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Piping in the nineteenth century. By Kay Inverarity. © 2008.

Throughout the nineteenth century piping was a common feature in garment construction, but it is rarely mentioned in contemporary fashion descriptions. This means that unless you have access to original garments, it is a fashion detail that is easily overlooked. When used on reproduction garments piping adds an extra element of authenticity. In this article I will outline the general trends in piping throughout the 19th century and give some hints how to achieve them. Piping generally consists of a cord run through a strip of fabric, then, as now the fabric casing was usually cut on the cross, this allows the trim to bend around corners without unsightly wrinkles appearing in the outer covering. The cord used in nineteenth century piping is often smaller than we would use today varying from 1.5 to 3mm (1/16 to 1/8 inch) diameter, rarely larger (fig.2.).

Although sometimes seen on earlier regency gowns, piping became fashionable between 1810 to 1820 when gowns became more heavily decorated. At this time it was used to finish applied trimmings (eg. leaf shapes, strapping and vents. fig.1), bind necklines, and to strengthen armholes and seams; it can also be found on the back closures of fine cotton bodices especially the ones that button together (fig.3.). Piping could be made in the same fabric as the dress, or in a contrasting colour, making it a decorative trim (fig.4).

The popularity of Piping continued to grow in the 1830s and numerous gowns survive from this time where every bodice seam including the sleeve seams are piped.

It remained popular in the 1840s but by this time matching self piping was more common than using it as a contrasting decorative trim, at this time double or single piping is generally used around the lower edge of the bodice. This has a practical use, as the skirt can be stab stitched to the bodice in the hollow between the bodice and piping, this effectively hides the stitching (fig.5). In the 1850s the skirt and bodice became separated but the fashion for formal evening dress was for the bodice waist to be cut in a deep point both front and back, double or single piping was commonly used to finish these bodices at the waist. This waist piping continued to be used until the middle of the 1870s and some examples still occur in the 1880s.

In the 1850s one of the few instances of the cord casing being cut on the straight occurs. A fashion feature at this time was the multi-flounced skirt. Skirts were often made with two or three flounces mounted on a foundation skirt, at times as many as six flounces may be seen. These flounces were mounted on the skirt by doubling the top of the flounce over a piping cord and sewing the cord loosely in place, the cord was then used to gather the flounce to the required fullness. The flounce was sewn to the foundation skirt in the hollow between the flounce and the cord (fig.6.).

In the 1860s & 70s piping continued to be used at the neck, waist and especially around the armholes, by the late 1870s and early 1880s it is sometimes found running down the buttonhole edge of the bodice, providing extra strength where the many buttonholes come close to the edge (fig.7.). The 1880s saw a decline in its use and by the late 80s even armhole piping falls out of favour. This is possibly because a change in the cut of the armhole becomes general by the middle of the 1880s; the dropped shoulder line that had been fashionable since the 1830s was discarded and sleeves were now set in the armhole on the point of the shoulder, this combined with their progressive fullness seems to have precipitated an end to the tradition of piped armholes, certainly by the middle of the 1890s the use of piping on garments is an exception rather than the rule.

In the 1980s when I first began making reproduction gowns I was aware that piping was used on original garments but was faced with the dilemma of how to copy it effectively. The fineness of Victorian piping posed a problem, as commercial piping cords are generally larger than their Victorian counterparts, they are also quite expensive. Imagine my delight when I purchased a deconstructed 1830s bodice and discovered that the cord used was little more than string. Since that time my staple cord has been white cotton cooking string used for binding meat and poultry, this is cheap easily purchased from the supermarket  and measures about 1/8 inch (3mm) diameter (fig.8)  , if a finer cord is needed crochet cotton or embroidery twist can be used.

When planning a new gown I usually begin by estimating the total amount of piping needed for my garment then cut the necessary lengths of fabric and assemble the piping in one long length. I use a zipper foot and move the machine needle across to the side so that my stitching line sits snugly against the cord. Always allow a little extra cord, as the outer fabric tends to stretch when worked. When applying piping to arm holes I like to hand tack the piping in place using a contrasting thread before sewing the sleeve in place, this gives me a line of stitching to follow when sewing the sleeve into the bodice. This can be done on the machine but I often find that hand tacking gives increased accuracy when you wish to use it as a guide for the final stitch line, this is especially so when negotiating awkward curves and corners.

When used on reproduction garments piping strengthens seams, provides a gutter where stitching can be hidden and can be used as an attractive decorative trim. It also gives an authentic look that is always desirable considering the amount of time and effort expended in making quality reproduction garments.




Beaudoin-Ross, Jacqueline, FORM AND FASHION; NINETEENTH-CENTURY MONTREAL DRESS, Mc Cord Museum of Canadian History, May 1992.

Bradfield, Nancy, COSTUME IN DETAIL 1730 - 1930, Harrap, London, 1968, reprinted in 1975.

Johnston, Lucy, NINETEENTH-CENTURY FASHION IN DETAIL, V&A Publications, London, 2005.

Waugh, Norah, THE CUT OF WOMEN’S CLOTHES 1600 - 1930, Faber and Faber Ltd., London and Boston, 1968.

Whitaker-Augusta Auction Co. TASHA TUDOR; HISTORIC COSTUME COLLECTION, auction catalogue 2007. Web site; www.whitakerauction.com

Tozer, Jane & Levitt, Sarah, FABRIC AND SOCIETY, A CENTURY OF PEOPLE AND THEIR CLOTHES 1770 - 1870, Laura Ashley Ltd. Wales, 1983.