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undergarment, was originally made of the fabric that most period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?
- Linen breathes well, an important consideration in a garment as tight-
fitting as a corset.
- It's strong and durable, and resists seam and fabric strain
better than, say, wool.
- It's able to withstand the repeated washing
necessary for a garment worn close to the skin.
- It has a natural stiffness of texture that complements the corset's
- Lastly, it was cheap. (stress: Was.) Linen was the cotton broadcloth of
period times, used for all basic and utilitarian garb.
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
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
Silk satin and velvet were the most commonly used fabrics for richer folk. So, why use silk for a corset?
- It's an incredibly strong fabric
- It's period
- It breathes wonderfully
- You can wear the corset as an outer garment, and show off the fabric
COTTON DUCK CANVAS
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:
- Is the strongest and most durable fabric you can find for a corset; it stands up to repeated washings, and corset boning has a hard time poking through it
- It's stiff, and doesn't crinkle or scrunch; this helps keep a smooth corset line
- It's cheap.
- You can get it in any fabric store
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
- Upholstery fabrics and brocades
These are usually quite strong and unlikely to
rip, though they have more give and stretch to them than canvas does. However, depending on what it is made of--synthetic or natural
fabrics, and what kind of dye is used--there may be problems with
shrinking while washing, bleeding of dyes, and (this is a problem with
synthetic fabrics) a lack of breatheability while wearing it. This
might seem like a small consideration, but when you're wearing a
corset at high noon under heavy clothes, it seems much more pressing.
My tapestry corset, though it looks great, is a sweatbox compared to
my cotton canvas one.
- Prices range from @ $8 to $15 a yard, depending on the type of brocade you're buying. Check the fabric store remnant tables for scraps of upholstery fabric; a corset doesn't take much, and the prices are cheaper.
- Modern satin is a good choice for a fancy corset. Although it can be a slippery bitch to sew, the smooth fabric is strong and looks quite nice on its own. If you're going to use satin, the most period type is the heavy stuff known as "bridal"
or "baroque" satin.
- Shot silk, that stiff, rustly fabric found in the bridal section that changes color when it moves, was used in elizabethan times. It's not as strong as silk or cotton canvas, but looks nice. At our local Jo-Ann's, it costs $8 a yard. Discount
fabric stores or warehouses would have it at a lower price.
- Velvet.If you're going to use velvet for your corset, use cotton velvet or velveteen if you can find it. Not only will it be more durable and less likely to acquire shiny flat spots, but it looks more like period velvet and--drum roll please--
you can toss it in the washing machine, something that silk, taffeta, satin and shot silk really don't appreciate. Keep in mind, though, that wearing the corset under a dress is going to flatten the velvet eventually. Also remember that velvet is
- At most retail stores, cotton velvet costs $12-14 dollars a yard, and velveteen costs $10-11 dollars/yard.
- Silk is another choice for the outer fabric of a corset.
China Silk, that flimsy, flowing fabric that most people immediately
think of when they hear the word "silk", was not found as an outer
garment during Elizabethan times. Back then, silk was either a gauzy, translucent fabric used
for veils and undergarments, or a heavier fabric with a slight shine and
weight of a baroque satin or taffeta.
FINDING THE REAL THING
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
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:
- They breathe well
- Use reeds around 2 mm in diameter
- They don't bend at the waist
- they give great support.
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:
- flexible, not only up and down its length but also from side to side.
- Very tough and resilient. Whalebone stays during Elizabeth's time were around 3/8 of an inch thick, which gave a hellacious amount of support to just about anyone; about the same amount of support as spring steel boning, or more.
- It can be cut
with scissors or a knife, and the ends can be filed with a nail file.
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.
- It's extremely strong, yet not very thick
- It comes coated in a rustproof covering, so you can sweat in it and wash it and not worry about rust stains.
- Its rounded ends won't poke through the corset fabric
- It comes in 1/2 inch and 1/4 inch widths, and from 4 to 14 inches long.
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.
- The ends should be blunted and rounded, or else they'll poke through the corset fabric eventually. You can either singe them (watch the fumes) and cover the ends with cloth, use special tips (they work well, but are bulky and show through the corset)
, or use things like duct tape or band-aids to cover the ends.
- Here's a tip from someone who's tried it: if you sew the boning diagonally, fanning out from the center front to the side, it elimanates any creasing or folds that the lightweight rigilene might otherwise not be able to prevent.
SABER SAW BLADES. Yes, saber saw blades with the teeth ground off. According to the woman who's used them, they're:
- cheaper than steel springs; at flea markets in the Ohio area they can be found at $1.00/dozen.
- Paint them to prevent rusting, and dip the ends in epoxy resin or cover them with bandage adhesive so that they won't poke through the corset.
- They're slightly firmer than spring steel boning
TIMBER STRAPPING requires work and time to make into corset bones, but it can be done.
- You can get it for free at lumber yards
- Round the ends with tin snips, and file them smooth
- Use a tin punch to punch holes in them and sew them to the corset if you don't want the boning slipping around and working it's way through the corset fabric
PLASTIC. Denise Cross has tested and used High density polyethylene (3/32 or .093 thickness) as an alternative to other types of boning.
- It's less supportive than spring steels, but more so than rigelene or featherboning.
- It's easy to cut and shape
- It doesn't rust
- It's washable
- it's cheap
- She's also experimented with Natural nylon of .060 thickness, and found that it's stiffer than steel, excellent for boning near lacing eyelets, and will break if subjected to a sharp bend.
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.
- It rusts when exposed to sweat or water, leaving rust stains on the corset
- It can crack when bent
- As the middle of the ribbon is only stiff fabric, you can punch grommet holes through it; you get a very straight edge that way, with no puckering or gapping, for minimal effort.
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.
HOW TO MAKE A WOODEN BUSK
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
- A saw (preferably an electric band saw, though a hand saw will do)
- a ruler and pencil
- a vibrating electric sander, or sandpaper with which to sand by hand
- a hand or electric planer, to plane the busk down to the desired thickness
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.
- Measure the length of the busk you want. If you're making it for a corset you already have, take the measurement from the front center top to the bottom tip, subtract half an inch, and use that. If you're not sure, use 12 inches as your length.
- On a piece of posterboard, cardboard, or paper, draw a line the length of your busk, and lable the ends A and B. At The A end, measure out one inch on either side of the busk and mark.Label them C and D. Measure in half an inch from the B end of the
line, and mark it; label that point E. With your ruler on point E, measure out from the line 1/2 an inch on either side; mark those poins F and G.
- Connect points C and D: this is the top of your busk. Connect points F, B and G with a curving line; this is the rounded bottom point of the busk. Connect points C and F, and D and G, which are the sides of your busk. Voila.
- Cut out your 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.
MODERN SUBSTITUTES FOR WOODEN AND IVORY BUSKS
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.
You can use two pieces of spring steel boning in place of the busk, sewn next to eachother. They don't provide the stiffness of wood, but they are reasonable firm and solid.
- Find a wooden ruler and file the corners off the bottom end. Even a metal ruler will do, if you cover the sharp corners with tape. This is a quick fix solution--wooden rulers aren't that strong--but it will work.
- Order one from the many Mailorder places that sell them.
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