Making Slayer: Leather Corsets Are Jerks

Making Slayer: Leather Corsets Are Jerks

I’ve only made corset-type bodices a few times before. I think my Demon Hunter from Diablo III is the only leather corset-y thing I’ve had to produce — and that wasn’t boned, busked, or even laced like a proper corset.

So, as is tradition, I decided to do the hardest possible thing for Slayer: A garment leather corset with a metal busk, spiral steel boning, grommet lacing — oh, and decorative lining — all without working from a traditional pattern or instructions.

I’ve worn corsets to have a good understanding of how they’re supposed to work. I checked out the sole steel-boned corset I own for Ren Faire wear to see how they went about making the thing, and I quickly realized I had to work entirely on my own. The corset for Slayer isn’t supposed to be a corset in the first place, so this thing needed fully original patterning and design.

For starters, I made the undershirt to go under the corset. I did this so that I could gauge how to shape the bodice over it.

Just kidding — I made the shirt first just so I could procrastinate starting the corset for another week.

This was a cutsew tip I whipped up with some difficulty since I couldn’t decide how much I wanted the neckline to plunge. I eventually decided on this after realizing I could stretch the neckline however I wanted it to lay, and also that I didn’t want to buy more fabric to remake the top with less of a plunge.

It ended up working out just fine.

I wanted the chest a bit bare so that there would be a gap between the leather armor and the decorative neckerchief I plan to make. Neckerchiefs aren’t exactly used in World of Warcraft, but they’re used for many traditional armor builds. I used one for my full leather Nightingale Armor from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, so I decided to use one here too. They’re just nice to wear with sweaty armor and help prevent friction burns and other dumb minor injuries. More on that later when I actually make the thing.

The actual corset was drafted with math and paper grocery bags. I didn’t feel like taping a ton of notebook paper together, so a grocery bag gave me a good drafting material. After I had a working pattern, I traced and cut it out of muslin and sewed it up to try on.

I made some slight adjustments to the muslin and paper patterns in tandem to maintain a good master pattern on paper in case I did anything wrong with the muslin copy. I decided to open the back quite a lot to show the lacing more than I had done initially after deciding, vaguely, to do “something different” with the lacing style.

The final muslin mock up looked good on the dressform, so I decided to move forward with cutting actual materials for the corset.

The muslin was ironed flat, trimmed to make it more symmetrical, and served as my new master pattern. I try to keep masters in muslin because they keep better than paper and can easily be folded away and ironed out if I ever need them again.

I cut a second copy out of muslin for an additional lining support layer, and then a copy from the patterned lining. I used a “premium” quilting cotton that really just means it has a higher thread count than the cheaper, flimsier stuff. It was also on sale at the time and happened to look super cool.

I actually did a lot more with this pattern than it seems, carefully trying to line the thing up for SOME symmetry of the design and trying to keep the rows of the design parallel. It resulted in a neater lining pattern than randomly laying out and cutting the pattern pieces, for sure, and only used about 1 yard of material. A large square is left, which I can use for bag lining to match the costume.

Funny thing: no one will really see the decorative lining. All this extra work is the sort of thing I do to make my costumes as complete and authentic as possible. I could have just sewed in some twill tape to hold the boning and called it a day, but instead I spent an extra work day on some sweet lining. It was worth it.

From here I sat down with the master muslin pattern and worked out how to do the leather design on half of it. Since the master halves of the corset are symmetrical, I was free to hack up one half and preserve the other half to act as a lining master.

I marked out the colors each panel piece should be cut from for my own sanity in case of sleepiness. I also later labeled these pieces with panel names and ordered numbers.

I mean, I have a cat. She’s known to just grab random things I leave on the floor. Since I would be leaving the pattern on the floor as I worked with it for a few days to help keep a visual reference while I sewed the leather parts up, I wanted to keep track of my pieces and put them back in order if they happened to move.

Which they definitely did do.

I traced all the pieces on the back, “fuzzy” side of the garment hides with a marking pen. I used metallic for the black hide and a Copic multiliner pen for the red hide. I prefer to use Copic or Micron pens on non-black garment leather because they tend to not bleed when working with them. I have yet to have Copic multiliner markings bleed through lining while sweating in leather. I mean, I went through all the trouble of making a decorative lining, so why use a pen that might mess it up?

Whatever you do, don’t use normal ballpoint or gel pens for things like this. They bleed — a lot. Definitely don’t use them on tooling leather that you plan to dye because the ink will get all over your hands and everything else.

Anyway, I cut up the leather using heavy duty shears and kept track of my pieces by piling them onto the pattern as I worked. I also wrote the coded labels on the backs of every piece to keep them ordered and properly oriented for sewing. I tend to work through to wanting to pass out from exhaustion, so this sort of extra labeling work has saved me from sewing pieces upside-down.

After cutting everything out, I gave every piece a good finished edge with bordeaux Edgeflex from Tandy. I only needed to apply it to the “bottom” edges of the red pieces that were layered on top of the piece beneath them. This was not a necessary step, yet again, but is just something that gives a totally finished look to leather. I do not skip small steps to save time when I want to make a high-quality piece.

I assembled the pieces and constantly checked them against each other, making sure lines would match up across the panels left and right, above and below. I also made sure that the leather continued to match the lining since leather is thicker than cloth, and I wasn’t allowing as much of a seam allowance to account for the extra surface area consumed by the leather seam allowance being flattened behind the pieces.

In simpler terms, fabric is like paper and leather is like card stock. Leather is harder to bend due its thickness, similar to card stock, so more surface area is needed to join the pieces compared to the crisp folds fabric is capable of making.

On the right photo above, you can see the strip under the black is separate. This is the piece that I needed to edge with the bronze kidskin. I cut 1″ wide strips of kidskin, then carefully folded and hammered a crease into the kidskin to give myself a good edge line to work with. I sandwiched the red leather between the folded kidskin and sewed it down onto the top and bottom (black and red) leather panels of the corset.

My dudes, if you think sewing through eight layers of garment leather by machine is easy, it’s not.

It’s definitely not.

I broke two leather needles and even broke a third but found a way to just force the stupid thing to punch through leather and brute force its way to the end of the project. In many places I had to manually step and punch the needle through the layers, slamming the needle through the thick layers by turning the sewing machine wheel as hard and as quickly as I could with my hand. In other places, I had to carefully skip over too-thick layers and continue sewing past them, but close enough to not create a glaring error in sewing. It’s something you can only see when closely examining the corset.

Yeah, no wonder why my hands are ruined from years of costuming.

A lot of profanity later, and I finished the leather halves. The next step was joining the leather to the lining pieces. When sewing along the tab side of the busk at the center front line, I marked where I needed to keep spaces open to shove them through. I don’t really have photos of this step since it was just sandwiching the fabric with the leather and sewing around the outside, but keeping the entire bottom open. I also sewed the straps into the top of the bodice at this time by adding them into the layer sandwich.

I turned the fabric right side out, then topstitched around the lining seams to give the leather a nice clean edge. The photo on the left below is right after turning the piece right side out, before topstitching. You can see how flimsy it looks before any finishing work. I added the busk (front closure) pieces and topstitched to the side of them to keep them in place.

The next step was adding the rest of the hardware. I sewed boning channels into the corset, all the way through every layer but the metallic kidskin. This was the best solution I came up with to keep the metallic layered, dimensional, and unmarred by stitching. It did, however, mean I had to again brute force my way through the boning channels, shoving the little shits through the passages with pliers. I carefully manipulated the fabric lining with my fingertips to better open up a direct pathway for the boning, pinching off the unstitched gaping openings behind the metallic hide so the boning wouldn’t wiggle out while trying to also shove the boning by the catching layers of leather inside the piece.

It was kind of a nightmare. But it eventually worked out. I would rather have difficulty with placement than have a technique completely not work out.

The hilarious thing is that I didn’t even really need the boning. The red leather is plenty strong to support itself without it (3.5oz), but the black garment leather (1.5oz) is a lot thinner than the red. I didn’t want it to look slouchy or possibly catch on the breastplate I will be wearing over it, so I opted to add boning. I also hoped boning would support the longer front bottom points on the princess (oblique – between front and side) seams. Since I will be able to sit in this costume, I wanted to have some insurance to keep the leather in place when I stand back up. It’ll look better in photos and help prevent the leather from creasing in weird ways.

Because I always need that little extra in everything I make, I wanted to do my lacing a bit differently from the traditional corset style. I couldn’t find any examples of what I was looking for, so I made a functional test swatch out of my materials.

Since the black leather is the thinnest, I knew that if it would hold the grommets and not rip under stress, it would work on my finished, better reinforced corset layers. Sure enough, stepping on half of the swatch and pulling as hard as I could on the other was totally fine.

Of course I won’t be cinching the thing SUPER tightly under the costume, but it’s good to know it will hold up to a lot of stress.

I also really liked the pattern the lacing made, so I went forward with the staggered grommet pattern on the actual corset. Definitely test your materials on swatches before using them on your actual finished pieces when it takes this much money and effort to make them. The last thing you need is for your hardware to suck and break apart or do really dumb things to your finished piece.

Fortunately, everything was totally fine with the swatch, and totally fine in the finished piece.

I worked on one colored section at a time, as you can see above. The staggered pattern was spread out and adjusted slightly as I moved between the layers to keep it nice and even without messing up the metallic leather. I also added two grommets to the end of each strap so they could be tied to the corset back grommets and adjusted for length as needed.

Finally, I hammered the hell out of the leather around the busk pieces to help them close more easily. Since there are a lot of layers going on at the busk, I have to make sure the leather doesn’t slide around and make the design not meet perfectly symmetrically. Once I put them in place with it on, though, they stay in place.

Since my dressform is nowhere near my size, trying on the finished piece is the only way for me to know if I made the thing to fit or not. My biggest worry was having the chest too big so it would look sloppy or making the back too open (after intentionally making the opening larger for lacing detail) and being unable to close it up enough to look like an actual corset.

This is what the corset looked like the first time I tried it on, back not yet cinched up and still looking loose. This was taken after moving the strap assembly and tying them onto the grommets instead of incorporating them into the lacing (they slid around too much, so I went with the tie method as mentioned above).

It is difficult to lace up a corset by myself, but I managed to get everything nice and tight but the top. Since all that is going under armor, I know it’ll look fine even if I won’t have help getting into costume. Always prepare for a worst-case scenario! To note, I am still debating adding a red panel behind the lacing to help it stand out, so I haven’t added it just yet. I want to finish other pieces and make sure I have enough of the red leather to do it, for one thing. Check on other progress blogs to see which route I end up taking with the back of the corset.

After cinching the back, everything fit perfectly. The front bottom points smoothed out, the straps fit just right, and the bust was appropriately filled out. I still don’t know how I did it, really, other than just saying I kept checking and rechecking measurements and math when reducing things for cinching in of the corset. Also leather stretches a bit, so I’m sure that helps with the overall aesthetic.

I am able to sit in the corset and even bend around because of the spring steel boning! Typically corsets use a more solid type of steel boning at the front and back center channels, but I wanted this to remain somewhat flexible and did not use it in this corset. If you’re making a corset for similar use, I suggest the same for you. If you’re not using leather, just add stiffer fabrics to your lining sandwich layers for the same level of stability!

I still need to weather and antique this corset, but I won’t be doing that until ALL of the costume pieces are finished. It’s a technique that requires me to do all of the steps at the same time on every piece so they’ll match. Still, this looks amazing for being so crisp and clean! Just wait until I kick it around Halaa for a few days.

An excellent start to Slayer and a taste of things to come.