do the above directions, for both front and back. Mark “front” and “back”, tape them together.
This works best if you’re going to be doing a dance length dress, or if your paper isn’t wide enough to accommodate whatever you are doing. Also, this is the easier option if you’re dealing with center front and center back that are different measurements, IMHO.
2. If your paper is plenty wide to accommodate, you can do it all as one piece.
Start by folding the paper in half, long edge to long edge. This will be your center line, front and back. You can mark it as such - to keep track - if you like. Then, fold the fold over itself, dividing the paper in half again. This will form your side lines. Again, feel free to mark them at this point.
As pictured below, the edge closest to the bottom of the image is folded, and the fold extending up from it is the side line:
At this point, feel free to make as many interim -m and equal - folds as you’d like. The longer the skirt seam, the more folds will be helpful (as the distance between marks gets further in between, the further out you go from the center point.) Whatever you're folding should be in half, and if there's anything corresponding to that area that hasn't been folded in half, it should be.
The goal is to end up with equally spaced lines. If you appear to be missing any, make whatever fold needed to add it in.
Once you’ve folded as many times as you’d like, unfold til you’re back to that very first fold. Have that center line fold laid out in front of you, across your work surface. Decide which side (out from the center point) will be the front of the skirt, and which will be the back - this is really only necessary if you have measurements that differ - and mark them as such.
Start by marking your radius measurement out from that center point, along the fold lines.
Connect them all with a smooth curved line. This is now your waistline:
From there, measure your center front measurement out towards the front side of the paper, on that part of the drawn waist line. Measure the center front back out from what will be the center back waist. Then, measure the side measurement from the point of the waist line centered between the other two folds, out from there (ie: directly out in front of you.)
Now, if this is an actual circle of a circle skirt - ie: side, center front, and center back measurements are all the same - you can go ahead and measure that distance out from the waist line, along all the folds. Connect all the marks with a nice smooth line.
If your circle skirt has different measurements for side and center front / center back:
For the fold line that is exactly halfway between the center fold and the side line, mark a measurement that is halfway between the side and center front measurements. So, if your side seam is 10" and your center front 15"*, this would be 12.5". Whatever number you come up with, mark that number next to the mark for the measurement, to keep track.
Then, mark other halfway points on THAT part of the skirt (between side line and the same way. The fold line halfway between that first halfway point and the side line will be the difference between those numbers - so in this case, 11.25". The one between the drawn midpoint and the folded center would be 13.75" in this example, etc:
Each time you are finding the halfway point between numbers, make sure you’re marking that distance on the fold line that is halfway between the two lines that provided the measurements you’re averaging from.
Once you’re done filling in all the lines on the front quarter of the dress pattern (The front half of the pattern, as you see it), repeat for the back half.
Connect all the points with a smooth, curved line, then carefully cut the pattern out, through both layers of paper.
* These measurements are random and - for most dresses - completely nonsensical. I just wanted to use nice, easy numbers to math with, it's early in the morning 🙂
Important Note on Cutting the Fabric:
Whether or not you’re doing different measurements for the centers / sides, you’ll want to know where those points fall, when you cut the fabric.
If it’s all the same length - sides, center front, center back - you can mark the center points and the side points of the cut fabric with pins - this will be at the waistline, as the hem doesn't really need to be divided/marked out**. This will help you evenly distribute the fullness when attaching your skirt.
If you have different lengths, you’ll make your life a lot easier if you not only mark the points with pins, but also label them. I like to keep painters tape on hand for this, marking “center front”, “center back”, “side”, and “side” right next to the pins, as soon as the fabric is cut.
This is especially important when working with slithery, annoying fabrics like chiffon.
** Unless you need center/side points of the hem marked for a design element you're adding to the skirt, such as applique. In that case, I recommend marking the points on the hem with TAPE, not pins. Pins are far more likely to come out, when you're dealing with the fullness of the hem edge fabric!
Hope this helps!
Additional Product Recommendations
So, as I stated at the start, there are some products that make you life easier, or just make pattern drafting a bit easier / cleaner / more fun.
You can go small with this - for convenience and/or budget - or larger. Larger is great for when you're dealing with dance length skirts. Here are two great examples of the type I like - the first is smaller (usually for leather work and such), the second is bigger, and usually used for home improvement projects.
Flexible Curve Ruler
This item is usually used by engineers, but it's GREAT for the sewing room. I have two sizes, a short one (about 12"), and a longer one (about 36"). You can bend and curve these to come up with a nice, rounded edge to join the points, then use it to trace that line. It's a lot nicer than connecting the points manually, and allows not only for doing so with fewer interim points, but to do more abstract joins. Want to scallop the edges, but still follow the averaged curve? This is the toy for you!
Listing from shortest to longest:
This is more for general pattern making - especially applique design - but I figure I'll mention it here, while I'm thinking of it. I am personally not great at freehand drawing curves, so these are great to work with. These come in sets of various styles, but basically similar.
To be honest, I usually just buy based on aesthetic - I personally like transparent, and lean towards blue or green. Here are a few different sets. The last one is a bit different, as a smaller version of some of the fashion curve rules I use. I have one of that type of set, and one like the first 5 examples shown:
So this again is something not as applicable to circle skirts specifically, but very topical - also, the sets usually have a bit of overlap with some of the above items, so it's good to buy them together to avoid double purchasing something you don't necessarily need multiples of.
Full disclosure: The set I use is an expensive, aluminum set that I bought a couple decades ago - and I have no idea where from. It looks a lot like the last example listed here. So, these are very similar, but not *exactly* what I use. If anything ever happens to my aluminum set, I'll be buying one of these as replacements! I'm hard on my tools sometimes, so I'd be going for aluminum again - but I get a ton of use out of them, and - like I said - they've already lasted me a couple of decades at this point. If you're a home user - rather than a business- I think the plastic would be a great budget option!
Rotary Tape Compass
This one is a bit more of an investment - and a single purpose item - so I really only recommend it if you're doing a LOT of circle skirts that are actual circles. You'd set the first measurement to the radius of the hips, then the bigger measurement would be the radius of the hips PLUS the measurement of the skirt from the waist line - you'd be measuring both of the lengths out from the same point, so it's important to add that hip radius to the length measurement, when using this tool / method.
I think that's it! I hope the tutorial and tool recommendations help you out!
Also, if you have any requests for future tutorials, feel free to leave a comment below!
Interested in learning more about sewing for figure skaters? Check out my book "Spandex Simplified: Sewing for Skaters"! In it, you'll learn everything you need to know about designing and creating spectacular and durable figure skating dresses.
This book is appropriate for beginner to advanced levels of sewing ability, and is written from both a designer, and former figure skater’s point of view. It will teach everything from the basics, to tricks of the trade. "Spandex Simplified : Sewing for Skaters" will prepare the reader to design and make almost any design of practice or competition dress imaginable.
Given the cost of decent competition suits - or even practice dresses! - this manual will more than pay for itself with the savings from just one project!
The entire book is written completely in laymans' terms and carefully explained, step by step. Only basic sewing knowledge and talent is required. Learn everything from measuring, to easily creating ornate applique designs, to embellishing the finished suit in one book! For a complete table of contents, more information, or to order, click here.