How to Floss a Corset

This tutorial illustrates some of the basic embroidery patterns I have used for flossing, gives tips relating specifically to corset flossing, and assumes you have a basic working knowledge of embroidery.  My flossing workshop is for all levels of skill or knowledge, including no prior experience with embroidery.

I strongly recommend creating your own flossing sampler to try the patterns shown or your own variations or creations, or at least trying a few of them on a dummy boned piece of fabric to familiarize yourself with how to do flossing.  To make a sampler, just bone a rectangle of fabric and floss it.

Corset Flossing Sampler (front) - How to Floss a Corset, by Sidney Eileen
Corset Flossing Sampler (back) - How to Floss a Corset, by Sidney Eileen

Corset flossing is applied embroidery.  If you know how to embroider, you know how to floss.  All you do is embroider some pattern around the tip of a bone, running the thread through the fabric right at the edge of the bone to secure it in place within the boning channel.  This does not need to be done at any particular time, and can be added to a corset even years after its creation.

The study of embroidery is very well documented in a wide array of books, so I don’t feel the need to go into detail here.  If you don’t know how to embroider, I recommend buying at least one text describing how to embroider and trying your hand at it before flossing.  Be sure the book in question describes freehand embroidery, and not just cross-stitch.  Cross-stitching can have decorative applications for corsets, but is all but useless for flossing.

Some examples of helpful books and e-books on embroidery are:

100 (One-hundred) Embroidery Stitches (my personal favorite)
Coats & Clark’s Learn How to Embroider, Book No. 144
The Embroiderer’s Handbook
Embroidery: Techniques & Patterns


The Basics

Shown below are the tools I usually use for flossing.  I always have a package of assorted needles, a thimble, small snips, beeswax, and the thread or floss I will use for the particular corset.

How to Floss a Corset, by Sidney Eileen

You can use just about any kind of embroidery floss or thread, upholstery thread, buttonhole thread, or even all-purpose thread.  Sturdier thread will hold up better and longer, but flossing can easily be re-done if you use a lighter thread and it snaps with wear.  The three threads pictured are normal embroidery floss, buttonhole thread, and upholstery thread.  I like using heavy-duty threads when I want the channel stitches to match the flossing, so I can use it for both.  I have used all-purpose thread for the same reason, but it takes a lot more flossing stitches to create a bold design.  When the flossing does not need to be the same thread as the stitching, I usually use some variety of embroidery thread because it is easier to use without tangling, knotting, or fraying.

Embroidery floss comes in many different colors and fiber contents (polyester, rayon, linen, cotton, silk), but it almost always comes in a six-strand length.  If the floss is lightweight (like the one shown above), you’ll probably want to use 2 or 3 strands.  If the floss is heavy weight, you may only need 1 or 2 strands.  The more strands you use, the bolder the stitches will be, but be careful not to load too many strands onto your needle.  Corsets are usually made from very tightly woven fabric, so if your floss is too thick it will fray as you pull it through.  The design will also have a tendency to looky clumpy or clumsy.  Inexpensive polyester or rayon embroidery floss works fine, but more expensive flosses (like hand-dyed silk floss) will provide a much smoother and more luxurious appearance.  Linen looks crisp and clean.  Cotton usually has a softer appearance.

The needle I use depends upon the weight of the thread I am using.  I try to pick a needle that is about the same diameter as the floss, with a hole that is just barely large enough for to thread.  You don’t need to buy a mega-pack of needles like the one shown.  A small set of embroidery sharps will work fine in most situations.

If you will be decoratively embroidering over the top of the boning (like the Wheat Chaff design), you may want to consider purchasing curved millinery needles.  They are not necessary, but with practice can make it easier to stitch along the rigid bones.

The beeswax is there in case the thread tries to knot up, tangle, or otherwise misbehave while stitching.  Most of the time I don’t use it, but it can be invaluable to keep the thread smooth and clean while working.  Some people use beeswax every time they embroider.  Use it or not according to what works best for you.

The small snips and the thimble are necessities.  There will be times when you need to get in close to the fabric with the snips.  Without the thimble it is impossible to accurately control the needle.

I don’t normally use knots because they can create a tiny friction point on the garment.  Instead, under the edging of the corset I will stitch three or four times over the same exact spot, and then run the thread between the layers of the corset out to the area to be flossed.  When the working thread is getting short, I run it back to the edge of the corset and again stitch over a single location three or four times to secure the thread.  I then run the loose end of the thread between the layers of the corset for about 1/2″, and snip it next to the fabric so the tail is hidden inside the body of the corset.

I normally work with lengths of thread no longer than two feet, sometimes less.  The eye of the needle can fray the thread as it is pulled through the fabric and abrades the tip of the boning, so shorter lengths are easier to apply without damaging the thread.  Also, long lengths of thread can have a tendency to tangle and knot up.


Understanding the Diagrams

Each diagram is illustrating from the outside (viewed) side of the corset.  The stitches are numbered in the order they should be made.  Odd stitches are emerging to the front of the corset, and even numbers are traveling through to the back of the corset.  The stiffness of the boning makes it impossible to run the needle through two stitches at the same time, so make each stitch individually even if the illustration shows the needle as if it was making two stitches at the same time.  Each stitch must be taken singly, and if it is at the tip of the bone it needs to be as close as possible to the bone.  It does take practice to keep the tension between the stitches even, and get the cleanest possible curves while maintaining pressure on the tip of the boning.  At the sides, I recommend counting the stitches of the boning channel so you can duplicate the pattern on different bones.  Increasing or decreasing the number of machine stitches between flossing stitches can dramatically change the appearance of the flossing.

Most of the patterns are basic examples of a stitch type.  Different numbers of adjacent stitches and variations in over-under weaves are simple changes that can be made to most of the flossing stitches shown.

I don’t know the formal names for the majority of the stitches, if they have formal names at all.  The names given are ones that I thought made sense.  If you know of formal names for any of the stitches, please let me know. :)

7 thoughts on “How to Floss a Corset

  1. Pingback: Late Victorian Corset | Sewfall

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  3. Hi there, I love this tutorial – your diagrams are wonderful! thank you!

    A question, how early did flossing start – I’m making stays, and dur to the complicate boning pattern on the front panel I wanted to use flossing to hold the bones in place a little more securely, but I’m not too sure how accurate that is. The stays are Elizabethan. Any help would be fantastic!


    • I can’t say for certain when flossing started because for my research I am limited to what examples I can find posted online, but I believe flossing was created along with steel boning, in the Victorian. I’ve seen embroidery on extant stays (sometimes quite elaborate), but never flossing. The reason for this is that it’s really not needed for stays using historic methods and materials. Flossing was created to hold steel boning in place, because it’s manufactured in set lengths and then used in corsets. Before the advent of steel boning, corsets were stiffened with reed or baleen, both of which are very easy to trim by hand to exactly the length of the corset. That means the edging of the corset was what held the boning in place, without the need for additional special stitching. As for specifically the Renaissance, there are only a couple extant pieces, so research on that era’s stays outside the Effigy corset is problematic altogether.

      Given that, the question then goes back to the perpetual question for pre-1800 reenactment costuming, how historically accurate do you want to be, or can you afford to be? If you are using steel boning (which is far and away the least expensive and most practical option for modern costuming), you are already worlds away from historically accurate, so if you want to use flossing, I personally don’t see any reason not to. At the very least you need to run a line of stitches close on either side of each bone to hold it in place. If you are interested in hiding the steel boning, you can make a cover layer and place it onto the body of the stays after securing the boning. If you want to use flossing, I would research Renaissance embroidery and adapt those designs to hold the boning in place. Flossing just needs to secure the end of the boning. One of my books on corsets shows a Victorian extant piece with normal-looking flossing on the front boning, and then an arch of mini flowers just outside the boning on the back. It doesn’t need to cover the tip as is so common in Victorian flossing, so if you stitch the end of the boning in place it can then be covered with Renaissance style embroidery.

  4. Thank you very much for this delightful tutorial ! I especially like the multiple crossed flossing : the design is fresh and elegant. I’m thinking of making a corset and I think I’ll use this pattern for the flossing^^

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