"Becoming Victoria"

I am honoured and excited to have been invited by the Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival committee to appear as a young Queen Victoria at this year's festival from 22nd-28th August 2016. In preparation for this role I will be designing and making the costumes for the young queen over the coming months. These will be authentic reproductions of the fashions of the early years of Victoria's reign and will include a range of 1840s women's garments from corsets and petticoats to day dresses, ball gowns and bonnets. This blog will document and share my progress as I research, design and stitch each element to reveal the secrets of "Becoming Victoria".

Thursday, 23 June 2016

When home sewing becomes DIY

60 days to go and time to bone the corset.

In the nineteenth century, corsets could be boned with whalebone (actually the baleen, or teeth of the whale) or, thanks to advances in industrial technology, steel. Whalebone was a particular favourite as this natural material which has a consistency somewhere between hair and horn is light, elastic and flexible. Whalebone could be split into thin strips and still retain all of these features and, if softened in hot water, could be shaped to the form of the corset where it would remain set once dry and cold. However, the great demand for baleen meant that the numbers of these magnificent creatures dwindled as they were constantly hunted. The answer to the scarcity and rising price of whalebone was steel. By the mid century spring  steel had been invented, flexible enough to bend to the shape of the corset.*

An example of baleen on display in Colonial Williamsburg. Picture from The Two Nerdy History Girls. Click here to read their interesting short article on baleen.

This is the material used for corsetry today. Solid steel or spiral steel (tightly coiled and flattened wire) bones provide excellent support for garments such as corsets, but are light and flexible enough to shape to the body. Corsets are also still fastened with steel busks (wide, strong bones with hook and stud closures) and metal lacing eyelets, patented in 1829 and 1828 respectively.

The two halves of the busk are inserted between the corset and facing at the front edges. Spaces in the stitching allow the hooks to poke through the seam and an awl is used to pierce holes for the studs. And in a taste of what is to come, safety goggles are worn when sewing around the busk as sewing machine needles break and fly up in the air very easily if they accidentally hit the steel!

Front fastening buck inserted
 For the next stage even more DIY tools are required. Setting the lacing grommets in the back of the corset involves no sewing whatsoever but a fair amount of hammering. The grommets (or eyelets) come in two parts. The side with the long shaft is inserted through a hole pierced in the right position and the second side, resembling a washer is placed over this. A special tool is then used which, when hit with a hammer, forces the shaft to roll back over the washer to secure the eyelet in position.

An array of tools for setting the grommets

The two halves of an eyelet

The grommet setting tool in action
And a good whack with a hammer!

Finally the bones themselves can be inserted into the channels sewn earlier. I was using continuous spiral steel for this project, so once again raided the tool box for lethal looking items to try to cut the steel (not an easy job) and fix the end caps in position. With the bones cut to the tight length and the ends finished, these were then inserted into the channels ready or the top edges of the corset to be bound.

Scary wire and tools...and the safety goggles again because this stuff springs everywhere!

Close up of the spiral wire
And finally, the result. One corset ready to be finished tomorrow:

Front with busk

The back with eyelets
 * References
Norah Waugh, Corsets and Crinolines (Routledge/Theatre Art Books, Oxon, 1954).

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