So I was out trimming the privet hedge the other day, like you do (she says, sounding perfectly British about the whole thing) when I stopped to think, “Gee, I wonder if I could bone a corset with some of these clippings? I should give that a try…” So I did.
Now, it’s worth noting that that thought occurred somewhere in the middle of the third day of standing out in the sun, clipping up the hedge-leavings. (The chipper-shredder succumbed to neglect several years ago, somehow leaving me with all of it’s abandoned duties.) Actually, calling these privets a hedge at this point is a sort of gross understatement along the lines of calling calling the Atlantic ‘the pond’, or Wall Street’s integrity ‘slightly questionable’: it was a nice, proper hedge when I was 7, but it’s sort of moved on into the territory of ‘self-sustaining eco-system’ since then. I actually found a tree when I was pruning it. A tree! A 17′ tall Buckthorn. Normally I’ve very much of the trees-are-for-hugging persuasion, but Buckthorns are far from being gentle, defenseless beasts and this one happened to be right where we wanted to put the compost bin. (Ah, the irony…) All that left me with a lot of yard waste to clip up into mulch sized pieces.
It’s a very zen activity, and it leaves the mind an awful lot of time to contemplate the nature of hedge trimmings. Some of them are all crooked and branchy. Some of them are straight, thin suckers that rise 10 feet – a good sign you should have pruned the hedge years ago. Then there’s all the new growth. It’s whippet thin, straight, and springy. It hasn’t really come in to leaf yet, but it’s starting to bud. Hmmmm, thunk I…. The word ‘farthingale’ comes from the spanish vertugado (roughly translated, “green springy new tree bits”) from the wooden bents used to stiffen it. If you can make a support skirt with tree-trimmings, why not a corset? (Oh, come on… It’s far less of a jump to assume that corsets might be stiffened with tree trimmings than, say, something found only in the jaw of a whale. Really, what kind of mind worked that one out?) Agricultural waste as corset boning is nothing new: the stomacher, believed to have been the front of a pair of bodies, shown on pg 46 of Patterns of Fashion (Arnold, fig 329-331) was boned with reed.
So I saved some of the thin, straight (read: unbranched) new growth in 9-13″ lengths. I’d let the branches dry in the shade for a good 3 days, so they were slightly less flexible than they’d been to start. (This is good: they’re far to flexible to be supportive at first.) To prepare them for use, I stripped off any leaves, buds, or anything that fell under the heading of “pokesy-outsy bits”. If I’d been feeling more energetic about it, I’d have stripped off all the thin outer layer to make them even smoother. I cut off the terminal buds at the end of the shoots as well. It’s important to use the right tool for any sort of cutting. In this case, the tool is a pruning sheers, not a regular scissors.
I pulled out an old, curved-front peasant corset to use as a base for this experiment. It was perfect for two reasons: it didn’t start out being heavily boned, and it’s lost all the boning from the two channels at the closing edges on both sides over the years. This is important because, frankly, I’m lazy and I didn’t really want to prepare all that many shoots for this experiment. The corset is partially deconstructed in this picture, so you can see the remaining strimmer line at the bottom where I’ve pulled it free of the channels.
For comparison purposes, here’s the fit and support offered by the original strimmer line boning. (Forgive my indecency in omitting a chemise. A white corset against a white chemise doesn’t show well. Also, I did once have an academic reviewer comment that the support offered by a corset simply could not be judged without a chemise in place – I’m slightly boggled, and while I’ll grant that a fitted chemise can, indeed affect the final shape and exposure of the bust above the level of the corset, I don’t believe that to be the same issue. I assure you that this is pretty much exactly what this particular corset does in the presence of all proper linen.) The corset is supporting a 36D cup, and while completely snug at the bottom, it’s not actually changing my waist measurement.
For the first experiment, I’m using Privet shoots. I’ve replaced the strimmer line with Privet. The original strimmer was doubled in each channel – I’m trying to match the amount of boning in use, so I’m doubling up my thinner bits of boning (less than 1/8″ diameter) and using only singles of any shoots 1/8″ diameter or greater. For the yarnies in the audience, anything sport weight or larger is being used singly. I’ve only boned the channels that had strimmer line in them.
The Privet shoots, while flexible, had significantly less give than the original strimmer line. This resulted in my chest being smashed flatter against my ribs (which forces the mass of the bust downwards, as well as upwards, and generally throws off the whole fit of the thing.) The corset is significantly less comfortable at this point, and it was a major strain for me to touch my toes. Also, either because of the extra stiffness of the privet shoots or possibly because several hours and a meal have passed since the first photos, the corset is now cutting slightly into my waist. I’d have to say the privet shoots are doing an unexpectedly great job of providing support, but I’m not terribly comfortable. They’d be better used in something with the boning channels extending down into tabs, and with the boning spread more evenly around the figure. For a court costume, this would work out great.
The next experiment involved shoots from the ill-fated Buckthorn. They’ve been prepared similarly to the Privet. (Note: be careful with Buckthorn. Unsurprisingly, it has thorns. They’re really sharp little boogers, and they’re not always obvious until they’re stuck in your fingers.) Again, I’ve boned only the channels that originally held strimmer line. As the Buckthorn shoots are more consistent in thickness than the Privets were, I’ve boned each channel singly.
The Buckthorn had a natural curve to it, which I’ve sort of exploited here. As a boning, it provides less support than the Privets, and only slightly more than the original strimmer line. The corset is fitting significantly more like it did originally, and I’m finding it a little less uncomfortable. The silhouette is also closer to the original, especially in the side view (the slope below the bust is where this is most obvious). It’s cutting in less at the waist, although only a half hour has passed since the Privet photos were taken. Buckthorn is, I feel, much better inside a corset than out in the yard.
One thing I noticed, and found interesting, was the amount of each substance needed to provide support. I needed the most mass of strimmer line, and the least of Buckthorn. Strimmer line, of course, can be chucked into the wash and will last indefinitely (or, until it wears its way through the channels and escapes the corset, which is what happened to to 8 pieces of the original boning). The yard waste solution, I suspect, will only last a season and will need to be treated much like basketry (it needs the occasional drink, but doesn’t want to be wetted and roughed up in the wash). On the plus side, it’s free, it’s completely biodegradable, and it’s a completely period substance. It’s even gotten by a completely period practices for woodland management as well as fruit tree training. (Why do I remember words like ‘coppicing’ when I have a hard time remembering whether or not I’ve gotten around to eating breakfast?) I suspect that any old straight, springy tree shoots will work – here in the midwest, we have an abundance of little maple trees that crop up (usually in completely inappropriate places) every spring. The main stems should do when they get about a foot high.
I say get down with your inner Elizabethan frustrated fashionista, and look to the bounty of nature instead of the hardware store this year. Just make sure you ask before whacking up any trees and shrubs that aren’t yours….