Reform Corset

One of my current client projects is a reform corset to be worn with a WWI nurse’s uniform. This corset presents an interesting challenge because while there are plenty of old advertisements to be found, images of existing corsets are hard to find and often don’t show much detail. Back views are even harder to find, although there is a Jaeger corset at the V&A with a photo that confirms they do lace up the back. In addition, the closest pattern I’ve found is Ageless Patterns’ corset waist for a 12-14 year old girl, and the V&A corset is also sized for a young girl, which isn’t very helpful when drafting a pattern for a grown woman.

Patterning the second draft.

Patterning the second draft.

So I’ve been slicing and dicing the pattern I do have, making it bigger, adding curves, and adding style lines similar to those on the V&A corset. My first draft was for the rough shape and size I would need, and the second draft focused more on the proportions of the front panels. Luckily, the photo in Underwear: Fashion in Detail appears to be nearly life sized, at least around the neckline and bust. I’m basing this on the fact that the buttons in the photo are approximately 5/8″ and the twill tape binding is about 1/4″, both of which make sense with the scale of the overall garment. The buttonhole openings are 3/4″ wide, measuring from seam to where the edge is bound, which is right for a 5/8″ button. So even though the overall proportions are smaller than what I need, I was able to get some valuable measurements that I could apply to my own version.

I’m not reproducing the Jaeger corset exactly, although I am drawing heavily on it for inspiration.  I’m leaving in a hip gusset from the Ageless Patterns corset, because several the other reform corsets have this detail and it seems useful in fitting a woman rather than a girl. I love the pleated bust gusset, but since my version will be in cotton and my client wants it to be washable, I’m doing a gathered gusset, which is actually more common in the other examples I can find. I don’t see any need to change the width of the buttonhole placket or the straps, other than length.  I intend to copy the method of making buttonholes by leaving spaces between folded and topstitched pieces of fabric rather than by cut and bound buttonholes, because I find the detail very attractive and think it will be sturdy, as well. I also like the quilted detail on the back of the straps and all the cording, so those will also be in my version.

Reform corset pattern draft.

Reform corset pattern draft.

Reform corset mocked up in muslin.

Reform corset mocked up in muslin.

The second draft fit really well, and my client reports that it is very comfortable.  The bust gusset starts at a good point right under the bust, but needs a little more fullness in the gusset itself so the gathers don’t have all their fullness pulled out.  The straps are a little short and I’d like to fine-tune the shaping on some of the pieces, and make the curves a little more elegant. It doesn’t need many changes, however, and I’ll be moving on to construction this week. Before that can happen I need to experiment with the fiddly details, like the strips of fabric that make up the buttonholes down the front and on the straps, and how to cord and bone it without losing too much width and making it smaller than it should be.

Also in progress for this client are a pair of chemise-drawer combinations, to be trimmed with tatted lace and embroidery made by my client’s grandmother, the beginnings of a 1912 long and narrow corset, and a princess slip. I’m also busty checking off items on my personal project list. I started an 1830’s corded petticoat and the 18th c. tall hat was finished over the weekend, with pictures coming soon.


Two steps forward, and one back

I locked myself out of the sewing studio for a few days, which meant no sewing at all aside from some hand-sewing I had in the house.  I finally had more keys made and a long weekend home alone, so I designated it an all-sewing weekend, and invited over a couple of friends.

My plan was to finish the black silk petticoat and get started on the Victorian outfit I plan to wear for croquet next month. I had new patterns and thread and other goodies just waiting to be used.

The petticoat was supposed to be a quick and easy project.  A simple pattern, a few ruffles, some lace, and done. The ruffles set me back for a while, but I was finally past that. All that it needed was the last of the lace sewn on, and for the finished yoke to be sewn to the finished ruffle. One seam. Easy, right?

Not so much. The seam did go together and was neatly finished, and I had a finished petticoat.  I went to try it on and was horribly disappointed. It was short. Inches too short. Also, it was all out of proportion and just looked awkward and unflattering. Uh-oh. How did such a simple project turn out so wrong?

First, the length issues are all me. I was matching the length to an existing petticoat, the one I wore for my wedding.  The two petticoats were exactly the same length, so it wasn’t an error in patterning.  After trying on both of them, I realized the wedding petticoat is just as short, and I had never noticed. The drawstring waistline and weight of the ruffles mean it rides lower than my actual waistline, no matter how firmly I tie it, and the train means that length is only an issue at the very front.  The fabric is a soft, thin taffeta, whereas the black silk is very crisp, so each petticoat also hangs very differently.  So while I perfectly matched the length I was aiming for, I really needed to add about 4″ to the black silk.

After discussing it with my sewing buddy, I considered taking out 2 of the 5 tucks, gaining a quick 2″ of length with minimal effort. However, that meant talking about the real problem with this petticoat: the proportions.

The pattern illustration shows a deep ruffle with a narrow band of small tucks along the bottom edge, with a narrower ruffle below that. The tucks take up maybe 1/5, or less, of the space on the deep ruffle, and the narrow ruffle appears to be about 1/2 the depth of the deep one.  It’s adorable.

The actual pattern creates a deep ruffle with 5 widely-spaced 1/2″ wide tucks at the bottom edge, which take up a significantly larger portion of the ruffle.  I was also expecting pintucks or 1/4″ wide tucks from the illustration, so they are much wider and much more widely spaced than I was expecting.  The narrow ruffle is also only 1/4-1/3 the depth of the deep ruffle, so those proportions look very different, as well.  I went with it because I didn’t want to recalculate the length and re-mark the lines and cut new fabric, and maybe it would look fine when it was done.

It’s “just” a petticoat, it was going to be lacy and ruffled like I wanted, so I tried not to be bothered by the difference between the illustration (and my vision) and reality.  Once it was together and on me, it was too obvious to ignore – it was frumpy and unflattering, and that wide ruffle was out of proportion to everything else.  It really needed to be shorter, and taking out tucks would only make it deeper. So much for an easy fix.

So what was left to do but take scissors to all of it?  OK, not all of it, but at least to the ruffle.  Since it needed to be shorter and the yoke needed to be longer, cutting it off the existing yoke seemed the fastest way to making progress again. But taking scissors to a pile of silk that is perfectly finished and 98% complete is sheer torture.

So now the deep ruffle is shorter by a couple inches, and the yoke is longer by quite a few inches, and everything is ready to sew together again. Is it still progress if you end up back where you started?

I hope to finish the petticoat today, barring any other major issues.  In the meantime, I did make some other progress this week:

  • The early 1900’s princess slip has been washed to remove all the stabilizer, and is ready for a final pressing and some ribbon. I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
  • Ditto for the silk corset cover that coordinates with the wedding petticoat.
  • The Armistice blouse was almost finished, but the sleeves I cut out (how many years ago?) were not anywhere close to the right size for me. I think the style is meant to be a little long, but these are just too long, and too full, and very unflattering. Luckily, I have more of the cotton lawn I used, so I just need to cut out new sleeves and then finish the hem and buttonholes. I don’t love this blouse on me, but it is very sweet and dainty and has so much work and lace in it that I really feel I should finish it and try wearing it.
  • The blue silk men’s court suit had sleeve issues, so we tackled that problem this weekend.  Lots of patterning later, we have a sleeve with an actual sleeve cap! Imagine that.  Some careful cutting and piecing of the old sleeves should make it just barely possible to cut the new sleeves from the same fabric, since there is absolutely nothing left of that silk. I still don’t know where we went wrong originally, but I’ll be so glad when I can finally call that project complete.
  • I spent a fair amount of time washing and measuring the cotton print I hoped to use for my new Victorian outfit, and was totally in love with the pink-and-green dress I had in mind.  Unfortunately, it turns out I can’t use the fabric after all, so I had to dig through my stash and see what else might work.  For now, it looks like some dusty rose linen for a skirt, and leftover Regency gown printed cotton for the blouse. It’s very different than what I wanted, but it will be pretty and slowly I am coming around to the change. I still need/want a pink and green dress, so I guess I’m on the lookout for new fabric.

Try, Try Again

We all have that project that is going so well, and then – bam! Not so much.   This silk petticoat has been that project for me.  The pattern was going fine, even finishing with bound seams instead of the serger was going fine, and then I got to the ruffle.  I’ve made plenty of ruffles, but something about this one completely had me beat.


At first I used the ruffle foot to gather it, but it looked terrible, despite several perfect practice swatches.  I took out hours of pinning and gathering, and went back to the traditional method of two rows of gathering stitches.  That looked terrible, as well.  I experimented with the differential feed on the serger (didn’t work at all), gathering over thread, folding an edge and gathering over a cord… every different way I could think of, and everything still looked awful – all bunchy and uneven.


In the process, I realized that the fabric itself was part of the problem.  It’s a nice, crisp shantung, and it’s just a bit slippery, yet stiff, and it was also fraying like crazy. I’ve been avoiding serging it, even though it would have helped the fraying issue.  I hate serged seams, and wanted this to be a little nicer, since it’s for me.   The other problem was the pattern. I really don’t like 2:1 ruffles, because I feel like I have a hard time adjusting the fullness evenly.  This is part of why the ruffle foot would have been so helpful.  Between the two, it made for much more of a struggle than I was expecting.


Finally, I figured out that 3 rows of gathering stitches look pretty good, and now have the ruffle sewn to the flounce and the frayed seam neatly bound with seam tape. I’m waiting on some black lace beading to add to the flounce before I attach it to the yoke, and then I’ll be done.  Hopefully I’ll have a photo in a couple days!


While I am waiting for lace, I am finishing up an heirloom lace petticoat I started many, many years ago and dug out of a box last year.  The sewing isn’t great, since it was my first ever heirloom sewing project and I was way too ambitious, but it has yards and yards of beautiful French lace and cotton lawn in it, and couldn’t go to waste. It really just needed a waistband, but was too long for me. Rather than cut it off, I added more lace and a yoke, put in a couple darts for shape, and turned it into an early 1900’s princess line petticoat.  I should finish it up today, if all goes well.

The Importance of Correct Corseting

by Clarice I. Wile

The Modern Priscilla, March 1911

Fig. 1 A Novel Shaped Corset of Embroidered Batiste

Inasmuch as, all through the coming season, we are to be debarred from the charming, not to say daring, color schemes which have been devised for our benefit and beautifying, it is obvious that, if we wish to achieve success and distinction in our dress, we must pay particular attention to our contours. And as, for their desired perfection we are almost entirely dependent upon our corsets – practically all our day and evening gowns being destitute of any boning in the bodices – we are prepared to appreciate to the fullest extent the beautiful shaping of the new corsets, that are made with careful regard to the comfort as well as the smartness of their wearers, now to be found on the market.

Fashions in corsets for this year are entitled to some attention, although they have, in print, long since been discounted and are at present simply matter-of-course affairs. They are also the outcome of the change in fashions of gowns which began to materialize a year ago.  The vagaries of waist-line fashions and the rather morbid craze for an attenuated physique, frankly outlined, which have lived through several seasons of popularity and are still desperately opposing the change to normal lines, are no longer in power and the feminine cry already is a familiar paraphrase – long live the waist line.

If you will just notice the gowning of an up-to-date woman you will see that the lower edge of her belt or girdle or the cord at the bottom of the latest waists defines the normal waist line. It has no dip at the front, but instead curves slightly upward over the hip and across the back. This indicates that the corset she wears, also thoroughly up-to-date, is shaped to her figure at the line just described.

This season the straight up and down silhouette is the fashionable one, the aim being to give the effect of an uncorseted figure. To gain this end, the lightest of corset fabrics are used. Some of these materials are very handsome, the brocaded fabrics in particular are most alluring, and there are some chic linens and coutils embroidered from the bust to the waist line as a new feature.  The tricot, or silk jersey, on account of its strength and suppleness, is used to a large extent. In fact, one of the features of the new corset lies in the character of the material used rather than the cut. The long hip line must be preserved, and the waist curving, therefore, one of the important features. In order to make the flexibility of the figure pronounced, very little boning is resorted to, and great ingenuity must be shown to give this much desired flexibility where it is essential to use any amount of boning. The harness of hose-supporters, which has created so much ridicule, has been lessened, and although the corsets are long, the bones do not extend below the hip line, all of which makes a plea for comfort.

The most important feature of the new corsets are the long waist lines, decidedly long, but in every way comfortable. The garments fit so perfectly at the lowest possible line that they cannot be moved after once placed in position. It is possible to take hold of the top of the corset and pull it up as hard as you like, without moving it half an inch. This is undoubtedly an unusual achievement and one which has been needed for a long time. The long waist is maintained even when the bust of the corset is very low, and even the wide belts worn on dresses give no appearance of shortness of the figure. Aside from this, the new corsets are better in value than those of preceding years. The boning is stronger, for the importance of good stays in long corsets has been made apparent, and an excellent quality of hose-supporters has supplanted the rather questionable affairs which have been used on really good corsets.

The average woman is not in a position to buy a different corset to wear every day in the month, and many women who never have a corset made to order though abundantly able to do so, might follow with advantage some of the practices of the rich in their over-the-counter buying. Women of fashion, it seems, pay little personal attention to the ordering of their corsets, leaving the selection to their corsetiere, whom they pay by the year as would a parent trying to correct defects in her child’s lines. The new corsets, as made by corsetieres to change the present line of the figure to more natural ones, are expensive, and part of the cost for them lies in the care given to their designing and fitting, both of which must have as much attention as the gowns under which they are to be worn.

Fig 2. A Front Laced Corset With Some Special Features

A new advice to women when putting on a corset has just reached me and which I believe will be a help to you, as it is an important one concerning proper corseting. When the new corsets are put on, the lacers are to be left wide apart and the hooking is to begin at the top, but before drawing up the lacers, pull the corset down in the back as much as you used to pull them down in the front. Slip the hand inside below the waist, first over one hip and then the other, gently pulling up the flesh and pressing the corsets downward. This keeps the stays in place and prevents them from riding up or giving that old-fashioned slant to the waist line. Then the lacing helps to accentuate this effect.

Another new idea devised recently, and with good results, is to draw the lacers downward instead of upward. If this is done, you will notice how the figure gains, and the most perfect lines will result from doing this, while the health of the woman improved at the same time.  This is the normal position for the body to assume.  The new corsets, when properly adjusted, give the back a different curve. Instead of making the figure slope in at the waist with a sway back effect, the spine assumes almost and outward curve there and the abdomen is held in a normal position instead of being drawn inward and upward until it loses itself in other parts of the anatomy. The position does not make the woman look stoop-shouldered. It gives her the proper balance of the body once more and takes away that unbending and cuirassed effect which suggests the stiff corset at once. The silhouette of the latest figure shows the bust in normal position, neither pushed up under the chin nor pendant. The new corsets are responsible for this agreeable effect. The high bust corset never did give a woman good lines. The low busted corsets worn even up the lengths from shoulders to bust and bust to belt, restoring the artistic balance in line that has been absent from the silhouette of the past three or four seasons.

The new corsets are long-waisted and low busted. Although the new waist lines in some of the costumes are higher, it is certain that this rule will be followed in all the gowns of this season at least, but this effect is the result of the position of the girdle and has nothing whatsoever to do with the figure line or change of the corset model. The corset is fitted exactly to the natural waist line and will not slip up and down. It is impossible to even pull it up after it is laced into place. This is a great improvement, because many corsets designed to give the perfectly straight hip effect slipped either up or down every time the wearer changed her position, the hose supporters being depended upon for waist-line adjustment.

Corsets are still quite long below the waist, the extension skirt being a very important feature of all the better grades, but the lines are easier, owing to the very slight hip curve. The waist line in a natural position and and the low, full bust allow a perfect freedom for the upper part of the body, which is shaped into firm, graceful lines by the adoption of a soft, perfectly fitting bust supporter or brassiere.

In the illustrated plates we are showing two types of the new long corsets which are in every particular indicative of the season’s requirements as regards style and comfort. They are corsets chosen as embodying the features which are essential to proper corseting at the present time.

Figure No. 1 shows a novel shaped corset which is long over the hips and shorter in the back and front. It is made of embroidered batiste.

Figure No. 2, as will be noted, is a front-laced corset, which has in addition some special features, as soft top clasps to avoid under pressure, round full bust, and complete support.

This article is accompanied by an ad for a Thomson’s “Glove-Fitting” corset.

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which is evidenced by almost 60 years of ever

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Up-cycling, from 1918

Woman’s World, April 1918, from the article “Hooverizing” with the Needle: There’s nothing new under the sun, so don’t worry if you have to make over your last year’s dresses, by The “Make-Over Lady”

For Daddy’s Little Girl: When a certain young lady begins to creep and use herself as a dust mop over the floors, white dresses are out of the question. One may even have fleeting visions of a potato sack as the only solution. But did you know that Daddy’s colored shirts, when they wear out around the neck, are just the thing for wee dress protectors. See Fig. 14. Turn the front to the back and you are saved the labor of buttons and buttonholes. Any little dress pattern you may have will do to cut it by. The collar may have a little crocheted edging in a dainty color.

Everything old really is new again. I’ve seen this same idea on many craft blogs, as an “up-cycled” toddler dress tutorial. Whether it’s 1918 or 2011, it’s still a cute dress!