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Making a Circle Skirt

by Shira

These instructions describe how to make one of the basic components of a belly dancing costume, the circle skirt. Although it's not appropriate for historical / folkloric performances, if made out of natural fiber such as cotton, it can complement a modern-day American Tribal Style or tribal fusion look. Made from shiny fabric such as tissue lamé or satin, it sparkles under the stage lights of a nightclub or catches the glint of the sun outdoors.

This skirt made of 2 or 3 half-circle panels drapes gracefully over the hips, falling into a full hemline at the bottom edge.

In the photograph to the right, I am wearing a 3-panel circle skirt of turquoise tissue lamé, and over that a darker blue accent skirt made using a circle skirt pattern with some shaping of the lower edge.

Turquoise Costume

The photo above was taken by Jeff Halpin.

 

Women of all sizWomen of all sizes can bellydance! Try it even if you think you are overweight!

Table of Contents

 

Women of all sizWomen of all sizes can bellydance! Try it even if you think you are overweight!

About the Circle Skirt

The circle skirt has been a favorite part of the belly dancer's costume wardrobe for many years. It has minimal bulk at the hipline, yet is very full at the floor. For dancers who want a modern-day nightclub-style costume, this skirt is very satisfying to wear because it enhances the movements of the dance. Made of inexpensive fabric such as nylon tricot, it can be fun to wear for class or rehearsal.

If made of fabric that is not see-through, you can wear the circle skirt by itself, or you can wear pantaloons underneath for a more modest look. The pantaloons can be either sheer or opaque.

I like to layer two or more circle skirts, each made of different fabric but in colors that look good with each other.

Shira Wearing Circle Skirts

In the above photograph, I am performing a double veil dance wearing three circle skirts made of tissue lamé fabric--one each in red, green, and gold. Each is made with 3 panels. Note how the fabric responds to the momentum of spinning. Underneath them, I am wearing a pair of sheer gold pantaloons.

A circle skirt can be flattering for dancers who:

  • Want a full skirt to balance either broad shoulders or an ample bosom
  • Wear their hair in a fluffy style
  • Enjoy feeling a skirt swirl around their legs when doing spins or Arabesques
  • Want to capture a retro look in their dance with chiffon or georgette skirts
  • Are aiming for a romantic aesthetic

A circle skirt might not be the best choice for dancers who:

  • Have pear-shaped figures (large hips with narrow shoulders)
  • Want a costume in the style of the latest fashions in Egypt
  • Are aiming for a sleek, sophisticated look

 

Women of all sizWomen of all sizes can bellydance! Try it even if you think you are overweight!

Supplies

When I purchase supplies to make a new circle skirt, I usually purchase enough fabric and trim to make a circle skirt, a matching veil, and either a matching vest or sleeves. That way, I have choices available to me on other items I can combine the skirt with at the time I wear it.

Note: this list of supplies assumes that your skirt will consist of a total of three half-circle panels, and it assumes you will finish the top edge using my recommended method described on How To Make A Hip Elastic Casing With Wide Bias Tape. If you opt to go a different direction from the one I recommend, then you'll need to determine what adjustments are necessary to the list of supplies I've suggested.

  • Fabric. For 3 panels, buy 7 yards/6.5 meters if fabric 44 inches/112 cm wide.
  • Trim for Bottom Edge. (Optional)
    • If making a 3-panel skirt, buy 17 yards.
    • If making a 2-panel skirt, buy 12 yards.
  • Non-Roll Elastic. Width is 3/4 inch or 2 cm, long enough to fit snugly around your hips.
  • Thread. To match fabric.
  • Wide Bias Tape. Buy 1 package, width is 1 inch/2.54 cm wide in color to match fabric.

Fabric

Important Note: The fabric you choose will determine how soon you can wear your finished circle skirt. Certain fabrics require several weeks to hang on a hanger and stretch before hemming. If you are in a hurry to wear your finished skirt soon, you'll need to select a fabric that does not require several weeks of stretching. Fabrics that do not require stretching include tissue lamé, foils, nylon tricot, glitter dot fabric, and most other knits.

Recommended Fabrics

Here are some suggestions for suitable fabric that make a beautiful circle skirt. If you are new to sewing, you might not know the difference between charmeuse, lamé, georgette, or the other fabrics indicated. Don't let that intimidate you--just ask the staff at the fabric store to show you where each of these fabrics can be found. It's their job to make it easier for customers to spend money in their store!

Fabric Price Range Sewing Skill Needed Comments
Charmeuse (Polyester) Medium Intermediate or Advanced Shiny enough to capture the light, and moves beautifully. The weight is heavy, so you should use either strong elastic or a make a drawstring of grosgrain ribbon.
Charmeuse (Silk) Expensive Intermediate or Advanced Shiny enough to capture the light, and moves beautifully. The weight is heavy, so you should use either strong elastic or a make a drawstring of grosgrain ribbon.
Tissue Lamé Affordable Novice This fabric is lightweight and shiny. Although just a little stiff, it is still well suited to this skirt style. Nice for a beginning dancer, but I wouldn't recommend it for professionals because it looks a little cheap. Not recommended for dancers with pear-shaped figures.
China Silk Medium Novice Not as shiny as charmeuse, but nice drape.
Crepe-Backed Satin Medium Intermediate Shiny and drapes well, but not as well as charmeuse. This fabric is heavier than charmeuse, so use strong elastic and pin it to your belt; otherwise, it may try to slide down over your hips while you dance. Or, use a drawstring made from grosgrain ribbon instead of elastic.
Glitter Dot or Confetti Dot Medium Advanced Sparkles beautifully, doesn't need to be hung, and drapes well. Extremely difficult to sew. Some people think it looks cheap.
Foils Expensive Advanced These consist of a shiny metallic surface bonded to a knit background. They fall into the more expensive end of the price range. They drape beautifully and flow as you move. Difficult to sew.
Georgette Affordable Novice It's not shiny, but moves beautifully. I like to use it for underskirts worn beneath something glittery. Also good for dancers with larger hips because it's not as shiny.
Chiffon Affordable Novice Not shiny, but well-suited to underskirts.
Nylon Tricot Very Affordable Novice Tricot is not as nice as georgette or chiffon, but it wouldn't be bad for an underskirt. Its very low price makes it very attractive to people who are on a budget. Because tricot does not have much body, it doesn't raise away from your legs while you spin. Therefore, a tricot underskirt worn under a skirt that has more body will ensure that the audience doesn't get a view of your panties while you spin.
Cotton Broadcloth Very Affordable Novice This will give your costume a somewhat folkloric look, suitable for the American Tribal Style of dance.

When choosing a color, remember that shiny fabrics will make your hips appear larger. If you're sensitive about your hip size consider choosing a darker color. If you go for a matte fabric that doesn't sparkle, any color you enjoy should be fine.

Fabrics to Avoid

You should avoid these fabrics because they don't drape or move very well:

  • Heavy Satin
  • Velvet, velveteen, or velour
  • Brocade

Trim

Buy 17 yards of whatever trim you want to use to decorate the lower edge of the skirt if you're making 3 panels, or 12 yards if you're making 2 panels.

Sequin Trim This could be a shiny braid or a sequin trim. For a peasant look you could use narrow bias tape or rickrack on a cotton skirt.

Another way to trim the bottom edge of a circle skirt would be to hand-sew a row of either bugle beads or rocaille beads to it. Bugle beads look attractive arranged in a zig-zag pattern like this: / \ / \ / \

 

Women of all sizWomen of all sizes can bellydance! Try it even if you think you are overweight!

Making the Skirt

Measurements Needed

Measure the distance around your hips at the belt line, which is where the top edge of the skirt will lie when you're wearing it. This should be about halfway between your navel and the fullest part of your hips--just about one inch (2.54 cm) higher than what would be needed to fully cover your rear cleavage.

Put on the shoes you will most likely wear when performing. Have a friend measure the distance from the belt line to where you want the finished length to be -- most dancers want the skirt to fall to the instep of the foot or slightly higher. If the skirt is too long, you'll step on it by accident when you're dancing. If you do this in front of a full-length mirror, you can more easily tell whether your friend is bringing the tape measure to the place where you want it.

Now that you know your "top point", record your measurements here:

_____ Hip Measurement at Belt Line _____ Finished Length from Belt Line to Lower Edge

Creating the Pattern Piece

To make your pattern, tape together newspapers to make a sheet that is 45 inches square or larger.

Now, look for your hip measurement in the first column of the following chart:

Hip Size

2 Panels

3 Panels

40 in. or 102 cm 8 in. or 20 cm 6 in. or 15 cm
42 in. or 107 cm 8.5 in. or 21 cm 6 in. or 15 cm
44 in. or 112 cm 9 in. or 22 cm 6.5 in. or 16 cm
46 in. or 117 cm 9 in. or 22 cm 6.5 in. or 16 cm
48 in. or 122 cm 9 in. or 23 cm 6.5 in. or 17 cm
50 in. or 127 cm 9.5 in. or 24 cm 7 in. or 17 cm
52 in. or 132 cm 10 in. or 25 cm 7 in. or 18 cm
54 in. or 137 cm 10 in. or 26 cm 7 in. or 18 cm
56 in. or 142 cm 10.5 in. or 26 cm 7.5 in. or 19 cm
58 in. or 147 cm 10.5 in. or 27 cm 7.5 in. or 19 cm
60 in. or 152 cm 11 in. or 28 cm 8 in. or 20 cm
62 in. or 157 cm 11.5 in. or 29 cm 8 in. or 21 cm
64 in. or 163 cm 11.5 in. or 30 cm 8.5 in. or 21 cm
66 in. or 168 cm 12 in. or 31 cm 8.5 in. or 22 cm
68 in. or 173 cm 12.5 in. or 31 cm 8.5 in. or 22 cm
70 in. or 178 cm 12.5 in. or 32 cm 9 in. or 23 cm
72 in. or 183 cm 13 in. or 33 cm 9 in. or 23 cm
74 in. or 188 cm 13.5 in. or 34 cm 9.5 in. or 24 cm
76 in. or 193 cm 13.5 in. or 35 cm 9.5 in. or 24 cm
78 in. or 198 cm 14 in. or 35 cm 10 in. or 25 cm

 

If you plan to make a skirt with 3 half-circle panels, find the corresponding measurement in the "3 Panels" column. If you plan to make a skirt with 2 half-circle panels, find the corresponding measurement in the "2 Panels" column.

Set your compass to the number of inches indicated by the table. Or, if you don't have a compass, tie one end of a string to a pencil. Then cut the string so that it is the length indicated in the table above

For those who like to know such things, here is how I calculated the numbers in the table: For the 2-panel column, I first divided by the hip measurement pi (3.14159). Since you set a compass to half the length of the diameter (distance across the circle), I then divided by 2 to get the radius (the compass measurement). Add 1.5 inch or 3 cm to the result. In all cases, I rounded up to the next larger inch so that the resulting skirt wouldn't have gaps where the panels meet. This allows for the straight edges to be turned under and hemmed while still covering the hips adequately.

For the 3-panel column, I first divided the hip measurement by 3 and multiplied by 2 to go from having a circle and a half total to having just one circle. Next I divided by pi (3.14159) to get the diameter, and then divided by 2 to get the compass setting. Add 1.5 inch or 3 cm to the result. In all cases, I rounded up to the next larger inch so that the resulting skirt wouldn't have gaps where the panels meet. This allows for the straight edges to be turned under and hemmed while still covering the hips adequately.

Anchor the compass or one end of the string at one corner of the newspaper, and then use the pencil end to draw an arc. This is the hip line for your pattern.

Next, fill in the blanks on this table:

____ The measurement used for your compass setting or string length
____ The desired finished length
____ The amount you plan to turn over on the top edge when finishing the skirt. If you use my recommended bias tape method, this should be 1/4 inch or .5 cm.
____ The amount you plan to turn over on the bottom edge for the hem. If you use my recommended narrow hem, this should be 1/2 inch or 1 cm.
____ Add up all the above numbers.

Tie one end of a string to a pencil. Then cut the string so that it is the length indicated in last line of the table above. Anchor the compass or one end of the string at the same corner of the newspaper as before (or have a second person hold it in place for you), and then use the pencil end to draw an arc. This will be the lower edge of the skirt.

Cut out the pattern. The finished shape will be a quarter circle with its tip cut off as shown in this diagram.

Circle Skirt Pattern Piece

Instead of drafting your own pattern as described above, you could alternately purchase a ready-made pattern. Atira's Fashions is one such vendor you can search for on the web.

Cutting Out the Skirt

Laying Out the Pattern Piece on the Fabric

Completely open up your fabric so it doesn't have any folds at all. Place your pattern in one corner of the fabric as shown above and pin it into place. Cut along the solid lines, but do not cut the dotted line. Pick up the pattern piece and place it so that one of the straight edges matches the uncut part along the dotted line. Cut along the solid lines. You'll end up with a half circle piece shaped like the diagram.

What It Looks Like

Cut out your additional panels, flip-flopping the position of the pattern as shown so that you don't waste any fabric.

Seams / Slits

If making a 3-panel skirt, with right sides together, sew two of the panels together along one of the straight edges. This will be the center back. You can leave the other straight edges open to form slits that would expose your thighs in front if you wish, or you can seam them instead for a more covered look. It depends on what you want the finished skirt to look like.

For a 2-panel skirt, people usually seam at least one side of it, but the other side can be left open as a slit if desired.

If you decide to leave a slit or two, hemming the straight edges on either side of the slit is optional. It depends on your fabric and your preferences. Normally, when cutting the skirt out you will align the straight edges of the pattern piece with the selvages (finished edges) of the fabric as shown in the cutting diagrams above. Because these edges of the fabric have been woven in a way to prevent raveling, you could leave them unhemmed if you wish. Sometimes people decorate the sides of the slits, other times not. Some fabrics such as glitter dot or chiffon have selvages that aren't very attractive. If this is the case, you may wish to hem the straight edges of the skirt.

Click here for directions on how to make the type of hem that I recommend.

Make Elastic or Drawstring Casing at Top Edge

A "casing" is a tunnel of fabric through which you place elastic or a drawstring.

Make a casing for the elastic or drawstring in the top edge of each panel. I recommend using wide bias tape because it is a very easy way to deal with the curved edge. Click here for detailed instructions on how to do it. Even though those instructions tell you how to insert the elastic, don't do it yet--wait until after you have finished hemming the bottom edge and applying your trim.

Hanging the Skirt

Now, using either pins or basting stitches, attach the top edge of the skirt piece to a wire hanger. Hang it in an out-of-the-way place for at least one month. The longer, the better. This is very important. Many fabrics will stretch along the bias, which is the diagonal. If you don't hang your skirt to let the stretching happen before you hem it and put trim on the bottom edge, then it will stretch later when your store your skirt or wear it. The result will be an ugly, uneven lower edge, which will be a real nuisance to remedy after you have hemmed and decorated it. So hang it. Clip clothespins about every 6-8 inches along the lower edge to give added weight and encourage the stretching to happen.

Is it really necessary to wait 1-2 months before finishing your new skirt? You might be able to skip the hanging stage, depending on what fabric you use for it. There are some fabrics that don't "grow" over time.

Fabrics That Require Hanging

Fabrics That Don't Require Hanging

Charmeuse Tissue Lamé
Satin Foils (Liquid Gold, etc.)
Georgette Many Knits
China Silk Nylon Tricot
Crepe-Backed Satin  
Chiffon  
Glitter Dot / Confetti Dot - it needs trimming, but you can do it immediately rather than waiting 1-2 months.  

If you don't see the fabric you want to use on this table, hang it. When in doubt, hang it.

After 1-2 months have elapsed, take a scissors and even out the lower edge. Some people like to insert the elastic (see below) in the top edge and put the skirt on to have someone else use the scissors to even out the hem while they are wearing it. If you have any figure issues that could cause a skirt to hang unevenly on you (for example, one leg longer than the other, or a voluptuous back side), then this approach is advisable. A skirt that seems perfectly even on the hanger could look uneven on some bodies. Remove the skirt piece from the hanger if you haven't already done so.

Finishing It

To hem the bottom edge: First, place the raw curved edge in your sewing machine and stitch a line 1/4 inch (.64 centimeters) from the edge all the way around the curved edge. Next, sit in a comfortable chair and turn the hem under along the stitching line, and turn it under again. Pin into place about once every 12 inches (30 centimeters). You’ll find that the stitching line makes it easy to get the curve to behave itself. Then, machine-stitch the hem in place. Click here for more detailed instructions on making this hem.

Some people like to turn the hem toward the right side when using a wide trim because then, when they apply the trim, it entirely covers the hem and that means no hem will be visible at all, regardless of whether the audience sees the right side or the wrong side. Speaking for myself, I don't do this because I'm in the habit of turning it to the wrong side and I figure the audience won't get a close enough look at my hem to care whether it's visible on the wrong side anyway. Do whichever you prefer.

Decorate

Some fabrics are so beautiful that they really don't require any sort of decoration. However, if you wish, you can add decorations to the hem or create designs with beads, sequins, shells, crystals, or shisha mirrors across the panels of the skirt.

If you purchased a trim for the curved edge, sew it into place now. I usually machine-sew my trim because it goes much faster than hand-sewing. Because of my distance from the audience they usually won't be able to tell the difference anyway. But if you are a perfectionist, or if you want a particularly special look, you can hand-sew it.

If you left one or more slits, you might consider decorating the edges of the slits. Some people do this, others don't. (I don't.)

If you prefer to use a hand-sewn bead-and-sequin edging, you could finish the lower edge using the Turkish edging made from 8-mm cup sequins and rocaille beads that was on two costumes I purchased in Turkey.

Inserting the Elastic or Drawstring

Attach either a bodkin (see photo at right) or a large safety pin to one edge of the elastic or drawstring. Thread the bodkin or the safety pin through the casing at the top edge of the single half-circle piece (if making a 3-panel skirt with 2 slits) and pull the elastic through. Next thread the bodkin through the top edge of the two half-circle pieces that were sewn together. You will now have all three of your skirt pieces on the elastic, with two of them sewn together and a gap between those and the third.

Sew the raw edges of the elastic together, and adjust the casing at the top edge of the skirt to cover them. Or, if you used a drawstring, attach a hook and eye set to the ends of the drawstring to fasten it together at the top.

If you have chosen to leave slits, try on the skirt and determine whether you want to add a few inches of stitching to close the top of each slit for a more modest look.

Bodkin

 

Women of all sizWomen of all sizes can bellydance! Try it even if you think you are overweight!

How to Wear a Circle Skirt

Position the seam at the center back. Allow the two slits to fall open in front, at the thighs. If you prefer to keep your thighs covered, you can do one of the following:

Sew the slits closed, just like you sewed the center back seam.

Wear a second skirt underneath, which is positioned such that its seam falls in the center front.

Wear pantaloons underneath.

The circle skirt can be worn with a variety of different costume items, for different looks. The pictures shown throughout this article demonstrate how you can wear two or three circle skirts made of different fabrics together. Note that in this double veil picture, the red circle skirt is tucked at the hip to give the appearance of an accent skirt worn over the top of the other two circle skirts. (The green skirt is on top, then the red skirt immediately below it, then the gold skirt closest to the body.)

Click on the photo to the right to see this costume in more detail.

This photograph was taken in 1996 by Evelyn Elliot.

Shira Wearing 3 Circle Skirts

You could wear a single circle skirt over the top of pantaloons. I usually choose to wear at least one other item with my circle skirt: either an overskirt in a different shape, a second circle skirt in a different fabric, or a pair of pantaloons. This is because a single skirt can accidentally fly open while you're spinning and expose your bottom. With more than one layer, you are less likely to flash the audience with a view of your panties. (Even if you don't mind letting the audience see your panties, they probably would rather not see such a spectacle--especially if they have their children with them.)

 

Women of all sizWomen of all sizes can bellydance! Try it even if you think you are overweight!

Variations

  • Make a three-tiered skirt as follows: Cut out three 2-panel skirts, in three different lengths, all of the same fabric. One skirt should be full length, one about a third of the distance from your hip to the floor, and the third about two-thirds of the distance from your hip to the floor. For each skirt, sew the openings on both sides closed, so that you have a single continuous full circle for each layer. Put the full-length skirt on its own piece of elastic. Put the other two skirts together on a single piece of elastic. (Hold the two layers' top edges together as you apply the bias tape.) Trim the bottom edges of all three skirts with a contrasting color so that the lower edge of each is very obvious. Now, you have a three-tiered skirt effect when you wear them together.
  • Make the lower edge of your skirt a scallop shape all the way around. (Don't do this unless you are either using a knit fabric that doesn't require a hem or you're very skilled at sewing--hemming it is not easy!) In the photo at the beginning of this article of me wearing a turquoise tissue lamé circle skirt, the darker blue overskirt is a circle skirt which has been cut shorter, with a scalloped bottom edge.
  • Use one of the suggested variations for the lower edge when making a two- or three-tiered skirt. Use sequins to trace a design in each section around the hem. This will give your costume a retro (1990's) Egyptian-style look. Note the photo to the right and the one below, both of skirts made in Egypt.
  • Make the lower edge of your skirt a zig-zag all the way around: \/\/\/\/\/ (Don't do this unless you are either using a knit fabric that doesn't require a hem or you're very skilled at sewing--hemming a zig-zag shape is not easy!) The blue skirt to the right was made in Egypt. Two half-circle panels were used for each tier. They were sewn together along one edge, and the other was left open to expose the leg while dancing. Photo by John Rickman, San Jose, California, 2000.
Shira Wearing a Pointed-Bottom Circle Skirt
  • Make the lower edge of your skirt a series of rectangles: |_| |_| |_| (Don't do this unless you are either using a knit fabric that doesn't require a hem or you have a sewing machine that can finish off the raw edge with a zigzag hem stitch -- this shape does not lend itself well to hemming!) The photo to the right shows a picture of a 3-tiered skirt from Egypt with this style of bottom edge. Two half-circle panels were used for each tier. They were sewn together along one edge, and the other was left open as a slit to expose the leg while dancing. The edges of each tier were finished using a zig-zag stitch, then decorated with a bead-and-paillette edging. On each of the rectangular sections, a flower design was created using sequins in assorted colors.

Click on the image to the right to see this costume in more detail.

Photo by Randolph Lynch, Belmont, California, 2002.

Shira In Egyptian Circle Skirt

 

Women of all sizWomen of all sizes can bellydance! Try it even if you think you are overweight!

Storing Your Circle Skirt

Your storage method will depend partly on whether it was necessary to hang the skirt before hemming it.

If it was necessary to hang the skirt and trim the lower edge before hemming it, then you should not store the skirt hanging on a hanger. It will probably continue to "grow" just as it did when you hung it, and the bottom edge will eventually stretch into an unsightly uneven shape. For best results, store it carefully folded in a drawer.

If you used a fabric that did not require hanging (such as tissue lamé or nylon tricot) then you may store your skirt on a hanger if you wish.

 

Women of all sizWomen of all sizes can bellydance! Try it even if you think you are overweight!

The contents of this page are copyrighted 2008 by Julie Anne Elliot. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication is forbidden.