I wanted to make a corset based on the armor of the Rohirrim in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. Featured in The Two Towers and Return of the King, the armor of the royal house is fashioned from hammered plate metal with dark red or green tooled leather overlay. I've made several corsets, and have that pretty well handled, but had never worked with leather before. While this method is particularly well-suited to a corset that looks like the armor in the film, it could be adapted for a wide variety of looks.
Step 1: Inspiration and Design
I've made a number of corsets over the years, mostly in Victorian or even Edwardian styles. I wanted this corset to be more evocative of the shape of the armor, so I went with an Elizabethan or Tudor style corset. This corset shape is much more conical, with tabs around the bottom, sort of like the tappets on the Rohirrim armor. It's only 6 panels, with no gussets.
I started with Butterick pattern B4254, took my measurements, and altered the pattern to fit me better than an “off the shelf” pattern. Here are some photos of the armor from the films - they feature prominent stitching, and repeating motifs of horses and stylized sun shapes. I incorporated both into my design, leaving the lattice lines about a half inch wide. I shaded in the negative spaces, to make it easier to see how the finished design would look.
Step 2: Transferring the Design, Cutting, and Tooling the Leather
The simplest way to transfer the design in this case was to simply cut the pattern out, including all the lattice, place it on the leather, and trace with a pencil. Of course, each pattern piece had to be done twice, once with the penciled side up, and again with the penciled side down, to create two mirror image pieces for each of the three pattern pieces.
There are fairly complete tutorials elsewhere that explain the process of tooling, so I won't go into too much detail here. First, the main design lines were cut with an exacto knife. I cased the leather by wiping over it with a damp sponge, and stamped in the border design and background. The border used a celtic design border stamp, and the background was done with a small pear-shaped camouflage stamp.
After the tooling was done, the negative spaces were cut out with a combination of an exacto knife for small areas, and a pair of heavy-duty leather shears for the longer lines.
Step 3: Building the Structure of the Corset
I cut out four pieces of each pattern piece (right side, left side, once for the outside, once for the lining) out of a sturdy brown twill and sewed it together. The actual hero-armor (remade in lighter materials for filming) was metal plate hammered into shape, then covered with a tooled and dyed leather overlay. To give this effect, I painted the twill with metallic latex house paint. (Ralph Lauren metallic gold, from the hardware store.) It actually looks pretty good.
Next, I sewed channels for the boning into the lining. I use purchased bias tape, although seam binding, ribbon, home-made bias tape, or even just strips of fabric would probably work just fine. The idea is to control where the boning goes, and protect both the decorative outer fabric and the wearer from the metal stays. The boning on the front and back panels is 1/2" spring steel, the side panel and center back uses doubled 1/4" spiral steel.
A friend very kindly drilled holes in some spring steel boning for me, so I could put on the brass swing latches that I wanted to use instead of a standard busk. I would NOT recommend this to anybody. If you must use swing latches, find ones that can be riveted to lacing bones (as in, the center to center measurement of the latches is equal to the center to center measurement on the bones that come with holes already in them.) Spring steel is extremely hard, and the guy who drilled them for me went through a drill bit for every two holes. So, 14 drill bits. And it wasn't pretty.
Another note on swing latches – there are latches that lock, and latches that don’t lock. You really, really want the locking latches for a corset. Any vertical movement will make the whole corset pop open up the front. I used the wrong latches, and had to insert a Velcro modesty panel into the front so that it stays in place properly.
Step 4: Finishing the Outer Layer
Next, I dyed the leather (Fiebing's Oxblood) and buffed it with a mahogany leather stain so that the tooling would show nicely.
Then I stitched the leather onto the gold-painted outer layer. I chose an orange heavy-duty nylon thread, because I really wanted those stitches to show.
Step 5: Attaching the Lining and Installing the Hardware
The outer layer was stitched to the lining at the front and back center seams, and the top and bottom edges were bound with more bias tape, taking care to hand-stitch the tape invisibly on the outside.
Grommets were installed up both sides of the back opening, and the swing latches installed up the center front. Grommets were also installed on the shoulder straps.
Leather cord is used to tie the shoulder straps and lace the back of the corset.
Step 6: Make the Rest of the Costume....
In this case, the rest of the costume included a raw silk chemise with long sleeves, and matching red leather boots.
I really love how this corset turned out, and will certainly be trying this method again!