Drafting an Underbust Corset:
Now that all your materials and tools are gathered you are ready to start working on your corset. The first step is cutting your fabrics. Be sure and read through the construction methods section, though, so you know how many pieces to cut out of each fabric.
To start with, cut out all your pattern pieces and lay them on the fabric or otherwise transfer the markings. Be sure to cut pieces on a fold that need to be on a fold and follow the grainline instructions. Additionally, if your corset will be under heavy use try to cut at least your base fabrics with the waistline parallel to the cut end. This puts the waistline even with the warp threads in the fabric, which are stronger and less stretchy due to the process of weaving fabric. The best trick I’ve ever seen is to cut all your fabrics with a roll of masking tape at your side. After you cut each piece, cut a piece of tape and put it on the wrong side of the fabric. You can write details on the tape: piece number, pattern name, layer number, right or left side. Then when you’re finished sewing the piece to its mates you can peel the tape off. Just be sure not to iron the tape or you’ll have a sticky mess.
There are three main methods of construction: sandwich, turned seams, and layered construction. Which method you use depends on your pattern and what you want your finished product to look like. The sandwich method is best for corsets with few pieces and lots of boning placed closely together, like Renaissance or Georgian corsets. Once boned it is very hard to alter or modify due to the close boning, so make a mock version if you are unsure of the fit. Turned seams is good for corsets with many pieces, but the boned seams can get bulky and don’t turn corners well, and boning seam lines show on the outside layers, so your stitching must be straight and precise. This method is the easiest to alter because you only have to take of the binding and pick apart one seam. The layered method takes more time and care, and much hand sewing, but you can hide boning lines easier. Some corsets don’t fit into any category, and you’ll have to combine methods, such as using turned seams for the outer and base layers and then a separate lining attached with the layered method. I call this method the ‘modern’ method, and I’ll detail it as well since it’s the most commonly used in corsetry right now. Read through them all and then figure out what’s best for your pattern and tools available.
The first method is the sandwich method. This method is simple to complete and renders a stiff, fully boned corset. It also requires two layers of the base fabric to sandwich the boning into. To make, cut out all pieces of all your layers. Then sew the pieces of each layer together: cover, base fabric layer 1, base fabric layer 2, lining. Then layer the fabrics in the correct order, right sides out, and attach together using basting spray or long basting stitches. Then use your machine and a short stitch to ‘quilt’ the pieces together in rows. I prefer to use the ¼” boning for these projects because the boning channels required are the width of my presser foot. If you prefer ½” boning, you’ll have to space things out more. When your corset is fully quilted, bind the bottom with bias tape and put boning in the top. Make sure the boning goes in between the two layers of base fabric and not between the base fabric and the cover or lining. Then bind the sides and top with bias tape and make your lacing holes to finish.
Turned seams is an easy method as well. It is best for corsets where most of the boning is on the seam lines. Cut the corset pieces out, then use basting spray or basting stitches to layer the pieces together in order (cover, base, lining). Stitch each seam together with the cover-side together. When the seam is finished press the seam allowances to one side. Cut the seam allowances on the cover to 1/8”. Then cut the seam allowances on the bottom layer of lining and base fabric to 1/4”. Measure the remaining seam allowances to the width of your boning plus 1/8” - 1/4”. Fold them under at this line and press, creating a crease. Unfold the corset so that the covers show on both pieces, then stitch down the flap you created. Use this new seam as a boning channel. A warning- don’t try to fold the seam both ways to do two lines of boning along each seam. It makes all the stress of the corset lie on the one line of stitching holding the pieces together, and they’ll eventually rip out because there’s no reinforcement. If you desire two boning lines sew on a separate boning channel material by pinning to the pressed open seam, then sewing down the center by stitching in the seam line from the cover side. You can then sew down the two edges from the cover side to help keep them straight or the back side to ensure you catch all the edges. Add additional boning by putting additional channels in the centers or on the sides of pieces. You can finish off the corset by using bias tape to bind the tops or by turning a small hem toward the inside.
If you decide on this variation remember to grade your seams, or your lines will look bulky. Grading your seams means to cut each layer’s seam allowance to a different width so there is no hard line showing where the fabrics all end. For example, cut the seam allowance on the cover fabric to 3/8”, the base fabric to ¼”, and the lining fabric to 1/8” on each side.
The layered method takes more time, but the finished product has less topstitching, so it is better for the beginner who doesn’t always have straight seams. In this method, you cut out your pieces, and then sew each layer separately into a corset. As you sew the base fabric add the boning channels onto the inside. When all three layers are completed baste them together with spray or stitches, then insert the boning into the channels and bind the edges with bias tape or turn a hem to the inside and hand stitch. Additionally, if your lining is not sewn to the exact size of the cover and base it will shift to the side during wearing. If this is a problem try sewing a few stitches by hand into the middle of each seam line to keep it in place. Try not to go through to the cover fabric, but just catch the base fabric and the lining.
Most modern corsets are made from a combination of these methods. It is currently in fashion to have topstitching seam lines on the outside layer, so the cover and base are constructed using the turned seams method or some variation, and the lining is made separately and added with the layered method. Some modern corsets also have colored boning channels sewn to the outside cover layer, usually in a contrasting color. They are functional in that the boning is inserted into them, but they also serve a decorative purpose.
There are a few additional details to think about adding into your corset. If the corset reduces your waist by more than an inch or two you may want to add in a waist tape or stay-tape. This is a heavy gross-grain ribbon or twill tape that goes around your corset at the waistline. It helps to keep the corset from stretching under the stress of cinching in your waist. It also serves to help keep the corset in place because it is small and rests on the smallest part of your waist, not allowing the corset to droop down onto your hips. On sandwich and turned seam corsets this commonly goes on the inside, and on layered and modern corsets it attaches to the base fabric between the base and the lining so it cannot be seen from the inside. It can be sewn down the entire way around, but I find it works just as well when I hand-stitch it to the boning channels. If you’re tight lacing or going for a dramatic reduction, however, you’ll probably want to secure it all the way around to the base fabric because just the boning channels would be a lot of stress on a small area. I have no experience to say for sure, but better safe than sorry, I think.
Another thing to think about is usage of the corset. If you are going to be wearing the corset a lot you’ll need to wash or dry-clean it. Although the coated steel boning is washable and dry-cleanable, if you’ll be subjecting it to a lot of water you may want to construct the corset so that the boning can be removed for washing. The easiest way to do this is to leave a wide seam allowance on the bottom of the corset. Instead of binding this edge, finish the raw edge of each layer separately, and then turn the allowance to the lining side and press into a hem. Hand sew a very tight blind catch stitch, tying knots every two or three inches. When you are ready to wash your corset, cut the stitches and remove the boning. When you’re done washing, insert the boning again and re-sew. It is time-intensive to sew the hem every time, but it is better than having to throw away a corset because rust stains leaked through the seams from rusty boning. It may be smart to consider this method for dry-cleaned corsets as well, especially if you don’t have a good, reputable local cleaner. I’ve heard horror stories about some cleaners cutting boning channels to remove boning for cleaning. When in doubt, do it for them so the damage is reparable. And, if possible, find another cleaner ASAP.
If you wish to use a separating busk you’ll need to add that into your construction as well. A non-separating busk is inserted into a large casing just like boning, but a separating busk requires an additional piece cut out of your base and cover materials. To insert a busk separate the two pieces and figure out which piece goes on which side. Generally, as you are looking at the corset on someone else, the hooks go on the left side and the studs go on the right. Most busks are made for this arrangement, and if the studs aren’t spaced exactly the two bottom ones will be a little closer together than the rest. First, take the hook side and lay it over the matching center piece. Cut the seam allowance to ¼”, then press to the back. On the inside, mark where each hook begins and ends. Then pin your additional piece to this allowance. The piece should be as long as your busk plus seam allowance, and about 2” or 3” wide. Sew on the seam you pressed, backstitching at each mark so that you leave a hole for the hooks. When the seam is finished grade the edges of each side, then insert the hooks into the holes. Fold back the piece onto the back, and use a zipper foot to sew as close to the busk as possible to keep it snug against your seam line. You can then grade the leftover of the back piece and cover it with the lining, or turn it under and sew another seam line as a hem. Don’t try to hem on the first seam, though, because you can’t get as tight of a fit on the busk that way. To attach the stud piece, leave a 2” or 3” seam allowance on the center front. Turn the allowance to the back and press. Place the stud section inside and mark where the studs are with a sharp pencil or tailor’s chalk. Use an awl or pen to stretch these marks into holes, and then push the studs through the holes. Use a zipper foot or carefully sew as close to the edge as possible, just like the hook side, and finish the back the same, too. Finally, be sure and use a fray-check or other product on the holes to prevent them from raveling around the studs. If the seam is tight against the busk the stress should be on the center fold, not the studs, but if your seams aren’t right the holes will stretch and fray some with wear, so take precautions. Some people have problems with skin getting caught in the busk or the pieces gapping slightly so skin can be seen between the two parts. The easiest way to prevent this is to fold over the seam allowance on the stud side before inserting the busk and sew a seam 1/8” to ¼” in from the edge. Then insert the stud side as usual. The seam will create an additional flap that will fold underneath the hook side, keeping your skin from showing through the tiny gaps.
If you decide not to use a busk but still want the front to open, there are a few alternatives. Higher end fabric stores sell heavy-duty hook and eye tape that you can sew into the front to hook closed. Try using a hemmed border similar to the one described in the busk section for they eye side. Also consider boning the sides of the hooks and eyes, this will keep the opening straight and help keep the hooks closed. Zippers are also popular. If your corset is heavy-wear I’d think about putting a hidden panel behind the zipper that hooks shut to take some of the stress off of the teeth. Zippers are strong, but too much stress in one area can break them apart, so it may be best to re-enforce at least the waist, if not the whole zipper. Even if you don’t hook it shut, a flap of fabric under the zipper is still a good idea. Better to zip the cloth in the zipper than your belly. Both a zipper and hooks and eyes are attached like they are on any other type of clothing. If you’ve never used a zipper or hooks and eyes, practice first on other clothing. You can find instructions on how to attach both either online or in a basic sewing book such as Reader’s Digest Guide to Sewing, which I personally think should be on every sewer’s bookshelf.
Another piece to think about adding is a lacing protector. This is a rectangular piece of material with light boning on all four edges. It is placed in the center of the back before the corset laces are done up to protect the back from the rubbing of the lacing and to prevent the skin and flesh of the back from bulging out in-between the laces. To make one, simply cut a rectangle the length of your center back pieces and 4-6” wide out of your cover fabric, base fabric, and lining. Finish the edges on all three, and then bone all four edges of the base fabric inside the seam allowance. I usually use plastic boning because the boning here just prevents buckling, it doesn’t take much stress. Then layer the base and cover fabrics together, put the lining right side against the cover right side and sew three edges. Turn so the cover fabric is on the outside (this is much easier if you used plastic boning, if not you may have to find another method), then press flat and hand-sew or hem the bottom shut. To use, just place in your center back when the lacing is taut but not tight, then tighten the laces over it. Some makers like to attach the protector to one side to keep the corset in one piece. I’ve done it both ways, and with the protector attached to one side it tends to buckle in the middle and not slide nicely. If you wish to do it this way think of adding pull ties to the top and bottom of the loose end that you can use to tug the protector into place after the lacing is tied. These can then be tucked into the corset so they don’t show.
The finishing touch on your corset is the back lacing. Before you even mark out holes, plan ahead by boning the sides of your lacing area. I bone both sides with ¼” spring steel, although if you want to you can get away with only boning the end edges. This keeps the lacing straight and the grommets in line, and helps to evenly distribute the stress put on the fabric when you cinch the laces. Without it you get bat-peaks at every hole, and eventually you’ll pop grommets because the fabric around them has stretched due to stress. Next you need holes. I like grommets the best. If your corset is one-use you may get away with eyelets, but I stress may. Eyelets are weak and hard to get in securely, so even with one use they may pop and leave you with raw holes. If you are doing a historical reproduction that you want to be accurate, grommets may not be right for your project. Sew round eyelets, either by hand or by machine if your machine has the right stitch. Then fray-check the stitches and cut out the center just like you would a buttonhole. It is also historically correct for most periods to sew the satin stitch over a metal ring to re-enforce the holes. You may be able to machine sew around the washer without breaking a needle, but I’d recommend hand sewing just in case.
Inserting eyelets or grommets is more complicated but takes less time.
First mark all your holes with a sharp pencil or tailor’s chalk.
For size 0 I recommend spacing 1” to 1½” apart; for
00 I do ¾” to 1¼” apart. The more holes you
have the harder it will be to lace up the corset, but the lacing will
stay tight longer and you won’t have to untie and tighten it as
often. After the holes are marked start each hole with an ice pick, nail,
or awl. Punch through the fabric, don't tear or cut it. Rotate the tool
until the hole is big enough to fit a pen point through. Then take out
the ice pick and put in a tool to widen the fabric such as an ink pen,
chopstick, or artist’s paintbrush handle. Rotate and press inward
until the hole is big enough for the post end of the grommet. Then take
the tool out, put the grommet on the tool, post toward the point, and
put the tool back into the hole. This helps ease the fabric onto the post.
Be sure the post side is on the front, there may be some metal puckering
or fabric threads on the washer side, so you want it on the inside. When
the post is eased into the fabric, push from the other side to get the
fabric down around the post. The fabric should fit tightly around the
post; you want it snug with no gaps to get a tight fit. Push the washer
down on top, then pull the grommet off the tool and put it into your clamp
or onto your anvil. Press down or hammer, and the grommet should be set.
I usually do grommets one at a time, hammering or pressing each one before
starting the hole of the next. This is not the method that will be included
with the instructions, but I think it's better. The instructions will
include a cutting press or hammer tool to cut a hole out of your fabric
to put the post through. Cutting the fabric makes it easier for the grommets
to pull loose, however. Instead, with the method above, you stretch the
fabric around the grommet, trying not to break the threads so that the
strength of the fabric is maintained. This way you can tug on the grommets
and lace the bodice tighter, and they won't pop out. If a grommet does
come out the only repair is to replace it with a larger grommet, because
the fabric around it is weakened and can't hold in the smaller size. Keep
the cutting tool, however, because fabrics like leather, pleather, and
latex can’t be stretched easily and are better to cut. Just try
to cut small and still stretch the base fabric and lining to prevent from
. . . On to Purchasing a Corset!