For several months I have been working on a corset based on Simplicity 1139 and spending a lot of time poring over Linda Sparks “The Basics of Corset Building.” It probably wouldn’t have taken so long if my sewing room weren’t also the guest room and people kept coming to visit (darn people, interrupting my crafty mojo). I’ve been fitting it to my dress form (which is one of those duct-tape beauties that I learned how to make thanks to someone on The Other Place) and some to my own self. I think I’m on my third iteration of test corsets. Lots of basting and unpicking and tweaking. It’s a little tedious. Yesterday I finally finished putting in the busk and got all the bones in the right places. I wore it around for a few hours today to see how it felt and whether I could go about my life without it being a nuisance.
I think, for the most part, it’s alright. I know that corsets don’t change your body shape so much as redistribute it, so I get a little spillage under my arms. Fine, I get that that’s normal. I’m trying to figure out what normal should feel like, though. Are there any corsetières out here in lettuce land who could talk me through it or give me some tips?
Yeah, I’m a little out of practice, but have made many corsets in my day. I got my MFA in costume design, with a strong emphasis in construction too, then ran various costume shops for several years.
A well fit corset should not be the stuff of romance novel nightmares. Where you can’t get a deep breath, and you’re always on the verge of fainting. Reports of such nonsense were much more likely the result of women not eating to be laced even more tiny. After all, working women like maids and cooks and governesses weren’t fainting at the drop of a hat, and the were also wearing corsets, and going about their lives and jobs.
A good corset (depending on period, with different times going for different silhouettes) should fit from the fullest point of the bust (or just above), to the high hip about 3" below your natural waits (not where your jeans say your waist is). You should have a 2" gap across the back, and for comfort, either a fabric panel there, for the laces to lay against as you pull them, or some sort of undergarment. In the past this would have been a chemise, but now you could easily use a camisole. Whatever you choose, you want something that is mostly cotton, so it’s breathable and easy to wash. Your body is producing all kinds of oils and there’s bacteria on your skin, so you want to be able to wash that base layer frequently, keeping your corset as clean as possible. It’s just like the sheets on your bed, vs the comforter. You don’t have to wash the comforter every week, because the sheets are keeping the grossness that is you, separate from that layer.
Use good quality laces, from a corset supply vendor, not ribbons. Ribbons are pretty, but they aren’t made to stand up to the stress of lacing a corset. Be sure you’re using decent bones while you’re at it. Plastic boning from the fabric store won’t help you. Good quality steel bones, ordered in the exact sizes you need, with the ends ground down and ‘tipped’ for you. ‘Tipping’ is dipping the ends of the bones in a fluid, kinda like a really thick paint. It leaves a rubbery/plasticy/paint like coating on the ends, that smooths them, so that no sharp metal edges are in there, slowly sawing away at first your fabrics, then your skin. You can buy the tipping fluid and do it yourself, if you have a way to cut & grind down the edges of the bones, but I don’t recommend it. It’s a pain in the bum, it’s messy hard work, and if you’re not careful enough, the tipping fluid can get you high as f… Ask me someday about how when I was a student, a teacher found me in a hallway, laying on the floor because I couldn’t get up, laughing hysterically at how silly the phrase ‘tipping fluid’ was. I was tripping balls. Don’t be like baby-Jennie. By all means, use plastic bones for your mock up, because you can take those plastic pieces out, and cut them down with household scissors. Something you can’t do with metal bones. Then, when you’re absolutely sure exactly what size you need, order them pre-cut and tipped for you.
I’m speaking from the assumption that you want to make a real corset, so if you’re really going for this, then you’ll want coutil too. It’s a fabric that’s very tightly woven, and made specifically for corsetry. It won’t stretch out much, if at all, over time. You can get away with canvas or non-stretch denim for a mock up, but these will stretch over time, so for the real piece, use coutil. (If this is more of a fun, occasional wear costume piece, you have more leeway. But if you want this to fit like an actual period corset, it’s coutil.) That should be the base at the very least. You can of course, always use a fashion fabric over the top by flatlining the layers.
The pattern you’ve picked is a good starter corset, and I’ve certainly used it before with great results. If you are ever looking for a better one, I recommend the Laughing Moon Mercantile pattern. I’ve made it several times, and it’s a good quality pattern. Just for fun, here’s the photo album of a workshop I did with my college students, where they all learned to make one in a day. (Sorta, they all had the grommets left to set by the time our 9 hour day was over.) Most of the students in my class worked in my costume shop, so they were decent student stitchers, but they had never made corsets before. Two students were not costume shop employees; one was an actor, and one a dancer, both of whom had taken the intro costume class, and were very interested. I let both into the class although it was above their skill level, because I knew they’d work hard to get there, and that they’d have guidance. I’ve always been amazed at how we can exceed our own skills, when someone has faith in us, and is willing to be there to catch us if we start to fall.
Finally, you’ll want to lace yourself correctly. I don’t recommend lacing from the top down, then just leaving all the excess lacing at the bottom. It’s better to start at the top, lace to the bottom, tie the laces off with just a small amount of excess at the bottom, then work the extra lace up to the middle, or rather to the natural waist. This is a good clear tutorial for what I mean:
Thanks for the detailed response, Jennie! Also, very cool to know about your background!
I do have coutil, good lacing, and pre-tipped steel bones. I ordered a kit from… somewhere that had all the necessary supplies for this particular pattern. My mock-up is just in some canvas I had in my stash. I didn’t use the good laces on the mock-up; just used some old shoe laces. Since they weren’t long enough on their own to lace the whole thing, I laced from the top down to the waist with one and then up to the waist with the other, so it more or less replicates the bunny-ear lacing in the link. I definitely didn’t lace it tight enough to restrict breathing or movement! I just want support, not to set a wasp waist record!
One thing I noticed while it was laced is that there is only about a 3/4" gap left in the back. I was kind of surprised because I had already taken it in several times resulting in about a 4" gap on the dress form. Granted, I knew the dress form wasn’t going to compress, but I assumed that 4" would come down to about 2" on my body. I guess I need to take it in some more?
Yesterday, while I was wearing it around (with a camisole underneath because unfinished canvas – ouch! ) I was trying to decide if it felt uncomfortable or just unusual. My verdict was that everywhere except right under my arms was a non-issue. Under my arms, it just felt irritated, I think because the top edge of the corset was rubbing the, uh, extra flesh there. If I loosen the laces up top will that help do you think? Or is that just going to let my breasts fall down inside? Is there a happy medium? Or am I going to have to redraft that top line of the corset?
I’ve heard of the Laughing Moon corset patterns. Linda Sparks mentions them in her book. Cool photo album of the corset class! I bet that was intense! Good experience for everybody, though.