This post is a transcript of my video of the same name. It really is more useful to watch the video as I show in detail everything I talk about – thus, you will know what to look for.
But for those who prefer to read as opposed to watch/ listen, then this article is for you!
SO. Let’s say that you’re one of the lucky people to live relatively close-by to a shop that sells corsets, or you’re at a Renaissance Faire and there’s a vendor selling corsets. You’re interested in buying one, but you’ve never handled a real corset before, and you’re worried it might not be good quality – how do you know what to look for? What should you ask the vendor or store clerk? Here’s a checklist for you, and several tips to aid you in your detective work…
The number of layers is not extremely important, but the quality IS important. A single layer corset of very strong, densely woven broche/ coutil with no stretch will be better than 5 layers of stretchier, substandard material.
If the fashion fabric looks delicate, pinch it with your fingers and try to separate the layers inside — get a feeling of how many layers there may be. If the fabric looks delicate and feels thin yet stiff, it may be interfaced. If it feels thicker and heavier, it may be fused or otherwise flatlined to a strength layer like coutil/ twill/ canvas.
Twill or drill is standard of off-the-rack (OTR) corsets, but coutil or broche should be used for the higher-end corsets.
When in doubt, ask the store owner what the corset is made out of, and who manufactured it – although take what they say with a grain of salt, since they may be just trying to get a commission.
Don’t be afraid to yank on the corset. (If the vendor freaks out, then just do this test in the change room.) Good tightlacing corsets are designed to administer considerable pressure, for many hours at a time, and still last for years — so a few good yanks over a few minutes should not damage the corset. Pull on it firmly along the horizontal. Feel how much the fabric stretches between your hands (there should preferably be zero stretch). Snap it vigorously a few times – if you hear any threads break, that’s not a good sign. And the stitching doesn’t necessarily have to be miniscule, but you shouldn’t see gaping between the panels when you pull on it.
I prefer each panel to be stitched multiple (2-3) times, whether it’s a lock stitch, a top stitch, a lapped seam, a flat-felled seam etc. If your corset has external boning channels, you might not be able to see how the panels are assembled.
Whether the corset has a finished liner doesn’t really determine its quality. However if the corset doesn’t have a liner, you’re lucky that you can easily see the “guts” of the corset – you’ll see the quality of the internal bone casings, whether it has a waist tape etc. because they’re exposed.
My highest quality corsets have either grosgrain ribbon or twill tape as a waist tape, and they extend from the first panel to the last. In an unlined corset, the waist tape is easily visible, but when the corset is lined, you may have to look on an angle to see the outline of the waist tape. It is usually about an inch wide.
When I’m constructing corsets for my clients, I always give them an in-progress shot to prove that I’ve inserted a waist tape. I do know of several reputable makers who don’t need to use a waist tape to make a very strong corset! I have worn corsets without a waist tape that has lasted longer and cinched me down further than some corsets with waist tape. But generally speaking, if you have to question the quality of the corset, then inclusion of a waist tape is a security factor.
Many off-the-rack companies will use a single-faced satin waist tape in their corsets. This is fairly standard, even if it isn’t the strongest material they could use.
BINDING and MODESTY PANEL aren’t usually a huge factor in corset quality; they don’t really affect how the corset fits or how strong it is – it’s really a matter of aesthetic preference, and the back modesty panel protects your skin from lacing burn.
If the corset has hooks and eyes, avoid it – you don’t want this.
What you will usually find is a standard half-inch busk, though many brands do use a heavier 1” busk. Even with flexible busks, quality is important as some half-inch busks are flimsier than others, made with different steel, etc. — some are more prone to having knobs pop off, although if enough tension is applied, even the best of busks can pop a knob. Puimond, a well-respected corsetier who uses German Wissner busks, has shown this in the past.
I have my preferences regarding busks – I like for the last two brackets to be closer together (it gives more lower abdominal support), to clasp and unclasp without too much struggling, and to be firm/ not too bendy – a risk of a bendy busk is when you try to lace up, the busk may bow inward and the middle and make you look like you have lower belly pooch (even if you don’t normally have one!).
Many respected corsetieres will use a half-inch busk so don’t dismiss all corsets that have them as low quality – however in the case of half-inch busks, I will often prefer to have a flat bone on either side, or a boned modesty placket (also known as an underbusk) for increased sturdiness.
Some corsets will have lacing on the front and the back, in which case refer to the grommet section to check the quality of those. Other corsets might have a closed front, in which case you don’t really need to worry, but I prefer my closed-front corsets to have some flat steels in the center front to support the abdomen. Yet other corsets may have a zipper. Now, I’ve never made a corset with a zipper closure, but if a real corset does have a zipper, it should be supported by one or more flat steel bones and be securely sewn in. If you’ve seen old duffel bags used by the army, which will often hold a hundred pounds held together by the zipper, you can sometimes see that the stitching where the zipper meets the fabric, will break even before the teeth of the zipper break – so I believe that some zippers are strong enough but have to be treated carefully.
I prefer all my corsets to have steel bones. But you have to be careful about this – some forms of steel bones are more flexible than others. In the video I show how some flat steel bones can sometimes be flimsier than plastic bones, depending on the type.
I have had the unfortunate experience of walking into a corset shop and asking the employee if their corsets were fully steel boned. The employee clearly said that they were. After I bought one of their corsets and brought it home, I discovered that it had plastic bones. So sometimes employees and store clerks will not really know how the corsets were constructed, or they may blatantly lie to push a sale. But you can see for yourself whether the bones are steel just by using a magnet – preferably a rather strong one – just don’t carry it in the same pocket that you carry your credit cards.
Steel is a ferrous material so when you put your magnet on the boning channel, you might be able to feel a faint pull. If there’s no pull at all, chances are the bones are plastic.
Whether the bones on the sides of the corset are flat or spiral is a matter of preference, but the bones at the back by the grommets should ALWAYS be flat steel bones, and not bend or kink when you’re tightening up.
Although I have had corsets with one-part eyelets in the past, I prefer my corsets to have 2-part eyelets or grommets, as I feel that they grip the fabric better. Unless they are set into a lacing bone, grommets should be sandwiched between two flat steel bones. Generally speaking: the more narrow the flange (distance between the shank and the edge of the grommet) the more easily the grommet may pull out (once again, doesn’t apply if a lacing bone is used). Avoid flimsy grommet panels that bunch up when you try to tighten the corset.
One thing I neglected to say in my video – the space between each grommet somewhat matters. I prefer grommets to have no more than 1 inch between them, although I have seen corsets with more space than this. Grommets may be equally spaced, or they may get closer together near the waistline, for more control in cinching in this area. This is also somewhat a matter of preference.
Splits may occur on the back of some grommets – they can be ugly, but generally aren’t harmful as long as they don’t snag your laces.
If your magnet is small enough you can check it on your grommets as well – good grommets are made of brass which is non-ferrous so your magnet should NOT be attracted to your grommets. If your magnet is attracted to the grommets, they could be made from a dirty alloy, or they may have steel inside – this means your grommets may rust over time.
Fit of the corset when trying it on
This is a whole monster in itself – if the store gives you a sample to try on, then it may be weirdly seasoned by being laced onto so many different figures over time. If they give you a new corset to try on, it’s not going to be seasoned at all, so will feel stiff and may not wrap around your curves properly. But if you want to know more about the obvious issues with fit, then do mosey on over to my article about the shape of your corset gap.
Hopefully these tips will help you be more confident about buying your first (or next!) corset at your local RenFaire or store. If you have further tips to add, or experiences to relay, please do share them in a comment below!