Here’s How I Recreated a Real Victorian Corset | 1890’s Corset-Making | Historical Sewing
This is the story of how I made my first Victorian corset reproduction. Or, how one can make a corset from start to finish and then not be capable of believing that one actually made it. Sound confusing? You should understand more as we go on.
An Impossible Historical Inspiration
So, what was my historical inspiration? About three years ago, I bought my first ever book of historical corset patterns, and I was so excited. It was Jill Salen’s “Corsets” book, which, while not a classic like Nora Waugh’s “Corsets and Crinolines”, is more affordable for a beginner, contains corset styles that Waugh’s book doesn’t (for example, a maternity corset!), and the patterns are easier to work with than in “Corsets and Crinolines”.
Near the end of the book, there is a page that has always caught my eye: a beautiful, late Victorian black corset with the most stunning light blue embellishments, cording, and broiderie anglais (eyelet lace) trim. This corset, for most of my sewing career, has seemed beyond my abilities. So what made me feel ready to take on this challenge?
The Best Way to Learn Is to Teach
A couple years ago I heard a saying: “the best way to learn is to teach”. It seemed confusing to me at the time. After all, how can you teach what you yourself are still learning? It wasn’t until I created my online course, “Victorian Custom Corset-Making”, that I really understood.
I don’t think one ever really feels qualified to teach something. The teaching just finds you, and nudges you to do something that seems impossible: to share our limited knowledge with others who aren’t as far on the journey as we are.
After creating my online course, something amazing happened. It was as if the creating and teaching of every step of the corset-making process had seeped into my bones somehow.
What do I mean? By the end of this corset-making story you should understand.
What Is a Historical Reproduction?
At this point, some of you might be a little confused. Katherine, don’t you make historical corsets and garments all the time? What do you mean by saying this is your first ever historical reproduction?
This is my first time making a garment where to the best of my abilities, it is exactly modelled after a specific extant garment, in this case a corset. This means that not only is the pattern the same (though made to my measurements), but every type of fabric, colour, and the flossing, lace, etc are all copied to the best of my abilities.
So, where did I begin?
A Mysterious Corset Patterning Method
How on earth did I look at a picture of an extant corset and create a pattern for it? Great question. In fact, this was my first ever corset pattern for me to create using an entirely different method than I have EVER used before. Let me explain.
There are primarily three methods people go about getting a corset pattern:
1) Buying a pattern. This one is obvious.
2) Getting a historical scaled down pattern from a book and scaling it up (usually manually), then adjusting to fit one’s body.
3) Using a book like Mandy Barrington’s “Stays and Corsets” to actually draft a historical corset pattern to one’s own measurements.
Let me repeat again. I didn’t use any of the above methods to get this pattern. So how on earth did I do it?
The scaled down pattern for this corset, along with the stunning photo and description, are found in Jill Salen’s “Corsets” book. This time, I didn’t feel like manually scaling up the pattern, and then adjusting it to fit me. So, I took my body measurements for bust, waist, and hip, and through a bunch of calculations, figured out what percentage of these overall measurements each panel should take up, width wise. But how did I get the vertical dimensions?
I then plotted these measurements and created my panels over top of a bodice block pattern of mine, which was a guide for the vertical measurements. Sound confusing? Yep, it really confused me as well, but I am so glad I tried something new and difficult. This method, if I can master it, will give me the ability to look at any historical corset and be able to make a pattern for it. How? Through estimation of the percentages involved in each panel, I should be able to create a fairly accurate pattern. But how did the mock-ups for this pattern go? Was my method successful?
I tried a new mock-up technique which saved me a lot of time: making a “paper mock-up”. How did I do it? It was simple: I taped my paper pattern pieces which were made of printer paper) together. This helped me forsee one major issue which I was able to correct before going to the fabric mock-up stage.
Then, I made a fabric mock-up, where I decided to make the bust gussets be longer for the sake of good proportions, and to have the hips be a little smaller (I like my corset hips to fit larger than my own hips, but this was a bit much), and to give some more room in the upper back area. I also reduced the waist at the back of the corset, to allow for the natural curve of my spine.
It was time to cut out. But how would I work with the different layers of fabric?
Cutting Out the Corset
The first place where I chose to deviate from the original was in my choice of fabric. The original corset’s fashion fabric was a layer of black cotton sateen. This is available now a days, but it’s a little harder to source, so I decided to go with a layer of thick black silk instead. For the strength layer, I used black cotton coutil.
I had created my pattern pieced without seam allowance, which is how I prefer it for corset pattern. I traced out each pattern piece onto my coutil, added a one cm seam allowance, then cut out. This way, my stitching lines were all clearly marked on the panels.
Cutting out the silk was more complicated. Why? Most of these corset panels contained lots of cording, which means you need a lot more seam allowance than you would normally use, to allow for the silk that will be taken up by the cording process. For this reason, I simply cut out a generous swathe of black silk for all of the panels except for the centre-front, which contained no cording.
Now, how on earth to complete all the cording in this corset?
Let’s talk about the coolest part about this corset- the cording! Cording, to my mind, is the main thing that can set apart historical corsets from modern ones. There are so many different styles and types of cording, and this one corset contained two different types of cording.
The first type was fine, soft cording over the bust gussets, which probably would have been done by a cording machine on the extant corset. I would LOVE having access to one of these today, but as far as I can tell, they are all gone now. So I had to do this by hand. If you are intrigued and want to dive into the nitty gritty of how to create cording like this in a historical corset, my Victorian Custom Corset Making Course covers it all in detail. Suffice it to say here that I created the fine cording over the bust panels with cotton yarn, and lots of tedious stitching at my sewing machine.
Next, It was time for the more structural cording in the rest of the panels. This cording replaced the need for much of the boning, so I used a thicker jute cord. The jute cord I bought was a bit too thick, so I would use one strand at a time, then wet it and stretch it out to take out the kinks.
Then I added this cording into each panel vertically, in the same way I had with the yarn. I made sure to not add cording over the seam lines, and to keep enough space for the boning channels which I would later add.
Time for the busk and eyelets.
Busk and Eyelets
I like adding my busk and eyelets before the corset panels have been stitched together. For the centre-back, I used a fold-over facing to reinforce the area and have a finished edge. I added another strip of coutil, folded in half, into the area where the eyelets would be. After sewing my boning channels on either side of where the eyelets would be, I simply measured and marked eyelets about 2 cm apart.
I set my eyelets using an industrial eyelet setting kit for which you use a mallet and a punch to first punch your holes, then a mallet and a setting tool to set each eyelet in place. This process doesn’t take as long as it sounds, and I immensely prefer it over eyelet setting pliers.
To add the busk, I first added a centre-front facing to both centre panels. Busk insertion can be a confusing, intimidating process, and if you would like to be walked through the process, my online corset making course is for you! Finally, I top-stitched around around the edge of the busk.
It's time to talk about the biggest thing that went wrong in this corset project.
Let's talk about what went wrong in this project. Majorly wrong.
The first panels that had to be attached were the corded bust gussets, attached into the opening at the centre-front panel. This was a tricky thing to figure out, and in hindsight, I know how I should have done it, but it was a lesson hard learned. I trimmed off the seam allowance of the bust opening at the centre-front panel, and lined it up with the bust gusset as best as I could before stitching. The problem? At the lower corner of this gusset, there was very noticeable wrinkling that happened, that then affected the centre-front edge, not allowing it to lay flat.
What should I have done to avoid this? Well, in hindsight, whenever bust gussets are attached, one should first press under the edges of the opening into which they are being inserted, then top stitch the gusset in. I suppose I didn’t think of these gussets in the same way as, say, Regency stay bust gussets, so this didn’t occur to me. I also learned a hard lesson of the importance of testing new techniques during the mock-up stage.
The worst part of my "faux-pas" was that I was left with not enough width at the centre front to fully enclose the busk in one spot. This is something that really bothered me at the time, but was unfixable, and now that the corset is finished, I say meh, it just gives it some character.
It was time to connect the rest of the corset panels. Would this go wrong, too?
Attaching the Body Panels
Now, it was time to attach the body panels of the corset. First I used my paper panels to mark each panel’s stitching lines again, just in case the panels had shrank from the cording process. Then, I carefeully pin basted each panel together, being sure that each pass of the pin was going right through the marked stitching lines. Then, I took it to the machine, and stitched each panel with a small stitch, and seams to the outside of the corset.
I trimmed these seam allowances very narrow, pressed them open, and we were ready for the most nerve wracking part of the process. Adding boning channels.
First of all, another issue happened right away with regards to my boning channel material. I had ordered some twill tape from my favourite corset supply website, and it was lovely twill tape, especially recommended for use as boning channels. The only problem: I ordered twill tape that didn’t end up being wide enough for my boning channels. Not wanting to have to layer coutil and silk to make my own channels, I needed another option. Thankfully, I had also ordered black Petersham ribbon for binding the edges of my corset, which if I folded in half, was the perfect width for boning channels, and gave a nice texture as well.
For the centre front panel, I basted these in place first before stitching. It was nerve-wracking to say the least! One of the channels, the one directly over the bust seam, was very curved, and I worried that my chosen boning might not fit in properly. More on that in a moment.
For the other channels, they were sewn directly over top of the pressed open seams. In some places I had to use a zipper fit to be able to sew right next to the jute cording.
Now let’s talk about adding boning. I am a synthetic whalebone lover when it comes to corset making, but this time I *thought* I wanted to try to something different. Especially since the extant corset used steel boning, I thought I would as well. I cut my boning to length using tin snips and even filed the ends smooth using my Dremel drill. The steel boning worked out great for the centre-front and centre back, but as soon as I got to the curved bust channels, the problems started.
Ideally, spiral steel boning would have been best here, to get that side to side bend. In lieu of this, I gently bent the steel boning to get it to lie flat in the curved channel. This helped, but it was still twisting a bit within the channel, and there was something even worse. The beautiful curved that I had drafted, mocked-up, corded, and stitched into this corset, were being squished and flattened by the heavy, aggressive steel boning. This was my breaking point. I couldn’t destroy the delicate curves of the corset I had worked so hard to create! I then made the difficult decision of removing all the steel boning save that at the centre-front and centre-back, and replacing it with synthetic whalebone. Much better - the curves were back! I even used steam from my iron to heat the boning and bend some shape into this corset.
Time for the most iconic part of this project, and also the most challenging.
Binding, Flossing, and Lace
Phew! The final steps of this corset were now to come. Having used all of my Petersham ribbon for the boning channels, I had to come up with a new option for the binding. I wanted the binding to be attractive, strong enough to withstand wear and tear, and also fairly wide to fit the aesthetic of this corset as well as provide enough space for the decorative stitching that would take place on the binding. I opted to use wide strips of extra black silk, cut on the straight grain, not the bias, so that they would be stronger. I then pressed the edges under using my largest bias tape maker.
Normally, I sew the second pass of my binding by hand. Always. This time, I was tired. I knew how much hand stitching was ahead of me to create the massive, in your face flossing that gives this corset its character. I completely machine stitched the binding in place! I sewed the first pass on the underside of the corset, then added a top stitch on the right side. I hand stitched the binding in place only at the corners of the corset. Number 1, this was neater, and number 2, my busk and boning went up nearly to the tops and bottoms of the the corset, so the binding had to be hand-stitched here.
Now it was time for the flossing and decoration on this corset! Having studied the extant corset as closely as I could from the one picture I had, I separated the decorative elements into four categories:
1) the broiderie anglais lace (more on that in a moment)
2) a decorative vine stitch on the binding of the corset over the bust gussets
3) the bone flossing, made to look like a tall flower
4) the cord flossing, a zig zag pattern.
So let’s talk briefly about the lace. I made what seemed at the time, the totally nuts decision of making my own lace. Why? It was impossible to find light blue on black broiderie anglais lace for sale, or even white on black! Even if I could have found it, it wouldn’t have had the same pattern as this lace had, with its star-like shapes. I have an entire video about how I made the lace, so check for that, not sure when it will be posted in relation to this one, but when it is posted, it will be linked in the description! Making this lace took a long time, so at first I only made lace for the top edge. Later, however, I decided to add more to the bottom.
Next came the decorative hand-stitching on the corset itself. I first practiced on some scrap fabric, then added the decorative vine stitch on the binding of the corset over the bust, then started with the cord flossing at the lower back of the corset. It’s always a good idea to start in a less conspicuous area, since I guarantee you that your first ones will be a bit wonky. Then I moved on the bone flossing, which is my favourite bone flossing that I’ve ever completed thus far. I should mention that instead of using typical six strand embroidery thread, for this project I used a perle cotton, which is a single strand cotton embroidery thread. I loved it!
Completing the flossing was the point at which this corset seemed to transcend me, where I would walk away from it and then come back to me like, Oh my gosh! What is that? I made that?