Many corsetieres would have you believe that a "real" corset is only made from coutil. It is the official fabric of corsetmaking, designed for that specific purpose. However, not only are there several reputable contemporary corsetmakers not using coutil, but our recent trip to Symington's corset museum reveals that not a few historic corsets were single layer affairs of plain-weave cotton.
Coutil is generally characterized by its fine, tight herringbone weave, which provides exceptional stability under high tension. Satin and brocade coutils are also available, so the term coutil describes not a particular weave but the intended end use of the fabric. (More about this self-reflexive definition and how it affects you later.)
Coutil itself can be subject to hype and is actually available in different grades of quality. The purpose of this article is not to guide you to one "right answer," but to help you learn to identify the general characteristics that make a fabric well-suited to the demands of corsetmaking.
Swatches of various types of coutil from Richard the Thread
So why not use coutil anyway? How can you argue with a fabric whose entire purpose is to make beautiful, strong corsets? There are a variety of reasons why a corsetmaker may choose not to use coutil:
In my case, I am committed to making Pop Antique a line that uses sustainably sourced fabrics. In the end I settled on a domestically-produced organic cotton canvas for the base layer that goes into every single corset.
A quick blurb about organic cotton: Conventionally grown cotton takes up about 2.5% of cropland... and consumes 16% of pesticides. As far as "dirty crops" go, non-organic cotton is literally the dirtiest.
Since the same strength layer fabric gets used in every corset I produce, I decided it was most important to use a sustainable fabric there, rather than in the constantly-changing fashion fabrics. Using a "special needs" fabric doesn't mean you have to compromise on quality, if you're willing to go through a bit of effort with sourcing.
You may find that it takes a couple samples or so before you really know whether a fabric will work or not, so it may be best to start off purchasing a small yardage before you commit to a bulk order with its associated discount. You're not saving money if the fabric doesn't work out, though you can still keep the less favorable fabrics around for samples and mockups.
There are several methods for sourcing fabrics, and I wouldn't recommend sticking to just one. What feels like a daunting process the first time around gets easier as you gain familiaritywith it.
The first sourcing method most sewers learn is to wander around their local and not-so-local fabric shops or districts. This is dangerous for your pocketbook because you're probably going to see and fall in love with other fabrics, not related to your quest, in the process, so keep your blinders on and stay focused.
You might ask your other designer friends where they get their fabric and hope they're willing to share, though some will consider such hard-earned information confidential.
Or you could ask our good friend Google, who doesn't care about such things, and see what pops up. Some fabric suppliers, both brick-and-mortar and online, will provide swatches for free or for a nominal fee (usually around 50¢ per swatch).
It's sometimes possible to order a swatch kit of a company's entire catalog. If you call or email a company and give them a general idea of what you're looking for, they can pick things out for you, or you can select specific fabrics from an online catalog.
If you're visiting a shop, some don't allow swatches, or have a limit on the number you can take, and you'll have to examine the fabrics while you're there, rather than taking them home or to your studio to ponder extensively.
A Short List of Basic Properties
So what qualities do you look for in these fabrics?
You want a fabric that is:
Stability is arguably the most important of these qualities. A big part of a fabric's stability is determined by the weave of the fabric. While denim is often used for beginners' corsets, it's unsuitable for long-term or professional use because denim's twill weave is on a diagonal. I've never used denim to make a corset, but supposedly it twists because of this (I believe it). It is said you can offset this by flipping each panel to alternate diagonals and balance it out. I imagine it's also harder to navigate the grain line on denim, and cutting your fabric off-grain can also lead to twisting. A plain weave or a herringbone both have a weave that is already balanced, so you only have to worry about one grain line and not the nap of the fabric.
I usually start with about two to three inches of fabric between my hands, then I might try for a bigger piece if I'm looking at yardage and not just a swatch.
Test both grainlines and the bias, just to really get a sense for it. If you can stretch it a fair bit just by tugging with your hands, imagine the force exerted on it when it's compressing the wearer's waist for hours on end each time it's worn.
It helps if you can do this while holding the swatch against a gridded cutting board or something else that will give you a visual measure of the amount of stretch. (As an experiment, you may also try doing this with your twill tape or petersham.)
You are aiming for a fine, dense weave, for several reasons. Yarns that are closer together make a stronger fabric, and your stitching will be much cleaner on a finely woven fabric.
A canvas with thick yarns can create a jagged stitching line on the bobbin side as the needle is pushed around each yarn. If you're flipping your corset over while you stitch, then that jagged stitching could end up on the exterior of the corset. Plus, the finer, denser weave will be smoother and softer for the person wearing it.
Think of buying bed linens – though the application is different, it's still a fabric that interacts with your body in a personal way, and the higher thread count equates to luxury and comfort.
A weave that is both dense and fine will provide the necessary stability without contributing undue bulk at the seams, where you're likely to have a minimum of four to six layers of fabric. While stretch, or rather, lack thereof, is the first thing I check for, you can see how weave density impacts a fabric's suitability in at least three unrelated ways.
Fiber Content: Cotton
Typically, you probably want your fiber content to be 100% cotton. I actually quite adore cotton as a multi-purpose fabric. It's very comfortable and easy to sew, dye, and care for. It's also probably the most comfortable fiber against your, or your client's, skin. Some people have very sensitive skin and can experience minor itching or even allergic reactions from certain fibers.
If you're buying fabric from a jobber and are unsure of the fiber content, you can do a simple burn test. Using matches or a lighter, burn a corner of the swatch or a tuft of threads.
Naturally there are advantages and disadvantages both to using fibers other than cotton. I made a few samples in the spring using hemp canvas. I was quite enthused about the idea of a plant fiber that was seven times stronger than cotton. The canvas felt very sturdy and had little stretch when tugged on the straight-of-grain.
Unfortunately, the hemp canvas I'd found had fairly thick yarns, had to be grown and milled in China, and had a distressing tendency to slide in the direction of my rotary cutter while I was cutting it, which was both annoying and had the side effect of causing the panel to grow slightly vertically. It had a bit of the same slippery quality as a charmeuse or 4-ply. Corsetmaking is finicky enough as it is, so you don't want to make your job harder by using a fabric that is challenging to cut and sew.
All of this leads me to my final swatch test. Holding the swatch between your hands as in the first test, slide your hands parallel to each other but in opposite directions, as if they were trains on parallel tracks with different destinations.
What you're looking for involves both the feeling and the appearance of the fabric. Visually, you are looking for casual bias wrinkles. They are an indicator of stability. Whether you get that sort of stress wrinkle in your final corset or not will depend more on the pattern you use, so it's not a cause for concern.
If instead the swatch glides smoothly in this test, with only a slight, shallow wrinkle, then it's too giving and will be prone to shifting in the construction process.
Though the shifting of the hemp canvas I tried could be managed with pinning, I would not describe it as a particularly efficient use of my time.
Whether you choose to use coutil or not, I hope this article sharpened your critical thinking skills when it comes to analyzing fabrics, or at least solidified some concepts that you'd already begun to subconsciously observe on your own. If you're comfortable sharing, I would love to read in the comments what your favorite strength fabric is and why, and I'm sure your fellow readers share that sentiment.