2012 versus 2016 – corset construction

Gorgeous client Lucy in the Cranberry Butterfly. I'm hoping to make some more butterflies during my teeny-tiny 2017 collection. 
Gorgeous client Lucy in the Cranberry Butterfly. I’m hoping to make some more butterflies during my teeny-tiny 2017 collection. 

I mentioned a 2012 corset months ago on facebook (the delicious Cranberry Butterfly made for Lucy), saying that it might be fun to share a little bit about how my corsetry techniques have changed over the years. So here we go! 

Cranberry Butterfly was made in a strong way. Perhaps “stronger” than she needed to be, and this is at the crux of how I make corsets differently now. But “stronger” is in quotation marks because it’s all about definition. After all, if something is slightly over-strong there’s little harm in it. Whilst something being too weak will obviously fail sooner or later. So, it seems that it isn’t possible for a corset to be too strong. But “strong” does not necessarily mean “solid”. After all, solidity might be synonymous with brittleness, at times. So be careful not to confuse the two and end up making something that is solid when it shouldn’t be. 

Also, as an introductory note I should perhaps say that the “look” I’ve been aiming for is that of the classic late-Victorian fully-boned, silk duchess, hourglass overbust. But in a Sparklewren style, naturally. With that as the picture in our minds of a “perfect” corset, let’s look at how our construction has changed over the last four years. 

Cranberry wasn’t built to be rock solid, but she is very sturdy. She fits her owner beautifully and flexes where she needs to. All is well with the world. For the patterning and fabrication I favoured at the time (6 panels with a vertical side seam and dramatic silhouette), she is built in the best way I know how. Silk outer layer (a fine charmeuse in this instance which, backed onto fusible cotton, works perfectly well), a double-layer of satin coutil (thin and crisp to reduce bulk even whilst it provides structure and protects/holds the steels), then a lining layer. That’s five thin layers of fabric. Not too bulky, but certainly a lot bulkier than I would do now. 

From left to right: a fully-boned corset made in much the same manner as Lucy's Cranberry Butterfly. The 10-panel-per-side Strawberry Leopard in which we were exploring the seam construction which has since made all our other work possible. The Birds Wing (multi-panel) Sugared Leopard without which we would never even have considered that new seam. 
From left to right: a fully-boned corset made in much the same manner as Lucy’s Cranberry Butterfly. The 10-panel-per-side Strawberry Leopard in which we were exploring the seam construction which has since made all our other work possible. The Birds Wing (multi-panel) Sugared Leopard without which we would never even have considered that new seam. 

The construction was a necessity of the patterning and fabric/stylistic choices. Subsequent difficulty or ease of construction goes hand in hand with those choices. For example, vertical side seams can become challenging to sew when the corset is very curvy or when there are multiple layers. The precisely placed curve on the vertical side seam works beautifully, but is a patterning approach that I often avoid these days as corsets patterned like this will look less good as soon as the wearer loses or gains weight (ie: the dramatic curve suddenly sits in the wrong place on the body). That type of patterning also limits your seam construction choices. 

These days, I tend to create pieces that probably look largely the same but are actually made very differently. In fact, the germ of our current construction was already in place back then. I remember messaging with Lucy years ago about a late-Victorian-esque construction that I wanted to test, but I just couldn’t figure out quite how to do it in an elegant way. I didn’t have access to a fabric that I trusted well enough to let me do the light construction I had in mind. In the end, I got there three years later in a roundabout manner, via the Birds Wing with its a-zillion panels and the lessons it taught me.

And so, the way I would approach a duchess fully-boned corset now is to work with merely two layers of duchess (a particular blend I use, that I’ve found to be perfect for corsetry). The patterning is sometimes antique-based, sometimes contemporary, but it generally uses gores to create fullness so that the seams may remain rather straight. The steels are held between the two layers of duchess. Back in 2012 I used 5mm spiral, these days I mostly use 4mm (and would use 3mm, if it existed!). Everything has been paired down, except the embellishment.  

The Pyrite corset (modelled by its owner Glo) is an example of our current approach to duchess fully-boned corsetmaking. 
The Pyrite corset (modelled by its owner Glo) is an example of our current approach to duchess fully-boned corsetmaking. 

I think it’s like this in every industry and every skill. When you begin learning, lots of stuff looks much the same. It all looks great, or it all looks bad. You judge things based on broad strokes, it either appeals to you or it doesn’t. One established person/brand’s output looks much the same as another’s, save for perhaps aesthetic choices like colour. And yet, the differences you can’t yet explain are still there and I’m convinced they’re acting upon you in a subconscious way. So one must trust their intuition (for want of a better word) and let themselves be lead in the directions which most naturally appeal. 

Then as you develop your eye and see more, you begin to notice and understand the subtle differences. Soon, those differences seem rather glaring to you! And it is here that an individual’s philosophy reveals itself. What has the person prioritised? What have they sacrificed? Where are they loose and where are they precise? Which battles do they choose to fight? What decisions have they made based on knowledge or a lack thereof? What is the overall ethos of their work? You’ll realise that there’s no such thing as a single perfect corset since perfection depends entirely upon context and contingent truths. You’ll realise that “perfection” is more about the effective expression of an aesthetic or functional philosophy than anything else. Then as a maker or collector (or student of any subject, in fact) you find the niche that you wish to contribute to and you make choices – and sacrifices – in order to fulfil that niche best. 

Following another person’s hands can be like time-travel. Or it can even be like inhabiting someone else’s body and life for a moment. I was recently saying as much to my friend Nikki (NarrowedVisions) as she has written many articles for Foundations Revealed in which she has intricately recreated antique corsets with a real focus on replicating the original maker’s construction process and, by extension, something of their thought process too. It’s a wonderful way to learn. Playing at being someone else helps you discover your own sensibilities. 

With that in mind, we have something exciting coming soon, something which will share more of our approaches to corset construction, patterning, embellishment, and so on. Keep an eye on our posts as I’m hoping to be able to share it by the end of November…  

In the meantime, enjoy looking closely at everything and anything that captures your imagination. 

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