The Dirndl Dress: Creating a Gathered Waistline Stay +Some thoughts about Quilting Cotton

My sewing is broken down into small units of time each weekend and sometimes on week nights. It all depends on how I have to juggle the demands of two jobs. For home sewists with busy lives I recommend this approach which I call the Unit Method of Construction. Time is set aside to perform one complete part of a construction detail. If the construction is involved then each sewing session can focus on one or two components of that detail.

I was very surprised at how puffy and full the gathered cotton fabric for skirt of The Dirndl Dress is. This is where I have to admit my complete ignorance about the pros and cons of using quilting cotton when I purchased the fabric. I’m working with a very cute print by Zoe Pearn for Riley Blake. When I surfed into Martha Pullen’s website I didn’t bother to research quilting cotton at all before purchasing the fabric. The print was exactly what I wanted for The Dirndl Dress. Considering that I haven’t sewn full scale for over 10 years and have not stayed abreast of fashion fabrics I really made something of a boo-boo when I purchased this fabric.

To keep a balanced perspective I will say that overall the sewing experience has been very pleasant. The cotton is a dream to work with and responds very well to steam pressing and shaping. It has responded well to the demands of the fitted bodice with French Darts which has turned out to be much different than a bodice with darts below the bustline. I credit the weight of the quilting cotton for holding up the shape of the bodice very well. It’s just that the challenges and issues of working with quilting cotton became very obvious to me after I had gathered the dirndl skirt and prepared to sew it to the bodice.

Although the gathered portion of the dirndl skirt is weighty it is not as heavy as anything you could make with bottom weight denim. Still, there is a difference in the overall feel that is hard for me to describe but is very evident when you can feel and touch the fabric. Once the dirndl skirt was sewn to the bodice it all looks very lovely and I’m pleased overall. It’s just that the slightly extra weight of the skirt required some extra consideration.

This is why I chose to make a stay for the gathered waistline.

1. I learned about how easy it is to create a gathered waistline stay from my well used and well loved “Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing”. A grosgrain ribbon is one of the recommended notions to use for the stay. Given how bulky my gathered dirndl skirt was I had to think for a few days of a more lightweight solution.

2. I briefly referred to Claire Shaeffer’s “Couture Sewing Techniques” in the beginning, too. She mentions that the Parisian design houses use 3 rows of hand gathering stitches to gather the fabric for a skirt. I decided to do the same but using a long machine basting stitch. The results were great. There was more control over the gathering and less sliding and moving than when only two rows are used.

3. I decided to use the same lightweight lace hem tape I used for the All-in-One Facing finish since it does not add extra weight or bulk to the waistline. Since the gathers were thick I used extra long straight pins with glass heads which made it easier to pull out the pins after basting was completed.

When you are basting this much fabric I recommend using a large needle such as a #7 Darner needle for basting, along with a cotton basting thread and a thread conditioner. I use new dryer softener strips as a conditioner.

3a. Do not trim the gathered seam but leave it as it is and baste the stay right above the line of gathers that falls on the waistline.

4. Use a medium length stitch on your machine and stitch the stay at the point right above the waistline stitching.

5. After stitching near the waistline, turn back the stay and trim slightly the upper part of the waistline. Be careful not to trim away too much. The instructions say to keep the stay upright but I was concerned that while trimming the fabric I might cut the lace as well. This seems so easy to do but at the center front of the bodice I did cut slightly lower.

6. Use a medium sized zig-zag stitch to finish the upper part of the stay.

7. The finished stayed waistline is pressed flat using steam and just the tip of the iron. I used a June Tailor Board since my ironing board cover is very soft and holds too much moisture whenever I steam press. I did not want the gathers to wilt.

8. After the fabric has cooled and dried from the first pressing, the waistline is then pressed upwards towards the bodice. I used strips of brown paper to protect the bodice fabric against any impressions the thick row of gathering could make.

Use just the tip of the iron and hold it slightly above the waistline stay when using the steam.

9. Now comes the third pressing that requires more time and care. Use must the tip of the iron and hold it above the gathers. Steam the gathers gently to remove any wrinkles but avoid pressing them flat or using too much steam.

10. Partial view of the completed stay for a gathered waistline. It is not necessary for me to tack the stay to the darts and side seams. The gathers look good from the outside. I avoided tacking the waistline to the side seams because the weight could pull and distort the bodice.

11. Partial view of the gathered waistline from the right side of the fabric.

Even though I took all the precautions I could imagine to match up center front lines and side seams by careful pinning and basting, I discovered that they had all shifted a little less than 1/8″ during the construction process. At this point I was very grateful that this is not noticed due to the print of the fabric. The next time I make a dirndl skirt with this many gathers I’m going to try the complete method Claire Shaeffer details in “Couture Sewing Techniques”. It involves sewing the skirt in by hand as a way to ensure this shifting does not take place. I have also seen the same technique recommended in Susan Khalje’s “Bridal Couture” so I will definitely give it a go, especially if the fabric is more expensive and requires extra attention.



“Couture Sewing Techniques” by Claire Shaeffer. Published by Taunton Books & Videos, Newtown, CT, 1998. Pages 48-49.

“Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing”. Published by The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc, Pleasantville, N.Y., 1978. Page 179.