Engineering Creativity

October 29, 2009 - 9:20am -- swingbug
Fairy Costume

It’s getting to be that time of year again, so I’m back at the sewing machine. This year I’m going for sort of a wood sprite kind of thing, with the main piece being a corset/cincher made in tunisian crochet. The pattern calls for rigilene boning, which always sends a quiver down my spine, and I decided I was overdue for a rant on why people should never ever use that stuff to make a corset.

I’m by no means a corset expert, but I’ve made half a dozen or so corsets and boned bodices, designed both for under and outerwear over the years and I’ve worn them enough to see what holds up and what doesn’t.

Rigilene boning is like a thick ribbon of nylon. You buy it by the yard at a place like JoAnn’s. It’s stiff the way fettucini is stiff. And what happens when you get fettucini hot and wet? The same thing that will happen to your beautiful bodice the first time you wear it to Renfair in 100º heat and sweat all over it. It’ll turn into non-supportive noodles, and then it will stiffen out that way, and you’ll have yourself a bodice that gives you jack in the way of support.

I know it’s cheap and I know it’s easy because you can get it at the corner fabric store, but it’s just no substitute for proper boning materials.

Making a corset is always a trade off between form and comfort. If you want the maximum lift and tuck, you go for metal stays. You better hope you know how to fit that corset pattern to your body, though. It’s no fun to find yourself at Renfair on that 100º day with a slip of metal jabbing you between your ribs - and come on, who hasn’t had that happen?

Right. The next step down is spiral boning. Huzzah, huzzah for spiral boning. It’s not quite the miracle worker that metal stays are - very close, but not quite - but it’s so much more comfortable that who the hell cares. It has nice weight, it holds up well, and you can still bend from the waist if absolutely necessary. This is my ultimate choice in almost all circumstances. You will have to spend some time trimming the stuff to the right length and bending the little wires in properly before you cap it off with proper caps and case it. I’m not saying it’s not work – I just spent the better part of an afternoon prepping 3 yards of the stuff into individual lengths and then casing it in silver lamé ribbon, so believe me, I get that – but your finished product will be worth the effort.

For both of the above options, you’ll probably have to order the supplies you need online. I always recommend Lacis out in Berkeley for corset making supplies. Good folks.
If you’re looking for something easy to get and more comfortable still, you might be tempted to look again at that nylon crap. For the love of god, don’t.

Let me clue you into a little trick that I learned when making my Regency-era corset. Get yourself some nice stiff hemp twine (unwaxed!), thread it through a darning needle, and feed a double thickness of it through the boning casing on your corset. It adds a little extra firmness, it’s more historically accurate than plastic noodles, and it will hold up. I’d still use a proper metal stay on either side of your lacings. But still, not bad. Certainly comfortable. Less lift, but hey, what kind of a miracle are you really looking for, after all? You can also use some quilting techniques on a properly tailored corset to produce reasonable results. (I learned the hemp twine trick from notes included in the Regency Underthings Pattern by Sense and Sensibility Patterns. Credit where credit is due after all.)

Right, so let’s do some practical comparisons.

Renfaire corset circa 2000.  Steel stays made directly from a pattern.  No duct tape.  What can I say?  I was young.  Supportive but ultimately doesn’t fit perfectly.  The best part of any excursion to faire is loosening the strings at the end of the day. 






 And in the “What the hell was I thinking?” category, here’s the obligatory Rigilene boning example.  Live and learn.  Yuck.






A corded set of stays.  A perfectly reasonable, easy to acquire, less expensive option than the catastrophe pictured above, particularly for this option where the pattern itself was cleverly shaped with gussets.






Two examples of spiral boning and why it totally rocks.  These are two of my favorite costume pieces in my arsenal and I swear on my Buffy collection, they’re actually comfortable.






I know this post is probably a little technical in the realms of historic and fantasy costuming and probably interests but few of my readers (Hey Carol-Anne!  How’s Connecticut treating you?) but I firmly believe that we should share the little bits of knowledge that we have managed to acquire along the way in this game of life and if pumpkin recipes and corset advice is what I have to offer, then what’s mine is yours.

May much merriment and Halloween blessings be upon you and your sewing machine on the fast approaching best holiday of the year.  I’ll catch up with you in November with costume photos.

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Submitted by Katy on

I abslutely agree! Plus, if you grit your teeth and buy a whole lot of spiral boning all at once, you have all you need for a supportive undergarment emergency!

My record was a Ren Faire in 11 lbs clothing weight (not including shoes)...

Submitted by C-A on

Heeheehee :)

CT is treating me very well! Thanks for the shout-out and the info. You recommended steel boning and Lacis to me back when I still didn't know if you were Jenny or if Jenny was you ;) and I've never gone back.

My 1770s stays were made with the plastic crap... that's what I get for procrastinating and not ordering in time. I still hold out hope for one day removing the binding and replacing it all... that's a lot of boning, though. Methinks Felicia Day's Avatar will be an ideal endeavor for my next boning-filled project! Now to find the perfect underbust pattern...