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The Basics of Corset Building: A Handbook for Beginners Hardcover – December 23, 2008

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About the Author

Linda Sparks was born in Toronto, Ontario and graduated from George Brown College in Fashion. Her career started in the Toronto fashion industry but a move to the country changed her direction and she began costume building for the Stratford Festival Theatre in the late 1980s.
After almost ten years in theater, she opened Farthingales in 1997, a company she created to supply architectural products to the theater industry of North America. Farthingales stocks unique products like corset making materials, that can't be found in most fabric stores.

In 2006 Linda opened Farthingales L.A. Inc. to better supply the US market. Farthingales L.A. Inc. is a corset shop, selling the raw materials, patterns, books and both ready made corsets and custom corsets. The L.A. location is also where Linda teaches her corset making workshops.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One Tools and Materials for Corset Building

1. Tools

Our discussion won’t include machines, only hand-held tools. How many tools you have in your sewing kit will depend on what you sew most often. Most of us have thimbles, various hand-sewing needles, measuring tape, tracing wheels, thread snips and scissors – the basics. To build a corset you need all of these and a bit more. For those of you who are new to sewing we’ll start with the basic tools listed above, then expand upon them and add a few new ones. Details on exactly how the tools are used will be found in other chapters. This list is to give you an idea of what tools you may need to acquire.


Everyone knows what one looks like but it’s surprising how many people don’t know how or when to use one.

Why should you use a thimble? Because you can’t sew efficiently without one and doing so can be dangerous; particularly when sewing heavy fabric that may be difficult to get a needle through.

The thimble protects the middle finger of your sewing hand and gives you more power to push the needle through the fabric. Proper sewing technique requires that you enter the needle into the fabric while holding the needle between forefinger and thumb (A) and then follow through by pushing the needle through the fabric using your middle finger (B). The head of the needle can be very fine and even thicker needles can still puncture your finger before they go through all layers of fabric – if you don’t use a thimble for protection. Puncturing your finger will be painful, but worse; it will cause you to bleed and that means you’ll get blood on the corset.

If you do happen to prick your finger and get blood on the garment, there is a very easy solution.

Blood is inclined to leave a permanent stain unless you use your saliva to dissolve it. Yes, it’s true – your saliva will remove the bloodstain – but not if you try this after trying any other options. And only your saliva will dissolve your bloodstain so no one can help you with this. Simply spitting on the garment looks a bit vulgar, so take a yard or meter of thread, ball it up and chew it for a moment, let it get saturated, and then dab the stain with the saturated balled-up wad of thread and watch the bloodstain disappear. If you find this hard to believe, try it.

Hand-sewing Needles

They aren’t what they used to be, which is one reason goggles are now part of many sewing rooms. Today’s sewing needles tend to be brittle and can snap. Needles come in many sizes. Some sewing specialists will have clear ideas as to which sewing needle to use for which process. I am inclined to say, “Use the needle that feels comfortable to hold.” Very large ones aren’t practical but a #6 or #7 seems to be reasonable for many purposes. You need hand-sewing needles so that you can finish the top and bottom edges of your corset by hand.

Measuring Tools

A measuring tape is for measuring the body and for checking measurements of the corset. A see-through ruler is my preferred tool for working on patterns and corsets because it not only offers a measuring device but a straightedge as well. I find I need both when corset making. Measuring can be more exact when using a ruler you can see through, and this makes the tracing of straight bone casing channels a lot faster. Nothing is better to aid you in marking bias strips on fabric than a see-through ruler! And bias strips are needed to finish a corset.

Tracing Wheel

The tracing wheel makes the job of marking all the bone casings much easier, although tailor’s tacks can also be used by those who know how to make them. There are several types of tracing wheels: dressmaking, tailor’s, and the double-wheel tracing wheel. The double-wheel is the most beneficial in corset making. By using it you cut your time in half for marking the casings, and increase your accuracy as the markings can’t help but be perfectly parallel. The double-wheel tracing wheel can also be used to mark your seam allowances. Align one wheel on your cutting line and the other wheel on the stitching line and you can mark the stitching line perfectly parallel with the cutting line.


An awl is a tool that you won’t likely be able to purchase in your local fabric store but you’ll find one in almost any hardware store. It’s used when you need to apply an opening busk. The unique thing about making a hole with an awl is that the threads of the fabric get separated and pushed apart so they don’t get cut or broken, and the integrity of the fabric isn’t diminished. If you use a hole punch or scissors to create a hole the threads tend to fray and the hole gets bigger; something you want to avoid. This will create a very difficult mending job that will be costly and time consuming.

An awl is very simple to use. Simply work the point of the awl between the threads of the fabric where you’ve marked the hole placement and continue to push the awl through, spreading the threads further and further apart until you have a hole the size you need. Details of this process can be found in Section 2 Chapter 6.

If you can’t find an awl, you can use a well-sharpened pencil – but be sure the pencil color is a close match to your fabric as the pencil needs to be very sharp and the lead will be exposed and will mark your fabric.

A hole punch, rubber mallet, bolt cutters, tin snips, file, and needle-nose pliers are also not likely to be found at your local fabric store, but you may find them in your toolbox. If not, any hardware store should have them.

Thread Snips

Thread snips and scissors are used for cutting out the pattern pieces and snipping the multitude of threads left at the top and bottom of the corset where the bone casing stitching ends. There are a lot of threads since every bone casing requires two rows of stitching. Some Janome sewing machines offer a thread clipping option, but if you don’t have one of these high-end machines you’ll need to do a lot of clipping by hand. If you’re using bone casing ribbon you’ll also need to be able to cut the ribbon to length.

Rotary Cutter

A rotary cutter isn’t absolutely necessary but can make cutting out your pattern pieces easier and saves stress on your hands if you’re cutting a lot. To use a rotary cutter you must have a rotary cutting mat to protect your table. Rotary cutters and mats can be purchased at most fabric shops.

Earlier we referred to the importance of using an awl rather than cutting a hole to avoid compromising the strength of the fabric. Some people use an awl to form the holes for the grommets or eyelets as well. However this can be a challenging and time-consuming process as there are far more grommets and eyelets than busk knobs, and they tend to be larger than the busk knobs – so grommets are more difficult to force through the awl-made hole. The theory is that by using an awl you won’t decrease the strength of the fabric where the grommets/eyelets are set as the threads will remain intact. As a result the grommets will be less inclined to pop out of the fabric. This is true to some extent but using a washer behind the grommet or eyelet increases the security of the grommet or eyelet far more than not cutting a hole would.

Hole Punches

To make a hole you need a hole punch. Hole punches will come with any grommet or eyelet kit you purchase. It’s imperative that the hole you make is the correct size. This will be assured if you use the hole punch that comes with the kit, and then order more grommets or eyelets in the same size as those included in the kit.

Rubber Mallet

Rubber mallets are useful in setting grommets. Don’t use a regular metal hammer, as the metal hammer striking the metal grommet setter is unsafe. If you can’t get a rubber mallet try a rawhide or wooden one. Details on setting grommets or eyelets can be found in Section 2 Chapter7. There are other means of closing the back of your corset so if you decide not to use grommets or eyelets then you won’t need a rubber mallet. Decide how you’ll finish the corset before you buy the tool. See Section 2 Chapter 8 for other options.

Bolt Cutters

Bolt cutters can sometimes be found at dollar stores, but don’t waste your money on them. They tend not to do the job, and if they work at first they don’t last until the end of the project. The movement of the jaws of a bolt cutter can make it a better cutting tool than tin snips for some steel. The jaws of a bolt cutter are parallel to one another and clamp down in a way that applies pressure to the whole piece of steel at one time – unlike tin snips which function more like scissors. This means that the steel can’t slide out from between the jaws. Bolt cutters are a better choice for spiral steel bones and narrower spring steels. Details on how to cut steel can be found in Section 2 Chapters 4 and 5.

Tin snips are another tool for cutting steel bones. Some bones cut more easily with bolt cutters and some with tin snips. Like bolt cutters, tin snips shouldn’t be purchased at the dollar or discount store. Regardless of brand name the tin snips should have serrated jaws as they’ll grip the steel better and don’t allow the steel to slide out from between the jaws. Tin snips function in the same way scissors do, so lack of a serrated jaw means the bone will slide out of the jaws as they close.

Tin snips are best for spring steel, particularly wider spring steels, and for plastic as well.

Details on cutting bones and which tools to use for what type of bone can be found in Section 2 Chapters 4 and 5.


A file may be needed if you’re cutting steel bones. You may need to file off the rough or sharp corne...


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 84 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1st U.S. Ed edition (December 23, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312535732
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312535735
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 0.4 x 11.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #80,435 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

174 of 177 people found the following review helpful By Denise H. on January 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book covers, as the title suggests, the basics of corset making. It is geared towards the home sewer who has never made a corset before. It does a good job of covering the materials, tools, and skills needed to make a fairly basic corset. She uses two commercial patterns as examples, both of which are easily obtained and affordable. There are clear, greyscale illustrations throughout the book, but few pictures. The only color pictures in the book are on the front and back cover, and only the front cover is large enough to show any detail. Only the most basic fitting concerns are mentioned, so it may be necessary to find other references.

While much of the book is useful and basic, there are a few places that might distress a beginner. For example, she recommends buying several of an expensive item, like a busk, from a variety of suppliers in order to test the quality. While this is a sound practice from a quality standpoint, it is generally impractical for a home sewer on a budget. A note to leave a larger seam allowance for mock-ups is mentioned at the end of the fitting section, and not with the directions for creating a mock-up. In some places the directions are confusing, and take multiple readings to understand, even by someone who has made a number of corsets with a variety of techniques. No instruction is provided on how to do the beautiful and functional embroidery on the front-cover corset - instead the reader is told it takes too much skill.

The text of the book can be overly casual and distracting, but may make a beginner feel more at ease. Grammar and punctuation are lacking, and the book does not have a polished feel - it is more like an instructor's handout that was simply bound in a pretty cover.
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45 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Spittens on February 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Been sewing for 15 years or so now, and as a re-enactor corsets are the basis of my historical underwear set. I usually have my corsets made for me as it's time consuming and frustrating to fit one's self, but they always come out with a more modern tubular shape instead of the hourglass shape of the victorian era. So, in my research and attempts to educate myself as fully as possible before I take on building a corset of my own I bought this book.

First, it's a lot thinner than I hoped it would be. For the price I guess I expected it to be more than a storybook size. Second, all the information in this book is available on the web for free, you just have to search for it. For a complete beginner who's done no forum/youtube surfing or looked up anything, it would be full of information, and that's why I'll be donating it to the historical society's collection. However, for an experienced seamstress it's really not that enlightening.

For those who are looking for a lot more in-depth info, try foundationsrevealed dot com(paid subscription, all the rest are free!), trulyvictorian dot com, ralphpink dot com (great video tutorials even if he "um's" a lot), and thesewingacademy dot com.
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Laura Austin on January 18, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've tried to make corsets in the past with mediocre results. This book told me what I didn't know and couldn't guess.

Because the author, Linda Sparks, is the founder of Farthingales, a comprehensive list of suppliers is not provided. However, the information about what supplies and hardware are needed is complete and comprehensive, including what products are best for different applications. All of the instructions are clearly and simply written and illustrated.

This book was an excellent investment for me as I believe it will be for costumers, re-enactors, or anyone who wants to try a unique sewing project.
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50 of 55 people found the following review helpful By RMT on January 16, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I can't imagine why the previous reviewer only gave this book 3 stars. This is an excellent resource for anyone unfamiliar with creating a professional looking corset. no, it isn't perfect, but there are very few books available that detail corset building and of this is by far the best I've found. As the title explains, this is the Basics of corset building and that is exactly what it covers. THis isn't your Halloween costume type of corset, but one that can apply to wedding dresses, gowns, historical re-enactment garments, etc. It gives detailed steps for creating a quality corset making it accessible to the home sewer and professional alike. This is a valuable resource and should be credited as such. Some materials, such as spiral boning, may require you to mail order, but do you really want a corset that looks like it came from the craft department of JoAnns? As the owner of nearly every costuming, textile, and sewing book on Amazon, costumer of numerous community theatrical productions, instructor, and author I applaud this book.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By K. L. Nelson on March 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Its good, if you have never, ever made a corset before. I was looking for something a little more in depth. the fitting notes are good, but are kinda common sense stuff. She only deals with two patterns, one of which i have made before, which came with good instructions, so the book would be superfluous if you are making the Laughing moon pattern.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Emma on October 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover
When I bought this book I had made Renaissance corsets and had done a fair amount of costuming and so didn't really expect Victorian style corsets to be all that difficult. I was right but that was due to reasonable instructions on the pattern I bought at the same time not due to this book. Unfortunately I found the instructions in the book to be quite difficult to follow and it was only when re-reading it after making five or six and having done rather a lot of supplementary reading that I understood what the author was trying to say, by which time it was far too late to be useful. Most disappointing.
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