Corsets are an ideal introduction into the world of period patterns. Any outer garments you plan on constructing must be fit over the proper foundations if you want to achieve the proper period silhouette, so it's logical to construct a corset prior to tackling a whole outfit.
If you've already sewn at least one corset, you have some understanding of the construction process required, so it's just the patterning that needs to be untangled. Even if you haven't sewn one before, you'll find corsets are an excellent opportunity to hone skills needed to take on more complicated projects. They don't require a big investment in yards of expensive fabric and trims, and let's face it, since they are undergarments, as long as they are well-constructed and fit properly they will get the job done - no-one will see any mistakes you've made while learning.
Why not take the plunge and make one from a period pattern?
The fashion magazine La Mode Illustrée is a wonderful source for period patterns. It was published in Paris from 1859 to 1918. Each monthly issue showcased the latest fashions, including the foundations and accessories needed for those fashions, and published the patterns to make all the garments shown. Pattern pieces for multiple items were printed on one page, overlapping each other (right).
It can seem intimidating when you first look at that roadmap, but fear not. I'll show you how to find a corset in that maze of lines, and once familiarized with the process, you can use the same steps to pull a usable pattern from any period pattern sheet printed in this way.
Original editions of La Mode Illustrée can still be found at antique dealers, antiquarian bookshops and flea markets, but you can also find complete copies that have been scanned and reproduced available for sale from Au Fil Du Temps on Ebay.
I'll be working with the corset pattern from La Mode Illustrée issue number 52, published December 30th 1906, which sold for 50 centimes including the pattern supplement. The corset is described as "Corset de repos pour dame forte," which I'm translating as "relaxed corset for a strong lady." I'm assuming strong implies physically fit or athletic, not strong willed. This same corset pattern was published in the February 1, 1907 issue of De Gracieuse and may possibly be found other fashion journals of the same year, since after La Mode Illustrée published the designs, the fashion plates were sent to other countries to be printed in other periodicals.
Once you've chosen your pattern you'll also need:
- transparent ruler
- vellum – one could use tracing paper, but I prefer vellum because of the heavier weight
- hip curve
- sharp pencil – I use a mechanical pencil with a 5mm lead for a consistent thin line
- scissors, or xacto knife and cutting board
Tracing the Pattern
Start by unfolding and pressing the pattern.
(If I am working with a genuine vintage pattern I do not press it, I just carefully work with the factory folds, but I do iron copies because it's easier to trace when the paper is flat.)
On any pattern where multiple garments are printed on a single sheet, there will be a legend for each garment with the number of each piece needed and the style of corresponding pattern lines. Every garment will have a different style pattern line, sometimes two different styles, as is the case with this corset.
Lay the smooth pattern on a hard, flat surface, place a piece of vellum over it, and write down the numbers of the pieces needed.
Place weights on the tracing paper to keep both the pattern and the tracing paper securely in place.
Locate the line for your pattern piece and trace it using the hip curve to make a clean, smooth line.
When the outline is completely traced, copy the pattern piece number and any other notations printed onto it.
Often boning placement is marked, as is busk length and grommet spacing.
After each piece has been traced, check it off the list of numbers. This serves as a way to double check that all pieces have been traced. It is no fun to have to go back and pick out a missing piece after you thought you were finished and put everything away.
It's worth mentioning that it's also possible to lay a piece of paper beneath the pattern and trace over the lines with a tracing wheel. There are a couple reasons I don't do this.
First, I don't want to pierce any holes in the original pattern. If it is an antique the paper can be frail and I don't want to risk tearing it. Even if it's a reproduction, when making a few garments the intersection of many pierced lines at one point can lead to weak spots and tears.
Second, when using a tracing wheel the next step is to remove the original and draw over the pierced marks with a pencil using a straightedge and hip curve. That means you're copying the same line twice. Not only is that inefficient, you'll get a more accurate line when you can draw it once correctly.
Marking the Grainline
This pattern has the grain line indicated on each piece, but not all Mode Illustrée corset patterns do. If the pattern legend has a diagram of the pieces you can arrange the pieces as shown, then mark a vertical line on each piece. If there is no diagram it's a bit trickier.
Cut out all the pieces, leaving space around the seam line so you can make alterations later, and line them up in numerical order. If you have faithfully copied all the information printed on each piece you should be able to orient the pieces correctly between the center front and back based on the direction of the type and by matching the small numbers in each corner.
After the pieces are arranged, draw a vertical line on each to indication the direction of the grain. The center front and center back are easy since it is usually perfectly straight along these edges. Gauge the rest as best you can.
The grain may not be perfect, but it will be close enough for a mock-up. The definitive grain line can be marked on the pattern after a mock-up is made, keeping in mind that the grain is usually perpendicular to the waistline of the corset.
Determining the Original Measurements
Next you must determine what the corset pattern's measurements are. Study the pieces and find what looks like the narrowest area; this will be the waist. Draw a line across this area on one piece. Generally, it should be close to perpendicular to the grain line.
Next, measure the seam line from the waist to the top of the piece, then measure the same distance on the connecting piece and draw a horizontal line across that one. Do this for all the pattern pieces, then measure across all the lines.
I draw additional lines one quarter inch above and below this line and continue measuring to make certain I have found the waist. A line should be drawn 3½ inches (9cm) above the waist to find the underbust, and 7 inches (17.8cm) below the waist to find the hip line. Like the grain line, you may not place these perfectly, but don't worry, they will be close enough for patterning alterations to be made so that you can make a mock up.
Normally the next step would be to remove any seam allowance so you can make the alterations on the seam lines. Seam allowance on Mode Illustrée patterns is 1 centimeter (3/8 inch). This pattern as traced, without removing the seam allowance, measures roughly 32.8 centimeters across the waist and 47.5 centimeters across the hips. Doubling these gives total measurements of 65.6 and 95 centimeters, or approximately 25 ¾ inches at the waist and 37 3/8 inches around the hips. The center front and center back are labeled on the pattern, bord de devant, and bord de derriere, so I know not to remove seam allowance from those edges. If I removed 1 centimeter from all the other seams the waist would measure 45.6 centimeters, or about 18 inches, and the hips 75 centimeters, or 29 ½ inches. That's small. Small enough that I believe this corset may have been intended for a teenage girl rather than an adult woman.
Sure enough, the copy under all the dresses illustrated on the same page states the dresses are for either "une jeune fille ou jeune femme," a young girl or young lady. Even if this corset wasn't specifically meant for a young girl, Mode Illustrée patterns tend to be small, and I find it pointless to spend the time removing the seam allowance only to turn around and add width right back on, so I treat the corset patterns as though there is no seam allowance.
After the new seam lines are drafted, the seams must be balanced to make sure they are the same length. To do this, measure the seam lines of two connecting pieces. If the first side measures 8 3/16 and the second side is 8 1/8 inches (below left), then either take 1/16 from the longer side or add 1/16 to the shorter side. (below right). [Metric: If, say, the first side measures 20.8cm and the second side is 21cm, then either take 2mm from the longer side or add 2mm to the shorter side.]
If the discrepancy between lines is 1/8" (3mm) or larger then balance the seam by splitting the difference and adding half the amount to the shorter side and subtracting an equal amount from the longer. Even if the pattern does not require any alterations, the seams will need to be measured and balanced.
Seam lines before balancing
Seam lines after balancing
When the pieces are cut out and placed next to each other they will be the perfect width for a garter.
The same will need to be done for the front garter.
Corrected side garter attachment
Corrected front garter attachment
From here on out it's all about construction. I thought I'd extrapolate what I could from the minimal information provided with the pattern.
The pattern legend reads: corset de repos pour dame forte.
fournitures: 75 centimetres de coutil, 3 meters de ruban de percale, 4 jarretelles.
Ce corset, execute en coutil blanc, est muni, devant et sur les cotes, de jarretelles en ruban elastique. On taille chaque moitie d'apres les figures 43 a 48, on assemble lea moreceaux de facon que les coutures se trouvent sur le dessus; on masque celles-ci par des bandes d'etoffe de 1 centemetre sous lesquelles on glisse les baleines; les ressorts et busc necessitent des bandes plus larges, les contours du corset sont bordes de ruban de percale.
This is where the free translation services of babelfish come in handy. While translating a paragraph of information using a computer program may not work for legal documents, the resulting translation will be accurate enough for sewing. Here is the translation I came up with:
Relaxed corset for a strong lady. 75 centimeters of coutil, 3 meters of percale ribbon, 4 elastic garters.
This corset, made of white coutil to the dimensions provided closes with a center front busk and has 4 elastic suspenders/garters. Each half is cut from pieces 43-48, and sewn so the seams are on the exterior. The seams are covered with 1 centimeter wide strips under which the boning is slipped. The busk and springs require wider strips. The top and bottom edges are trimmed with percale ribbon.
These are more of an extended description than detailed instructions, but there is enough to get started. Seams sewn to the exterior then covered with strips for boning means single layer corset to me, so construction should be pretty straightforward. There are no complicated gores or wildly curved seams, I just need to sew one panel to the next, add bone casings, insert the busk, slide in the boning, set the grommets, attach garters, and bind the edges. Done.
The pieces assembled beautifully. The curves came together with no struggling, a direct result of taking the time to balance the seam lines and make notch marks. After the pieces were sewn I pressed the seam allowances toward the center front, graded them, and stay stitched them in place. When this was done it was easy to see the waist line and I pinned a waist tape in place before centering the bone casings on the seams and stitching them to the corset.
From the side you can see the front of the corset is fairly straight, (left) but is even more so once the garters are clipped to stockings and anchor the corset down. (center). The corset looks better still when I trade out the ho-hum white chemise and black stockings for racier red versions (right).
The corset looks better still when I trade out the ho-hum white chemise and black stockings for racier red versions, and in an effort to achieve a more period correct look I dressed the model in a low slung strapless bra instead of one with the shoulder straps hiked up.
There are a few adjustments I'd make if this were a mock up to really fine tune the fit, and I'd add a few more bones, but this shows how close you can be if you take your time during patterning. You can see a nice curve along the back, an S-bend if there ever was one. It's easy to image the addition of a petticoat or two with the fullness distributed toward the back would really round out the silhouette. The corset laced closed as soon as I put in on the model, and it fits her well.
I've often heard that Edwardian corsets were not boned on the seams, but the instructions clearly state that this corset should be constructed that way, and it turns out that it creates an amazing shape with a total of only 14 bones, 4 of which are surrounding the grommets. Not bad. As a reminder, the waist on the pattern measured 25 ¾ inches and I reduced it to 24, giving the model a 3 inch waist reduction. The hips were 37 3/8 and I added 5/8 inch to make them an even 38 inches, which was the model's natural hip measurement, so there is no reduction at the hip line.
I think my model could have proudly stood in line with Anna Held's chorus girls in 1902. For the record, the model was standing in heels, but not leaning forward to create any artificial enhancement to the S-bend. Because of the high arch at the front of the hip she could lift her legs easily, she probably could have done can-can high kicks if she had wanted. She had expected the corset to rise higher under the bust, because it didn't, she could move her arms and upper body with no problem. Having read that corsets from this era were very uncomfortable to wear I expected some complaining about her back or ribs hurting, but she mentioned nothing of the sort. I imagine that since this corset does not restrict the chest area it would been ideal for some one who was physically fit and participated in sporting activities.
It's worth taking the time to learn to work with these old patterns because you can make beautiful garments that are just not possible with today's mass market pattern options. If you want to create a historically accurate piece, there is nothing like going to a primary source for your pattern. By using an existing pattern you can build upon expert work, making it possible for you to focus on getting the fit right and the construction perfect. And once you tackle a small project like a corset you can use the same skills to take on a complete ensemble, or adapt a historical pattern to make a more contemporary garment. Have fun with it!
La Mode Illustrée. Volume 52. 30 December, 1906. Paris, France. Director Mme. Aline Raymond.
All other photographs copyright Joanne Arnett 2011.