What is the “Birds Wing”?

The Bird’s Wing corset is an unique style from Sparklewren, seen no-where else in contemporary corsetry and as inspired by an antique of the same name…

Leah Axl by InaGlo Photography and Samantha Gardner MUA, 2013. From the “In every cloud, in every tree” collection.

The primary feature of the Birds Wing style, is a surfeit of panels and seams. Whilst most contemporary corsetry makes use of somewhere between 4 and 6 panels per side (occasionally 7), the Birds Wing as I have developed it generally has at least 14. I have also been working on less dramatic versions with 10 panels per side (such as the Goldcrest underbust style), but the particular magic of the Birds Wing really happens at the higher numbers.

Leah Axl by InaGlo Photography and Samantha Gardner MUA, 2013. From the “In every cloud, in every tree” collection.

Having very many panels is not the end of the story though. Indeed, multi-panel corsetry (excuse the term, *all* corsetry is multi-panel really) is something of a blossoming trend and it is a surprise it had not already been revisited by us modern makers. There is a good reason for that though… it is very hard to do well.

It isn’t simply a high number of panels that makes a Birds Wing. My approach to multi-panel corsetry has been to be very inspired by the antique which started the whole idea (a 1900s piece with spoon busk, longline hip, *very* mild shaping, and 21 panels per side…), by considering constructions which break or bend many of the usual corsetry rules. In doing so, I compared and contrasted 16 different fabric/seam combinations (each one works subtly differently), tested and sourced the most appropriate steels and busks, developed techniques, commissioned specially-made equipment, sewed a thousand seams in a very particular way, refined patterning at least 10 times over (creating entirely new patterns in the process), and assessed the results on dozens of lovely ladies (and a couple of willing men). This process is still ongoing, one is never finished refining their techniques, but it is through that process that I now have my preferred approaches and aesthetics. I do not yet know if my construction is actually the same as was used on the antique, but I hope to schedule a study date sometime this year to find out.

The Mink corset-body, with sunlight shining through it.
The Mink corset-body, with sunlight shining through it.

The most important point of a Birds Wing, is that it is about a lightness of touch. It may visually become the most complex piece imaginable, replete with layers of couture embellishment and textures, perhaps even entirely obscured beneath them… But the actual construction, the heart of the piece, must be as simple as it is possible to be.

Cassie Rae Wardle by InaGlo Photograpy, 2013.
Cassie Rae Wardle by InaGlo Photograpy, 2013.

This simplicity, however, is excessively difficult to master, requiring concentration, patience (or, in my case, impatience to become good at it), practice and more practice.

A gorgeous client in her trial-run Phoenix corset.
A gorgeous client in her trial-run Phoenix corset.

The Birds Wing has, of course, its triumphs and its limitations.

Despite its dramatic silhouette on the clients seen above and below, it is not (currently) possible to create a more “nipped” waist reduction than that shown. No matter how wonderful and flexible the Birds Wing is, it is still best suited to those who prefer either a gentle waist shape or a vaguely conical rib. For a very nipped shape or a sharp hipspring or ribspring (ie: a large circumferential difference within a very short vertical distance), I tend to favour a more classic 6 panel pattern and a more ordinary construction (though I still tend to do it in a less-than-ordinary way, opting for a fully-boned aesthetic which requires dozens of steels and many hours work).

The success of the Birds Wing, however, is in its peculiar lightness and particular construction. Each seam acts as a hinge, allowing the corset to flex to the body in a very subtle way. Ie: the body inside the corset controls the outward appearance of the corset to a greater degree than ever before. This can contribute to comfort, longevity of the corset (it is doing less “work” in forcing your body into a shape), and a flexible fit. If two individuals with the same measures try on the same corset, one may find that her hips push it into a broad shape whilst the other may find her hips push it backwards into an almost Edwardian aesthetic. The Birds Wing, being so made, allows for this. It is also great as a longterm, luxury addition to one’s wardrobe, as the lack of a definitive side seam means the corset can (if needed) be worn with a very large lacing gap at back and still retain beautiful curve that wraps around the body. That is to say, weight gain and loss is less of an issue with the Birds Wing. Where most couture items can be almost imperceptibly altered to fit as time goes on, corsetry with its precision and negative ease (waist reduction) does not really appreciate this. Making the flexible fit of the Birds Wing a wonderful thing.

Many ladies in their Phoenix corsets, demonstrating the subtlety of flex and fit which the Birds Wing style affords.
Many ladies in their Phoenix corsets, demonstrating the subtlety of flex and fit which the Birds Wing style affords.

Of course, the Birds Wing and its studies has given rise to other ideas too… Other antique-inspired pieces which make use of the same construction and, more recently, a very small variation which could prove very fiddly or very wonderful! Time will tell…

Test seams, at which we hit upon a potential variant for the Birds Wing.
Test seams, at which we hit upon a potential variant for the Birds Wing.

We happened upon this variant when I was stitching together off-cuts of coutil (one must practice these seams in the appropriate fabric, since fabric choice has such an impact on how they stitch and the end result), to teach a former intern how it’s done. If you look to the right of the image above, you will see a triangular shape beneath two seams. It looks almost like a gore, but is in fact a full-length vertical panel.

Mink, on the left. Red Hearts, on the right.
Mink, on the left. Red Hearts, on the right.

I then tweaked an existing Birds Wing corset-body pattern and created a design to test the idea (the Red Hearts corset, above). It needs tweaking further, but could prove an interesting and effective way of simplifying the construction further whilst still retaining that beautiful conical rib and rounded hip of the style. And I felt it reminded me of the flared primary feathers of a bird coming in to land. Seams that flare out over the hips are, I feel, very beautiful.

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