When I first started constructing corsets, finding the right tool for the right job was a real pain. When you think about it, a lot of the tools needed to make a good quality corset can’t be found in the average haberdasher's shop.
There are a myriad of possibilities, so which are the right tools to use?
I have found that there isn’t one tool to suit all. What some people swear by, others have completely sworn off. The trick is to find what is right for you and what serves to increase your productivity and accuracy. So I will share some of what is in my toolbox, what has been relegated to the scrapheap and why.
The first essential is Reynolds Freezer Paper, which is freely available in the US and can be sourced abroad on sites like eBay (be sure to shop around as prices vary wildly). You might also find it in some haberdasheries and craft stores - look for stores with a large quilting department (freezer paper is a quilter’s favourite).
I have been specific with the brand here because it is the only one I have used and it’s fantastic. Essentially, it's paper with a plastic coating on the underside, and I use it to transfer my pattern to fabric for cutting.
I always draw up my patterns on thick card. This makes it easy to draw around accurately, and less risk of damaging the pattern means that it is available to use again. Once I have drawn up my pattern, I transfer it on to the freezer paper.
I love it because there is no need to pin it to the fabric, which I hate doing. Pinning takes me forever because I worry about the fabric “shifting” and the distortion to the pattern that the pins make – especially with thicker fabrics like coutil.
To use freezer paper you simply draw your pattern piece on the dull side, lay it on top of your fabric (shiny side down) and run a warm iron over it. The plastic coating melts and sticks the paper to the fabric. I have heard people say that there is a risk of the plastic coating seeping into the fabric, but I have never experienced this in six years of using it, even on delicates such as silk. When you need to remove it, you simply hold one corner and pull it off.
I draw all of the pieces I need on the freezer paper and then use it to cut out the fashion fabric, strength layer (coutil, drill, canvas) and the lining. The beauty of it is that you can re-use a single sheet three to four times.
I have tried other methods, such as using brown paper and baking parchment (the pin issue crops up again), and placing the pattern on the fabric and drawing round it – sadly my hands are not that steady and I get a little obsessive about copying things across exactly. A few millimetres here and there add up in the end!
Some people use tracing wheels to mark out seam allowances or bone channel placement. I can’t get on with them; I struggle to see the marks they have left, and drawing over them accurately in chalk is time-consuming.
I don’t use a tracing wheel to mark out seam allowances; instead I use the stitching guide on the right of the machine. It saves a lot of time, especially if you have to adjust the seam allowance during the fitting stage. If I need to let in/out a certain area on a seam I will mark it with chalk from where the increase/decrease starts to where it stops and then continue to use the guide on the machine.
To mark internal boning channels that aren't on a seam I reuse the freezer paper from cutting out the pattern. I cut down one of the lines and then fix the paper back on the fabric with an iron. Then I take out my trusty tailor’s chalk and trace the edge of the cut line.
I use this for any bone casing that is not on a seam, and line up my bone casing along this line. I then use this line as a guide for stitching.
You can also cut out strips of freezer paper 2mm smaller than the width of your boning channels, iron them on to your panel piece and stitch along the edge of each side – I find this is a great way to stitch curved boning channels and a great way to mark out and stitch heavily boned sections.
Tacking down external boning channels is a real pain, and it takes forever. A great time saver is to cut a strip of Wonderweb that is half the size of your boning channel and use this to “stick” your channels to your panel ready for stitching.
For curved channels, use little squares of wonder web placed close together for the curved sections.
Scissors or Rotary Cutters?
I prefer rotary cutters for a number of reasons. I find them easier to work with when cutting through several layers at once; they are quicker and more accurate than scissors; and I don’t get cramp in my hands when I need to cut a lot of fabric in one go. I use a 45mm cutter for general cutting and a 28mm cutter for more intricate tasks.
A word of warning – you will need to buy a self-healing cutting mat or you will damage your work surface.
Some people say the replacement blades are expensive, but I would have to disagree. I find the blades last a long time, and buying new ones is cheaper than paying to have your scissors sharpened properly (I never could get the hang of sharpening them myself).
In fact, I bought a spare pack of blades when I bought my cutters about four years ago, and I have yet to open them. I bought a blade sharpener instead (right hand side of rotary cutters photo), which is very effective and easy to use, and very cheap! You can find them in your haberdashers, hobby shops or (my personal favourite) eBay.
It probably sounds silly to put it on the list, because I never used a thimble in my first seventeen years of sewing. Then again, I had never tried to stitch through several layers of coutil either. One painful slip and the blunt end buried itself under my nail. Ouch! So for me, thimbles have earned a mention.
When hand stitching through several layers of coutil (especially when flossing) it can be tricky to pull the needle through the fabric. A simple but fantastic invention to the rescue!
Needle grabbers are circular rubber pads that you place between your fingers when pulling the needle through the fabric. They can be found in haberdashers (in the quilting section) and cost about UK£1.50 (US$2) for two.
Awl vs. hole punches vs. hole cutters
One of my favourites: people have such passionate points of view on this. I’ve heard lots of people say that cutting holes in fabric is a big no-no and will end in disaster with eyelets falling out and fabric tearing itself to shreds. My opinion is that if you use the right technique and good quality eyelets, then they are all viable options.
An awl is a metal rod with a pointed end. To use it, you push the pointed end through the fabric to create a hole without cutting the threads of the fabric.
I have eight awls in my toolbox – sadly none of them are used to make holes for eyelets. I find pushing one through several layers of fabric is tricky, time-consuming and hurts my hands - which is why I bought so many, hoping that the next one would make it easier.
I do use them to make holes for the knobs on my busks for single and double layer corsets.
Nail punches are essentially hollow tubes of metal with the edge of one end sharpened. You place the nail punch on the area of the fabric where you need a hole, and while holding it steady you hit the top end with a rubber mallet.
I tried nail punches for a while and found them to be a good tool. However, I tend not to use them now as it can be a little noisy and I have a habit of working into the wee hours. If you do try them, be sure to grip them in the middle, just to be sure you don’t hit your fingers or catch your skin under the sharpened end.
Protect your worktable! I stuck some cork onto a small square of steel and placed this under the fabric so that I didn’t hammer the table.
Hole cutters are, for me, the best tool ever - quick, effective and easy to use. Select the size of the hole you want, line up your fabric and squeeze the handles, and voila! A perfect hole through all layers.
A huge word of warning here, don’t buy cheap hole cutters. Often the sharpened edge will buckle with the force needed to cut through several layers of fabric and you will strain your hands. I've had episodes in which I've not been able to use my hands for days at a time. The reason? Cheap hole cutters.
If you need to squeeze the handles tightly to cut your hole, the hole cutter is not suitable and you need to get a new pair. I went through several pairs, literally snapping some, before I found the right ones.
I use Prym’s Vario pliers. You only need a minimal amount of pressure to cut through several layers of fabric at once. The cutting heads are interchangeable (you can also change them for tools for applying different types of fasteners) and the best part is that a new set of cutting heads comes free in every pack of eyelets! I’ve not needed to replace mine yet in three years! They are available in haberdashers, online and yet again, the fabulous eBay.
If you are unsure which to pick, ask to try them out in the store – take a few pieces of folded coutil with you for this. If you are unable to do this, then ask if you would be able to return them if they are not up to the task and remember who you spoke to! Most people are intrigued and will let you have a go!
Tin Snips vs. Bolt Cutters
Again, opinion is divided. For spiral boning I choose heavy duty bolt cutters. Nine times out of ten, they cut through like butter. I’ve found the best way is to snip one side first and then the other, as opposed to trying to cut through the boning in one go.
For flat steels and busks I use heavy duty tin snips.
Another word of caution, for exactly the same reason as given for hole cutters, please buy the best pair you can and make sure they are “heavy duty”. They don’t need to be big enough for a bank robbery, but they do need to be able to apply a lot of pressure without forcing you to strain your hands. Again, where possible, try before you buy, and if not, check the returns policy. Be prepared for some quizzical looks as you pull out your boning, and expect lots of “Looks uncomfortable” and “Really, you put that in underwear?” comments. The hardware store where I got my bolt cutters from (amongst other things) are now well versed in “It’s only uncomfortable if it’s made badly” and “See, look, it bends in all directions”. There are some fantastic bargains to be had if you look online, but be sure you are getting a bargain and not a cheap tool that is not up to the task.
It’s important that the ends of your bones are smooth before capping/dipping them.
The first thing I used was a metal file and sandpaper.
This was the cheapest of all the methods I have used and while I was happy with the results, it took a fair amount of time to complete the task.
Next I used a Dremel tool, which was faster but I didn’t like the vibration it caused. It was great for precision filing and was worth the extra pennies when compared to the metal file and sandpaper method.
After the dremel I tried a friend’s bench grinder and have never looked back. It’s fast, very accurate and will file the ends of spiral bones in seconds (I’ve always found spiral bones to be the trickiest to file). My bench grinder has a grinding wheel and a sandpaper belt. I use the grinding wheel for shaping the ends of flat steels and the sandpaper belt for filing the ends of spiral bones, ensuring that the ends of my steels are blunt and smooth. You don’t need a top-of-the-range model: a basic bench grinder will be more than effective, but a sanding belt is a huge bonus if you can get one.
The Trick with Eyelets
As I said earlier, I think the key to lasting eyelets is a good technique and quality eyelets. I make sure to cut a hole slightly smaller than the eyelet I am fitting, so for a 5mm eyelet, I use the 4mm cutting head.
When I first started I confess I didn’t use washers, but I was converted when trying to lace up a corset to photograph and found two eyelets had ripped out and a third was on its way. I always use washers on the back of my eyelets now. It looks more professional, is more comfortable for the client and it is secure.
I have made three corsets which have dramatically altered the client's figure and used the technique of cutting holes and eyelets with washers. After three years of frequent wearing, the eyelets are still holding strong without any sign of the strain they are put under.
One other tip which I consider essential is to make sure you always use a facing layer of your strength fabric in the area where eyelets are applied to strengthen the grip of the eyelets.
But how do you insert eyelets?
Often packs will come with a little tool that you can use with a hammer to close the eyelets. I’m not keen on these, mainly because hammering eyelets in can be noisy and it is difficult to visually check on what you are doing. But the bonus is that this method doesn’t put any strain on your hands.
Pliers and Dies
Some brands, such as Prymm, include dies in packs of eyelets which you can use with multi-purpose pliers (purchased separately). These are great, but they can put a strain on your hands.
I used this method of setting eyelets until recently, when an injury to my wrist made it almost impossible to use them. Again, these are available in haberdashers, in craft stores and online.
Eyelet Setting Press
I brought a hand press a few months ago and I love it! It takes 90% of the strain out of the job, and it sets the eyelets beautifully. They're expensive if you are only making a few corsets a year, but if you are making a lot of corsets then it is a great investment.
You can get presses that cut the holes and set the eyelets without needing to change the dies (which is a great time saver and saves the frustration of having to keep switching). If you can afford it, invest in a measuring guide for your press: it makes lining up your fabric much easier.
It’s important to shop around as prices vary greatly.
I have found that proper lighting on your work table can save straining your eyes and improve the standard of your work. The light on my sewing machine is nowhere near bright enough, especially when stitching the dreaded black on black.
It has a long tube that floods your work area with a natural light that allows you to see all the details of your work clearly – without giving you a headache. It enables you to focus on a particular area without straining your eyes, especially when stitching black on black. It has four points for adjustment and so will manage any angle you need it to get into. The G-clamp frees up space on your work area and means you can stretch it out without fear of the lamp falling over, and it allows you to move about freely. The best part: it costs a fraction of the price of "craft" lamps, which to my mind do exactly the same thing.
The hardest lesson I’ve learnt in my career so far is that it can be dangerous not to invest in the right tools. Aside from the effect they have on your corset, you only get one pair of hands. So it is essential that your tools do not place unnecessary strain on your hands and damage them. It really is so easy to do. So make sure you have the best tools you can afford, and remember to take lots of breaks when doing strenuous work.