Introduction: Steampunk Necktie Corset Dress

I loves me some steampunk.  To honor my new obsession, I decided to outfit myself as a steampunk fairy for upcoming dork festivals.  I have over fifteen years of sewing and crafting experience, but anyone with a basic knowledge of machine and hand stitcing (and perhaps a little faith and patience) will be able to make her own beautiful interpretation.  Fairy wings are forthcoming and so not pictured, by the way.

Having previously employed myself constructing commissioned costumes, I have a significant storehouse of odds and ends.  I made a deliberate attempt to use only what I had on hand for this corset, though I did end up spending about $10 for bias tape, brown thread, and grommets.  If you purchase all required supplies, this corset could set you back up to $100, I would imagine.

This particular design took me about fifteen hours to complete.  A significant portion of that time was dedicated to hand stitching (and taking photos for this 'ible!).  Hand stitching will be an unavoidable aspect of this corset so prepare yourself with some background movies or tunes, maybe a hand brace, and a delicious adult beverage.  If you like this instructable, please visit my website at to see more of my tutorials, projects, and passions.      

Oh!  And in case you haven't noticed, I'm wordy.  If you're not a reader, the good news is: I have LOTS of photos. :-)   Also, you may be wondering what this has to do with summer since I'm entering the summer sewing contest.  The answer?  It has everything to do with summer--summer festival attire, summer night out on the town attire (pair this with some sexy jeans and gold high heals for a great look!), summer boredom remedy...

So, with all of that out of the way, let the creativity begin!

Step 1: What You Will Need

  Gather Your Supplies

  1. About 2 yards of fabric--this will depend on your measurements, fabric width, etc.  I culled from my pile of scraps a yard of chocolate brown cotton and a blue linen (the linen was actually a pair of pants I upcycled).  Ideally, you will need something that complements your necktie selection while also being very sturdy.  It's a corset, remember!  Lots of tugging and stretching of fabric will ensue and the more sturdy your fabric, the more stress it will take.
  2. Pattern--I don't typically use commercial patterns, but I really like Laughing Moon's #100 'Ladies Victorian Underwear' and have come back to it time and time again.  There are numerous pattern companies that print Victorian era corsets and several websites that will teach you how to draft your own.
  3. Boning--I use 1/4 inch white spring steel available online or at select local fabric stores.  I recommend using something other than the plastic boning usually sold prepackaged at chain stores; steel boning is worth the investment.  Additionally, I would have used a traditional victorian busk for this one, but didn't have it on hand and stuck with my spend-no-$-use-what-you-have rule.
  4. Neckties--Beg your friends, hit up the 2-for-1 accessory sales at the Salvation Army, and put out an APB on your FB page.  They'll trickle in.
  5. Grommets & Setting Tool--If you have an eyelet wrench, great!  If not, you can buy grommets with accompanying tool at any local fabric store. 
  6. Hammer, Newsprint (or other forgiving surface)
  7. Corset Lacing
  8. Bias Tape--single fold in coordinating color. Or not.  Be bold.  Be tacky.  Be brazen with color.  I don't care.  By the way, one package (4yds) will usually suffice.
  9. Lace, buttons, decorative trims of your choice.
  10. Scissors, Measuring Tape, Straight Pins, Needle, Thread, (and if you're anything like me...) Seam Ripper--the usual arsenal of sewing accoutrements, in other words.
  11. Iron, Ironing Board, Sewing Machine--mmmm, duh?
  12. Patience.  And maybe beer.

Step 2: Prep Your Stuff

1.  Pre-wash your fabric.   Admittedly, I did not wash the adorning neckties.  But generally, I don't care what kind of fabric I'm using, I pre-wash it in hot water with a normal high heat dry cycle.   "But what about silk?  Or (*gasp*) wool?!"  Look, I'm low maintenance.  If I have to dry clean it when it's done, I just won't.  Which will make me either really stinky, or I'll end up ruining it anyway when I inevitably put it in the wash.  So--don't want surprises?  Wash it.

2.  Iron your pattern & Fabric.  This may be an oft-overlooked step in construction, but don't be a lazy wuss and skip out on the ironing stage.  You'll thank yourself later.  Iron your crumpled paper pattern pieces.  Iron the wrinkly bias edge of your pre-washed fabric, too.

3.  Determine your size and adjust your pattern.  This will take some arithmetic skills.  Measure your own bust, waist and hips and write the numbers down.  Next, use your measuring tape to measure the bust, waist and hips on the freshly  ironed pattern pieces.  Add the numbers together and then subtract applicable seam allowances.  If your numbers match, you'll want to cut your pattern down ever-so-slightly to accommodate for a moderate cinching effect.  Typically, a Victorian corset is a good two inches smaller in the waist than your own proper measurement.  Conversely, if your pattern number is too small, you may want to increase the size of the pieces.  To do this, figure out how much extra total width you need then divide it by the number of pattern pieces.  Add this much more to each pattern piece.  When in doubt, err on the side of too big.  You can always adjust it down in size during the fitting step.

Step 3: Cutting Your Pattern

4 Lay out all your pattern pieces. Fold your fabric in half and lay out your pieces.  I do not recommend using a directional graphic (stripes, plaids) as the pieces to a Victorian corset are many and the integrity of the fabric graphic will be compromised by the many curved seams. 

A.  Do NOT use a stretch fabric
B.  Use the straight grain.  (What do I mean?  Don't lay your pattern out on a diagonal line (the bias)--this is the stretchiest point of any fabric and will skew your fitting and impact strength.) 

Got your pieces layed out on the straight grain and they all fit?  Great!  Now you can...

5 Pin or weight your pattern pieces in place.  Some professionals use tiny weights and/or trace the pattern directly on to the fabric to avoid pin holes.  Not so important for this project, so straight pins it is! 

6.  Cut the pieces out!  You will need four of each piece--two lining & two outer fabric.  If you are making adjustments, try to adjust the lining first and then cut the outer fabric from the lining fabric.  For sizing, I eyeballed the extra 1/8" of fabric necessary for a proper fit.  If you have to add more than 1/8" to your pattern pieces, use your measuring tape and a graphite/soap/tailors chalk marker to enlarge the pattern right on the fabric, then cut out your newly drawn size.  Don't forget to check the vertical length, too! 

Step 4: Start Stitching

7.  Lay out your cut pieces.  This helps keep you organized.  Sometimes, the front pattern piece will look a lot like a side or back piece and you don't want to look like you're wearing a piece of cubist art, right?  Hmmm.  Maybe a new 'ible to be had here--how to make a Picasso costume?  Right.  Okay.  Moving on:

8.  Start stitching. Begin with your lining.  (If you always start with your lining, you have less to fear if you screw it up and, generally, less money to shell out to replace the lining you just screwed up.  I speak from experience here.  Anyhow...) With right sides together, stitch the back to the side back.  Then the side back to side front, then the side front to bust gore, bust gore to mid front to bust gore to front.  

*If you are using a busk, your corset will have two distinct halves joined by lacing the back and hooking your busk in the front.  Because I only want my corset laced up the back, I placed my front piece on a fold.  You could also use a seam here for greater curve control.  Please note this instructable does not contain instructions for inserting your busk.

9.  Have the lining together now?  Repeat with outer layer!

Step 5: Iron, Fit and Put It Together

10.  Fit your corset. Now is the time to gauge whether your corset needs adjusting further. This is difficult to do by oneself so if you can, find a partner. You could also do this on a dummy, but sewing dummies aren't all squishy like the human body. Squish factor is an important aspect of corset fitting. Ideally, you want to turn the shell so the seams and ugly threads are facing out (*the opposite of my pic). Then pull tight around the back. If you have slack anywhere, pin it. If you need to mark things, mark them. Keep in mind your boning will help take up a smidgen of slack, too.
All pinned up? Then one little bit at a time, go back to your machine and stitch the seams a bit smaller until you have the right fit. This can be time consuming, but there will be no more adjusting (save lacing) from this point on.  If your corset is too big, no amount of lacing will hold it up--here's where it's handy to err on the side of smaller for once.  Got it perfect? Great! Trim excess away from the seams.

11.  Repeat with lining, again.  Here's where it can get tricky.  You now have to implement all the fitting changes you made to your outer garment on your lining.  An easy way to to this (especially if your adjustments are relatively minor) is lay the adjusted layer on top of the lining and begin pinching and pinning little bits at a time until the seams for both pieces line up. 

12.  Iron your seams flat.  That's right, it's back to our friends the iron and ironing board. I hate ironing, but it's so important.  You can choose to iron your seams open or to iron them all towards one direction.  For example, iron all seams toward the lacing side as I did.  Anytime you're ironing a sewing project, remember that it is possible to overdo it and warp your weft, so to speak. 

13.  Pin the top and bottom.  With right sides together, begin pinning all along the top and bottom.  This is to ensure that your seams line up and that both halves are the same size.  This will also keep you from shifting the lining and outer layer and making things wonky when you stitch the halves together.

14.  Sew the front to the back--Run a quick straight stitch along each side.

15.  Remove pins, turn inside out, and press.

Step 6: Boning Channels

16.  Stitch both sides together at the top.  Now that you've turned it right-side-out and pressed the back seams down, go ahead and pin the top together again.  Then, stitch the top.  This is the top of your boning channel.  Don't worry that you can see this stitching on the pretty side--we'll deal with that later.

17.  Lay out your boning.  I have lots of boning on hand because I find it difficult to know exactly what lengths I will need.  Once a project is begun, you may find that you'd like to cut an inch off the bottom for proper fit, or that you'd like to lengthen some part of your corset for dramatic effect.  If you ordered your boning based on a pattern suggestion or presumption, you may be ordering more to make up for unforeseen fitting issues.  If you can only afford to purchase what it takes to make the corset, you may want to wait until this step to order your boning.  Only then can you be 100% certain you are ordering the right lengths.  Sure, you'll have to wait a week or two to finish the last steps, but, if you're like me and you're low on funds during these tough times, you might be happy for the cost saving measure.  Buuuut, I digress.
When laying out your boning, a good rule of thumb is one piece of boning per seam, plus more for support.  Because I'm a fairly small person, I don't need ample support and can get away with fewer bones.  You may consider adjusting your boning operation with a similar correlation. 
 I used 1/4" boning for seams but because I didn't use a busk, I used two pieces of 1/2" boning down the front to give it extra stability.  Are you planning on using buttons down the front like me?  Then remember to leave just a teensy bit of room between the center front channels to allow for the easy stitching of buttons.
One last note about layout.  It's helpful to use a piece of boning on either side of your grommets.  Plan accordingly!  If you space your center back boning too closely, you won't be able to fit your grommets in later! 

18.  Mark your channels.  Using graphite/soap/tailor's chalk, mark your boning channels.  I actually kind of skipped this step or, rather, guestimated this step.  I didn't have all the boning lengths I wanted on hand, so I did the best I could and used the seams as my guide rather than actually marking my corset.  Why?  Because I'm lazy sometimes. 

19.  Stitch your channels.  If you chose to follow in my footsteps and NOT mark your boning, you can cheat by first stitching along the seam edges.  Next, use your presser foot as a guide and stitch a hair more than a 1/4".  Easy-peasy. 

Step 7: Grommets

20.  Gather your grommet supplies.  Now's the time your hammer will come in handy.  I made a conscious choice to use larger, shiny golden grommets instead of the smaller eyelets.  Smaller eyelets can be quicker with a wrench, but the look of the larger grommets was more appealing to me for this particular project.  So... You'll want an awl or sharp scissors (or a skewer or anything pointy that makes a decent but tiny hole).  Hammer, newspaper and ruler will be handy here, too.

21.  Mark your holes.I went with one grommet every inch using the center of the grommet as my spacing guide.  I used a felt tip pen because I knew I'd be severing those fibers.  If you choose to make marks with a felt tip pen for any sewing step, be aware it may bleed in the wash or show through an unforgiving fabric.  You have been warned. 

22.  Cut the first hole and insert grommet.  I usually start at the bottom because I assume it will be the least obvious if I mess up.  Using your awl or eensy-weensy frighteningly sharp (embroidery) scissors, make a tiny hole.  Cut only one fiber at a time until you can force one half of your grommet through (and remember to start pushing from the outside towards the lining side).  If you cut your hole too large the grommet has nothing to hold on to and will just fall out.  Sometimes, this takes a few wearings before it happens.  It's best if you can get away with cutting only a few fibers and, unfortunately, straining your hands and bruising your fingertips to force the grommet through the hole.  The first couple are always kind of trying for me, but then I get a rhythm and the pace picks up.  Are you nervous about ruining your beautiful corset at this stage?  Practice on scraps first.  You may waste a few grommets, but you'll be happier for it.

23.  Put the top on and hammer it in place.  Now that your grommet is pushing through to the lining side, put the second half of the grommet on, center it all on your rubber stopper thing from the kit, grasp the punch and hammer it down.  I give it two solid whacks.  You really only need one, but I like the sound.  It's good stress relief, too!

Step 8: Now, Back to Boning.

24.  Trim bottom.  With grommets in and channels stitched, it's time to do a last minute symmetry evaluation.  Funny things  tend to happen when you work with a moderately malleable medium (say that three times fast!) so you'll want to make any final adjustments before we stuff it with steel and close off the boning channels.  To do this, fold the corset in half and trim the bottom up so that the corset is symmetrical. 

25.  Insert boning. 

26.  Iron bias tape
.  Set aside your boned corset for a sec and iron one side of your bias tape open.

27.  Stitch bias tape to bottom of corset.  VERY carefully and VERY slowly stitch the flat side of the bias tape along the raw edge of the corset bottom.  You'll have to take care not to stitch on top of a piece of boning or you will not only break your needle but may damage your machine, too.  Use your fingers to pinch the boning towards the top of the corset as you stitch. 

Step 9: Finish the Bottom

28.  Iron the new bottom seam.  Use your iron to push the folded edge of bias tape towards the bottom of the corset.  Flip your corset over and iron the bias tape over to the back side.  You may have to trim some of the thicker seams to make this easier.

29.  Hand stitch the edge.  Using a plain ol' needle and thread, start stitching the bias tape down on the inside of the corset. 

Step 10: Let the Neckties Begin!

Some people associate neckties with symbols of male virility, much like an obelisk.  Conversely, the corset may be seen as the ultimate symbol of female oppression.  Thus, the male neckties of this design 'dominate' the feminine archetype expressed and subdued in the contours of a corset.  Or, we could interpret the necktie as a symbol of masculine oppression.  By mixing the two shapes, we create a garment that confuses our culture's strict gender roles and highlights the oppressive and repressive tenets of each.  Or you can stop being so meta and just see what I see:  "It's so pretty!"

29.  Position you neckties.  Though you can change your mind a dozen times about necktie positioning, it will help to take a moment to pin them down.  Not only is this assurance that you have acquired the requisite amount of neckties to cover your corset, but you'll get a chance to futz with colors and placement.  Now's a good time to decide whether you want an even hem or more of a handkerchief hem look.  Play with it. 

**A note about neckties:  If you want less bulk you can rip the horsehair interfacing stuff outta the middle of your ties.  Similarly, you can cut them apart altogether for a wider swath fo fabric or to make fewer ties go farther.  I made a conscious choice to leave them intact.

30.  Stitch 'em on.  Here's where a lot of that patience comes in handy.  Pick a starting point and hand stitch your first tie down.  Then, go to the opposite side and stitch another one on.  Do the two at the center front, too.  After you have a couple in the front, side and back, begin to fill in.  Depending on your size, some of the ties may overlap.  I inverted a few to use the skinny end hanging down to form the skirt.  I also stitched all the tails together to make a solid skirt rather than a bunch of neckties hanging down singularly (does that make sense?  good).  This step is going to take hours.  I did it over the course of 8 or 10 hours.  It goes surprisingly fast if you throw a few movies on.  The beer also comes in handy here.  If you put them under your sewing machine needle and try to cheat, you will not only snag the delicate silk weave but you will likely run over boning and wreck your machine.    Just sayin'.
One more thing:  I decided to leave the gores brown so they would stand out, but then, I need all the boobage help I can get.  Another option for filling in the cores would be to stitch some necktie parts down onto them first, then the edge of all your other ties will simply cover the uneven edges and still create that linear look.. 

Step 11: Finish the Top

31.  Cut extra necktie lengths off.  This is one of those things I did as I went, but if you haven't already, cut the top of your neckties even with the top of your corset.

32.  Do that bias tape thing again.  That's right.  Iron one side of your single fold bias tape open and carefully stitch the flat side along the top of the corset.  I can't stress enough how careful you must be--be aware of the boning!

33.  Flip over and hand stitch the bias tape down.

Step 12: Trims

34.  Trim your corset.  As if fifteen neckties weren't enough of a corset decoration, now's the chance to trim it out.  I had just enough black lace left over from an old project and I hand stitched it to the topmost edge.  To break up the dark visuals and highlight the black lace, I added a second layer of cream colored lace just below it, also hand stitched.  Finally, I applied a slew of faux enameled buttons down the front.  I'd been hanging on to these dark blue and gold beauties for a couple years and I think they really complete the ensemble. 

Step 13: Strut Your Mad Skills

35.  Lace up, grab time modulating ray gun, and cause mayhem, 'cause you rock (Psst!  See you at Starfest 2011 in Denver!)

Thanks for checking out my first Instructible.  Feel free to ask questions; I'd love to hear from you! 

**The green dress underneath is also one of my creations.  I don't have an instructable of it, but it's a basic tank and not-quite-circle skirt held together with a drawstring waistband.  The neckline is also drawstring with part of the drawsting fabric creating the shoulder straps.  The whole dress is made of a giant silk curtain gifted to me by dear ol' mom.  I dyed it drab sage (it was lemon yellow) and used black thread in my serger for all the outside seams and ruffle edges.  There are three tiers of ruffles--just enough to show under the neckties.  Each ruffle has a layer of sage green tulle, too.

Summer Sewing Contest

Second Prize in the
Summer Sewing Contest