Do you sit at the sewing machine for hours, carefully stitching your corset together, only to find that when you’re done, it looks off? Have you sat there heartbroken and mystified as to what went wrong? You followed the instructions, cut carefully, stitched faithfully - and yet, what you have is not what you were expecting...
I starting writing this article to answer a question regarding how to make corsets for curvier figures, but I ran into problems when the article seemed to go on forever. You see, the problem with corsets is that they are unforgiving. A successful corset (regardless of the figure wearing it) requires you to master several skills, and the most important skill of all is the ability to fit a corset properly.
There is absolutely no point spending hours getting your boning channels perfect, ensuring that your binding is spot-on and that your busk is inserted precisely if the fit is off. The sad truth is people notice the fit first and the detail last. Having spent all that time and energy, you (or your client) should feel comfortable and confident in your creation.
My horror story
I did it myself. I had a big event to go to; I was going to show them exactly what I could do. I spent three days stitching 54 perfect boning channels - not a stitch even a fraction of a millimetre out; I flossed until my fingers hurt and I stitched until I couldn’t see straight. I followed all the rules: I didn’t just pay attention to the grain, I obsessed over it. I spent far more than I should have done on fashion fabric, and I treated it as gently as a newborn. I banished everyone from the living room while I worked on my masterpiece. And when I finished, it looked amazing and I couldn’t wait to put it on and strut my stuff!
But when the moment came, it wasn’t my finest hour to date - it was the lowest point I had ever experienced. My boobs looked like they were trying to escape out of the corset and over the binding. I’d suddenly grown back-boobs, which were attempting the same feat as the front ones, and my hips had apparently shrunk a size.
How did this happen? The pattern asked me to cut a size 18-14-18, and I cut it exactly and even made a toile! My mistake? I was too keen to stitch and didn’t give the fitting process the time and respect I should have done. In fact, I was clueless as to exactly what the fitting process was.
Most problems with the fit of a corset come from the mistaken belief that the fitting process revolves around the toile: you whip one up, try it on, make a few adjustments and “VOILA”! You'll know this isn't necessarily true if you, like me, have ever cut a pattern, made the toile and wondered whether you got your centimetres and inches mixed up because what you have is a million miles away from fitting correctly.
Between you and me, the toile is the last step in the fitting process. Fitting begins before you open the pattern envelope or pull out the drafter's curve and pencil. The fitting process begins the first time you see your client, and finishes just before you insert your eyelets and bind the edges of your corset.
It is because of this that the decision was made to separate the principles of fitting into their own article – the supporting curvier figures article will be following shortly (including fitting advice and examples).
So what exactly is the fitting process?
No-one really talks about it in any great detail. There are no books dedicated to demonstrating how to fit a corset, so you’d be forgiven for falling foul of not paying it enough attention. What follows, therefore, is my method for fitting. I warn you that my sketching skills are not quite up to Michelangelo’s standards and that some of the fitting methods I use are a little unconventional, but they work for me.
Throughout the text I will refer to the receiver of the corset as the client, because whether you are making corsets for yourself or others you should pay the same attention to fit. Never shortchange yourself by cutting corners on your own corset. Consider yourself your toughest client and you will have a better declaration of your abilities than words could ever muster.
Right then, down to business.
Fitting is broken down into four stages:
- Body Analysis
- Accurate Measurements
- Fine Tuning
Each of these are vital to your success. Should you skip a stage, be aware that you are likely storing up problems for later that will take much longer to fix than the stage you have skipped would have done. Alternatively, you will simply end up with a corset that falls short of what you are capable of.
1. Body Analysis
The fitting process starts before you wrap your tape measure around your client. You need to look openly and honestly at what you have to work with. It’s a tough task if you are the client, but you need to carefully examine shape, dimension and proportion:
Proportion: Look at the key parts of the body (bust, underbust, waist, hips) in turn and note their placement in relation to the other key body parts. Is the distance between the underbust and the waist long or short? Are the hips high or low to the waist?
Contours: Exactly where does the body curve, and by how much? This is not limited to analysing whether someone has curvy hips, but covers the whole area. Just because two people have the same measurements does not mean that these measurements are distributed in the same way.
Bone Structure: Look at the key features of the figure: narrow shoulders, wide pelvis, the form of the ribcage. This is important because this is the part of the figure you can’t change and plays a large part in determining the "squish factor" of your client. For example, a person with a wide pelvis and a thin covering of flesh will not "squish" as much as someone with a narrow pelvis and a thicker covering of flesh. You need to take note of this as it will affect your fitting options later on.
Posture: Posture will greatly affect both how the finished corset will look and how comfortable it is to wear. Ever noticed how some bulges and creases disappear if you stand up straight with your shoulders back? Sadly, posture is no longer taught in schools and has suffered as a result. The shoulders have generally dropped and the spine has slouched. Posture is set slowly over a long period of time and can take just as long to correct. Wearing a corset can encourage the wearer to straighten their back (with judicious use of boning) but will not put a stop to drooping shoulders (sadly, you can’t include a clause in your contract insisting that they will correct this!)
You have to work with what you have. So take note of the client’s natural posture (if you are the client, look back at photographs in which you are in a relaxed pose, or ask friends to help identify your natural posture and make a note of it). I find that drawing stick men helps, studying the posture from both a forward-facing and a side-on perspective.
Can't I skip this step?
Sounds like a lot of extra work, right? Before you are tempted to skip to the next stage, consider this example:
Last year my best friend and I had exactly the same underbust, waist and hip measurements, so you would assume that we had the same figures. Wrong! We were worlds apart. Here are some generalised sketches of what we looked like:
|Front view||Side view|
So how is this possible? The answer is in the body analysis.
- Figure A has a significantly different body proportion; the distance between key body parts is much greater than B due to A being approximately 3 inches taller.
- Figure A has a wider pelvis than B, A also has a wider ribcage than B. B has more curves, in more places than A. This can be seen most clearly in the stomach area: A’s stomach is flat while B has a rounded “mum tum”.
- B’s shoulders have dropped more than A’s and B’s back has a more pronounced curve in the lower back.
Now, if we made an underbust corset to fit A, it would not fit B correctly because body analysis reveals two completely different figures. This is vital to ensuring that the correct corset is chosen.
Figure A can wear corsets comprised of a small number of front panels, but this is not advisable for B, who will require the corset to be more curved across the front of the body. Already we know that B has a pronounced mum tum and will require darts to be placed along the bottom of the front panels. Also, the difference in the contour from the bust to the underbust is significantly greater for B and will, again, require more panels.
Such a wide alteration will need more panels to prevent the seams looking skewed. Think of it this way: the more panels you use, the less impact there will be on each panel seam. For example, if you have to reduce the bottom of the corset by four inches to account for the mum tum, and you do this by inserting darts at the bottom of two seams, it will be far more noticeable than if you spread that reduction over four or five seams.
There are a few techniques which can be used to help you develop your awareness to differences in figures and to identify your own figure’s key features: my favourite is the Outline Technique. Try them on yourself and your friends - the more you practice these skills, the easier they become.
The Outline Technique
Look at how your figure differs from the industry standard and make a note of it. The industry standard figure has the following features:
- Equally proportioned, as detailed above.
- Shoulders and waist are of equal width and the waist is approximately nine inches (23cm) smaller than the hip measurement.
- The figure has an upright posture: the shoulders are straight and have a two inch (5cm) slope from the base of the neck, the back position is straight and upright, the chest is hence pushed out slightly.
- The figure has a flattened stomach with minimal roundness below the waist, so that hip bones do not protrude.
- The bone structure is of average size. The flesh covering this is thick enough to maintain smooth contours without creating bumps or bulges.
- The industry standard figure has a bust equal to a B cup.
If you want to study the contour of the figure in more detail, repeat steps 1-6 with the figure standing side-on to the wall, noting the placement of the bust and widest point of the stomach. It’s trickier than the face-on outline but is worth the extra effort. I found that taping a pen to a ruler and holding the ruler helped me to get an accurate outline.
You can also repeat this process using photographs and tracing paper instead of drawing outlines on paper.
Why do the Outline Technique exercise?
Not every corset will suit every figure. Analysing the figure allows you to identify the best corset design/pattern for the figure – which will save you hours of fiddling and stressing when it comes to the toile stage. It also ensures that the client gets the most flattering corset for their figure.
If you are using commercial patterns this step will save you lots of time. As stated above, by identifying those parts of the body that are different from the industry standard, you are aware of likely places where the pattern will need altering before you even take it out of the envelope.
If you are drafting your own pattern you now have a more accurate and informed model from which to work. The more information you can gather before you cut your pattern, the more accurate your toile (and finished corset) will be, and the fewer alterations it will need.
2. Accurate Measurements
...are never found when measuring over day clothes! I hate measuring over clothing. You need to be wearing close (but not tight) fitting clothes to measure, and they will distort the figure somewhat. My personal preference is bra and knickers [underpants]. But I have a selection of thin vests and leggings in all sizes if the client wants to use them; other than that, day clothes are forbidden. Be careful to ensure that the distortion that the clothing creates is kept to a minimum – always go up at least a size for leggings.
Another key point is that the client must wear correctly fitting underwear.
|Badly fitting bra||Correctly fitting bra|
Badly fitting bra and knickers will distort the figure and give a false measurement. Check that there are no visible bulges emanating from offending underwear. I am quite open about this, and have a selection of bras and packets of knickers for clients to change into. I avoid heavily padded bras, as they give a false measurement.
Be considerate and diplomatic, and explain the importance of getting the correct measurements – most clients know they are wearing the wrong sized bra and will actually value you for taking the time to help them find what size bra they should be wearing. If the client is looking for a particular shaping over the bustline, ask them if they have a bra that gives the shape they are looking for. If they do, ask them to bring it with them when you take their measurements.
Have you ever noticed that, at the second you unravel a tape measure, the person about to be measured always straightens up and pulls their shoulders back (and in some cases sucks their tummy in!)? You need to correct this.
Bespoke tailors on Savile Row insist on measuring clients in their natural posture because that is how they will be wearing their suits. As corsetiers, we must follow this approach. We can use boning to encourage a better posture, but unless the corset is being crafted specifically to assist in correcting posture, you need to measure your client in their natural pose (you will account for the adjustment that boning will have on posture during the toile stage).
Now, this is easier said than done! One peek of a tape measure and your client will likely stand to attention. No matter how much you tell them you need accurate measurements to make the best, most comfortable corset for them, human nature will override almost every time, and back go the shoulders.
The best way I have found to counteract this is to ensure the client is relaxed and comfortable with you and with being measured. If possible, making them laugh does wonders to help them relax. If this isn’t possible try talking to them about something other than what you are doing. Try to find a relaxed topic that they enjoy talking about. I have one client who tells me about her grandson’s development every time I take her measurements and another who tells me about her collection of ornamental miniature houses and which one is specifically holding her attention at that moment when I take her waist measurement. If the client is new, pay them a compliment that requests more information - “That’s a lovely bag you have, the colour is stunning. Where did you get it from?” I find children, husbands, and so on are generally best avoided. They may have plenty to say, but they may not necessarily be relaxed when they do so! Use your posture notes to work out when the client is in their natural pose, but don’t stand there waiting for them. Make yourself look busy – I take a few measurements that are not needed while the client settles.
Okay, so the client is relaxed, now what?
Now we get to work. When measuring there are two important rules to follow:
- Do not alter the figure you are measuring. The tape should be close enough to the body to remain in position without creating bulges of flesh above or below the tape.
- Make sure you are measuring the right area. Sounds silly, but it's all too easy to hold your tape in the wrong area.
So where should you measure?
For overbust corsets I measure:
For underbust corsets, simply ignore all measurements involving the upper bust and bustline.
It's a good idea to familiarise yourself with the sillouettes and corset designs from each historical period. This will help you understand how the pieces of the corset relate to each other as well as what type of shaping the corset will provide.
When choosing a commercial pattern or deciding on a design to draft yourself, let the results of the body analysis guide you.
- For curvy, rounded figures, look for patterns with a large number of panels.
- For figures with disproportionally large breasts or hips, patterns utilizing gussets and gores can make it easier to cope with dramatic contours.
Before I found out about how commercial patterns are sized I would stick rigidly to the cutting lines on the paper. The pattern companies knew what they were doing and I didn’t, so it was best to stay with the people who knew best, right? Well, no. You have your pattern, but it is a generalised pattern. For good corsets you need to take the pattern and customise it to your client’s body.
Start by measuring the corset’s panels horizontally: Remember to deduct the reduction required from your client’s horizontal measurements and to add the seam allowance for each side of the panel (the seam allowance is usually given on the instruction sheet). Compare the total width of the panels at the upper bust, bust, underbust, waist and hips. If this amount is different from the client’s measurements, then adjust the panels accordingly.
Next, measure the corset’s panels vertically: it helps to locate the position of the corset’s waist and use this as your basis for measuring. Remember that for these measurements you do not need to make any deductions and so they should match your client’s measurements. Again, if they do not, adjust accordingly.
Recommended Books on Fitting
If you are unsure how to do this, there are some fantastic books that can help. I highly recommend investing in one or two – for years it never occurred to me that you could read up on such skills and my development was significantly slowed because of it.
You won’t find any books on how to adjust a corset specifically, but there are a large number of books dedicated to tailoring and fitting. My favourites are:
Recommended Books and Resources on Pattern Drafting
If you prefer to draft your own patterns, then make full use of all the information you have gathered. I find it helpful to check the measurements of my corset panels against my client’s measurements as a final check, before cutting my toile.
I have found the following books and resources to be a goldmine of information and helpful advice:
Cathy Hay's Pattern Drafting Masterclass here on FR!
4. Fine Tuning
Now you have your customised pattern, it is time to make your toile. I know that some people prefer to cut straight into their corset fabrics, but I implore you not to do so!
Making a toile does not take very long, and is a safe way to test out not only your customised pattern, but also your techniques for fixing any last-minute hitches. It is also the very best way to familiarise yourself with a new design, which will ensure that you get the best results when you do come to construct your corset.
Because of all the work you have already done, you will most likely have avoided any major complications and will only need to fine tune your pattern (there is no exact way to account for the squish factor except to lace a toile on and see). That said, there is always a chance that something has gone awry, and a toile will alert you to this before you cut into your corset fabrics.
A note of caution
I used to have a terrible time of fitting. I would make my toile, fiddle until it fitted correctly and then for some reason my corset would never fit properly. After a lot of investigating I found my mistake: I had treated the toile as something you quickly whipped together before stitching the corset properly. I hadn't cut the toile out accurately, my stitching on the toile did not keep exactly to the seam allowance stated on the pattern and it wasn't 100% straight – it was a rush job. The lesson learnt was that a corset has no extra fabric included for ease; in fact it has less fabric than your client's measurements to accommodate for the required reduction. So the room for error is pretty slim.
You have to treat your toile as though it were the real thing.
For example: If you aim for the standard two inch gap for lacing at the back, completing the body analysis, accurate measurements and pattern customisation, you will end up with a collection of corset panels that, when stitched together, match the required measurements for your client when wearing the pattern.
Let's say that your pattern has 12 panels; 6 on each side. When cutting your pattern you don't stick exactly to the line and go 1mm either side of it. This won't really be a problem for the length of the corset but for the width it can spell disaster. A corset with 12 panels has 14 seams, 10 joining a panel to another, 2 for inserting the busk and 2 for the turning the seam on the back panels. If you are 1mm out at the cutting stage then the width of the corset could be as much as 14*2 = 28mm too big or too small. But that's only just over an inch, right? Well yes, but it's just over an inch that shouldn't be there or is missing, which means that the fit will not be correct. Consider if you also don't stitch the panels together exactly either, again we will use the 1mm example. This would mean that overall, your corset could be up to 56mm (over 2") too big (leaving you with a much larger lacing gap) or too small (making your laces close completely - you would be back to scratching your head and unpicking. Having spent a lot of time unpicking, I can assure you that spending just a little longer cutting and stitching your panels will save you far more time than it takes to get frustrated, calm down, unpick and then restitch.
Another step that is often overlooked is boning. You have to bone your toile – if you are planning on using 56 bones you can be forgiven for stitching fewer in at the toile stage (I always recommend a fitting which includes a focus on bones in the actual corset if you are going to have that many). But you must have some bones. The minimum number of bones I put into a toile is one at each seam and two in the middle of the panels.
The point of the toile is to make an exact replica of the corset to ensure that the fit is correct before proceeding, but you can't correctly assess the fit if the toile fabric is wrinkled or bunched up.
Tips for the toile:
- Make it out of a fabric that mimics the strength and behaviour of the strength layer of your corset. I use artist's canvas, as it is as rigid and strong as coutil, and like coutil it does not stretch.
- For overbusts, I recommend that clients wear the same bra that they wore at the fitting stage (the one that mimics that shape in the bust line they are looking for). This is worn until the toile fit has been perfected, and then it is removed to check that the toile holds the correct shaping.
- It is helpful to stitch the toile together so that the seam allowance is on the outside. It helps to press the seam allowance to one side.
- Wait until you have ensured the toile fits correctly before altering the top and bottom edge of the corset.
- Make sure you note down any changes you make to the toile when you are fitting – it’s all too easy to forget.
- Never say “that will do” or “I’ll sort that out later”, always ensure your toile fits correctly before you cut your corset. (More fittings can be a sign of perfectionism, not incompetance: Dita von Teese claims that she attended no less than twelve fittings with legendary corsetmaker Mr Pearl for her wedding corset.)
- When fitting issues arise I find it easiest to correct any issues with the waist first, then work my way down to the bottom of the corset. When that is fitted correctly I turn my attention back to the waist and work my way up to the top of the corset.
- Focus on one issue at a time, an adjustment in one area can affect other areas so I find it is best to resolve one issue before tackling the next.
- If you are making a toile for yourself, ask for help with the toile stage. Twisting and contorting your body trying to see behind you or down to the side of you will give you a false idea of how the toile fits. Get a friend to look over the hard-to-see areas and guide him or her as to what they should be looking for. If you can’t get hold of someone, I recommend using two full length mirrors to help see those hard-to-reach places.
- Take photos – it’s something I have just learnt the benefit of. Having a visual image of how the corset looks can help to refresh your memory and help you identify exactly where the problem lies.
- If you are making a corset for someone else it can be very handy to use an adjustable tailor’s dummy (set to the client's expected measurements when wearing the corset). If the corset has to navigate dramatic curves which can’t be replicated by the dummy, I pad the area (ensuring the finished measurements are as required).
Laura's Jelly [Jell-O] Fitting Method
There is, of course, one big drawback to using a tailor’s dummy – the breast size is fixed and they are very pert and exceptionally firm.The first time I made a full busted corset for myself I set up the dummy to my exact measurements (minus the required reduction) and used it to alter my corset. I ended up with a corset that was too wide in the back and too small in the bust. The problem is that when you adjust the upper part of the dummy to accommodate for a larger bust, you expand everything EXCEPT that solid plastic bust.
One solution is to use a well-fitting bra and stuff it. You can use bubble wrap, pieces of foam, or wadding, to name a few examples. I prefer to use something that better simulates the behaviour of breasts when manipulated, so I use overcooked pudding rice (short grain rice) or jelly [Jell-O] depending on the squish factor required. Sounds crazy, but it has helped me create supportive corsets for busts up to a 42JJ cup, mimicking not only the behaviour, but also the weight of the bust.
It’s decidedly simple to do. The first thing you need to do is to work out what type of breast you need to replicate. Are they firm and of a solid density, or are they wobbly and less solid? For firm, solid breasts you will need to use pudding rice as your key ingredient. For wobbly boobs you will need some jelly [Jell-O]. If you are replicating breasts with implants, then use pudding rice. I will demonstrate the jelly method here; the rice method follows the same process although you don’t need as many balloons.
The Jelly Method
You will need:
- A measuring jug (microwavable is best if you are using jelly).
- Some “Stuffing Balloons”: These are the type that are given as gifts with teddies and such inside. DO NOT use regular balloons or your tailor’s dummy will get very messy. I buy mine from a balloon art shop around the corner to me, but you can also buy them from florists and online. You will need 2 balloons for each cup size greater than the tailor’s dummy (these are usually B or C cups).
- Freezer clips.
- A funnel – I use an empty cotton spool, but you can use whatever you have to hand.
- Clingfilm [Saran wrap]
- A bra in the size required.
- A large rubbish sack, the thicker ones are best as the thin ones tend to spilt too easily.
- Sticky tape [Scotch tape].
- Pair of kitchen scales (optional)
- Large towel
Here’s what you do:
I am actually planning to cut the breasts off my tailor’s dummy and only use balloons for an even more authentic fitting tool.
For those of you who worry that the balloon will pop as soon as you go near it with a pin:
I have never had a balloon “burst” on me although that's not to say that it can never happen. I only use pins near the jelly balloons when fitting my toile (as it can easily be cleaned with a damp cloth), but for the actual corset I use them to check the fit but I never put anything sharp near them.
If the idea of using jelly leaves you feeling a little nervous, you can also use the rice method. Be sure to let the rice cool before you put it in the balloon. These filled balloons can also be stored in the fridge, but they don’t last as long as the jelly ones.
A final note
Fitting is a big skill to master, extending far beyond the toile stage. Part of this skill is changing the way you look at constructing a corset so that fitting takes its place throughout the entire process. It can take some time to get the hang of some of the skills required, but with practice it does get easier and quicker.
For me, fitting is the key to transforming a good corset into a great corset. In this article I have looked at the basics, but over the coming months I will be looking further into the process of fine-tuning toiles and also at the techniques used to support the curvier figure.