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Last year I made a red and gold Pirate Dress of the type worn by Keira Knightley in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

More historically accurate than the Disney version, yet far enough from accurate to be quick, easy and inexpensive, it has advantages for the lucky owner too.

It was designed for maximum wearability in a dizzying array of ways. It has detachable sleeves, an overskirt that can be hooked or gathered up or discarded completely, and separate pieces that can begin to form a versatile mix-and-match costume collection.

It was so much fun and so popular that I did it all again a few months later, this time in black and ivory. The “Black Pearl” gown is to be one lucky bride's wedding gown in 2009.

Just for fun, I gave some details of how the dresses were made at the time on my blog, as well as a few teaser making-of photos.

But as a special treat for readers of Your Wardrobe Unlock’d I’ll reveal, for the first time anywhere, the complete details of how to make your very own Caribbean Pirate Gown!

I aim for you to take away a very important point:

A costume doesn’t need to be complex to look spectacular.

I think you’ll be very surprised at how easy this gown can be to make...


Please note that the Caribbean Pirate gown and the Black Pearl Caribbean Pirate gown and their instructions are (C) Copyright 2007 Cathy Hay. Reproduction for personal use only is permitted.

The skirts of a seventeenth century gown were separate from the bodice, which makes things simple from the start. Not only will you not need to mess about attaching skirt to bodice, you’ll also have the beginnings of a mix-and-match wardrobe.

As you can see, there seem to be two skirts:

  • a paler coloured underskirt and
  • an overskirt that’s split down the front.



You have four options as to how to go about creating this look in a convincing way:

  1. Make two skirts (the “keeping it real” approach)
  2. Make two skirts, but make the underskirt out of something cheap such as calico, with a panel of something fancier sewn to the front (keeping it real and saving money too, although you have fewer options for pinning the skirt back later)
  3. Make the two skirts and put them on one waistband (I wouldn’t recommend this – it saves a little time but feels heavier at the waist when worn)
  4. Make the underskirt just a panel rather than a full skirt (saves money and time, also good for hot climates, but you end up with only one way to wear it, with no options for pinning the overskirt up in interesting ways.)



The first, red pirate gown just had a panel as an underskirt effect, but for the Black Pearl I went with option 1 and made two full skirts. The fabric I was using wasn’t expensive and I didn’t like the restrictions that the underskirt panel imposed. With the Black Pearl I was able to pin the overskirt up in a huge variety of ways, or omit it altogether. In other words, if you make a skirt with a panel, you have a skirt. If you make the two skirts, you have infinite variety.

Any reasonably lightweight fabric with a good "drape" will work for your gown. Check the drape by unrolling some of the fabric and letting it hang in a swag from your hand. Does it curve smoothly, or sit in little straight lines with breaks inbetween?

I used a synthetic dupion, which is washable, drapes better than silk dupion and is way less expensive at £4 per metre [$8 per yard]. Unusually for me, I didn’t use any interlining at all. My fashion fabric was sturdy and since there’s a lot of fabric in the skirts, I wanted to keep them lightweight.

The "main fabric" I refer to in the list below is the outer skirt and bodice fabric (the black stuff in the Black Pearl) and the "secondary fabric" is the underskirt fabric, also used in the centre front of the bodice (the cream stuff in the Black Pearl). I used cream in both gowns to match the creamy muslin undersleeves. The figures below assume that your fabrics are at least 112cm (45") wide.

When choosing lining, keep in mind that there's no rule saying that you have to match the colour to the outer fabric. I used a plum lining in the Black Pearl gown to great effect.

Below is a table of everything you'll need. When estimating fabric lengths, I’m assuming you’re 5’6”. Since the dress is pretty voluminous, your dress size shouldn't make a huge difference to the amount of fabric you need, but if you're significantly plus size, you may want to add a yard, just to make sure. (It's often a good idea to get a little extra to allow for mistakes anyway.) I'm also assuming that you're planning on wearing low heels and no bum roll.

Of course, for an authentic period effect you’ll need a “bum roll” to hold the skirts out. The original dresses I made didn’t have them since they were intended for a mass audience who wouldn’t have understood. But if you wish, you can still make one very simply by stuffing a sausage of calico with scraps of fabric. Attach a ribbon to each end and tie around your hips. If you want to do this, remember to buy extra fabric and make the skirts extra long to reach over the bum roll to the ground!


You will need:

7.1m (8yd) main fabric.
6.1m (7+1/4yd) main fabric’s lining
4.5m (5yd) secondary fabric (for a complete underskirt)
OR 1.7m (2yd) for an underskirt panel only
4m (4.5yd) secondary fabric’s lining (for a complete underskirt)
OR 1.2m (1.5yd) for an underskirt panel only
1m (1+1/8yd) bodice strength layer (eg coutil, canvas, drill, etc)
2m (2+1/4yd) cotton in similar colour to main fabric (to pad between bones and outer layer and to line the bodice)
2m (2+1/4yd) muslin for undersleeves
3m (3+1/2 yd) lace for the cuffs, or more if possible
OR if you're on a budget, another 1/2m (1/2yd) muslin for plain ruffles
10cm (4") x your waist plus 10cm (4") interfacing for waistband - you don't need commercial interfacing - a piece of calico or other mediumweight closely-woven fabric is fine
20m (22yd) Rigilene plastic boning (yes, Rigilene - it’ll be too heavy with corset steel)
18m (20yd) x 15mm (5/8” approx) wide ribbon (cf bodice and sleeves)
Some 25mm ribbon as drawstrings for skirts – get 2x your waist measurement for one skirt, 4x your waist measurement for two skirts
Eyelets (as used in corsetry)
Thread in all colours required

The underskirt is composed of three large rectangles of fabric. I’m going to assume that you’re about 5’6” tall and planning to wear low heels - add or subtract a little as you wish for your own particular needs.

1. Cut three lengths of 110cm (44”) which are all the full width of the fabric (ie three almost-squares), and sew the three together along the selvedges [the edge of the fabric as it comes off the roll] to make a tube. Don’t forget to leave about 15cm (6”) open at one end of one of the seams so that you can get the skirt on when it’s finished! Press your seams open, and continue to press the edges aside along the opening, as if you had sewn all the way along to the end. Diagram

2. Now do the same with the lining, ensuring that it’s the same width and cutting a bit off if not.

3. Slip the skirt inside its lining with right sides together.

4. Sew the lining to the outer fabric around the hem (bottom) of the skirt. You may want to hold the skirt against you to check the length, but don’t forget to allow a little for the seam allowance at the waist and extra length for the possibility that you might wear heels with it! This is a very quick and dirty method of hemming a skirt, but since the underskirt will mostly be hidden, we don’t need perfection. Also, of course, you can always make adjustments later.

6. Once you’ve pressed all your stitching, turn out to the right side and press, then baste the top edges of the skirt and lining together. Sew the lining to the outer fabric neatly around the opening, along your fold.

7.At this point you have three options:

For a quick Hallowe’en costume result you can gather the waist, which isn’t period but may be “good enough” for you if you’re going for speed - again, this skirt will be hidden so this may be a shortcut you want to take. Hand or machine sew along the top with a big stitch and pull the thread so that the fabric bunches up to your waist measurement. Tie the threads and sew the gathers down.

At the other end of the spectrum, for period accuracy you may want to cartridge pleat the top. There are so many good online tutorials for this, such as this one, that I won’t repeat the method here.

However, on my pirate dresses I went for a good option in between the two: knife pleating. It’s easier than it’s sometimes made out to be and gives a pleasant effect. Click through to the next page for full instructions.

The trick is to start out by making the top edge that you’re pleating dead straight. Pull a thread in the fabric as a guide to cut along.

A simple sum

Measure the top edge and measure your waist: clearly, your task in pleating is to reduce the former measurement to become the latter.

When measuring your waist, plan for the skirts to fit tightly. When you lace the bodice over them, your waist will reduce in size a little.

Here’s how it works for my measurements:

Width of fabric: 330cm
My waist: 75cm

Notice that I’m going to need to reduce the fullness in that top edge to about a quarter of its present measurement, and then I’ll still have some left over. (You may find you need to reduce yours to a third or a half, depending on fabric width and waist size.)

We’ll worry about the bit left over later, but for now, keep in mind that we’re reducing the skirt width to a quarter of what it was.

The first pleat

Decide how wide you want the pleats to be. If you’re using metric measures I’d recommend making them 2cm wide. If you’re using imperial, make each pleat 1” wide when finished.

Just consider one pleat now. If my finished pleat is going to be 2cm wide, and we know that this has to be a quarter of the width of the fabric that was originally there, then we know that 8cm of the skirt's full width has to become 2cm.

Lay the skirt out along the table with the top edge running side to side in directly in front of you. Mark the centre front of the skirt at the top edge with a pin (I use pins with coloured heads - I use a red one to mark the centre front so I don't get confused). Measure out 8cm from it and mark with a pin. Measure again 2cm from the centre front and mark with another pin. By bringing the two pins together, you'll have made 8cm into 2cm. Can you see how this works? Diagram

The bit left over

Many period shapes had extra fullness at the back and sides, so you’ll be fine to make the pleats bigger towards the back.


If, by some fluke, your waist measurement is exactly a third or a quarter of the full fabric width, the pleats will be the same all the way round. Otherwise, you'll have a bit left over, meaning that your pleats need to become a little bigger towards the back.

In my case, for example, if my waist measurement of 75cm was exactly a quarter of the fabric we've got to work with, I'd have a 4x75 = 300cm wide skirt. But my skirt is 330cm wide - I'm going to have 30cm left over.

So what do I do with the excess? Our pleats near the back will just need to hide away a little more fabric. You can do this however you choose - I could decide in this case, for example, to hide away an extra centimetre in each of the last thirty pleats. Instead of measuring 8cm and 2cm, I'd be measuring 9cm and 2cm for those last few pleats.

However you choose to hide away the excess, just make sure you do the same on both sides - in this case, I'd add an extra centimetre to the last 15 pleats on each side.

(Alternatively, I could decide to add an extra 3cm to each of the last 10 pleats, for example, concentrating much more fullness at the back.)

So now all I need to know is where to begin making those bigger pleats. I can do this by working out how many pleats there'll be in total. Dividing my waist measurement by the width of my pleats, I get 75/2 = 37.5 pleats. I'll round up to 38, meaning that I'll have a total of 19 pleats on each side.

Don't fret too much about making the calculations perfect - you can always fudge your last couple of pleats a little to make the fit perfect.

So now I know that my first four pleats will need to measure 8cm and 2cm, and the rest will be 9cm and 2cm.

Beginning to pleat the whole skirt

Mark further pleats as before, according to your calculations. Starting at the centre front, pleat each half of the skirt separately. I tend to make my pleats point towards the centre back (this does mean that you'll end up with what looks like a double width pleat at the centre front, where the two centre front pleats point different ways).

Pin a length of the skirt first, then pleat a few, checking that the finished row of pleats really are each 2cm (1") wide (they never come out right the first time, it's not you!)

To make the pleats hang straight, just make sure the top edge is always in line.


When you're about five pleats away from the centre back, measure the whole pleated skirt so far and compare with your waist measurement. Make your last five pleats make up for any discrepancies, ensuring that you end up with a skirt that matches your waist measurement.

Finally, baste and sew firmly over your pleats twice. Two rows of stitching will help to keep them straight.

Diagram for this page

1. Cut strips of the fashion fabric and waistband interlining to make a waistband. They should both be 10cm (4") wide and your waist measurement plus 10cm (4") in length.

2. Sew them together, wrong sides together.

3. Press in 1.5cm (5/8") along one long edge.

4. Place the other long edge of the waistband centrally along the pleating, right sides together, with an equal amount of excess hanging loose at each end. Sew it down.

5. Turn in the ends of the waistband in line with the edges of the skirt opening and press, then sew them down along the stitching line.

6. Baste the short edges of the waistband to the interlining, ensuring that the stitches don't show on the outside.

7. Cut two 15cm (6") lengths of 15mm (0.5") wide ribbon, fold them in half and pin to the waist seam on the inside. They will help you hang the skirt up when it's finished.

8. Turn the pressed edge over to meet the pleats on the inside, covering up the ribbon ends. Stitch down strongly by hand, or alternatively by machine as follows:

9. Pin and baste the waistband edge down, hiding the stitching line. Turn over and stitch from the right side ensuring that your stitches fall in the "ditch" between the pleats and waistband edge.

10. Insert your drawstring. Secure a safety pin in one end and pass the safety pin all the way through the waistband.

11. You may want to add a "modesty" panel in the skirt opening - simply sew a 20cm(8")x10cm(4") rectangle of fashion fabric to lining, wrong sides together, press, turn out and handsew the opening closed. Then sew one of the long edges to one side of the opening with the top edge in line with the bottom of the waistband and a little excess hanging below the level of the bottom of the opening on the inside.

This is made in a very similar way to the underskirt.

1. Cut four lengths of fabric this time, with lengths as shown below if you’re about 5’6”. This voluminous amount of fabric will allow you to have a really spectacular billowing skirt, and the longer pieces in the middle will allow you to have a small train (or extra fabric in your bustle-like gathered-up skirt*).

2. Sew the four pieces together as shown, but don’t make them into a tube! Just leave them as a large, flat piece. The top edge should be dead straight, and the bottom edge will have a big step in the middle.

3. Make a matching lining out of four identical pieces of lining fabric, and lay it on top of the fashion fabric, right sides together.

4. Baste them together around the edges.

5. Now you’ll need to make that bottom edge into a nice curve. The easiest way to do this and get it even on both sides is to fold the whole thing in half along the middle seam and pin the edges together.

6. Either cut a smooth curve as shown, or you could “draw” your curve by pinning the shape on the fabric first. Don’t stress too much: when you’re wearing it, it’ll be very difficult to tell whether the curve you drew was 100% perfect!

7. Open the skirt out and sew down both sides and along the bottom edge curve, as if you were making a very large bag! Press and turn right sides out.

8. Baste across the top, and gather or pleat as you did before.

9. Add a waistband as you did before, and a drawstring. This skirt will then tie around your waist with the edges at the front.

10. You may wish to hand sew rings and ribbons on the inside to make various gathered up or bunched up bustle-like* effects. Don’t forget that your stitching will need to go right through to the outside, but that the stitching won’t show when the skirt is hooked up!

* These are very period, but of course were not called bustles in the seventeenth century and did not have the elaborate undersupports of the Victorians! Example 1 | Example 2

Do let me know how you get on, and as ever, don't hesitate to point out any typos, oversights or anything I need to explain better! Next time we'll go on to make the bodice, and in the third instalment of the tutorial, the sleeves. Don't forget to have fun with it!



The bodice: pattern

The pirate dress is an adaptation of a late seventeenth century gown. In this period, women wore a single boned bodice, separate from the skirt, instead of the corset-and-dress combo of many other times.

The pattern I used was adapted from Period Costume for Stage and Screen 1500-1800 by Jean Hunnisett (page 116). It's a great pattern but it's only illustrated in one size in the book. Trust me when I say that it isn't a simple one to alter.

So instead I'm going to point you at Reconstructing History's 1670s-1690s Bodiced Gown pattern, which is very similar (and half the price of buying a book). This is the pattern I'd use if I made this dress at home for myself. It's not only a great pattern in US sizes 6-26, but it also contains a wealth of historical detail that you can take or leave as you please to produce as accurate or as Disney-ish a pirate dress as your heart desires. It's available directly from the Reconstructing History website in the US, or alternatively from Vena Cava Design if you're in Europe.

There's just one important difference between the RH pattern and the one you'll see in my photos, which I should point out. My pattern involved five pieces: the front, side front, side back and back pieces and a shoulder piece. In the Reconstructing History pattern there is no side seam, so the side front and side back are just one single side piece. This doesn't make a significant difference to the final look, but it might help when you're comparing your bodice to my photos to know that you won't have the side seam that I do.

Also, you'll notice that I dispensed with the tabs at the waist around the sides. Once again, I should remind you that I was making the gown for fun and with a mass audience in mind, so historical accuracy was not a priority. With this pattern and my instructions you'll be able to sail as close to the wind as you wish.

Adapting the pattern to close at the front

At present your pattern is designed to close at the centre back, and we need to move that opening to the centre front to make the attractive laced centre front.

On the pattern for the front piece you'll notice that the centre front is marked. It runs helpfully along one edge! So all you need to do here is add a seam allowance (3/8" will match the rest of the pattern) and then cut two of these rather than placing the centre front edge on a fold of the fabric.

At the back, which is currently an edge, you'll need to do the opposite. Remove 3/8" - the seam allowance, which you no longer need - and place the fold of the fabric on your new centre back edge when you cut.

The Reconstructing History pattern gives detailed directions on mocking up the bodice to ensure the fit, so I won't repeat that information here except to remind you that skipping the mock-up can be an expensive mistake!


Like your average corset, the bodice is made by sandwiching boning between layers of fabric. I used four layers in all (all of which you already have if you bought the quantities detailed in part 1):

  • Dupion on the outside as the "fashion fabric" - it looks convincing but it's actually polyester dupion in my version, which drapes better in the skirt than silk
  • Cotton underneath it - this interlining is useful to create some padding between the bones and the fashion fabric.
  • Boning in the middle
  • The strength layer of coutil/drill/other strong fabric
  • The lining - I recommend cotton or linen.



1. Cut all the bodice pieces in all four fabrics.

2. Baste the fashion fabric pieces to their corresponding cotton pieces, wrong sides together. Then baste the lining and strength layer pieces together in the same way. You're not sewing seams at this point, you're just sewing layers together so you'll end up with half as many pieces. The lining/strength layer pieces will form an "inner half" of the corset, the bones will lie in the middle, and the fashion fabric/cotton pieces will form the "outer layer". Baste by machine - just sew with the biggest stitch you can, just outside the stitching line.

3. Now there are just a few more pieces to cut. These will form the lapels and chemise-like laced centre front section.

  • 2 front pieces in your "secondary" (underskirt) fashion fabric
  • 2 front pieces in the cotton interlining (again, for padding over the bones)
  • 2 front pieces in the overskirt lining fabric (these will show as your "lapels")



Baste the cotton pieces to the secondary fabric pieces. The "lapel" lining pieces will stay as one layer.

Now you should have two complete sets of bodice pieces - one set in fashion fabric backed with cotton, and one set in your strong fabric backed in lining. You should also have two front pieces in your "secondary" fabric backed in cotton, plus two front pieces cut out of skirt lining.




Set aside all except your set of strength layer pieces. You need to bone these. Yes, as you can see above, I used Rigilene - it's light and I needed lots of it, and it's easy to sew directly onto the fabric and cut with scissors when you get close to the edge. Use your basting lines as a guide, with the boning starting and ending 1/8" (1/4cm) inside the stitching lines.

For a more period accurate look, don't use steel - it's no more accurate for the 1660s than Rigilene and you'll never be able to lift the resulting bodice (although I suspect it may be bulletproof). Use reeds. They're cheap and you can get them at www.corsetmaking.com or Vena Cava in the UK. To use them, you'll need one more extra layer of fabric. You'll need to make boning channels first by placing the new pieces of fabric over the strength layer/lining, sewing boning channels and then stuffing bunches of reeds in the gaps.

In either case, note that you can bone the pieces before joining them together, which makes things a lot more manageable.

NB. You won't be able to make boning channels by the "sandwich" method (sewing the layers together, stitching channels through all layers and then inserting bones) because you'll get in a mess with the lapels and front edges.

So now that you have your inner strength layer pieces boned - the back, sides and fronts - we can move on to make the front section pretty!



Before you go on, look at this picture of the finished effect at the centre front. We need to get the look of three layers at the front - the ivory innermost layer with the eyelets, the goldy cream layer with the lace (which we haven't cut yet), and the red outer layer.

First of all we'll tackle the inner layer with the cream background and the eyelets.

1. Take your boned front sections and the fronts pieces in the secondary fabric/cotton interlining. With right sides together, sew up the centre front edge, around the top centre front corner (see below for a hint) and halfway along the top. Backstitch here for strength and clip carefully from the edge inwards to about 1/8" from your stitching. Sew across the corner (see below), clip the corner, then turn and press.

That corner needs to look sharp. Try sewing it like this, and then turn carefully and push the corner out using a blunt instrument like a not-very-sharp pencil!


2. Baste down the remaining raw edges to hold them in place. (Another important difference between your pattern and mine - I had to join the front and side front pieces and bone across the two before getting to this stage - when you baste around the rest of this piece, you'll just be basting around the seam allowances of one piece. Again, buy the pattern, not the book!)

3. Then make holes and insert the eyelets down the center front edge, just as you would in a corset. I tend to place them around 1.5cm (1/2") from the edge and 2.5cm (1") apart. I recommend Prym 5mm eyelets and washers. They're strong, two piece eyelets and in the packet you get all the instructions and bits you need to insert them, except a punch or awl to make the holes and a hammer. Find the eyelets and the punch at the aforementioned websites.

4. Join all the inner half (strength layer) pieces together to make a complete "inner half" of the bodice.




On this outer half you need to create the illusion of the outer layer turning back and there being a second, lacy layer poking out underneath. We'll do this by lining the front section of the outer layer and adding little triangles of fabric to imitate a middle layer.

1. Lay the centre front lining pieces that you cut against the centre fronts of the outer layer, right sides together. Just as you did with the inner half, sew along the centre front edge and halfway across the top, press, turn and press. Baste the loose edges down.

2. The lacy middle layer is a just a triangle of fabric, sewn to the lining by hand so as not to let the stitching show on the outside.


a. Work out its exact shape by laying the "outer" and "inner" front pieces together with the "lapel" turned back as if the bodice was finished. Then insert a piece of paper between them, slowly cutting it down to the size and shape you want. Trace it onto a new piece of paper and add seam allowances.

b.Cut two pieces of scrap fabric in this shape, then turn the pattern piece over and cut two more in mirror image.

c. Sew the two pairs of scraps together, turn and press, and handsew scraps of lace to the outside.

d. Place the finished triangles on the lining side of your centre fronts and handsew down, ensuring the stitches don't show on the outside of the bodice outer layer.

3. Then sew the whole "outer half" of the bodice together.


Couture tip!

Stitching inside bodice Grading seam allowances

When you've sewn all the seams and put these four layers of fabric together, you'll end up with little ridges each side of the seam where all your seam allowances end. Counteract the bump by trimming the allowances to different widths.

After sewing and pressing a seam open, trim one layer of the flappy seam allowance edges but not the other. For extra couture points, hand sew the edges down loosely to the cotton layer so that they don't all bunch up and create lumps and bumps when you put the layers all together. (That's another advantage of the cotton underlining - you can sew seam allowances and hems to it and hey presto, no stitches show on the outside.) Yes, this all takes time and patience, but it's a pride thing. You'll know you did it. You'll see the subtle difference. You'll know you did couture, and not just dressmaking.



Finally, you'll need to sew the outer and inner bodice halves together.

1. Place inner and outer halves right sides together and sew along the top edge (along the outer halves of the front pieces and across the back) and bottom edges only, and turn out. Alternatively, lay them wrong sides together and bind the edges.

2. Stitch down that side front seam through all the layers.

3. To prepare the armholes for sleeves, turn the seam allowances inwards and pin the two edges together. Sew the edges together neatly around the perimeter of the armhole. You may also want to handsew ribbon loops under the arms to hang the bodice up with.
4. Finally, cut a big rectangle of secondary (underskirt) fashon fabric and one of lining, as long as your centre front edge plus seam allowances and around 15cm (6") wide. Handsew to the inside front edge. (I include that instruction here for completeness, but in fact I left the modesty panel until I'd finished with the sleeves, just so that it wouldn't get in the way in the meantime.)

Next: finally, the sleeves, and you Pirate Gown is complete!




The sleeves

You'll have noticed by now that the armholes of the gown's bodice are a very unusual shape to modern eyes: they're positively elliptical, eye-shaped perhaps, and very off-the-shoulder.



In the 1660s the sleeves were attached in an equally unusual fashion. Instead of sewing them on flat around the bottom and gathering around the top as we might do nowadays, most of the sleeve was attached "flat" around the bottom and front of the armhole, leaving all the bulk gathered at the back into cartridge pleats between the top of the shoulder and the back point of the eye shape. This made the sleeves very "poofy" towards the back.

In the painting (right: detail of The Music Lesson, C.1662, Jan Vermeer van Delft) you can see this in action, with all the fullness at the back. It's important to keep this shape as much as possible in order to get the right silhouette, so we'll be emulating this method.

1. I used a different sleeve pattern from the one in your Reconstructing History pattern, but it's a fairly easy one to draw on a large sheet of paper. Draw the grid (below left) first, then draw in the pattern (below right), using the grid as your guide. Since the sleeve is cut so big and then pleated to fit, this is a one-size-fits-all-adults pattern. To complete it, add a seam allowance all round.

Click to enlarge


If you're making the gown for a child, you may need the pattern to be a smaller size. You may guess, for example, that your child is about half adult size - try using the same grid but halving all the measurements. Then use those numbers to draw the pattern.

If you doubt that the sleeve pattern will work for you, I suggest experimenting with a piece of scrap fabric by making a "mock-up" sleeve and adjusting it as necessary.

2. Cut the sleeve out twice in fashion fabric and twice in lining fabric. Don't forget that the sleeves will need to be mirror images of each other! Also, DON'T cut the muslin undersleeve yet.

3. Sew each fashion fabric piece to each piece of lining, right sides together, down the straight edges only. Turn them the right way out and press.

4. Machine baste along the top and bottom edges (ie. sew as normal with your usual seam allowance, but with a long stitch.)

5. Tip: You may find it tough to get the sleeves the right way up (I did too!), so compare them to the pattern carefully and stick a safety pin in the seam allowance to indicate the top. (You could even include a scrap of paper saying "TOP!") Do the same to mark which is the left sleeve and which is the right, also to save frustration later!



Pleating the cuff edge

1. Pleat the cuff first. Measure around your arm at the elbow and add 1.5cm (0.5"), and measure the curved cuff edge by placing your tape measure on its edge to go around the curves.

2. Pleat the edge in the same way as you pleated the skirt, starting in the middle as before, so that the cuff edge ends up being your-elbow-plus-half-an-inch long when you're done. This won't be as simple to do this time, since the edge is curved. Take it one pleat at a time, keep the pleats fairly small (I made all the pleats on the top and cuff of the sleeves 1cm (0.5") wide when finished) and do the best you can - keep in mind that you'll be binding this edge so it doesn't need to be perfect.

3. After sewing the pleats down twice as in the skirt pleating instructions, bind the edge with a strip of fashion fabric cut "on the bias" (diagonally).

Click to enlarge


Pleating the top of the sleeve


The top of the sleeve, as we've seen, won't be pleated all the way along - in fact, it'll only be pleated in one small section at the back of the sleeve. As for the skirt and cuff, we'll use machine sewn knife pleats, but if you want authenticity you're welcome to use cartridge pleating instead (again, there's a great tutorial here.)

1.Measure the armscye on the bodice - note down the length along the bottom of the eye-shaped armhole from corner to corner, and then note down the length along the top. (They won't be the same, by the way, the distance along the top should be significantly bigger.)

2.When the sleeve is attached to the armhole, the split will come exactly at the front "corner" of the armhole. In order to make the sleeve fit, you'll pleat the section of the sleeve that'll be along the back half of the top of the eye shape. So now you need to find where that section is along the top of your sleeve.

Fold the sleeve into its finished position (as in the photo, above right) to check which sleeve you've got. Measure along the top of the sleeve, from the split over the top, and pin at half the distance across the top of the armhole that you measured in (1).

3.Now measure from the split the other way, down under the sleeve, and pin the distance around the bottom of the armhole.

4. Now you can measure the distance between the pins and pleat this section down to match the length of the back half of the top of the armhole. (Halve the distance around the top of the armhole to get your finished length.)

Don't bind the top of the sleeve yet - we're going to make the undersleeve and sew under- and oversleeve together around the top before we bind the edge.

Click to enlarge



The undersleeve is cut using the same pattern again, but with one big difference. The muslin undersleeve has no split, so we'll be sewing the straight edges together, but we don't want that seam to be visible through the split!

Instead, we'll move it to the back, out of sight, as follows:

1. Draw a line down the middle of the sleeve pattern, parallel to the straight edges. Cut down this line, swap the pieces over and tape the two halves back together along what used to be the straight edges. Now, when you make this undersleeve, the seam will fall behind your arm, out of sight!

That's really all there is to it - you don't need to over-think it or mess with the seam allowances, since it's a big, baggy shape. The seam allowances that you've taped together in the middle will compensate for your need for new seam allowances at the edges.

2. Cut two undersleeves out of muslin. Mark the centre point at the top edge (where the two pattern pieces are taped together) with a safety pin or thread tack.

3. Sew the two straight edges together with a French seam, ensuring that you end up with two undersleeves that are mirror images of each other!

French seam - a very useful seam finish for sheer fabrics. Sew the seam with wrong sides together and a narrow (0.5cm or 1/4") seam allowance. Trim the seam allowance down to half its width, press, turn out so that right sides are now together and press again. Then sew again with the same narrow seam allowance, leaving you with a neat, non-fraying seam!


Finishing the undersleeve cuffs

You will have decided by now whether you're using lace or a strip of muslin for the frill at your cuff.

1. If you're using muslin, cut a strip that's 15cm (6") wide and a little longer than the cuff edge (measure around the curves using the tape measure turned on its edge as before). Sew the two short ends together with a French seam and hem one long edge.

If you're using lace, you'll also need to cut a piece for each cuff a little longer than the cuff edge and join the two short ends together. (If you haven't got this much lace, just ensure you've got enough to go comfortably around each arm - you can always gather the cuff a little to match.) Join the two ends as invisibly as you can - try to make the motif overlap and continue smoothly from one edge into the next (again, you can always gather the muslin a little to match if they end up different lengths). Sew by hand, following the pattern if you can to make the stitches invisible. Click on the photo to see a close-up of how it's done.
2. Now join your frill to the cuff edge, right sides together. Bind this seam, leaving the ends of the binding open so that you can thread a narrow ribbon through and draw the cuff tight around your arm.


The rule here is the same as for fabric in skirts - the more lace, or the longer the frill, the more sumptuous the result (up to a point!) However, if your lace is shorter than the cuff edge, gather or pleat the cuff edge to match the lace before joining the two together. Consider concentrating more of the gathers or pleats near the sleeve seam at the back of the arm.

When I made the first Pirate Gown (seen here in red) I used a small piece of antique lace for the cuffs, just enough to go around both arms. By the time I made the second, the Black Pearl gown, I'd found a much bigger piece of antique lace. In fact, there was enough to sew it flat all the way along each cuff edge. So click on the photos and compare the effect of using a little frill against using a big one!

1. Take one sleeve and its corresponding undersleeve. With both of them right-side-out, pin the undersleeve inside the sleeve at the top edge, with the right side of the undersleeve against the lining. Start by placing the edges of the oversleeve (the split) at the mid-point on the undersleeve that you marked earlier. This will ensure that your undersleeve seam is at the back, out of sight.

2. On reaching the point where the pleating begins on the oversleeve, pleat the undersleeve to match (or alternatively, gather this part) and continue pinning the two edges together. Baste.

3. Bind the top edge of the sleeve with another bias-cut strip of fashion fabric.
4. Join together the lower corners of the oversleeve with a few handstitches to hold them together and form the split sleeve. You may wish to put a few stitches in the top of the split too, for extra strength.


Attaching the sleeves to the bodice

1. Cut five 15mm (1/2") wide ribbons, each 1m (1yd+4") long. You will sew the middle of each one to the top edge of the sleeve, on the outside, to form the ties that bind the sleeve to the armscye edge. Hold the ribbon at right angles to the sleeve edge and sew across the width of the ribbon along the edge of the binding, where the binding meets the sleeve (you can do this neatly by machine.) Sewing them in this position allows the lip of the sleeve to sit just inside the armhole without gaping when the sleeves are attached.

2. Sew the first ribbon at the top of the split. Run your finger along the edge over the TOP of the sleeve (ie not under the arm), over the pleats and sew the second ribbon at the other end of the pleats. Sew the other three ribbons at regular intervals between these two.

3. If you wish, embroider "left" and "right" on the inside of the binding at the tops of the sleeves! This is easier than it sounds: just an L and R will do.


Since the dress has to look complete without the sleeves, it follows that the loops that the sleeve ribbons are tied to should be on the inside of the armhole.

You'll need five loops for each sleeve, spaced out along the top edge of the "eye" shaped armscye with the first and last loops at the corners. The sleeve doesn't attach to the dress at the underarm, but stays in place fairly naturally since you won't be able to raise your arm very far anyway!

To make the loops:

1. Make four big stitches side by side, just the width of the ribbon so that the finished loops won't sag and the sleeves will stay tight to the armholes. Sew through as many layers as you can without letting the stitches show on the outside. (Click on the the photos to enlarge, and if you're left-handed like me, click here for the original version of the photo!)
2. Begin at one end and take the thread over the top of the big stitches, underneath them and up through the loop you've made. Repeat all the way along the big stitches, binding them into a strong cord-like loop. Finish the thread at the other end of the loop in the usual way. (Lefties, click here for your photo!)
3. Your ribbons should just fit through the loops, fairly tightly.

These loops provide lots of other options. The sleeves can be tied on from the inside, hiding the bows for those who prefer the dress without trailing ribbons. Additionally, when the dress is worn without sleeves you can also thread very long ribbons through the loop at the top of the shoulder and have long, long trailing ribbons that suggest medieval sleeves.



I do hope that you've enjoyed making your Caribbean Pirate Gown immensely, learnt a lot and gained a lot of confidence!

There were places in these instructions in which I deliberately made the details a little sketchy, leaving you to work things out for yourself just a little, and thus force you to become a more self-sufficient costumer who finds her own solutions.

However, if you get stuck anywhere, the usual rule applies - you have my permission to spam me relentlessly until you have the answers to all your questions!

If you've made it through to finish the gown, you have my hearty congratulations! Don't forget to write to me to let me know how the experience was for you - and to show me your fabulous gown, of course!


Amanda Duke
Thank You!
I have been scouring the internet for a few weeks and finally I find exactly what I am looking for. lolAnd it's thorough to boot! Can't wait to be able to start this project. The dress is what I was envisioning all along.
I cannot see any of the images!
The text sounds like this would be a helpful site for me to subscribe to, but without being able to see any photos of the Pirate Dress - I cannot tell. Can you please check why the images are all broken? It seems to be through the entire article!

Thank you!

Cathy Hay
Oops! Thank you for pointing this out, we're fixing it right now!
Not to be a pest, but...
It's still not working for me? Looking forward to it! Thank you!
The article is now fixed as far as page 8; the rest should be done tomorrow. An outside hosting site that we were using in 2007 has changed things around without us realising it, so the task involves saving, moving and re-linking all the images on our own server, which is a big task. Thank you again for the heads up.
I can see! Awesome. And I so appreciate the problem - I'm a web designer/developer... Good luck with getting it all together and thanks for not getting annoyed! Take care!
Cathy Hay
The article is now fixed in full, as far as I can see - let me know if I missed anything!
Unfortunately, the cartridge pleating tutorial is no longer at that link.
Love this tutorial and the dress and i'm really grateful you put it up, but i'm really struggling to figure out the math on these knife pleats withought a clear sum. my fabric has ended up 162" and I need to get it down to 30", I don't know where to even begin to get it to the correct width :/

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