Corset Parts 101
Key to making a curvy and sturdy corset is in understanding what makes it tick!
Corset Parts 101 will provide you with the knowledge of some basic, and not so basic, corset elements. This will aid you in your corset making journey by informing you about the names and the purpose of different parts.
Many corset parts can be substituted with more budget friendly and locally available materials but it is very important to know about the best options so you know what you are striving for. Also, it is much easier to find an alternative if we know the purpose and goal of the item we are trying to replace.
Every corset starts off as a set of measurements and an idea. From that, a pattern is born.
We can look at corset pattern as their genetic code. Everything about the finished corset is traced back to it’s pattern and there is nothing in this world that can make a corset curvy if the curves are not written into it’s “genes”, it’s pattern.
Strong fabric and boning support the shape that’s drafted into the pattern, not the other way around.
STRENGTH LAYER FABRICS
There can be no corset without the strength layer.
A proper corset, even with a moderate waist reduction of 5cm or 2″, will be put under a lot of strain during wear. We need a strong, durable and stable foundation fabric what will be able to handle it. This is what we call the strength layer.
In a strength layer we are looking for a fabric what is tightly woven and has basically non existent stretch on the bias of the fabric. Rest is debatable.
Most popular corset strength layer fabric is coutil. There are other budget options such as ticking, tarp, artisan canvas, upholstery twill and canvas, bull denim and more. Another popular lightweight option is the assortment of very stable nets and meshes such as bobbinet mesh (double it) and stiff nylon corsetry mesh. Or their easily available budget substitute, aida cloth!
Point is, strength layer fabric is the muscle of any corset.
Since corsets are specialized garments, they require specialized materials and that includes fabrics.
Coutil is a tightly woven fabric made specifically for corsets. It has very stable dimensions which means it has very little stretch on the bias and will prevent bones from poking through.
It is very usually to have it made 100% cotton but some varieties, like many brocades, are mixed with rayon or polyester.
Most well known coutil is in the herringbone weave. This variation of the twill weave further stabilizes the dimensions of the coutil fabric.
Warning! Not every herringbone fabric is a coutil nor does the herringbone weave make a fabric suitable for corset making!
Substitutes for Coutil
While coutil, might be one of, if the the best, options for a corset strength layer, you don’t have to use it.
No matter the reason why you can’t or won’t use coutil, you still need a strength layer so here are some alternatives to look into as coutil doesn’t maketh a corset!
To figure out what fabric would be suitable, we need to look back at the purpose of a strength fabric and then search for coutil alternatives that fit the bill.
Check out this free article on Foundations Revealed to find out more about what to look for in a strength fabric.
Some fabric options to look into:
Tarp canvas is a natural fiber (usually 100% cotton) fabric made in basketweave/panama weave. Very durable, non-stretchy but a bit on the thicker side. Lovely choice as a mockup/toile fabric and has the potential to be as a strength layer for undergarment corsets.
You can also look into cotton duck, a very similar type of fabric to tarp canvas.
Ticking is a specialized fabric used for making feather filled pillows as well as mattress covers (depending on the type). Usually, the striped ticking is made using the twill weave while the solid pillow ticking is made in plain weave. Avoid the waxed type for corset making. Depending on the type, ticking is a very nice fabric to use for making mockups/toiles and beautiful finished corsets.
Cotton drill is another strong coutil substitute fabric but be sure it is 100% cotton and tightly woven. This fabric is made using twill weave. Great choice for mocups/toiles and undergarment corsets. Depending on its thickness, it can be covered with fashion fabric.
Upholstery canvas or twill are two different fabrics, one made using plain weave while the other in twill weave. Upholstery fabrics are usually made to be much stronger, durable and with more stable dimensions than garment fabrics so it is much more likely that you’ll find your strength layer fabric among sofa covers!
Special Corsetmaking Fabrics
We can get all crazy too and experiment with fabrics that don’t sounds very corset appropriate, such as mesh and netting.
Mesh is a loosely woven fabric, mostly made using plain weave, that has even spaced holes. It can be knitted too.
Netting is a material made by looping or knotting yarns.
This category is very tricky because nets and meshes can be very different depending on many different parameters so only you can be the judge of how appropriate is that particular material you have access to. With that said, even though we are dealing with open airy materials, they still have to satisfy the parameters of a strength fabric, as best as possible!
I highly recommend checking out this article by Lucy’s Corsetry to find out more about what other corset makers have used, and still use, for their corsets.
A few examples : corsetry mesh, aida cloth, tulle, bobbinet, powermesh
Your safest bet is getting mesh or netting from corsetry supply shops because they usually carry such “non-conventional” fabrics that are appropriate for corset making.
FASHION LAYER FABRICS
Unlike strength layers fabrics, fashion layer fabrics are optional as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Still, if you don’t like for your strength layer fabric looks, you can always cover it with something a bit more interesting. That is the fashion layer of the corset.
In all honesty, there aren’t many rules when it comes to what fabric can be used as the fashion layer of a corset. Basically, it can be anything!
Some fabrics are simply easier to work with so making a corset with them will be easier two, while others are literally the devils spawn and will work real hard to make your sewing experience as difficult as possible.
With the right preparation, knowledge and techniques, you can cover your corset with anything from tulle, lace and mesh, over pretty quilting cottons and silk taffeta to satin, genuine leather, PVC, and stretch velvet. Yes, you read that right, STRETCH FUCKING VELVET!
Where there is will, there is a way but you need a good strong base!
Also, work with the characteristics of your chosen fashion fabric instead of against it. It will make your life easier and corset prettier.
Educate yourself on the concept of “turn of cloth”. Fabrics aren’t 2D so every turn, fold and crease has an effect on the behavior of the fabric and finished garment.
In a nutshell, fashion fabric is the skin of the corset… but it won’t die without it.
Some corset construction methods don’t result in insides that are as beautiful as the outside. For such situations, we can add a layer of floating lining to tidy up the insides. This will make the corset nicer to look at and protect any raw fabric edges we might have without creating too much bulk.
Best lining fabrics are thin, light weight, pretty and made out of cotton, linen or rayon.
Check out this great tutorial by Sidney Eileen on how to add a floating lining to a corset.
We simply cannot have a corset without boning.
As I’ve mentioned time and time again, fabric will collapse and bunch up around the waist line if there are no bones that will prevent just that. We can draw direct parallels between bones of a corset and bones in our bodies as both essentially serve the same purpose, they keep things upright.
Boneless Chicken from cartoon “Cow and Chicken” is a great imagining of a boneless corset!
Corsets need the vertical support and since fabric can’t provide it, we simply need bones. With that said, we aren’t talking about very special and rare corsets that aren’t made out of conventional materials as fabric. Instead, they are fully made out of metal, very thick genuine leather, special type of plastic or even, carbon fiber.
Historically, reed and whalebone where used in making of stays and corsets until the time when steel became more popular and whalebone more scarce.
In modern times, we have reed, flat and spiral steel boning, synthetic whalebone, re-inforced plastic boning as well as zip ties (the plastic budget boning!).
Stay far far far away from rigile and any type of “feather” bustiere/bra boning. They are far to weak to be useful on a corset.
Spiral steel boning is basically your best option for modern corsets, together with flat steel boning.
They are durable, strong but flexible. It is very difficult to bend them out of shape with wear but they can be bent and shaped by hand, where needed for a better fitting corset experience.
You want steel boning if you are making a tight lacing and/or waist training corset. As far as we know, it is the best option for the job!
They are very bendy, and can be bent on all sides. This makes them perfect for following the natural curves of the body. Because of that, it’s recommend to use them everywhere on the corset expect for center front and center back panels, we have flat steel for those.
Spiral steel boning comes in a range of sizes and thicknesses as well as length options. Namely, you can purchase precut lengths that have their ends finished with metal U bone tips.
Other option is to buy it by length. This is perfect for making a lot of custom corsets because you are free to cut boning to what ever length you need and finish edges how ever you like.
Flat steel boning is the best friend to spiral steel boning!
Unlike spiral steel, flat steel can only bend in two directions, in and out. This makes it perfect for reinforcing the center front as well as center back. Due to it’s characteristics, it provides a strong barrier for the grommets to press against. This in turn, spreads the pulling force of back laces evenly over the full length of the back steel boning sandwiching the grommets.
Flat steel boning comes in a wide variety of wights and lengths. Just as spiral steel boning, it too can be purchased in precut finished lengths or you can order it per length and cut them to what ever size you need.
An extra wide and sturdy flat steel boning can be used in place of a wooden or a two part busk.
PLASTIC CORSETRY BONING
Reinforced plastic boning is a type of plastic boning that is suitable for making corsets.
This type of boning is great for providing medium support to a corset, girdle and other similar foundation garments. It’s appearance is slightly milky and reinforcing strands are clearly visible through the main material.
Plastic boning like this is a great alternative to steel when making stays as they are much more light weight.
It comes in at least 3 size varieties and is sold by length.
Synthetic whalebone boning is made specifically to mimic genuine whalebone. This makes it perfect for use in historical stays and corset styles, for costume and reenactment. It provides medium support so no tight lacing or waist training with these.
It has a slightly transparent milky color and comes in a wide variety of sizes. It can be cut with a good pair of scissors and ends can be smoothed out with a bit of emery paper or a handheld rotary tool.
Heavy duty zip ties is the best budget option for corset boning. Most hardware stores will have them, they are cheap, easy to cut to length and shape their edges.
Their characteristics are very similar to plastic boning such as reinforced plastic boning and synthetic whalebone. They might not look like it, but they will get the job done and provide you with medium support.
They are usually sold by piece and are available in a few different widths, many lengths and strengths.
Go for the toughest beast of a zip tie you can find!
Other types of boning
Reed is a very specialized type of boning, best utilized for reenactment the making of stays.
Since they are a natural product, there are variations to it and they tend to be greatly affected by storage conditions.
They will provide light to medium support.
Check out the making of this fabulous overbust corset bones with reed!
Carbon fiber boning is rare but intriguing. For now, it is only made an sold over at Vena Cava Design. This type of boning is wholly handmade and that is obvious in it’s price.
It is stupendously lightweight yet strong and should be able to replace flat steel boning without a problem.
Boning Channels / Casings
Since boning is so important for corsets and bones will not stick to it on its own, we need boning channels or casings.
Depending on the corset construction, we can stitch two parallel lines, through two layers of strength fabric, to create boning channels. This can be done using the seam allowances of the corset or, basically, anywhere on a corsets that are made using two strength layers, such as is the folded seam method or the sandwich method.
Another option is to sew bone casings on to the corset. There a couple of different options when it comes to sewing casings on.
A very practical option is to use pre-made woven boning tubular tape sold by length in many corset making shops.
Last but not least is using flat tape/ribbon such as tightly woven herringbone, twill, grosgrain or petershram.
Waist tape is a tightly woven tape or ribbon placed on the waist line of the corset for additional reinforcement, strength and dimension stability of the corset.
With any any mount of waist circumference reduction, there will be added stress to the waist line. This will affect the fabric and the seams. To reinforce the most vulnerable part of a corset, we apply a stable tape in one piece, running from center front to center back. Tape is to be held in place by stitching of boning channels as well as the front closure.
Keep in mind the “turn of cloth” when applying the waist tape. By having the tape applied much tighter or looser than the corset itself, it will not serve its purpose and might even produce more problems like wrinkling, warping or digging in.
BUSK (Split / Two part)
Split busk is the standard closure option for the majority of corsets made from the middle of nineteen century. Made out of flat/spring steel they are rigid and provide the corset with vertical stiffening on the center front. At the same time, they help with faster getting into and out of the corset.
In the picture, we have (from left to right):
Narrow “flexible” busk in silver, narrow “flexible” busk in gold, narrow “flexible” busk in black, heavy duty wide busk in silver, heavy duty wide busk in black and spoon busk in silver.
Narrow “Flexible” Busk is the most commonly used busk type. It is the softest when it comes to rigidity but don’t think for a second that means it’s weak. Additional rigidity can be achieved by adding flat steel boning right next to it or by boning the front modesty placket.
Heavy Duty Wide Busk is very similar to the narrow type but much more rigid. Perfect for a super straight front profile.
Tapered Busk (not pictured) is a variation of the Heavy Duty Wide Busk. Both are made out of very rigid flat steel but the top of the tapered busk is as narrow as the Narrow “Flexible” Busk. It will produce a very straight front profile while being a bit more comfortable to wear due to smaller width of the top while the wide bottom still provides excellent tummy control.
Spoon Busk is a specially shaped busk to create a slightly curved front profile while providing extra support for the tummy. Spoon busks are a very popular choice for many mid to late Victorian corset styles but they can be used in modern corsets as well. Their rigidity is somewhere in between the Narrow “Flexible” and Heavy Duty Wide Busks
BUSK (Solid / One part)
Solid busk is the oldest type of a busk. They are usually made out of one solid piece of wood or a wide flat steel bone.
In the past they could have been made from wood, whalebone or ivory. Many had decorative carvings on them and this type of busk was removable. To keep such a removable buck in place, they where tied in the busk channel with a piece of string. One piece busks where mostly used to stiffen the front of pair of bodies, stays and regency corsets (beginning of 19th century).
In modern corsetry, solid busks are rarely used. It is more often the front will be bones with many flat steel bones on a closed front corset instead of using specifically a solid flat steel busk.
FRONT LACING SYSTEM
Front Lacing System is basically the combination of boning, holes in the corset fabric and some type of laces. If done properly, a modern corset can have both back and front lacing without compromising the durability of the garment.
Pairs of bodies and stays where fairly often laced in the front (at least partially) but the same can’t be said for Victorian corsets. Front lacing came back in style with the Edwardian idea of health corsets and corsets that had both a split busk closure as well front lacing but most of the time, front lacing was basically back lacing moved to the front for easier tightening of the corset.
Many modern corsets have been made with a Front Lacing System instead of a Split Busk Closure due to inability to source Split Busks.
Zippers are a very modern option for a corset closure. For know, there aren’t zippers produced specifically for use in corsets but many heavy duty options are appropriate for this task.
There is some debate what is a better option, plastic or metal zipper teeth but we are absolutely sure they need to be reinforced with flat steel boning.
Back Lacing System
Back Lacing System is one of the crucial parts that makes a corset function like a corset. Made out of a combination of two part grommets, flat steel boning and lacing, it’s the main feature of the garment that allows it to function properly.
Pattern, fabric, bones and busks build the shape while while back lacing makes it possible for us to adjust it and wear it.
Two Part Grommets / Eyelets
Two part grommets or eyelets with washers are one of the most important parts of creating a long lasing, strong and durable corsets.
Metal grommets as we know them today weren’t a thing before 1828 as most eyelets where simple holes poked in fabric, their edges finished with buttonhole stitching. At most, simple metal rings where stitched on the insides of these holes for a bit more durability but that was far from the marvel of grommets.
Two part grommets create a smooth edge on both sides, making sure there will be no snagging, cutting or scraping of other fabrics or laces while the corset is worn. Also, metal grommets are so good at reinforcing holes poked in fabric, their invention allowed for waist reduction.
Fan lacing is a style of lacing a corset that makes it easier and quicker to lace oneself into and out of a corset. It was fairly popular lacing choice for many vintage girdle styles.
While there are examples of fan lacing going back as far as 1830’s, the metal fan lacing slide was invented much later, in 1908 though it was definitely patented in US in 1921.
To make it work, corsets laces are threaded trough all holes and the fabric “holder” or metal slider. That whole thing is connected to ribbons. Ribbons are used as pulling handles for tightening and loosening of the corset laces.
While fan lacing isn’t an essential part of corsets, it is an interesting and practical. That might turn out to be useful if you, yourself or a client, if there are any problems with arm or shoulder mobility.
Laces are another big important part of a corset but there is so much more options to choose from and it mostly depends on your personal preference.
Fiber type and lace profile both have a big difference in the behavior of lacing.
Synthetic fibers are more likely to be slippery but less likely to break while natural fibers have the tendency of creating more friction so their knots and bows grip better but they also fray more and are less durable.
Flat profile will lay much nicer on the body even though they do have a tendency to twist while being used. They also produce more friction and create grippier knots and bows. This makes them less likely to untie.
Round profile can look a bit bulky when worn, especially knots and bows, but they do tend to glide through grommets easier.
Some options for laces :
- Double faced satin ribbon 1cm or 3/8″ wide (synthetic & natural)
- Flat shoelaces (synthetic & natural)
- Paracord (synthetic)
- Corset Laces (synthetic & natural)
Binding refers to applying a tape or a ribbon to enclose raw fabric edges. This will prevent fabric from fraying. Also, it looks pretty.
In corsetry, fabric edges are never finished by serging them. This adds unsightly bulk.
Most seam allowances will we covered with boning tape/casings or protected by lining fabric. In some cases, such as for front and/or back facing on single layer corset, seam allowances get folded under and locked in place with a line of top-stitching.
Corset edges are primarily closed and protected by applying a ribbon/tape over the edge and stitching it down, by machine or hand stitching. Method of application varies slightly between different types of ribbons/tapes used.
Often used corset edge finishing tapes/ribbons :
- Double faced satin ribbon (folded in half, machine stitched on)
- Twill or Herringbone tape (folded in half, machine stitched on)
- Grosgrain or Petersham (folded in half, machine stitched on)
- Pre-made bias binding tape (folded in half, fully machine stitched on or attached by machine but hand stitched on the inside)
- Self-made bias binding tape (folded in half, fully machine stitched on or attached by machine but hand stitched on the inside)
Front Modesty Placket
Front Modesty Placket can be as simple as a narrow width of extra fabric added to the left-hand side of the corset (knob side of split front busk). It’s duty is to close the small gap between the two sides of the busk clasp, that usually forms when the corset is worn.
Placket can be made a bit more complex and and serve as an extra boning channel for additional stiffening of corsets center front, by making it wide enough to house a flat steel bone.
As far as I know, there are 3 different styles of front modesty plackets.
Extended Placket (Black & Blue Corset)
As the name suggests, it is literally an extension drafted into the center front pattern piece (just on the one side).
It will be roughly the same length as the center front and raw edges will be bound together with the rest of the corset.
Learn how to sew in a split busk and add this type of a modesty placket by watching this tutorial.
Sewn IN (Red Corset)
With this type, the placket is drafted as a separate pattern piece that gets half finished before it is sewn in to the center front seam, right next to the know busks knob side.
Finish length of this placket can be the same length as the center front of the corset, with raw fabric edges bound with the rest of the corset. Or it can be made shorter, with its edges finished separately. Make sure it is short enough so it doesn’t interfere with the binding of the corsets edges.
Sewn ON (Black Corset)
This type of front modesty placket can be added to virtually any corset, on a completely finished or store bought corset.
Placket is self is drafted and constructed completely separately from the corset itself and is simply added on to the corset, behind the busks knob side (make sure some of the width sticks outside the center front seam).
Attaching can be done by hand or machine stitching it in, what ever is more practical.
Back Modesty Panel
Back Modesty Panel is another addition to a corset that can be made very minimalistic or it can be created in a highly complex form.
Main purpose of the Back Modesty Panel is to cover the skin or clothing peeking through back lacing when a corset is worn with a back lacing gap. This way, same fabric will create an illusion of the corset warping the torso in one unbroken piece. This looks very pretty.
Second, Back Panel can protect the back skin or clothing from friction during lacing in and out of the corset.
Third, if boned efficiently, Back Panel can lift and evenly disperse the force of the laces pushing into the flesh when a corset is worn with a back lacing gap.
There are many way one can make a Back Modesty Panel and there is no consensus on wat is the right way to do it. Therefor, most of it is purely based on personal preference of the maker and the wearer.
Modesty Panels can be sewn on to the corset. A style that is mostly seen on cheaper OTR (of the rack) corsets. Panel itself is usually unboned rectangle made out of two layers of fabric. Very flimsy and very prone to bunching up. It only provides the purpose of modesty.
Many times, corsetmakers will create suspendable Back Modesty Panels that are completely separate from the corset but are to be laced on to the corset together with the back lacing. This is usually seen on higher end OTR and custom corsets. Construction is very different, from maker to maker.
Some are boned with flat steel, some with spiral. Some have vertical or horizontal boning only. Some mix both vertical and horizontal boning while others place their boning on an angle, forming a big “X” over the Panel.
Biggest problem with Back Modesty Panels is how to make them sturdy, thin and stop them from bunching up.
Don’t think we’ve figured them out but I’m hopeful for the future.