#fail: the 1780’s corset

For those of you who have stayed behind and are not following minkipool.co.za, I have a corsetry related post:

#fail: the 1780’s corset

With this 1780’s pair of stays from Norah Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines I tried something new. I was interested in creating a corset that had the flat-chested cone-shaped top half of a 18th century pair of stays, but the hips of a later Victorian steel boned corset. In short, I wanted something that doesn’t have waist tabs. It was not a success.

Read more here —> and be sure to follow minkipool.co.za for any future corset posts!

#fail: the 1780’s corset

If you happen to be near Devon

Then be sure to visit the Devon Guild of Craftsmen exhibition Tracing the Blueprint on from Friday 24 February to Monday 26 March 2012.

Tracing the Blueprint at Devon Guild of Craftsmen

From empires to everyday life, this exhibition traces the path of indigo-printed textiles from the Hapsburg Empire into Hungarian village life, and from Europe, via colonisation and assimilation, to Xhosa and other peoples of Southern Africa.

This exhibition concerns the fascinating social history of indigo dyeing in two countries; Hungary and South Africa. The exhibition will present photographs, text panels, samplebooks of fabrics and items of clothing to create a story about the fabrics. Fair-trade indigo items will be for sale in the shop.

And it features, among other things, a picture of the Shweshwe corset!

The exhibition has been curated by Devon Guild Member Hilary Burns, a basketmaker trained in textiles with childhood links to the Eastern Cape, and Jacqueline Sarsby, who is an anthropologist, photographer and oral historian.

If I were almost anywhere in the UK I’d most definitely find a way to swing by.

The Shweshwe Corset Part 6: The Stomacher

The last step of the Shweshwe corset is to add the stomacher. I decided to make the stomacher out of red taffeta to match the binding and contrast with the blue shweshwe of the corset itself. It is only half-boned (the rest of the corset is fully boned) and has four horizontal bones strategically placed to stop it from collapsing inward under the pressure when the corset is being laced.
I didn’t work from any pattern, and simply measured the opening at the front of the corset that needed to be covered. I also left some extra space to allow for the corset to be laced tighter or looser as required.

half-boned red taffeta stomacher.

half-boned red taffeta stomacher

close up of half-boned red taffeta stomacher
Now on to…  The Final Product!

The Shweshwe Corset Part 5: The Binding

After the boning it is time to finally cut the tabs and bind the corset. I was a bit scared of fraying edges, so I went over the entire edge of the corset with a fray-stop to stop it from falling apart before I could get around to binding all the edges. Cutting the tabs is, to me, almost the strangest part of making this corset, as I suddenly have to cut long gashes in a garment that I spent weeks lovingly planning and assembling. It also bothers me that nothing but a bit of binding stands between this corset (and all corsets of this kind) and fraying beyond all use and recognition. I would have been much more comfortable with some heavy-duty overlocking instead!

Blue Shweshwe corset with tabs cut.

Then it was time to bind the corset, a process I was looking forward to as it is just some very simple mindless sewing by hand and would leave me mind-time to start planning the next project. But be warned: binding by hand is not for the faint of heart. Do not try this at home. The boredom of it will surely destroy your mind. Or something equally grim. As it turns out, binding the tabs of a 18th century corset is dull and time consuming work, not to mention needle-breaking and finger-callousing. I went through 3 needles and I can’t really feel my right thumb.

Blue Shweshwe 18th century corset or pair of stays being bound with red satin bias binding.
In the beginning I was a bit confused as to what material I should use for the binding. One source swore I should use nothing but bias binding, while another source swore I can use almost anything but bias binding. This, obviously caused some confusion, yet in the end I decided to use satin bias binding, as it was easiest to find and was sufficiently stretchy to bend around all the strange corners of the edge of my corset.

Red satin bias binding on a blue Shweshwe 18th century corset or pair of stays.
It turns out there was some truth in the source that said bias binding would not be acceptable as it was too fragile to withstand the pressure and hard wear one could expect from a corset. This is especially true when it comes to satin bias binding. It snagged on all the rough edges left by the fray-stop and got quite tattered in places until I learned to keep the binding well away from the edge until I was actually binding the edge with it. Non-satin bias binding would have been perfect though. I can’t see it wearing down before the corset does. It will also be a lot harder to use twill tape or petersham ribbon as those have no sideways “stretch” in them (not being cut on the bias and all that). I don’t want to be the person to force a normal cotton tape to wiggle its way around all the corners of all the tabs.

At least I (mostly) tried to do some neat work.

Binding edge of blue Shweshwe 18th century corset or pair of stays with red satin bias binding.
Even with a bit of stretch to it, it was still hard to get the binding around all the corners, but all seems to be well that ends well.

Binding tabs of blue Shweshwe 18th century corset or pair of stays with red bias binding.

Now onto the stomacher –>

The Shweshwe Corset Part 4: The Boning

I’ve taken a small break from corsetry while I was busy with other stuff. Now I’m back and moving on to the fun stuff: the boning. This is the part that gives the corset (and therefore the wearer’s body) it’s shape. The shape that you want to achieve as well as the kind of corset you are creating dictate the kind of boning necessary for the proper structural functioning of the garment.

This particular corset leaves a lot of the structure over to the layers of the garment, the direction of the boning,  the shoulder straps and the waist tabs that all work together to evenly distribute the pressure and create a sleek line. In this regard the corset is designed to give the wearer a very simple, conical torso that tapers to the waist and flares out over the hips. There is no shape over the breasts and the waist is not cinched. Steel boning is therefore not necessary, as there is not a great deal of pressure at the waist or at the lacing holes.

In its historical context the corset was boned with whalebone, but since that is now very hard to find (not to mention politically incorrect) I had to resort to other materials. Baleen (whalebone) was mostly used where both flexibility and strength was required, so a likely replacement would be plastic. The closest thing that most amateur corsetieres use today is, believe it or not, the humble cable tie.

Cable ties or zip ties or duct ties used to bone corset or 18th century stays

Cable ties or zip ties or duct ties used to bone corset or 18th century stays
Cable ties are perfect because they are quite bendy and flexible, but also gives a surprising amount of stiffness and structure when it is sewn into fabric. They are also great because they are easy to cut, and the corners can be rounded very easily to stop them from poking through the fabric of the corset. I used ties that were 388mm long and 7,8mm wide.

Corset with sewn boning channels.

Boning channels on the inside of the corset - without boning

Corset with boning channels with bones inserted.

Boning channels on the inside of the corset - without boning

Sewing the boning channels was bit of an operation – there are quite a few bones crossing each other, which means that the channels can’t be sewn all the way through. Especially at the channel that runs horizontally across the bust you can see that a lot of bones cross each other and that the channels had to be adapted accordingly.

Cable ties are fairly flat, but since there are so many of them in a corset, they can eventually take up a quite a lot of space on the width of the garment. In this instance the corset shrank width-wise with about 2cm!

Inside of boned corset. Inside of boned 18th century stays.

Boned corset - Inside

I’m not particularly proud of the way the fabric of the inner layer buckled and warped as I sewed the channels, but it will eventually be covered by the lining. Also, I was more concerned with getting the position of the bones perfect rather than creating a beautiful layer that no one will ever see…

Outside of boned corset. Inside of boned 18th century stays.

Boned corset - Outside

Because of the busy design of the outer fabric, I thought it would be overkill to have the boning channels feature on the outside of the corset. Sewing the channels all the way through is usually a nice design feature, showing that the corset is a garment of both beauty and function, but in this case I saved the shell (outer layer) for last and only added it to the rest of the garment after the corset was completely boned.

So far so good. Next up, the binding –>

The Shweshwe Corset Part 3: The Layers

This particular corset or pair of stays will have four layers.

The four layers of fabric used in the shweshwe corset of pair of stays: plain blue shweshwe, navy blue cotton twill, cotton twill with iron on vylene, blue shweshwe with white pattern.
Foundation layers:

I started with the two base or foundation layers. I used plain navy blue (closest to the blue of the Shweshwe that I could find) cotton twill as this material is fairly stable and non-stretch. It is also has a nice and natural feel, it would allow the skin to breath (somewhat) and wouldn’t be too hot or uncomfortable. I used a medium weight iron on vylene on the outer of the two foundation layers (seen here in the wrong order; I changed the two base layers around after this picture was taken) in order to give it some extra stiffness and help the corset to appear smoother. The foundation layers are the ones that will be sewn together to form the boning channels that will hold the bones. These layers are responsible for the shape and structure of the corset.


The shell is the outer layer of this of corset and from very early on I had decided that this layer would be purely ornamental and would have nothing to do with the dynamics or structure of the garment itself. In other words, it will hold no bones in place, and in fact, the corset can function very well without it. I cut this layer of Shweshwe on the same pattern as the rest of the corset, panels and all, and will be hand sewn onto the foundation layers after the bones have been inserted.  The eyelets will be added through this layer and it will be bound with the rest of the corset.


Ideally (and somewhat historically) the lining should be added last, so that it could be removed and replaced easily without having to undo any part of the rest of the corset. Remember that corsets or stays were everyday garments, washing wasn’t a national pastime and laundering a pair of stays was a major operation (if ever attempted). When the lining wore through or became dirty,  it would be very economic to just be able to removed the old lining and replace with a fresh one. For this reason I will add the lining last. The lacing eyelets will not go through it and it will not be bound with the rest of the corset. It will be hand-sewn onto the inside of the corset almost as an afterthought.

On to the boning –>