How to Make an Easy Belly Dance Skirt
If you can sew a seam, you can make a simple but effective belly dance skirt from one rectangle of fabric. From that base, you can make the following styles of skirt:
- Straight skirt with one split
- Straight skirt with chiffon insert in split
- Straight skirt with 4 chiffon inserts
- Fishtail skirt
I'm not much good at sewing - I can put thread in the sewing machine and press the pedal, but that's about all! So when I had to start making my own belly dance skirts, I made several false starts. I found plenty of advice on the internet from experienced dressmakers on how to make a skirt, but I found a lot of it didn't work for a belly dance skirt - and some of it was too difficult for a novice like me anyway.
After a lot of trial and error, I finally worked out how to make an easy belly dance skirt. You don't need a pattern - it's basically a straight tube. If you'd like to know how to make it, just hop further down the page to "Method" - but I've decided to document the advice I didn't follow, in case you're wondering why my instructions are different from those you may find elsewhere on the internet.
Measuring in the Right Place is Vital
Most patterns will tell you to measure your hips at their widest point. That seems logical - after all, the skirt has to be big enough to fit your widest point, right?
Wrong! There are two problems with that. The first is that, if your skirt fits over your widest point, it will just hang straight down from there. The second is that you'll have to put elastic in the waistband because it will be too loose there.
If you look at the photo below, I hope you can see what I mean. This skirt is cut according to the Method below, with one difference - I used the widest part of my hips as the measurement, instead of the width at my hip bones.
At first glance, the skirt looks impressive because it's made of gorgeous holographic Lycra. It didn't even need any embellishment, apart from a brooch and an appliqué. But look more closely, and you can see how it's bunched around the waistband because of the excess fabric - and then it just hangs from hip level. In this still picture I thought that was a good thing, because it disguises my bumps - but when I saw a video of this performance, I was shocked! The skirt looked like a shapeless box.
I've since recut it, this time measuring at my hip bones. Now the skirt fits snugly at the waistline with no wrinkles, then stretches gently around my butt before coming in again at the thigh. Yes, it does highlight my saddle bags a little - but because it curves in and out again, it's much more flattering when I dance. It's a similar effect to bootcut jeans.
Make No Allowance for Ease
Ease is related to hip measurement. If you're making a conventional garment, you would always take your measurement, then add a bit extra for luck. Ease is the difference between wriggling into a skirt, and being able to slip it on smoothly. And if you didn't have ease in a non-stretch skirt, you'd bust the seams every time you sat down!
Belly dance skirts are different. As we've seen above, making a skirt as wide as your widest point doesn't work - it creates a shapeless box. So obviously, making it even wider would be a disaster. Ease allows a skirt to sit lightly on your hips instead of hugging them tightly - but in belly dance, "hug" is exactly what you want.
Even in conventional skirts, you don't need to add much ease if you're using a stretch fabric (because it will "give" as you move instead of straining the seams). So you don't need any ease in a belly dance skirt. True, a tight skirt will put pressure on seams - but there's only one seam in my simple skirt, so it won't take much time to double-reinforce it.
Easy Belly Dance Skirt - Method
1. Take Your Measurements
You need just two measurements: top hip and length.
- Find the top of your hip bones. Measure around yourself at that level. Yes, I know you're much wider round your hips than around your hip bones - trust me, it doesn't matter. Add 1 inch (2.5 centimetres) hem allowance.
- Measure the length you want - i.e., from wherever you like your skirt to sit on your hips, down to where you want the hem to finish. Add 3 inches (7.5 centimetres) hem allowance (your top hem will be larger to make a waistband).
2. Buy Your Fabric
It's worth searching your local fabric stores for unusual materials. A skirt made in holographic lycra, like the one used in the skirt above, doesn't need any crystals or beads. Metallic finishes and animal prints are good choices (the example below is from Bellydance.com - note how simple the design is, yet the print makes it look exotic). You can often find patterned velvet material too.
Calculate how much fabric you need based on your measurements. Personally, I always add a few inches in both directions when I buy my material, in case I made a mistake! You can always cut off the excess later.
Always check the direction of stretch of the material before buying. Some materials are "two-way stretch", so it won't matter which way you cut your skirt - but some fabrics only stretch in one direction. If you choose a one-way stretch material, be sure you buy it wide enough for your hip measurement in the direction it stretches.
You'll also need matching thread, elastic for the waistband, and whatever sequins, crystals or lace you want to decorate it with. (Tip: be creative. On the holographic skirt, the brooch and appliqué are repurposed from an old costume).
3. Sew Your Skirt
The beauty of lycra is that you don't need to finish off the edges. Just sew your seams as instructed below with a straight stitch. Lycra can be slippery though - if you have that problem, put a piece of newspaper under the fabric as you sew, then tear it off afterwards.
- Fold your skirt in half lengthways. The open side is what will become the split in your dress - whether you have a high split at the thigh, or a smaller one at the back or front, doesn't matter.
- Sew down the open side, starting from the waist, as far down as you want. If you're having a thigh split, that may mean you sew only a few inches. If in doubt, sew less than you think you need - you can always sew a bit more later.
- When you're happy with it, you'll need to reinforce the top of the split by oversewing it several times - but I find it's best to wait until the skirt is finished.
- Fold 1.5 to 2 inches of the top edge inwards, and tack in place. This will form your waistband. Sew it neatly 1 to 1.5 inches from the edge to make a channel big enough to thread elastic through. Don't forget to leave a small section open, so you can get the elastic in!
- Thread the elastic through (the easiest way is to put a safety pin through one end of the elastic and push that through the channel). You can pin the elastic together while you check the fit.
- Try the skirt on and make any adjustments. When you're happy with it, sew the elastic together securely and close the small section of waistband where you threaded it through.
Your skirt is almost done! Now all you need to do is hem it to the right length, and add whatever embellishments you want - unless you want to add some chiffon inserts (godets).
For the more ambitious, you could try your hand at making a mermaid skirt with these instructions:
How To Add Chiffon Inserts to a Skirt
A chiffon insert will add movement to your skirt, and is also useful if (like me) you prefer not to show off your bare legs.
You will need a quarter circle or a half circle of chiffon. The easiest option is to hem it all round, then attach the top corner at hip level, so it hangs down over the split. This will give movement, but it will fly up as you dance, so it's not effective as concealment.
If you want the chiffon to stay in place, you'll need to sew it into the split. That may not look difficult - but I'll be honest, it's one of my least favorite things.
Measure from the top of the split to the hem and add a hem allowance. That's the length of the edge of your quarter-circle. If you're using a semi-circle, multiply it by two.
The video above shows a quarter-circle insert. However, a semi-circle is the easiest to sew in, because you can start at the hem on one side, and just keep sewing up one side, across the top and down the other until you get to the other hem. It doesn't matter if you don't have it perfectly symmetrical, because you're going to have to even up the hem anyway.
With a quarter-circle you must get the point positioned exactly in the centre of the slit at the top, then sew down from there to the hem on each side. If you get the point off-centre your insert will bulge instead of hanging nicely.
Once you've sewn in the inserts, leave the skirt to hang overnight.
This is where things get difficult, because even if the material doesn't "drop", the hem of the chiffon will need levelling: the centre will be hanging down far below the edges.
The easiest way to get the hem right is to wear the skirt and get someone else to pin it in place for you.
The next best thing is to lay your skirt on a flat surface, spread out the chiffon until it's flat, and pin the hem to line up with the rest of the skirt - then try it on, adjust as necessary, over and over again until you get it looking right.
I'm sure there must be a way to cut the chiffon properly in the first place, so you're not faced with this difficult hemming challenge. Once you're finished, the hem of your insert will still have a slight curve. I've tried cutting it into a shallower curve before sewing, but I wound up with a hem that was shorter in the middle than on the sides (still scratching my head over that ...). Maybe a more experienced dressmaker can enlighten us!
How to Add a Fishtail
A "fishtail" skirt has an extra piece of fabric at the back of the skirt, like the train on a wedding dress. The fishtail is most often added to a skirt with some kind of flippy hem, like a mermaid skirt - however a fishtail on a straight skirt can look fabulous too, and is much easier to make. I once saw a troupe wearing gold lycra straight skirts with cream satin fishtails. I can't remember what they danced, but I will never forget those gorgeous costumes!
Those gold skirts didn't have a split at the front - the generous fishtail meant they still had plenty of room to move. If you like that idea, then you simply make your skirt as described above, except that the seam goes at the back of the skirt instead of at the thigh.
Method - fishtail with no thigh split
Make and insert your fishtail in exactly the same way as the chiffon inserts above, with one important difference - you want the hem of your fishtail to be curved, like a small train, so you'll find it much easier to get the hem right. Don't make it too long, though, or you'll trip over it.
Method - fishtail and thigh split
If you'd like a thigh split AND a fishtail, you'll need to cut a slit in the back of the skirt to insert the fishtail.
Try on your skirt, make sure you have the thigh split in exactly the right place, and mark the centre back of your skirt (e.g. with a safety pin on the waistline).
Place the skirt, front side down, on a flat surface and double-check you have the centre back in exactly the right place. Use a ruler or straight edge to make a line from the hem to the desired starting point for your fishtail. I recommend drawing the line on the fabric before you cut - the line will be hidden later, because it will be inside the seam.
When cutting the slit, err on the side of caution at first. Cut, then try the skirt on and look in a mirror at the shape of the skirt above the cut. Most dancers will want the fishtail to start low enough that you can still see the bottom starting to curve inwards, just before the tail starts. Any lower and you may find it restricts your movement. If it starts too high, the skirt will look as though it is flaring out on all sides and you'll lose that distinctive curvy bellydance shape. However if that's what you want, that's your privilege too.
Insert the fishtail into the slit in the same way as the chiffon inserts. You will need to reinforce the top of the slit. I usually add a small triangle of fabric there to add extra strength, and conceal it with an appliqué or jewel.
Other Skirt Styles to Make Yourself
If you have more sewing skills, you'll find plenty of ideas for more complicated DIY skirts on Youtube. I particularly recommend SparklyBelly - if you are serious about costume-making, it's worth signing up for her paid course. Meanwhile, here's her video about how to make a mermaid skirt (sometimes called a trumpet skirt). Have fun!
© 2020 Marisa Wright