Q&A about corset making

Frequently asked questions from customers about products and services.

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  1. swisstulle bobbinet

    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.

    bobbinet fabric structure
    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    Bobbinet was originally made from cotton, and it is now available in many different fibres including silk, nylon and special 'technical' fabrics.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!!??

    bobbinet dress foundation dior couture
                 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.

    bobbinet dress foundation balmain couture
    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.

    Useful links:

    Buy 100% cotton bobbinet here at Sew Curvy - priced at £16.50/m in white only (actualy 'off' white)

    Anatomy of a gown by Morua Designs - see how bobbinet is used to create a dress foundation, this is one of my favourite ever posts on the internet.  Very inspirational.

    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!

  2. 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.

     

  3. 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

     

     

     

     

  4. 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