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Drafting Corset Patterns Digitally with CAD (Book Review / Storytime!)

The following is a transcript of my video “Pattern Drafting in CAD (Review + Storytime!)” on Youtube. Please note that this post contains affiliate links for Etsy and Foundations Revealed. If you’d like to watch the video and the walkthrough of the Foundations Revealed pattern tutorial, see my video below.

 

Hi everyone!

I haven’t done a book review in a very long time, but I’d really like to change that. This resource I’ll be talking about today, “Corseting the 21st Century Body” by Caroline Woollin – it has given me another skillset I didn’t know was possible for me. I’m gonna try not to wax poetic about this or make it seem too much like an ad, because really it’s not. I paid for this book with my own money, I put in the work to learn and practice it, and it’s saved me months or possibly years of my time, it’s paid for itself many times over, and revolutionized the way I work.

As some of you may remember, I was in a car accident in 2014 which left me with neck and back issues. Ever since then I’ve had a difficult time sewing and even doing things like leaning over a table for long periods of time for tasks like pattern drafting. And when I developed the hourglass and Gemini corset lines, these were drafted by hand, every size was graded by hand, and it put a lot of stress on my back.

The Gemini line was released more than a year after the hourglass line because I worked the old fashioned way – with pencil and paper, then I would trace a paper copy of that most recent rendition of the pattern, and literally have to mail it. If I mailed it rush, signature required, to Thailand, it’s like over $70. And it would still take 1-2 weeks to get there, and who knows if it might be damaged. There’s a lot of risks, and every part of that process takes a long time.

The fastest way to get things done is to go to Thailand, but that is thousands of dollars just in flights, plus coordinating schedules and the like. And I wasn’t able to do that last year during the development of the Gemini line, because I was still finishing up school.

Grading the Gemini pattern, sizes 18 up to 42, in the round rib silhouette and the straight rib silhouette, is 26 individual patterns. And because I was doing it by hand, there were small inaccuracies between each size, and sometimes precision of millimeters is necessary in drafting and constructing a corset.

Amber of Lovely Rats was my MVP in 2016 because she helped digitize the corset patterns for me. I know that this is a skill taught in fashion school, and I know that my dad, being a technician, had used CAD (computer aided design) programs with his work in the past, but I was very intimidated by the technology and didn’t think I’d ever be able to wrap my head around it without formal instruction like a course.

Enter Caroline Woollin, of Corsets by Caroline. She has been working with AutoCAD for at least 15 years, and in late 2016 she published a book on Etsy called “Corseting the 21st Century Body” which is all about using modern drafting techniques to bring a contemporary edge to the traditional art of corset making.

Caroline also has a Patreon where if you give just $5 a month, you’ll get a new corset pattern, already tested, graded to size and everything, every month. Individually these corset patterns sell for $10-20 USD, so getting a new one monthly for just a $5 subscription is a fantastic deal if you’re really keen on experimental corset making and testing out different styles. So she really practices what she preaches and uses CAD heavily in her own corset business.

Corseting the 21C Body, written by Caroline Woollin (Corsets by Caroline). Click through to purchase her book via Etsy.

Anyway, back to this book, “Corseting the 21st Century Body” – it’s a 97 page book, and half of that is on learning how to create corset patterns in DraftSight which is a free CAD program, and the latter half is a bit of instruction on how to construct corsets, but it’s deliberately lightweight in this area – Caroline says that you should already have some knowledge in corset making before you pick up this book because the instruction of actually assembling the corset itself is not fully extensive, the most valuable part is in the pattern drafting. And she not only gives you step-by-step instructions, but she also gives you specific exercises to build up your skills and familiarity with the various tools you’ll need for drafting patterns.

In December 2016 I first cracked open this book and I played around with the program for an hour, realized I was in over my head, and decided to shelve the idea of learning Computer Aided Design for awhile. It wasn’t until April that I gave it another try. I gave myself the goal of going through one page per day, and practicing making lines and circles in Draftsight for like 20 minutes a day. I figure, 45 pages of instruction, it would take me around 6 weeks to get through the book, and then maybe by the end of another 6 weeks of regular practice, maybe I’ll get good enough that I’ll have my first corset pattern drafted and I’d be able to test it. I was going really slow with it, and Caroline said that this is not a skill you can perfect in a weekend. She’s right, I didn’t go through it in 2 days. I ended up getting the hang of it in three days. Obviously I don’t have a perfect knowledge of every single function, but all the tools I need for drafting corset patterns and then a few more.

Caroline is a super sweet person as well, and there were times where I got stuck and felt like I wanted to throw my computer out the window, but she said I could email or message her anytime if I needed clarification. I think there were 3-4 situations where I think I just messed up on the settings and did something silly. For instance, I kept trying to save my patterns as a PDF but they would all be “invisible” when I opened my PDF file. It was just because the layers were accidentally “locked” and had the “no print” icon checked. Most of my frustrations just took the smallest check of a button to resolve.

Remember when I said it would take me an hour to grade each size of a corset pattern on paper? Within a few weeks, I had enough practice that I was able to really precisely grade each size in less than 10 minutes, and that’s with seam allowances, grain lines, labels, color coding, everything.

I was able to sit or stand at my desk, as I was comfortable, and didn’t have to hurt my neck or back. And the best part was being able to instantaneously email the corset patterns to the factory instead of using snail mail which would take 2 weeks. I would make a corset pattern and email it to them in time for them to receive it by 8am (Thailand time). By the end of their work day (which is the next morning for me), they’d have a mockup or sample made. We use a combination of methods for testing the samples – either they would mail the corset samples over to me to check in person, or they could send me pictures of the corsets on their fit models (or I would stay up late and Skype with them during their work hours). By the end of the fitting, I would know what changes to make and was able to send them the tweaked pattern the very next day.

Testing one sample used to take us a month using traditional drafting methods and snailmail, and now we could get the same done in as little as 2 days.

By the end of those 3 months, I didn’t just “Learn CAD and have 1 corset pattern drafted” (as per my original goal). Within 3 months, I had learned and practiced CAD, had 4 corset patterns drafted, tested multiple times, tweaked, perfected, and fully graded! Also, I was able to scan in and digitize many of my old corset patterns lying around – so I could get rid of paper clutter. Everything is much more organized and easy to pull up for reference, and I’m able to more quickly and easily tweak those patterns if I want to use them again in the future.

When I say that this book has revolutionized the way I work and saved me a mind boggling amount of time, and paid for itself many times over, I mean it.

Huge thanks to Caroline for creating this resource. If you have any interest in learning how to draft corset patterns digitally, you need this book. As someone who was literally physically pained by drafting by hand, learning this new skillset was so freeing. Please don’t be intimidated if you don’t have any formal education in computers or technology, we all start somewhere. Visit Caroline’s Etsy shop here.

By the way, the corset pattern I made during this video was the free overbust drafting tutorial from Foundations Revealed, for my personal measurements. If you want this tutorial to make a custom corset pattern for yourself, whether on paper or on computer, click here!

Let me know if you have any questions at all! If you have also read Caroline’s book, let us know what you think of it in a comment below!

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Why Do So Many Corsetieres Go Out of Business?

Almost every month I go through my corsetiere map and make notes on which corset makers are inactive, which have closed down their businesses and websites, and I add new makers that are popping up all the time on Etsy. Like with many craft / creative home businesses, it’s difficult to make corsetry a lucrative career.

Even I took custom commissions for a few years, and while I had no shortage of clients wishing for a corset (I was one of the lucky ones), I had my own reasons for going on an indefinite hiatus.

Because of my corsetiere map, corsetieres contact me when they want to be added or when they would like to be removed. In the latter situation, while I never pry as to their reasons, they often tell me anyway, and many of their grievances boil down to the same main points over and over again.

Although I cannot (and will not) go into the specific set of reasons as to why any one specific corset maker has decided to shut down their business (as that would be betraying their confidence), I can speak generally about it – perhaps discussing this would be helpful in having customers understand that corsetieres are human too, and for other corset makers out there, it can help them avoid the same mistakes.

 

Corset Supplies are Scarce and Expensive

Making a corset is relatively complicated, as far as garments go. There are a lot of specialty components that go into it (like a busk and steel bones) and depending on where you live, sometimes even good quality 2-part grommets are difficult to source. Most people can’t find these at their local fabric shop, and most corsetieres order online. The materials themselves can often add up to at least $50, before you even put your time into making the corset! This is one reason why corsets themselves are more pricey than other, more common articles of clothing.

Many corset makers end up supplementing their income by creating accessories – corset liners are simple and fast to make, as well as storage bags, or boleros, or dresses or other outfits that go well with their corsets. These are not only made from materials that may be less expensive / easier to source, but they typically take less time to make, so the designer can bring in enough to support themselves.


Corsets Take a Long Time to Make (and have a steep learning curve!)

Someone can buy 2 yards of fabric for $20, make a dress out of it in 2 hours and sell it for $50, so she ends up paying herself $15 per hour. Many people wouldn’t even bat an eye at spending $50 for a simple handmade dress. But let’s say you buy corset materials for $50, and spend 20 hours making a corset. If you paid yourself the same hourly rate ($15 per hour), then that corset will cost a minimum of $350, and (while this is actually a very reasonable price for a custom corset these days) so many people are not willing to pay that much.

Too often, fledgling makers enter the scene with competitive introductory pricing, such that some of them are not even paying themselves minimum wage, and this influences the market and drives down prices for everyone. (And we haven’t even gotten into the hidden costs of running a business… see the “Unexpected Expenses” section.)

There are only 24 hours in everyone’s day, so how do some corset makers make more money with the time that they have? A lot of them get help or take on side jobs:

  • More and more corset makers are now holding sewing classes classes, where people come in for a weekend and pay a fee to be taught how to make their own corsets. These classes are seemingly pricey (many start at $300 for a group class, up to and above $1000 for private instruction), but it’s a way for makers to supplement their income. As a student, if you think about the fact that you can buy a corset for $300 or learn to make as many corsets as you like for $300, the price of a class becomes justified (if you enjoy sewing, that is). And for the corsetiere, it’s an opportunity to take a break from the laborious work of crouching over a sewing machine all day.
  • Some makers take on interns to help (maybe once a week), so the interns learn how to make corsets for free without having to pay for a one-on-one class, and in return the maker gets… essentially unpaid labor. (From what I understand, depending on where you live and the type of industry you work in, this is an ethically grey area.)
  • Some fashion schools allow (or even require) at least one semester of free study, co-op experience, or internship. These “private study” semesters can dramatically help local designers, as flocks of students look for corset-making instruction and need to get their minimum hours filled.
  • SO many corset makers ask their husbands or siblings for help, even if it’s just tipping bones or setting the grommets.
  • Some makers even hire a virtual assistant to take care of customer service and admin (because dealing with people is not everyone’s strong suit – more on that later in the “Artists Sometimes Suck at Business” section).
  • Many corset makers go the way of ready-to-wear corsets. After a few years, corsetieres will likely notice that there is a certain “average” of measurements or proportions from their clients, and they can make one or several standard corset pattern(s) that will maybe 60-75% of bodies. Then they can batch out their corsets in bulk, which is much more efficient on time compared to custom corsets – it means you can stack your fabric layers and cut out several corsets at once, you can stock up on the same length bones and busks all the time (instead of cutting them to length or special-ordering them for each corset), and you don’t have to waste as much time switching tasks. However, after awhile, standard sized / stock corsets can be depressing (see the section “Beggers Can’t Be Choosers“).
  • Some corset makers make enough to be able to hire a team to make corsets in a small assembly line – so even when paying their team an hourly rate, since they have specialized machinery and people with specific skills, everything goes much smoother and faster. But of course, that special machinery comes at a hefty price – and training those workers takes time and money too.

Oftentimes when a corset maker burns out and stops making corsets, it’s because they were working alone for so many years without any help whatsoever – they were doing all the labor and admin themselves.


Making Corsets is a Full-Body Workout.

Cutting fabric on the floor; cutting and grinding bones; hammering or pressing grommets; spending hours upon hours in front of the sewing machine – these can be very labor-intensive and can cause injuries if you’re not prioritizing the ergonomics of your work area.

After my car accident in 2014, I wasn’t able to sew beyond very short periods of a few minutes (essentially short mending jobs) because I couldn’t crane my neck down for extended durations. Some people with muscle weakness need help cutting bones or setting grommets. Some people have arthritis in their hands and don’t have great dexterity in their fingers. And if you are sewing 12+ hours a day, almost every day, it can start to create a lot of wear and tear on the body.

Some corset makers do become more skilled and faster at making corsets, and some get better equipment so the process is more ergonomic (but that costs money too).


There Are Unexpected Expenses When Running a Business

Many corset makers only charge for the cost of materials + their labor in making the corset (and corsetieres have a habit of underestimating the number of hours required to finish a project!). But there are so many more expenses involved in keeping your business alive. Here are just a few “hidden costs” in any creative business:

  • Registering your business.
  • Filing for a trademark / copyright.
  • Admin work – bookkeeping, answering emails, etc.
  • Doing footwork / research / testing for the suitability of materials in your projects, or upgrading your skills.
  • Liability insurance for yourself, any employees you might have, insurance on your studio or dwelling, and insurance on your equipment and inventory.
  • Repairs and servicing for your machines / equipment.
  • Electricity that runs the equipment everyday (overhead).
  • Seller fees for Etsy, Ebay, and whatever you’re using to process payments.
  • Web hosting and maintenance.
  • Some countries require that businesses of any size, even the “hobbyists”, file your taxes every quarter. That’s every 3 months! That eats away at your time you’d rather spend Making Things, and some businesses are required to pay taxes every quarter.
  • Hiring a bookkeeper or accountant that knows all the legal stuff around running a business, and what’s claimable and not claimable around tax time (but this is a very wise investment and highly recommended – what I pay my accountant is much less than the amount I save by doing my taxes properly).

A corset maker can raise their prices to cover these fees, but that is a double-edged sword because it means fewer people are willing to buy from a brand that charges more.


Beggers Can’t Be Choosers

When I started making corsets, I considered it an amazing creative outlet. I could make any design, any color, any silhouette I wanted, with any combination of embellishments. I could let my imagination go wild! But when I started taking commissions, it became a case of “10 plain black waist training corsets in a row”, and while I take pride and put care in all of the corsets I make, it quickly became boring, soul-draining work.

Many corset makers now turn away prospective customers who want a plain underbust corset, because these makers only want to focus on luxury or couture work (and that is their right and their prerogative! If they’re able to maintain a successful business while turning away commissions, more power to them!). Other corset makers will take any commission they can get because it pays the bills – and what was once a lovely creative outlet for them has become a sad, drudging job.


Artists Sometimes Suck at Business…
…. Also, Difficult Customers Exist

Another potential issue with bespoke corsetry is that it’s so very personal: it’s designed to fit just one person exactly (even down to their anatomical asymmetries and idiosyncrasies) and the colors, fabrics, and embellishments are to that client’s specific taste. And oftentimes, if that commission is not 110% to the client’s standard, that is the difference between the maker getting paid and not getting paid. Of course, the maker should know this coming into the business – and know what’s fair and unfair in business dealings.

This is where contracts would be useful when taking commissions: be absolutely clear as to what’s included in the outfit / costume / corset commission, what communication and tasks are required of both the maker and the client (yes, some tasks are required of the client, like taking body measurements, being clear about what types of embellishments and how much, giving feedback during mockup fittings, etc), when payment(s) are due, etc. so there is less miscommunication and confusion.

Depending on a corsetiere’s PR skills, one really bad review can potentially ruin a maker’s reputation and put them out of business. (Some corset makers are really really good at making corsets, but their customer service leaves something to be desired.)

Several makers who have owned corset companies for 20+ years have all told me something similar (and somewhat controversial): for better or for worse, when it comes to the corset industry, it’s seldom that a laid back client comes along. While many don’t quite hit “bridezilla” status, occasionally a customer comes close, and the corsetiere has to learn how to be a good businessperson (not just a good artist) and know where to draw the line with “pickiness”: when to either put their foot down and when to cut their losses.

More unfortunately, there are many corset makers who hear nothing but crickets when their clients are happy with their commissions, and they only ever hear from their unhappy customers. This seems to be more universal: no matter what the industry or what the product / service is, unhappy customers are always louder than the happy ones. And this hurts businesses in real ways:

Let’s say a hypothetical corsetiere sells 50 corsets on Etsy. 48 of those customers are happy, and 2 of them are unhappy.

Let’s say only 3 of the happy customers leave 4 or 5 star reviews, but both of the unhappy customers leave 1-star reviews. That makes her Etsy rating look really spotty, close to a 60% satisfaction rate, even though in reality they have a 96% satisfaction rate.

I would not be willing to purchase from a corsetiere with a 60% satisfaction rate, would you? I might even think that they’re stealing photos from other makers and distributing knock-off designs, and the “three positive reviews” might be fabricated / shill reviews, or from customers uneducated about genuine corsets.

If many other prospective customers look at their poor ratings and think along the same lines, that corsetiere’s business suffers – she could be one of the most talented artists of our generation, but some people might never even give her a chance.

So if you purchased something off Etsy or even off a maker’s website and you were happy with your purchase, please consider leaving that corsetiere (or costumier, or artist) a positive review, or a testimonial that they’re able to share on their site – it only takes a minute, and it can really help with their reputation. If you have a bad experience with a corset maker then by all means speak your truth – but when you are happy with your product, also take the time to promote what you love, because some corsetieres’ livelihood depends on your feedback.

 

These are just a few reasons why so many makers decide to shut down their businesses. There are obviously many more reasons than these, some much more personal to the individual – this is why there is an entire industry (books, courses, mentorships, summits, etc) on how to properly run a business as a creative – no one is born knowing this, and most of us are flying by the seat of our pants, learning as we go. But if we’re to stay in business, we must be aware of these things and learn how to avoid them as best we can.

If there are any big reasons that I missed regarding why corsetieres or costumiers choose to leave their businesses, feel free to leave a comment down below and let me know. As always, be respectful in the comments.

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How Vollers Makes Their Corsets: A Factory Tour!

Welcome to the detailed tour of the corset factory in Portsmouth England from back in 2015, where we’ll see how Vollers Corsets makes their corsets.

A surprising number of tools and attachments used in this video were the same ones used 50 or even nearly 100 years ago, and it’s a bit like walking back in time, seeing how their workroom is optimized to make a simple underbust in as little as a couple of hours.

Don’t let that fool you though – each machine (and the machine’s operator) is specialized for a specific task, and many of their employees and members have been working with Vollers for decades. This means that they are highly skilled at what they do, and it also means they’ve seen how the family-owned brand has grown and changed – and how some parts have stayed the same!

While the various parts of this video were filmed out of order (and several different corsets were being assembled at once, so you may see the corset style change), I’ve tried to organize it here chronologically in order of how a corset would normally be assembled.

If you’d like to skip ahead to any specific part of the assembly process, use the time points below. Enjoy!

  • 0:25 Antique corset patterns
  • 1:25 Cutting the corset patterns
  • 1:40 Corset busks of various lengths
  • 1:45 Cording panels (sent to a processing house)
  • 2:30 Organizing WIP (work in progress) corsets for different orders
  • 3:30 Cutting spiral steel bones to length and adding on U-tips
  • 4:50 Sewing on the boning channels (twin-needle machine)
  • 5:45 Inserting the steel bones
  • 6:00 Installing the busk (both sides)
  • 7:30 Sewing on the binding (single pass using a binding attachment)
  • 8:20 Securing the binding with a bar-tack
  • 8:45 Modesty placket & modesty panel (back flap)
  • 9:50 Inserting eyelets
  • 11:00 Lacing up the finished corset

What parts did you like about the corset assembly process? What parts would you do differently? Leave a comment below!

And click here if you’d like to see the Vollers Corsets Interview, or click here to go to the Vollers website.

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“The Basics of Corset Building” by Linda Sparks: a review

Linda Sparks is the owner of the company Farthingales which has a store in Stratford, Canada. I purchased the 2008 hardcover edition of “The Basics of Corset Building” back in very early 2011, for less than $20 – the cheapest place I found it at the time was on Amazon. It’s only 77 pages long, but don’t let that fool you – it’s chock full of information. There’s no froth in here – pretty much no history or filler; just instructions.

If you prefer to watch the review instead of read it, you can view my video (from last year) here:

In the foreward Ms. Sparks jumps right in by saying that anyone who can sew a straight line can sew a corset. Her methods are friendly yet no-nonsense – she does a good job of saying “yes, there’s a lot of fine detail and many steps to constructing a corset, but building a corset from start to finish doesn’t have to be scary.” If you’re willing to put in the work and practice some patience you can make a corset.

There are four sections in the book:

Section one focuses on what you’ll need to make a corset. She dedicates a chapter to each of the tools involved like awls, bone cutters, pliers etc. (I believe you can preview this chapter on Google Books.) There are also chapters on textiles (being the strength fabric and fashion fabric, waist tape etc.), and also a chapter on supports and hardware of the corset – the bones, tips, busk, and grommets. Most of the materials in this section you can also buy directly from her online store.

Section two explains in detail the steps of putting a corset together. How to cut and tip bones – both steel and plastic – how to insert a busk, how to insert grommets, working with lacing tape, tipping your laces, applying binding, etc.

Section three goes into techniques. Ms Sparks teaches you five different ways of making a corset: single layer that can be altered or not altered, double layer that can be altered or not altered, and lastly a corset that has a pretty fashion layer.

Section four goes into customizing corset patterns, namely Simplicity and Laughing Moon patterns, and how to fit mock-ups and alter your corset to your body. She also provides inspirational photos of the same corset patterns made with different fashion fabrics to show you how drastically they can change the overall look.

There’s also a glossary of terms at the back of the book. Throughout the book any words you see in bold you can find in the glossary.

My Personal Thoughts

Going through the other reviews of this book online, I notice that a lot of people complain about grammatical errors. Reading through the book myself, I admit that some errors jumped out at me, but I can forgive that because this book not supposed to be a literary masterpiece, it’s an instruction manual. It’s still perfectly readable and easy to understand and the content is good.

Pictures:this book is bountiful with pictures, both black and white photographs and diagrams. I liked how

“The Basics of Corset Building” by Linda Sparks – 2008 edition book cover

many pictures were featured, but for the total beginner corsetiere I think there could be fewer simple diagrams and more photographs. If the next edition of the book were to include colour photos that’d be great too. I understand depth and dimension a lot better in colour pictures compared to greyscale, and this would make it easier to keep track of overside and underside of fabric during the sewing instructions.

Succinctness: The title of the book is not misleading in any way: it goes through the BASICS of corset building and it is a handbook for BEGINNERS. If you have no knowledge whatsoever in making a corset, then this book is a fantastic resource. However if you have already made a corset before, you may be a little underwhelmed by this book. Many of the techniques like using an awl, applying grommets, inserting a busk, making internal boning channels, adding binding to the edges of a corset etc. I learned just by following instructions that came with the Simplicity 9769 pattern. However for those who like multiple resources, who like to learn about slight variations in construction methods or who just like to read the same methods explained in different words, then this book would be a great addition to your collection.

The photo of the corset on the cover of the book is gorgeous, but in the book it doesn’t teach you about diagonal bone placements or cording or any flossing techniques featured on the corset on the cover – I think this book has a lot of opportunity to expand in the future – Ms. Sparks could possibly add a chapter or create another entire book on advanced techniques. I did learn a few new things from this book but wish there could have been a bit more on finishing, embellishment etc. I was quite happy with my purchase anyway, as it is another way to support the corset making community and keep it alive.

You can read other reviews on this book or purchase it from Amazon, here.