Needles in the Stacks: A Cinch to Stitch


Welcome back to our regular review of sewing how-to books here in the library.  Sorry about the delay, but you all know what the beginning of the semester is like!  Denise Ingram and I both work in the Periodicals and Electronic Resources department of this library (on the 6th floor, where all the magazines are!).  Both of us have many years of experience sewing, costuming, patternmaking, and making hats.  Between us we have pretty much taken all of the relevant classes FIT has to offer in these areas.  Hopefully we’ll cover books you’re interested in.  If we don’t, drop us a line and we’ll see what we can do.

With Halloween on its way, we decided to attack books we have on corsets and corset making.  We have a lot of these, so get comfy, people!  Although women have been wearing corsets for centuries, they’ve now become a novelty garment or belong to the world of the reenactor or theatrical designer.


The Basics of Corset Building, A Handbook for Beginners, by Linda Sparks

sparks corset

Art Ref; 5th floor non-circ  GT 2075 .S69 2005

This is a great book for beginners who already have a corset pattern and some sewing experience.  All the basic tools are explained, and the order of operations is laid out.   It offers comparisons of boning types,  from featherboning to spring steel.  Some of the tools used may be heavy duty for the home sewer, but the steps are labeled clearly enough that someone with a small grommet kit could still follow along.

This book covers neither the patternmaking or draping stages of corsetry.  Several commercially available corset patterns are discussed, as are the basics of fitting.  In fact, one of the things I like best about this book is that it shows the reader multiple fittings (in different stages of construction), and what is supposed to happen/be refined in each one.  And there are plenty of other books that offer graphed out patterns of extant corsets, as well as commercially-available ones for both historic reproduction or pure fantasy styles.

The one thing odd about this book is that, even though it’s only 10 years old, it has no color images.  Sometimes this sort of working book is published simply to keep the cost of the book down, but color printing has much less expensive in the last twenty years.  At least the book has enough images of the important stages along the construction path.

This is the series of commercial patterns the book discusses:

Here are some other sites I found that help one create one’s own corset pattern:

And these sites evaluate corset patterns and tutorials:


Corsets and Crinolines, by Norah Waugh

waugh cnc cvr

5th floor non-circulating GT 2075 .W3

Norah Waugh was a pioneer in fashion history.   Her three books were the first to publish scale drawings of actual historic garments.  These were placed in the context of period quotes about the garments, wearing them, and how they were viewed in their society.  “Corsets and Crinolines”, published in 1954,  was the first book to provide patterns of extant corsets and hoops, laid out to scale for reproduction by craftspeople and costumers.

waugh charicature


The book uses caricatures for their  illustration of detail and contemporary viewpoint, as you can see on the right.  The discussion of feminine underwear using historical research and writing techniques makes this book an important first salvo in the development of fashion history as a subject for scholarly study.

Waugh provided good corset patterns, but many have been reproduced in more detail elsewhere. The instructions are written but detailed.  The highlights of this book are the original written sources.  For the patterns themselves, I would recommend some of the newer books instead.

We have multiple copies of her other books, which are also important in the study of historical dress as both a scholarly focus and a re-creation adventure.

The Cut of Men’s Clothes, 1600-1900, by Norah Waugh; 5th floor TT504 .W38 1964

The Cut of Women’s Clothes, 1600-1930, by Norah Waugh; 5th floor TT504 .W385 1968


Waisted Efforts: An Illustrated Guide to Corset Making, by Robert Doyle

waisted efforts

5th Floor, Main Stacks, GT 2075 .D69 1997

Early in this book, the author announces that this is “not a recipe book.  Do not search and expect the perfect pattern.  This does not exist.  What is contained in this book is the way in which corsets can be made, to be worn by contemporary women.”

waisted method

As the quote above hints, this book wants to teach you to make a usable historic reproduction corset.  It attempts this by teaching some commercial  flat-patternmaking.   It begins with an introduction to the basic bodice pattern sloper (or “French block” here: the basic bodice shape, patterned into flat pieces), then demonstrates how to alter that to the corset silhouette of choice.

Maybe my brain works differently, but this seems like extra work to me.  Since Norah Waugh (see below) and Janet Arnold (Patterns of Fashion” volumes 1-4,  5th floor TT504.6 .G7 A76 1985) have provided basic pattern shapes for a lot of these silhouettes, it becomes simple enough to blow these real patterns up to the user’s measurements, then fit for silhouette, thus avoiding a few steps, I think.

The strong feature of this book is its illustration.  While the history in the introduction has been superseded, once the author gets to the 1700s he shows examples of real bodices and corsets.  The information gets even better once he gets to the late 1900s through the mid-20th century.  Then he talks about the history of patternmaking and support undergarments, gives a lot of contemporary images, including ads, instructions for old tools, fashion plates, and photos of actual corsets.  The history and images of the 19th and 20th century corset trades are the highlights of this book.


Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques, by Jill Salen

salen corset5th Floor non-circulating, TT677 .S25 2008

This is more the sort of historical reference book I  want.  As both fashion historian and reenactor, I applaud the range of extant corsets presented here.  The book examines twenty-five corsets dated roughly 1750-1917 C.E.  Each is shown with a detailed photograph, with a gridded and annotated scale drawing of the corset’s pattern on the opposing page(s).

Salen patterns tech 62






These are arranged nearly chronologically.  The first (c.1750) is an heavily shaped set of stays with solid whale-boning throughout. The most recent corset (c. 1917)  presented is a long German corset/girdle  rethought throughout using imitation materials because the cotton canvases, silks, elastics, and steel were being routed into the WWI effort.

Salen hist patterns grid


Two projects are presented in more detail in the back of the book, set of jumps c. 1790 in cotton, and a girl’s white cotton “jean” corset c. 1900.  Only these two projects come with step by step instructions, however, and these are not illustrated for any clarity.  The one useful how-to piece included is a list of handwork stitches seen on extant corsets, with instructions and definitions (e.g. cording, flossing).  I love this book for the images and graphs, but I would go elsewhere for construction instructions.




The Corsetmaking Revolution, by Cathy Hay

corsetmaking rev5th Floor GT2075 .H39 2009

This how-to book on corset construction comes late to the dialog about best practices.  The author is a costumer working in England, who specializes in custom historic-reproduction and bridal clothes.  In addition, the author has also taught math, and this shows.

This book puts forth a drafting technique that teaches the untrained user how to calculate the correct size and shape of her corset’s pattern pieces.  The calculations are pretty basic, but a background or understanding of basic patternmaking will help the user a lot.



If the user is of a technical bent,  good with numbers and numerous measurements, this could be a useful system.  If you are like me, and work best with a sense of the 3-D shapes, this is not the technique for you.  I would recommend some of the sites and tutorials I’ve listed in the first review above.

corset rev graphDenise, however, prefers the step-by-step math calculations, and thought the rest of the book, which contained such details as putting in lacing tape and setting grommets, useful, but a bit muddled.  Regardless, both of us found the author’s writing style too wordy and self-congratulatory.  Unfortunately her casual and excited writing style seems odd in an instruction manual.  Note that this manual can be downloaded both from the url in Stylecat, listed above, and from the Foundations Revealed website I’ve listed here.  Despite her enthusiasm for working with other costumers, this book and her blog are clear attempts to monetize the interest in her skill set.

And now the books that aren’t so much about making corsets, but great for research images:


Foundations of Fashion: The Symington Collection, Corsetry from 1856 to the Present Day, by Christopher Page

page foundations cvr5th Floor, Main stacks GT 2075 .P345 1981

This book is not how-to instructions.  Instead, it is a combination company history, collection catalog, and factory behind-the-scenes for the R. & W.H.  Symington & Co.  This family-owned company in a small English town (Market Harborough, Leicestershire) began producing handmade corsets sometime in the 1830s.   In 1856, the company produced the first machine-made corset commercially available.  They continued to produce support undergarments well into the 1960s.

Produced by the Leicestershire Museums in 1981, this book is a well researched company history.  Despite being black and white, the book presents the wonderful range of materials gathered by the Symington company, either as archive or as research of the competition.

symington ad


Consequently, this book illustrates the history of the 19th-century corset and developments in women’s lingerie of the 20th century in terrific detail and from an inside perspective.  Anyone interested in either would find this book useful.

It’s also fun to note that the corsets depicted in this book show up in other books we’ve looked at as well.  E.g.  The red and black corset on the cover of Jill Salen’s book, discussed above, is from this collection.


Support and Seduction: The History of Corsets and Bras, by Beatrice Fontanel

fontanel covre5th Floor Main Stacks GT 2075 .F3613 1997

This is one of those books that’s designed more to grace the enthusiast’s coffee table than as a source of serious scholarly research.  It is much better researched than that implies, although none of it footnoted.  But, not surprisingly, the history within is more detailed as the reader gets closer to the current day.

scandal grdl




This book’s strength is the wealth of pretty images that fill its pages.  Some of them are a bit cheesy, like the colored images of corset busks surrounding the miscellaneous engraved gentleman pictured below.  But why this gentleman, clothed as of the late 16th century?  Especially when the busks surrounding him are nearly all 17th and 18th century?  This is the kind of intellectual sloppiness that makes it hard to take other historical details in the text seriously.

font busks


This is frustrating, because the author has given us some tantalizing historical tidbits, such as the mamillare and fascia, described as two Roman breast-support devices.  But a few pages later, she uses a plate by 19th-century fashion historian Racinet (whose work has been improved upon immeasurably since) instead of a 15th-century original image.


Much as I love this book for the gorgeous, if confusing images, I always worry when these kinds of books come out.  Students will quote them and continue spreading the misinformation with the good research, and this is how certain myths never die.



Corsets: A Visual History, compiled by R.L. Shep

shep visual hist cvr5th Floor Main Stacks, GT 2075 .S54

The author has compiled a comprehensive review of corset advertising from the 19th century from a few images of 1803-20, and the bulk of the images from the 1860s through the 1930s.  While R.L. Shep produces much of his work for a reenacting audience, this book also provides a glimpse into the early marketing of women’s undergarments.

Most of the images in this title were pulled from newspaper ads for department store wares, and regular ad spots in Godey’s Lady’s Book and early mail order catalogs.  Some of the images are from manufacturer’s trade cards, and others depict the heyday of American department stores, such as Wanamaker’s, Gimbel’s, B. Altman’s, Stern Brothers’, BonTon stores.

shep ads


Certainly this book serves the author’s intended audience by providing a huge range of image-based research on ladies’ undergarments.  The student of costuming or fashion studies can easily see proscribed changes to women’s fashionable shape in a year-by-year progression.


Corsets a visual history kids


Just enough detail is visible in these ads to get a sense of the corsets’ seaming, materials, and silhouette.  But this book also offers a window into the development of the advertising world as it attempts to define the female customer base.  It also offers a glimpse of the path between the 19th century’s passion for whalebone, its decline in the 20th, and the development of the current lingerie business.




Fetish Fashion: Undressing the Corset, by Larry Utley

fetish_fashion utley5th Floor Main Stacks, GT 2075 .U84 2002

This book is a horse of a different leather.  Ok, bad pun, but I thought you, our students and reading public, might be interested in some purely fantasy inspiration.  This book is seriously S&M, fetish, and fantasy corsetry.  It includes no how-to included at all, but lots of creative re-interterpretations of the corset form.  It celebrates the couture corsetry work of it Autumn Adamme, proprietor of Dark Gardens, who describes her passion in the introduction.

fetish flame dress


The rest of this book is a purely visual trek through Ms. Adamme’s work.  We have many books that talk about the 20th century fetishization of the corset shape, and this book shows that in exquisite, full-color detail.

This type of design has become increasingly important, we feel, since the post-modernist sensibilities of the late 1980s, when inner construction was suddenly displayed on the outside.  Indeed, Ms. Adamme credits Jean Paul Gaultier’s corset for the Madonna tour in 1990.

fetish red corset


Since then the corset-as-outerwear has shown up on many designer runways (seethe review below).  In alternative subculture, the rise of steampunk’s twist on Victorian sensibilities, and the new burlesque, with its sly feminist look at female sexuality, continue to encourage the corset as a piece of feminine liberation while acknowledging it’s sexual attractiveness.



The Corset: A Cultural History, by Valerie Steele

BookScanCenter_15th floor, GT2075 .S71 2004

After many books with gushing introductions about sexy corsetry, the feminine mystique, and the medical damage corsets did women, I felt that this book, by the Museum at FIT’s director, Dr. Valerie Steele, provides the necessary antidote.


While this book does, in fact, have many many gorgeous images of corsets, both recent and historic (the cover image on the left is a Christian LaCroix evening gown from 1997) , Dr. Steele applies historical methodologies and a healthy skepticism to many of the more ridiculous stories going around about corsets and corsetry.


This book, while full of images sumptuous, whimsical, and historical, also includes a serious scholarly examination of the rises and falls of the corset from the 15th through 19th century, it’s cultural significance then and now, and the development of the 21st-century lingerie industry from that of the corset manufacturing of the 19th.

font 18th corset

Many statements are footnoted, and the book presents original research evaluating 19th century medical claims about corset-created illnesses and the prurience of tight-lacing.  In many ways, this book is the antidote to the sketchy research and irrelevant images of the Fontanel book reviewed above.  Here, for example is an image of an 18th century corset in the Museum at FIT’s collection.


lacroix corset




The book also takes on the social and anthropological study of the corset’s changing meanings.  There is a detailed discussion of the scandalous use of corsets by the Impressionists, set into the sexual context of Parisian courtesans and satirical images of the demi-monde.



Perhaps the most interesting argument the author makes here concerns the fall of the corset, the 20th century’s changing standards of beauty, and the rise of female musculature as a form of internalized corseted form.  She details this impulse while also giving a nod to the increasing fetishization of corsetry in alternative lifestyles.

1830s corset ad

We hope you enjoyed this discussion.  Even better, we hope it helped you make better corsets!  Till next time, this is Beth and Denise.

Denise n Beth


3 responses to “Needles in the Stacks: A Cinch to Stitch”

  1. Visitor Avatar

    Thank you for this handy compilation.

  2. […] few weeks ago, Denise and I posted a “Needles in the Stacks” which reviewed the library’s books about making corsets.  When I combed StyleCat, there was […]

  3. […] Beth wrote about a bunch of these books in the October edition of Needles in the Stacks […]