When you have a spectacular new gown, you can easily picture it trailing behind you as you make a grand entrance. But you may also cringe at the thought of yards of perfect silk taffeta or rich, lustrous satin tumbling behind you on the filthy street or dusty floor. The Victorians had this problem, too. Trained skirts were popular during much of the mid-to-late 1800s, and yet the streets were filthy and fashion editors complained. What is a girl to do?
Well, one option is to lift your train up. They sold little devices that did just this. Called a skirt elevator or skirt lifter, it clipped onto the fabric, and by means of a chain or cord could be raised to lift your train, while crossing the road for instance. If you preferred to leave your skirt up, you could bustle it. This generally involved a sturdy loop and a reinforced button upon which to fasten it, or perhaps one of a variety of intriguing devices patented at the time. This can look pretty, but is not easily done up or taken down.
But why go to the trouble of making a trained gown if you're just going to leave it bustled up all the time? As another option, some ladies sew a long loop of ribbon to their skirts, and thus carry them from their wrists, especially while dancing. But this quickly grows tiring, and it risks damaging delicate fabrics.
A Graceful Option
A lesser-known option is to allow your skirt to flow gracefully behind you, confident in the knowledge that your balayeuse is keeping your gown clean. What is a balayeuse? A literal translation is “sweeper”; another term for it is "dust ruffle". However you name it, it's basically a layered flounce that is fastened to the underside of your train, for the purpose of keeping your skirt up off the ground.
It can serve a double purpose. Firstly, as you walk it drags on the ground beneath your dress, collecting dust and debris. This may sound gross, but it saves your gown from being soiled by that very same rubbish. In addition, some balayeuses add support to your train, keeping it full and spread out, instead of crumpling on itself, as some trains tend to do.
“The best . . . way to fill out a train . . . is to support it with a balayeuse of coarse, stiff muslin, shaped to the size required. Upon this ruffles of the same are mounted.” —Demorest's Mirror of Fashions, May 1879 3
Types of Balayeuse
There are two basic styles of balayeuse. The first is a simple ruffle, which may be edged with lace. The flounce may be gathered or pleated, and it may consist of one or two tiers. The less common option is a wide, shaped panel that is layered with ruffles and/or lace, and which is mounted upon the lining on the underside of the skirt's train.
According to Harper's Bazar and other sources, the balayeuse could be worn in lieu of a trained petticoat. 1 The petticoat would serve much the same purpose of adding support to the train and dusting the ground to keep the gown's train clean. A petticoat, however, would be heavier and more difficult to clean. You can also add a balayeuse to your trained petticoat, like this engraving from Godey's May 1877 (right) of a "Tournure Ninon".
In the Kyoto Fashion Institute there is an example of a fine lace balayeuse on a couture gown created by Charles Frederick Worth. Just because it has a dirty job, doesn't mean a dust ruffle has to be utilitarian! 2
Balayeuses can be made of your dress fabric, or sheer muslin and lace, more basic broadcloth, or even pre-gathered eyelet [UK: broderie anglaise]. Almost anything will work so long as it's ruffled and easily removed for cleaning.
“The single narrow balayeuse flounce added at the foot of the skirt will remain a favorite finish. At present it is laid in small box pleats, instead of the fine knife pleating used last year.”
—Harper's Bazar, October 1880 3
Now that we know what a balayeuse is, how do we make one? Let's begin with the simplest kind.
First, choose your materials. According to historic sources, the most popular balayeuses were either white or black, or made of your dress fabric. What are the pros and cons of either color? The benefits of black are obvious: it will hide a multitude of soiling, which, given the purpose of a balayeuse, is a definite plus. If you want to be practical, or if you're portraying a citizen who must consider utility above all else, choose black.
On the other hand, white is pure and definitely for the upper-classes. It shows the slightest stain, which means it must either be washed or replaced frequently—and that suggests wealth. Also, who can resist the sensual allure of a glimpse of petticoat beneath the hem of a skirt? Most undergarments are white, so if your balayeuse is seen, it will be assumed that it's part of your petticoat.
Another aspect to consider is the color of your gown. A lighter gown will look better with a white balayeuse, while a dark gown might look better with a black one. Of course, any gown will look good with a matching balayeuse, but consider the nature of your fabric. For all the glamour of Worth's extravagant example mentioned above, you may not want a dust ruffle made of fragile silk, for example.
“One style consists of a white muslin flounce edged with narrow lace. . . . The most practical of all is a flounce of black muslin edged with white lace.” —Harper's Bazar, January 1878 3
Lace or fabric? Do you want to be practical or sinfully pretty?
You can make your balayeuse out of either, but fabric is eminently more practical, being sturdier and easier to clean. On the other hand, lace is gorgeous and displays an abundance of taste.
You can always compromise and use eyelet [UK: broderie anglaise], which has the advantage of being both hardy and decorative. Pre-gathered eyelet or lace is also easier to use and requires less yardage, since it's already been gathered. The down side is that it's typically loosely gathered, with less material than you might desire.
Whatever you do, be sure to tailor your balayeuse to your gown: a ballgown would look stunning with gathered lace, while a promenade gown might look better with eyelet, and a trained house-gown might look best with a plain muslin ruffle.
Now that you have your materials, decide whether you want your ruffle to extend all the way around your skirt, or just across the back, and measure around the inside hem of your gown to determine the finished length. Think about whether you prefer a tightly gathered ruffle or a softer look. Use twice the length of the hem for a less-gathered look and thrice the length for fuller gathers.
How wide do you want your ruffle to be? For this demonstration, we shall say six inches (15cm). If you want a layered balayeuse, make the top ruffle narrower than the one underneath; in this example we'll stick with a single flounce.
If you're using fabric, cut a length of muslin or broadcloth either two or three times your measurement and seven inches wide. For a half-ruffle, you can taper it so that the ends don't stop abruptly but gradually vanish.
Finish the bottom with a simple hem: turn the edge under ¼” (6mm), then another ¼”, and stitch. Gather the top edge.
Means of Gathering
Method #1: Zig-Zag Gathering
Lay a narrow cord along the edge, secure one end, and carefully zig-zag over it. Pull the cord to gather the ruffle.
Method #2: Machine Gathering
Loosen the tension on your machine and stitch two rows, ¼” (6mm) apart. For a very long row, break the rows into segments no longer than 18” (45cm). Back-stitch at the beginning of each row, to secure the stitching. Gently pull the bobbin thread to gather the fabric. Ease the gathers along the thread until they are even and neat.
Secure the gathers by stitching to a stay—a length of twill tape works well, as does a cut-off selvedge, or grosgrain ribbon.
Method #3: Hand Gathering
By hand, sew a running stitch along the edge of your fabric. Secure the thread first by back-stitching. Keep the stitches straight and even. Every so often, pull the fabric along the thread to gather it. Continue until you near the end of your thread. Back-stitch again, and knot your thread securely. Repeat until the entire length of ruffle is gathered.
Method #4: Gathering Attachment Foot
Use a gathering or ruffling attachment foot for your sewing machine. Set the foot to produce a ruffle that is gathered at least double. You may wish to do a sample, to be sure the ratio of gathering is adequate. When you're ready, carefully feed the fabric into the gathering foot, allowing it to ruffle. Measure as you go, and stop when your ruffle is the length you need.
Hand sew the ruffle to the lining of your skirt so that the finished edge will be half an inch (13mm) from the skirt's hem—unless you want it to show, in which case, line it up so that as much as you desire hangs past the hem. The raw, gathered edge will be hidden if you pin it upside down, so that it flips down toward the hem. (If making a layered balayeuse, do this just for the top ruffle, as the ruffles will overlap, each hiding the raw edge of the one beneath it.)
|Sew the ruffle upside down||Then flip it down and tack to hide the gathering stitches|
1 Victorian Fashions & Costumes From Harper's Bazar: 1867-1898,page 122
2 Fashion—Vol. II (Kyoto Costume Institute), page 266, or page 372 in the 2006 single volume edition, or p272 in the 2002 single volume edition
3 Quotes compiled from Fashions of the Gilded Age—Vol. I by Frances Grimble, page 142