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A blog with plenty of information on Corset Making and corset making supplies.
A new "From the Archives" series will be published every Wednesday and Saturday from 25 February 2023, until 26 March 2023, and these posts will contain 'old' information on corset making which will be updated for the revamped Learn Corset Making information portal whereever that may be.
The Royal Worcester Corset Company, which wasn't, as you may suppose in Worcester England, but in Worcester, Massachusets, USA was started by David Fanning around 1875 and flourished until his death in the late 1950's. David Fanning was the first corset manufacturer to discover that women's bodies required different sizes to cope with tall, medium and small frames. Thus, the factory produced corsets for the individual, at prices for the masses.
The most interesting part of this story, is that David Fanning didn't know how to make a corset when he started out. He merely saw a gap in the market, practiced and practiced, with the help of female assistants who modelled his fledgling designs, and before long, he erected his very own factory - The Royal Worcester Corset Company became one of the two leading corset manufacturers for the mass market in the world.
In 1898, the Company published a commemorative booklet which detailed it's method of manufacture from the moment the order was received in the factory.
Many fabrics were used in the manufacture of corsets at RWCC, principally coutil, a firmly woven fabric, the finest of which was made in France. Sateen and jean from America was also used, as well as silk, satin and batistes from Italy and nettings for summer corsets. In all cases whatever colour the outer fabric was, a white lining was required as women preferred the clean effect of this next to their body.
The order began it's journey in the order office, where it was given a style number. This number was attached to each piece of corset as it was processed and kept in place until the finished item was boxed.
The pattern for the appropriate corset was selected from the many on the pattern rack, laid out on the correct grain of fabric and cut by the most experienced of cutters to ensure economy and best fit. The peices of the corset were then tied together in bundles and sent to the main stitching room where the seaming, basting, making up of fronts and backs and 'stripping' was done. Stripping was the process of attaching bone casings. From here, the corset was sent to the boning department where the bones were inserted by hand - bones were selected according to the type of corset, stout bird feathers being preferred by the wealthy ladies, steel bones for cheaper corsets - they were prone to rust in those days! Rattan or cane was used to bone the very cheapest corsets. From the boning room, the corset went to the trimming room where it was put through a shaping machine, unevenness at the top and bottom was trimmed off and the top and bottom edges were bound. Eyelets were then added, along with some flossing which not only added to the beauty of the corset, but prevented the bones from working their way up or down their casings or wearing through to the front. The final stage of factory corset manufacture was the finishing whereby the corset would be sprayed on the inside with a solution of cold water starch and then tied to a 'copper maiden' through which live steam was passed, thereby pressing the final corset into shape and eliminating wrinkles. The corset was then rolled and boxed ready for shipment.
When did your interest in vintage textiles begin, and why - Have you ever used vintage fabric to create a garment or a corset? If so, was it any different from using modern fabric?
Generally vintage textiles are not suitable for corsetry unless they are very heavy and still strong. Many corsetieres and costume makers, make corsets and clothes from old curtains, drapes and textiles which they get from 'loft sales' in Statey homes and similar. This is a great source of vintage fabric for that sort of thing not only because it's 'period' but for corsetry because the fabrics are heavier and therefore more suitable. Personally, I have never ventured into vintage textiles for corsetry, but that is only because I haven't yet found something that inspires me to do so.
Do you think it's important to wear a corset underneath vintage garments to get the 'right' shape?
Yes, it is ESSENTIAL to wear good foundations underneath vintage clothes for a number of reasons. (I have taken 'vintage' to mean 40's / 50's syles as opposed to Victorian/Edwardian!).
The couturiers of yesteryear, (with the exception perhaps of Chanel who made it her goal to design clothes which did not need firm foundations) all used corsetry, whether in the form of a separate 'waspie' corset used by Dior for his 'new look' fashions, or in the form of the corsolette dress foundation used by others such as Givenchy whose muse was the beautiful Audrey Hepburn - as thin and waifish as she was, her gowns all contained corset foundations in order to get the desired sillouhete - the foundation was mostly there to support and enhance the lines of the dress.
In modern times, you only have to look at the recent royal wedding dress by Sarah Burton to know that corset technology in couture is still very much in use for when it comes to smoothing, shaping and perfecting the look of the vintage 'style' gown. A corset - however slim, trim and 'perfect' the figure of the person wearing is, is essential.
In other words, a corset foundation supports the garment it is designed to fit under, shapes the wearer, and by default ensures better posture which enables the dress to be worn to it's best advantage. This is true of most vintage fashions which aspire to that look. If you want to achieve the firm shape, cinched waist and smooth look which all work in combination to get the 'right shape', then a properly made and fitted corset, with steel bones, not plastic, is required.
Is there any sort of corset that is 'better' for beginners – underbust vs overbust, for example, or is it purely a matter of choice?
The best corset for beginners to make is an underbust. They are simple to construct, are good practice for a wide range of corsetry techniques, easy to fit, and comfortable to wear - a properly fitting underbust cincher will have a smooth transition between it and the flesh, there will be no bulges which are so common with modern elastic/lycra shapewear. Underbust cinchers also provide the best 'retro' sillouhete as they allow the wearer to use a bra for top support and this in combination with the cinched waist and consequently rounded hips, lends itself to the lovely hourglass shape which is so essential in 40's/50's fashions. A perfect example of this can be found in Sophia Loren's film "The Millionairess" from where the picture below is taken
Customers often ask for 'fan lacing sliders' which are not that common these days and I am unable to find a factory in Europe that makes them now. To source them in China would require me to find a warehouse here to store them in, such are min. qty amounts from factories in China! I even spoke about 'opening a mould' with a fellow British indie lingerie brand but we decided that even between us, the expense was prohibitave.
|Ladies wot Lace
So I thought we could talk about fan lacing - how it came about, how to do it, different types, and how the same (or better imo) effect can be acheived without those pesky metal slides.
Although the Victorians dabbled in several models of front fastening corsets, it wasn't until 1908 when fan lacing became popular and took off as a viable alternative to the traditional back lacing corset. In that year, Samuel Higby Camp of Jackson, Michigan, invented a new system of fan lacing using a special metal buckle which was mounted with loops and was patented in the US in June 1921.
|Metal fan lacing slides - difficult to obtain in the 21st century||
Camp System diagrams
Camp's system with the metal buckle uses one single corset lace which is passed through the looped metal tab several times. The angle of pull means that the pulley effect of the lacing is effective over a wide range and this means that tightening the corset from the front is extremely easy. The other side of the fan lacing slide attaches to a belt which fastens at the front or side of the corset using special sliding buckles which are low profile and therefore sit smoothly underneath clothing. These are still used today in waistcoats.
Front fastening corsets
Camp patented his unique slider but that didn't stop other manufacturers copying the idea, the most successful of which was an Australian firm called Jenyns who in order to circumvent the patent, simply stitched the apex of the 'fan' onto a strap. The main difference in this system is that sevaral individual laces are required to form an effective closure. This makes for a prettier effect but it means the system is not quite so effective. Nevertheless, this was also a popular and successful design and seasoned wearers of both models at the time, report the difference as completely negligible. Jenyns licenced the UK factory Symingtons to make this type of corset for the European market, and here is one such example I handled and photographed myself in the Symingtons resource centre.
|1911 Jenyns corset in white coutil. Low waisted and deep over the hips featuring elastic gussets at the bottom front. This was one of the first styles made under the Symington franchise.
photo © Julia Bremble
|Front straps. The corset has a long graduated busk and spiral supports and four wide fancy adjustable suspenders.
photo © Julia Bremble
|Below is a diagram from a blog post by American Duchess which clearly demonstrates how the laces are attached to the 'strap' system of fan lacing. This system was first seen in Victorian times, but made popular much later in the early 20th century. The blog post describes how to convert a traditionaly laced corset into a fan laced corset using a corset made from a Red Threaded pattern. Please go and read it!|
I can feel a tutorial coming on myself as I'd like to explore this system more in practice and ofcourse the creative options are limitless - I mean, multicoloured lacing for one!
Here's some modern interpretations of fan lacing.
|Asphixia Couture||Dark Garden||Lovesick Apparel||Pure One||V-Couture|
Hopefully that's got your creative juices flowing! Here are a few more resources for you to have a further read.
Fan lacing tutorial by Serinde Corsets on Live Journal
More on the Symingtons 1911 Fan lacing corset by Curve Couture
Vintage Fan lacing girdle from the blog of Period Corsets
I said this in 2014, and I'll say it again - read more to understand the context of why I said it and why I stand by the statement that plastic boning corrupts over time and simply does not stand up to the job.
photo copyright : Julia Bremble, please do not use without permission
I've talked about steel boning at length all over this website, and will soon write a blog post on plastic boning for your interest and information. As ever, I present no pre-conceived conclusions and encourage experimentation at every step of your sewing journeys which is why it's no secret that I do not agree with the statement "plastic boning is better than steel". It isn't better and it isn't worse, it's different. I stock various types of plastic boning and lots of different types of steel boning because each type is useful and apart from anything else, it isn't in my interests to persuade you one way or another. In my quest to be a good shopkeeper and educator, I personally test everything on my shelves and I do extensive research not only because I want to pass the information on so that customers can make an informed choice, but because this is my passion too. My overriding aim is and always has been that YOU choose what is best for your practice, and you make your choices after research, experimentation, experience. It's your call, I can only give you information, inspiration and my own opinion based upon what I have found to work best for me.
Dior dress foundation photographed by veteran corset maker Alison Campbell
Photo copyright: Alison Campbell - please do not use without permission
So lets talk about dress foundations.
When I wrote this article, dated March 2014 it was a long time before the current popularity of the plastic material known as 'synthetic whalebone' and I was referring to the more commonly available Rigilene, the plastic boning of choice for many a dressmaker over many a decade, a product which at that time sold in much more quantity than synthetic whalebone (or 'whale' as we call it at Sew Curvy HQ). It still sells by the heap and because not all of my customers are corset makers, attracts queries on an almost daily basis, the most common of which is 'what's best for boning this wedding/prom dress i'm making, rigeline or spiral steel?. I always reply that, in my opinion, steel is best but sometimes I will recommend the synthetic whalebone as a suitable alternative to steel - it depends on the purpose and desired outcome.
|an order for sample boning received yesterday - someone's experimenting!|
Rigilene has its uses but is no good for serious dress foundations because it wont stand up to the job. Lets look at why that is and why infact, steel boning is the boning of choice for couturiers.
Here is a Dior dress foundation photographed by me during the V&A Ballgowns exhibition a few years ago.
|Foundation of a gown from the V&A Ballgowns Exhibition a number of years ago - you can clearly see that it is lightly boned with narrow spiral steel because the grey of the steel is showing through the pale foundation fabric which is made from a few layers of tightly woven cotton bobbinet.|
Here is another example of a dress foundation boned with spiral steel, and I am particularly interested in this one because it has toile panniers which I have been fascinated about ever since hearing about them from my showgirl friend and vintage couture conniseur, Immodesty Blaize who found them in the vintage wedding dress she wore to her civil wedding ceremony in France. This dress foundation also uses steel boning, again clearly visible by the grey colour under the net bodice, and there is a very good reason for this.
|This dress foundation has multi layered tulle petticoats and toile panniers to support and give structure to the heavy satin dress which will go over the top of it.||source|
As you can see from this particular example, this dress foundation is doing alot of work - As a whole it is transforming the body by smoothing the torso with the corsolette and creating the illusion of larger hips with the petticoats and panniers. The bodice is not only smoothing the wearers body, it is also supporting those petticoats and panniers and the whole thing will then support the heavy satin dress that goes over the top of it. Dress foundations therefore serve two purposes.
Boning is used because without it, the foundation would collapse and would not support the weight of either the petticoats or the over garment. Steel boning is usually used but in some cases, sturdy plastic boning such as synthetic whalebone could also be used. Rigline boning cannot stand up to the job because it is far too thin and flexible.
The boning of choice for couture houses from the golden age, right up to the present day (and I supply many of them with steel boning, never plastic), is steel. Why? Steel boning is more widely available than decent plastic boning and it is much more flexible for curvy areas such as over the bust. Also, steel does not degrade in the same way that plastic does over time, and what I mean by this is that spiral steel retains it's original properties for a very long time, plastic does not. So although we all know that once plastic is made, it can never be 'unmade', the properties which made it useful when new, will degrade over a relatively short period of time. Therefore, apart from the other environmental considerations, plastic boning will not produce an heirloom garment.
This dior foundation is light and 'fluffy' and boned with 5mm spiral steel.
â¸ Alison Campbell
What about the argument that plastic is lighter, and that metal can rust? Both of those statements are of course true, however, in a couture foundation, 5mm spiral steel boning is commonly used in combination with fine cotton bobbinet which is strong yet very light. In other words, a dress foundation, although it performs light corsetting duties, is not heavy but it does need to be strong and durable. The steel will never rust if the garment is looked after properly and also because it is galvanised to protect against rusting and because of it's structure (two flattened springs squashed together) it's properties will not change over time. It is possible to use plastic whalebone for the same purpose and with the same effect but the integrity of the material over time is not so guaranteed and of course where steel could rust if not looked after, plastic can warp if not looked after. The pros and cons are almost equal so again, we come back to choice when it comes to your own work.
no boning caps - don't faint!
â¸ Alison Campbell
Having personally examined a number of couture dress foundations, and having had clients with collections of vintage couture, and friends who have not only studied fashion but have also studied couture garments for particular reasons and having customers from famous couture houses and production companies who order steel boning by the roll, I can quite categorically state without a shadow of a doubt, that spiral steel boning is more common in couture dress foundations than plastic boning because more often than not, it is the best thing for that particular job.
So I am standing by my statement with the following caveat perfectly captured by Robert Dyer in his seminal book "Wasited Efforts' which includes a whole chapter on couture dress foundations that he has studied from the House of Dior who routinely use 5mm spiral steel boning and cotton bobbinet:
"Interestingly, as scholars research and analyze the techniques of master coutiriers, it is often forgotten that the couturier is a master because they abide by no rules but are so confident with the art of sewing and cutting, that decisions are made depending on need not formula. Sewing after all is simply a series of seams, some straight, some curved. The crucial part is that the stitcher must become profient at doing them"
And so it is with this exquisite dress by Yves St Laurant for Dior which was created in 1958.
The materials listed are silk, metallic thread, glass and plastic. We can assume that this 'plastic' refers either to the bead and sequin embellishment or the boning used for the bodice that supports a very etheareal and airy, sheer dress which is supposed to look like it is swinging off the body.
"Creating the trapeze silhouette for Dior, Saint Laurent has a rigid understructure veiled under a fly-away cage. A boned corset anchors the dress but allows the delusion of a free swinging cone"
Without examining the finer details of this garment in person, we can only imagine that if the creator preferred to use plastic boning here, he did so because it was important for the final effect; I would say that in order to preserve the light qualities of the garment, boning channels designed to hide grey metal boning would have been deemed to 'heavy' whereas plastic boning, being white, would give a more effortlessly etheareal result.
"Thus, in both surface decoration and in structure, Saint Laurent gained the effect of ethereal, bouyant freedom while retaining the structure of the couture. From the earliest works at the house of Dior through the designer's accomplishments in his own house, Saint Laurent has practiced and perfected this modernist wielding of couture construction and proficiency to seem wholly unfettered"
So here we have a shining example of where, contrary to traditional streams of thought, the designer may have felt that plastic boning was best for this garment and used it instead of metal boning. The effect is sublime and as ever proves the point that we should use the things that work best for us and for the project in hand.
As ever, context is important. Where plastic can be used, use it if you want to. Where metal is more suitable, use it if you want to.
There are no rules.
The next article will be all about the pros and cons of plastic boning.
Links for further info:
A whole page of 'pins' concerning dress foundations old and new
A Threads article where Susan Kalje uses steel boning as support in garments in surprising ways (probably some of which I would use plastic boning for)
A blog post where a home sewer makes her own wedding dress with a really good technique on how to make really lovely sheer bone casings
Anatomy of a modern gown with a bobbinet dress foundation by Morua Corsetry and Couture
A few blog posts on How to make a dress foundation in several projects by me - including a post where I use rigilene boning in partnership with steel boning to make a moulded bust curve - a technique which I still use in some of my corsetry projects today. This link also includes more details on the John Cavanah dress which is pictured at the top of this blog post and dates back to a road trip to the Symington archive that I made with friends around 5 years ago.
I find the story of the fabric known as bobbinet quite fascinating. Like coutil it is a very rare, difficult to find material and it is only made by a very few factories in the world. Like coutil there is a certain 'snobbishness' tied to it when put into the context of couture and fashion. You must have 'genuine' bobbinet and it must be made of the right stuff and in the right way.
Luckily, here at Sew Curvy we have genuine bobbinet, manufactured by one of the UK's only remaining factories and even more luckily, because I was able to get a narrower (but no less useful) width, the cost per metre is extremely competitive - the best you'll find anywhere on the net I think (haha! pun intended!)!
Bobbinet is a very special tulle fabric - sometimes even known as 'genuine tulle' it has been around since 1806 when it was invented by a very clever man called John Heathcoate. Mr Heathcoate coined the term 'bobbinet' from two words, 'bobbin' and 'net' because it is a lace type net fabric - lace is made with bobbins - but made on a machine which he also invented. Modern lace is made on similar machines and these days, the design for bobbinet machines, like many Victorian inventions, is largely unchanged from the original Heathcoate design.
|The structure of bobbinet tulle is hexaganol and this is what makes it so strong and durable.|
Bobbinet tulle is constructed from warp and weft yarns, but unlike regular woven fabrics and nets, the horizontal weft yarn is looped diagonally around the vertical warp yarn to form a regular and distinctive hexagonal mesh which is completely stable, has minimal stretch and is durable, sheer and very very strong in comparison to it's weight. This is why it is ideal for foundation garments within dresses and has been favoured by designers since the early 20th century for supporting haute couture gowns. It is the hexagonal mesh which makes the difference here, without the hexagons, it's not bobbinet.
Bobbinet was originally made from cotton, and it is now available in many different fibres including silk, nylon and special 'technical' fabrics. The threads of bobbinet can be coated in all sorts of non fabricy things including metal and this makes it's range of use outside the fashion industry quite vast! It is used for theatre back drops, military applications, medical patches, parachutes, cryogenic insulation, electromagnetic shielding, flexible electronics, fishing nets, high quality wig making and a whole other raft of 'craft' applications including porcelain statue decoration - who knew!!??
|Dior dress foundation with bobbinete corselette|
In fashion, which is what we're interested in of course, bobbinet mesh is still used for couture style dressmaking including bridal wear, corsetry and lingerie or as a base cloth for fine embrodery. In the world of costume, bobbinet is used in wig making because it is fine, strong, and more or less invisible when hair is woven through it.
|Balmain gown inside and out, with bobbinet corselette foundation|
What to use bobbinet for? I would use it for dress foundations (sometimes called a built in corselete), and I am intending to try it out in light corsetry or as a stand alone corselete. You can use bobbinet for petticoats but if I were to make a floaty tulle petticoat I would use a more standard silk tulle - not a specialist silk bobbinet. Why? Because regular silk tulle is much less expensive than silk bobbinet and just as effective, it also comes in a wider range of colours. The point of using bobbinet in dressmaking is for strength and lighness to create something fine and elegant. Bobbinet is not really a fabric to be used for it's looks in any application.
A post from Gerties Blog for Better Sewing regarding bobbinet corselettes in haute couture dress foundations. I actually disagree that underwear should be worn in a dress with a foundation - a properly constructed couture dress foundation negates the requirement for separate underwear.
Interesting post by Alison of Crikey Aphrodite on the OCOC blog about a lace factory in Scotland. Lace is mounted on net and these machines are very similar to dedicated bobbinet machines. A very interesting article with a nice video.
Pictures of a beautiful beaded and goldworked Balmain gown bodice with bobbinet foundation that I found on my quest for bobbinet knowledge. This is just superb!
A prospective student asked me today how she could better prepare for one of my classes in the New Year. She told me that she had enroled in dressmaking classes in order to get used to sewing again. I responded that "As long as you are confident with the sewing machine, and comfortable with using one you will be absolutely fine. Good corsetry is more about organisation, attention to detail, problem solving and accuracy than having amazing sewing machine skills." It then occured to me, while writing to her, that the way I got good at corset making, was through making bags!
How on earth, you may ask, does making bags make you good at corsetry? WELL ....
Bags are small items which can be made from scrap materials. Sewing bags is therefore more 'relaxing' than sewing corsets because one of the biggest worries which can impede progress is immediately removed. Wasting expensive fabric. That isn't the main reason though.
Making bags - good bags - involves sewing with lots of layers of fabrics in order to give the bag enough body to be useful and stand up to every day use. Nobody wants a floppy bag do they? So a typical handbag will have a good three or four layers inside it. You'll have an outer layer of strong heavy fabric - perhaps wool, or if it's a light bag, then perhaps a cotton interfaced with fusible webbing. Then you'll have a middle layer of a very thick interfacing, often this will be the type you use for curtain tie backs - strong enough to add a good deal of body and then there will be a lining. If you like a challenge, that lining will contain pockets, zips, buttons and other exciting baggy features.
In addition to sewing through many thick layers, bag making can be quite intricate once you get into more exiting shapes and sizes. There are sharp corners to navigate (with all those layers), curves to tame, embellishments to add and perfect symmetry to acheive. Try adding a smooth line of piping or a frill into a small bag with 4 layers already.
There are other features about bag making which will challenge your constrcution and problem solving skills you might want a bag with a flat bottom and feet - how to insert a plastic tray to keep the bottom solid, waterproof and strong in that case? How best to insert your magnetic snap? How to ensure your purse clip doesn't come undone after 2 uses? How to make a neat transition between bag software and hardware. All of these thought processes are usefull, if not essential in corsetry, they are just applied in a different way.
And so it was, after I had discovered corsetry, I took a year off work for health reasons, and instead of making corsets, I made bags. This wasn't a concious desicision to improve my corset making because at that time, a career in corsetry for me was about as far away as Katmandu, it was just a highly creative time when I had to make stuff which was quick, satisfying and pretty. Hence bags. I got good at making them and I can honestly say, that bag making with all it's intracasices - and a fair few were flung across the room in a temper I can tell you - made me better at sewing, and eventually good at corsetry.
Here are some good bag making resources:
The woman who inspired a thousand craft businesses - including mine - Lisa Lam's U-Handblog where you'll find lots of bag making tips and tricks to go with her business U-Handbag where you can find the supplies to make said bags.
There's my old old blog Marmaladekiss which documented all of this frenzied bag making and then progressed into dressmaking and corsetry. You have to start right back at the beginning to get the good stuff, and in the last 3 years it's been as good as dormant. However, the odd faithful reader pops up now and then and says how much they enjoyed reading it in it's hey day.
For other resources, because I haven't made a bag in years, go to The Sewing Directory the go to resource for everyone who's into sewing.