Thursday, February 13, 2020

. . . And a Great War Corset, Week 1

Introduction to the project:

I am working on putting together a full get-up from the time of the Great War (that's World War I to those of us who are aware that there was a second world war--which nobody knew at the time of the First World War). First, the underthings, and yes, the underthings are always necessary. They are maybe slightly less necessary with this era than, say, mid-Victorian. You can't do a mid-Victorian look without a hoop skirt, and you can't do a hoop skirt without a corset, and anyway the dresses won't fit right in the bodice if you wear--shudder--a modern bra with it.

The 1910s silhouette was very different. By this point, corsets had gone through some various shapes and had ended up being long and hip-slimming. Instead of creating an hour-glass shape like the mid-Victorian corset or an exaggerated S-bend shape like later Victorian corsets, the corsets of this era started below the bust and extended over the hips, to create a longer, more columnar shape. This presaged the even slimmer, more columnar shape of the '20s. Also, it's worth noting that at about this time, some women started ditching corsets for brassieres.

All of which is to say that while maybe (maybe, I emphasize doubtfully) I could get by without a corset, it simply wouldn't suit my artistic sensibilities or my sense of the rightness of things. If I'm going to go to the trouble of sewing all this sh!t, I'm going to do it right, 'kay?

So there is my justification for wanting a proper 1910s corset. (I often refer to it as Edwardian, but really it isn't; it's just easier to say that. See, the corset works for the middle of the 1910s, and King Edward died in 1910. However, because the Great War began in 1914, the "Edwardian Age" is usually extended just a bit to that year since the war was such a bright, clear dividing line between "then" and "now". This corset would work from slightly before the war to slightly after the war.)

You may be wondering what the heck made me think I could and should try to make my own corset. I'd been glancing over the costs of corset supplies, and when I added them all up, it was kind of expensive. The alternative was to buy one, but that's *very* expensive. Of course, paying someone to put in the time and effort--and to create something of professional quality--might be worth that money. But then I came across a few things. 

First, I came across a pillowcase that an old roommate had left behind. Just the single pillowcase. It had a cute design of grayish-blue flowers and was made of a sturdy cotton. I puzzled over what I could make out of it--a blouse of some kind?--and then it hit me: it could be material for a corset! It would probably be *just* enough. (Spoiler alert, it was *just enough*.)

Second, I found out that it is a legitimate costuming practice to use zip ties as boning. Zip ties are dirt cheap, which would save me some money, so I was all for this. And the ladies of American Duchess use zip ties, and they're hard-core, so I figured I was good to use them. Of course, there is synthetic boning, but it's . . . well, plastic. Just like zip ties. And you wanna know which is cheaper? It's zip ties. Zip ties are cheaper.

There's metal boning, too, but it's expensive and, as I understand it, plastic actually is more similar to the boning that was used back in the day. I should explain: while some boning was metal (steal), a lot of boning was made of baleen. This come from the cartilage of whales. For obvious reasons, actual baleen is no longer legal to use. Plastic is lightweight like baleen and will shape to your body with warmth, like baleen. So. Zip ties.

Thusly, my vague plan for a 1910s corset began to coalesce. The last step was to figure out how to make this mysterious, intimidating garment. It helped IMMENSELY to watch Bernadette Banner make a corset on YouTube, and I found a few blog posts talking about the process. With these examples came the realization that corsets are made by people, and I am a people. If other people can do it, why not me?

But how exactly would I figure out the right shapes in the right size? I found a diagram online that showed the proper shapes for the various panels, but that would have required a lot of adjusting and fitting, and I knew I wasn't up to that. Luckily, I found the Rilla Corset pattern by Scroop Patterns. It seemed to be just what I was looking for, with decent directions (it's always a bit hard to tell what, if any, instructions come with a turns out the directions were even better than I had hoped). On some of the Facebook groups I'm a part of, I found comments saying what a great pattern it is. I was sold. I bought the pattern, then went ahead and bought the items that I didn't already have:

Pattern: $12
Fabric: already had it
Twill tape for waist stay: already had it
Zip ties (bought at Home Depot): about $4
9" busk: about $15
Bone casing (because I wanted to save myself time, rather than make it myself): 6 yards at $3.50/yard= $21
Lacing: 8 yards at $0.69/yard= about $5
Eyelets and eyelet tool: about $7.50
Twill tape binding: 4 yards at $0.69/yard=$3

Grand total=$62.50.

That would be less if I hadn't been too lazy to make my own casing for the bones, but in this case it was worth the money not to have to do that difficult, tedious, time-consuming task.

Wanna know how much a professionally made corset will run you? It's well into the hundreds of dollars. Check out Red Threaded. I'm not saying those corsets aren't worth the money--they most certainly ARE. But I simply couldn't bring myself to spend that much. Hence . . .

WEEK 1: The Mock-Up

The first step is, always, to mock up the thing you're about to sew. This is probably doubly important for me, who is weirdly shaped. I'm 4'11", with oddly broad shoulders, a good-sized bust, and fairly narrow hips. Basically, nothing EVER fits right unless it's specifically a petite size, and even then it doesn't always fit all that well.

The weekend before last (that is, the weekend of the 1-2, Superbowl weekend), I got in the mail my order with all the stuff listed above, except for the fabric and zip ties (which I already had). I was giddy with delight. Along with my corset things, there were three different kinds of trim that I was excited to get in my goody bag (I mean, I paid for them, it wasn't, like, trick-or-treating). I was so excited that it took me a while to realize that something was missing: the busk. The busk is the front closure. And without the front closure, I couldn't really test the corset. Without the busk, I couldn't pull it snug and tight like it was meant to be, so how could I know how well it fit?

Hm. Something's missing....
Well, I had done exactly zero thus far, so I contacted customer service and got started in the meantime on a mock-up. Luckily, the directions for the Rilla** corset were fabulous. Each size was based on the bust measurement, but the directions also indicated the waist and hip measurements that each pattern size corresponded to. So the 38 pattern was based on a 38" bust, X waist, and Y hips. I used this to help me figure out what size(s) to use (not the 38"...). As it turned out, my bust was between two sizes, my waist was between two different sizes, and my hips were yet another size. So, my bust was between sizes A and B, my waist was between B and C, and my hips were size D.

Which was . . . awesome.

But first I needed to test something. I needed to be sure my pillowcase was going to have enough fabric. So I printed out my pattern pieces, taped them together, cut them out, and placed them on the pillowcase. And . . . it was close. I spent twenty minutes trying to make it work, but it just didn't. Then inspiration hit. The hem was very wide, so if I unpicked it, I would have about 10 or so more inches of useable fabric. Success! Proof of concept:

It fits!
Now I knew I didn't need to go buy fabric or rethink the whole project. And I should note that, yes, I know that this is a fairly sturdy cotton but it isn't really the sturdy fabric usually used in corsets, like coutil. I am okay with this. This will be for very occasional use, and I want it to be fairly light and breathable anyway.

Step one was to cut out new pattern pieces based on the sizes from the directions. I bought some tracing paper, taped it together, and traced the lines for the various sizes. Then I freehanded the lines between the respective sizes for my bust, hips, and waist and cut out the new pieces. Wisely, I actually cut the fabric using the largest of the sizes and just traced the smaller shapes onto those. That way, if I found it was too tight, I had a little leeway.

Tracing and reshaping.

The 12 pattern pieces for this corset. The two at the ends and the two in
the middle are facings.
I sewed all the panels together. For the back panels, I turned the facing inwards, then ran a line of stitching about 3/8" from the edge, a 1/2" in from that line, and then another 3/8" in from that line, thus creating three channels. The two on either side were for boning. The area in the middle wouldn't be used for boning at all but as the zone for eyelets for lacing up the back. Instead of wasting the time and the eyelets on a mock-up, I just cut little holes where the eyelets will go in the final version. I laced her up, and I taped on the zip ties, two at each seam (oh, and I slipped zip ties into those channels I'd just made in the back panels).

So, we had, roughly, a corset. Excitedly, I wrapped it around myself, and it almost magically unfolded itself two a floppy two-dimensional thing into a lovely three-dimensional shape that formed to my body. Well, mostly. At first glance, it looked awfully small. But of course, with a busk, I would be able to pull it all nice and snug.
All mocked up with no way to close...

But the busk was still in the mail. It didn't arrive until this past weekend, i.e. a week after everything else. Luckily, all the above steps took up most that week.

As soon as I got the busk, I got to work inserting it.

Now, there is a whole, proper way to insert the busk, but again this is a mock-up. So I just ripped the stitches in the center-front seam between the front panel and the facing. That is, I ripped those holes on the right center-front panel, so there were slots to poke those loops through. On the left side, I lined up the knobbed side of the busk, marked where the knobs needed to go, and ripped little holes to push the knobs through.

And like that, I had a mock-up. And it did fit. However, I realized I'd made a mistake. At some point long ago, I had measured my hips, and I used that measurement without re-measuring. This was a mistake, because that measurement was wrong, and I don't quite know why. It was off by 2". So I traced out more shapes, trying to do what I had done before by using the various sizes as a guide. But it didn't seem to be adding any actual width to the hips. So I abandoned that method and did the prudent thing: I kept the shapes I had but added about 3/8" to each side of each piece. Also, the mock-up was about two inches too long, so I pinned up the hem.

And the result:

This is overtop the combinations I recently made. Now, there are a few issues. It's a little wibbly-wobbly. That, I think, it largely due to the fact that the bones are taped in and the fabric isn't very sturdy (I'm really hoping this is solved by sewn-in bones and sturdier fabric). You can see the zip ties poking out the top because they aren't trimmed to size. I don't have a pic of the back, but the lacing is a little wonky, mostly because I need to learn how to tie it off well at the center. But the key is that the lacing IS even all the way down once everything is pulled in tight. You can also see that it still gaps open a tad at the center front. It looks like more than it is because I'm standing with my hips at an angle, and also a small gap is fine. Even so, for the final product I will be adding just a little width to the front panels.

**Just a note that the "Rilla" corset was just "meant to be", for multiple reasons. Aside from being a lovely pattern with good reviews, it also is clearly name after Rilla Blythe from Rilla of Ingelside, a novel I love that is set during the Great War. Seriously, go out and read this one if you haven't (and most people haven't). It's a sequel to Anne of Green Gables and is about her daughter, Rilla. But it's really about the war on the Canadian home front, and it's beautifully done.

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