This guide to corset fabrics is an extract from Making Corsets by Julie Collins Brealey published by Crowood Press. This book is a comprehensive guide to sewing your own corset. In the book you will find information on corset making tools and materials, how to use a commercial corset pattern or draft your own, essential corset making techniques and how to decorate a corset among other essential corsetry skills. The extract below tells you which fabrics are best used for making corsets and why.
Your corset will consist of at least one layer of fabric, maybe two, three or possibly more. The main layer is called the ‘strength layer’ and, as the word suggests, needs to be composed of a fabric that is really strong, hard-wearing and non-stretch. The only fabric that can totally meet these criteria is coutil.
Coutil is a tightly woven fabric, which was invented in the nineteenth century specifically for corset making. It has a high thread-count, and is usually recognizable by its herringbone structure, as you can see in the picture above. The finer the herringbone structure, the better the quality of coutil. The tight nature of the weave adds to the extreme strength and durability of the fabric, which is dense enough to prevent corset bones from poking through.
The best-quality coutil is made from 100 per cent cotton, although a cheaper version is made from cotton mixed with polyester or viscose; 100 per cent cotton coutil is the most comfortable for wear against the skin and handles better than the cotton mixtures. Although an expensive fabric per metre, you will possibly only need half a metre, or perhaps less, to make your corset.
Herringbone coutil can be dyed or printed. Coutil can also be used as a lining for your corset. Cheaper alternatives to coutil are cotton duck, canvas and drill. Providing these fabrics are strong and tightly woven, they should perform well as a strength layer.
If you prefer a more decorative appearance to your corset, other types of coutil are available; each is as strong and durable as the herringbone coutil. Cottonbacked satin for corsetry is a coutil fabric and is so much stronger than regular satin (which would need a backing fabric to be of use in corset making); this coutil would give a luxurious sheen to your corset. Broche coutil for corsetry is a heavier, very dense jacquard fabric with a cotton/viscose fibre content.
The design on the broche is usually the same colour as the background, although in a shinier thread. Rosebud coutil is another jacquard weave, usually woven with a shiny, coloured thread for the rosebud design. This fabric is a cotton/polyester mix and is available in a wide range of different-coloured backgrounds and rosebuds. I have featured a black/red rosebud coutil in my Victorian-style corset which I created by using a commercial corset pattern, see the image above.
It is essential that you support your corset with a strength layer of fabric, such as coutil, as described previously. However, you may decide to use a fashion fabric for the top layer. If so, try to use fabric that has a woven structure, with no stretch. It should be neither too lightweight nor too heavy, but essentially most types of fabric will work. The fashion fabric will be attached to another fabric layer which will stabilize it, prior to assembling the corset. Methods for this are described in the book.
Leather and Artificial Leather
Leather or any type of artificial leather can be used successfully to make a stunning corset: a good way of re-purposing the leather from an old jacket is by turning it into a corset. However, care must be taken when using this type of material. Leather does stretch and so will require stabilizing by using a strength-layer fabric as a backing. Specialist processes will need to be researched prior to constructing a leather garment.
For instance, stitching leather requires the use of a walking foot or a Teflon foot on your sewing machine: both of these attachments will help the leather to slide over the needle plate during the stitching process. Use a machine needle intended for leather work and check the stitch length: a too-tight stitch will tear the leather. Also, any unnecessary lines of stitching will leave permanent holes in the leather. Make sure that your thread is suitable for the job.
There are many issues to consider when working with leather, so remember – sample everything on leather scraps before you try out any technique on the corset.
Read The Sewing Directory’s tips for sewing leather.
Elasticated panels can be incorporated into a corset to allow a little more flexibility into the garment. Make sure that you use an elastic fabric such as a heavyweight powernet that is substantial enough for the task; this fabric will stretch in both dimensions and will spring back into shape.
If your corset requires a lining, coutil could be used as an extra strength layer. However, there are many other fabric options that could be used for this purpose. Lining fabric should be woven and have no stretch, and it should be heavy enough to conceal the outline of the boning inside the corset. If the fabric is too lightweight the boning will rub and wear holes through it.
Lining fabric should be soft to the touch. Don’t forget that this layer will possibly be worn against the skin, so fabrics with surface textures are not suitable. Natural fibres such as cotton or silk are lovely for wearing against the skin as they are soft and absorbent.
Interfacing is used for adding extra stability to areas of a corset that may need more reinforcement, such as the CF and CB panels where the busk and eyelets will be inserted, or any area of weakness. There are various types of interfacing on the market, but the one most suitable for corset making is fusible woven interfacing: this consists of a woven fabric which has heat-activated glue on one side. To adhere the interfacing to the corset fabric, it is pressed onto the WS of your fabric using an iron with steam.
Woven interfacings are usually made from 100 per cent cotton which works well with coutil. There are two colour options: white and charcoal. The image above shows a close-up image of charcoal-coloured woven interfacing. Both sides of the interfacing are depicted so that you can see the woven structure on one side and the glue coating on the other.
I tend to use Bondaweb, which is a sheet of adhesive webbing with a paper backing. It can be used to adhere two layers of fabric together by pressing with an iron, which melts the glue. It can be purchased in packs or by the metre.