Patterns & Construction: Notes on Making a Tutu

It has been said that the tutu, that quintessential costume of the ballerina, is built, not sewn, perhaps because it is constructed in sequenced steps, each serving a separate purpose. First, there is the ruffled pant to which layer upon layer of gathered netting or tulle is sewn; secondly, a basque–a fitted, darted strip of fabric attached to the top edge of the pant, and finally, a corset-like garment, boned and very tightly fitted called a corsage or a bodice. This bodice is sometimes completely separated from the rest of the garment, fastened tightly in the back with rows of hooks and eyes, and ending in a round or vee-shape in the front.

Tutu Re-ImaginedTutus can be calf-length (Romantic) or short (Modern) and range from extremely full and stiff to quite thin and fluid, with every possible variation in between. Embellishments of beads, crystals, braid, feathers, ruffles, and embroidery make each tutu a small masterpiece of sculptural splendor.

When I started the Pavlova Project, I knew very little about tutus. Learning to make one was a long and circuitous route. My first efforts came courtesy of Joann Morgan, a seamstress in Oregon who had been sewing doll clothes for over fifty years. She sold me her hand-drawn bodice and pants patterns, and a hand-written page of measurements and instructions for the layers of the skirt. Through much trial and error, my skills slowly improved. Next came an Ebay find, an out-of-print McCall’s sewing pattern for a human sized tutu. The tissue paper patterns needed to be reduced to 25%, and the instructions were daunting, but I soldiered on. Then at AbeBooks I found a very rare book indeed, Dressing for the Ballet, written in 1958 by Joan Lawson and Peter Revitt, costume makers for the prestigious Sadlers Wells Ballet Company, the forerunner of today’s Royal Opera House Ballet in Great Britain. Here was the real thing, written at a time when costume shops still worked with age-old tailoring techniques and dancers knit their own woolen leotards—yes, there are instructions for that in this treasure of a book!

In Anna Pavlova’s era, the skirts of tutus were almost always the romantic length and very full link here to Chopiniana entry in Tsar’s Ballerina Gallery. I’ve recreated her skirts with eight or more double layers of gathered tulle in slightly graded lengths, usually with an overskirt replete with embellishments. My tiny bodices are cut from eight separate pattern pieces and fully lined in china silk, resulting in an upper garment with sixteen pieces, plus shoulder ribbons. Beads, lace, sequins, rhinestones, and vintage jewelry are added by hand.

The entire process is very time-consuming, from cutting out all the tiny pieces for pants, basque, and bodice, to gathering long strips of netting and piecing and lining the bodice. I use snaps and hooks and eyes as fastener, so every costume is removable. Hand sewing the decorations is the last step. I love the whole process, and when I’m finally done and my mannequin is in her new costume, I like to think that Pavlova herself is somewhere tying the ribbons of her pointe shoes and listening to the orchestra’s opening measures as she prepares to take the stage!