The home sewer's approach to leather corsetmaking: one part professional technique, one part broke college student ingenuity.
Leather can be scary, I get that. It’s expensive, it has a reputation, and sometimes a stigma. Leather can also be fun, beautiful, and make a statement effortlessly. To demonstrate leather working techniques I will be making two corsets and matching accessories. For both corsets I decided to use sandwich method construction - one layer coutil, one layer of leather, and some bone casings in the middle for extra strength. There are a wide variety of decorative construction techniques you can use with leather, including bone casings, appliqué, cording, quilting and piping, but to get started, let's go over some basics:
The leather glue and mallet are for opening and flattening seams. Since you rarely want to press leather, these will take the place of your iron. A dot of leather glue can also be used in place of basting in some instances.
The rotary punch is for making your grommet holes. You can also use the smaller punch tools that come with hammer-style grommet setters.
Get whatever kind of leather needle is appropriate for your machine. Don’t try to use regular needles for everything: even larger sizes will break often and make you crazy. A leather needle has a special, sharp, wedge-shaped point for cutting through leather and other non-woven materials.
Gel pens are amazing for marking leather, since they can often be wiped off completely with a little moisture. If possible, get one that matches your leather and one that contrasts, and test on a scrap first!
Paper clips, you ask? Weird as it may seem, paperclips are a handy and inexpensive alternative to pins when trying to sew with thicker leathers, since they don’t need to pierce the layers to hold them together. You can also use small binder or alligator clips.
As for thread, avoid natural fibers and fancy synthetic threads. You will get better results with a polyester, rayon or poly/cotton blend or upholstery thread. Leather-specific thread is available, but it can sometimes be too weak and slippery for corsetry. Make some samples and put stress on the seams until you find the one you like.
Picking and Sizing up your Hide
If at all possible, go to a store that sells leather and feel a variety of hides. Buying something online will make it hard to judge characteristics and I don’t recommend it if it is your first leather project. Determine the characteristics/hand of the hide by feel. Is if flexible or is it stiff? How thick is it?
Leather is measured in weight/thickness by ounces, for example a 5oz hide is approximately 5/64” of an inch (1.98 milliliters) thick. Here is a handy chart from Tandy Leather.
For the body of a corset you want to stay in the 3-10oz range, with binding between 1-6oz. If using stiff leather for the body, you may want to consider a different hide for the binding. Flexible binding is better and will make it easier to achieve the smooth look we normally get from bias.
Once you have picked your leather, you can start to experiment with interfacings. Stretchy leather will need a heavier interfacing, while a heavier leather may not need any. I suggest applying interfacing samples onto the edge of your hide until you find one that you like.
The area of leather is measured in square feet, not yards. In general 18 square feet = 1 yard of 54 inch fabric. As a general rule, if you are using the smaller, fancier hides (7-10sqft) you will need 2-3 hides for an overbust, and 1-2 hides for an underbust, including binding. If you are using a patterned or striped hide, you will need more. Expect to “waste” about twenty-five percent of the hide to marks, layout difficulties, and irregularities.
Cutting and Layout
Be mindful of the normal variances in the hide. If you are using a full hide (the whole animal) it will be thicker and stiffer in the middle (along the spine) and thinner and stretchier along the edges (belly and neck/legs). If possible keep all your pieces even, or at least placed strategically. For example, the waist should be on a more stable area, but the binding can be anywhere. Be on the look out for marks and color variations: even the nicest hides can have small scars and finish blemishes. A piece of leather has character; it will never be 100% even, unlike fabric. Try to harness that as a design advantage.
When sewing leather, less is more. Every time you make a stitch, you make a permanent hole or mark in the hide. Pinning inside seam allowances and hiding hand basting in the seams will help prevent unwanted marks on the finished corset.
Don’t double stitch your seams! Unlike sewing a fabric corset, sewing a seam twice will actually weaken your corset, since the needle is actually cutting the leather instead of punching between threads. For the same reason larger stitch-lengths are better, usually just below basting based on your machine's settings (3-4).
You will want to use a walking foot for your sewing. If you can’t get one for your machine, a Teflon foot is the next best thing. When possible, avoid letting the right side of your leather come in contact with the feed dogs – they can scratch and damage the finish. Remember to switch between leather and fabric needles while sewing the different layers, because leather needles will cut the fabric layers. If you are sewing a fabric/leather seam, err on the side of a large fabric needle (denim needles are good). It will be harder to sew, but preferable to damaging your fabric. If your leather is catching, or gripping your machine (by being "sticky"), try cleaning the machine, then lightly patting the surface down with talcum or baby powder.
Making Corset 1
This is an Edwardian inspired underbust with matching harness/bolero. The busk, buckle, and grommets are all antique brass. The leather I’m using is a laser-cut hair-on hide, most likely cow. It was a lucky find at a discount store; I quickly fell in love with the lace-like quality and decided to finally indulge in making something Steampunk. To get the faux Edwardian cut, I took an underbust pattern I had drafted previously, than manipulated the style lines until they resembled my period reference. The pattern for the halter was adapted from a sloper, and was loosely inspired by armor. One mock-up of both to check the fit, and I was in business.
Because my pattern didn’t have seam allowances (preference) I started by tracing my piece and adding ½” (13mm) seam allowance on the wrong side. My leather had a nap, so I drew an arrow that followed the direction; when laying out my pieces I always had the hair pointing down. When cutting out your piece it is very important to cut on the inside of your line, otherwise you will unintentionally add 1/16 inch to your pattern and your corset will be too big.
I cut my coutil layer out in the typical way, but decided not to interface my leather except for under the busk and grommets. This leather is very stiff and thick cow hide, so it seemed unnecessary. Assembling my leather I also used the paper clips, because the leather was far too thick to use pins.
Start sewing 1/4 -3/8" (6-10mm) in from the edge, back stitch then sew forward. When you get to the end, back-stitch until you are 1/4 -3/8" (6-10mm) in and finish there. This is to minimize back-stitching, but still secure the ends. When you reach a paper-clip, use your finger to slide it out. Do not try and sew over it - you'll sew the clip to the corset [and risk damage to your needle and yourself, should the needle or paper clip break and fly up into your face - this has happened to me when trying to sew over pins. Don't do it! -Cathy]
After sewing your seam, hammer it open and put a thin layer of glue on both sides of the wrong side of the seam allowance. After giving the glue about 30 seconds to get tacky, press the seam open firmly with your fingers and hold it until the seam is dry enough not to peel open. The glue may not be as effective over interfacing, but if you’re worried, try a sample beforehand. An alternative solution is only to interface half of the seam allowance, or switch to fabric glue.
Here's a photo of the finished opened seams:
After sewing in the hip area (and opening the seam in the same manner) I hand basted my waist tape in. Since my leather already had laser-cut holes, this was easy for me. Alternatively I could have used dots of glue to baste the tape in place, or if I had interfacing I could have hand-basted to that.
Working on the coutil layer, I machine stitched and iron-pressed like normal. I pinned my bone casings (prussian tape) to one side of the seam and machine stitched them in place.
I decided I didn’t want to have any of the hairy leather on the inside of the corset, where it could cause the wearer discomfort. I sewed in the busk without a facing and sandwiched the two layers the way you would with a fabric corset. Rather than explain inserting the busk into this specific corset I am going to show you a leather busk method on some scrap leather.
This is a special method for making the center front of your corset all in one piece. This has the benefit of removing bulk, and conserving leather if you had already planned to make a facing. It is a good idea to interface this part of the corset, even if you don’t interface the body. Start by drawing the center front line down your leather, then positioning your piece on the line. Trace your piece then flip it over, creating an exact mirror on the CF line. Do this again for the second side of your corset.
Take the loop side of your busk, and transfer marks for the loop openings onto the CF line.
Grab a ruler and measure how far from the edge the center of the stud is. Using the loop side as a guide (matching the other side of the corset) mark dots the appropriate distance away from the CF line. Double check you are applying the marks to the right side of the CF line!
You should now have a left and a right side of your corset front. Use an awl to carefully stretch the stud side as you would normally, and slip the studs through the holes in the leather.
Starting from the inside, very carefully open both corners of he loop opening. Then from the outside, slip your seam ripper through the corners and very carefully cut open the middle.
Slip the loop side through the slits, and voila! You are now ready to top-stitch in the busk and proceed onward as normal. If you wish for a decorative touch, you can embroider buttonholes for the loop side, and eyelets for the studs.
Once I was done inserting my busk, it was time to go about attaching the two layers in the middle permanently. First I hand basted along all the seams with silamide thread, stitching-in-the-ditch. After checking that my feed dogs wouldn’t scratch my leather, I stitched through all layers along the bone casings. If you have to stitch from the top-side, you may need to do additional basting of some kind to help you hit accurately along your casings. After that I cut and tipped my bones (¼” spiral steels), stay stitched the top and bottom edge, and was finally ready to bind the corset.
I knew I wanted ¼” finished binding, so I cut strips that were 1¼” wide. A good rule of thumb is x5 the width of the desired finished binding. So if you wanted a finished 3/8” binding, you would need a 1 7/8” wide strip, and ½” would need 2½” binding. If your leather is flexible you can actually cut it in a gentle curve to conserve material, making little corrections here and there. Once it is cut out, it is easy to make it straight.
Pin the binding onto the corset edge and fold the corners. If you are working with a thicker binding like mine, you probably will have to fold it on top of itself. With a thinner binding you can fold/wrap to the back, which is a cleaner finish. Stitch the binding on.
This next part I have found to be easiest to just hand manipulate, rather than pin. Fold the binding over the edge, and sew in-the-ditch. As you go along, pull the binding as snug as you can. If your binding is very thick, you may want to hand sew the corners down first, then whack it with the rubber mallet. This will make it much easier to sew all the way to the edge. Before I hand sewed the corner on mine, it was so bulky it didn’t want to fit under the presser foot!
The final step is to trim off the excess binding neatly on the inside.
If you need to join the binding, or otherwise make two pieces look continuous, there are two ways. The first is to sew the two binding pieces together as you would fabric, but this only works for thinner leathers. For thicker leather you will need to overlap the pieces. I had to do this on my harness, and choose to hide the join at the side seam.
If the change in color or the raw edge bothers you, there are edge sealing and stain products available. However, they can be a bit tricky to find in colors other than brown or black. If you are working with an unusual colored hide you may have to resort to a marker, preferably the high quality archival (acid-free) kind used for illustration. You can find them in a dizzying array of colors at most craft stores. Seal over the marker with gum tragcanth.
Because the hairy nap on this corset makes it difficult to see the grommet setting process clearly, I will be talking about it on the next corset in part 2. It will be easier to provide a clear example that way.
To make the accessories, I used many of the same techniques as I did on the corset. The harness was interfaced with fusible cotton, doubling as a lining. The boning channel along the back was made with prussian tape, and the binding was applied in the same way as on the corset. The only additional technique I used was to cover the opened seam allowances with twill tape. This was for the comfort of the wearer, and to provide a clean finish.
For the panties I constructed the leather and the knit lining separately, then used spots of leather glue to baste them together. Elastic was then applied to the edges and the panties finished with grommets for side-lacing. The pasties were made in the same way.
The Finished Ensemble
In Part 2: