This a solidly intermediate skill-level project. It requires the ability to sew accurately with a sewing machine and cut fabric within tight tolerances. It requires the skills to tailor fit, and the patience to transfer those changes back on to a pattern. At many points this project requires two people, one who will wear the corset, and one doing the fitting, who must have moderate skills. If you can do it all yourself, I’ll be impressed. (And we want pictures!)
This is a living document, as it will be edited, revised, and have new information and links added as readers post comment. So please post your comments, questions and tips so that others can learn from your experience as well as mine.
Corsets should not be machine-washed or tumble-dried. Never, ever. Never never, ever ever. Dry cleaning is best, wet spot cleaning if fabric allows. Hand washing and quick drying if you must do it yourself, but it is a risk. Why one might ask? For starts corsets have metal components that can oxidize, then stain and weaken the fabric. (Some cheap commercial corsets and dress bodices use plastic boning, the performance of which starts at passable and degrades rapidly.)
This is a structural garment whose strength comes out of the sum of its pieces under tension. So washing and twisting forces can work rigid components against soft components and can degrade one material. It will weaken the whole garment.
Before you begin the seamstress should have a researched the overall shape, shape of individual fabric panels, and the boning of the corset desired. Plenty of corsets to look at out there, get a good idea of what you’re going to do before you start.
Anatomy of a basic corset:
F finished edge
E reinforcing stitching
Making the pre-pattern
This is a two-person step all the way. It’s kinda amusing and silly, but you need to get all the hard laughing and flailing giggles out of the way before you begin. For clarity’s sake the person the corset is for will be called the “client” and the seamstress/seamster will be called the “highly skilled, extremely talented, underpaid sewing guru”. OK, that’s too long…. Even though I am a seamster, I’m going to go with “seamstress” in honor of the women who dominate the field.
What you will need for this step (fig. a-1):
Large t-shirt (not recoverable)
EMT scissors (sewing scissors are razor sharp and should never be used near skin)
Sharpie or other moderate sized tip permanent marker
Beverage for the person wearing the t-shirt and duct tape
Before starting, everyone involved should have gone to the restroom and obtained sufficient beverages. To begin with the client should don the disposable T-shirt and a fitted pair of pants or skirt if modesty requires such. Depends on how well you know each other, but definitely wear underwear. Foundation garments are not necessary, unless the corset will be worn with them or needs to be shaped around such. (If you are making an under the bust corset which you intend to wear with a bra, wear that bra now.)
Tape the t-shirt down with a pass through the groin (this is why you’re wearing underwear! see fig a-3) and tape it down on both hips, because it will ride up as the tape shapes it over the curves of the client’s body. The client should try to minimize movements, as moving can cause bunching up of the pre-pattern. You can work in front of a mirror it the client wants to contribute input. (or you can work in front of a movie, if the client gets bored easily)
Start with a band of tape around what is to be the smallest part of the waist. (fig. a-2)
Normally this is the area between the floater ribs and the top of the hip. While you want it snug, it does not have to be as tight as the final product. There will be future opportunities to do reduction adjustments and making the pre pattern too tight will cause it to have horizontal rolls and wrinkles.
Next tape horizontally from under the breast down the tummy on the side and front of the client with overlapping, yet smooth pieces of tape
. (fig a-4) Keep it as flat as possible. Stay in the stomach region, not going down onto the hips or up into the chest. Now
tape the back, pulling snug and shaping the front. You can go a bit lower, but don’t cover the sides yet. Tape the back and sides up higher than they will be needed at this point. (fig a-5)
Before going farther, I like to establish a tape band about the hips as the lowest possible point for the client’s movement and use of the restroom. The bottom of the tape band is the do-not-pass point. Experience dictates this is about ½ to1 inch above where the leg forms an angle with the lower abdomen when the client is sitting. (fig a-6) This band is continued on level around the client.
The seamstress can observe the client sitting to check the work so far.
It is from this point on that excessive movement can cause problems. So let the client get those last squirms and scratches in while they still can. Now place a strap or two of tape starting on the taped back, over the shoulder, outside of the breast down on to the waist strapping. Do this whether it is going to be an over-the-bust or an under-the-bust design – it just helps keep things in place. Now tape from the waist down to the lowest point on the hip in bands. Hip taping should remain loose so the corset will not cut in when tightened down.
This is a good point in the process to cut off the neckband of the shirt. (fig a-7) Use EMT scissors. (I cannot emphasize this enough!
One nick to an artery and the client is dead. Really, don’t screw around.)
Get the client to lift her breasts into place while you tape under them. Now it’s time to make the top of the corset, either under or over the bust. Under is just a matter of square top or shaping round the breast.
Over the bust has a few more steps. Wrap short pieces of tape down the outside and under to create lift, before taping up the center of the area. Be aware that the areolas will be much higher than normal, if all is going well. Don’t make the chest too tight, but snug is required for some styles. If you want shoulder straps, now is a good time to tape for them. I use two or three short pieces, so as to get a nice curve over the shoulders. Shoulder straps are seldom straight, but a slight concave curve towards the arm when laid out as a pattern. (fig a-10 & a-11)
Now it’s time for the medium tip marker. Mark your center front and center back vertical lines. It helps if the client can help the seamstress by pointing out her belly button, things that need to be covered, and give feedback about centering in general. (figs a-12, a-13 & a- 14) Draw the top and bottom edge
lines. Strap width should be measured, and check to see how they will work with other seams as the seamstress marks where the other seams will be.
If the corset is going to be waist slimming make the reduction curves graceful. By feeling and squishing in the natural waist area one can get an idea of how much and where the pre-pattern can be reduced. Bear in mind that while the natural waist can be compressed, the floater ribs can only be compressed a little without discomfort, and that making the rib cage too tight will only make a painful corset that doesn’t look good.
Trimming the pre-pattern on the client needs to be done with care, with EMT scissors. Good sewing scissors are razor sharp…. and the flesh under the duct tape and t-shirt is much softer than the pre-pattern. Trimming is done so the seamstress can see how the pattern’s overall shape is working out. (fig a-15) Start with neck and hip lines, and then move on to arm pits. Armpits are a bit tricky. Too wide or tight and flesh will bulge out unattractively. (fig a-16) Too loose or small and they are not comfortable. The seamstress can use scrap of t-shirt and tape to build out an area she has trimmed too far.
Got it looking the way you want it? Then it is time to cut the client out of the pre-pattern. This can be done by cutting down the front seam marking for ease (fig a-17), or the back seam for modesty. You have a pre-pattern and the client is done for a bit, but the seamstress’ work has just begun. Still, it’s break time.
Things to remember:
Try to keep the shape fitted but not tight as to avoid rolls and crunching of the pre-pattern.
Don’t just keep building up tape, you’re building a pre-pattern, not armor. Thickness messes up the pattern details, makes it harder to cut apart, and more difficult to transfer to the pattern.
It is better to have the corset come farther down the hips than not far enough. There are a few styles and periods of corsets that stop above the hipbone, but these look good with a limited number of large hoop skirts. Top of the hips should not be tight, for this causes an unseemly bulge of skin or garment below the corset.
Keep in mind only one half has to be finished and well marked, the other half is just waste, so it doesn’t need to be completed. To not complete the other hip is a great way not to get it too tight.
- The Construction of Custom Corsets – pt 1 – Pre Pattern
- The Custom Construction of Corsets – pt 2 – Pattern Making, Fabric under layer, and Tailoring
- The Custom Construction of Corsets – pt 3 – adding structure to the back layer, finishing and boning in a corset.