Travel: Corsetry lessons at Gartmore House

Corsetry materials

Corsetry materials - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

During the Victorian era, Sir Walter Scott's romanticised portrait of Scottish highlander life attracted Queen Victoria and an English tourist boom.

Lack of international travel has once again led to a rediscovery of Scotland. In October I visited Gartmore House, near Stirling, a charity that hosts residential courses with full board. The classes range from watercolours (the countryside is stunning), to patchwork quilting, willow work or outdoor activities such as hill walking. 

I chose to learn how to make a corset or more accurately, a half-boned "stay", the precursor to corsets (which are the precursor to the bra). Stays were in use between Tudor times and the end of the 18th century. In Tudor times they were longer and more conical, with farthingales underneath but became curvier in the 18th century with a lower waist, under which a bum roll and pockets were added. The character of Claire in Outlander wears stays.

"The great thing about making corsets is that you don't need huge tables for cutting them out" said our tutor Alison Campbell (@crikeyaphrodite on instagram), by day a Bravissimo fitter, who can eyeball a cup-size at a 100 paces.

Kerstin Rodgers in corset

Kerstin Rodgers in corset - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

I'm far from a standard size, so her help and skill in adjusting the historical pattern by JP Ryan to my petite plus-size shape was invaluable. There are seven pieces to a stay and they are fitted together in a counter-intuitive way. This work is more akin to architecture and engineering (Howard Hughes designed a bra for Jane Russell) than dressmaking.

"Traditionally corset-makers were men as you need strong fingers to do the boning and to whip panels together with twine."

Historically stays were made of layers of densely-woven linen and a couple of layers of rag-paper (like watercolour paper). There is a thick "bone" down the front, called a "busk", made of wood. These were often carved and decorated gifts from lovers, as they were near the heart. The stays were never washed, but worn with a chemise underneath. Everybody wore them, even though they were expensive, young, old, rich, poor. It was considered to be slightly obscene not to wear them, like going without a bra. The phrase "loose women" derived from the uncorseted.        

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Today we use different materials: the four layers are calico, cotillon (a stiff thick fabric), a second layer of calico and finally the decorative top fabric. In the past baleen, the small bones from inside a whale's mouth, was used to bone the stay. Today the equivalent is "German Plastic".

Corsetry in action

Corsetry in action - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

Of her experience at Bravissimo, Alison said that the "standard" B cup is a rarity. We looked at photographs of actresses Barbara Windsor and Jayne Mansfield. Neither possessed particularly large breasts but had flaring ribs which made the contrast between their bust and the narrow waist more obvious. Alison has some trans women as clients who use corsets to mould a womanly shape: "For them it's all about the distance between the bottom of the ribs and the top of the pelvis-there isn't as much space."

The most famous corset-maker is Mr Pearl who has worked with haute-couture designers such as Galliano, McQueen, Westwood, Mugler. He makes the corsets for Dita Von Teese, the burlesque star. Daniel Day-Lewis based his quiet yet finicky lead role in Phantom Thread on Mr Pearl.

Gartmore House itself, built in 1793, with later additions in the Arts and Crafts style, is an oak-panelled manor with grand staircases painted white, so that the interior resembles a vintage wedding cake. The house is situated in an area known as the Trossachs around Loch Lomond where Scotland divides into Lowland and Highlands. 

Corsetry materials

Corsetry materials - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

In the middle of the course, the class went for a day trip to Loch Katrine. The autumnal colours, coral trees, rowan fruit, rusty ferns, bright red tug boats and glittering waters were a fantastic breather between days of staring at stitching. My fingers were bleeding from pin pricks by the end: "little sacrifices to the gods of sewing," suggested Alison.

The prudishness of Victorian times was not applicable to the 18th century: next spring there is a tuition on how to make a Victorian corset, a waist-clinching affair with steel bones.

In 2022 a five-night break including tuition, most materials and full board (breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea and supper) in a double room/two singles for £979 per person with a discount for people not attending the courses.


Corsetry materials

Corsetry materials - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers