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Alexandra's Belly Dance Skirt

From Delilah's Belly Dance Costume Workshop

bellydance skirts

Typical to bellydancing is the circular-cut skirt. These skirts are constructed of half-circle panels in varying numbers. They often have side openings over both legs.

Sometimes, with the light-weight nylons and chiffons, the panels are quite numerous, creating a very full, feminine, and ethereal effect, especially when the dancer spins. The average number of panels in a chiffon skirt is five to six, two in front and three or four in back; these days, it seems, fewer panels are often used. One skirt I have consists of thirteen panels, but later I renovated it to include ten panels. In this skirt, there are over thirty yards of hemline!

A panel is a half-circle piece of fabric with an inner half-circle cut from the center to be fitted into the hip- or waist-band. I made a pattern out of pellon that has been my basic tool for countless designs. It is a quarter circle which I lay on the fold to cut the half-circle piece.

skirt layout

Here's how to make your own personal pattern tool:

Measure from the top of your hip to the floor. Add three inches to this measurement for the length you'll lose after making your waistband cut. This gives you the radius for your quarter-circle pattern.

top-of-hip-to-floor + 3" = outer radius
skirt pattern
Cut a quarter-circle from muslin or pellon, using this radius measurement. With a 1/4” hem, turned under twice, this measurement will put the hem of your skirt near the top of your foot. If you want a different kind of hem, or more length for any reason, you'll need to make allowances for the extra length.

Now cut a 3" radius quarter-circle from the corner of your pattern. This is the minimum measurement I've ever cut from the top of the skirt for the waistband. Having it pre-cut out of the pattern will remind you that you'll need to visualize the design and figure out the exact measurements for your waistband before cutting your fabric.

For a skirt with more than four panels, you can usually cut the fabric to the pattern as it is. Depending on your design and your size, however, you may have to make adjustments before you cut, considering the following points:

  • the widest measurement of your hips or buttocks,
  • your height,
  • the width of your fabric,
  • the amount of ease or gathering desired at the top of the skirt (more for sheers, like silk and chiffon; less for opaques, like satin and brocade),
  • the amount of seam allowance,
  • the number of panels in the skirt.


Alexandra was given six yards of turquoise silk chiffon. It was light-weight and almost transparent. She wanted to make a simple two-panel skirt (one complete circle) with the side seams closed. She planned to wear harem pants underneath. The fabric measured 45" wide. Can she do it?
Her hips are 48” wide; her skirt length (hip to floor) is 35”; she’ll need two seams, equaling 2 1/2" total seam allowance; she estimates she'll need 15 1/2" easement so the skirt will drape nicely from the top (that's not much easement, but she knows she doesn't have a lot of material to spare). She plans to put an elastic casing for the skirt band, so the easement will help her climb in and out of it easily.

Bellydance Math:

48.0" (hips) + 2.5" seams +15.5" (easement) = 66.0" = circumference at top of skirt.
Alexandra remembers from high school that the diameter of a circle equals the circumference divided by pi (pi=3.14). So, she divides 66 (the circumference) by 3.14 : 66 / 3.14 = 21.02 (diameter) Half of the diameter is the radius, so the radius measurement, for the the hips at the top of the pattern, is 10.5": 21 / 2 x 10.5 (inner radius).

Now she can figure out the minimum width of fabric that she needs to make this skirt by figuring the radius of the full panel, from the center to the hem of the skirt.
35 (length of the skirt) + 10.5(inner radius) = 45.5 (minimum width of her fabric)
After doing all this math and finding herself 1/2" short, Alexandra decides to jump out the window. But wait! She can still do it, making up the half inch by:

  • adding a trim to the hemline
  • making a wider waistband
  • or using smaller measurements for the easement.
She decides to make a slightly smaller easement, reducing the radius, and thus bringing the width of fabric needed down to 45".

To determine the length of yardage she needs, she has to figure the length of each panel, then multiply by the number of panels. Now that she has her full radius down to 45", she figures the length of the fabric by multiplying this by 2 to get the full diameter of the half circle panel:

45 x 2 = 90" (one panel) x 2 = 180" (two panels)

So, she needs 180" or five yards of fabric. A third panel would give her more easement at the top, but she doesn't have enough fabric for that. The yard she has left over will make a nice hip or head scarf.

skirt layout

Using the basic pattern tool

You can use your basic pattern tool as a reference guide for cutting out different designs. Here's how:

Let's say the design calls for an 8" radius for the hips. Mark a point in the center of the upper curve and another at the center of the lower curve. Imagine a line running diagonally out from the corner of your folded fabric, cutting the angle in half. Line up the two points you just made on your pattern on this line, then slide the pattern down along the line until the mid-point of the upper circle is 8" from the corner of the fabric. The distances from one edge of your pattern to the fold and from the other edge to the selvage should be equal.

Now mark two points, each 8" from the corner of the fabric, one along the fold and the other along the selvage. From each of these points, measure the length of your skirt along the fold and selvage and make two more points. Draw a circular curve connecting the three points of the top curve, and draw another connecting the three points at the bottom. You can eyeball these curves, using your pattern as a reference, widening the curves to meet your points; or you can draw them using a simple compass made from a string, with a marker at one end and the other end fixed at the corner.

skirt adjustments

The seams

The lengthwise seams are on the selvaged edge of your fabric, so there is usually no need for French seams or fancy finishing, even if the seams are left open.

The skirt band

The skirt band can be made of scrap fabric, grosgrain ribbon, seam binding, or bias tape. It can hook, snap or tie at the sides. It can also simply be an elastic casing. Don't forget that the length of your casing will be longer than your hip measurement since you're going to stretch it to stitching near the upper edge of your skirt and draw in the ease to fit it to your waistband.

skirt hemmingThe hem

Because the skirt is made of half-circle shapes, it is lined up on both the straight of the fabric and the bias The bias has stretch to it, while the straight is stable. The bias areas of the skirt may relax and stretch out a little. You might as well do this before you hem it, or you'll have to hem it again soon. The steamy environment of a bathroom will cause this to happen. Spray your skirt down lightly and evenly and let it hang for two or three days.

Then you'll need to remeasure your skirt length from waistband to hem, correcting any discrepancies. On an ironing board, mark a position for the waistband with a piece of masking tape. Measure along the ironing board the length of the skirt plus a hem allowance and mark it with another piece of tape.

Now line the waistband up on the first tape mark, apply an even amount of tension (medium-light) toward the hem of the skirt, and mark the bottom of the skirt at the second piece of tape. Repeat this, turning the skirt on the ironing board and marking the bottom at four inch intervals. I use a disappearing ink pen made for marking fabrics. Put the skirt on and check the marks in the mirror before you actually trim or hem it.

Hem your skirts by machine, turning the edge under twice and sewing, using either a straight stitch or some fancy machine finish. There will be miles of yardage to hem, so I'd never bother to do it by hand. After all, it is a costume and no one is going to closely scrutinize the hem during a performance.

belly dance skirt

bellydance skirt

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