The fashionable female silhouette for the 16th and 17th Centuries
was accomplished thanks to two specific garments, known as
"underpinnings" in modern parlance. These were the
and the corset.
The pattern for this corset comes from a number of different
sources. The "payre of bodies" discussed in Janet
Arnold's Patterns of Fashion was our first inspiration. This
corset is one of the only extant 16th century corsets that
has survived and, while it is German in origin, still provides
valuable clues to historic construction techniques. Additional
inspiration was provided by the effigy corset of Elizabeth
I, from Westminster Abbey. This corset is specifically English
and, while early 17th Century, provides clues to English corset
The name "corset" comes from the French "corps
pique'" or "quilted bodies". Once the corset
is put together, channels were quilted through all the layers
of material to form spaces for the stiffeners, hence the name.
In period stiffeners could be reeds or bents, whale bone or
even strong cording. One of the most popular modern stiffeners
is the spring steel boning available at most costume mail-order
shops which comes in varying lengths and widths.
Before we get started, one last word of caution is in order
here; It is extremely important to make your corset FIRST
before making your bodices. Once you have made your corset,
wear it while taking measurements to develop your bodice pattern.
DO NOT use your corset pattern as your bodice pattern.
The following demonstration develops both the German style
of corset and the English style... for an excellent write-up
on the development of the English style corset, click
Lastly, the following patterns are developed without the
tabs. Tabs are discussed at the end of the pattern demo.
Body Measurement and Pattern Development -
Take measurements from the body per the instructions on basic
pattern development. Get a large sheet of paper and get
prepared to do a little geometry and connect-the-dots. Once
you have developed the basic body block from your measurements,
represented in red on the diagrams below, you can then draw
the preliminary lines for your corset, represented in green,
using the basic measurements as a guide. Once you have the
preliminary lines drawn, cut out the paper pattern, following
these lines. Because we will be adding channels or "quilting"
channels, we will be bias binding the edges so we will not
need to add seam allowance to these edges. Do not add allowance
to the side seams. These will be discussed below.
corset is made to compress the bosom and shape the torso into
a curvilinear line. In order to make the pattern for the corset
that compresses the bust, I generally subtract between two
and three inches off of the chest measurement, keep the waist
measurement the same and then draw my pattern from there.
If you have had an uncomfortable corset in the past and really
don't want to go there again, develop the pattern, removing
two inches from the bust. Cut and construct the corset according
to the following examples. Before adding the quilting and
bias binding, put the corset on and have a friend pull the
edges tight for you to see how tight you would like it to
go. This method is not perfect but will yield a comfortable
to popular opinion, corsets of the 16th and 17th Centuries
do not necessarily need to be extremely tight. If made correctly
and according to your measurements, your corset should be
more comfortable than your bra.
To develop the English corset pattern, follow the instructions
for the German corset development but draw the English corset
lines according to the diagram to the right.
Notice that the shoulder piece is virtually eliminated from
the front pattern and placed onto the back pattern. Because
the shoulder strap is cut with the back pattern, the angle
is almost completely on the bias, making it very stretchy.
Additionally, because there is no shoulder seam, there will
be less bulk at the shoulder seam when the bodice is worn.
Converting the modern body block pattern to a historic
basic pattern has the side seam occurring at the side center.
In period, the side seam could either occur here or follow
the muscle points of the back arm to the lower back. I find
that the curved seam that follows the muscle point gives a
better fit. Both sides of the seam are cut on varying degrees
of the bias and tend to fit around the body better than the
diagonal side seams located at the center side.
In order to find the muscle points, locate first the point
where your arm joins the back, just before it dips under to
the underarm. Second, locate the heavy bundle of muscles on
either side of your spine. Draw a curved line from the heavy
bundle of muscles to the arm join.
you have drawn in the curved side seam, tape your two pattern
pieces together and cut the back from the front along the
curved seam. Be sure to add seam allowances to both sides
of this side seam by either redrawing the pattern or making
notes on the current pattern.
Note that the development of the German corset and the English
corset is identical at this point.
Deciding on Front Lacing, Back Lacing or Both -
If you are dressing yourself most of the time, a front lacing
corset is a must. My corset back laces and, while I can get
myself into it and lace it, the contortions I go through are
probably pretty comical. If you are going to front lace your
corset, place the center back seam along the fold of your
fabric. If you are going to back lace your corset, place the
center front seam along the fold of your fabric. If you can't
decide or your body size tends to fluctuate a great deal,
cut your center front and back seams and lace both the front
and the back. Friends who have this type of lacing report
that it is extremely comfortable and flexible.
Cutting Out and Sewing Together -
corsets from this time period and the time period immediately
following were made by sandwiching a layer of strong material,
similar to denim or cotton duck, between two layers of linen
or other shell material. The inner layer needs to be quite
strong and stable as it will be the layer that does most of
the compressing of the body into the fashionable line. The
outer shell and inner shell can be linen, cotton, silk or
wool of almost any medium weight. It is especially important
that the corset be made of natural fibers, as it will need
to breath so you don't pass out from heat prostration.
you have cut out all three layers of fabric, take the outer
shell and the inner layer and lay them together. From this
point, treat them as though they were one layer of fabric.
the side seams together and the shoulder seam, if it is part
of your pattern. Sew your inner shell together at the side
and shoulder seams and then put the two together.
You will notice that one side of the side seam is convex
and the other is concave. You will need to ease these two
seams together, being careful not to stretch the top or bottom
seam as you sew, as this will make them not fit together at
the end. One trick to make this easier is to place the convex
seam on the bottom and the concave seam on the top (as shown
in the diagrams) and allow the feed dogs of your sewing machine
to help ease the convex seam into place. If you are hand sewing,
this seam will not be a problem.
The English style corset does not require that the shoulder
seam be sewn together. In fact, it does not even have a shoulder
seam. The point at the end of the shoulder piece is meant
to be finished with bias binding. Once the bias binding is
in place, two small eyelet holes need to be made in the front
of the corset corresponding with two eyelet holes in the tip
of the shoulder piece. Once this is accomplished, the shoulder
strap is laced in place.
Now you're ready to sew in the boning channels.
Boning/Quilting Lines -
we have only two extant corsets to base our design on, there
is a reasonable amount of flexibility in how you bone your
corset. Ideally, the front set of bones should be parallel
with your torso and as they go around the torso, at some point,
they will angle to follow the parallel of the side torso.
The wedge shape of space that is created by the angling can
be quilted in the zigzag pattern as shown in the diagrams
or quilted in channels that can either contain stiffeners
Greenberg & Hammer, N.Y., is a highly recommended source
for boning. They sell boning by the pound as well as pre-cut
(although pre-cut costs much more). One of my students just
completed her corset and bought one pound of uncut spring
steel boning for $15.00 per pound. Shipping here to Seattle
was another $9.00. She used all but a foot and a half of the
boning. To give you an idea of how far a pound of uncut boning
stretches, my student is 5'8" and a size 18. Had she
had everything precut into 17" and 18" lengths,
the cost would've been $70. I highly encourage you to purchase
a $10 pair of straight aviation snips and some tool dip ($10)
at your local hardware store and cut your own. Greenberg &
Hammer can be contacted at (212)246-2835
Bias Binding the Edges -
Cut a number of bias strips and sew them together end to
end. Essentially, making bias is no more than cutting strips
at a 45 degree angle from the fabric.
Sew this long bias strip along one one edge of the corset,
usually the top. Turn it under and hand finish it. Insert
the stiffeners, allowing yourself enough of an edge to attach
the bias binding to the bottom edge. Sew bias binding to the
lacing edge, making sure to leave yourself enough room to
make the eyelet holes. Turn this under and hand finish it.
Now you're ready for the eyelet holes. For examples on how
to make hand bound eyelet holes, which are highly recommended,
To Tab or Not to Tab -
Tabs perform an integral function, believe it or not. Without
tabs, the corset tends to dig into the hips. This is particularly
true of corsets without straps, which I do not recommend.
The tabs on a corset also help to distribute the weight of
the over garments onto the hips rather than having it all
rest on the shoulders. This is important, especially if the
gown is quite heavy. Lastly, if the tabs are cut as one with
the corset, as in the English style, they help smooth the
hips down a bit, as the boning extends down into these types
Viola! A corset...
As long as you wear a smock next to your skin and the corset
over the smock, you will find that your corset will not need
to be laundered very often if at all. In period, the smock
was the first garment to go on and the last to come off, very
often being slept in and bathed in. Very rarely was the corset
worn directly against the skin.
For a classic 16th century smock pattern, click
For more information on extant corsets and their construction
methods, Janet Arnold's Patterns
of Fashion is invaluable. Additionally, for helpful
information on the construction of a corset, Jean Hunisett's
Costumes for Stage and Screen is great. Her pattern
contains an extra seam that we don't recommend including but
she has some great advice on other parts of the construction
The following pictures were taken during the design and construction
phases of my student's corset. The last four photos are of
a German corset reproduction and an English corset reproduction.
Click on the picture for a larger photo.
|Sketching the pattern on to paper...
||Easing together the side seams...
||Marking the channels for boning...
||Sewing the channels for boning...
|Sewing on the bias binding...
||Mitering the bias binding... Step 1
||Mitering the bias binding... Step 2
||Mitering the bias binding... Step 3
||Testing for fit... front
||Testing for fit... back
|German reproduction... front
||German reproduction... side
||German reproduction... back
||English reproduction... front