Monday, June 17, 2013

Corset-a-Long: Materials - Fabrics

Base Fabric

The main fabric in any corset is the base fabric. This layer is the strength of the corset; it allows you to tighten and re-distribute. There are very few choices for this layer. Most fabrics available are too weak or loosely woven. The base fabric will also be close to your skin, so you want it to breathe and be comfortable. In your basic fabric store there are few fabrics that fit this description.
The first fabric to look at is denim. Denim is strong, cheap, and readily available. However, it has some disadvantages as well. Denim sometimes has polyester in it. The higher the polyester content, the more uncomfortable the fabric will be with extended wear. Denim also stretches with wear and shrinks with washings. Finally, Denim usually only comes in shades of dark blue and black. A darker color base fabric will show through a white or light outer fabric, which just looks bad.
Another choice that is commonly available and very affordable is Canvas. Canvas can be found in the utility fabrics section near the fake furs and bolts of felt. Be sure you are looking at regular canvas, or cotton duck, not the slick, shiny outdoor canvas. Canvas is a good alternative to denim because it is usually all-cotton, thinner than denim, strong, and comes in a variety of colors, including white, black, red, blue, and natural, which is my favorite because it closely matches my Scandinavian skin tone. Canvas is a lot like denim in that it shrinks with washings and stretches with wearings. I think it also frays more than denim while you’re working with it.
The higher-priced end of the base fabric spectrum is Coutil. Coutil is not usually available at a basic fabric store. Look for it in higher-end shops and bridal fabric stores that carry quality silks and laces, as well as online at corsetry-supply sites. Although coutil is more expensive, it is better for corsetry because of its weave. Coutil has a special herringbone weave that makes it very strong. It doesn’t shrink or stretch nearly as much as denim or canvas, so it provides a sturdy, non-stretch base for long-use corsets. The downside is that coutil usually costs at least twice as much as the other alternatives, or $20-$35 USD per yard. It also comes in a few different colors, mainly white and black. Sometimes a ‘flesh’ color is available, but again it’s a pale cream that only matches the sun-impaired, so it’s not skin-tone for the general population. Coutil’s high cotton content means you can easily dye it, but sometimes the fabric comes with a stiff pasty finisher on it that prevents dye from sticking or spreading evenly.

So how do you know when you need to spend the extra money for coutil? It all connects back to your purpose. The longer you want your corset to last, the more quality you want in your base fabric. For a corset you’ll wear every day coutil is the only choice if you want your corset to last. For a piece that will be under a lot of stress, like the extreme waist reductions involved in tight-lacing, you may even need more than one layer of coutil. For a one-time costume piece, however, canvas or denim may be a better choice because it is cheaper.

Lining Fabric

Next you need to decide if you want a lining fabric. The point of a corset lining is to protect the base layer from the salts and sweat on your skin and to protect your skin from the rough base layer and scratchy seam allowances. Because many historical corsets are worn with a chemise underneath a lining is not really necessary (and not historically accurate).

If you decide on adding a lining think of natural fibers.  Natural fibers are even more important in this layer because they’ll absorb sweat and moisture instead of trapping it against your skin. You also want the lining to be thin and lightweight so it doesn’t add a lot of bulk to the inside of your corset.
The best weave to look for is a straight on over-under 1:1. Cotton fabrics that have this weave are broadcloth, muslin, voile, batiste, and sheeting. Muslin is usually the thinnest and weakest, but it is also the cheapest. Muslin usually only comes in white and natural, although it is very dyeable. Broadcloth has a large variety of colors and is durable and strong, but you have to be careful to check the fiber content because the quilting broadcloths sometimes have some polyester in them. Batiste is a little more expensive, but it is thinner with a fine weave. It usually comes in white or black, but sometimes you can find colors and you can dye it if you wish. Voile is more expensive than any of these, and usually has to be mail-ordered, but its tight weave and smooth finish make it stronger and more durable. Sheeting can be found at your fabric store or in your bed sheets. If you are looking for a quality, cheap alternative to the fabric store bed sheets from home or the thrift store can be cut for lining. Sheeting’s disadvantage is that it is usually thicker than the other three.
Any of the above should be dyeable due to its high cotton content. Colored linings, however, can bleed and dye your skin or any clothing worn under the corset. To help prevent this, wash your fabric three or four times with hot water and soap. If you have access to Retayne™ or Synthrapol®, or a similar product, use it in the loads as well. This will probably fade your fabric somewhat, but I don’t think it will matter because no one will see your lining fabric when you are wearing your corset. Dye down the drain is better than dye on the skin.

There are some alternatives to cotton fabric. Linen is commonly used in historical reproductions. Linen is stronger than cotton, but it’s more expensive and usually has to be mail-ordered. If you are trying to recreate a pre-1850s historical piece, however, linen is much more authentic. Look for lightweight or handkerchief weight, which is thin and light. Silk can also be used. Habotai, or China Silk, is strong but thin and slick. The tight weave is not as good about wicking moisture away, and its slick texture is harder to sew, but the smooth weave makes it ‘glide’ more against under layers. Crepe De Chine is similar to Habotai but not as strong. Silk broadcloth and sueded charmeuse are closer to cotton in weave and behavior, although silks are generally not as strong or durable. To get silks, look for a bridal fabric store or search online for silk fabric.

Fashion Fabric

The final fabric you need to pick is the fashion fabric. Again, this layer is not necessary.  I've done plenty of corsets where the coutil is the only layer of fabric.  There are plenty of historical garments done this way, too.  There are, however, many examples of historical garments that have a fashion fabric layer, too.  The fashion fabric is the outer layer that shows when you wear a corset. For this you can pick pretty much anything you want. Historically silk taffetas and satins were popular.  Nowadays dupioni is done for a lot of fashion corsets.  I’ve even been known to layer a few fabrics together, like a pattern under a sheer, to get the effect I want. The only think I would recommend against is knits. Stretch fabrics have a tendency to bag over use. If the fabric you choose is weak, especially acetate, you can fuse it with interfacing to strengthen it. A great resource that outlines tons of different types of fabric is Sandra Betzina’s Fabric Savvy or More Fabric Savvy. It helps you to know the strengths and weaknesses for tons of different weaves and fibers, as well as stitch lengths and recommended needles.

Silk Taffeta -
Silk Satin -

My Corsets

I'll be using coutil on my corsets and canvas on my mock-ups.  I'm going to make the Silverado with a silk fashion layer, but I haven't decided between dupioni and taffeta yet.


  1. Mattress Ticking also works as a cost-effective base fabric. However, it usually comes in a cream ground with an indigo blue stripe, so if your other fabrics are light in color, there may be a show-through problem.

  2. Brilliant post! I plan to link to you on my new website. Corset makers really need this information!