1884 patent by C.W. Higby; US Patent #294620
Now this one was a true adventure – and an intrepid one, for someone with my limited corsetry experience! But when the challenge was announced on FB by the corsetry website, Foundations Revealed, I simply couldn’t say ‘no’ to it as I liked the lines of the particular corset in question. I must admit I regretted that decision a few times as the date for the article got closer – but my regrets stopped the moment I started working on it.
So, to take the things from the beginning. As I said, I am not a particularly experienced corsetiere – I have made in total maybe around 30 corsets or so, and about 20 of those in the last year – but in these cases I was working from a selection of ready patterns. Yes, they needed adjustments and tweaking, but generally the proportions and scale were there. I have never made a corset pattern on my own, though I have made loads for historical outfits and especially for the bridal side of my business – bodices, skirts, coats etc.
This one was a very different proposition. All I had was a drawing of the corset, a drawing of the pattern and an explanation of the patent online – http://www.google.com/patents/US294620. That’s it. The rest was up to me.
Knowing that my own experience might not be enough, and also that I would need help with fitting the corset onto myself, I came up with a very cunning plan and decided to work on the item during one of my visits to Julia Bremble – a friend who runs ‘Sew Curvy’, a corset making and corsetry selling company in Oxfordshire. Her studio is great, both spacious and peaceful, and we seem to work well together, “stitching and bitching”. Also, since Julia is a professional corsetiere, I would have an expert on hand to nudge me in the right direction. So, one lovely morning in May, I packed my sewing case and drove over to Oxfordshire, and the work began…
What we know from the patent’s description:
- The most visible feature was the lacing at the sides – I have seen corsets with side lacing, like the maternity ones, but the lacing was usually vertical. Here the side lacing is diagonal, curving gently.
- The inventor states his aims clearly: the corset is to fit well and comfortably, allow for easy movement of the body and for adjustments, all the while being able to support as required of a corset.
- Boning – diagonal cording or boning or any other suitable method is encouraged. From the picture it looks like boning /cording is placed more or less in the middle of each main section, and at the edges of the lacing parts.
- No mention of the waist tape.
What we don’t know – or at least things that were not apparent for me:
- How many layers? 2, 3, or 4 including decorative fabrics? Possibly much depends on the individual – and lining was not always present in the historical corsets, mainly because they were worn on a chemise anyway. I decided to go with 2 layers of coutil, so that the boning/cording is sandwiched between the layers, with a lining added later.
- Seams – somehow it appeared to me that lapped seams would work better on the curved lines of this corset – as they do on the Edwardian corsets, yet I wasn’t sure if they were used in 1884. So lapped or standard seams? In the end, and after a longish discussion with Julia, I opted for lapping it.
I printed out the pattern from Google and had it blown up to more or less half my measurements. Btw – this was almost entirely the only bit of maths I did, and it was probably a dodgy one anyway… I drew the lines on the original printout, where I predicted the waist to be (the point of the hip gore was my reference). I measured each piece on the line, added the numbers up and had ½ waist measurements of the piece. From that I realized that to match my measurements we would have to blow it about 4 times bigger. So for the ‘mini me’ version, 200 percent bigger would just do the trick
The idea was to cut the pattern out, put it together and see if the pieces actually matched up. I traced the pieces onto patterning paper,
cut them out and used masking tape to attach them all together. A useful tip – cut the paper with the seam allowance, it will be easier to glue it!
What became evident was that the pieces matched well, but not perfectly – a few pieces in the front section were either a tad too long or too short to match smoothly – but not drastically. In principle, however, it worked.
The next stage was to cut out the corset in calico – but bigger so that it would fit a human being – I was not concerned about the precise fit, I simply wanted to see how the pieces worked together as fabric, on a scale I was a bit more familiar with. And so, I simply worked out that by making the pieces about half as big again, they should fit an adult human being. This meant adding about 2cm all around to every piece.
Fortunately at that time Julia was too preoccupied with her own work (she was working on a lovely bridal skirt), or she would possibly have suffered a coronary seeing my ‘intuitive’ grading and sizing method. I must admit that maths and I are not the best of friends, and we try to avoid each other – for historical dressmaking this is just fine, and I love working with toiles, sculpturing the fabric to fit a body and then using the toile to adapt the original pattern. This method does not always work, however, and corsetry is one of those precise arts that do need at least some maths, so it is a bit of a trade-off. Here however, as I was just playing, I decided to give it a go.
I stitched all the pieces together, using ready-made eyelet tape at the sides, or punching the holes in calico – at the back I used an eyelet and bones tape that enabled me to have the back stabilized enough for the sake of the experiment.
I held it against my body (as you do…) and realized that it was just a bit too big for me – but not too badly!
A miracle! I actually had a proper toile there! I quickly stitched up the centre panel, taking an inch off it, moved the back eyelet tapes in by another inch as well, attached wide flat steel in the front, (a masking tape job), and asked Julia to lace me in. It was still too big, but it was possible for us to work on it – marking the areas where we needed more room and the ones where we needed less…
At the same time, the shape created by the long lacing strip in front suggested that the pattern may be adapted and made into a nice modern corset, or maybe a steampunk one. So we left one half of the pattern as it was, true to its Victorian original, and started to play with the other half, eventually coming up with an overbust shape that looks like a big heart in front .
What I learnt from the toile:
*The side back lacing panels need to be longer.
* It is still too big at the waist, but the back top and the hip could do with more space (1/2 an inch more at the top back and an inch at the hip).
* The sweeping curves are rather pretty….
Next step – adapting the pattern slightly and tracing it on the coutil, to make the sample corset in my size.
Planning boning channels too– I decided to go for boning as opposed to cording, and bone the corset in 4mm spiral wire in the middle of the pieces, with the 5mm going in the lacing at the sides, and flat bones at the back lacing.
Once traced, I cut the pieces out, pinned them together and started sewing….
Channels first – I sewed them on the a and b pieces.
The side lacing strips were sewn along the edges on the wrong side, flipped over, pressed and a channel was stitched just next to the edge.
Busk was inserted into the front pieces and laid aside.
Pieces were stitched together using lapped seams (for a detailed tutorial I do recommend Sew Curvy’s DVD on corsetry – worked a treat for me!). This involved careful pressing on each piece’s seam allowance, then aligning and pinning – but though time consuming, it was a relatively hassle-free procedure.
Side lacing piece and busk piece were connected last – and we have the first quarter ready!
The process was repeated on the other side piece
A and b pieces and the side lacing strip were sewn together first.
With the back panel, the long a piece needs to be boned before attaching the back lacing panel – it is the only piece with the boning channels closed up during the construction. Once that is done, the back lacing piece is attached. And the whole is repeated on the other side.
There are now 4 pieces – and they all need to be boned.
The boning I used, as mentioned before, were lovely 4mm and 5m spiral steels, and flats for the back lacing piece
Once I had all 4 pieces boned, it was time for some eyelets. Quite a lot of them actually, as I used about 90 of them. Since it was an experimental sample I didn’t want to waste that many proper eyelets on something that might not work, so I dug out a little pouch of 100 yellow eyelets that looked funky and could go to waste.
Once that was done, the sides could be laced – and I simply had to go for the yellow Russia braid I had handy on the mock up…
The moment had arrived – I could actually try the thing on!
The first impressions:
- Very light and comfortable
- Definitely not giving me my usual 27” waist – here only a slight reduction, to 29-30”
- It picked up the asymmetrical features much more than usual – I very rarely have to adapt the corset patterns because of my slight asymmetry, but here it showed more, especially at the back –my slightly asymmetric back muscles meant some of the boning at the back was a bit too low (see the back view ). So channels will have to be undone and re- stitched a bit lower in that piece.
- The corset had a bigger wrinkle at the back/side – I put it down to the lack of any boning along the seam of the two a pieces at the back – and decided to add 2 channels running parallel to the seam there.
- Hips felt a bit too tight and constricted when the side lacings were laced up – but loosening the laces resulted in a much better fit, and looked better too!
Not too bad. I readjusted the boning channels on the side and hip, and stitched additional ones on both sides of the seam between the two back a pieces
Next step – flossing. At that stage I rather liked with black and yellow combination, so flossing was done in dark yellow cotton thread.
I also decided to add lining – since it looks as if the thing may actually be wearable, I might as well make sure it feels nice if I decide to wear it outside the Victorian setting, (it does have a certain steampunk look to it, even in its original form!) so cotton lining was stitched to every part of the corset
Then there was only binding left to do – and adding some yellow lace I found in my stock. It was ready to wear!
Impressions – as stated before, very comfortable, providing lots of support, but not giving as much pronounced waist as my usual corset does; Still, a perfect choice to wear around the house, for country dancing or for riding too. – I have since used it for a Steampunk Amazones shoot , for riding sidesaddle and it worked perfectly!
The side-adjustment lacing is useful as the corset can be adjusted for a more energetic activity in seconds. It may also be used during pregnancy, I suppose, but since I have never been pregnant, I have no experience with which to compare…
Although made as a prototype sample, I think it is more than wearable – though for that purpose I will need to get better laces than Russia braid – I will either use black laces or white ones (and dye them yellow…. 🙂
What I have learned and would do differently next time.
- The spiral boning works well, but more is needed at the back than is indicated on the original drawings.
- Chatting when marking boning channels can result in wonky channels – the front channels are slightly offset as a result…
- I would use silk for flossing
- …I would use better eyelets too; (The ones used here were without washers)
- If I want to keep the side lacing laced up, I will need to add another inch on each hip…
Having said that, the next project will be making the steampunk version of this corset, so I may employ some different techniques and materials…
Many thanks for Julia from Sew Curvy for help with fitting and expertise! 🙂