‘Petticoat’ was the generic 17th Century term for any skirt - whether worn under other skirts, on top of or on its own. During the previous century petticoats usually had attached bodices, and many lower class women continued to wear these well into the 1600s. With stiffened bodies becoming more general, especially with elite women, separate petticoats were becoming commonplace.


There seems to be very little variation in the cut and shape of petticoats – all were long and full, with little or no shaping. For formal wear some petticoats had small trains.


Next to no extant 17th Century petticoats survive, probably because the amount of material used and simple pattern shape meant that they were easily recycled into something else. Therefore, the cut and construction of petticoats is largely conjecture, based mainly on observing portraiture and etchings of the time.


Some form of padding at the hips may have been worn underneath. Farthingales were still being worn during the first few decades of the 17th Century, although King James I tried to ban the wearing of huge wheel farthingales at court in 1616, due to the amount of space they took up at court functions. Smaller ‘bum rolls’ may have been worn after this date but a more slender line was emerging in fashion as we head towards the middle of the century, making extra fullness around the hips undesirable.


Petticoats were often flat at the front of the waist, with all the fullness concentrated towards the sides and back. Here the fabric was either gathered or pleated to fit the waist.


One area where some variation can be found is decorative trimming. A completely undecorated petticoat was acceptable, but bands of braid around the hem and/or up the centre front were very popular. This might also have had a functional purpose, protecting the most vulnerable part of the petticoat, and helping to disguise muck and stains acquired during everyday wear. 


A ‘laced’ petticoat was trimmed with braid, not the holey fabric. What we now call lace our 17th Century forebears called bone lace or point. Gilt (gold and/or silver) lace might actually be used in the same way as braid, always sewn on flat, not ruched up or frilly.

Several petticoats might be worn for modesty or warmth. These could be tucked up to the waist in various ways to display the petticoats underneath.


My petticoats

I used two widths of gold satin, sewn together using the sewing machine along the selvages. The hem was stitched by hand using silk thread.


Two bands of blue grosgrain ribbon (the same as bound the edges of the bodies) were hand stitched above the hem of the petticoat. The upper band continued up the front to the waist in two parallel lines.


Leaving a few inches flat at the centre front, the waist was cartridge pleated onto matching gold ribbon to form a waistband. Cartridge pleating uses two or more lines of parallel gathering stitches, which are pulled up to create a pronounced ‘pleat’. Often the area to be pleated was doubled over, or an extra layer of fabric was added. Cartridge pleating is a typical 16th and 17th Century sewing technique and was used to pleat sleeves as well as petticoats.


The petticoat is fastened at each side by passing the extended ends of the ribbon waistband through eyelet holes (hand stitched) and tied off. This gives me a small amount of adjustment in waist size, but also the option of accessing things underneath through the slits at the sides of the petticoat.