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Demonstrations>Accessories:Western European>Corset

The Corset -

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 farthingale 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 construction.

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.

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.

The 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 corset.

Contrary 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 pattern -

The 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.

Once 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 -

Extant 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.

Once 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. Sew 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 -

Because 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 or not.

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, click here.

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 of tabs.

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 here.

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 Period 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 phase.

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
Bias binding... Testing for fit... front Testing for fit... back  
German reproduction... front German reproduction... side German reproduction... back English reproduction... front
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