July 25, 2012

Tiered Skirt Tutorial

Someone over on Tribe.net asked for advice on making a tiered, 18 yard skirt. My reply turned into a tutorial, so I figured I'd copy & paste it over here for you all to enjoy as well. :) What is an 18 yard skirt, you ask? In American Tribal Style (ATS) bellydance costuming, we wear tiered skirts that give us a lot of fabric at the hem, which is great for flying during spins or for tucking in beautiful ways, with minimal fabric at the waist. A tiered skirt also leaves more useful leftover fabric when you're done making it than a circle skirt does, and the math is easier. An 18 yard skirt is 18 yards around the hem. Common skirts used for ATS dancers include 10 yard skirts (great for flying) and 25 yard skirts (great for tucking). The number of yards of the skirt means only how many yards in circumference the bottom tier is.

So behold! A lovely, albeit lengthy, tutorial! Enjoy!

I made a tiered 10-yard skirt last year, using a layout where all of my strips for the skirt were cut running the length of the fabric (vertically, as you describe it), keeping the grain of the fabric consistent (lengthwise/horizontal to the ground for all tiers). The same concept could be applied to making a bigger-than-10-yard-skirt, too.

The basic calculations for a tiered skirt is that each tier is half the circumference of the one below it. If you're working with an 18 yard skirt (to make the math a bit easier), it's 18 yards around the bottom tier, 9 yards around the next tier up, and so on.

To figure out the height to make each tier, measure how long you want the total finished skirt, and divide it by the number of tiers you want it to have. Most 10-yarders have 3 tiers. (I made mine with 4, and wouldn't recommend that many. It got too tight through the hips.) So if you want the finished skirt to be 36 inches long, with three tiers, each tier needs to have a finished height of 12 inches. Add your seam allowances to the height of each tier to figure out how tall to cut them. **Each tier will have a different height!** I like 1/2 inch seam allowances, so we'll use that for examples. For the bottom tier, just add the seam allowance to the top of this tier (we'll be laying it out so that the selvage will be on the bottom of the skirt, so we won't have to hem it.) The middle tier will need a seam allowances added to both the top & bottom of the tier. The top tier will need a seam allowance added to the bottom of it, and enough added to the top of the tier to fold over & turn into a casing for a drawstring or elastic. (There are other methods to treating the waist, but for simplicity, we'll stick with a fold-over casing.) We'll say we need 1.5" extra to make the casing.

So using these figures, here's what each tier's dimensions work up to:
Bottom tier: 18 yards around x 12.5" tall. (12" + .5")
Middle tier: 9 yards around x 13" tall. (12" + .5" + .5")
Top tier: 4.5 yards around x 14" tall. (12" + .5" + 1.5")

You could easily get away with having 4 tiers for an 18 yard skirt. If that's the case, your tiers will be as follows:
Finished skirt length: 36"
Finished height of each tier: 9" (36/4)
Bottom tier: 18 yards around x 9.5" tall (9" + .5")
Second tier from the bottom: 9 yards around x 10" tall. (9" + .5" + .5")
Third tier from the bottom: 4.5 yards around x 10" tall. (9" + .5" + .5")
Top tier: 2.25 yards around x 11" tall (9" + .5" + 1.5")
Play with it to find out what you prefer before you start cutting the skirt fabric.

Using the figures above for a 3 tiered 18-yard skirt, here's how you can get all your tiers with the grain running the length of the fabric. (I like to map this out on some graph paper or something first. Better safe than sorry!) Substitue your measurements of tier height if you came up with something different and if you want a different number of tiers:

Start by folding your fabric in half, lengthwise. If you bought your fabric off of a bolt, it's already folded that way. Press the fabric to make sure everything is smooth & plays nicely. The length of fabric you need will be half the total circumference of the bottom tier of the finished skirt. To make a 10-yard skirt, you'll need 5 yards of fabric. For an 18-yard skirt, you'll need 9 yards of fabric.

Measure & mark 12.5" up from the selvage side of the fabric, for its entire length. (Again, substitute your own measurements.) This will be your bottom tier. If you have fabric with a lengthwise border on it (like sari fabric, etc.), the border will be on the bottom tier. If you're planning to add trim to the bottom of the skirt, we'll add that in a little while.

To mark out the middle tier, measure & mark 13" up from the line you just drew. This section only needs to go half the length of the fabric, so 4.5 yards, instead of the whole 9 yards (tee hee!) of the fabric.

Where to lay out the top tier depends on the width of your total fabric while it's folded in half, and how you want your leftover fabric arranged.

If you have at least 14" left between the line you drew for the top of the middle tier and the fold of the fabric, you could lay out the top tier above the middle one. Measure & mark 14" up from the line you drew for the top of the middle tier, and extend the length of the top tier to be half the length of the middle tier, 2.25 yards. This way will leave you with a triangular-ish shape of leftover fabric.

Or you could lay out the top tier beside the middle tier. On the half of the fabric not being used for the middle tier, measure & mark 14" from the line you drew for the bottom tier, and extend the length of the top tier section to be half the length of the middle tier, 2.25 yards. This way will leave you with a 9-yard long strip of leftover fabric.

(Again, play with your layout on some paper first to find out what works for you, given the number of tiers you want & how you'd like your leftovers arranged, in case you want to use the leftovers for another project.)

So the layout should look something like this when you're done. Pretend the right side of this figure is straight across. And ignore the ..... They are just blank spaces that would otherwise be auto-corrected into oblivion. :)
|.top tier: 2.25yds..|..........................................................................................|
|____x 14"______|______________...................leftover fabric......................|
|.....middle tier: 4.5yds x 13"..............|..............................................................|
|.......................................bottom tier: 9yds x 12.5"..........................................|


|..............................................leftover fabric...................................................|
|.....middle tier: 4.5yds x 13"...............|...top tier: 2.25yds..|..............................|
|____________________________|___ x 14"________|_______________|
|......................................bottom tier: 9yds x 12.5"...........................................|

Check that everything is laid out how you want it. Pin the sections so that the two layers of fabric won't shift while you're cutting. Cut your layers from the fabric. Mark the right sides of the fabric, if you can't tell by glancing at it. Unpin.

Now is a good time to attach any trim you'd like onto the bottom tier. It will be more difficult to do this once the skirt is assembled, because the gathers will keep the hem from laying flat again.


You'll be putting the skirt together as a front half & a back half, then sewing the two halves together to finish the skirt. Work from the bottom tier to the top tier. It's less fiddly this way.

Using your gathering method of choice, gather a 9 yard section to fit onto the bottom of a 4.5 yard middle tier section. Pin like crazy & sew them together.

Gather the top of the middle tier you just sewed to the bottom tier. Gather the top of the middle tier to fit onto the bottom of the 2.25 yard top tier. Pin like crazy & sew them together.

You now have half a skirt! Repeat assembly instructions to put together the other half of the skirt. Pin the outer edges of the skirt halves together, wrong side out, and stitch from the bottom of the skirt to the waist. If the heights of your skirt halves don't match perfectly, you can correct it at the waist much easier than you can at the hem, especially if you have a border on the bottom tier.

Press down the top of the top tier 1/4", toward the wrong side of the skirt. Press down again another 1/4" from the fold you just made. This encases the raw edge of the fabric to protect it from ravelling as the drawstring rubs through the casing. Press down again 1" from the second fold you just made. Stitch down, leaving a gap in stitching to allow a drawstring or elastic to be inserted.

Put in your elastic or drawstring, and you're done! :D

Questions? Ask away!


  1. Can't win on the diagram, it seems. Hopefully it's helpful, though!

  2. YOU. ROCK. I know it's almost a year later, but I thought you deserved to know that you absolutely saved my life. I used your directions to make a 10-yard skirt for a faire I'm participating in! I didn't wanna spend $50 or more dollars on a skirt, so I made my own, thanks to you!!! I'm sewing the back part today so I can put the front and back together. THANK YOU!

  3. Hooray!!! Thanks so much for sharing! Glad I could help! :)

    Have fun at the faire!

    1. Am I gonna cut the teirs in half for you said that there were gonna be two halves to sew together ..

  4. No, you won't cut the tiers in half.

    Your fabric will be folded in half, along its length, before you draw out your tiers on it & cut them out. (Fabric comes already folded along its length when you buy it from the store.)

    Because the fabric is folded in half, when you cut out the tiers, you will end up with two of each piece. For the example above of an 18 yard skirt, you'd have two pieces that are 9 yards long, two that are 4.5 yards long, and two that are 2.25 yards long.

    When you start to sew tiers together, you will be building the front half of the skirt with one 9 yard section, one 4.5 yard section, and one 2.25 yard section. Then you'll build the back half of the skirt with the second 9 yard section, the second 4.5 yard section, and the second 2.25 yard secion. Now you will have a front half of the skirt and a back half the skirt. At the very end, you will be sewing the front half of the skirt to the back half of the skirt.

    Does that answer your question?

  5. OMG brilliant! Simple once you understand the idea; thank you for laying that out! I will be trying this soon, once I find out what our colors are for a performance in January!

    1. Hooray! Happy to help! Have a blast at the performance!

  6. Vicky, please see if you can help me out. Im an overweight tribal belly dancer who has only just started to learn. I find it hard to buy skirts for my size or when I do find them, they are way too expensive. I would like to make my own skirt but no matter how many times I try to calculate how much fabric I need to buy, I just cant get it :(

    I plan to buy 60" wide fabric and embarrassing to day that 60" is my first layer from the waist band. (im a 50" waist measurement)

    I want a 25 yard skirt and 36" length.

    I would like the first drop to be 8"
    the second drop to be 12"
    the third drop to be 8"
    Fourth drop to be 8"

    I understand how to make the skirt up, I just cannot work out the overall yardage needed :(
    Please help me if you can. Thank You from Australia

    1. Hi Sharna!

      When making a skirt using this method, your overall yardage needed is just half of how many yards you want the hem of your skirt. So for a 25 yard skirt, you'll need 12.5 yards overall. :)

      I busted out some math for you, and made a neat little diagram of your skirt layout, and now I can't figure out how to post a picture in with my comment. Drat! But I will try to explain it for you!

      Lay out your fabric just like it comes off the bolt, with the fold at the top and the selvages at the bottom. Your bottom tier will run the whole length of the fabric (12.5 yards) and will be 8.5" tall (including a 1/2' seam allowance). Above that, you will draw out your third tier, which will be 9" tall (including seam allowances) and half the length of the fabric (6 yds, 9"), measuring from the leftmost edge of the fabric. Just to the right of that third tier, draw out your second tier, which will be 13" tall (including seam allowances) and half the length of the third tier (3 yds, 4.5"). To the right of the second tier, draw out your first tier, which will be 10" tall (including seam allowance and 1.5" for a turned-over waistband casing) and half the length of the second tier (1 yd, 20.25"). You'll end up with unused fabric along the fold at the top of the fabric, and a bit to the right of Tier 1.

      So to recap, your tiers will run the length of the fabric, and will measure as follows:
      Tier 4: 8.5" x 12.5 yds
      Tier 3: 9" x 6 yds, 4"
      Tier 2: 13" x 3 yds, 4.5"
      Tier 1: 10" x 1 yd, 20.25"

      This method will give you a top tier that is about 112" around at the waist, which is about double what you were aiming for. But it will give you a good drape to the skirt around the hips. To take in the extra fabric at the waist, put in a drawstring, or put pleats or darts in at the waist.

      Did that help?

  7. OMG darling, I had completely forgot I asked this question and I certainly didn't get a notification that you responded!! It was only by fluke that I happened upon it when i was once again seeking an answer! I saw the question and i thought "omg someone with the same name from Australia and asking the same question bahaha and then i realised it was ME! hahaha
    I am so sorry you heard nothing back from me but now you know why and i feel awful when you have gone to sooooo much trouble to help me!!!!
    The roll of fabric i have is 900 centimetres wide (36") would your calculations tally with fabric that wide?

  8. No it wont tally will it. I have just managed to work it out/ I need wider fabric.