Friday, April 17, 2009

Corset construction the old way

One of the things I've wanted to know, was the mechanics of the corset. Not just the how to sew one, that's easy. Any good pattern, such as Laughing Moon #100, or Truly Victorian #110 are excellent for victorian, Saundra has some really good ones, including but not limited to soft corsets, and an S-curve over at Past Patterns.

But that doesn't exactly tell you how to make one from scratch does it?
Instead of wishing I could afford a good teacher, and instead of scrimping till it hurts to afford a book or whatever's available or will be available, I decided to start pushing myself to study on my own. Which led to a path I had missed before.

Connecting Don McCunn and his book How to Make Sewing patterns + to the Workwoman's guide, via google books, originally published in 1838 author unknown, + Lara corsets who has generously shared her vintage corset gallery for study, + corset patents with patterns.

How they all connect, when none are specifically a corset making manual? Well, think about it. Someone way back in the beginning, had to have started it all. And they didn't have a teacher, nor a manual, nor any inkling how to even sew one. But they did have sewing knowledge. Thus Don's book is the first connection.

He explains, at a very affordable price I might add, the basics of fabric manipulation. How to create a dart, why it's there and what it does. How to turn the dart into fullness instead of a dart. How to move it around, change it's shape etc etc. He has a great class on the subject as well, where darts and their manipulation are the main focus.
Still what does that have to do with corsets?

Simply put, the bosom gores, the hip gores, all darts of one sort or another. Which means, anyone with a knowledge of darts and how to use them effectively, can create a corset. With gores, without gores, in any style you like. And it can be done without the math.

The connection finally hit when I read the Workwoman's guide. Although before the modern corset era, it does explain how to draft and create a soft corset. It reminded me of another site I'd looked at but dismissed too quickly, called La Couturiere Parisienne, that has a pattern plate showing at the bottom, the make up of the corset. See it here.

You'll notice at the bottom, there's a corset pattern. Although it has curved sides, and the one in the workwoman's guide is straight, when I compared the two you can see how the basic corset shape is nothing more than a square of fabric, measured to the waist measurement. But a square this size won't fit over the bosom, or the hips. However, if you make a cut over each bosom, and one over the fullness of each hip, insert a triangular gore, you get the curve. The wider the bottom of the gore, the more curve.

The solid lines represent the side of the square, the dotted lines represent where the fabric will be pushed out to if gores were set in.
By changing the shape of the gores, you get different effects. For example:

One dart slice, or gore allows the fabric to spread and thus curving. But it's limited to how far it can go. If you're a bit more bosomy, you'll need more curve. Thus two gores cut into the fabric:

Allows more curve. More room, i.e a bigger bosom area. It's the same for the hip. Place a gore by cutting the fabric over the fullness of the hip, or area you need more room, and you'll get your hip gore. By changing the shape, you get different results. A triangle gore gives you more room, but it's limited by how far it stretches. By cutting the fabric differently than just a straight cut, you can gain a square shape rather than triangular.

Which gives you more room, and more room for manipulation as well. By going the same route as for the triangle, you can create a wider bottom, and get more room at the edge, creating a wider curve.

This is basically why some corsets have square gores, and some have triangles. One gives more room, and more curve than the other, without causing the fabric to wrinkle or stretch. If you take the square gore and make one side a little longer than the other, you can get more curve on one side, keeping the other side straight.

This works really well over the side hip area, when you want a little fullness on the side toward the back, but you don't want to create too much flare in the front. Unless of course you have a large tummy and do want more flare up front, but most need it either at the side, or toward the back where it rounds out into the bottom area.
By putting a triangle gore in the front over the front hip area, and a square gore over the back fullness, you can keep the front a bit more snug while giving the fullness required at the side and back.

For later Victorian corsets, without gores, the gores are simply turned into fullness. To create a waist that reduces more, without forcing you to make huge gores to compensate for the much smaller waist, darts can be placed along the waist to allow the fabric to curve inward, and seam lines are cut where each dart runs, which divides the corset into pieces. It's all on how you manipulate the fabric. Take a peek at the corset patent site, and compare the patterns. You'll notice they come in all sorts of shapes, some looking like a complicated puzzle.

By combining these elements, a custom corset pattern can be generated easily, by draping the fabric, and manipulating it to get the desired results. If you get a headache from the math side of drafting, and or you're limited to only following directions because drafting by paper from scratch just eludes you without a step by step process, you're not alone. Nor are you limited, once you get the hang of fabric manipulation.

Patterns for a long, long time, were nothing more than shapes on paper that a tailor used as a guide. He would use other methods, such as tying knots along a rope to keep tabs on measurements. And he'd drape the fabric, making his marks and pinning it into shapes, then sewing it to create the piece or wardrobe. Something couture houses still do today I might add.
If you're new to fabric manipulation and don't know how, there's a book you should try called The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff.

Note: Not a computer tech, have no clue why some images flipped sideways in blogger. LJ doesn't do this. Hmmmm. Have to ask hubby about it when he gets home, if I remember to.
Second note, the croquis I used for doing the corset sketch is from Don's book, How to Make Sewing Patterns.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Just for a break, I thought I'd share a couple of my favourite ways of dealing with raw edges. About a month ago, I ran head first into a mini debate concerning sergers vs vintage sewing when it came to raw edges. My take on it was, if it's intended to be historically accurate, and/or a vintage reproduction, then sergers just aren't right.
When I think of modern sewing, they don't have to be used either. Most sergers are used in the factory for quick production of off the rack clothing, and by home sewists, who feel it's a nice finished edge. And it is, don't get me wrong. They're a great machine if you like them. But if you're like me, and you don't feel that you can justify the cost of at the very least the last time I checked, $168 and up for something that just encases the edges, then there are other methods of doing this. Some vintage, most in fact, and some modern. And they're not as time consuming as you'd think.
The first and most common method I've noticed that seems to be used by vintage sewists is the cast over edge. That one does take a little time, and it isn't as pretty, though it does get the job done.
However, one of my favourites, which has been nick named the hong kong seam by home sewists, dates back to at least the Victorian era. I haven't gone looking, so it may be older, but the garments I've noticed it on are C19th.
It's fairly simple to do, and it can be done in two ways. First, you sew your pieces together in the usual manner, either by machine or by hand. Then you encase the edge in a bias strip of fabric. For the Hong Kong seam, you do this to each side separately. I'm using black thread just to show the stitches, but in normal use, the thread would match the colour of the material, or at least be complimentary.

Here, if you can over look my crappy photography, is the bias strip stitched to the raw edge. It's then folded over the top of the edge, and without folding the other side, you lay it flat.

Then fold the whole edge so it lays flat against the garment, and stitch close to the edge of the fold. If you're capable you could stitch in the ditch and hide your thread in the crease, but it's usually just done in this manner with small stitches.
As you can see, the stitches catch the long side of the bias tape, or in this case scrap strip of fabric pretending to be bias. Normally on a garment I'd stitch all the way down, and repeat on the other side. This type of binding is attractive when you're doing something such as a sleeveless top without a lining. Rather than risk the edges being seen, it presents a prettier seam.
Also Victorian, if the seam isn't going to be visible, you can simply encase both edges together, in the same manner either by hand or by machine. If doing it by machine, it's still period correct if machines existed at that time, and it only take a couple of minutes to do.
Another edge I like is the French seam. It's used today on thin and sheer fabrics, but I've seen it as far back as the 18th century on silk dresses. It leaves a raised edge, which is both decorative and stronger than the usual seam, and encases the raw edge very nicely. In one account I saw a description that matched this seam, only it was called a Mantua hem. If it is the same, it could be even older than I thought.
It's done in this manner. After stitching your pieces together, you trim both raw edges down to about 1/8th an inch, or .02 centimeters, with right sides together.

You then fold the fabric over, so it encases the raw edge, and brings the right sides to the outside.

Stitch just under where the raw edges rest on the inside, creating a raised seam.

I only did the 1/4 inch section near the right side. Flipped over the raw edges should be totally encased, which both protects them and makes it smooth on the inside. Which is helpful when you're doing a tight fitting bodice.

There are other seams as well. The flat fell seam for example, however I assumed everyone knows this one since it's very basic. One interesting effect that I'm fond of dates back to the Tudor period, which entails covering a seam with fabric tape or ribbon, or some decorative trim. A braid for example can be couch stitched over the seam. It makes it look both decorative, as well as it conceals the seam from view.
If you're creative, it opens up possibilities of cutting your seams at angles, or zig zags, shaping them in different ways instead of the usual up and down seam. Using the binding or trim to cover the seam, thus creating a unique artistic finish.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

second pocket

Not very much progress, but I only had a couple hours last night on it.

On the embroidery this time I'm using dmc embroidery floss I had laying around. Originally I planned on going white on white, but for this, it seems to look better in colour. I only have a sort of green, white and yellow on hand, which means a trip to the store for something more. I'm leaning toward red or some gothic shade of purple.
On the leaves, I'm using a fly stitch, which was easier than it looked in the book. I might use it on the vines as well.
For the flower, the middle is a Jacobean filler stitch. It doesn't have a specific name that I can see, and my book only calls it just that. It's made of long strands, similar to warp and weft lines in weaving, spaced evenly. Then the cross stitch which holds it down is done only at the points where the two lines meet.
There's another Jacobean called a cloud stitch. I'm debating on working that in there somewhere, as it looks equally interesting.
Here's a closer view of the two stitches.

If you notice, the outline is more like the first half of a blackwork design. Instead of drawing on the fabric, as I'd done for the blackwork, I decided to try a tissue paper stencil method. I drew the design on very thin tissue paper, in my case some orange stuff left over from my sister in law's birthday present wrapping. It's then pinned smoothly over the area, and stitches are done through the paper all the way around, outline only. Tissue paper is then torn away and you're left with the design to work with, without having to worry about removing pencil or washable ink lines later.

On the celtic knot work, I tried filling the centre with cording. Because the muslin gives so much, it didn't pouf as much as I'd hoped, but it's not bad as a first attempt. On Linen I believe it'll have a bit more oomph. If not, I may try a stuffed batting layer, which is cut away after the initial design is stitched, so the outlying area lays more flat.

Nothing like a good camera close up to remind you where you'd forgotten to close off a hole. I used an awl to poke them so they'd close up completely afterward, but sometimes they don't do it without a bit of coaxing.
The outline of this one was couched with dmc floss over crochet cotton size 10.

Ugh, I just realized the little fuzzies my cat left on it. I wouldn't put it past him to have been laying on my table recently. He loves eating acrylic yarn for some reason, but not wool. Good excuse to buy only the good stuff :)

Friday, April 10, 2009


I have every intention of doing a pair of pockets in linen, but meanwhile why waste good fabric, and thread until you've practiced first?
So I chose this last weekend to start on a pair with ordinary cotton muslin, cotton thread and a simple blackwork design. Since I was stuck in the house last weekend ill, I decided it'd pass the time, then promptly grew sick of doing the same design image repeatedly. Here's the almost finished first pocket.

The beauty of the whole thing is the freedom I have in mixing blackwork with c18th century pockets, additionally with a late victorian monogram. I've enjoyed looking at period correct projects, but honestly mixing era's and making them work today is what this is all about. Btw, I'm not the only one, but I'll mention that after this.

The second pocket is only just begun. I placed a thin layer of batting between the two layers, and used a common couture diagonal basting stitch to hold everything down while I design everything and stitch it out. It's used especially when fabric may slip around, such as silk, or wool for example.

I have no idea how the image turned itself sideways. It was upright when I logged it from the camera, and is upright on the digital camera. Hmmm, curious that. Anyway my thoughts are something in the center with trapunto in celtic knotwork, with something jacobean on each side. I'm still deciding what to do for the rest, but I may just try a bit of cording, or more trapunto with some couched stitches. It all depends on how the first thoughts come out.

Ok, now my comment. I noticed that finally one couture artist has finally borrowed from farther back in time for inspiration. Dior for his spring couture collection, went dutch. Vemeer palette colours, dutch inspiration c17th century. I wasn't thrilled with everything in the collection, such as this particular dress

However I do love the bodice half. The sleeves are bold, the bodice perfectly vintage. Going to prove my point, you can wear any period clothing updated in a modern world. And Dior just beat me to it, that's all.
Another piece I loved in particular was this one.

Absolutely beautiful bold colours, with gorgeous contrasting fabric.
To see his entire collection, just visit here: Dior spring 09 couture collection And click on see the slideshow underneath the image. There were others I loved, such as an evening dress all in white with gorgeous white on white details. If I had the cash, that would be the dress I'd try re-creating.