Corsetieres, professional and amateur alike, now have some amazing tools available to them to aid in the corstetmaking process. But it can be challenging to know what you need when there are so many tools and grades of equipment. Some are highly specialized, some extremely commonplace. Certain tasks have widely different tools that all ultimately perform the same action (at various levels of efficiency, and therefore price). This piece attempts not to dictate the best choice for each task, but rather to outline the options available. Pattern drafting equipment is not covered in this piece, as I talk about it in fair detail in my previous underbust drafting tutorial.
Perhaps the most obvious category, and the most straightforward, is of course that which you will use to construct the body of your corset.
|Home Sewing Machine – Chances are you already have one of these. The advantage of a home machine, as compared to industrial, is its flexibility. Home machines can create a variety of stitches (functional and decorative). However, for corset construction, you'll mostly be using a simple straight stitch. Useful features include the ability to control needle position (to the left or right) and on newer machines, determining whether the needle stops in the up or down position when you stop sewing. The adjustable needle positioning can potentially backfire a bit and lead to wobbly stitches, and you may have trouble getting through the thicker parts of your corset. I do, however, enjoy how my machine will stop sewing if it thinks I'm trying to sew through something solid: often, this is nothing more than a particularly thick intersection of binding and bone casings, but on many occasions it has stopped me from breaking my needle on steel bones as I attach the binding.|
Industrial Sewing Machine – Industrial machines do one thing, they do it consistently, and they do it well. So an industrial sewing machine won't give you a zig zag stitch or variable needle position, but it has the clean stitching and requisite manpower for all those layers. It does pretty much exactly what you need it to do for corset construction. Also, it's kind of nice that it comes with a built-in flat surface since the machine includes its own table. Another particular (pleasant) quirk is that the pressure foot is operated via a lever at the knee, which is a subtle little time saver.
In this case, all types have their advantages; 'industrial' of course is the professional standard, but home machines have a versatility that makes them great for small businesses and vintage machines have a strong, devoted fan base. No matter what your machine type, you'll need a zipper foot for topstitching next to your busk.
Needle type is largely a matter of preference, select accordingly for your fashion fabric. I would advise you, however, to at least consider ballpoint needles. Traditionally used for jersey knits, the rounded tip pushes aside the threads of the fabric instead of punching through. You'll also want an assortment of hand needles available for flossing, hand-stitched bindings (if that's your preference) and other hand-detailing.
|Overlock Machine – An overlock stitch finishes an edge. For jersey fabrics, it both creates and finishes a seam, but with woven fabrics a straight stitch is required to actually hold the seam. In most cases, your corset will probably have all its raw edges concealed behind the lining in some manner, so an overlock machine isn't a necessity by any means. If you want to make your own corset liners, an overlock machine (with ballpoint needles) is just the thing. It's a good investment for a clean, professional finish on other garments.|
|Bobbin Holder – This will keep your bobbins well-organized, although I've always dreamed of a thread board with long enough dowels to hold the corresponding bobbins together with the spool. For now I make do with one of those handy round bobbin holders (shown), which does an excellent job of keeping my bobbins wound, together and easy to see.|
So many sharp implements lying around! I find I use quite an assortment of them throughout the process.
|Fabric Shears – Typically used for cutting out fabric, of course, with paper patterns pinned to fabric. However, for something as accurate as a corset, the way the width of the shears lifts the fabric off your cutting surface is less than ideal. I mostly use mine for grading my seam allowances as I sew. Either way, make sure they are sharp and a comfortable weight for your hand, of course.|
|Rotary Cutter –The go-to tool for quilters, a rotary cutter is also more accurate for corset cutting. Use with pattern weights so that you don't pin bubbles into your fabric. The blades come in a variety of sizes, the smallest of which (18mm) is great for getting into those sharp hip spring curves. I tend to go for the 45mm for most cutting, but the blades come as large as 60mm. The blade sizes are not interchangeable on the cutter body, so choose wisely. There's also an ergonomic version of the basic rotary cutter, which comes in both left- and right-handed versions.|
Electric Rotary Cutter – I have no personal experience with electric cutters, but I know of at least one professional corsetiere (who also writes for Foundations Revealed) who utilizes one. If you suffer from carpal tunnel (or something else that makes hand work painful), this may be the route to go. They're also good for cutting through multiple layers of fabric, which is already possible with a standard cutter, but of course you would want to make sure your grainline is aligned very well.
|Cutting Mat – A necessity for use with a rotary cutter. You need one that is as large as your cutting table or the biggest thing you are likely to cut, whichever is more practical. While you can jigsaw smaller mats together, your rotary cutter will skip the tiny valley between the mats.|
|Thread Snips – A small pair of scissors for trimming threads is a helpful nicety. You can use cuticle scissors for this function, or actual thread snips from a fabric store. I've purchased some novelty snips (they had cats on them, I couldn't resist) that were cute but not sharp enough, or perhaps screwed together poorly, to actually cut threads smoothly... thus rendering them useless. So don't be swayed by form over function.|
Razor Blade – You may consider using a razor blade as a seam ripper. (Of course, you could also just use a regular seam ripper.)
Obviously you'll need an iron of some sort. You can definitely get by with a home iron, but industrial gravity-feed steam irons have a nice heft that gives a cleaner press.
|Ham – This press-tool is essential for pressing curves at the bust and hip of your corsets. You can also make your own at home if you don't want to buy one. I've also recently discovered (though not yet tried) a tool called a ham holder, which does exactly that, holding the ham in any number of positions to give you easy access to the precise side and curve you need.|
|Miniature Iron – Handy for appliqués, but where you'll really want this little guy is if you are trying to press or fuse a textured fabric, such as a heavy, scattered embroidery motif. The tip will get you into the little nooks where the embroidery itself prohibits access with a standard-size iron.|
|A large press space, not just a standard ironing board, is a must-have if you fuse your fabric or wonder under it for support. However, what I have become absolutely spoiled by is the...|
|Fusing Press – an industrial piece of equipment which fuses interfacing not only much more quickly, but much more strongly. It is in every way more efficient and effective than fusing one iron press at a time. These hefty pieces of equipment require special electrical wiring and come in two basic types: rolling and flat bed. The flat bed is the sort I've used, with variable settings for temperature and time, though it is a bit cumbersome trying to keep grainlines straight on larger yardages. Even if you're only interfacing 1 yard out of ten, the other nine can still create a troublesome drag if you don't want to cut the small piece free. I've done about 3 yards in a go with ease, though; the only time I really struggled was doing one yard of double-wide fabric out of a 5 yard piece. By comparison, the rolling type is probably much easier for large yardages, but may force width restrictions on your fabric, creating waste.|
|Bolt Cutters are the starting point for cutting down bones. I have no problems cutting through spiral steels with my big bolt cutters, but the spring steel gives me (and my spaghetti arms) a hard time. If you have the same problem, you may want to consider hand lever shears. Even a rather petite corsetiere can easily cut down spring or spiral steels, or a busk, with the help of hand-lever shears.|
|To smooth your sharp raw edges, you could use a large file, but I must admit the one time I tried I found myself thinking, “Good god, this will take all night.” A dremel or a belt sander will be much faster – just don't forget those safety goggles!|
|The final step is to finish the edges. For a busk or spring steels, you can use tool dip or PFT tape.|
With spiral steels, bone tips can be purchased separately, but you will need two pairs of pliers to set them strongly. The HomePro LR, often purchased for setting grommets, has a die bit for setting boning caps (if you can track it down).
Speaking of grommets, this is another area where you have a lot of options.
|Hammer-set tools are the least expensive of the bunch. You can these simple tube-shaped tools for punching holes (if you don't use an awl) as well as setting grommets of various sizes. Use a block of wood or plank as your base and make sure you're on a stable surface (such as the floor, if necessary), and try not to annoy your neighbors too much, especially if you are using the floor. If you have decorative grommets within the body of your corset, this method will give the most range of motion for determining placement (any kind of lever-based setter will have a neck that can limit or make awkward mid-body placements).|
|Hand-held setters can often be purchased at fabric and craft stores, but are less than ideal for corsetmaking as they can set grommets with uneven pressure.
Rotary punches, on the other hand, do just fine for punching the holes, especially if backed with a bit of cardboard, cutting-board-type plastic, or even scrap leather. The downside is they do require strong hands and arms to punch through all those layers of finely-woven fabric, so it'll take some practice to get up to speed with one. The repetitive motion can be dangerous, particularly if you already suffer from a condition such as carpal tunnel.
|The next step up is a hand press, which uses a simple hand-operated lever to get the, well, leverage for grommet setting. The die bits are purchased separately; each size hole or grommet will require its own set. The die bits are not interchangeable between presses, and you need to make sure your grommet or eyelet dies match the actual grommets or eyelets you are using so they set evenly, and don't have a ring imprint caused by a difference in flange size.|
|A kick press is the easiest grommet setting tool. Like a hand-press, it takes an assortment of die bits to perform various tasks, although these are quite expensive. It sets grommets very easily, cleanly, and securely. Like the fusing press, I was spoiled by access to a kick press from early on...|
I've glossed over these in passing, but they are deserving of their own section.
|A hammer is mostly only of value if one is hammer-setting grommets, in which case it is invaluable.
|An awl is indispensable for setting the stud side of the busk. Many corsetieres also prefer to use an awl to open up the holes for the grommets. I have two awls in different sizes, but I have to admit I am prone to simply grabbing whichever one is available.|
|Pliers are surprisingly versatile and incredibly useful. As mentioned above, two pairs are required for tipping custom-cut spiral bones. If a grommet is set incorrectly, needle nose pliers can be used to pry it out (your awl may help raise the edge enough to get the pliers in to grip). And of course, when hands fail, it is the pliers that help push bones through particularly long or tight channels. Most pliers have a cutting blade as well, which is great for snipping the nubs at the edges of fresh-cut spiral bones.|
What tools do you use for corsetmaking? If I've left anything out, please share in the comments...