Corsets serve one primary function: to give the body a "fashionable" shape. The rebellious body tends to resist unnatural shaping; therefore, the main requirement for a corset is strength. Aside from the shapes of the pattern pieces themselves, the two factors involved in a corset's shaping strength are:



The corset, being primarily an undergarment, was originally made of the fabric that most period undergarments were made of: linen. According to all material evidence to date, most chemises, smocks, and other undergarments of the middle ages and renaissance were made of linen. It's a good material for corsets, too. Why, you ask?

Like all utilitarian garments, the corset was fancied up by the upper classes. There's no material, written or pictoral evidence that brocade, cloth of gold, or other silk pattern-woven fabrics were used for corsetry. (if any of you know differently, tell me.)

Satin, taffeta and velvet, however, were used. The corset of the Pfalzgrafin Maria, which Janet Arnold examines in her book Patterns of Costume 1450-1560 had an interior lining of linen but was a silk satin on the outside. The pair of bodies of Maria of Toledo was made of silk velvet. Queen Elizabeth had dozens of pairs of bodies made of "taphata, sattin and vellet" (taffeta, satin and velvet), according to the wardrobe accounts of the Master of the Queen's Closet. Silk satin and velvet were the most commonly used fabrics for richer folk. So, why use silk for a corset?


Unfortunately, pure linen is nowadays hard to come by and period silk satin sells for $30 a yard. For purely utilitarian use, with no thought for period authenticity or pretty looks, the best fabric is cotton canvas, specifially "duck" or "drill" fabric. It can be found in any fabric store, usually for $4-5 a yard. Undyed, unstriped duck or drill in a cream or white color is best, if such is available, as it is both more period looking and less likely to bleed onto other garments when it gets damp or sweaty. This fabric:

For someone wishing a fancier corset, perhaps one which can be worn over a chemise and skirt as an outer garment, (it's not perfectly period, but it looks nice) the general practice is to use canvas drill or some other plain, strong, cotton-based fabric for the inside lining, and a fancier cloth for the outside layer. There's a wide variety of fabrics to choose from.

Modern fabrics made to resemble their more expensive, originally silk-based counterparts-- brocades, shot silk, taffeta, and satin to name the big four--are period-looking, beautiful possibilities for outer layers of corsets.


For all you die-hards out there who really want a linen, silk satin, or honest-to-god silk brocade corset, here are some addresses.

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Much of the information and suggestions for boning materials in this section came from people on the early costuming list. I have not, personally, used any boning aside from spring steels and hoop skirt boning; all other information and opinions about ce rtain materials are from the person that posted it. Unfortunately, I didn't save all of the names of the people who suggested boning materials. if you see information here that you remember sending out to the list and you want it ascribed to you, pleas e tell me and I'll add your name immediately.


The earliest known form of stiffening was glue-stiffened fabric, used by Eleanora of Toledo in her pair-of-bodies.

DRIED REEDS were sewn into channels in the Pfaltzgrafin Maria's corset, shewn in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 1465-1560. Denise Cross, who's used reeds in a corset of hers, has this to say about them:

ROPE: Lengths of stiff rope were used for the same purpose during Elizabeth's time. They were sewn into narrow channels between the outside and the lining of the corset.

WHALEBONE, the substance which will probably be associated with corsetry for all time, was an excellent source of stiffening. It isn't "whalebone" at all, actually, but rather a flexible substance known as baleen which whales use to sieve o ut plankton and sundry other sea creatures to eat.
Whalebone's wonderful. It's:


What you use to bone your corset is limited only by your imagination, your desparation, and your budget. When it comes right down to it, anything long, flat and stiff can conceivably be used as stiffening.

SPRING STEEL BONING is the best material for boning that you can find. Granted, it's also the most expensive; but in my opinion, the price is worth it.

Unfortunately, it's rather hard to come by. You can find places that sell it mailorder on the Mailorder Sources list.

RIGALEEN/FEATHER BONING is a popular choice for boning, as it is relatively cheap and available from any fabric store. It doesn't provide as much support as other forms of stiffening, however, and though it's enough for a small to medium busted pe rson, a large-busted person would be better off choosing a stiffer material.

SABER SAW BLADES. Yes, saber saw blades with the teeth ground off. According to the woman who's used them, they're:

TIMBER STRAPPING requires work and time to make into corset bones, but it can be done.

PLASTIC. Denise Cross has tested and used High density polyethylene (3/32 or .093 thickness) as an alternative to other types of boning.

HOOP-SKIRT BONING, the material found in wedding dress petticoats, can be used as a cheap material for boning--though I don't recommend it. It's basically a long strip of glue-stiffened fabric

There are doubtless other materials that people have used for boning, but these are the only ones that I personally know have been used.


The busk is a long, flat piece of wood, ivory or whalebone which was inserted down the front of the corset to give the bust and torso that truly flat look which men find so appealing. Depending on the length of your torso and how far down y ou want the corset's point to be, the busk can be anywhere from 10 to 14 inches long. The average busk length was 12 inches long and 3/8 of an inch thick. It tapered from a width of two inches at the top down to @ 1 inch at the rounded bottom.

Busks are not absolutely necessary to a corset, especially if you have a lot of stiff boning in it and are small busted, but they do help greatly in achieving the period sillouhete.


To make a busk, you will need:

1)Wood: Busks were, back when, made primarily from the hardwoods oak, ash, and walnut. If you're going for the period thing, these three woods are the way to go. Of the three, I've found oak to be the strongest and least likely to b reak.
If you don't have these woods available, any hardwood will do. You can even use high-quality plywood, which is remarkably flexible. Just avoid soft woods like pine, spruce or fir, which aren't strong enough.

2)Make the pattern.

3)Plane the piece of wood using a hand or electric planer, down to 3/8 of an inch thick.

4)Trace the pattern onto the wood, with the wood grain going lengthwise.

5)Cut along the pattern with a band saw or hand saw, slightly to the outside of the pencil mark.

6)Sand the sharp edges and top corners of the busk using sandpaper or a vibrating sander, until they are smooth. Sand the rounded bottom until it's smooth and even. Sand the outer side (this side which will face the front of the corset) of the b usk until the corners are mostly gone and that side has a rounded shape when looked at end on. Finally, sand the whole thing with 400 grit sandpaper to make it nice and smooth.

7)Drill the holes. Using a small 1/4 inch drill, drill two holes side by side half an inch from the top. These holes will have laces running through them and the corset, to keep the busk from moving around.

8)Oil the busk, using linseed oil (which is period) or some other finishing oil. This will seal the wood, strengthen it, and make it look nice. It will waterproof it somewhat as well.


For those of us who don't have woodworking tools and don't have the fortune required to buy an honest-to-god ivory busk, here are some alternatives. If you put your mind to it, you're sure to find something that will do the trick. I even used a wood en spoon once--a temporary measure, but it did the job.


Elizabethan corsets didn't have grommets, those metal rings through which the corset laces lace. They simply poked a hole in the fabric and sewed a buttonhole stitch around it, or used metal rings on either side of the lacing holes and sewed through the fabric and over the rings for reinforcement.

Most people nowadays use Dritz grommets from the local fabric store. I've used these myself. Although they're not the best quality, they'll do the job and are the easiest way to go for someone who's never made a corset before. If you want to get slightly fancier, try sewing over the grommets with fabric. It looks period, at least, and makes the holes much stronger.

You can find better quality grommets through some Mailorder Places.

Next Step: Making a Corset Pattern