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.

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Progress!

The black silk petticoat is finally completely sewn, and is now just awaiting the remaining ribbon embellishment. Such a relief! It has been put aside temporarily so that I can work on other things.

Up next: late Victorian wear for 3, due in 3 weeks.  Yes, that is panic you hear. I’m not entirely sure how I let the time slip away. Oh, yeah, in ruffles and other projects!  Anyway, it’s personal sewing and keeps taking the back burner to other things, but now it’s crunch time.  I have a walking skirt cut out and waiting to be assembled, and a knickerbocker pattern drafted and waiting for a mock-up. I’m hoping to have those, and more, finished by the end of the week.

I am also beginning a class on 18th century stays this Saturday.  Only 4 students this time, so no back-to-back teaching for me!  I really loved teaching the corset class, and apparently my students loved it, too, since 3 of them returned for this class.

My first article for Your Wardrobe Unlock’d was published this week, on menswear during the period from 1730-60.  I was honored to be asked to write it, and am looking forward to writing another article this fall.

And – perhaps most exciting of all – I have proofs for my new website design and am so in love! I can’t wait unti it is up and running and I can share it with everyone. I’m hoping to have it up and new business cards printed before Costume College.

I did take time for an outing to the park last Sunday for a lovely game of croquet with friends.  It was a fun break, but now it’s down to business.  Here’s one of my favorite photos from the day, of Chris and I being silly in front of the conservatory.

Denise and Chris at Volunteer Park Conservatory

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.