How I Made a Hand-Embroidered Civil War Era Corset
Hand embroidery has always seemed unattainable to me.
Sure, it looks pretty, but it takes 100 years, and I am simply not good at embroidery.
But when I found photos of a stunning 1850's corset with tons of blue embroidery, I knew I had to give it a try.
Want to see how I did it? Keep on reading.
I will be sharing:
How I drafted the pattern to my own measurements,
Made paper and fabric mock-ups,
Created the signature blue embroidery of the original extant corset
How I sewed the corset, complete with new corset-making techniques I have never tried before,
How I created the dense bone flossing of this corset
Keep reading to the end to see how the corset fits, and what my experience has been wearing it!
Inspiration and Pattern-Making
Several months ago, I had my eye on a corset pattern I wanted to make. The pattern was originally from “Corsets and Crinolines” by Nora Waugh, and it was a completely new type of corset to me. It was from the 1840’s, and at the time was a completely new style as well - it fit short, ending above the wearer’s hips, and was designed to be worn under the voluminous dresses and skirts that did not require any lower tummy shaping to look nice. I drafted the pattern to my own measurements using my bodice block and referencing the historical pattern to get the shape for each of the pattern pieces. Then, I taped the paper pattern pieces together to make a paper mock-up, and then made a fabric mock-up. More on fitting that in a moment.
Now, let’s talk about my historical inspiration for the colours and design of this corset! After my pattern was complete, I began scouring Pinterest for civil war era corsets (which had the same shape as the pattern I had drafted) to get ideas for how to embellish this particular corset. Specifically, I wanted to find a corset with a similar pattern shape that I could make an exact replica of, because lately that is the way I am learning the most about corset-making. No luck, no luck, no luck. Then, I saw it. The perfect corset for me to use as a model! It was from the Civil War period, and was made of white cotton sateen, and had the most stunning blue floral embroidery (in a way that perfectly accented the curvy bust shape) as well as stunning blue bone flossing. This was the one! It was an intimidating design to try to copy, but after my black Victorian corset, I knew I could do it.
Okay. Fitting the mock-up. Upon trying on the fabric mock-up, the fit was pretty great! There were a few issues I wanted to correct. I refined the fit of the bust a bit, by taking out some excess around the top centre area, and curving the lines of the bust inward for about 1 cm below the top edge. This helped create a slightly rounder, more “held-in” bust shape. Then, I removed some excess from the lower tummy area, and added extra width to the lower back area, where I needed some more flare at the bottom to accommodate my sway back shape. Phew! Now it was time to make the actual corset! Time to cut out the pattern pieces.
Cutting Out and Stitching Together
This corset was comprised of two different types of fabric. The outer layer, also known as the “fashion fabric” was white cotton sateen. The inner strength fabric was white cotton coutil. I laid out my pattern pieces, paying attention to grain, and traced around them. The pattern did not include seam allowance (the way I prefer it) so this tracing would mark the stitching line - which would come in so handy later! Then, I added seam allowance to each pattern piece, directly on the fabric. I labelled each piece, and got them organized into stacks, before moving on to the exciting step of stitching together!
I opted to stitch all of the sateen panels together and the coutil panels together, independantly of each other. I started by pinning them accurately together along the pencilled stitching line that I had just marked, and then stitched at the sewing maching. Finally, I trimmed the seam allowances, and pressed over a tailor’s ham. Time fore the scary hand embroidery!
The first step in creating the iconic blue embroidery of the original was to create a paper template. The template gave me two different types of information: 1) the overal shape and size of the triangular embroidered area and 2) the details of the design itself, to be traced onto the fabric later. Thanks to my experience in art and drawing, this was fairly straightforward, and done mostly by eye.
Once I had the template, I held it under the white cotton sateen layer of the corset (which was now stitched together), and traced the design onto the corresponding areas of the fabric. After this was done, I added an embroidery hoop, embroidery stabilizer underneath, and went over the design with a running stitch - outlining each shape as accurately as possible.
Then, I filled in each petal and leaf with satin stitch, created the decorative eyelets that are a part of the design, and outlined the floral stems with (you guessed it!) stem stitch.
Ta-Da! The embroidery looked much better than I had expected it to, due to my lack of experience, and already leant so much flare to the corset design.
Time for busk and eyelets!
Busk and Eyelets
Enter: cardboard. Cardboard in corsets, you ask? Yes. Historically, boning channels were often reinforced with cardboard, and I was ready to give this technique a try. For this particular corset, the busk was sandwiched between the sateen and coutil layers, and the eyelet area was created with a coutil facing. I first used cardboard as a reinforcement for the busk area - by wrapping the busk in thin, white cardboard. A bonus of this technique is that it prevents the tiny bolts of the busk from rubbing through to the outer fabric and creating tiny dark smudges (something that has always happened to me in the past).
For the eyelets, I first used my ruler to mark the placement of the centre-back boning channels, then marked the placement of each eyelet. These were spaced equally, except for two eyelets that were closer together at the waist level. I set my eyelets, as usual, with a mallet and setting tool.
The Great Corset Boning Experiment!
The boning channels and boning insertion were one of the most difficult parts of this corset construction, and with good reason! I was experimenting with two new techniques. The first was the use of thin cardboard as a reinforcement inside of the channels. The second “new” technique was my experimenting with the side-to-side bending properties of synthetic whalebone. Let me explain. The extant corset I was recreating had some very curved boning channels over the bust area - which is a big part of what gives this corset its iconic look. Normally, this would be a time to use spring steel boning, which can easily bend from side to side. However, as the experimenter that I am, I decided this was a good time to push the boundaries of what is possible with synthetic whalebone - my favourite type of boning. I figured that with heat applied to a given strip of boning, I could then bend it into the appropriate shape for its respective channel. More on that in a moment.
First, I had to create the channels themselves! I cut strips of cotton sateen wide enough to accommodate three strips of boning each, plus folding allowance for the sides. Then, I cut strips of white thin cardboard of the exact width of each finished channel. I used the cardboard as a kind of pressing bar to press the edges of the sateen under around. I then proceed to baste each channel onto the corset. For the curved channels, I first made little relief cuts into the cardboard, so it could bend. For clarity: from this point on, the cardboard and sateen were worked with as though they were one layer, and this included stitching through them.
Once they were basted in place, I machined them down along both sides, and then added the lines of stitching to divide each channel into three channels. Now it was time to insert the boning. This would prove to be more difficult than expected! I cut my boning to length, shaped the ends to be round, and first inserted the boning into the straight channels. Now it was time to test my theory. Could synthetic whalebone bend from side to side?
I used my heat gun to get the boning that was to be bent nice and heated up - but only in the exact area that was to be curved. Them, wearing gloves to protect my hands from the hot boning, I gently eased each strip of boning into a curve to match the curve of its channel. It worked! The boning bent! But would I be able to insert the curved boning?
Well, yes and no! This proved to be difficult - not just because of the curved boning, but also because of the cardboard in the channels. I had underestimated how much extra space the cardboard would take up, and these channels were therefore quite “snug”. I had to painstakingly use pliers to push each strip of boning in, and in many cases was not able to get the boning in quite as far as it should have been, which would prove to make the next step even harder . . .
Binding and Flossing (A Dangerous Experience!)
But first, let’s talk about the binding. The extant corset had blue binding on the top, and white along the bottom. I happened to have some blue silk and white petersham ribbon that would do nicely. Once the binding was done, it was time for the bone flossing. This was the most arduous part of the entire corset-building!
Why? Remember those strips of boning that I couldn’t get completely in to where they needed to be? What this meant was that for many of the strips of bone, I had to stitch the flossing directly through the bone, which was sticking down into the binding area (NOT ideal!). I had to use pliers to pull my needle through on almost every stitch, and my thimbles were not cutting it for finger protection. ie. I got stabbed with the blunt end of my needle more times than I care to admit! But eventually, I conquered, and the bone flossing added so much beauty to the final corset! I am in love!
How Do I Like It?
This corset fits quite well, and is quite comfortable! This is my first time trying the shorter, above the hips fit of the mid-Victorian corsets, and I quite like it!
I am quite happy with how my recreation modelled the original corset, except for one thing . . .
I will say that the corset is currently a bit stiffer than my mock-up was in silhouette, a little less curvy, but I chock that up to all of the boning plus cardboard that I used, and I’m sure it will soften over time. Which leads me to the next thing I wanted to talk about - cardboard in corsets!
Cardboard in Corsets?
Have you ever heard of cardboard in corsets? Believe it or not, cardboard was regularly used as a reinforcement for the boning channels. As someone who can wear holes in the boning channels of my corsets pretty quickly, this has always intrigued me. I decided to give it a try in this corset! It definitely helped give a cleaner, more crisp, structured look to the boning channels. However, it definitely added a complicating factor to this corset construction, and it’s not something I would recommend for a beginner. It also obviously means that this corset can never be washed, only spot cleaned or dry cleaned, which is kind of annoying but we will see how it goes!
I could have left the boning channels a bit wider because the cardboard took up extra space which made it more difficult than usual to insert the boning, especially into the curved channels.
So, what was the take away from the hand embroidery? Was it worth it? Did it take a long time? I have been finding hand embroidery surprisingly approachable, and though it does obviously take time, I took this embroidery project along with me on a long road trip, and was able to use what otherwise would have been wasted time in the car, to do a lot of this embroidery. I happened to be on a visit to my parents while doing this and thankfully, my sister in law who is a very talented hand embroidery tipped me off to the importance of using stabilizer when embroidering lighter weight fabrics, so I used that for most of the embroidery.
Thanks for joining me on this corset making adventure! If you have any question or comments, please leave them below!
See you for my next article!
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