#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

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 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 –>