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  1. Janome 1600PQC Sewing macine

    I'm often asked what the best - and worst - sewing machines for corsetry are so i'll tell you my thoughts garnered from my own experience and that of the students who come to my classes with their own sewing machines.

    img_2961 lvintage bernina sewing machine
    This lovely vintage Bernina 720 made an appearance in the Sew Curvy Cottage last month.  It may be old but it sewed like a dream, stitch perfect every time and better than many other machines.

    Bad news first.  The worst machines for corsetry are, in the beginners category, domestic Brother machines.  I myself started with a Brother as these are often the most easily available, from shops such as Argos and other department stores, with the highest profile aimed at the craft hobby market.  People are familiar with the Brother name and therefore trust the brand.  Fine unless you want to sew corsets.  Unfortunately, the only problems I ever have in class with machines that cant cope, are with Brother machines - they can't keep pace, they labour over every stich as soon as more than 2 layers are put before it, and since those layers are mainly thick coutil, a Brother machine is prone to going on strike just when you don't need it to.  I have also encountered many tension problems with Brother machines, not just from their owners!  In short, Brother 'entry level' sewing machines are fine for sewing light dresses and the odd piece of home furnishing, but as soon as you progress to more complicated things, they just cannot cut the mustard, which is surprising given that the best industrial machines are also made by Brother - I don't understand why the technology doesn't cross over.  

    So when I started to make corsets, it was time for an upgrade.  I did a lot of research, found a machine I thought suitable and then asked a sewing machine company what they would recommend having briefed them on my requirements and budget.  They came up with the same machine I had thought appropriate, and a match made in sewing heaven was born. At that time,  I spent around £250 on the mid range Janome 5124 machine and it's still going strong in my studio now - it has everything required for mid range sewing - it can cope with several layers of coutil and bone channelling, has several decorative stitches and several zig zag stitches including a three step zig zag which is useful for sewing elasticated items such as lingerie. 

    singer 201k  

    The Singer 201K is renowned to be the best sewing machine ever invented.  
    This one dates from the early  1950's and cost me £16!

    Later on I tried other corsetry techniques and other sewing machines.  I got myself an industrial Brother machine which was excellent but too big and noisy for my house so it had to go.  Cue the Vintage Singer 201K which my local sewing machine man recommended in leui of the Industrial.  These machines are fantastic for corsetry and tailoring - they are beautiful, fast and economical and the closest you'll get to industrial quality on a budget.  Unfortunately the trend for 'vintage' has pushed the prices of these old machines into the stratosphere - where they used to be shipped out to Africa by the skip load because nobody wanted them, these beautiful machines are now highly prized items earning ££££'s for the loft raiders of ebay.  Honestly, don't beleive the hype, vintage Singers are not 'rare antiques'.  The Singer factory in Scotland turned them out by the hundreds of millions in their heyday from the 20's right up to the 1960's. If you do fancy getting one, make sure you stick with the black cast iron models which are pre 1960.  The brown 201K machines are not nearly as good.

     

    janome1600pqc

    Nowadays I have my wonderful wonderful semi industrial Janome 1600PQC which is a domestic/industrial hibrid.  It's pricey, but it's fast and professional whilst still being portable.  It has a knee lift which saves a mountain of time, and an auto thread cutter which saves many threads.  It also has a high shank which means that industrial sewing machine feet can be used with it as well as the extensive range of sewing machine feet and attachments supplied by Janome.     The machine actually comes with a straight stitch foot, a fantastic wide (industrial style) seam guide, screwdrivers, oil, spare needles and bobbins plus a huge extension table and knee lift lever.

    When I first started teaching and didn't have a set of brand new Janome machines at my disposal, my students use all of these machines - the vintage Singers, the mid-level Janome and the new Janome 1600PQC.  All of them are easy to use and perfect for sewing perfect stitches in perfectly straight lines through many thick layers of fabric.  The Singers and the PQC will also both sew through layers of leather with ease.

    photo

    The Janome1600PQC sews through leather and layers with ease.

    Over the past years i've noticed from my students that amongst the more experienced sewers, the most popular machines are Janome, Pfaff, and Bernina - these are all good quality brands and sometimes turn up in their vintage forms which are every bit as good - if not better - than their modern counterparts.  Janome machines are literally 'bomb proof' - heavy, sturdy and the preferred machine for schools due to their quality and lower price range.  If they can cope with year on year of teenagers thumping through them, then they can cope with corsets!  However,  if you're serious about corsetry, want to go pro or semi-pro but don't have the space for an industrial machine, then I can't recommend the 1600PQC highly enough although as it's a straight stitch only,  you will need a domestic back up if you like fancy stitches or need a zig zag... But then what better excuse to start a new sewing machine collection?  I myself have around 10 machines and I love them all :D.

    In summary, a good machine for sewing corsets will be sturdy and reasonably heavy, preferably made of metal, and will not be in the 'beginners' class of machine.  Generally you can band sewing machines by price.  Low range are priced up to about £250-300 depending on brand, mid-range from £300 to about £600 and then top range can go as far as up to £3000 for the most up to date, all singing and dancing computerised machines.  Anything below mid range will be generally unsuitable for corsetry.

    Useful links:

    Sewing Machines Direct.   Where I've purchased two of my Janome machines and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

    Janome UK - home of the Janome Sewing machines which I also recommend - here you can find information on which one might be best for you

    How to restore a vintage sewing machine - written by me some years ago on my old sewing blog "The House of Marmalade"

    More links about vintage sewing machines, where to find them and what to do about them from The House of Marmalade.

     

  2. grey spot broche
    grey spot broche coutil - 'silver screen - sleek, elegant, ethereal

    Coutil is a fabric which was especially invented for corsetry back in the 1800's.  It was also known, at that time, as "Jean".  It is commonly a herringbone weave but it also comes in other forms.  The reason coutil is special is because it is a very densly woven fabric which makes it very strong and durable - able to stand up to tension, but can be very smooth and luxurious.  

    Coutil fabric for corsetry comes in several different 'weights', and also different compositions.  The best coutil is 100% cotton or at least a cotton/viscose mix (though some people are allergic to viscose).  You can get polyester coutil or polycotton coutil.  I do not recommend those as they do not 'breathe' as well as natural fabrics.  There is a bit of a myth that the best coutil comes from England.  This certainly used to be the case, however, I am sad to report that there are no coutil mills left in England.  All coutil is made abroad nowadays, some in India, some in China, and some in Europe.  I believe that some coutil is made in America too, although we in the UK do not tend to import from there and many American corset makers prefer the European coutil.   You may have heard of 'German coutil'.  It is important to use coutil for many reasons.  Not only is it the best material to make corsets from, and incomparable to other 'strong' fabrics, but it is also a dying industry.  It is expensive because it is a good quality fabric,  and we must support the production of coutil, to keep the few mills that are left in Europe open.  Many industries use coutil, however, most corsetry components are not made for small production or for fashion, but for the medical industry.

    Broche coutil is the heaviest type of coutil available from Sew Curvy, alongside the cotton sateen coutil which I also stock - it's basically the broche without the viscose design.  Fine herringbone coutil is the closes substitute to genuine antique coutil and is quite common in Edwardian corsetry.  It is very fine but deceptivly strong and therefore suitable for lighter single layer corsets or training corsets - smooth, light and dense.  Perfect! 

    fine herringbone coutil fabric for corset making

    fine herringbone coutil fabric for corset making

     

    Buy cotton coutil fabric for corset making

    or

    Order some coutil samples

     

     

     

     

  3. Metal corsetry boning was invented in the 1800's by the Victorians when their preferred corset boning of choice, whalebone, was becoming scarce and expensive.  The Victorians came up with two types of boning - both with ingenious features for very specific applications in corsetry and both of which are still in use today with no modern adaptation or equal.

    img_20140213_172610

    A bone holder for keeping your corset/dress bones sorted.  
    Made by Izabela of Prior Attire these will soon be available to buy in the Sew Curvy shop 

    First of all there is flat steel boning, sometimes known as 'corset flats' or  'spring steel'.  There is a reason for this.  Flat steel boning isn't made of any old metal - No.  It is made from sprung steel which means that it is naturally very 'bouncy' and it is very very hard to bend.  Try bending sprung steel and it will bounce right back into flatness.  Why is this best for curvy corsetry?  Because the way a corset works is by creating pressure and tension over the body to create the special hourglass shape that the Victorians and Edwardians favoured.  If you didn't have sprung steel as boning, then the metal rods inside the corset would simply bend and buckle and would not hold a thing in place.  Can you imagine how uncomfortable that would be and how awful it would look?  Sprung steel on the other hand, only flexes in a vertical direction and will keep its shape and provide tension in the right places - as your corset pattern dictates - and because of this, you can use flat steel corset boning to help engineer your final outcome.  For example, if you want to control a larger bust, or if you want to enhance a smaller bust, flat steel boning can be used in strategic places at the side of the bust to help acheive the desired effect by holding your assets firmly in place and pushing the flesh in a certain direction, unlike spiral steel boning which is much more flexible and will simply mould over curves.

    I do not ever recommend pre-bending flat corset bones because doing this removes the tension in the steel which negates it's special properties.  If you feel like you want to create very curvy drama or you are boning a corset with a very small waist, then use spiral steel boning instead - it will do the bending for you.

    Flat steel boning is also used in hooped petticoats, steel dress cages and panniers and is also sprung so that it keeps it's nice round shape but it is not so thick as flat steel corset boning.

    tv103
    The Elliptical cage crinoline was the main support foundation for the later- and post-American Civil War period of 1863-1868. Called a "cage" because of the cage-like appearance created by the hoop wires and vertical support tapes, this type of crinoline offers maximum support capabilities for a perfect shape, combined with flexibility for comfortable wear

     

    Spiral steel boning is very different to flat sprung steel boning.  It is made from 2 springs flattened and then forced together to make one flat looking spring.  

    spiral steel boning

    This type of corset boning is also sprung and is ingenious because it flexes in all directions and is therefore particularly good for the more curvy areas of the body, where you need a bit of moulding - over the breast, over the hips, perhaps over a fuller dierriere.  Spiral steel boning is much 'softer' on the body and therefore wearers find it more comfortable.  Where flat boning can be used to control and streamline, spiral boning can be used to enhance and create drama.  Spiral steel is the most versatile type of corset boning, it comes in different widths and different thicknesses for all sorts of boning projects and ofcourse it isn't just used for corsetry, it is used in couture for boning dress foundations properly.

    img_2268
    An antique corset from the famous Symington Collection - this corset is German and dates from 1903.  It is made from grey coutil and has exposed 'watch spring' spiral steels which were removable to aid laundering.

     

    In summary, boning can be used in many ways and many combinations.  Sometimes it can even be used to even out an asymetry in the body.  No body is the same, and it follows that no handmade custom or bespoke corset will be the same as another in terms of how it is boned, however each individual maker will have his or her preferred way of using the bones and this in turn will contribute to the over all look, feel and style of that maker.

     

    Dress foundation with boning
    The inside of a couture dress foundation from the Fashion Gallery at Snibston Discovery Centre, Leicestershire. (by kind permission).  Dress foundations should be boned with metal boning as plastic boning corrupts over time and simply does not stand up to the job.

     

    I therefore encourage everyone to experiment with boning and have put very precise descriptions in my product listings.  

    Here are some further resources for corset boning:

    How to cut and tip spiral steel boning

    Buy spiral steel boning 
    see more detailed product description with tables on which boning to use where

    Buy flat steel boning
    see more detailed product description with information on which boning to use for which application.

    Quick guide to making a corset

    External links:

    Comparing different types of corset boning -   article by Jenni Hampshire of Sparklewren at Foundations Revealed

    How and why to use spiral steel boning 

    How to make a dress foundation  

    Using metal boning in a strapless dress pattern by Vogue

     

  4. scissors for sewing

    At Sew Curvy I only stock quality products in the shop which I myself use and can recommend.    I have a variety of cutting tools in the studio but here are my favourite recommendations for sale:

    When I cut out patterns - any patterns - from corset patterns to dressmaking patterns, to purse patterns and everything in between - I use a 45mm rotary cutter and large cutting mat.  Many people who pass through my studio express terror at the thought of  amputating their fingers while using a rotary cutter but I say it couldn't be more simple and whats more, you get a much more accurate cut with a rotary cutter because you don't have to lift the fabric you're cutting at all, and you can keep the cutting blade sharp at all times with the use of replacement blades or a special sharpener for rotary blades.  The cut you get when using a rotary cutter is sharp, clean and even.  Once you get used to using one, you wont want to go back to traditional dressmaking scissors or tailors shears for anything!  

    In corsetry and dressmaking I find that the best size of blade for rotary cutting, is the standard 45mm.  Rotary cutters do come in all manner of shapes, sizes and formats, with standard, luxury and 'deluxe' versions and you can also get different types of blade too.  The 45mm size is big enough to cover distance quickly but small enough to negotiate tight curves efficiently.  Anything smaller would be tedious and anything bigger would be too clumsy.  The array of accessories for rotary cutters can be quite confusing but generally I find that a regular rotary cutter with retractable blade is the most cost effective and easiest tool to use and I prefer Olfa as a brand.   Handy tip for dull rotary blades:  When they are too dull to cut fabric, you can use them to cut paper, cardboard or interfacing with prescision.  Simply 'condemn' the not so sharp blade by paining a blob of nail polish on it to diferentiate it from your sharp blade.  The blade can be kept safe in the special plastic case which comes with every Olfa replacement blade.

    Scissors are of course useful at other times.  I tend only to use dressmaking shears for cutting lengths of fabric and of course it is absoloutely essential that you keep any dressmaking or fabric crafting scissors only for cutting fabric because cutting other materials such as paper, will dull the blades very quickly (although it is possible to have your scissors sharpened professionally in a hardware store).  If kept properly and treated well, a good pair of scissors will last a lifetime so it really is a false economy to buy cheap ones.  

    Applique scissors are sometimes known as duck bill scissors and are good for grading seams or working with layers of delicate fabrics - they have a lower blade which is wider than the top blade and this lower blade protects fabric underneath the scissors while the super sharp top blade cuts the fabric at hand.   We also have super sharp stork embroidery scissors in two sizes and these are a timeless classic - show me a grandmother who didn't own a pair!  I know I was always fascinated as a child by the little silver pair owned by my Nana and this is why these scissors do have a special place in my heart.  Practically, they are fantastic for precision cutting of small areas and for snipping thread ends very close  to your project. The applique scissors and the stork scissors on site are all made by quality German brand Klasse.  

    Small general  sewing scissors about 10cm (5") long are good for small cutting jobs like snipping notches, seam allowances, going around corners and other general fabric cutting where you need power and presicsion but don't want a large wiedly pair of scissors. I stock Fiskars small sewing scissors for this job as they are a lovely handy size  with very sharp pointy blades.  

    The humble stitch ripper should not be overlooked here.  It is every bit as important to keep a sharp seam ripper in your sewing tool box as it is to keep sharp sewing scissors and cutters to hand.   Dull blades = ripped fabric and shredded seams,  and seam rippers do not stay sharp for long - the more stitches you rip, the quicker the blade will blunt.  With this in mind,  I really don't believe in buying expensive seam rippers with fancy handles because they do need replacing frequently so you wont find anything above 50p at Sew Curvy and I frequently send out a free stich unpicker with big orders as a little token of thanks, because I think it is really really important for perfect sewing.  Infact, seam rippers are such a versatile sewing tool that some people write entire blog posts about their many and varied uses - here is one such blog post which will give you 9 other reasons why you need a seam ripper in your sewing box:  10 reasons to love your seam ripper

    scissors and cutters for sewing