Monday, February 23, 2015

Victorian Overbust Corset

I really wanted to get this done for the historical sew monthly January challenge, foundations, but ended up not finishing it in time. I was dissapointed not to make the deadline, but I have finally finished it! I'm really excited about this corset. My husband gave me a Laughing Moon bust gore overbust corset kit last year for christmas and it's been marinating in the pile of projects. I hadn't gotten to it partially because it's sort of an impractical and selfish project, and partially because, with all my sewing experience, corsetry intimidates me. It's a whole field of it's own, with it's own unique intricacies and skillset. Just because you can draft and fit a bodice doesn't mean you can properly fit a corset: corsets not only have to mirror the shape of your body perfectly, they mold your body into new dimensions. Once you've passed the cylindrical shape of stays, which do not take personal shape into that much consideration (hey, we're making you into a cone here.... The only real considerations are the dimensions of the cone.) corsetry becomes a complicated and fascinating art.

I've been fascinated with corsets pretty much forever. When I was 13 or so I made my china doll a full civil war ensemble from the cardstock boned corset up, and the fascination has pretty much stuck. I love the costumes you wear OVER a corset, from the sweeping skirts of the civil war era to the "pouter pigeon" look of the edwardian era, to the nipped waist and sweeping circle skirts of the 50's (Girdles: the best friend of the "new look," and the slightly stretchy relative of the corset.) I love the way that corsets allow you to fit garments, the precise tailoring that is possible in bodices when you don't have to allow ease for things like.... breathing...  I just love corsets too. I find them beautiful and historically fascinating. They've been an intrinsic part of women's lives, and women's clothes for centuries. They've been everything from a practical way to support the breasts and the back, to a restrictive symbol of social status and women's place in the world. And they've been a factor in the views of what was beautiful, both in public and private. It's no coincidence that while the clothed silouttes of the victorian era feature defined waists, nudes of the period show a sensuality far removed from our own: women with full limbs and soft stomachs: the shape of a woman who had worn a corset since childhood. From Catherine de Medici's vanity to Queen Victoria's views on propriety: stays and corsets have been the shape of fashion right through the modern era.

I myself have been wearing a corset off and on for the last few years. Carrying my second son so close to my first I had a fairly severe diastasis recti, the separation of the abdominal muscles, and a girdle was reccomended as part of the postpartum treatment of that condition. I found that the plastic bones in the girdle buckled at the waist and stabbed me. Having worked around boning enough to know one end from another I decided that spiral steel would be more comfortable for me, and got an off the rack corset. The increase in comfort was astronomical, and I found that I enjoy wearing a corset, and like the look it gives me under some of my 40's and 50's style clothes. Unfortunately that corset had some fit problems, mostly because I'm very tall and have a large hip to waist ratio. I complained about that and threatened to draft a corset pattern out of one of my corsetry books, but was never quite brave enough to take the plunge because of my inexperience with corsetry. Enter my dear husband with a corset kit as a christmas gift.

The kit I recieved was from and included all the supplies and some of the tools neccesary for the Laughing moon Silverado bust gore corset. The bust gore corset is recommended for ladies who have a fairly large difference in size between their ribcage and bust. It gives you more flexability there to get a good fit. I am not overly endowed, but I do have a relatively small ribcage, which makes it a better choice for me. Also the Siverado is longer than it's goreless relative the Dore, and since I'm tall, that's a consideration in fit as well. And yes. My wonderful husband did all the research to figure this out himself after only minor consultation with my sister. In addition to the Laughing moon #100 ladies underwear 1840-1900 pattern, the kit included a tailors awl, boning, boning tape, waist tape, lacing, gromets, busk, and measured capped bones. It is avialable with coutil included, although my husband chose it without so I could choose my own. They also offer grommet setting tools and various other tools as reccomended add ons, but I already had those things. I am sorry to say that I cannot recommend this kit though. There were things in the kit that you didn't need if you followed the instructions (boning channel tape) which was just confusing. The real problem was that more than half of the bones were the wrong length, even though I made the corset in the correct size. I still like as a supplier, just don't buy their kits. I prefer Farthingales I think on the whole, but they don't sell coutil from their US. store, so shipping is exorbitant.

* Update as of 4/20/15 has sent me a very nice response to the poor (and slightly grumpy) review I left on the kit. They went through and measured the pieces in the pattern and checked against their boning specs. Turns out that the pattern had changed and no one told them. They are fixing the kit and checking their other kits. I still think it may be better to buy boning and tips and do it yourself to account for changes to the pattern during fitting, but think that if you didn't have the equipment to easily cut/tip boning this could be a good alternative. 

The laughing moon pattern is great though. The instructions are copious and clear. The single complaint I have with this pattern is that the instructions are printed on the same GIANT paper as the patterns themselves, with a small note telling you that if you find the instructions "unwieldly" in that format you may cut them along the lines to make them more manageable. So you spend half an hour cutting some 40 pages to size and then ironing them flat. Then you spend the entire construction process ruffling through pile trying to find the page number you need, and having them get knocked over by your cat.... So. I wish they would print the instructions as a sort of booklet for you. Failing that learn from me and put them in a binder after you've cut them out and ironed them flat.....

The first thing I did, before I even traced the pattern off, was to make a pair of lacing tapes. All these are is strips of waste fabric folded like bias tape with small buttonholes at regular intervals along their full length. Once made they can be basted into mockups allowing you to properly close them and not have to put buttonholes or something into every. single. mockup. You can also leave them laced together for the whole process, just moving them from mockup to mockup, which means a lot less labor in lacing and unlacing. These are really important for certain very fitted garments, especially garments that have negative ease like corsets, since you cannot just pin the mockup on. because it will not give you a true picture of final fit. In corsetry as well the tapes allow you to see the shape of the lacing gap at the back, which is important in final fit, and tells you where the reduction will be when you lace it tight.

Looking at the measurements on the pattern I needed a size 12 in the bust/waist, and a size 18 in the hips.... OUCH. Yes. I am pear shaped. They also suggested that you start with the larger size bust gores because it's easier to try to take it in than to let it out. Which is sage advice. So I traced of the size 18, with the d cup gores expecting to just have to take in significantly. around the waist/ribcage, carefully cut, and sewed together the mockup. Ideally corset mockups should be sewn from denim of canvas. I didn't have that sitting around, but had rather a lot of this very icky stiffly sized cotton, which worked in a pinch, although I had to be more careful with my fitting. You can see the lacing tapes in action here. They have been basted into the back so that where the edges meet in the back is even with the back of the mockup with the seam allowance folded over. I ended up having to make fairly significant alterations to the whole thing. The bust gores were far too large, even though I currently wear a 32 DD I ended up going with the next size down gores, and even taking those in a bit. I had to let the bottom of the hips out a little, and take the waist in a lot. I ran through two mockups to get the fit right, and had to have my mom come over and help me with the final fit of the back. It's just really hard to make more than very minor changes to the back of a garment by yourself. I took apart the final mockup and used it as my pattern.

The corset is made from one layer of imported cotton coutil, with a lining of silk. I chose to not follow the construction method in the laughing moon pattern, which calls for "sandwich" style channels sewn through outer layer and lining. This was partially because I didn't think the silk lining would hold up to the wear of the bones, and partially because I find that method adds bulk. And bulk in corsetry you want to avoid. Instead I used a period tecnique that is something like a flat felled seam. I got the idea looking at Augustintytar's amazing work. Anyone who has any interest in costuming will enjoy her work. It's absolutely incredible. Anyways, this is a period technique and as long as you don't overlap the seam allowances it makes a very flat seam which doubles as a boning casing. Brilliant. Now. Normally I would just sort of slap a seam like this together and go. But in corsetry any tiny mistake in fitting can lead to discomfort for the wearer, and in the worst case scenario, chafing. So, it pays to be extra careful.  Careful in this case means that I machine basted around all the pices at the seam line, and at the line where I would fold the seam allowance under. These basting lines were for marking purposes only.
Then I trimmed the seam allowances so that they would not overlap inside the seam, and clipped to the first line of stitching. I turned the edge over at the first line of stitching, and ironed it. It's important to be sure to turn it in the correct direction, so that all raw edges will be enclosed in the seam as shown above.
 That done, I very carefully hand basted the seam line together by lining up the interior line of machine basting. Now I could just top stitch on both sides without worrying about the fabric shifting on me.  I will add that this is one project where I almost wished for a thimble, as much as I despise them, because the coutil is so stiff and so dense. Use a very sharp needle, and expect to stab stitch rather than make running stitches.

Here's one piece on and the next ready to go on. You can see how the seam allownce on the peice that will be on the bottom is ironed forward, and the seam allowance on the piece that will go on the top is ironed back.
The only place this technique is not practical is over the bust gores, But since a boning channel does not need to run up each side of the gore, it's not neccesary for both sides to be treated in this manner. So I simply attached the gore to one piece, then fliped the seam allowances back, trimmed, and top stitched them. This allowed me to treat the other side as a continous seam for a boning channel.

The next step is to add the extra boning channels. Boning tape had been supplied in my kit for this purpose (although the instructions for the laughing moon pattern tell you to use the sandwich method.) I used the boning tape for individual channels, and pieces of leftover coutil for the three very closely spaced channels at either side of the bust gores. I felt that three pieces of boning tape sewn down edge to edge would be uneccesarily bulky. This is where I made the unfortunate discovery that although I had made the kit in the size it was ordered in, and although my corset is actually longer than the pattern, the bones were not the right length. Many of them were too long, while the side bones were a bit short. Because they came all pre capped and cut, and I don't have any boning caps hanging around in this size at the moment, there was nothing to do but pry the caps off, trim the bones to length, and put the caps back on. Which was probably more work than cutting and capping all of the boning myself. Thank god I have a pair of bolt cutters for cutting boning, and various tiny pliers.

Next I applied the waist tape, at the actual waistline (as determined by putting it on and bending back and forth to make wrinkles at the natural waist) and tacked it down in the existing lines of topstitching so it won't show from the outside.

First fitting! 
That just left the lining and finishing. Since I was not using the sandwich method, after I put the lining together I serged all the seams off as short as possible. This reduces bulk, and keeps them from fraying with wear in what will be a "floating" lining (not a concern with all fabrics but this silk was really prone to frayage) I did a final check on fit before I did any finishing, and while I could still make alterations without a lot of drama. I laced it up with some trepidation, I was afraid that for all my care with fitting and construction the fully boned corset wouldn't fit well, would look odd, or would otherwise have severe problems. I put it on and tightened it comfortably, so it felt snug but not super tight. I expected that it would be close to my natural waist measurement, since I was just sort of yanking it tight instead of lacing it up gradually over a quarter of an hour. Typically with comfortably tight lacing I get an outside measurement an inch or so less than my natural waist.  Imagine my shock when I found the lacing gap all but closed up, and my waist measurement showing an 6 inch reduction. without ever feeling squeezed at all! The fit was perfect, and the whole thing is so light and flexible. There is no pinching, no discomfort, and no unsightly "muffin top" at the top or bottom edges.

Since I am planning on wearing this frequently, which means that I will probably eventually need to alter it for a larger waist reduction, I chose not to do a standard binding. In order to alter it I will need to get at the inside, and taking the whole binding off will just make this even more painful. So I bound the coutil layer with a bias binding of black cotton, and then turned the lining in a quarter inch and basted it to the bias tape. This gives it a nice bound appearance but all I have to remove is one line of basting to get at the innards.

I flossed the whole corset with my favorite color of electric green, which shows up great on the black and looks shiney. In retrospect this was a terrible idea. Although I can do satin stitch and herringbone in my sleep, it's much different working them over boning, and my flossing is not to the standards I would like. And since it's in high contrast green on black, you can see every tiny mistake in neon clarity. Live and learn? Next time I will mark all of my flossing much better than I did this time. I also plan to make more tone on tone color choices until my flossing skills improve considerably. Finally I ran a narrow black ribbon through the front half of upper corset binding to tie in a bow and give a little draw in to the top of the cups. I would have preferred black beading lace but couldn't find any locally that I liked.

To me this whole experience has been not only an interesting and exciting expansion of my own sewing skills, but has really underlined the difference a custom corset makes. I have a decent quality off the rack uderbust corset. It's twice as heavy, much stiffer, and at the same comfort level I get a lot less reduction, plus, there's muffin topping everywhere if I really cinch it down. And I feel more constriction in my ribs when I wear it, even though it's underbust which many people prefer because it's less constricting around the ribs. I'm feeling much emboldened by my sucess with this corset, and planning on making the next one out of one of my books of orignal patterns instead of from a modern commercial pattern. I'm also considering attempting to improve the fit of my current underbust by adding hip gores. Not sure which one I'll get to first, but looking forward to continuing my corseting adventure!


  1. Thank you for making this excellent post! I am about to start on my very first corset, using this same pattern. Your version looks lovely, and have a great fit!

  2. This was an excellent post... I've wanted to make this same for a long time and you have given me inspiration.

    Thank you!