The basic corset pattern that I regularly use is adapted from block from around 1860. This was an interesting time for corset making; Eyelets had been invented and, when they were used in corsetry, lacing to able to be pulled tighter without tearing the fabric. The first divided front busk was created by Jean-Julien Josselin in 1929 and by 1860’s this was in general use. This meant that women no longer required help when putting on their corsets. However, the biggest impact on corset production was the invention of the sewing machine in 1951. These factors suddenly allowed the widespread adoption of corsets throughout the social strata – sewing machines enabled industrial production (and therefore reduction in costs) and the freedom of requiring a lady’s maid for dressing meant that corsets could be adopted by working women.
The structure of these corsets is actually very simple. The main support is provided by panels of very stiff tightly woven cotton fabric called coutil. Tunnels of fabric are then sewed down the seams and down the centre of the panels to contain the flexible steel ‘spirals’. The number of the tunnels can be increased depending on the amount of support needed and the shape that is required. The divided front busk enables fastening but it also provides stability at this front edge; unlike the spirals, the busk has some flexibility forwards and back but no sideways movement, ensuring the front edge is always neat and straight. This control and flexibility is provided at the back edge by using flat steel strips in tunnels on either side of the row of lacing eyelets.
Busk; spirals; flexi steels
This is the basic corset. This particular corset is constructed within a sleeveless coat. I hadn’t had the opportunity to make a jacket using traditional tailoring methods for a few years so this seemed an ideal excuse. When I had a workshop in London in 1992, the workshop opposite was used by a couple of very elderly Italian tailors who were still tailoring this way (almost everyone uses modern fusible construction methods these days). Very quickly, we came to an arrangement that, in exchange for the occasional home baked cake, I would join them for coffee every morning and they would show me what they were working on. I guess this is a homage to them even though they would have tutted at the idea of combining a jacket with a corset.
The first calico pattern on the dummy and then split down to take the pattern.
Once I had worked out how I was going to mash together the frankenstein monster of the jacket pattern and the corset, the most complicated part of a jacket is the collar and lapel. All the pattern pieces are cut from the woollen fabric and each piece is handstitched onto a silk organza interlining…the pocket welts and bound buttonholes are done at this stage. Now the hair canvas attached to the front of the jacket but rather than take this stiff fabric into the seams, the canvas is trimmed back and a cotton tape is sewn to the edge. It is this tape that is caught in the seam. All of this is handsewn. It is vital that the layers of fabric are eased or stretched so that the lapel wants to turn and corners don’t stick out on the finished garment. A lot of the job of shaping is done through pad stitching the lapels and collar…tiny little rows of herringbone stitches that are done as the fabric is held curved over the fingertips. The hem is held up with a linen fabric cut on the bias and then edged with a tape.
The top collar is attached amazingly late and this is possible because of using handstiching.
The two modification that I had to make to get the jacket and the corset to fit together was that the last corset panels at the back had to come through the jacket so that the lacing was visible. In order to get the rather thick woollen fabric to lie neatly under the lacing as it tightened, I put a panel of stretch fabric under the tweed and stitched in vertical lines.
In the main body of the jacket the top and bottom of the corset is stitched to the interlining of the jacket body and is covered by the lining. The front panels of the corset come through the lining so that the busk can be fastened.
The jacket has two pockets…and a knife on a chain across the front like a watch chain.
Hidden pockets temporarily cross stitched closed.