How I Sewed Hand-Made Lace For My Victorian Corset | Historical Sewing, Broiderie-Anglais
Have you ever gotten an idea which seemed both wonderful and impossible? Even crazy? That is the story of this lace-making project.
About a month ago, I was embarking on a journey of recreating a real Victorian corset, stitch for stitch. There was only one problem. The lace.
Really? The biggest obstacle was the lace? What about the pattern? Nope. The boning? Nope. The cording? Nope. The fabric? No! Don’t get me wrong, all of these things were challenges, and if you’d like to see the entire arduous yet magical process of recreating that corset, you should check it out! But I repeat: the biggest, most impossible obstacle to overcome in recreating this corset was actually the lace.
Keep reading to the end to hear the full story of how and why I chose to do something as crazy as stitching my own lace. Also, to hear what the movie “Yes Man”, hand-made lace, and fairies have in common. For now, suffice it to say that I did choose to embark on this crazy journey. How did I do it, and how did it turn out? Let’s get into all that, right now!
Where to Begin?
I began by the declaration that I would make no more lace than what was necessary for the top edge of the corset. Though the original had lace on both the top and bottom, that would be way too much to make by hand, right? Wrong. But we’ll talk more about that later.
I found instructions for making broiderie anglais from a few websites and videos. Most of these instructions were assuming one was making white eyelet lace, and that one could simple draw a design onto paper and then trace it through the sheer white fabric. Since I was using black fabric, however, this method wouldn’t work. How on earth would I create a design, and transfer it onto my black fabric?
Creating a Lace Stencil
I began by creating a design with pencil on an index card. I came up with the approximate width that I thought the lace needed to be, and then judged proportionally from that how wide and tall each scallop should be. I then drew in several scallops along the index card, before adding in the star and diamond shaped eyelets below the scallops that are also present in the design.
I simplified the design, as the original lace from the corset had been made by machine, and I am also (obviously) inexperienced at making lace. I ended up simplifying the design it even more in the stitching phase, as you will see in a moment. Then, I carefully snipped opening the scallops from the stencil. I could then trace the shape from the stencil onto the fabric with white chalk pencil. The pencil had to be quite sharp, and the tracing required some refining afterward.
Phew! The design was done. But where on earth to start with the stitching?
Miles of Running Stitch
One of the things I learned from my online lace-making research was that one of the first steps in broiderie anglais was to use a running stitch to trace the outline of the scallops. This took a fair amount of time, and something I learned was the importance of keeping my stitches small enough to create an accurate outline of the scallops. The pencil rubbed off very quickly, so I would later be completely relying on this thread outline.
But how would I fill all these scallops in with only thread?
How I Stitched the Scallops
When I was 10 years old, I got an embroidery book for kids, and for a few months I dove into learning different embroidery stitches. That was the last time I have embroidered anything. It was time to dig out my rusty "satin-stitch" skills for this lace, though. I would be spending many hours satin-stitching these scallops.
Satin stitch is simple the process of using large, closely spaced stitched to fill in a shape with thread. My technique greatly improved over the course of making this lace!
What was most important was the proper angling of the needle, depending on what area of the scallop I was stitching. The stitches should radiate out from each other at the centre top of each scallop, then radiate out slightly at the bottom point of each scallop. I also learned the time-saving effect of doubling up my thread.
Broiderie anglais is not supposed to have a wrong side, so I had to hide my thread knots in the satin stitch.
Also, let’s be honest here. Some scallops were completely filled in, others not. The overall affect was still the same, but I have no doubt that my Victorian ancestors would be turning in their graves to see my stitching technique.
Adding the Star Eyelets
The most distinctive feature of this corset’s lace was the diamond/star shaped eyelets. I started out attempting them in one way, and evolved over the next few eyelets, before ending with a more basic eyelet, but with stitches that creating a star effect, at least when viewed from far away. I would use my awl to first create a small hole at the centre of the eyelet, than quickly add 4 stitches around the diameter of this hole, before adding smaller stitches between each of those four stitches. As you can imagine, there were hundreds of eyelets to be completed, and this took me several hours.
Finally, the lace stitching was finished. What next?
Attaching the Lace
The lace was finished, and so was my corset! I snipped along the top edge of the scallops, making sure not to snip any of my stitches. Then it was time to attach it to the corset. I used an invisible catch stitch for this, and ended up doing two passes: one on the outside, and one on the inside.
Surprise surprise! After finishing my corset, I decided to make a whole new length of lace, to add to the bottom of the corset as well. I was in love with how the corset had turned out, and felt that it deserved it!
This lace was not placed along the selvedge like the first batch, which meant there was a raw edge of fabric to finish. I did this with a whip stitch on the inside of the corset, in addition to the catch stitch on the outside.
How Did It Turn Out?
The lace, though messy and far from perfect, definitely succeeded at giving a similar impression to that of the original, at least when viewed from far away.
How painful of a process was it? It was a long and slow process, but much different from my initial horror-filled imaginings of the prospect of hand-stitching yards of lace. I worked on this in the evenings, while watching something or listening to an audiobook. The beginning of a stitching session would always feel rusty and slow, as the wheels slowly got turning, but once I settled into a given stitching session, I was able to stitch on autopilot.
How long did all this lace take to create? It probably took upwards of 24 hours of work to create enough lace for the top and bottom of the corset.
Now lets get into what the movie Yes Man, hand-made lace, and fairies have in common.
Why Did I Choose the Crazy Path of Hand-Lace-Making?
If you haven’t yet read my article about creating a Victorian corset reproduction, go check it out! This corset had very distinctive, light blue on black broiderie anglais trim, also known as eyelet lace. Now, despite pouring through Etsy, all I could find was solid white eyelet lace, and solid black. What to do? Should I compromise and just put some basic white or black lace on the corset and call it a day?
Now, I don’t know what your thoughts may be, but looking back, I believe this particular Victorian corset wanted to be replicated. Just think about it: some talented Victorian corset-maker put time, thought, design, and hours of intricate work into creating the original corset. Now, that maker is long dead, and society has changed. People don’t make or wear corsets anymore. Will that person’s skill and design die with them? It would seem so.
But wait, here comes along little old me, who for some odd reason is obsessed with historical fashion. Something puts the idea into my head, that I should recreate this particular black corset with light blue flossing. But what about the lace? Of course making my own was OUT of the question. I would just have to find a suitable compromise.
During my lace dilemma, I woke up one morning with a voice in my head. What did the voice say? “You should make your own lace”. Wait, what? Are you kidding? That would take weeks, maybe months, years!! I don’t know how to make lace! I’m not a fuss and feathers sewer!
Well, I talked myself out of it, until one day when I was at my local quilting store, picking out some embroidery thread for the flossing on the corset. Something prompted me to buy extra spools of the thread, and hey, what about picking up about 50 cm of that black cotton fabric? It couldn’t hurt, right?
“Yes Man”, Hand-Made Lace, and Creative Fairies
Have you ever seen the movie “Yes Man”? If not, let me give you a brief overview. The main character, Carl, played by Jim Carrey, is a frustrated depressed bank loan executive who spends most of his day saying “no, no, no” to everything. Then, he embarks on a challenge of deciding to say “yes” to everything and everybody, in an effort to change his life around, which he does.
That’s about all I remember, but I want you to keep that image into your mind.
When we are willing to take a creative risk, it’s kind of like jumping off a cliff. It’s something we do on faith, and it doesn’t make sense. But what happens when we take that leap? What happens when we say “yes” to where our creative path wants to take us? Nine times out of ten, a parachute magically opens for us: things come together, and possibly end up even better than we thought possible. That is what I like to think of as creative magic, or “sewing fairies”, and that’s where the “Yes Man” effect kicks in.
Sometimes the best thing we can do for our creativity is to simply say yes to our most crazy, impossible ideas.
What crazy sewing projects have you been putting off? Has this article and video inspired you to try it?
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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