Butterfly skirt: Steampunk/fantasy costume tutorial

Hey guys! Been a while again. I seem to go through spurts and empty periods. The last month or so, I became a vegetarian, sewed a lot, went to creeks, and generally did nothing of particular consequence to write about. (I am NOT of the opinion that constant content for content’s sake is a good thing!) Today, though, I wanted to give a tutorial for this lovely skirt/short thingy that I made for Lightning in a Bottle — an electronic music/yoga festival in a couple of weeks that I’m going to — and Burning Man.

Uh oh. It’s a skort, isn’t it. Yes, I suppose that’s a fact that we will all just have to accept. A skort it is. But what a lovely skort! (Yes, I am trying to write “skort” so many times that it stops making sense. Skort skort skort. Is it working?)

While my steampunk aesthetic is usually more along the lines of patchwork raggedy sky pirates, I couldn’t resist this lovely (though not high quality) brocade poly from JoAnn’s. Do I prefer silk and other natural fibers? Yes. Did a 50% off sale get me to lower my standards? Yes.

I’m very pleased with how this skort turned out. It’s got drama, with a little burlesque-circus appeal without being straight-up bordello. Make it from antique-looking lace for a ragamuffin. Make it from pure silk brocade for a queen. You can sex it up with thigh-high stockings and a corset or bra top, or add opaque tights and a military-inspired jacket, top hat and boots for a steampunk ringmaster. You can do yoga in it, and sit down (there’s no bustle pillow or cage). It’s surprisingly versatile — for a brocade skort with ruffles and lace, anyway.

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I badly edit my tiles because they’re ooogly.

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It might not look much like a butterfly, but for some reason when I thought of the design after seeing a somewhat similar striped skirt on Pinterest somewhere, I immediately thought of butterfly wings, and have thought of it as my butterfly skirt ever since. Plus, my brocade and my lace have flowers on them.

Skills Needed:

  • Sewing a straight line
  • Some experience making pleats/ruffles is recommended
  • Simple math


  • 1-3 yards of 45-inch wide fabric — it can be anything, but I suggest reasonably stiff fabrics. Quilting cotton could be used for a softer, less formal-looking version, but you will want to interface at least the top edge so the ruffles poof out. I also suggest prints, like stripes, polka dots or paisley/flower/butterfly motifs.
  • Optional lining fabric, tulle or interfacing in the same amount as your fashion fabric.
  • A pair of shorts
  • 135 inches of lace trim to match your fabric (3x 45, the width of a normal bolt of fabric)
  • 1-3 yards of lace fabric (for the front panel)
  • Elastic for waistband
  • Yarn and yarn needle

Time: Moderate, especially if you’re making the shorts to match. This tutorial is only for the overskirt, and assumes you have shorts already.


Measure around the back of your low waist where you want your pants to sit, from hipbone to hipbone.

To find your hip bone: feel around your hip crease, where your legs attach. You should feel a small bony protrusion above and to the side of your lady bits. (How far will of course vary by person.) Poke at it. Now measure from there around the back to the small bony protrusion. There’s measurement 1 (M1).

Then, measure around the back of your low waist from side to side, where a pants seam would be. Or is, if you’re wearing pants. That’s measurement 2 (M2).

If your measurements are less than 45 inches, you will need a yard of 45-inch-wide fabric. Basically, round up to the nearest yard, unless your measurement is really close to 45 inches, in which case add half a yard for gathering purposes. We’re going to be making rather large gathers/pleats, so keep that in mind.

Now, decide how long you want the longest part of your skirt to be. In my case, I lucked out considerably: I wanted the longest layer to go to my knees, about 16 inches, and the shortest skirt length I arbitrarily put at 8 inches. This left my middle skirt at 12 inches, with a 4-inch difference between each layer. (1 yard = 36 inches. 8+12+16 = 36) Nice and even, don’t you think? Plus I was able to just mark two lines on  my yard of fabric at the desired lengths and just cut.

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Can you see the lines I drew? This picture is mostly to show off the back side of the fabric anyway, because I think it’s neat. In real life it’s much more of a pale gold and less silver.

Not to worry, though; if you are particularly tall or short, wide or narrow, and your measurements are different, just buy more fabric or set the extra aside. The important thing is to have three strips of different lengths but the same width.

If the wrong side of your fabric is oogly, line your strips now. My suggestion: take your fashion fabric and lining fabric and pin, right sides together. Take your lace and pin between the layers at the bottom edge, with the lace part inside, pointing up and away from the seam. Sew around the sides and bottom. Turn right-side out through the top and topstitch so everything lays flat. Your lace should be neatly sandwiched in the hem, and the sewing edge should be nicely hidden at the bottom and sides.

Note: Another option for this step is to add tulle inside your strips so they stand out more away from the body. This is especially useful if your fabric is softer/floppier, to add some perk and flounce. You could also add interfacing, but tulle is perkier.

I skipped this step because I liked the golden inside of my fabric. So instead, I just did a double fold hem around the whole thing and attached the lace at the bottoms edges. It’s not quite as neat but takes much less time and there’s less bulk. My fabric is pretty perky anyway, so I didn’t add any interfacing or tulle. Keep in mind that the overall width of my strips is now 44.

Quite a good amount of floof and frip, methinks.

Quite a good amount of floof and frip, methinks.

Now, there are a few ways to make the pleated ruffles. The first is to do math. Just a little, I promise. Another is to put your fabric on a dress form and make tucks here and there until it fits. Less precise, but if you have a dress form maybe more fun.

The math version (this is a tutorial, after all): Take M1. Mine is 24. Subtract from 44 inches (the width of the fabric, minus the double-fold hems).

44-24 = 20. So I have to account for 20 inches.

Then I took black yarn and took a stitch every inch across. Then, I gathered the strip until it was the desired width (24). Could I do this without using math? Probably. But it’s nice to have a plan, and know exactly what you’re going to do and why.

Do the same thing for your other two strips, but using M2 for the process. This will result in a more gathered strip (obviously). It will be poofier, and more bustle-like. When you assemble the skort, the top strip will go much further around your waist than the other two. Additionally, I took a stitch every two inches for the other two strips; this made for fewer, but larger, ruffles. (Obvious again, I know).

Now, attach each strip to your shorts, starting with the bottom one. I suggest pinning them to your shorts and standing in front of a mirror, so you can see the effect. I attached each strip an inch above the last, so there’s a lot of overlap but only 1 layer at a time.

Then, take your lace fabric. This part is dependent largely on how much you want your shorts to be visible. I took half a yard of lace, folded it over (along the long edge, so it was 45 inches wide by 9 inches long) and ran a basting stitch through. I encourage you to play around with it; add multiple layers! Try different kinds of lace! Be as complicated and awesome as you want. I was kind of tired of sewing the skirt by this time, but felt it really needed the lace front skirt. So I just kept it as simple as possible.

If your shorts aren’t stretchy, you’ll need to make your lace front stretch, to accommodate opening your fly. I would suggest making two panels of lace that overlap slightly, so that when you open your fly they come apart as well.

Finally, you’re going to need a waistband. You can make any kind of waistband you want! I chose to use elastic because my shorts are made of an old t-shirt, and therefore are quite stretchy.

So I just cut a rectangle twice the width of my elastic (+ seam allowance) and the circumference of my waist.

Here’s where things got a little stupid for me. My shorts are wide enough to stretch over my ample butt. My waistband is much smaller than that. Solution? Stretch the waistband as I sew, of course! Problem: I had to stretch so much that it was impossible to sew by machine; the amount of tension needed kept pulling the metal plate forward and I broke 3 needles in 10 minutes. Augh. I don’t have a serger, either, which would help immeasurably.

Solution: If I had a dressmaker’s dummy, I would just put the skort on it inside out and hand sew around. I don’t have that. So I stuck my left arm in and stretched the whole thing around my elbow and hand.

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Elegant? No. Soreness inducing? Yes. Worth it?  AUGH yes, I was so close to finishing.

And that was it! Surprisingly easy, but looks very intricate.

As I said in the caption for one of the pictures above, I think the proportions are just a teeny bit off. The skirt probably should hit a little bit above the back of the knee. Because I staggered the layers, they’re each lower than if I had sewn them all really close together. I’ll either rip out the bottom two strips and attach them higher, or just tuck the extra length up and sew it down, since the fold will be hidden by the layer above it. But in the meantime, I’m too busy being happy with the overall result.


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