Posted by: Aunt Magaidh | September 28, 2010

The Great Corset Experiment

So, I was supposed to go to this new faire this summer and part of the prep was to have an outfit that was more historical than what usually passes for approved at Ren faires.  There were actual costuming standards that the participants were going to have to meet in order to be at the faire.  I had to make a new outfit.  You can see that outfit on my post about my big summer sewing project.

What you won’t see in that post was the experimentation that I went through to create the corset that goes with that outfit.    I started by researching what was the correct silhouette (conical –  not saloon girl or Victorian or Jessica Rabbit, thank you) , how the current research thinks that an Elizabethan corset was constructed, and what kinds of patterns are available for the basic consumer making a costume.

You’ve probably learned by now that I tend to do things the “less than easy way”.   So get comfy, sit back and listen to the story.

At first, I found all the specialty patterns.

Some got good reviews, and others didn’t;  but the comments that they were complicated and the price for the patterns pretty much nixed my interested in pursuing those options.  (Here’s the best review –  http://www.gbacg.org/great-pattern-review/margo-anderson.html – but I was scared off by the price and complicated instructions and user comments.)

I thought I’d cheat by using a commercial pattern that had gotten decent marks for pretty simple construction and accuracy.  It helped a bunch that I only paid a buck for the pattern because it was on sale at JoAnn’s Fabrics.    I bought the commercial pattern by Simplicity, found what I would hope was the right size (remember modern ease is built into these patterns)  and tried it out as it is pictured: back closing with decorative tabs.

It wasn’t until I tried it on that I really understood that I’m so short-waisted that I’ve got to adjust the pattern pieces even if it looks short-waisted.  Absolutely mandatory.  Oh well.

Corset #1 front. see the wrinkles at the sides?

The bottom wrinkles at waist show that it's too long for me.

On to corset #2.

Again I used the commercial pattern by Simplicity.  But this time I made it front opening, no tabs, slightly shortened in the waist area, and just used light boning in the front like I have for my other bodices and one piece dresses for faire.  (That means boning at the lacing edges and diagonal boning from armpit to waist closure.  Much better, but no cigar.

So after avoidance didn’t work, I finally went to the recommended corset generator by Drea:    http://www.elizabethancostume.net/corsets/pattern.html

I looked at it.  I read the comments that others made about it.  I Facebooked a faire friend who wears corsets all the time and asked if she had used the program.  She said it was very good with minor adjustments.  She strongly suggested that I do the version that has boned tabs so my skirts and such wouldn’t dig in at my waist.  I thanked her and hung up.  I sighed.  I gave in, gathered my materials and courage, and cut out Corset #3.

This time I thought ahead, I read the suggestions and comments, and I planned for major structure in the fabrics.  I used 3 layers of fabric  - canvas for outer, cotton for interlining, and linen for lining- instead of 2 to make sure I didn’t get poked by boning or have the boning slice through the linen lining. (I’d just be really pissed off if that happened with all the work I was planning on doing on this thing.)  I also had to take into account that I couldn’t afford to go and buy boning and had to use stash or scavenged materials.

(Brainstorm: Orchard Supply Hardware.  I went to the warehouse of my local OSH and asked if I could get some of the plastic strapping that they used to tie materials to pallets.  The warehouse person looked at me with a puzzled face.  I described the strapping – “You know…the yellow or white or black plastic stuff that you probably have in the trash?”, I offered helpfully.  She walked away and quickly returned with some slick black plastic strapping.  Perfect!  I said an excited “thank you” and drove away…)

I had 4 pieces of steel boning left.  The rest I cut from the black plastic strapping.  Here are the in progress pictures.

Boning and channels. I numbered the bones so I could keep them organized.

If you look closely you'll see the Fray check smudges near the seam binding.

Here is the finished corset on my dress dummy.

If you have to make a corset, I’d highly suggest that you use the generator pattern.  Here are the suggested steps:

  1. Get a nice glass of something relaxing, read the instructions and gather your paper, pencil/marker, and straight edges (tape measure, yardstick, French curve).
  2. Follow the instructions and take your time.  Think of it as an exercise in “connect the dots” that you may have done in 1st grade.  Or think of it like you’re knitting socks – it seems like it won’t work, but it will.
  3. Then pull some crappy material from your stash and cut out a mock up of the pattern.
  4. Take a deep breath and then pin the mock up together and pin it on.  You might need help from a friend (particularly one who knows a little about pinning/sewing).
  5. Go look in the mirror and note where things buckle and wrinkle.  Adjust the pins.  Make marks on the mock up.   Pay special attention to the waist and under the arm.  You may need to shorten it considerably despite the generator doing math for you.
  6. After you’ve adjusted the pattern, gather your REAL fabrics and boning and interlining and stuff.
  7. Follow the directions about cutting it out and sewing.
  8. Test the sucker before you do the finishing…safety pins will hold it closed so you don’t have to put eyelets in first.
  9. Remember that you don’t have to do it all in one day.  I’d get so sick of the thing that I’d have to put it down for a day or two between steps.

Additional tips:

  • I used Fray check on the raw edges.  I also zig zag stitched some edges.
  • The lumber ties worked fine; I doubled them up for additional stiffening. I didn’t bone it all the way around or over every square inch.  I focused on where I needed to look flat/conical and where I didn’t want wrinkles.  I only had 6 pieces of steel boning in the whole thing, so I put them in the front.
  • Canvas is a good fabric.  Strong.  Crazy 1970s printed cotton is fine for interlining.  No one is going to see it.  Linen was nice to the body on the inside, but so is muslin.  And the 3 layers really will hold in a body that has a mind of its own!
  • If you aren’t going for the 100% historical accuracy madness, you don’t have to do all handsewing on the seam binding or other bits.  I machine stitched the first part and hand stitched the other side.  Everywhere I could use the machine to put this thing together, I did.  Zig zag gave me some additional confidence when I noticed the fabric was unravelling with handling before the Fray-check.

I think that I learned a lot.  I’m not as intimidated by making my own pattern now.  Yes, I could do a better corset next time.  It actually isn’t uncomfortable…which means it fits well…but I sure am glad that I don’t have to wear a corset for my Scottish faire character.

I apologize if there aren’t as many details as you hoped, but I’ll respond to questions if you send them to me.  Now I’ve got to get moving.  I’ve got a new faire kid to sew garb for a faire in a couple of weeks.  See you around.

Magaidh

P.S.  - 10/1/10

Someone told me that there was a reader out there doing a Scots outfit and making a corset.  Sister, don’t sweat it if you’re playing a Highlander!  You only need the corset if you’re playing a Lowland Scots woman.  But then again, you’ll be wearing an English outfit on your bod as well.   Best of luck!

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