Corsets were originally boned with whale bone (which is where corset ‘boning’ got it's name I believe) and then later with steel corset boning. There are a number of different types used in corsetry, but today we're going to discuss why we use steels over plastics and why plastic bones are a bad idea. Then I'll explain the difference between sprung and spiral steel, what to consider when picking between them, and how to add extra support if you're making plus size corsets.
Plastic Corset Boning – Myth Busting
Nope! Newbies to corset training and making often assume that steel will be harsh and unyielding to wear and that plastic will be more comfortable because it's softer and more pliable. In reality plastic bones, besides being largely inadequate at providing support, develop weak points when you bend and sit. These weak points will look like sharp bends or kinks, you will find after sitting for a while in a plastic-boned corset that you'll stand up but your corset won't; there'll be a crease in the front and the bones will still be bent slightly in the shape of your lap. Here is a perfect example of the lap-shaped stress point on a plastic boned corset.
Now these areas can be bent back, but the weak point will continue to kink each time you wear your corset, looking unsightly and making you feel very uncomfortable. Eventually the bone will break and then you have the difficult decision to make of whether to throw the corset away or unpick the bottom edge and replace all the bones. Steel boned corsets don't develop weak points, you would need to bend a sprung steel bone back to an extreme angle (one that you won't be getting yourself into while wearing a corset!) and put a lot of pressure on it to leave any kind of bend.
Wrong again; as mentioned above, plastic bones behave like plastic, they get weakened when continually bent and eventually break. Whale bone was used because it held its shape while providing a little give. If you want more flexibility use spiral steel over sprung, see the picture below for comparison.
Again this one was dispelled above, it doesn't last past the first few wearings if you have it on for more than a couple of hours. I've heard good things about industrial cable ties which are becoming favourable amongst practising would-be corset makers, but steel corset bones are so cheap to buy, you can get them pre-cut and sprung steel comes with a plastic coating (you shouldn't be washing your corset anyway! Go make friends with a quality dry-cleaners that deals with speciality garments if you must have it cleaned regularly). I find that the biggest reason people opt for plastic boning is psychological; they shy away from the idea of using strips of metal in a garment that already involves learning several new techniques. Once you become familiar with corsetry you'll swear off plastic bones.
I could go on but it should be clear by now that steel is the most comfortable material you can use for corset boning. Having said that, there are a few situations in which I think plastic boning is suitable; such as single/occasional use, party or stage costumes, and delicate lingerie where the item will need regular hand washing and the bone won't cover the bend at the waist – the side of a wide banded bra or a garter belt for example.
Steel supports the body in a way that plastic bones can't. Plastic weakens when bent and eventually snaps after extended wear, it is completely useless for corset training and a little dangerous in my opinion. A broken bone can go through the lining of a corset and pierce the skin, and misshaped bones can cause backache. Nothing is more comfortable than a properly supporting corset and you can vary the width of your corset boning to provide more or less support. If your corset is uncomfortable that's down to a bad sewing pattern or incorrect sizing. Make sure you have a pattern made or altered to fit your body correctly, or at least a standard pattern that you've made a mockup for and checked the fit of.
The two types – Sprung and spiral steel corset boning
Sprung steel – Comes as a flat strip of solid steel, rounded at the ends and usually covered in a white plastic coating to prevent rust. When you bend it and let go it ‘springs’ back, which is where it gets its name.
Spiral steel – This is made up of two steel wires spiralled together (again the name is self explanatory). The two steel wires are wound into a tight strip and each end has a steel cap. Check out the picture below for the plastic, sprung steel, and spiral steel boning types. For waist training you need to use steel boned corsets. I repeat myself – plastic bones are only a viable option for lingerie and stage or party costumes not for corset training.
To advise on picking between the two types; sprung steel will give you a smoother silhouette and a little more support while spiral steel will bend in directions its solid counterpart can't, giving you more freedom of movement. If there's a curve in your seam that requires the bone to bend in a direction other than with the flat surface of the bone, use spiral steel bones. It's common to find corset makers who use both; spiral steels are used at the sides for ease of movement, while sprung steels keep the tummy flat at the front. Also, you must use flat sprung steels either side of your eyelets on both sides of your corset to keep the back edge straight.
Plus Size Corsets & Added Support
Corsets look stunning on the curvier figure and provide great support for a larger bust and the associated back problems that come with having a large cup size. If you need more support for a plus sized corset or added back support for a large bust, an injury, or medical condition (always consult your doctor in regard to medical issues and corset wearing), you'll find sprung steel corset bones more supportive. If freedom of movement is a priority, then using spiral steels at the sides and sprung steels back and front might be a good solution. If you really want spirals throughout your corset then get the widest ones you can find.
For plus size corsets I recommend first evaluating the pattern and checking how many panels there are to it. Often larger sizes are scaled up from standard ones and panels become very wide. If you're boning only the seams, then redrafting or substituting the corset pattern for one with more panels means narrower panels and more boning. Alternatively, if you can't face a redraft, consider adding more bones by running bone casing down the centre of each panel on the inside of the corset to add support.
Yet another method to add support (and more corset boning) is to double-bone your seams. I often use wide bias binding placed over the inside of my seams, sew along each edge and then flip to the front to ‘stitch in the ditch’ (sew along the seam in the gap where the panels meet). This creates two bone cases and you can slip a bone down each. Some people use the seam allowance of the lining for one case and the seam allowance of the outer fabric for the other. Either way, make sure your casing will be wide enough to take the two bones. So take a bone with you when you purchase your bias binding or line one up along your seam allowance before you cut your pattern pieces.
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