MA Week 4: Corsetry

Costume Construction, RWCMD

I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous going into corsetry week. Our tutor, Jill Salen, has literally written the book on corsets and as I’d made two before, I feared she (and the rest of the class) were expecting great things.

Fortunately for me, having made corsets before meant I got to choose a corset from another period, so I chose to remake these linen jumps from 1790:

Linen jumps, c. 1790, Hereford Museum

Linen jumps, c. 1790, Hereford Museum

It doesn’t look like much in the picture, but when it’s on a body it’s really stunning. Also, as there are only ten boning channels, it wasn’t completely unreasonable to do by hand in a week. But more on that later!

And then we had a rather relaxing overview of corsetry – what a busk is, different materials used for boning, metal eyelets vs hand-worked ones, and so on. After trying the reproduction of the linen jumps, Jill said I’d have to take out 1″ on the double at the centre front, 1″ on the double at the center back, make the side back smaller, bring up the armhole 1/2 an inch, and take 2″ out of the shoulder straps. Get on with it then!

Mine was decidedly more effort as I first had to go to the library and get the original pattern from the archive. As it was two A2 sheets, I then had to copy it the old-fashioned way with some tracing paper (33p per sheet at the SU shop! Useful). I had the pattern copied by lunchtime, and then after lunch set to work grading the pattern and making a toile.

Turns out I am reasonably ok at grading patterns down to size, as the toile was very near bang on. In retrospect – as in, once the corset was completely made – I realised I should maybe have taken my inch out of the corset front from the middle, rather than just hacking an inch of the centre front as it affected the shape at the front. Still, live and learn. By the end of the day, I had my graded pattern:

graded jumps pattern

graded jumps pattern

A few more tweaks first thing Tuesday morning and I was ready to cut out. I got linen for the outside and a striped cotton for the lining – I wanted something that felt Georgian, or at least our 21st century idea of Georgian. I got a metre of each, because WHO KNOWS I might cock up and need an entire metre, but nope. I could have gotten away with half a metre:

cutting out in linen

Still, now I have some lovely linen for another project!

Once it was all cut, Jill let me sew it all together on the machine – HURRAH (I thought I’d have to do it all by hand, as sewing machines didn’t exist in 1790)!

Although it sounds easy, this was a tricky step. I had to pin and tack the layers right sides together, making absolutely sure that all the seams matched. The I machine-sewed around the finished edges (forgetting to leave my boning channels open – d’oh!), very carefully going around the points where the tabs separate. I didn’t realise this, but you don’t cut out the fabric in the shape of the tabs – you cut it whole, and then cut a sigle line into it, sewing around it much the same way you sew a gusset, or a placket (start about 1/4 inch from the line, sew diagonally toward the point, take two stitches across the point, and back down again about 1/4 inch away from the line). It took about half an hour to do on the machine, and by the time I had gotten around all the tabs I wondered if I wouldn’t have been better off hand-sewing it after all.

Bagging it out was a job and a half. It got a bit hairy in the middle, very much looking like the monster from an It Came from the Sea 50’s B movie:


There’s no elegant way to do this.

But after about an hour and a half, I got there! This is where it gets fuzzy – I can’t remember if I started stab-stitching at the end of Tuesday or Wednesday. I think it was Wednesday – again I tacked all the seams to make sure they lined up exactly, stab-stitched the seams, and then stab-stitched around the edges (leaving the centre fronts open). Thursday morning I finished the stab-stitching, and then started on the boning channels. These were tricky because I wanted them to be EXACTLY STRAIGHT which I found really hard to do. Back-stitching itself is quick, easy work – evenly back-stitching in a beautiful straight line is not. As such I had eight of ten channels done by the end of Thursday, and by Friday morning was worried I wouldn’t finish the damn thing by the end of the day.


But I DID IT!! I finished my last hand-worked eyelet at 5.30 on Friday afternoon, and after a bit of faff and help from Dot I got my lacing in.

If I were to do it again (which I totally can, cuz I have plenty of fabric left over), I wouldn’t change much – but I would definitely do something about that seemingly GIANT tab on the side back piece (and try harder to make my centre fronts match). I think I’ll also go back and back-stitch directly down the boning at the centre front, rather than follow the parallel line as I have done.

I’m bummed I didn’t have time to make a second corset, as most of the girls did this week, but Jill will offer corsetry again sometime later in the year. Anyway, I’m glad I gave these linen jumps the love and attention they deserved!

Next week: millinery.

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