1890s Symington Corset – Construction

So last time, I drafted a corset pattern in September 2019. Then I got distracted by other projects, then a MOTHER FUCKING PANDEMIC. Daycare closed for 3 months, so I had a full time job (which thankfully gave me a lot of part time leave) and a toddler to deal with, so I needed the sort of projects which would not take up much brainpower.

Turns out that while making patterns is lots of brains, sewing them up is more about precision. So I pulled out this corset pattern in March and started slooowly working on it (alternating with an embroidery project yet to be blogged about).

I’ve anecdotally picked up a lot of information about how to sew historically accurate late 19th century corsets from Foundations Revealed, and I made a list of the characteristics for myself that I wanted remember during construction:

  • The majority of (although not all) corsets were one layer of fabric These corsets were muuuch lighter than people think a corset needs to be (compare to my first corset which is two full layers of coutil! A two layer historical corset might be a silk over a lighter twill).
  • Sew your pieces WRONG sides together, trim the seams to 1/8″, and cover them with boning channels.
  • The waist and waist tape is parallel to the boning, which actually puts the waist of the corset on a slight angle. Modern corsets will tell you this is Absolutely!Forbidden! as you don’t want any stretch in the waist. Whereas this very slight bias helps to keep the fabric nice and smooth and avoid wrinkles.
  • Stitch length is 1-1.5mm. (Standard sewing machine stitch length is 2.5mm). This makes for a super strong seam (which is a bitch to pick out when you screw up tho ask me how I know)
  • Boning channels and the top/bottom binding are always cut on the straight grain.

Coming back to mine, it all starts with the fabric. I used one of the most precious fabrics in my stash – a double faced silk duchesse satin remnant in a purple/gray shade that I picked up in a Dark Garden sale in 2013 or so. I had been too scared to touch it, which makes it one of the oldest fabrics in my stash! At this point I finally felt confident enough in my own skills to make the elaborate corset of my dreams!

Note that’s all I had. Less than a yard, and a quarter of it had some interfacing fused to it. There could be no fuckups.

(Narrator: there were fuckups)

First I needed to find a thread that matched. Uh, this is purple in some lights, gray in some lights, and shot with black. And I couldn’t go into a store because PANDEMIC. I ordered 4 threads from Wawak that were supposed to be in the purple family and this is what arrived:

I ended up going with a gray thread I already had and calling it close enough.

I traced each pattern piece single layer and cut them out. Being a millimeter or two off on multiple pieces can throw off the sizing dramatically on your final piece, so I highly recommend cutting corsets single layer.

The rectangle pieces were all going to be corded, which meant the fabric needed to be a bit wider than the final piece. How much wider was important, because I did not have enough fabric to have giant seam allowances. So I used a tiny scrap from between the shaped pieces to test how much fabric cording ate up:

I think it ended up being 1/8″ per these 6 cords?

So adding just a smidge more to these rectangles and cutting them out right next to each other:

Fuckup Learning Experience #1: I backed the corded pieces with actual coutil. I would have preferred a lighter twill, but I didn’t feel like buying new fabric. I think the coutil was way too heavy to be the backing of a duchesse satin, especially when it wasn’t every piece. I should have erred on the side of a lighter fabric (like a sateen) rather than a heavier one. The boning and satin and cords do all the work to make sure your fabric isn’t going to stretch, that backing didn’t need to do that.

Then for Extreme Precision sewing – I basted every piece together on the stitch line before sewing them together with a tiny stitch. This meant I was sewing right over my basting, and I couldn’t always pick it out if my stitch split it. I’m not sure if this is a feature or a bug; but since the seams get covered with boning channels it’s not like anyone could see.

First scary thing, putting in the busk! I was overall pleased with how this turned out.

But wait for it, major fuckup Learning Experience #2. I pulled this busk out of a old corset that I never wore because I didn’t like the fit, and just assumed it would fit in this corset. But I forgot that this one was sitting fairly low, and forgot that my fabric could end below the busk, and it could just bend if I sat down.

that’s how much seam allowance is there

So yeah with 1/16″ seam allowance, I wasn’t able to sew my binding all the way through. It’s just whipped on top of the busk.

Aaand fuckup Learning Experience 3, I didn’t place my knob markings carefully the first time, and had to pull out one of the knobs and put it in a new place. Silk satin can’t take that kind of handling.

At least you can’t see it when the corset is closed.

And then came the boning channels.

So remember how I said I didn’t have a lot of fabric? It turns out that I only had enough left to cut all my boning channels along the cross grain (aka horizontally) instead the normal grain, minus the front facings and one side boning channel. I also only had enough to make all the boning channels the width of one bone instead of two.

It turns out there was a reason Victorians made their boning channels go on the straight grain. I should have gone for a contrasting fabric when I realized what a pain this was going to be.

They frayed So Much.

The only handling here was basting and ironing.

The fabric was also so bouncy in that direction, I had to baste all the boning channels to themselves (see above) before basting them to the corset itself in order to get any kind of precision.

So. Much. Basting.

Because they were narrow, the seams liked to poke out from the channels, no matter how much I tried to shove the threads back in.

Worst of all, when a thick thread frayed out, it means you are losing more of the fabric:

This frayed bit is totally unfixable, so I hope not too much stress is on that spot.

Compare the boning channels here on the single channel which was on the cross grain, to the one lone channel I was able to cut on the straight grain:

You can barely see the stitching on the straight grain channel, because the thread only had to go over the very thin weft. But hopping over the big warp threads left very obvious stitching.

Once it was clear what was happening, I probably should have scrapped these boning channels and made contrasting channels out of another fabric.

So not a mistake precisely, but a really dramatic Learning Experience that led to all these mini fuckups. Which overall made me sad, because I wanted this to be The Perfect Corset after holding onto this fabric for so long. Oh well.

What do the GIFS say about this?

Ah yes, an always good reminder from the Dowager!

Moving on then. Adding decoration so you don’t notice the mistakes!

I did my first ever corset flossing, a fairly simple X pattern using silk buttonhole twist.

For the trim, I reached out to my friend Elizabeth Emerson, owner of Elizabeth Emerson Designs. She has literally thousands of rolls of antique ribbon (way more than are displayed on her site), among other trims and goodies, so you should definitely do all your trim buying from here.

I ended up with some cotton lace, some ribbon, and some dark gimp which I combined into a single trim.

How did she color match the color of the ribbon to the corset so well online, when it’s such a weird purple/gray color? She is a wizard.

Basted that trim on, and corset was done!

And after all that I’ve still been too scared to try it on to see how it fits. Once I have some free time I really will!

And this was all the fabric that was left:

This entry was posted in 1890s, Corsets, Symington Corset. Bookmark the permalink.

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