By Alaina Zulli
Corset-making may seem like a job only for the professionals, but anyone who can sew a straight line on the sewing machine can do this project. Over the course of three lessons for the next three Mondays, I will teach you all the techniques I learned as an apprentice to an historical corsetiere. In this first lesson, you’ll get your shopping list, pattern, and instructions for layout and cutting.
Corsets require more materials than the average sewing project, so I recommend getting all your shopping done in one go. Farthingales has everything you’ll need, plus a great selection of fabric and patterns.
You can use any crisp woven fabric for the decorative (“self”) outer layer. I am using a white damask cotton blend for the demonstration, but taffeta, satin, crepe-backed satin, duppioni, brocade, jacquard, or twill would also work. The inner (“lining”) layer should be a firmly woven cotton or cotton blend. Coutil is the traditional material for corsets, but canvas, duck, or twill are also fine.
(The image above is from the Long Island Staylace Association.)
Decorative outer fabric 1 yard
Lining fabric 1 yard
12″ straight busk
Roll of 1/4″ spring steel boning (aka white boning). Alternatively, you can purchase pre-cut boning, but I find this annoying since you have to wait till the corset is assembled in order to measure for the correct lengths. The 10-meter roll will be more boning than you need, but boning never goes to waste in the end!
Boning tips (3 dozen) The 10-meter roll of spring steel comes with a half gross of boning tips, which will be more than enough for this project.
Bone casing tape (7 meters) This can also be purchased by the roll.
Grosgrain ribbon 1 yard, 1″ wide
Corset lacing 2 meters/yards
Grommet setting hammer kit This includes everything you’ll need, including the grommets. I prefer size #0, but you can also buy Farthingales’ better-quality tools separately for size #00.
Eyelet punch comes with grommet setting kit, but also available at hardware stores
Needlenose pliers (2 pairs)
Wire cutters or bolt cutters or tin snips
Clear plastic ruler
Step 1: Assemble, and cut the pattern.
The sizes range from 6 to 26. To determine your size, take your bust measurement (over a normal, non-push-up bra), waist (approximately 2″ above the navel), and hip (approximately 8″ below the waist).
The pattern allows for about 2″ of ease (also known as “spring”) at the back, so don’t freak out if when you measure the pattern it seems small. If you are between sizes, round down to the smaller size. If you want to be able to lace tighter, use a smaller waist size and blend the cutting lines.
Step 2: Prepare the fabric.
Cutting on the grain is particularly important in making corsets. Make sure the threads of both your decorative and lining fabrics are perpendicular by stretching and blocking them.
To block, pull the fabric on the bias in both directions. This will loosen the threads and help them to realign themselves. Then iron, pushing the iron along the grain line and the cross-grain. When you fold the fabric in half there should be no distortion and the edges should match.
Lay out your pattern with the grain line following the direction with the most amount of stretch. For most fabrics, this will be on the cross-grain, opposite from how you would cut most patterns. You want the least amount of stretch in the direction of the fabric encircling your waist. Historically, corsets were sometimes cut on the bias to mold to the body, but for this style of corset you will want as little stretch around the body as possible.
Step 3: Lay out the pattern.
To make sure each piece is properly aligned, measure from the grain line to the edge of the fabric. I know that it is tempting to skip this step. Don’t! If ever there were a time to be a perfectionist, this is it.
Pin the pieces on the fabric. Alternatively, weight the pieces with stones or pattern weights and trace the cutting lines with chalk. I prefer the latter method because there is less distortion while cutting.
Step 4: Cut the pieces.
Cut very precisely. Remember that if you cut just 1/16″ larger on each seam, your corset will end up about 1.5″ bigger.
Parts 2 and 3 to come!
About the Author:
Alaina Zulli is a dressmaker and costume historian based in Brooklyn, N.Y., who specializes in historical sewing techniques. She spends her days dissecting old clothes, sewing new ones, and researching the lives of the women who wore them.