A Cautionary Tale of Mock-Ups

1880's Blue and Cream Silk Sweetheart - Front View, by Sidney Eileen

1880’s Blue and Cream Silk Sweetheart

This story is about the 1880’s wedding corset in cream silk with blue flossing.

When a customer contacted me about wanting a corset for part of her wedding ensemble, I knew I wanted it to turn out absolutely perfect. I wasn’t worried about drafting the corset to fit her body, but I was a little concerned about making sure the bust fit right. Also, she was knowledgable about corsets, and knew exactly how she wanted it to fit. For both those reasons, I decided to do a mock-up, something that is unusual for me when filling an internet-based order.

Corset drafting is a matter of mathematics. If the numbers fit, and you understand the shape of the human body and how it translates into two-dimensional pieces of fabric, the rest is mostly math, and a tiny bit of intuition. The vast majority of the corsets I have made have fit very well when they arrived, with the worst misfits all being a result of errors in the measurements submitted to me. The vast majority have also been underbust corsets, hence my nervousness with a sweetheart bust.

As a result, I was very confident of my ability to fit the body of a corset, and a little nervous of bustlines. You can imagine my shock when the first mock-up was far too large in the hip – nearly four inches too large. I have seen that happen before with high-hipped corsets, but the hip was only a little higher than the front or back, so I was rather stupefied. Considering myself lucky to have done a mock-up, I adjusted the fit of the hip according to the mock-up and we proceeded from there.

Over the course of two months we did a total of four mock-up fittings, adjusting the height of the waist, addressing a small asymmetry issue (the largest effect of which was a twisting of the corset body when tightened) and a comfort issue with the left hip, and making sure the bust fit perfect. Once we had a mock-up that was spot on, I proceeded to make the final corset. It was only about three weeks before the wedding, but that was plenty of time since she could use the final mock-up for her dress fittings while I completed the real corset.

I sent off the final corset with full confidence, and was absolutely stunned when I received a panicked email stating that the corset didn’t fit. The hip was so small compared to her actual body that it prevented her from cinching the waist to the needed measure for her wedding dress, and the comfort issue with her hip was worse than on the first mock-up. She couldn’t wear it, not even with the lacing loose on the hip. It just wasn’t going to work.

I spent most of the next day just thinking about it. At first I didn’t see what could have gone wrong. I’d seen the photos. The mock-up fit perfect. Why would the hip be so much smaller? I went back to the pattern, laid it out, and measured. The math tells volumes, and the hip of the half-pattern was nearly two inches short. Clearly, that was the source of the problem. At the time I told myself that if I had only re-measured the pattern before making the final corset, I would have seen the problem and corrected it. Looking back, though, I don’t think I would have corrected the mistake. I would have been confused, but believed the mock-up and proceeded in exactly the same way.

I now believe the difference between the mock-up and the final is purely a result of the materials used. The mock-ups were all single-layer cotton duck, with the edge double-stitched. There was no extra re-enforcement or other steps taken to prevent the natural give of the canvas fabric, or the greater bias stretch. I expected the final corset to be smaller, generally, enough so that the gap in back would be about an inch larger. I didn’t anticipate the stretch over the hip, amounting to almost four inches total.

The last time I made a cotton duck mock-up of a corset this size, the bottom was straight across (no lift on the hip and resulting bias pull) and I was using it as a temporary undergarment corset for an event, so it was dual-layer with the top and bottom edges seamed. Thus, it did not have the stretch I saw in the mock-up for the wedding corset, and created for me the expectation that any cotton duck mock-up would test true.

Regardless of the cause of the problem, I had less than one week to get the customer a fitting corset in time for her wedding. To make matters worse, I was preparing for a trip of my own, and was going to be out of town entirely for several days right after the corset would need to be in the mail, and I was scrambling to get out other orders on deadline before my own trip.

At first I was thinking that I would need to entirely re-make the corset, but there really wasn’t enough time. I had spent an entire dedicated week making the first one. Nearly three days had gone into just the embroidery and flossing. I was looking at having two days at the most to work on it. If I re-made the corset, it would have to be sent off without flossing, embroidery, lace, or lining, and she would have to send it back to me after for finishing. Even at that, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of constructing a workable garment in that time frame.

After seeking advice from another seamstress, I decided upon a more period approach to the problem. Many extant corsets underwent modification and alteration during the period, because it takes less time and is far less expensive than the materials required for an entirely new corset. I decided that I should be able to expand the hip area the needed amount using two gores on each side, placed between the boning very close to where I would have expanded the pattern pieces for a new corset.

1880's Blue and Cream Silk Sweetheart - Gore Detail, by Sidney Eileen

1880’s Blue and Cream Silk Sweetheart – Gore Detail

None of the mail carriers in the customer’s area were willing to ship out over the weekend, so she mailed it to me on the Monday, overnight. It arrived on Tuesday morning, and I spent approximately the next twelve hours adding the gores and trying to make them pretty. That left me with no energy to lace the corset onto the mannequin and take good photos, which I do regret. Instead I boxed it up, and as soon as I woke in the morning I went to the post office and sent it back, overnight.

I haven’t heard back from her yet (I’m sure she has other things on her mind), so I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that the modifications worked. I would be completely confident if it wasn’t for the asymmetry and comfort issues we tried so hard to address during the mock-up process, but as it is I can’t be absolutely certain it was comfortable until I hear back from her. I truly hope all is well, and I didn’t let her down.

1880's Blue and Cream Silk Sweetheart - After Alteration, by Sidney Eileen

1880’s Blue and Cream Silk Sweetheart – After Alteration

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