Thursday, 22 May 2014

Improving your corsetry with antique patterns

One of the best ways to learn corsetry is to examine and make antique corset patterns.  These patterns are widely available either via collectors who have taken patterns from antique corsets in their collections, or via Google patents, or via the many historical costuming books available, the most popular for corset making being "Corsets: historic patterns and techniques" by Jill Salen which contains a veritable compendium of historical corset patterns to scale up and try.
Ref R pattern from Atelier Sylphe available here.
One such pattern I have made was from Atelier Sylphe who takes corset patterns from her lovely antique corset collection - these patterns come in one size only (the size that the corset happens to be) and with very scant instructions however having tried two of them, I can report that her patterns are excellent and with each one, Joelle supplies a large number of digital photographs of the original corset from all angles, inside and out with plenty of close ups.  These are emailed to you upon receipt of your order.

I tried Joelle's  "Ref R" pattern which is taken from a beautiful corset with a gentle line and continious flossing over fully boned front panels.  This corset has 9 panels on each side and a hidden busk which I found intreguing.
The first thing to do when making up your antique pattern is to make a paper version of it.  Cut out your pieces, stick them together with masking tape.  This way you get an idea of how the peices fit together without wasting too many resoucres.  Minor problems, if there are any, can be ironed out at this stage and the corset can also be re-sized more easily when you can see a '3d' model infront of your eyes rather than a collection of flat shapes.  Sometimes with antique patterns there are extra parts which you can't quite work out until you 'do' them.  In the case of the 'Ref R' pattern, this was the hidden busk.  The pattern peices for both sides of the centre front panels where the busk is,  are a curious shape, there are no instructions for the pattern, you just have to trace the peice, and fold it until it makes sense - this is easier than it sounds and results in several "ahhh!" moments!

I resized Ref R by imposing it on my own corset block and basically copying the style of the panels to the size I wanted - I had to reduce the pattern because the original is a 24.5" waist and so would fit a modern (UK) size 10-12 lady.  I needed it in a size 8-10 in order to fit the model I was making for.

Now this particular corset pattern it seems was possessed by evil pixies and became known between my corset making friends and me as "The incredible growing corset"!! I made it no less than 3 times (after the initial toile), the first two times in expensive silk, the third time in less expensive loomstate cotton satin.  I wasn't taking any more chances and in future, I would always make up the 'final' version in a cheaper fabric first - just in case!  The problem, which I never fully got to the bottom of, was the number of panels and the number of bone channels within those front panels.  Basically, during the action of sewing it together, with welt seams at every panel, the corset stretched on each seam.  Version one ended up 4 inches bigger than it should have been, version 2 grew by 2 inches, version 3 was just right but only because I gave up and removed a panel thus changing it from an 18 panel corset to a 16 panel corset.  It is still somewhat of a mystery because if I measured the paper pattern peices they were correct, if I measured the corset panels individually they were correct, if I superimposted the paper pattern peices onto the corset panels, they were correct,  if I added up all the numbers on both the paper pattern and the corset they were correct, but put it all together, and petite sized corset became plus sized corset!  Totally infuriating and it still makes my head hurt.  The best way I can explain what happened is, if you think, you have 9 panels to stitch together... if those panels 'stretch' by 1mm each, perhaps by making a welt seam, then by the end your corset has grown by 1cm on each side.  That's nearly an inch overall without noticing!  These are things to be careful of when sewing any corset - handle with care!

The final version of my 'Ref R' corset has 8 panels on each side and is fully boned over three of the front panels.  The hidden busk is not constructed quite the same as the antique because in experimenting with the original pattern I discovered a better mechanism for modern corsetry and so I applied that method instead - the original has an underbusk, mine does not.  
The finished Clessidra version of  'Ref R' made from cotton satin coutil 
with french applique lace details and ivory 'diamond flossing'.
photo: Catherine Day
I'm very pleased with the way this corset turned out, and I have applied techniques learned from making this to other corsets that i've made since then.  I also learned a huge amount about corsets with more than a 'normal' number of panels and how careful you have to be when stitching... in short, the more panels you have, the bigger the discrepancy you could end up with if you're not careful.
he next corset I made was also fully boned, made using the same techniques as 'Ref R' but
did not 'stretch' while sewing 
and as you can see I used the 'diamond flossing' again
to pick out the boning structure
photo: Chris Murray

Construction details:  The 'Alice' corset was constructed with cotton satin coutil on the outide with a double layer of cotton canvas inside which supports the boning and the structure without the bulk of coutil.  It is lined with silk and embellished with french metallic lace in two colours.  The flossing is done using perle cotton size 8, and the boning used throughout the corset is a combination of 4mm spiral steel bones in the fully boned areas, 5mm spiral steel bones on the seams and 6mm sturdy flat bones at the centre back edges.  The pink corset was made using similar techniques and materials and in addition has Swarawski crystals highlighting the flossing and placed within the antique Edwardian lace applique.

Usefull links:

Atelier Sylphe shop - where you can buy full size antique corset patterns
Buy 5mm boning used in this corset
How to scale up a pattern from a book - tutorial using a photoshop technique to accurately scale up patterns
Printing a digital pattern using photoshop - this website has a trillion other corset related links!
"Corsets : Historic patterns and techniques" by Jill Salen - book of antique corset patterns 
Google Patents - corset patterns
Clessidra Couture - bespoke corsetry by moi!

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