And so it begins........
A Queen's Corset
In the 16th century two pieces of clothing were developed that drastically changed the look of women's clothing. The first was the farthingale or hoop skirt, the second was the stiffened underbodice. In period this was commonly known as either stays or 'a pair of bodies', we know it as a corset. Both these pieces are essential components in making 16th century English fashions work. The farthingale held the heavy skirts out in the cone shape that came to be considered essential for a fashionable gown (less fashionable folks may not have worn one) and the corset was essential to mold the upper torso into the smooth inverted cone shape required by fashion. Here we will look at one way of making one style of corset.
The first thing to be aware of is that we actually have very little evidence for what period corsets were like. We have two surviving examples- the Pfalzgrafin corset from Germany and the Elizabeth Effigy corset which was identified as being Elizabethan only in the last few years by Janet Arnold. Drea Leed has done a great job exploring the construction of the Elizabeth corset on her Elizabethan Costuming page
We also have a couple of period, or close to period, paintings of ladies in their dressing rooms wearing jackets over their corsets so that we can only see the front. With the very small sample of period evidence we can say that the typical corset of the period had shoulder straps and was laced up the front, although the Pfaltzgrafin corset laces up the back. Having established that, I made this corset without shoulder straps. I did this because I made the corset after completing the dress which was to be worn over it (the wrong order and not how I usually do it) and the shoulders of the gown are so far to the edge of my shoulders that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get the corset shoulders of the corset to sit under them properly. I generally recommend making the corset with the shoulder straps- it has a better fit.



To start, I gathered all the parts of the corset together. I like to use the Mantua-maker 16th century corset pattern. It is simple to use and fits me without much tweaking. I use two layers of sturdy cotton for the base of the corset. This is where the boning channels will be sewn and what will take most of the strain. A cotton or linen twill is the best choice for this- you will need a fabric that doesn't stretch and which allows sweat to evaporate (we costumers call that 'fabric that breathes') since it will be laced tightly around the body. If you don't want the lacing channels to show, you can then cover the corset with a 'fashion fabric' which is attached after the boning channels are sewn and the bones inserted. In period they don't seem to have minded the channels showing. The outer layer of the QE2 corset will be eggplant purple dupioni silk with an antique gold dupioni silk cut in strips and used as edging.



After cutting out the corset pieces (3 times- lining, interlining, and fashion fabric) stitch the side seams and press open. It's very important to reduce bulk at seams since this will be laced tightly around my body and I don't want lumps of fabric that could rub painfully. Using just the lining and interlining, I matched the seams and pinned the pieces around the sides and bottom, but not the top. I then stitched with a reasonably tight stitch all along the pinned edges to put the lining and interlining together. Try to keep this stitching within the area that will be covered by the edging.



When you are finished it should look like this.



The next task is deciding how many bones you will be using and where you will put them. If you've read the QE2 page, you have already read my essay on what to use for boning in reproduction 16th century garments.  Basically, although many people like to use white steel boning, there is no evidence that metal was used in period for stiffening. We have evidence of whalebone and bents (a stiff, grassy reed sort of plant).  Whalebone is illegal and bents are difficult to find. Plastic zip-ties actually give a really good impression of whalebone, having the 3 dimensional movement characteristics that both whalebone and bents have, but that steel does not. I used zip-ties for this corset. They are industrial strength zip-ties, but you can get a similar effect using retail ties in groups of three or four in side-by-side channels. I cut the ties to the correct length and then trimmed the ends to round them off. Don't want sharp bits of plastic sticking me in the ribs!



Placing the bones in the corset requires a bit of thought and consideration. The two essential places are the center front and along the lacing holes at the back. Of course, if you are making a front lacing corset, you only need to worry about the front. The number and placement of the rest of the bones, depends on how stiff you want the finished product and how you have to control. If you are fleshy in the upper torso or wear a very large cup size, you will want to be sure to put lots of bones in all around the corset. Make sure that the front center of the corset has either a wooden or metal busk (a thin triangular piece that gives extra stiffness) or several smaller bones stitched next to each other for a really rigid front. A couple of bones along the side  give a smoother line, but they should be placed at angles so that they do not poke you under the arm. Once again, the fleshier you are (the more you 'squish'- technical term) the more bones you should use to give a smooth line. I like to use integral waist tabs with the bones running down into the tabs. I have found that it takes some of the strain off of the waist and is more comfortable to wear for long periods of time. If you bone down into the tabs, be sure that you use very flexible boning so that the bones don't dig into your hips. Also, the thinner and more flexible the boning, the more of it you will need. If you use thin retail zip-ties and you have alot of squish to control, you may need to bone the corset solidly all around.

Stitch channels just a bit bigger than the width of your bones all the way down to the edge stitching, leave the top open! Insert your bones and stitch carefully across the top of the channels. The tighter the channels, the less your bones will wiggle and the longer they will last without wearing thru the fabric. Your corset is basically done at this point. You could stitch some bias tape around the edges and add the lacing holes and be done. But if you want a prettier corset, you can add the fashion fabric to the front to hide the boning channels and give a smoother look.



I used strips of antique gold silk to edge the corset, hey it is for the Queen! But you could use commercially made bias tape. Since I will be sewing this on by hand, I can take the time to fuss with the fit. I've found that as much as I love the way the waist tabs feel when I wear the corset, they just cannot be sewn on a machine with all the tiny curves, so they must be sewn by hand.



I pinned the strip to go around the tabs on first and made sure that I had enough fabric to go around the curves. Curves take up more fabric to get an evenly gathered and smooth fit.



I then put a good costume drama in the DVD player and started stitching using as fine a straight stitch as I could manage thru two layers of cotton twill and two layers of silk. It's important to take your time here- rushing thru this part will show in the work when you turn it to stitch the inside down.



After the outside of the edging was sewn on, I turned and pinned it to the inside, making sure that all cut edges were covered. The edging strips I used were just over an inch wide, you want just enough to go around the edge of the corset, leaving a small decorative contrasting edge. The Elizabeth corset was edged with a very thin leather. The inside edge is stitched down using a fine whip stitch.



I did the bottom edge with the tabs first because I knew it would take the longest and also I wanted the strip around the top and sides  to come down and cover the ends of the bottom facing. This is what it looks like when it's done.



All that was left was to add the lacing holes (I used grommets but they actually aren't correct to period, simple button holes would have been more correct.) and try her on.



But always remember, the best Elizabethan accessory is a handsome courtier to escort you....