I have wanted to make a real Victorian corset for a long time. I couldn’t justify buying one since nowadays I don’t really wear those evening gowns that would have benefitted from a proper corset underneath. Then on one long and boring car trip I started watching Alison Smith’s wonderful course on Bluprint (formerly known as Craftsy Unlimited) and saw that the corset making wasn’t so complicated as I had thought. Thus I got interested in trying out Alison’s Zara corset pattern.
If you are not a Bluprint subscriber like I am and don’t want to become one, the same course can be also found on Craftsy:
Sewing Corsets: Essential Techniques – $19.99
Disclaimer: I am an affiliate of Craftsy/Bluprint. However, I did purchase Bluprint membership for myself with my own money, which allows me to watch courses as much as I want with a small monthly fee. Thus far, I have watched bra and lingerie making courses by Beverly Johnson, this corsetry course and am halfway into a course in photography. The more I watch the more I want to watch. I keep my laptop or an iPad next to my sewing machine and click through the stages as I proceed with my project.
I went and bought the same Zara corset pattern that was used in the course. The Zara corset is a Victorian style corset, each side of which is constructed out of five pieces. The pattern is available in pdf format and in sizes from UK 10 to UK 20. My measurements corresponded pretty closely to the smallest size which I then chose to make.
The pattern had a basic set of written instructions. They assume that you already know to sew and need no images to guide you through the process. However, I mostly just used the online video material and only consulted the written instructions a few times.
I like this pattern since it is very simple and nothing too extreme. I have no intention to start tight lacing or make a Burlesque style showpieces. Instead, I am more interested in the historical women’s wear and want to learn the basics of the corsetry. Also, my back tends to get tired no matter how much I try exercising its muscles. It will be interesting to see if a corset might relieve me from back pain and headaches that result from my bad posture.
The materials for the Zara corset
Besides the pattern, I also ordered the kit that contained all the necessary materials: Beige coutil, eyelets, busk, spirals and flexi steels.
What is coutil? Coutil is a very sturdy, herringbone weave cotton that was developed by Victorians specifically to be used for corsetry. It doesn’s stretch and it can take all the strain that the corset is subjected to. It comes in a few basic colours and but there are also patterned and jacquard versions that are very pretty. I decided to go with a simple beige coutil so that the fabric wouldn’t show through my light-coloured dresses. As the corset isn’t washed often I also thought that the beige fabric would stay looking cleaner longer than a white one.
The busk is the hook-system that holds the sides of the corset together at the centre front. It was also invented by the Victorians. The busk makes it possible for a woman to dress herself since you basically only need to lace your corset once and then open it at the busk to get it on and off.
The flexi steels are flat steel bones that only bend back and forth. Those are used at both sides of the eyelets to support them. Most of the boning is spiral bones that are (like the name suggests) flat spirals that bend in all directions. The steel bones are a must in corsetry. Those cheap plastic bones get bent out of shape and they do not give enough support for a proper corset.
The eyelets were your standard Prym ones with a 5 mm holes. I already have the pliers for them, so these were just perfect for me.
The only thing that I needed to add was the lace and the ribbon for lacing the corset. Of course, the lace edging was optional but I wanted to add a little bit extra after working two days with this project.
The sewing of the Zara corset
The first thing to do was to make a toile. I used my bolt of unbleached Ikea cotton and cut a corset that didn’t have the centre front opening. I was then able to determine that the size that I chose wasn’t very far off. Fitting the corset at this stage is pretty challenging since the corset is supposed to be smaller than your measurements. I did shape the bust slightly but otherwise was pretty happy.
Then I cut the pieces of the coutil and seamed them together. I learned that in a corset the seams are on the outside.
The next stage was more challenging: I had to insert the busk. I tried my best following the video tutorial, but at some stage managed to turn my corset upside down. I felt so stupid when I realised I had put the stud side of the busk to the wrong side! As I had already made holes to the front piece, the only thing to do was to rip the front out and cut a new front and the facing. Luckily there was enough fabric to do this! Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time I got confused with the top and the bottom of this corset!
Alison Smith warned that the corset making is pretty tough on your fingers and fingernails. I noticed this when fighting twice with the studs that have to be pushed through tiny holes in the coutil! The studs don’t want to go through and you are not allowed to cut the fabric! Instead, you’ll need to use an awl to open up a hole in the fabric that then closes tightly around the foot of the stud.
After the busk, the eyelets were added with the flexi bones on both sides of the eyelet columns. Only after this stage I could finally try the fit properly. I laced the corset with some ribbon and got my husband to tighten the laces. I think he may used a bit too much strenght but he was able to pull the corset sides together:
There should be about 5 cm (2″) space between the sides at the back, so my corset was slightly too big even if the fit was pretty well otherwise. I checked some comments left by other course members and, following advice given to them, removed about 3 mm from the back/sideback and sideback/side seams, making a total reduction of about 24 mm. As the front fitted pretty well, I did not take anything out of the front seams. I only shaped the bust curve under my bust a little bit.
Finally, I got to the boning. I cut 22 strips of coutil and run them through my bias tape maker and iron to make boning channels. It took me a big part of a day to make the boning channels and to sew them on. Then before adding the bones, I had to close the boning channels at the top edge and to finish the top edge by using bias binding.
Following the example of the video course, I hand sewed the latter edge of the binding in place. This was very difficult to do. In the course, Alison Smith is working mostly with a corset that is made of coutil and a top layer of silk. As she binds the top edge using just a strip of interfaced silk, hand-stitching is a pretty simple thing to do. Coutil is, however, much thicker and harder to sew than silk. I realised my mistake after a few inches of sewing but didn’t want to give up. Without my thimble, I couldn’t have done it but even with it, my fingers are sore. Not surprisingly, I used my sewing machine to finish the bottom edge!
I have collected a lot of different edgings and lace trims and the corset top edge was a perfect place for some lace. What did I do? I carefully sewed the lace edging upside down on the bottom edge of my corset! I was already thinking that my corset was finished when I noticed my blunder. As I said earlier, the corset looks almost identical upside down. Again, I had to do some ripping and re-sewing but, finally, the lace was in the right place! After inserting a modesty panel to hide any flesh that might show through the lacing the corset was finished.
The finished Zara corset
I decided to keep the turquoise ribbon. I don’t think that it is sturdy enough to last long but, for now, I love the little colour pop in the back of the corset.
My dressform has been adjusted to my measurements. I tried wrapping the corset around it to take some photos and realised that it didn’t fit:
Unlike my body, the dressform doesn’t mold itself to the corset. Without loosening the laces there was about 5 cm gap at the centre front!
So what does it look like and what do I think about it?
Of course, no proper Victorian lady would go out wearing just her corset! Luckily I am a 21st-century woman and can be more flexible with the modesty rules. Unfortunately, I donät really have any proper Victorian garments to go with the corset, but I put on a black linen frilly skirt and wore my knitted lace shawl trying to at least add some vintage feel to the pictures.
Here is the corset from the front:
… and from the back:
The only thing that I’d like to improve is the bust shaping. If I pull my shoulders back properly, there is a gap between the corset and my chest. However, if I tighten the laces and pull the top edge closer, my bust gets completely flattened out. Besides, I cannot breathe! In an undergarment, the gap doesn’t really bother me that much. At least it allows me to breathe a bit more deeply! However, I am ready for any suggestions you readers may have on how to improve the fit.
I hope you enjoyed reading about this project. More other interesting projects are coming soon! Consider subscribing to get notified on future blog posts if you haven’t already done so! Happy sewing!