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 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.

Shell:

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.

Lining:

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 –>

The Shweshwe Corset Part 2: The Pattern

The pattern I decided on for this particular corset was  for a pair of half boned stays from Norah Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines. As this is my first pair of stays or 18th century corsets that I attempt with something as conventional as a sewing machine (no cardboard this time!) the simplicity of the pattern appealed to me. I also really liked the delicate structural pattern of the bones. The direction of the boning in a corset like this is very important since it is only half boned, and a lot of the shape of the garment is dictated by the careful placing of bones.

Pattern for Half boned stays from Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh.

Pattern of stays from Diderot's L'Encyclopedie, "Tailleur de Corps". It is a half-boned stay, cut from six pieces only, the shaping being given by the direction of the bones. It would have the extra busk and the shaping bones across the front and across the shoulder blades. It might also be fully boned.

This corset closes at the back, but since I do not have several ladies to dress me, it made sense to devise a front closure so I could lace myself into the corset. Lacing into a corset with double lacing and the convenient looped “rabbit ear” laces is easy, but lacing yourself into the rigid boned stays of the 18th century would be impossible unless the closes in the the front. I also decided to add a separate stomacher, so as to allow me more freedom with regards to how tight I want to lace it and how much weight I plan to gain/lose in the next few years. In this way the corset would lace in the front over a stomacher that would show through the laces. For an example of what I have in mind, see the lovely corset in the image below. I’m also quite interested by the that seemed to have bits of fabric sewed between them to keep them from flaring open too far. This is something used in the Cardboard Corset to prevent the cardboard tabs from sticking out to far, and I might keep it in mind for use in the Shweshwe corset too.

Front lacing stays with stomacher from the Manchester Art Gallery

Front lacing stays with stomacher from the Manchester Art Gallery

On to the pattern. Since I had decided to lace it open in the front as well as leave a considerable gap between the two front panels (to allow for the stomacher) I ended up drawing the pattern completely wrong. I didn’t take into account that by opening the front up (and therefore making the panels slightly less wide , the shoulder tabs would move to the sides and sit under my arms. On the panel below you can see how far back the shoulder tabs are. If that corset was to lace shut in the front, the tabs would be fine, but as I intended the fronts to reach no further than the point of the breasts, the tabs were in completely the wrong place.

Initial front panel of the Shweshwe corset pattern.

Initial front panel, without the tabs at the waist.

So I redrew the front panel and moved the shoulder tabs forward. The now look like they are going to cover the breasts, but actually that are still running quite wide over the shoulders. Another change I made was to add several inches to the waistline of the corset, as the waist part of this corset was definitely too small for me. Over the centuries our waists have been steadily increasing in size while our breasts remained more or less the same. I cannot find the corresponding article online to substantiate these wild claims of mine, because the internet seems to be inundated with tedious accounts of how obesity is evil. This waist widening has nothing to do with obesity, however, and  it would seem from non-obesity related research that the female waist has been steadily disappearing for one reason or another. Hence the extra needed inches at the waist of this corset.

Final front panel of the Shweshwe corset pattern.

Final front panel, with the tabs at the waist. The shoulder tabs have been moved forward to accommodate the open front closure.

The back panel of the corset was relatively fuss free and easy to measure out. By and by I might mention that my mother (an old hand in sewing) said that the only reason I’m doing this with relative success and optimism so far is that I don’t know what I’m letting myself in for! The luck of the ignorant!

Back panel of the Shweshwe corset pattern.

The back panel.

The shoulder panel was by far the easiest, most boring and incidentally also the one that I find hardest to make work with the rest of the design (as it keeps flapping off to the side whenever I sew the corset).

The shoulder strap of the Shweshwe corset.

The shoulder strap.

On to the layers of fabric –>

The Shweshwe Corset Part 1: The Fabric

Shweshwe corset pattern on blue shweshwe fabric

The first project for this all exclusive corsetry blog: the Shweshwe corset! This is a project that I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, ever since I ran rampant in a fabric store, feeling up all the Shweshwe and fantasising about what a fantastic material it is for corset making.

Shweshwe is a 100% cotton fabric manufactured in the traditional way using copper rollers which have patterns etched on the surface, allowing the transfer of a weak discharge solution onto the fabric. While this fabric is now inherently very African, it initially came from India and was brought to South Africa by German settlers. It was first adopted by the Xhosa who made it their own and began adapting it to give it the uniquely African feel that it retains to this day.

Traditional African woman wearing Shweshwe

Shweshwe as it is still worn in parts of Africa. Note the mix of colonial style and the more traditional African influences. Photo from Injabulo

Fashionable Shweshwe dress

Fashion Shweshwe: outfit by South African designer Bongiwe Walaza

These days it is hot stuff in the fashion industry and this is why  just had to get on the bandwagon and make some Shweshwe creations of my very own!

While you’re looking at African fabrics, make sure to check out these Commemorative Cloths or fancy prints as well. 

The Shweshwe that I chose was probably not the best design for the type of corset I decided to make, but it is beautiful and very feminine, which makes it ideal for my purposes. This particular cloth is designed with the panels of a skirt in mind, and the panels can be clearly seen on this image.

Shweshwe

Close up of Shweshwe

Close up of ShweshweAfter the first wash the fabric felt significantly softer and more pliable, since the starch left over from the printing process had now been completely removed. This left me a bit worried that it might not be the best material for corsetry after all. I decided to make the base of the corset out of plain cotton twill which will be stronger and less likely to stretch or distort, and then use the Shweshse only as the decorative outer layer and the plain Shweshwe for the lining.

Now on to the pattern –>