corset rough

Elizabethan corset with tabs

I finally broke down and decided to make an Elizabethan corset. My character is moving up in status and my bodice is uncomfortable. Short straps lead to tight armholes!

For this particular garment I am trying out a couple things:

  1. “budget” coutil
  2. the #1 Greist buttonhole foot for a late 60s straight stitch machine (mine is a Kenmore 158-1652, circa 1968)
  3. 1/4″ steel bones (as opposed to using a couple 1/2″ bones, which is common in Ren Faire bodices).
  4. making my own bias tape

Using the Maunta Maker Elizabethan “pair of bodies” pattern that I previously compared to the Laughing Moon late Victorian waist cincher pattern here and my updated measurements, I redrew the pattern to fit my proportions.

More after the jump.

Fabric – Quite a while back I bought some inexpensive coutil to test out. I did a basic comparison here. Now that the fabric has been pre-washed I can say that the weave is surprisingly loose, much looser than standard coutil. As was obvious at the initial look, this coutil is a rather wider weave. The twist of the yarns seems loose and it is prone to fraying a the cut edges, which is NOT a feature of regular coutil. I failed to measure it before cutting it, so I can’t say how much shrink there was. I will reserve final judgement on its quality until the garment is completed and I’ve had a chance to give it a trial wear during a weekend of faire.

Pattern – This pattern is a little tough due to the multi-size layout and options. The pieces are simple enough, but there are a lot of lines for the different sizes, cup size and different cut points, depending on whether you’re making a front or back opening corset. I definitely suggest marking your size. I have opted to make my corset lace up both the front and back. This is not shown on the pattern envelope. I don’t have the instructions/historical write-up that came with it and have not really seen any research one way or the other. Victorian corsets do open in the front and back. I’m going to go for it as a way to give myself the most variable (and hopefully comfortable) fit.

The pattern has three pieces that you draw out as two. My challenge was to find a happy medium where my measurements took me from a small size on top, to a medium size on the bottom. There is also an option to cut a straight waist or tabbed version. The whole point of this corset for me is to be more comfortable, so I used the tabs. The tabs are longer pieces that extend down over your hips. There are gaps at the seams where the garment spreads to accommodate the hips.

corset stress point

Elizabethan corset stress point. Because of the seam placement there is quite a bit of gaping; it will be the worst stress point.

waist cincher back

Victorian waist cincher. Notice that the pieces are curved.

In later corsets this would evolve into solid shaped hip pieces. In practice, there will be a lot of strain at the top of the gaps so I will need to reinforce them with stitching. This was also commonly done on Victorian corsets.

The Mock-up – I cannot stress the importance of a mock-up enough. Had I not done one I would have ended up with a corset that was too tight in the hips, oddly sized tabs (my own fault when trying to get that size transition to work) and straps that had an odd gap in the back. More on the straps later.

A corset can require additional mock-ups. In this case, I’m pretty familiar with the pattern, the alterations I need to make to fit my proportions and am not too concerned with the materials cost, so my second version is my final. (I did start to draw it out several times, but luckily saw my errors on paper).

If you’re going to be making more than one corset, whether that’s all at once or over time, I suggest making or buying your own lacing panels. Purchased lacing tape is are simply some kind of tape with grommets already added. I prefer to create my own, which I made with two panels of roughly 8″ wide by 14″ long duck cloth and interfacing, large grommets and I add 1/2″ bones. Either way, you can add these sections to your mock-up to check for fit. Making your own allows you to vary the corset width by stitching these panels on where you think they should go and moving them in or out to fine tune your mock-up.

Construction and additional materials – Being somewhat worried about the quality of my fabric and its potential to stretch, I cut out two layers of coutil. I’m not sure that the bones will NOT poke through the weave, so I’m using bone tape instead of making casings between the two layers of fabric directly. I AM doing the self-casings at the front and back openings because there are 4 layers of fabric there and I don’t want to add more bulk by using the tape.

The construction is pretty straight forward. Stitch the front/side and back pieces together for each layer, making sure you get them in the right order and with the correct face out. Since I made two totally separate sections (front and back opening) I ended up with two inside-out tubes. The fronts and backs have finished edges where bones will slip in along the finished edge, with button holes to the inside of the bone line. Essentially, the laces are drawn tight around the bones, which will prevent the edge from puckering out of shape.

Decide where your bones need to go, minimally anywhere there will be lacing (front and back for me). I decided to do some along each of the seams and in a couple of mid-panel spots. I have 7 or 8 per side. Farthingales has a good example of the construction here. Double stitch all bone channels, once with a small stitch and a second time with a longer one. Leave the ends open. This corset can also be quilted.

Measure your casings and fit your bones, leaving 1/4″ to 1/2″ gaps at the top and bottom. You can cut bones and re-tip them if you need shorter ones. Stitch the layers of the corset together along the bottom edge. Put the bones in and scoot them down so you can close the top without stitching over them.

My next step was buttonholing. I like to do them pretty close together for added stability, so I did one per inch. I was not looking forward to endless hand-made eyelets, and my regular machine is on the fritz, so I was a little stuck. Then I discovered you can get a buttonhole foot for an old straight-stitch machine, my Kenmore 158-1652. The one I got has 10 metal templates, one of which is an eyelet! It took a little while to play with it and get used to the fact that the foot moves the fabric side to side and so does the needle, but once I got the hang of it, it really does beautiful button holes. I don’t think I’ll ever use my modern machine for that again. I will need to do a few hand stitches around each hole to keep the hole open. I used an awl to push a hole through instead of cutting it; it’s stronger that way.

After trying the corset on and playing with the lacing, I marked were I want the front of the straps to lace onto the body. I’ve decided to cut down the front end a little, basically cutting off one button hole. I won’t have a perfectly straight corset front at the top edge. I’m not sure how historically accurate that is, but I suspect that there was really a lot more variation than what we see in extant garments, paintings and drawings. What we have to look at is almost exclusively of the highest classes, so not representative of the entire population. Also, there were no patterns as we know them. There was likely a lot of copying by eye.

Notes on the straps – The pattern lays the straps out on the grain. They don’t stretch out of shape, but they don’t actually sit flat on the shoulders. My options were: 1. move the place where the straps attach to the front of the body inward. That was a “no” since I would essentially have to attach them in the middle. 2. add a dart on the outside back of the shoulder. This would mean that the straps would stretch out a little and would have an ugly dart. 3. cut and reposition them on my mock-up. This last is what I did. Unfortunately, that meant they were off-grain and would stretch like the Dickens. I ended up putting interfacing in them, all the way down to a couple inches below where they start on the back. Thinking about it later, I should have opted for the dart. It would probably be more accurate and would waste less fabric.

The last step after getting some proper lacing and “eyelet” cleanup will be to bind the edges. I made some truly horrible bias binding. I did it the “easy” way, but needed to take the time to cut straight! I should be able to hide my jagged cutting as I go along since the cut edges will be hidden.

I’ll post the final steps when the corset is complete.