From our corset making workshop in 2007.
Hello Ladies! Welcome to the workday! Hopefully by the end of this you will have a corset that only needs its bones and bindings to be finished. Here is the order of steps to building your own, well-fitting corset.
Corsets in the mid-nineteenth century were not designed to compress or constrain or to be torture devices. Their purpose was to provide a smooth surface for clothing to go over, uplift the bust, and to support the weight of the skirts by re-distributing it to the whole torso, not just the waist. They also provided the beginnings of an hourglass shape, although that would come much later in the century. Basically, the corset hugs you and acts as a base your clothes fit over. They were not about waist cinching or fainting. In fact, many health manuals of the time were very against tight-lacing and excessively tight corseting stating it to be a vulgar practice that should best be avoided. When you try on a corset, you are looking for no wrinkles, a gentle hug feeling, no poking, no discomfort, good bust support, and room to breathe. If your corset is too big, it will actually be much more uncomfortable because it will slip and slide over your figure until it eventually jams itself somewhere and causes your circulation to cut off. So please be sure to fit your corset well, you will thank yourself for the trouble later.
1. Measurements: have a trusted friend take your measurements to the nearest ¼ inch over a top that fits you well. You should be wearing your most favorite new bra. The measurements to take are:
Underarm to waist (length):
2. Once that is done, look at your pattern. Choose the size that fits the most of your measurements. If you have a choice between going for one that is too big or one that is too small, go for the bigger one. It can always be taken in. Special consideration must be taken if the length measurement does not match up. You must either lengthen or shorten the pattern in this case. Remember that the corset should be about 4” smaller than your waist measure. This is to allow for the squishing of your body that will happen at to keep the gap, or “spring”, between the laces at the back. Even if a pattern says it is a size 12, please actually measure the pattern to double-check. Write down your pattern choice and the size you are using here:_____________________
Side-Step: Choosing a pattern.
The corsets in this period strived for a vaguely hour glass shape. They used gores and gussets to achieve this. Most women find that gussets work best, especially in the bust area, but still others swear by their straight-seamed gored corsets, which are usually easier to construct. Which pattern you choose is entirely up to you. Gored and gusseted corsets have a slightly different silhouette and you may like one look better than the other. Or you may be looking for ease of construction, in which case a gored corset is easier. Or you may even combine a gored corset with a few gussets for a really custom job. Talk to other ladies of your build and ask what works for them if you can. Also, certain patterns may be easier to adjust than others. The Laughing Moon company pattern contains two different corsets, both of which are very easy to alter for just about any shape. You are going to be making a test mock-up first, so make an educated guess, and if it doesn’t work, you can always try a different one!
Side-Step: No pattern
Not finding a pattern that fits you or that you like? Looking at the pieces in confusion? Not sure how to alter a pattern to fit? Confused? An easy way to get a good custom pattern that fits you exactly is the Duct-Tape method. Sounds funny at first, but it really works. Put on an old T-shirt over your tank top and bra and have a friend or two wrap duct tape firmly around you till you get the silhouette you want. Be sure to go a little below the hips and above the waist to at least the nipple line. One side will look better than the other. This is fine. Have a friend draw seam lines along the corset from top to bottom marking the center and at least a few side seams with a permanent marker. Have a very trusted friend carefully cut you out of the duct tape and T-shirt but cutting straight up the back. Yes, the T-shirt will be destroyed in this process! Once you are free, you will find that you have a mold of your body in the duct tape. Now, pick the side that you liked the best and cut up the front seam. Get rid of the other half. Now cut along those seamlines you drew before. Trim about 2 or 3 inches off of the center back to allow for the “spring”. This is your new pattern! All you have to do is add seam allowances and make your first mock-up!
3. Once you have your pattern chosen, you need to make the first test mock-up. Choose a fabric that closely imitates the fabric you intend to use for the finished corset. Twill, like an old pair of jeans, works really well. You can also use canvas or any firm cotton cloth that does not stretch very much. Thin cotton will definitely not work and will give you an inaccurate idea of what the corset will do to your body because it stretches so much. Carefully pin the pattern and cut out. Remember to add seam allowances during cutting if you have a duct tape pattern. Also remember to lengthen or shorten the pieces if you need to.
Sew the corset together as per the directions, but don’t fell any seams just yet. If you have a busk, you’ll want to insert this in the front to make fittings easier. Plus, you’ll learn how to insert a busk well before the real corset. You’ll have it perfect by that time! Don’t worry about lacing holes just yet. You can use a lacing panel from a corset that has “bit the dust” for fittings.
4. Fitting number One. You’ll need an assistant and lots of pins. Try the mock-up on with the seam allowances out. This makes alterations easier. If you have one side of your body that is really different from the other, you’ll want to write with pencil on the mock-up which side is left and which side is right. Fasten the busk and have someone baste the lacing panels in and lace you up. Not too tight this time, just until snug. Then, start pinning the seam allowances where any “problem areas” are. Take in here, rip out and add a gusset there. You want the corset to lie as smoothly as possible over your body. Wrinkles are bad and mean that an area needs to be corrected. You can use plastic cable ties inserted to predict how the boning will affect the corset and to give you a better idea. You want to avoid having boning (or a seam) directly over a hip bone or anything that might hurt you. There should be no poking and jabbing. You have to wear this all weekend, so you want to make sure it’s comfy! Try sitting down. Does the corset push your breast up to high? Try adding a gusset in the hip so it will spread out over your hips as you sit. Is the bottom edge of the corset rubbing your legs? Trim it off. Are your breasts too compressed? Are you spilling out? Add a gusset in the bust area or two. Wrinkle around the waist that won’t go away? The corset may be too long. Try taking a tuck around the waist and trying again. If the lacing panels are touching in the back, the corset is too big. Pinch in seams starting with the side seams, until there is a consistent 2” gap all up and down the lacing section. You can also take this opportunity to really shape the corset the way you wish. Laughing Moon does not give a really pinched in waist. If you have one naturally, you’ll want to take in the side seams until the corset fits you as you would like.
Side-Step: Mock up number two.
Once the first fitting is done, you may be frustrated that almost nothing worked right. You should try again with a different mock-up. You can either start with the mockup you have now, taking it apart and keeping in mind the corrections made on it and going from there by using it as your new pattern, or you may decide that the pattern is all wrong for you and you may wish to try a different one completely. Once again, keep in mind your measurements and choose a pattern and make a mock-up of scrap material that imitates the finished material. Do a second fitting. It is ok that the first time didn’t work right. You still learned from it. When you are trying to make a garment as fitted and individual as a corset, multiple trials are not only common, they may be necessary for the perfect fit. The corset is one of the hardest garments to make. If you can make a corset, you can make anything else! And you can be assured that all your dresses will fit and look their best when you wear your corset. So don’t give up!
Side-Step: Corseting for gaining/loosing weight
If you are loosing weight, leave a larger spring in the back than you would normally. At least 4” is great. You can lace the back tighter and tighter as you loose weight until finally the edges meet and you will have to make a new corset. Usually by that time, your body shape will have changed so much that you’ll need a completely different corset anyway. If you are gaining weight, do the opposite. Leave less of a spring. The spring will get wider and wider until finally you will need another corset. Now, if you are not gaining or loosing weight, don’t worry about this! Another concern is those who have small busts. Padding is acceptable and period appropriate. Use cotton wadding and pad right under your bust so that your natural breast is elevated up in the corset instead of being smooshed. Cover the padding with a cotton piece hand-sewn in place. For fitting purposes, those little bra filler cutlets work great. Small busts may also want to have a gusseted style as this prevents squishing what is there naturally.
5. Once you are satisfied that the mock-up fits you as well as it can (be sure to try with the plastic boning and sit, stand, bend over, do lots of motions to be sure no poking and no wrinkling) you can then use it as your custom pattern for your final good corset. Baste in any tucks, trim out any seams that were taken in, and use the pieces as your pattern. Cut out your good fabric and your lining if you have one.
6. Assembling the corset. Some people start by putting in the busk first, some save that for last, there are many ways to assemble a corset. Some basic thoughts are that if the corset is lined, it is best to sew the lining and the outside fabric as one. You can finish the seams later, or you can fell them as you make them.
7. The grommets can go in at any point as well. I like to wait until the last thing, but some people like to try it on as they go and so put the grommets in early on. The choice is yours. You can also choose to do two piece metal grommets (size 00) or hand done eyelets using a buttonhole stitch. Both are sturdy and accurate. You also can choose to make the holes with an awl and not cut through the fibers, or to punch holes in the fabric. When placing grommets and eyelets, it is best to have the grommets placed closer together around the waist section and further spaced out at the hip and bust. This allows for better control around the waist and the stress is more distributed there. Once you have the grommets in, you can lace it up. There are many ways of doing this too. Some like three different laces controlling the bust, waist, and hip sections. Some like two laces controlling the top and bottom and meeting at the waist. Some like one big long lace that has loops coming out at the waist. They simply pull on the loops to tighten and then tie those off. This is an individual choice with no right or wrong way.
Side-Step: How much boning?
Just as we have different styles of bras now, they had different styles of corsets back then. Different bras and corsets do different things. A heavily boned corset provides maximum bust lift and fashion shaping, much like a push up bra, while a corded corset is more comfy and you can easily move and bend over in it. It provides support, but does nothing to control the figure, a lot like a modern sports bra. What you choose to do while in your corset will affect how much “stiffening” you put into it. If you have never worn a corset before, and really enjoy being comfortable and don’t care about having a greatly controlled figure, than a corded corset is for you! Sew channels for the cording in a lined corset. The channels should be about 1/8 of an inch wide or less. After sewing channels, use a tapestry needle to insert the cord. If you like looking pretty all day, won’t be doing any bending over, and don’t mind a bit of “rigidity” in your posture, a fully boned corset is for you! Put bones in every seam and a few extra where there are wider bands of fabric. Padding in the bust if you are small also helps the figure. If you lie somewhere in between, you can combine bones and cording. Use bones for the main support and control areas (front, back, and around sides) and use cording for areas that might need less control (on either side of sides, bust gussets) The options are up to you. Most women who worked back then may have had two corsets, a working version and a nice fashion version. Same pattern, just different support materials, one corded, one boned. This is a good idea if you might be going back and forth between different impressions.
8. Once you have the corset assembled, do a final fitting to be sure that everything is just right. Once you are sure that it is, you can take the corset off and measure the channels for boning. Some narrow boning may fit in the felled seam channels and you may also need to sew on bias tape channels for boning in other spots, too. But once you have all the channels for the boning done, it’s time to measure. Be sure to keep a list of how many bones of what lengths and be sure to remember that there will be binding on both the top and bottom edges that will take up to an inch off the channel length. A short bone is better than a long bone. Also keep in mind the different widths of bones. You can get as skinny as ¼ inch or as wide as a ½ inch. ½ inch bones are great on either sides of the lacing grommets and around the side or front while ¼ inch bones are great just about anywhere. Once you have your list generated, do you need to order any other materials? A busk? Grommets? Laces? Now is a good time to write it down. You can place your order en masse with other ladies to save shipping, or you can place separately to have things delivered right to your door. The list at the end of this hand-out has sources with approximate prices. You can find even more sources online and even different kinds of boning. Most merchants can tell you the benefits and differences between different types of bones so you can make an educated decision. Most people like the white coated spring steel, however.
9. Kick back and congratulate yourself! You did it! Adding the boning and finishing stuff is no biggy, you did all the hard things already. Have a glass of wine and rejoice!
10. The boning arrives. Measure out the bones to be sure you got the right number of the right lengths. If you didn’t, give the company a call. Next, simply insert them into their channels. Now take your bias tape binding and sew right sides together around the top and bottom, be very careful not to sew into a bone. The tip of the needle will break and head straight towards your eye if you hit one! Flip the binding over to the back of the corset and hand stitch it down with a whip stitch. You may also wish to add a drawstring in the top casing to help cup the corset back towards your body. This is good if you have a small bust and may be padding your corset. Another feature you may wish to add you your corset is a large, thread covered hook below the hip line. Once you tie your laces, you can put the laces under this hook to keep them out of the way of the waists of your dresses and keep down on the bulk. Another thing to add, especially if your bones are a little short, is flossing at the tips of the bones. Use embroidery floss and a herringbone type stitch to secure the bone through the fabric to keep it from “slouching” in the channel. This is especially decorative when done in colored thread and in conjunction with embroidery on the gussets and other areas of the corset.
Enjoy your new corset!
The Fitting Room
Philadelphia, PA Seattle, WA
12” busk-$13.50 206-547-7671
½” wide boning-$0.35 to $0.50 a piece 12” busk-$18
¼ “wide boning- $0.30 to $0.40 a piece Laces with metal tips, cotton-$1.25 per yard
5 yard lace with tips- $2.25 ½” wide bones-$0.60-$0.70
Grommets size 00, one gross- $10 ¼” wide bones-$0.50-$0.60
3/8” wide bones-$0.55-$0.65
Needle and Thread
717-338-1798 Gettysburg, PA
12” busk-$18 Phone order or by visit only, call for prices
½” wide boning-$.30 to $.55 a piece
5 yard cotton lace with tips-$3.50