In Praise of Old Technology: the Flannel Petticoat

Flannel petticoats, where have you been all my life?

Last winter I made myself a flannel petticoat. I can’t remember why – it was just one of those sudden certainties that seize upon me (like the Dishonour Cow). I just knew that I needed a flannel petticoat, eftsoons. (2. (now archaic), soon after.)

And how right I was. You don’t notice any sudden change when you put it on of a chilly morning, but believe me, you notice when you take it off. Off your outer layers come, with scarcely a change in your temperature. And then you remove the flannel petticoat and suddenly YOU ARE COLD.

William Dyce, Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting, 1860. Photo- Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Wales.
The magic of flannel.

Believe me, those ladies of long past knew their stuff. Even modern technology isn’t a patch on the flannel petticoat. I wore the petticoat one day, and fleece-lined tights the next – under the same dress. But it was the second day that I felt cold.

Of course, the first step in making a flannel petticoat is to acquire some flannel. As the sides to middled sheets were worn past the point of being worth repairing again, I set to work to salvage them.

Being in the grip of the aforementioned sudden certainty, I didn’t bother trying to find a proper pattern. I took a dress which I liked, made a rough tracing of one panel of its skirt, and proceeded accordingly.

A paper pattern laid out on flannel with a line chalked. Also visible are a long ruler, a pair of fabric scissors, and tailor's chalk.
The paper pattern represents 1/4 of the finished petticoat.

Handily, the central seam on the front and back was done for me by the previous sides to middling, so I ended up with two large pieces, each with a pre-existing seam down the middle of it. More or less the middle, anyway. (Eftsoons, people.)

As you can see from the chalk lines in the photo above, I curved the waist line. As you can see from the photo below, I did not curve the hemline, so as to make use of the existing hem. That may not have been the best idea, as subsequent events will show…

Two petticoat pieces laid out on top of each other on a kitchen table. In the background are two chairs, one of which has a toaster on it.
Pardon the eccentricities of my kitchen. I assure you I do not keep the toaster on a chair when in use.

From there it was a relatively simple business of doing up the side seams (I used a plain seam and then folded the raw edges under and hemmed them down) and attaching a simple straight waistband. Except…

Except for two things. In order to avoid mucking about with elastic (which inevitably needs replacing), I left the seam open for a few inches at one side. As this is a petticoat, there’s no need to worry about accidental underwear display. Then I sewed a pair of hooks and two pairs of eyes on to the waistband, to make it adjustable. This, it turns out, was a waste of time, for two reasons. One: I come in more than two sizes. And Two: my sewing down of hooks and eyes is not equal to their desire for Freedom! So these days I just fasten it at whatever size I like with a safety pin.

The other thing which stood between me and a completed petticoat was my former decision to use the existing hem. This meant that now I had two dips in the hem, one at either side. So I slung it on the exoskeleton and pinned it up to a more even level. A bit of quick handsewing, and the hem was even, at least in one dimension.

A pale blue flannel petticoat on a wire dressform, in front of an embroidered wall-hanging.
Observe the pinned-up hem.

The petticoat is, I freely admit, not much to look at. But who cares? It’s warm, warm, warm. The only real downside is that being of a similar length to the dress I patterned it on, it has been known to peek out under the hemline of one or two of my dresses.

But happily, I have a simple solution for that. I shall make a flannel petticoat, eftsoons. (1. (obsolete), once again, another time.) And all winter long I shall be swaddled in the warmth of this undeservedly forgotten gem of a garment.

6 Replies to “In Praise of Old Technology: the Flannel Petticoat”

  1. Firstly, well done for the nod to your Welsh forbears (first photo)
    Secondly, petticoats should never be seen peeping out from under a skirt hem. (I have historically remedied this by rolling over the elastic waistband of a half-slip style petticoat).
    Thirdly, in 20th century NZ, if one spotted a bit of white lace lower than the skirt hem, the correct way to advise the lady wearing that skirt was to whisper,”It’s snowing down south.” She would then adjust it discreetly and privately.
    Fourthly, is the flannel of the first petticoat a brushed cotton sheeting?

    1. 1) Thank you! I am in the market for a top hat such as the lady on the right is wearing.
      2) Miss Silver would doubtless agree. She has been known to detect distress of mind from a neglected sagging hem.
      3) I’ve no idea what that would convey to 21st century Kiwi women, but then, most don’t wear petticoats, let alone ones trimmed with white lace.
      4) Something of the sort, but the fluffiness isn’t only on one side.

  2. I have always been fascinated by the clothing of women of the past, so I love that you made this petticoat! I have always imagined pioneers, for example, were quite cold but the layers those women wore in just their everyday clothing is incredible!

    1. Thanks!
      As the young Victorian narrator observes in The Wouldbegoods, “A boy cannot take off more than his jacket and waistcoat in any emergency, or he is at once entirely undressed. But I have known Dora take off two petticoats for useful purposes and look just the same outside afterwards.”

  3. Wow. Thank you for your affirmation of the warmth of the flannel maxi slip–in my case, 28.” I made one about five years ago just as you displayed, from the panel of an A-frame, long skirt I liked, cut down the seems for one of two panels. I used elastic with the flannel folded over it for a loose waist. I put some old-fashioned, cotton lace I’ve had for years on the bottom. The result is I can wear summer skirts well into fall and I am incredibly warm. (I live in Charlottesville, VA. )
    I need another one because of constant use of first one. I looked on Etsy and The Vermont Country Store. No luck. Maxi dresses and skirts are in fashion–it seems any length goes these days which is great–so one would think Etsy at least would grab on to the idea. Anyway, thank you. I like your free and open attitude to sewing.

    1. Flannel petticoats are great, aren’t they? Yours sounds very nice – lace trim!
      I’m not sure whether to be disappointed or thankful that fast fashion hasn’t jumped on the flannel petticoat bandwagon, but I’m surprised that independent dressmakers haven’t. Particularly given the USA’s interest in historical reenactment. But perhaps they only make them in 1850s width – useful for social distancing but not easily worn under a modern dress!

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