March 19, 2014

Beginning the Romantic Era Corset

Back to that Romantic Era corset, shall we?

Late 1820's stays from Corsets and Crinolines, page 76

The drawing above is of a late 1820's corset from Corsets & Crinolines.  Page 76 features a pattern taken from this corset in the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery (Accession Number: 1948.250).  All those crazy lines and patterns are cording, quilting or embroidery.  I've set my sanity aside long enough to convince myself to make this, or something quite like it.

The image provided by the Manchester Art Gallery is not the highest quality, and it's difficult to see the details.  Luckily, the V&A has a VERY similar corset.  So similar, in fact, that I thought the C&C pattern was taken from the V&A corset for a while!  A closer look reveals small differences, but overall the two are remarkably alike, right down to the vine embroidery in the curved waist sections and the scalloping in between the bust gussets.  I wonder if these were made by the same person?

Corset, ca. 1825 - 1835, V&A museum number T.57-1948
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I decided to use the pattern and design from the Manchester corset, fleshed out with details from the V&A corset.  I'm updating it to fit into the 1830s (though as we saw earlier, there's not a whole lot of differences between 20's and 30's corsets!) with a slightly more nipped in waist, and I'm making it strapless so that it can be worn under an off the shoulder ballgown.  I chose to swap the straight wooden bust for a split busk for ease of dressing.  It's not common on corsets of this era, but the split busk was invented in 1829 so it could have been in use in the 30's.  Keep in mind that for this project I'm not going for strict accuracy, though I do prefer to keep within the bounds of possibility. 

In switching out the type of busk, I wanted to maintain some of the super strong support in the front that would have been provided by the original straight one piece busk.  The most commonly available type of split busk today is fairly flexible and doesn't provide strong support, so I went looking for an alternative.

I can bend the lightweight white busk nearly in half with no effort at all,
but the heavy duty busk doesn't want to bend much, even under pressure.

I found an extra wide, heavy duty stainless steel busk at Sew Curvy.  Each side is 1 inch wide, for a whopping 2 inches across!  I'm confident that this super stiff busk will provide plenty of support. 

Scaling up the pattern proved to be pretty tricky.  At first I attempted a rough method that sometimes works, or at least gets you in the ballpark.  I scanned it into CorelDraw, then scaled it up proportionally until the total waist measurement of the pattern was 1/2 my desired waist (because, of course, the pattern is only half of the corset) and printed it out to see what it looked like.  The results were... comical.

Just... no.

Yup, that's the bottom of the corset hitting well below my crotch.  It's practically a minidress.  So much for that method.

What followed was a lot of unscientific smooshing and mooshing of lines in CorelDraw until I felt it was more or less in my size, then mocking it up.  I was able to Hulk out of the first mockup simply by flexing my abs (seriously, it burst at multiple seams and fabric went a-flying everywhere), so it was back to the drawing board to add more around the upper chest and hips.  After I got the fit right, the pattern pieces were proportioned very differently from the original, so it was a challenge to redesign the cording and embroidery to fit in the new shapes.

The redesigned front piece.  I used multiple colors to
help me quickly differentiate between lines indicating
boning, cording, embroidery, seams and cut lines.

It's quite a bit shorter overall, and obviously a lot wider.  I think it will end up looking like a slightly strange hybrid of late Regency and early Victorian, which is pretty much what I'm going for.  Now I just have to actually sew all of it...

March 14, 2014

Cording Sample

Just to show that I haven't completely been derailed from that Romantic Era corset we talked about in January...

Cording test stitched on a hand crank Singer

This sample was just a tester to see if I was in way over my head, but the real deal is on it's way and will include detailed instructions on how to deal with all those crazy cording channels!

February 10, 2014


A couple of days ago I tore apart several of my old corsets.  Problem is, my lazy butt has not gotten much further than the destruction portion of this project, so I'm posting this as a kick in the pants to myself to get it done so that these corsets will not have died in vain.

January 31, 2014

Don't Forget Your Hair!

Don't forget, today is the last day you can contribute to Kendra's indiegogo campaign to fund her 18th Century Hair & Wig Styling book! 

While she's met her goal, more funds will allow her to license more images from museums, including those rare back views that are so essential to understanding how various hairdos work!  I personally can't wait to get my paws on the book.  For a sneak peak at how easy she makes recreating these styles, see Lauren's test drive of one of the tutorials here

January 9, 2014

Romantic Era Corsets

Having been quite successful making my very first pair of Regency stays (remind me to show you more about those later) and with a Romantic Era dress looming on my schedule, I've decided to dive headfirst into making a 1830's corset, complete with hand-stitched cording channels.  Only one problem- I know little about this era of corsetry.  So, research!

Corset, ca. 1825 - 1835, V&A museum number T.57-1948
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In addition to combing through my various historical costuming books, I went on a pinning spree and loaded up my Romantic Era Research board with corsets.  Most are from about 1820 to 1840, with a few earlier and later ones thrown in to get a sense of how corsetry evolved over time.  The majority are from museum collections, but a few are from auction sites or private collections.  I expected to see some obvious changes between Regency, Romantic and Early Victorian periods, but to my surprise that wasn't the case!  With a few exceptions, it was actually pretty difficult to tell at a glance which was from which era. 

Corset, 1840s, Met Accession number C.I.42.74.12
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Challenge accepted!  To tease out any differences, I selected several features to compare between 50 extant corsets (well, 49 extant corsets and one fashion plate).  I looked at differences in busks, grommets, lacing, cording/boning, gussets and more.  You can view the spreadsheet I made with all 50 corsets here.

A note on dating-  While I organized the spreadsheet more or less by date, I'm not sure how much faith I put in the dates given for each corset.  Most of these are in museums and would hopefully be dated more accurately than ones hanging around in private collections.  However, I noticed that several were displayed inaccurately, using criss-cross lacing when the eyelet placement was obviously designed for spiral lacing.  Certainly, the person who dated the garment and the one who set it up to be photographed may not be one and the same, and dating undergarments can be difficult anyways, especially in an understaffed or underfunded museum.  Still, if they can't recognize something as simple as spiral lacing holes, I begin to wonder if they know enough about this type of corset to accurately say when it was made.  Anyways, mini-rant over, back to corsets!

First off- busks.  Having read in Corsets and Crinolines that the split busk was invented in 1829, I expected that women would have rapidly ditched the old solid busk-in-a-pocket design, especially as a split busk makes getting in and out of a corset by yourself much easier.  Turns out, NOPE.  Even the corsets dated to the late 1840s sported a solid busk, or none at all.  The one and only example I found was in a fashion plate, dated around 1830.  I don't know if women were slow to adopt the new design, or if they wore them eagerly, but for some reason few early split busk corsets seem to be around.  It's possible surviving corsets of this type are mistakenly dated to the 50s and 60s.  Or perhaps thrifty Romatic Era women salvaged their still usable split busks from their worn out corsets to use in newer, more fashionable ones?  I've certainly done that before!

After the surprise persistence of the solid busk over the split busk, I was curious how another Romantic Era invention fared.  Metal eyelets/grommets were invented in 1827 (Corsets and Crinolines again), and were a big improvement over handsewn eyelet holes.  Stronger eyelets made it easier to lace a corset tighter without ripping it; very useful as fashion moved towards a lower, more defined waist.

I was happy to find several corsets in the 30s and later that sported metal eyelets.  I was quite surprised though to discover that ivory or bone eyelets were used prior to the invention of metal ones!  I'm still trying to wrap my head around how you would set a bone eyelet into a piece of fabric, since my only experience is with the metal ones that you pound into place.  However, not all of the bone/ivory eyelets were set into the corset as you might expect; some were sew onto the edge like rings.  See examples of both set eyelets and sewn on rings on the corsets below-

Bone or ivory eyelet set into fabric.
Corset ca. 1820-40, sold by VintageTextile.  Original link no longer exists.
Bone or ivory ring sewn onto back edge.
Corset ca 1810–20, Met Accession Number- 1970.106.5
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I could only tell what type of eyelet was used in 30 of the corsets, since many of the photos didn't show a back view or were too small to be able to see clearly.  Of the identifiable ones, 8 corsets sported hand-sewn eyelets, 16 used ivory or bone eyelets, and 6 had metal ones.  Of course, the metal eyelets only begin to appear in the corsets dated after 1927, but the other two types continued to be used during that time period as well.  I think it's safe to say I can use metal eyelets for my corset :)

Next I looked at how the eyelets were placed in order to tell if the corset was meant to be laced spiral fashion or criss-cross.  If you're new to spiral lacing, check out Festive Attyre's excellent post on the supject; pay close attention to how the holes are offset from each other.  As previously mentioned, several times I had to ignore the way the corset was laced in the photo; always look at the eyelet placement for the truth!  I've always associated spiral lacing with the 18th century and criss-cross with the 19th, but to my surprise I found both in equal measure.  Of the 35 corsets that had photos of the back, 16 were spiral, 16 were criss-cross, and one was fan laced.  Both types were evenly distributed across the whole timeline, so either would be appropriate for my corset.

 I had quite the time tweaking the gussets on my Regency corset to provide the lift, so I was really curious to see how gussets changed across the decades.  Turns out, I wasn't really able to nail down anything specific.  Most of the 50 had at least two bust gussets per side, though there were examples of 0, 1 or 3 per side as well.  The length of the bust gussets ranged from fairly short, to down to the waist, with both early and late corsets sporting both extremes.  Hip gussets were less common than bust gussets, with a fairly even distribution of 0, 1 or 2 per side throughout the represented time periods. 

Corset ca 1830–35, Met Accession #- 2009.300.3031a–d
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I did notice a slight progression of corsets getting curvier as time went on, though since many of the examples are photographed flat or on poorly sized mannequins it can be hard to compare properly.  Regency fashion hid the natural waistline, so there wasn't really a need to have a small, defined waist.  As the fashionable waistline started to drop and the waist started to come back into focus, corsets needed to be able to nip things in around the middle a bit.  Those metal eyelets I mentioned earlier helped, as they allowed the corset to be laced tighter and take more strain.  Designing the corset to flare back out over the bust and hips made the waist look even smaller by comparison; thus, curvier corsets.  This trend toward curves is most apparent in the latter corsets, though of course there are examples of curvy corsets in earlier years and straight ones in later years, so it's not a hard and fast rule.

Now on to cording vs. boning.  Given the trend towards more shapely corsets with defined waists, I expected that latter corsets would use the firmer support of boning instead of cording.  Yet 30 of the 50 corsets used only cording, and those 30 are pretty evenly distributed between the early and late styles.  5 used only boning, but those too are scattered evenly across the timeline.  Of the remaining corsets, 11 used both cording and boning (though most of those had boning just along the back edge), 1 had none, and the rest lacked enough detail for me to tell either way.  Looks like I'm doing more lots more cording!

Last but not least, I looked at fabric and thread color.  I wasn't at all surprised to find that most all of these corsets were white or off-white, with the same color thread.  However, I did find 7 that were of colored fabric, and 9 that had contrast stitching (some boasting both).  Since I'm going to be investing a lot of time in this corset (hand-sewn cording channels!) I want it to be extra pretty.  I've decided to ditch the white and use colored fabric and contrast thread to show off all that work. 

Hey, you made it through this whole long-winded thing!  Here, have a photo as a reward-

Regency stays, doing their uplifting work!

Next time I'll try not to bore you to death :P

October 5, 2013

Crossing the Finish Line

Success! We'll be able to attend our friend's Regency wedding without being half-clothed. In just under two weeks, I made an entire set of duds for me (shift, corded stays, petticoat, gown, big bonnet o' awesome) and I made half of Curtis' clothes (shirt, coat, cravats). The shirt and the bonnet were half done when I started this mad rush, and a few small parts of the coat were begun, but everything else was started from scratch.

Both Curtis and Kitteh approve of the window
seating in the new sewing room.

Curtis sewed his own waistcoat, and it turned out really well!  He even tackled the welt pockets and won, though I believe there may have been a little swearing involved.  Totally understandable when working with welt pockets, really.  When he wasn't working on his vest, I unashamedly put him to work sewing on buttons to anything that needed them.  Anything to buy me a bit more time to finish everything else, right?

I don't have final photos of everything yet (too busy sewing!) but I have a smattering of in progress photos to amuse you until I get a chance to do a full photo & writeup of everything.

We called this the Redneck Regency look.

Petticoat with tucks.  Why spend
time doing unnecessary tucks on
a petticoat when you're totally
swamped?  I plead insanity.

I had to use pliers to pull the cord through the channels.  I broke
two needles in the process of cording!

Using my tailors ham to shape the sleeve cap.

It took four mockups to get a sleeve pattern I felt would work.  Lucky for me
the 3/4 length allows me to use the decorative edge of my sari in the sleeve.

Apparently I have a tendency to look
pissed when mocking up bodices at 3am.

The felines LOVE it when I trash the sewing room.

Padstitched collar.  UGH my fingers hurt just
looking at that photo.

It's not like you can just cram a coat like that in your
luggage, so guess who classed up his jeans and T-shirt with
some fine wool for the Bart ride and plane flight?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a wedding to go to!