Comparison of Different Boning Materials for Use in Sixteenth Century Corsetry

File this one under “possibly useful to some one, at some time, somehow”: this is a series of pictures of corsets I’ve made over the last several years. Each one shows me standing in profile, next to my dress dummy. This makes the changes in my shape imposed by each corset fairly obvious, and the pictures all together give you a pretty good idea what different types of boning and styles of corset can do for a girl. I feel I should point out that several of these corsets are shamefully tight on me: some were made years ago, and I’d packed on a few pounds in the intervening time. Quite unfortunately, like a camel, I use my bumps for storage. (If you’re wondering how that could possibly be unfortunate, you’ve not tried it.) Incidentally, all of these corsets are front lacing (because I hate being garb-lame), therefore none of them use a wooden busk. What you see is solely a function of the boning material.

Lightly boned short corset

Lightly boned short corset

This is a very lightly boned, short corset. There’s nothing particularly special about the cut – it’s simply made to be about 2″ smaller than my bust, and 1″ smaller than my waist. It’s made up of medium cotton duck, and has been washed many, many times. The boning is heavy gauge weed-whacker line, and I believe I started with 8 pieces per side (2 of which are on either side of the front lacing). Several pieces have subsequently worked their way out and weren’t replaced. The boning extends only to under the “cup” area of the bustline. This is a trick I learnt from a Bridal Couture teacher – she pointed out, quite rightly, that when boning extends over the bust, there is always a gap between the boned foundation and the body directly below the bust. This gap is the source of a much pain, suffering, and the horrible sinking feeling that your cleavage has decided to take a coffee break. ;) I gave the idea a try with this corset, and several others since. It’s consistent with the boning line on the Pflatzgrafin corset (and the stitching placement in the central busk channel which, ostensibly, prevented the busk from running over the point of the bust. The stitch line in question is visible in Waugh’s redrawing in Corsets and Crinolines (p.10), Arnold’s redrawing in Patterns of Fashion (p.113) and her photos of the original (p.46))

Short corset with hemp

Short corset with hemp

This is very similar to the first corset in cut. I may have used the same pattern – I can’t recall, but I’m fairly lazy so it seems likely. It’s made up of two layers of cotton/linen blend, and fully corded with hemp across the front only. The hemp is run from top to bottom of the corset, over the bust, in straight vertical channels (as much as that’s possible on my decidedly-not-straight frame). There are two pieces of hemp in each 1/4″ channel. I found that the inherent stretchiness of the linen blend really defeated my normal theories on corset sizing. It’s basically fitting in the picture, but worn for more than 15 minutes it starts to stretch out. That’s good in jeans, but really bad in corsets.

Half boned with cable ties

Half boned with cable ties

This corset was cut with a pattern based on the conjectured patterning of the body of the Pheonix dress: the center back is on the straight of the grain, on the fold, and the body is cut in one piece with the center front ending up on the bias. Now, that’s a horrible way to make a corset, so I cheated with the lining and ran it the opposite way – center front on the straight, and a hidden seam at the center back inside. The outer and lining fabrics are woolen, and the interlining is cotton muslin. The bones are sewn between the lining and interlining, so no stitches are visible through the outer fabric. (Because I like my underthings to be pretty, that’s why.) The boning is done with heavy duty cable ties (the 1/4″ wide dealies). To borrow terminology from a later era, this is a half-boned stay – there’s unboned distance between each piece of boning. (Unlike fully boned stays, which double as armor….) The boning runs in a fan shape, from the bottom point of the waist out over the bust and up to the top of the corset. Well, up to 1/4″ from the top of the corset, so I don’t get that weird spikey effect that happens when the boning and the channel are the same length. The eyelets on this corset were all hand-worked. Since it seems to make no perceptible difference to the final fit of the corset, but does take oodles of time and makes lacing the final product a trickier proposition, I don’t really see myself doing this again.

Heavily boned, Effigy style corset

Heavily boned, Effigy style corset

This corset is cut along the lines of the effigy corset. It’s not a straight reproduction, as the original and I are somewhat different shapes. It’s made of two layers of heavy cotton duck, with a silk outer layer. It’s edged in leather. The boning is held between the two layers of duck, so no stitches are visible through the silk. Originally, this was teal with a buff-colored edging, bit it discolored over the years and I chucked it into a dye pot. It is heavily boned, with heavy-duty cable ties running in a fan shape from the bottom point of the waist out over the bust. There are many partial pieces of boning, run from the top down, to fill in the gaps between the stays that come up from the bottom. The back is also boned, from the tabs up to the mid-shoulder line. This corset will stand on it’s own, and possibly deflect arrows. The corset was made to measurements that were optimistic when I was a 12, and is containing a body that’s roughly an 18 in these photos. Unfortuantely, this means that a completely inappropriate amount of boobage (for the period in question – this is an accuracy judgement, not a moralistic one) is being forced into prominence. However, it gives you some idea just how much those cable ties will shore up!

Effigy style corset, fully boned with weed-whacker line

Effigy style corset, fully boned with weed-whacker line

This is the same style of corset as the last, made several years later. I enlarged the previous pattern somewhat, and I’d finally figured out how to get shoulder straps to work right by the time I made this so they’re sewn in rather than tied like the original. The corset is made from two layers of silk/linen blend, and edged in bias strips of silk, with boning channels sew directly between the two layers. It is fully boned with heavy weed-whacker line. There are two pieces of line in each channel. The boning runs straight up and down, relative to the center front line, as far as possible. I switched at the center back, running the boning straight up and down relative to center back, as far as possible. There’s a weird bit at the sides where I tried to make the definite diagonal that results from the difference between my bust and my waist work out with the straight lines of the back. I think sixteenth century corsetry is easiest on girls whose bodies are a little more consistent in measurements than mine. Ah, well…. Give history a mere 250-300 years, and the Victorian corset comes along to fix all that. ;)

11 thoughts on “Comparison of Different Boning Materials for Use in Sixteenth Century Corsetry

  1. Trish says:

    More questions for this fabulous article: which ones are easiest to use/sew in, which ones are the most comfortable, and which seems to have held it’s shape the best over time (IYHO).
    Also can we see them laid out flat (for corset pattern shape) and do you have images of the actual boning material?

    8 years ago | Reply

  2. Larue says:

    I am so going to try that trick of only using boning up to the bust cup. I wonder if that would work on Victorian style as well…. What a great idea! The images are really helpful. Hope Oliver went well!

    8 years ago | Reply

  3. admin says:

    Larue – Some extant Victorian/regency era corsets have the cup area of the bust set in as a separate, unboned piece (at least one from 1785 has a series of small drawstrings to adjust how much the bust is pulled in – there’s a picture in Taschen’s Fashion, p130). Bust gussets (unboned) were common from the 1780’s through the mid 1800s. Boning starts going back over the bust when the multi-paneled corsets (sans gussets) of the mid-nineteenth century become more common. These don’t have shoulder straps. In my experience, if you’re not putting boning over the bust, you need shoulder straps or the weight of the bust will crumple the cup area. The bust can either be supported from above (straps) or below (boning up from the waist), but you really have to do one or the other if you’re over a B cup unless you were genetically blessed with boobs that are naturally immune to gravity.

    Trish – As a general rule, the fewer boning channels you have to sew, the faster it is to sew a corset. I wouldn’t say any of these are harder to sew than the others – some are just more tedious. And, of course, if sewing straight lines is a challenge, then many lines of closely placed boning will become exponentially challenging. ;) I find hemp cord to be tougher on the wrists, because you have to fight it into the channels, but as a bonus, you can sew through it, so it’s easier to whack bias tape over the edge of the corset to bind. The hemp and weed-whacker boned corsets are most flexible. I can actually slouch comfortably in the lightly-boned weed-whacker jobby. That has held it’s basic shape over several years of frequent use, even with bits of boning that I once thought crucial falling out. (I think if the boning ran over the bust, this would be more of a problem.)
    You can’t see pics of these laid out flat, as most of them do not lay out flat. Also, I am lazy. ;) No, seriously, I am. I have plans for redoing the patterning info that I used to have up, and when that happens, you’ll have the images you want. It’s a sizable project, and I’m still in the middle of a large musical (which means I’m in laundry-land….Ah, the glamorous life of a costumer!) Several other sites have pictures of the different types of boning, and good info on how to work with it. I’d start with
    http://www.festiveattyre.com and http://www.modehistorique.com .

    8 years ago | Reply

  4. the cheap chick says:

    Have you ever used a corset mouse? I’m thinking about putting one in my Elizabethan (corset generator) corset. Thoughts?

    PS – I think you look lovely in these!

    8 years ago | Reply

  5. Trish says:

    Thanks Missa!
    I haven’t worked with the Hemp or the Weed Whacker cord, or even the Zip Ties yet…but I teach a corset class and I like to be able to give a vague idea of the differences of different sorts of boning and alternatives.
    I also like to see the patterns and how they -actually- work up, since I just don’t have time to make them all. Again also showing examples to the class and how it differs from what we will do.

    8 years ago | Reply

  6. Elisabeth says:

    Hi!
    I have been a fan for years, and I just wanted to throw out a boning tip: After reading your original descriptions of the Effigy corset, I made one for my Renfest costume that year. I boned it with a lightweight reed that I got in the floral department. It is the same width as wheat straw, but heavier, and quite stiff.It worked really well, though I am pretty small busted, so might not work for bigger “girls”! (It went into a corset of Muslin and silk, edged with leather.) I have been using it ever since, though the corsets have to be washed by hand, not in the washer.
    Thank you SO much for all your helpful insights over the years!

    8 years ago | Reply

    • missa says:

      Hi, Sophia. I’m not involved with the SCA, but I have friends who are. I was involved with my local ren faire for years, but I’ve sort of retired…. ;)

      7 years ago | Reply

  7. Muslin and Lace says:

    I loved this article, we are similarly shaped, so seeing the differences in shaping was super helpful! My biggest question is- how do you work with/treat the cane/reed when using for boning? Is it something that would just be put into the channels as-is, or is there a pre-treatment? I was looking at some reed boning to buy from an old line shop, and they included bees wax as an add-on accessory “to soften the strands and prevent them from breaking” but I’ve not seen/read anything else about that…
    Thanks again for any info you may have! :)

    2 years ago | Reply

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