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Antique Nursing Corset

icon freeFor pregnant women and nursing mothers, historical reenactment presents a special challenge.

While there are extant garments worn for maternity purposes, they are rare. Especially difficult to find are corsets intended for pregnancy or nursing.

This article will guide you through the process of designing and creating your own nursing corset from the Victorian era.

 

Historic Examples

 

Before we can create our own corset, we must examine the efforts of those who have gone before us. Google allows us to browse patent records, so let's look at historic examples of nursing corsets.

 

In 1866, Samuel M. Perry invented a hinged busk that could fold down, for purposes of nursing. This is perhaps the most innovative of the patents, but it lacks practicality. It would require a woman to unfasten her bodice completely in order to access the fold-down front of her corset. There is no way to be discreet with a corset like this.  1866 Patent
In 1878, Henry Strauss patented his idea for a nursing corset. While this concept would require less undressing to allow access to the bust, it appears as though it would be rather uncomfortable while nursing. 1878 Patent
In 1883, G. H. Williams invented a slitted corset for nursing. This would be a good concept, save that the slits lace closed. What mother has time to fiddle with laces while soothing a hungry babe? And then to lace her corset back up again when she is through? Quite impractical. 1883 Patent
In 1883, Isaac Strouse patented a nursing corset with a fold-down flap. This is the most convenient of the lot, being practical and offering discreet, easy access. It could be adapted for modern use easily enough, though what type of fastener used is not apparent. 1883 Patent for nursing flaps
In 1886, J.C. Tallman invented a nursing corset with a pivoting flap. This would perhaps be the easiest with which to gain access, though more difficult to copy at home. 1886 Patent
In 1886, Byron Baldwin patented a variation on the nursing flap, another one that appears easy to use and convenient. 1886 Patent for nursing flaps
In 1888, G. A. Close patented a nursing corset with a waterproof flap. While similar to others we've viewed, this one is unique in that it offers protection against spilled milk. 1888 Patent for nursing flaps
In 1889, Lewis Schiele invented a nursing corset with a swinging hinge flap. This would offer easy access, but like the other pivoting flap, would be more difficult to produce at home. 1889 Patent for hinged nursing flaps

Many of these were no doubt welcomed by women of the time. Others seem less practical, difficult to use, perhaps even uncomfortable. My goal is to create a corset that's both fashionable and practical, and can be worn with comfort and ease by a nursing mother.

Designing a Corset

Cutout for breastfeedingAfter looking at historic methods of making a corset for nursing, it appears as though utilizing a flap will be the easiest and most practical idea. While I like Isaac Strouse's method, we're going to use our own style for the flap. We will make a rounded cutout to allow comfortable access to the breast, and cover it with a buttoning flap. Ideally, the cutout will be just large enough for the front half of the breast to fit through it, in order for the breast to remain supported during feeding.

We might as well make this corset pretty and practical, so I'll be using a sturdy lavender sateen for the fabric. The cups will be corded, both for aesthetic appeal and support, and there will be decorative embroidery to lend a feminine touch.

You may use any corset pattern that works for you, or draft your own corset using the process described in Cathy Hay's article: Draft Your Own Corset. The corset must fit well, especially in the bust. For this demonstration, I will be using an altered version of TV110, available from Truly Victorian.

 

Mock-Up

Breast flapFirst, you'll want to make a mock-up. To ensure a proper fit, take the mock-up all the way: a busk, boning, and lacing in the back.

Once it fits, try the mock-up on to determine the flap placement.

Draw a rounded shape on your mock-up, smaller than your breast. It must be wide enough for the baby to have easy access, but small enough that the breast will not lose support.

Cut a small opening to begin with and enlarge it as necessary. Keep a seam allowance in mind; the edges will be bound with bias tape, so a half-inch will be sufficient.

Your flaps will be attached to the corset over the cutouts. They needn't be exactly the same as the cutout, so choose a configuration that appeals to you. I've used a rounded cup shape, but I've seen elongated triangles, or perfectly round flaps. For our corset, the top edge should the same as the top edge of the corset. Keeping that limitation in mind, play around until you find what works for you. Try different shapes, and angle them for different looks.

After using the corset pattern to draw the top edge, draw the rest of the shape freehand, making sure that it's larger than your bust cutout. Cut out the fabric and pin the flap to your mock-up to ensure that you like the look of it. Remember that the shape must offer adequate support.  

 

Assembling Your Corset

Now you're ready to begin your corset. Cut out your fabric, interlining, and lining.

I'm using a twill sateen for the fashion fabric, regular twill for the interlining, and a cotton batiste for the lining.

Cut out pieces, ready for assembly

Begin by sewing the left side's center front seam. This is the side for the knobbed half of the busk.

Mark the right side carefully, and then sew intermittently, leaving spaces for the busk's latching holes.

Turn the fabric right side out and press.

If you're going to embroider the corset, the time to do it is now, before you've sewn the busk in place.


Insert the busk temporarily, and mark the edges so you know where to place your embroidery. Be sure to line the busk up precisely, and mark where the knobs and holes will be, so that you can embroider around them.

Embroidered busk

I've chosen a two-tone embroidery pattern based on the decoration of an extant corset seen at Lara's Corsets. Standard embroidery floss works just fine.

Be sure to secure the ends well by leaving a long tail and working over it. You can use tiny back stitches, but don't use knots; the fabric is taut over the busk, so any bumps will show.


Once your embroidery is complete, go ahead and sew your busk in place. Finish assembling your corset using your preferred method. I like the directions given by Truly Victorian, but there are several correct ways of sewing a corset. One good resource for options is the book The Basics of Corset Building, by Linda Sparks. 

 Embroidered and sewn busk

Once your corset is sewn together, you'll want to sew boning channels.

Again, if you're going to embroider them, do so before you finalize them and add boning. It's much easier to embroider something when you have free access to both sides of the fabric. If you wait until the bones are installed you'll risk hitting the metal, which could dull your needle and hurt your fingers.

If you choose to embroider after your channels are sewn, but before the boning is installed, you'll need to learn how to sew without access to the other side of the fabric. Since you can't push the needle through from the underside, you'll want to insert your needle at an angle and bring it back up with every stitch. There's a knack to it, but it's easy once you've figured out how. 

 Embroidering the boning channels

Also before inserting boning, add grommets to your corset.

There are several methods available for this purpose. I use a small metal die, available as part of an inexpensive kit, along with a rubber mallet to pound the grommets in place.

Be sure to place boning on either side of the grommets, as this will keep your corset from buckling when you lace it up. 

 Putting in the grommets

Once your corset is fully assembled with grommets and boning, bind the edges with bias tape.

Matching binding looks beautiful, and is easy to accomplish.

You can buy an inexpensive bias tape maker that will make your job effortless. It's a small metal device shaped a bit like a flat funnel. You feed the fabric in one end, and when you pull it out the other end, it's folded into shape. You merely need to press it as you pull it out and you'll have perfect bias tape.

You'll need to fold the tape in half and press it a second time, then use it to bind the edges of your corset. Be sure to ease the binding around the curves of the bust cutouts.

For flawless binding every time, check out Cathy Hay's guide to binding corsets, Don't Let The Binding Get You Down, free at our sister site Your Wardrobe Unlock'd.

 Binding the edges

 

Flossing

Flossing adds a lovely decorative touch, but it also serves a purpose: it secures the boning within the channels and prevents it from shifting around. For an excellent guide to corset flossing, check out Christina Claridge's article, The Basics of Flossing.

For this corset, I chose a two-toned flossing pattern, based on the embroidery from an extant corset. It took two passes to do each motif, because each one uses two colors. The two-tone design adds interest to the corset decoration, but in the interests of saving time, you could use just one color. I repeated the flossing on the inside of the corset, using plain ivory thread and a simpler motif.

Two tone flossing Two tone flossing - detail

 

Now you will want to do any other embroidery you have planned. I made a design inspired by the flossing pattern and placed it between boning channels in the largest panels. At the bottom of every panel, I made a star and arrow design. 

Decorative elements  Decorative elements

 

Bust Flaps

Cut out your fabric, interlining, and lining.

Stack them with wrong sides together, the interlining sandwiched in-between, and baste them together. (Make the pieces a little taller than you need, to allow for the space cording takes up.)

Stitch cording channels across the cups, arcing slightly to accommodate the natural curve of the bust flap. I made two sections, comprised of four rows each.

For the cording, I used ordinary pearl crochet cotton thread. After sewing the channels, use a blunt tapestry needle to thread the crochet thread through. You may need more or less strands, depending on the size of your thread. I wanted really bold, three-dimensional channels, so I began with three strands, but added two more, for a total of five strands per channel.

Cording on bust flaps

Once the cording was finished, I trimmed the excess and then stitched across the edges to secure the cords in place.

I then embroidered the spaces in-between, using the same star and arrow pattern as the front of the busk and the bottom edge of the corset.

I used bias binding to bind the edges of the bust flaps. The corners were tricky, but the advice in Cathy's aforementioned article served me well.

The binding came out almost perfectly—even the corners.

Finished bust flaps

Now that the flaps are complete, you can attach them to the corset.

Place them over the cutouts and adjust until you have the angle just as you like.

Make sure the top edge aligns with the top of the corset, so that it appears to be a continuation of the corset, and not something you tacked on as an afterthought.

Hand sew along the middle of the bottom edge, using a ladder stitch. Stitch only a small area: wide enough that the flap is secure, but able to fold down easily.

Sew a pair of small shank buttons directly to the corset, one on each side of the flap.

Add loops to the top corners of the flaps. These can be of narrow ribbon, elastic cord, or thread. Make them only slightly larger than the buttons, and be sure to secure them well.

Attaching the bust flaps

 

Milk Guards

Milk guardsFor the final step, we're going to make a set of quilted flannel pads to absorb any milk that might leak. They will be the same shape as the bust flaps, just a little smaller.

  • Cut these pads out of three layers of white flannel. Subtract the seam allowance from the third layer, so that it's half an inch smaller all around.
  • Place the two larger layers right sides together and sew around the edges, leaving a small gap with which to turn the pads right side out.
  • Flip right side out.
  • Insert the third layer inside, and hand stitch the gap shut.
  • Press the pads flat.
  • Now quilt them in whatever design you like. I chose vertical lines that slant diagonally, but you could do horizontal lines, a cross-hatching, or any design that succeeds in quilting the three layers together. 

I found that the milk guards stayed in place fairly well on their own, but if you'd like to secure them, add ribbon ties, snaps, or buttons. These pads can be removed and laundered as often as necessary to keep the corset clean and milk-free.
Thus concludes our corset-making journey! 

The finished corset The finished corset
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dazeoflaur  
  I have to make one of these this year as I'll have a newborn come Oct....  
 
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corsetra  
  yay for an article on nursing corsets! I am looking forward to a time when I DONT need nursing corsets.

How well did this opening work? tried any others?
 
 
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Lisha_Vidler  
  Corsetra, I didn't wear the corset for a long period of time, but the bust flaps seemed to work pretty well. I'm not actually a nursing mother--the corset was made for a contest last year--but I tried it on and it seemed to work as it should. Now, the buttons came undone very easily, so if anything, I would make the buttons a little larger, or the loops a little snugger, to make sure they don't come undone at inopportune moments.

I haven't tried any other types of openings. This one seemed practical and looked pretty, so it suited my purposes.
 
 
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jobridges  
  Very interesting!  
 
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