Friday, March 16, 2012

Anna Interviews a Corset Maker

Many of us in the bloggosphere have had corsets on the mind lately. Between the Ooh la la  Pin-Up Sew-Along, the 100 year commemoration of the Titanic sinking related sewing, and Downtown Abbey related sewing, we've seen a lot of beautiful corset posts lately!

Here's one more... For today's post I have interviewed my mother (the biggest expert on corsets you'll ever find) movie costumier, vintage corset collector, seamstress and restorer extraordinaire.

Mom, I know this story by heart, but for my readers, when did your love affair with with vintage begin?

Many years ago I got into the vintage clothing business.   I was actually 12 when I fell in love with vintage after winning a contest for best period costume.  By the time I got into college I was often found closing down the library at K-State buried in the archives of the Delineator books that you couldn't check out but could copy.

I would swoon at the lingerie of the day, my favorite era being 1890's through the early Deco era.  The corsets, camisoles and pantaloons made me want to go back in time just to be able to wear them.

Delieator page, Image courtesy of
Delieator page, Image courtesy of
Delieator page, Image courtesy of

 When it occurred to me that I had enough vintage stashed away to open a shop, I had a four year old daughter and a newborn Anna that spent their days at the shop with me. My mother instilled in all of her daughters an arsenal of sewing skills which allowed me to begin taking custom orders for custom Victorian lingerie for collectors as well as reenactors about the time I opened my shop, Madame Silks.

I would reproduce these items to historical accuracy all the way down to using original boning and claspings that I would salvage from corsets that were too far gone to restore. 

What was the most interesting custom corset you ever made?

One day I was contacted by a fellow antique dealer to make a corset for a customer. I didn't have that many details so imagine my surprise when I arrived and the customer was not what I expected.  We will call him "Brucie".  Keep in mind that I was raised to be rather sheltered up to this point. I was at the tender age of 28 and was mortified at the thought of sewing such an intimate item for a man. A very large tree trunk of a man.  I told my friend that I just couldn't do it.  She said "he'll pay what ever price you ask".  I threw out a price that I was certain he would turn down and I would be safe from the impropriety of fittings which would be an important part of making such an intimate piece.  He accepted my price of $500.00 which in the 1980's was very high. 
I began the project with the understanding that I would not be in the fitting room while he was trying it on.  I remember sitting there waiting for a friend to fit the corset on him when there seemed to be a problem.  It wouldn't cinch up tight enough.  Ooh dear.  I grew a proverbial pair, took a deep breath and went in to see what the problem was.  Here was a 5'6"  56" barrel chested man with the corset on along with his pink and blue panties and I just about passed out.  It was a perfect fit except for the fact that it wouldn't cinch up tight enough.  Should have used leather.  Brucie was a detective by day and and something entirely more interesting on his own time.  I was able to fix the problem and all were happy.

Tell us a little about the corsets you've gotten your hands on?

I have had a number of authentic corsets over the years that were just too lovely for words.  My favorite was a bridal corset from the 1860's that was an ivory silk satin that had tiny hand embroidered forget-me-nots on the entire piece.  I wish I still had pictures of it.  I can only dream of what this mystery girl's entire trousseau might have looked like. 

What's your biggest sewing inspiration?

Books.....magazines...from yesterday still grace my book case.  The Deliniator, Harper's Bazaar, etc. that I often pull down off the book case and just dream of gentler times when women draped themselves in layer upon layer of silks and soft cotton. Fabrics that are of no comparison to the fabrics of today.  Yes there are wonderful fabrics out there to be had but oh, for the old silks that just stir the senses.

Also, my collection of corset boxes always inspire me. They decorate the walls of my boudoir and are as lovely as the gorgeous corsets that they once came with.

What should we keep in mind when fitting a corset?

When fitting a corset you are fortunate if you have a dress form that fits your measurements. Keep in mind that a pattern can only do so much to cater to the fact that every figure is as varied and unique as can be.  Fabric choice is essential and you should use a fabric with strength.  Corsets are not shifts.  They are designed to conform and be snug.  If you choose a lighter fabric make sure that you have a lining that will ad strength to the corset.

What are some sewing tips you might pass on to us who are new to making corsets?

The best tip that I can share with you readers is to make a rough draft of muslin to allow you the ability to adjust the pattern before wasting your fabric. It's essential.

What extra little details make the perfect corset? (i.e. finishing touches, embellishments)

My favorite thing in sewing intimate apparel is to add detail to make the garment my own such as hand embroidery, little touches of bead work and of course....lace...lace...lace...and how can you not add some ribbon work?  Embellish to your heart's content.

Have you found any good corsets hiding out in rural Nebraska lately?

Actually, yes, I just acquired a dusty box with about two dozen corsets hiding inside, some in pieces, some perfect and ready to wear. I took some pictures for you all.

Oooh, dibs on the polka-dot one!
There was even a huge handful of every type of boning you can imagine and there are a few that I've already started restoring.

 She'll be breaking into her Victorian lace collection (yes, she has one) to get this little beauty back up to snuff.

 ~A Special thanks to my lovely and talented mother for taking the time to help me with this post!
Some of these lovely corsets will be showing up in her shop Phoebe Delia's Mercantile soon (if she can tear herself away from the lace!) ~


  1. Oh Anna, I nearly passed out right in my chair at the sight of these lovelies! This is such a wonderful interview with your mom. The only trouble is that I find these posts so darn distracting. I wanted my next project to be a cutesy sundress, now I want to make edwardian pretties.

  2. Anna, you have the coolest mom! Thanks for sharing this. A friend of mine makes corsets--I haven't seen her in a while, and you inspired me to get back in touch :)

  3. You mother is an absolute treasure, as are her talents and her collection of beautiful things. Thank you so much for sharing some of her amazing wisdom and stories with us.

  4. How lovely is your mom's obsession? :) I never run across antique corsets- and she has a fabulous business doing it :)
    You'll have to show us some of her handmade lovelies (and her lace collection)!
    What a lucky girl you are to have her as a mother ;)

  5. Thank you for a lovely interview, I truly enjoyed it. And hooorray for your mum, you're very lucky to have a mum like her. Say hello to her from Denmark. :)

  6. Those corsets ook great! Aww its so lovely to here that her love and skills have past on down to you! XxxX