C. Claridge takes us through each step in creating simple to complex flossing designs.
She covers different threads to use, the right needles and the basic stitches as well how to design your own decorative, yet functional, flossing designs.
Flossing is the decorative embroidery often seen at the top and bottom of corsets. It is placed at the ends of boning channels to strengthen them, protecting the fabric from the wear of the bones moving within their channels. Flossing is also used at points of weakness, such as gusset points, to provide extra protection against the fabric tearing. At these locations, flossing may take on a more decorative form, growing into bouquets of flowers or multicoloured geometric designs.
According to Doyle, flossing came into existence at the same time as alternatives to steel stiffeners in the mid-19th century.1 While it is true that flossing became popular at this time, and the alternatives provided less resistance to machine embroidery needles, the popularity of flossing is probably more related to the increasing complexity of corset construction from the 1820s onwards.2
Waugh reprints instructions for a 1908 corset, which can be made with whalebone or steels, and includes the instructions, “The bones must be “fanned” with twist at both ends.”3 Advertisements refer to “steels all securely end stitched”4, which would seem to indicate that the majority of flossing was practical and basic, rather than ornamental.
Basic types consist of variations on the arrowhead, fan or cross design. These are relatively quick and easy to sew by hand, even over steel bones. Contemporary embroidery manuals do not appear to mention flossing, arguing that the stitches were well known as basic sewing stitches to everyone, or that anything more complicated than basic fans or crosses were reserved for commercial corsetieres.
Flossing is frequently seen in a contrasting colour to the fashion fabric, as in the Kyoto Costume Collection (click the big red button and look under 1900 in the new window). Detailed photographs of self-coloured examples from 1887 and the early 1890s are shown in “Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail”5 and on the Victoria and Albert Museum website.
There is also a collection of decoratively flossed corsets collected from various auctions at Lara Corsets.
A Practical Guide for Your Own Flossing
I usually use several strands of sewing or buttonhole thread together. Choice of thread depends on the complexity of the pattern, how much you want the flossing to contrast with the fabric of the corset, and how much effort it will take to sew it.
Ordinary sewing thread or quilting cotton works well, especially doubled, and with practice can provide the smooth satin-stitch appearance of machine embroidery. Buttonhole thread is also easy to use, providing a relatively smooth appearance while providing a strong barrier against the bone poking through the corset.
An even thicker thread, such as crochet cotton or fine knitting yarn can also be used, but the effort of pushing the needle through several layers of closely woven fabric, sometimes at difficult angles, could make these options less attractive. Also available is silk thread, which I have no experience with, or embroidery cotton. Embroidery cotton is too loosely spun to be functional and hardwearing. Silk thread may provide an attractive sheen to the flossing.
The strength of a thread can be easily ascertained by trying to snap a thread between your hands. Embroidery floss breaks easily, buttonhole thread cuts the hands.
(left to right) shows: 4ply knitting wool, beading thread, buttonhole thread, crochet cotton, and quilting thread (100% cotton)
Another specialist thread to consider is Coton perle no.5 (finer) and no.8 (coarser), which has a lovely sheen and strength.
Always use a sharp needle slightly longer than you think you need, as some of the angles needed are acute. Ensure the needle is strong enough that it will not snap when pushed against a bone. A thimble, even if not normally used, may help push the needle through the layers of fabric.
The most difficult stitch is the one that runs down the length of the bone, as it is difficult to control the needle. However, with planning to adjust the stitch before and after, or by including a small surface stitch, this stitch can be arranged. Do not try and push the needle through spiral steel boning, because, if successful, the flexibility of the boning will cut the thread. Unsuccessful attempts usually result in a broken needle, which is irritating. Try and avoid as many curved lines as possible, as these are the hardest to reproduce. They can be used, but are ornamental and must be carefully placed.
Depending on how many layers your corset has, and what stage the flossing is applied at, it is easiest to start with a quilting knot. A knot is tied about an inch from the end of the thread, the needle is threaded through one layer only, and then the knot is “popped” through the fabric.
The knot rests between the layers of fabric, or in the boning channel, and is invisible from both sides of the corset.
The same principle can be applied to finishing. A knot is made close (about 1/8”) past the point where the next thread would enter the fabric. The stitch is sewn, and the knot is “popped” through the fabric.
As the risk is high of the fabric bunching if the thread is pulled too hard, I find it is best to keep a thumb clamped on the surface of the stitch when the knot is pulled through the fabric. For extra security, this quilting knot can be repeated with a small stitch in between.
Examples of arrowhead, fan and cross flossing - diagrams for the stitches.
Solid lines indicate thread on the surface of the cloth, dotted lines represent thread on the back of the cloth. (In the cross diagram, the example has been created in the reverse direction, as D → C → B → A.)
These basic stitches can then be elaborated into more decorative flossing. In the boning channel example show above, it is only the final thistles (a modified arrowhead design) that are holding the bones in position.
Process that I use to design a flossing pattern:
1. Check on the space available. Where do you want the flossing to stop the bone? Most flossing lies alongside the bone for a distance. If you decide to embroider above the bone, ensure that part of the design stops the bone squarely.
2. Decide on a pattern. Will it cover only one end of a steel, or should it cover more than one? Should the pattern be reversed for the other side of the corset? Is there to be more than one colour? How does the flossing interact with the fabric? (for example, in this design, I should have used a darker red to contrast against the taffeta.)
3. Elaborate on pattern. For example, do you want embroidery down the front busk, or at the gusset points? Can a related pattern be drafted for these places, or will a simple fan complement the pattern?
4. Create sample. Check for dominant lines that would overwhelm the corset, or any lines that would be unattractive when repeated. Adjust colours or lines if necessary.
5. Apply to corset. For larger or more complicated designs, it is best to lightly surface stitch the main guidelines, leaving the ends of the thread loose, and then remove them as each is embroidered.
Here is the step-by-step process of creating the flossing design shown right, using crochet cotton to show the stitches clearly.
6. Don't be afraid to experiment, and share your designs with us so that we can all learn together!
Corset Flossing Design LibraryDon't forget to check out our unique library of original Victorian flossing designs to give you ideas for your own corsets!
 Doyle, R. (1997). Waisted efforts: an illustrated guide to corset making. Stratford, Ont.: Sartorial Press, p.126.
 Waugh, N. (1954). Corsets and crinolines. London: B.T. Batsford, p.83.
 Ibid, p.160.
/Simpson’s catalogue, 1912.
 Johnson, L. (2005). Nineteenth-century fashion in detail. London: V&A Publications, p.144.