French Knicker Sew-Along Day 1: ready, steady…


Day 1- today covers cutting out, hand sewing on lace motifs, sewing french seams and how to attach a continuos side seam placket with either a hand or machine finish.

Day 2- tomorrows post covers adding a waistband with either a fabric or elastic (ha, didn’t expect that did you!), machine appliquéd lace hems and motifs, machine pin-hemming, hand-made button-holes and other closing options.

And last of all- (though in all honesty it won’t be ready for posting this next weekend after all as I’m simply running out of time)- how to change the basic pattern to cut ‘directoire’ knickers…a.k.a.bloomers. Don’t laugh, they have their fans 😉 Steam punk anyone?

To get in ‘the mood’ of course I kicked off with good rummage in my fabric cupboard followed by a dig in a box of lace I’d all but forgotten I had- I re-discovered things from when I first started buying lace bits and pieces a loooong time ago. That meant spending the remainder of my day untangling, sorting and washing lace…. so not much accomplished on the first day I’d put aside for setting up this sew-along but a very pleasant way to procrastinate  spend a rainy afternoon.


Please don’t feel you should try to complete your knickers over the weekend if your time is tight. I’m posting one day after the other with a lot crammed in purely because of my own schedule but I’ll happily answer any questions that get posted whenever.

My making methods are not the be-all-and-end-all of sewing techniques; I prefer mostly “old-school” sewing methods and intend  this sew-along to pull together a handful of techniques that are useful in making both vintage-style lingerie in general and knickers in particular whether you have drafted your own pattern or maybe have an original one that no longer has any instructions. All the sewing photos should open large size in another window when clicked if you’d like to see them closer up.

And finally- for the purposes of the sew-along I made three more pairs of knickers as couldn’t squeeze all techniques into just one pair….  I hope suggesting different ways of doing things all in the one sew-along is not too confusing to follow, but I think it’s good to have choices.

Lets get started!


If you are using a thin and slippery fabric cutting with tissue paper underneath is just brilliant. It makes cutting out slippy fabrics so much easier. I buy myself  large packs of A2 size tissue sheets from a shop supplies company just for this purpose.

To do this tape a couple of sheets together so they won’t separate then tape the corners onto the table. You can lay out your fabric as a single or double layer but as the tissue is so stabilising  you’ll probably find double works fine. Fold fabric in half and lay it on the tissue with the selvedges lined up parallel to one edge of the paper and use the right angled edge to align the cut/torn edges of the fabric. It’s a little fiddly to get slippery fabrics lined up but persevere. When it is then anchor the fabric edges to the tissue with pins. 

About cutting vs. tearing: The debate rages. I do what works on a per-fabric basis. Silk, some synthetics and many cottons tear well without pull lines damaging the fabric, or if they do it will be only an inch or so in. Tearing may cause wavy edges, but after tearing I steam and press edges flat again and try not to place any pattern pieces too close if some waviness remains. This way I definitely know I have straight edges. If it looks like tearing will damage my fabric I just squint hard or maybe pull a couple of threads to find the weave to cut along for a true straight edge. Printed designs are too often a little off grain and I have learned the hard way not to trust that they are straight, but if the pattern is woven you can generally follow the design repeat for getting a true straight edge.

Soap-box moment: Prep is all! Consider time spent on ironing fabric smooth before cutting,  getting grains straight and cutting out accurately…. tedious as it is…  completely worth it because when something is cut out off-grain or otherwise sloppily no amount of careful sewing makes up for it.  When things are precisely cut-out sewing seems to go so much smoother.

And no more finger-wagging after this, I promise.

So lay the pattern pieces on top of the fabric and pin through into the tissue. If you aren’t using tissue underneath then cut out as you normally would.

TIP: If your pattern is on paper that doesn’t take pins easily you can trace it onto other sheets of tissue and without cutting them out lay those complete sheets on top of the fabric with other sheets of tissue underneath creating a complete “sandwich”. (When you trace the pattern pieces draw them so the straight grains of pattern pieces line up with the tissue edges so when it’s all laid together you’ll know it’s all on grain. This cutting method works really well especially with small pattern pieces when using too many pins and a stiff  paper pattern pieces would start to distort the fabric. You can also do it without a tissue layer underneath your fabric.

When it’s all laid up cut it out. All the seam allowances on my pattern are the same 1cm/3-8″ everywhere so I don’t consider it necessary to notch or otherwise mark them. A tiny 2mm snick at the side seams for the placket notch on the left (and the same on the right to use as a balance notch and the single and double cf & cb notches are all I think are needed.

 For placket and waistband pieces I generally tear a 4cm wide strip on the straight grain and cut to the needed lengths. Sewing is much easier when those pieces are as straight on their edges as you can get them. If you do prefer cutting over tearing the tissue sandwich will make cutting the strips more accurate. Another benefit of  the tissue underneath is that if you take the tape off the corners you can safely turn the whole thing around as if on a turn-table to cut areas you would otherwise find awkward to reach.


I started making a pale green silk mousseline pair of knickers with black lace motifs first to show about hand done appliqué. I only had an 8″piece of this lace but it had two repeats of the design so was perfect although too fine for sewing by machine.( so don’t over-look even small pieces of lace you find at flea markets etc!)  I like to do this kind of appliqué before other sewing gets done as it takes some time and I don’t want to over-handle and wrinkle more fabric than I have to.

The motifs were cut out of the lace with very sharp embroidery scissors and placement  was decided simply by holding up the front piece to myself in a mirror and seeing where it looked nice.

Pin and baste your motifs in place with big-ish stitches being careful not to pull the thread too tight (img-lower left). I don’t knot my basting threads, just a small back-stitch at the beginning and one at the end to hold. Keep your basting away from the edges as it’s harder to pick it out if it’s caught in the appliqué stitches. From the right side of the material start to sew over the edges of the lace with tiny stitches. Not as close as a satin stitch but fairly close. I have always called this sort of stitching “whip stitching”. It does take some time… each of the main motifs took about 1&1/2 hours to do (so not speed-sewing, but at least you can watch tv or have a chat while doing it) and it looks more vintage with a capital ‘V’. After whip-stitching if you want to cut the backing fabric away you can. Leaving 1/8″ (2mm) edge is enough. Make sure the lace is strong enough though for this. The motifs I used here were just too small and the lace too delicate for cutting the green fabric away so this time I didn’t. Lowest image on the right shows it all done from the wrong side.

If you are cutting fabric away the example below from a 1930’s negligee shows the small fabric edge left after trimming.


Knowing the foot spacing of your sewing machine or having accurate lines on the throat plate helps a lot when doing french seams and I don’t think they need to be as nerve wracking as many sewers seem to find.

I know if my fabric is right against the edge of the foot that I am sewing an accurate .6cm. leaving me 4cm. for the second run.  The throat plate of my machine is marked in imperial measurements which is really annoying as I sew with metric measurements (although I frequently draft patterns using imperial measurements which drives younger all metric-based seamstress I work with nuts! … many pattern-drafters my sort of age are caught in the middle of metric/imperial measurements) Anyway place a tape measure under the foot of your machine to check how things line up. If you want different markings than what you have you can simply lay a strip of masking tape on as a new guide.

The image below (img-top left ) shows the french seam width I aim for in lingerie and next (img-top right) shows the first line trimmed and pressed with a finished seam underneath. French seams smaller than these look very pretty in chiffons and other see-through fabrics, but don’t make yourself crazy trying to do them super small and they can pull apart if made too delicate.

The left side seam which gets the placket is sewn first. Place fabric wrong sides together and sew from the hem up to the placket notch (img-lower left, black arrow) and do a few back-stitches to secure the end. Clip into the seam allowance to the last stitch at the notch. Trim the seam allowance down to half its width and carefully press it to one side.  I’ve read on various sewing blogs how some sewers don’t like to press each stage while they sew. My ironing board is set up very close to my sewing machine so I don’t have to walk miles back and forth. In general I think pressing at various stages of sewing is important but with french seams consider it essential… oops, that was sort of a finger-wag…

Pin the seam right sides together now so the first stitching line is on the fold and sew the second line of stitching taking just one stitch beyond the first line. Press it but not to either side and clip a fraction below where the last stitch is (img-lower right)


On this green pair I did a placket machine stitched to the outside side of the knickers and hand finished on the inside, so will explain that now:

Mark the half-way point of the placket piece with a tiny notch if it isn’t already. With fabrics right sides together match the notch to one side of the french seam line and place a pin at that precise point. This bottom pin marks right where the stitching line should start (img-upper left).  Depending on your fabric you will have varying amounts of ease on the hip of your knickers. There was a lot of give in this green fabric and hardly any on the peach colour broadcloth I made another pair with. Anyway, ease what ever amount there is evenly along the 1/2  placket and pin.

Tip: If there is noticeable ease you may find it easier to sew with the placket side on top to help any ease to sew in smoothly. The straightness of the placket helps force the ease to lie smoother-if you were to sew with the eased side up you might find that the fabric is more likely to bunch somewhere or make a little tuck in front of a pin. Remember not to catch the french-seam in the placket – it should stay free.

Pin the other half of the placket to the knicker side seam and again sew from the half point up towards the waist. The img-upper right is what this should look like. Press the seam allowances towards the placket piece.The green fabric was so fine I didn’t trim the seam-allowances down at all.

Next, turn the seam allowance under along its free edge and  fold the placket in half to the inside of the knickers. Slip stitch in place (img- lower left) just catching the first stitching line. Press the placket nice and flat and now press the french seam towards the front. The front half of the placket folds behind the front of the knickers, the back half remains extended (img- lower right).

With tiny whip-stitches catch the top of the french seam to the bottom fold of the placket (img-bottom centre). Hand or machine baste the turned back front at the waist line.


Attaching a placket that you would like to machine finish rather than hand finish is done in reverse to the hand finished one: with the right side of the placket against the wrong side of the knickers sew the first sewing lines from the french seam up to the waist, sewing first one side of the placket and then the other. (plackets can be sewn with a continuos stitching line but it’s harder to 1- not catch the french seam and 2- to hit that exact spot where the last french seam stitch is so there can be a little gap at the bottom there.)

Here are the all-machine steps shown on my peach silk-broadcloth pair:

In the second image down you can see that I’ve trimmed the seam allowance on one side- this is the front half of the placket and I did it because this fabric was thicker which could make the front side of the placket feel bulky once it is folded back. Trimming even the one seam allowance layer off helps that. Leaving three layers is good for sewing snaps on or making buttonholes so best not to trim all seam allowances away… judge by feeling your fabric.

You may have noticed that I top-stitched the turned back front of the placket in place. You could do that now if you like but it can also be done later when the waistband is sewn on…it depends on how your knickers will ultimately be closed, but we’ll get to that tomorrow.


With french seams, remembering they always start with right side of fabric facing out, sew the other side seam and the short inseams so each leg is complete. Press the side seam towards the front and the inseams to the back. Place one knicker leg inside the other wrong sides together, sew the first line of stitching, trim , press and sew the second line. When pressing a crutch seam I press the straight bit flat to one side but leave the bottom curves standing up because if you try to press the curves flat you will probably end up creasing it…heaven forbid! 😉

So, that’s all ’til tomorrow.

By the way at the link here to the VV free page you’ll find a free knicker pattern in two sizes as well as a pdf drafting tutorial for how to draft a knicker pattern to your own measurements. Click here for a printable pdf version of the entire sew-along.

13 thoughts on “French Knicker Sew-Along Day 1: ready, steady…

    1. Thin cotton- a batiste for instance or lawn, or silk- charmeuse, crepe de chine …. any fabrics similar in weight and handle to those suggestions that you’d want to wear next to your skin.

  1. So sorry I’ve missed this, as the project is on my gotta-do-them-soon list. Will report back in a month or so. Meanwhile, thank you to everyone for sooo many great details!

  2. The first comment here was mine , in Dutch.Sorry, ik was not meant for here. In fact I shared your fantastic post with two friends of mine in Holland.I know one of them is busy sewing with you and the other is very interested. I , for myself , have used your block and sketched my pattern and with some modifications it is fitting nicely.That is made 70 cm long and is supposed to be used for the night. I also made a version that is supposed to be used for stretchmaterial, and that will be a knickers for under a skirt when the weather is hot. I am so glad ,you show the old techniques. I am eager t o see your post of tomorrow

    1. Thank you Marieka, I did wonder at your first post 🙂
      I’m happy you found the drafting worked and that you like todays post…I’m hard at work this afternoon on finishing part 2!

  3. So much information! It’s wonderful! I’ll have to read it through much more carefully when the kids are taking their nap and hubby is mowing the grass. 🙂 I may not be able to get started on these for a few more days – a friend has asked me to make matching pillows for the quilt I just finished for her (in exchange for giving me a freezer full of freshly butchered lamb!!!). I also have a full-length slip in the works from McCall’s 8744 to match the knickers. I’ve always wanted a full-length slip and have never had one! 🙂

    1. sewing and kids… always a tricky combo! Swapping your sewing skills for a full freezer sounds a good plan 🙂

  4. So nice of you to share your knowledge. I won’t actually make a pair of these over the weekend. Despite my ever advancing age I have a couple of extended essays to knock into shape from rough note to final edit stage so am constrained for time but the knicks will certainly be on my ‘to do’ list for later. The only sort of pants (as in ‘undies’) I really don’t get on with are thongs – no disrespect intended to ladies who like ’em, it’s just a personal preference. As I may have said in an earlier post, with respect to your bicycling post, I’m glad I’m not the only one who walks into my baggy pants (or bell-bottoms or whatever the current term is). With the weather in the northern hemisphere turning a bit colder now (though have to admit today is very nice for an English September), I don’t think I’d get on with these sort of pants under tights (panty-hose), so I’d either have to make a suspender (garter) belt or wear the french knicks with the baggy pants!

    1. lol, no they don’t work well with tights… but do work well under wider leg trousers especially in colder months.

  5. Ha, dames, Ik had bij Vera commentaar geleverd en kreeg nu deze mail Mariek

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