A 1910s costume, part four: the corset

This post is the fourth in a series in which I endeavour to create a historically-accurate late-1910s outfit to the best of my ability. From using an antique sewing machine, finding modern patterns of historical designs to using contemporary sewing manuals, this project is a huge challenge and one that I’m super excited about. I hope you will enjoy following along with my baby steps in historical costuming.

Now that the combinations were complete, I had no choice to but face a far more daunting project: the corset. I have never made a corset before, let alone one on a 113-year old machine, but I did it! Despite uncooperative eyelets, fitting issues and a mishap with an iron, I am now the proud owner of a late-1910s corset.

the finished product

As with every part of this project, I started off with research. The contemporary sewing manuals I had found were not very helpful for this project as a corset was not a typical sewing project for the early 20th century lady. Instead, she would have gone to a specialist supplier. To be honest, after wrangling with boning and eyelets, I can understand why! So, instead of my contemporary sewing manuals, I turned to extant corsets from the period. I found some wonderful examples from the MET and Symington Collection (I learnt about the Symington Collection from watching Bernadette Banner’s videos, it is a treasure trove of 19th and 20th century corsets!) and I’ve linked them at the end of this blog. I also came across Redthreaded’s video on YouTube (also linked below) where they analyse a corset from this period.

The most important things I took from this research was that corsets from this period were quite simple and functional in their construction. One of the Symington Collection corsets is decorated with a rosette but otherwise (in the examples I found) the colours are quite pale, the decoration is simple and there is no flossing (decorative stitches that hold bones in place). Based on these corsets I also decided to make my corset from coutil, a densely woven cotton.

I chose my pattern when I came across the Dreamstress’s blog in my research phase for the whole project. Leimomi Oakes, who runs the blog, also runs a pattern company called Scroop patterns. Here I found the Rilla corset, based on an extant example by Belgian corset manufacturer PD Corsets. I also found two YouTube videos where this corset pattern is used, It was really helpful to see the corset being constructed. From these videos I learned that the stitches used on corsets at the time were very short and I also decided to follow the advice from DixieDIY’s video to sew the boning channels on the wrong side of the corset – but more on that later.

I have never made a project with such a long notions list before but a corset is a pretty involved project! This project also involved a lot of supplies I have never used before, such as a busk and bones. This corset called for 4 different lengths of bones, with 20 in total. I was really pleased with the coutil I found. Admittedly there weren’t a lot of options online but I found a lovely blush pink coutil with a herringbone pattern. I also chose a contrast cream trim and corset lacing to stand out against the main fabric. After I had collected all my notions, it was time to get started.

I had loads of the lining fabric from my curtains transformation (stay tuned for that!) which was perfect for a mock up. This was super quick to do, I just put in the busk, stitched together the pieces and added a few eyelets to the back (not all the 52 required in the finished product, I decided against that). The fit was perfect – or so I thought – so I pressed on.

Unfortunately, my sewing machine was evidently not as enthusiastic about this project as I was. I had issues with tension from the outset which I still haven’t really fixed. No matter how much I tightened the tension, it was still to weak. So after fiddling for ages trying to get the tension on the upper and lower thread balanced I decided the best thing for my sanity was just to make it as good as I could. I also investigated using one of my modern zipper feet to sew the busk in but this didn’t work at all so I went back to my normal foot which worked well enough.

what do you want from me??? ft. the offending zipper foot

I followed the advice of the pattern to cut the front and back facings on the selvedge (finished) edge so that I wouldn’t have to finish it and honestly what a revelation.

The awl I had ordered for this project to make the holes for the busk and eyelets hadn’t arrived by the time I started the construction of the corset but I was pretty impatient and used varying widths of knitting needle instead – not to be commended but it worked!

Despite my issues with tension, I soon had the base of the corset constructed and you can see how much structure the coutil has. In corsetry, a lot of the shape comes from the shape and grain of the pieces rather than the supporting bones. You can see this in my mockup: there are no bones in the garment but it already affected my shape.

Next I added the eyelets… all 52 of them. My awl wasn’t quite wide enough so I returned to my previous technique of using different widths of knitting needle to make the holes wide enough. I enlisted the help of my brother for this as it required a lot of work and I wore myself out. The eyelets were really tough and I don’t know whether this was on me or my tools. I used a hammer and metal guides to install the eyelets but the metal on the front of the eyelet kept splitting over the washer and they look pretty messy – I ended up replacing a few throughout the corset construction when I realised they had jagged edges which caught on my lacing. If anyone had any tips I would love to hear them.

They’re fine from a distance, they’re on the back and they’re covered by other clothes – I can live with them.

Now I could try on the corset for another fitting. I was anticipating that this would be absolutely fine as my mock up was perfect. However, my Crohn’s was acting up and I was bloating this time around so I ended up taking out the waist. This way, I have a corset I can wear regardless of my health. At first I took out all the seams to a size 38 rather than 36, but then I took in the bust and hips again. I also lowered the waist stay slightly to match my natural waist.

letting out the seams

Next step was adding the boning channels. For this I used an inch wide cotton twill tape. The boning channels were layered over the waist stay (used to support the waist of the corset) and sewn in place on either side and in the centre to create two channels. In hindsight, I made these the tiniest bit too wide but they’re fine as they are.

Now I could add the bones, luckily I tried on the corset before encasing the bones at the top and bottom because the bones closest to the front were too long. About an inch too long. Instead of ordering new bones, which would cost me time and money, I decided to cut them down. As this required tools and some strength, I recruited my Dad for help. When saws didn’t work, we resorted to brute strength and wire cutters. I filed down the edges and covered them with super glue so that they wouldn’t break through the main fabric or the casing. Then I added them back in and sewed across the top and bottom to secure them in place

At this point, the main body of the corset was complete and I could turn my attention to the finishing touches. I finished the bottom edge with bias binding trim made from the coutil I used for the main fabric. This was really tough to sew as it was really thick. In the end I hand-sewed the ends of the corset where there were too many layers of fabric for the sewing machine to take – she is 113 years old after all.

I had more fun with the top trim which lead me to disregard the instructions for a little while. I found a cream broderie anglaise trim which I sewed to the top edge of the corset using the machine – I took care to make the scalloped edges symmetrical. I then tucked in the raw edges and sewed them by hand before hand felling the cotton twill tape over the raw edges on the wrong side of the corset.

I did have a slight mishap with the trim. Despite testing my iron on a scrap piece to check that it wouldn’t burn, I managed to slightly melt the polyester thread on the trim… right on the front of the corset. When I couldn’t buy any to replace it, I resolved to simply get over it.

Finding garters appropriate for this project was quite challenging. I had already decided to buy elasticated garters rather than make ribbon ones (which would be more historically-accurate) as I am working to a budget and buying all the individual parts would add up. However, trying to find elasticated garters proved difficult as I wanted ones that would match the fabric I had, weren’t too expensive and looked era-appropriate. I consider myself very lucky that I came across a set of six being sold on Depop for a fiver. They were just what I wanted.

Once I had attached these to the bottom of the corset, the project was complete!


Extant corsets:

YouTube videos:

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