In this article I’ll explore Catharine A. Griswold’s Corset Patent No. 291335. With eight panels per side - 16 pieces total around the body - this pattern’s large number of vertical seams allows the corsetmaker plenty of areas where the garment can be adjusted. In the inventor’s own words: “The object of the peculiar construction of the corset herein described and claimed is to produced [sic] a more perfect and easy fit or adaptation of the corset to the form of the wearer than can be otherwise effected.”
From the drawing and written specifications, we can see that the corset has the following attributes and features:
- It looks like a fairly short mid- to overbust.
- Short hips flaring outwards.
- Busk curving inwards at the waist with only three hooks.
- Small discs at the top and bottom of each busk bone - knobs/buttons for closure or for supporting other garments perhaps? I asked Melanie Talkington, a foremost collector of extant antique corsets, if she had any insights into what these might be. She said that they may have been buttons or snaps used to secure a cover over the busk hardware, to open the top for nursing, or to secure bloomers, petticoats, or garters at the bottom. She even has a maternity corset in her collection (featured on the front of the 2013 Antique Corset Calendar) that uses a pair of these buttons to attach fan lacing across the bust, but it dates from 1903, 20 years later. (There is no mention in the patent specifications of the buttons, or what their purpose was, but a big thankyou to Melanie for suggesting a few possibilities!).
- Shoulder straps, attached at the back “to the upper ends of the three pieces 6, 7, and 8” and joining with buckles to the tabs in the front. In the specification, the inventor states a preference for adding straps but notes that they are not essential to her design.
- Topstitching throughout the panels nearly everywhere except in the trim-lined hip swell areas.
- Decorative trim along top edge, extending across the bust from one strap to the other.
- All other edges (including the edges of the straps) have a plain narrow binding.
- Wide gap in the back.
- Only seven lacing grommets shown per side.
- Ribbon lacing with a bow tied at the waist.
- Two gores on either side of the bust and two back-gores, which do not appear on the flat pattern (and are not mentioned anywhere in the specifications) but do appear in the drawing (the darker, wrinkly-looking areas).
- No clear indication of externally visible boning channels except possibly between pieces 1 and 2. Although the drawings are very detailed, I see no wide parallel channels, flossing, or other indications; most of the bones might be hidden/internal.
Pattern scaling and resizing using a computer
Using the method I described here, I scaled up the pattern in Photoshop.
I had to both lengthen and narrow the entire pattern slightly because I have a fairly long torso; intuitive modifications like these can be made at your discretion if you’re enlarging a pattern and find that the overall proportions aren’t quite right. The pattern scaled up quite well after this, and the eventual measurements came very close to my own thanks to the slight horizontal compression and vertical stretching.
Griswold’s flat pieces don’t appear to have seam allowances, so I decided to allow for them after printing (more on that topic later). My gridded and scaled pattern looked like this:
Vertical pattern [versus actual body measurements in square brackets] with observations:
- Bust to Underbust: 2” (5cm) [3” (7.5cm)] - will need to add some height to the top edge.
- Underbust to Waist: 3-3/8” (8.5cm) [3” (7.5cm)] - pretty close.
- Waist to Hip: 3-5/8” (9.25cm) [4” (10.25cm)] - pretty close again.
Horizontal pattern [versus actual body measurements in square brackets] with observations:
- Bust: 35-1/4” (89.5cm) [34" (86.5cm)] - will need to subtract half of 1-1/4” (3.25cm) from the pattern: -5/8” (1.5cm).
- Underbust: 30-1/4” (77cm) [30-1/2“ (77.5cm)] - almost exact.
- Waist: 22-1/2” (57cm) [natural: 28-1/2” (72.5cm) reduced: 22-1/2“ (57cm)] - 6” (15cm) is a good amount of reduction for me.
- Hip: 33-1/4” (84.5cm) [33“ (84cm)] - almost exact again.
I prefer to do finer measurement modifications and deal with seam allowances by hand-drawing them, so the above measurements were close enough that I could go ahead and print the pieces.
Modifying the paper pattern
I made a few adjustments where needed, shown in red, on the printout: dark red areas to be subtracted, and light red ones to be added. I decided that the underbust, waist, and hip measurements were close enough and could be left as-is. The bust width had to be decreased, with increases in curve and coverage at the top edge.
I did not add gores to pieces 1, 2, and 8, as shown in the drawing - if my bust and/or hips were larger (or if the difference between my measurements were greater) I might have chosen to do so. There are no gore pieces or slits marked on the pattern, so I decided to treat these as solid panels. However, in the future it might be interesting to try re-drafting these three pieces so they are less flared, cut slits, and add gores.
I had scaled my pattern up without allowing for a lacing gap in the back. Deciding on 3/8” (1cm) seam allowances, I figured I’d simply add a little less of an allowance to the edges of my pattern pieces (not including the very front and very back edges) - about 1/8” (0.3cm) less per edge - so that, when sewn together using the intended allowance:
28 edges x -1/8” (-0.32cm) = -3-1/2” (about -9cm) decrease in overall measurements
This would theoretically a wide gap at the back of the corset similar to the one on the drawing. I traced around my pieces onto a new sheet of paper and added 1/4” (0.6cm) instead of 3/8” (1cm), carrying the horizontal waist line over onto the new copies. As a final step, allowances were made for the back lacing and front busk.
I cut out my fabric pieces - there are so many, some similarly-shaped, so I decided to make it easier by labelling them as shown with a marker. I joined them, made rough channels out of the seam allowances, and added boning, a busk, waist tape, and lacing panels.
Once I was laced in, it was tricky to avoid indecent exposure - obviously I hadn’t raised the top edge of the bust enough! Although the bust shaping looked good, more height was definitely needed. I drew a dotted line on myself at the height I wanted for visual reference and measured accordingly. The straps, too, needed to be lengthened - something I hadn’t even considered or measured for in my pattern scaling.
The hips flared a little wide, and the front of the corset jutted out a bit too much, so I decided to reduce the bottom of piece 4, shading the area in pencil on my mockup.
Despite my sneaky trick with the seam allowances, the gap in the back was much narrower than I had planned for it to be. Maybe I just squished a little more than I thought I would? I didn’t really mind this, though, since I generally prefer a smaller gap.
Second mockup and final minor alterations to the pattern
Using the information from mockup #1, I made some revisions. Dark red areas represent subtractions, and light red areas are additions. (I marked the four revised pieces “A”)
The new pattern produced this result:
Better! Still a little roomy in the bust, with hollow areas under the breasts; the corset didn’t curve in sharply towards the body and hug the ribcage underneath them, so I subtracted a bit of the pattern at this seam. Having raised the top edge of piece 2, I decided to add a bit more height to the top corner of piece 3, creating a smoother height transition between the pieces under the arms. The straps also didn’t seem to be angled enough towards centre back. I made the following modifications to my pattern:
I felt confident enough making these changes without sewing a third mockup - risky, but I have enough experience that I figured these small changes would work out just fine. If you’re ever unsure of yourself or a change to your pattern, make a new mockup. (I almost wish I had - read on to find out why!)
I also drew lines over the hips on the mockup where I wanted the hip trim to go - I transferred these lines to my paper pattern and you can see how I used them in Figure 17.
Design and materials
I usually take my design cues from a teacup, so for this corset I chose a pretty pink rose cup - the finely fluted surface of the china reminds me of the corset’s multiple seams and lines of vertical stitching.
- Plain white cotton coutil and twill tape for strength layer, bone channels, and waist tape,
- Pale green dupioni silk for the main body of the corset,
- Pink rose-patterned cotton for the lining,
- Light and dark pink silks to create contrasting pink areas and bias trim,
- Silver size 00 grommets,
- Silver 1/8” mini eyelets,
- 12” silver busk,
- 1” wide buckles,
- Flat and spiral 1/4” boning to be cut to size,
- Metal end caps for the boning,
- Rose polyester satin ribbon lacing,
- Matching light and dark pink threads for topstitching, white and neutral threads for all other seams.
I wanted to have a little fun with colour blocking, to highlight some of the interesting features of the corset; making the hip swell areas and straps light pink, creating bias binding out the of dark pink silk, and having the main body in green with rose-coloured contrast topstitching. I did a few quick coloured overlays using Photoshop to better visualize my idea (and make sure it didn’t look silly) before proceeding.
Constructing the corset
I cut all the pieces out of each of the three basic types of fabric. The lining fabric was prewashed, ironed, cut, its pieces assembled, and set aside. I flatline-stitched the green silk to the coutil so these could be handled and sewn together as one.
I then cut pieces of light pink silk to flatline to the bottoms of pieces 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, based on the lines I had drawn on the hips of my mockup.
With so much topstitching on this corset, I decided to add most of it to the individual pieces before assembling them. I drew lines on my paper pattern pieces based on what I saw in Fig. 2 and Fig. 3, then cut them apart and pinned them to my fabric as shown, using them as guides for my stitching. After doing this to one side, I flipped my cut paper templates over and used them on the other side of the corset to mirror the placement.
I decided to double the lines of topstitching, because they appear to be doubles in the drawings. I made sure to treat both sides the same, adding my second lines on the same sides of the first ones, to keep the topstitching symmetrical.
I usually start by installing a busk, but I wanted to try adding it at a later stage because of the amount of detail work involved on the rest of the corset. Working front-to-back, I combined all the pieces with a 3/8” (1cm) seam allowance, using short tight stitches for strength. I used the allowance between pieces 1 and 2 as the channel for the boning on that seam, topstitching it according to what I saw in Fig. 2. I pressed the remaining seams open flat, and added topstitching down both sides of every seam.
Hiding the bone channels behind the seams was something I’d never done before. After cutting and tipping my bones, I made casings out of the allowances: folding one side, then the other, over each bone, then hand-stitching them tightly together. This created some fairly bulky seams, and if I were to do it over again I’d try a different method to cut down on seam bulk, but the bones stayed in place nicely and it was convenient because I didn’t have to create separate casings.
I noticed on my mockup that the waist tape seemed to be angling down towards the back edges of the corset, so in the final version I made an on-the-spot decision to angle it slightly upwards - about 1” (2.5cm) above where I had originally thought it should go - which was not uncommon in corsets from this era.
I folded the back edges over onto themselves and sewed the channels for the flat steel bones. Although Fig. 3 does not show visible topstitches beside the grommets, I wanted to add some, along with more than just seven grommets per side, as a personal choice for durability and strength. (Plus, I loved the look of the rose-on-green topstitching so much, I couldn’t stop topstitching!)
I set all but the top and bottom grommets, and left the channel on the other side of the grommets unsewn; I decided that these steps would be better left until a later stage.
I trimmed the hip sections with an edging of handmade bias tape, folded into thirds and machine stitched down both sides before applying it to the corset with hand stitches. I had already added the channels and bones, so there was no easy way to use a machine for this step. I feel that I have more control when I sew by hand, and these sections weren’t large or time-consuming. My hand-stitches were hidden discreetly among the machine stitches.
The straps were sewn to the outer and lining layers with a 1/4” (0.6cm) allowance, with a line of topstitching on the outer layer just like in Fig. 3. I left the strap lining free of piece 8 (as seen in the top portion of the following picture) so I could fold and hand-stitch it to the inside back of the corset later.
After installing the busk, I wanted to try it on and make sure I was on-track. First, I gave the busk a bit of an inward curve at the bottom by bending it ever so gently, so it wouldn’t peak outwards over my stomach. Although the corset fit a bit smaller overall - probably due to the thickness of the interior bone channels - the bust was still a bit too roomy. I made the decision to smooth and fill out the bust with some foam bra cups I had on-hand. This is not an historically accurate solution, of course, but I felt it was the best option available. I tacked the cups onto the coutil with a few strong hand stitches - they would be hidden by the lining.
After securing the cups and then the lining at the back beside the grommets, I machine-sewed the final vertical line of stitching to complete the last channel beside the grommets. The last bones were inserted. I hand-basted the lining to the top and bottom edges, made narrow 3/8” (1cm) bias strips out of my dark pink silk, and bound the top and bottom edges. Topstitching was done by machine. The final four grommets were set.
I made a small hole with an awl for the buckle to go through the strap tab, then folded the tab over and hand-stitched it down securely.
Then it was time to lace it up and try it on quickly, to determine where the grommets on the straps should go. I added a small silver eyelet to each strap. (Although there is no indication of eyelets on the straps, I wanted to reinforce the holes.)
This was a challenging project for me, and it took me out of my comfort zone by allowing me to try a few things I’d never done before:
- Symmetrical topstitching prior to the assembly of the corset,
- Contrasting fabric overlays (on the bottom of pieces 2,3,4,5,6, and 7),
- Internal boning channels,.
- Straps and buckles
Slight changes made to the pattern, hardware, and overall design:
- No bust or back hip gores,
- Sweetheart neckline (as opposed to being straight across),
- The pattern had to be stretched/lengthened quite a bit vertically, to fit my torso,
- No knobs on the ends of the busk, more posts and loops because I used a modern busk, and I curved it slightly at the bottom instead of leaving it straight,
- Extra grommets and topstitching at the back,
- Eyelets on straps, with the straps lengthened considerably to accommodate my shoulders.
I love the look of the finished piece and I think - apart from the short list of changes mentioned - it looks remarkably similar to the drawings included in the patent. When I have time, I would like to add front and back modesty panels, and a decorative trim to the top front edge between the buckles (probably roses handmade from all the scraps I have left of my two colours of pink silk). I’ll admit that this corset isn’t the most comfortable I’ve ever made; laced down to 22-1/2” I will probably not be able to wear it for long periods of time, since the interior channels dig in quite a bit and this is a more authentic antique shape than I’m used to wearing. Overall, I believe I could benefit from reworking the pattern a little more and trying a second version, finding an alternate method of making internal boning channels and accounting for these in my pattern and construction methods. I have another teacup in the same shape with a different surface pattern and colour scheme, so it might be fun to use as my inspiration for a future attempt!