On “Failure”

This corset was a failure.

Ivory Flame by InaGlo Photography, 2012.
Ivory Flame by InaGlo Photography, 2012.

Failure is neither bad nor good. You don’t need to adopt a self-help-y approach of, “all the successful people have failed again and again before achieving their goals, therefore all failure is definitely a path to success!” because that isn’t true… But failure isn’t automatically a bad thing either. Because in so many ways, it isn’t the failure or success that matters, it’s what you do next.

I truly believe that context is everything. I believe in contingent truth, truths that are specific to the situation/environment. Perhaps they are indeed absolute truths, but we just haven’t all the measured variables before us to be able to see that. At any rate, for us to operate in the world we rely on context to inform everything we comprehend and do. Context colours, and in many ways you create your own context by how you interpret/approach things like “failure”.

So, the context of this piece, is that it was my first attempt at the Birds Wing corset and it came out wrong. I had been so careful in monitoring one particular area of construction (the part that I had anticipated being a challenge with this style), that I failed to notice a different issue synonymous with making the Birds Wing. I then realised my error, having already made great progress on finishing and embellishment, and upon checking further did indeed find the piece to be “flawed”. A failure.

But there are a few things about this failure that matter.

1) The obvious point. I learned what not to do next time. The first Birds Wing was always going to be a sacrifice to the Corset Gods, the fashion layer was made of silk offcuts, the strength layer was super-basic coutil, the construction was unknown… But I got to practice/test that construction, and got to assess other aspects of how the style worked, regardless of its being flawed. I laced the corset onto numerous people, learning each time about how the Birds Wing differs from body to body, and I discovered a quick way to make the flaw imperceptible to all but myself (which again, taught me more about the Birds Wing, and how it differs from other corsets).

2) I would have resigned it to the Abandoned pile of corsets, had it not been for a friend who insisted it was too pretty for that! This reminded me of something that I had begun learning when I took on the pop-up boutique project in 2012… Customers do not notice the “flaws” that professional corsetieres notice. Once I had learned that lesson, I resolved that the onus was on me as corsetmaker to ensure I kept my quality as high as ever (and to aim for higher still), but to do so with less anxiety. When you make something with your own hands, heart and mind you are attached to it. You desperately want to please the client, and it doesn’t matter how many times you do you still worry that you won’t. I’ve never (touch wood) had an unhappy client, but I still feel a thrill of worry when handing over a corset. Learning that this worry was internal, a result of my own feelings rather than a reflection on the actual *real* quality of my work, was a step towards greater confidence. You don’t learn that without “failing” and discovering that the world thinks your failure a success.

3) I’ve always had a rather breezy approach to failure and never worried about it (except where client work is concerned, of course). Therefore, I’m always willing to fail. And being willing to fail lets me be willing to try.

4) Sometimes the most rewarding ideas happen when you aren’t expecting them. This (temporarily) abandoned corset sat in my boutique for a while, until one day I suddenly thought to drape it with silks. I used offcuts (of beautiful georgettes, satins, and silks with metallic silver running through them) and hit upon an aesthetic which I completely adore and have since expanded on in different ways. I may never have so “wrapped up” a perfect corset, may never have landed upon this design that I love.

5) One is less precious over the failures, which teaches you to be less precious overall. They are garments of use, after all. This corset cannot be sold, and so I have sent it off for a few shoots and even allowed it to be dunked underwater for a fashion editorial. I’m looking forward to seeing if there are any signs of rust as time goes on and thus learning yet more lessons. Though who knows, perhaps I will tear it apart or give it away as a gift before then…

In the meantime, it has functioned as a beautiful addition to the portfolio; is one of the designs that I get the most positive feedback from; has unlocked different ideas and taught me my first lessons about the Birds Wing; and remains on display in my showroom as an example of the artistic “happy accident”.

Failure, in your own projects as a craftsperson, is to be welcomed and transformed.

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Multi-panel corsetry

Recently, a university student I had on work experience (Alycia, of Emiah Couture), decided to embark upon some multi-panel corsetry for a new collection, having been inspired by Pigeon and Mink (two pieces from the “In every cloud, in every tree” SS14 collection).

Alycia's first drapes, lovely 10 panel per side patterns.
Alycia’s first drapes, lovely 10 panel per side patterns.

Multi-panel corsetry is something we are starting to see more and more amongst independent corsetmakers. Being personally in love with the aesthetic, I can definitely see why! Having developed my own approach in a very intense way, it is nice to now see how others approach it, to see what does and doesn’t work for them. Sometimes, the community of enthusiasts and buyers (and even corsetieres) want to impose precise rules that every good corset should adhere to. As an aside, I think that basic rules are actually great for beginners, as you learn them in order to break them (if you so wish)… I even wrote an article for Foundations Revealed about this very thing (link in the sidebar). But for independent corsetieres, rules can be limiting.

I think a big part of this is that rules of construction don’t allow for individual physiology or preference. Corsetmaking can be a craft or art, like any other, and in other mediums we actively look for evidence of the maker’s hands… gestures in paint, details that betray their presence. It’s a question of manual handling and focus. My hands work best differently to others’ hands, and so on and so on. And we each focus on different aspects of corsetry, we have different priorities, strengths, weaknesses…

The Mink corset body (left) and a development from it, the Red Hearts corset-body (right).
The Mink corset body (left) and a development from it, the Red Hearts corset-body (right).

So the most wonderful thing about the trend for multi-panel corsetry, and teaching/taking interns in general, is that I get to see different approaches to my own. I personally think that any good teacher wishes to teach an ethos rather than a fact, an approach shared by my friend Julia (organiser of the Oxford Conference of Corsetry). I have no wish to create mini-Sparklewrens of my students. It’s dull. Repetition bores me into a fury.

Instead, I would hope to help them find their own interests. Likewise with other corsetieres, it seems a missed opportunity if someone takes an idea and attempts to replicate it note-for-note with no development. Replicate to learn, yes, but then fail at your replication (failure is wonderful) and find a different, personal way of succeeding. As an artist, I am happiest when I see a friend or peer whose work is *so good* or so different that I am incensed that they got there before me (well, as “incensed” as a polite English girl ever gets!) and spurred on to do better myself. The designers that jump on a trend just for the sake of it bore me slightly. The designers that jump on an idea and innovate, they inspire me.

Leah Axl in the “Pigeon” corset, by InaGlo Photography and Samantha Gardner MUA, 2013.

Along with Alycia (who has a brilliant natural understanding of form and is already innovating around the multi-panel idea with thoughts of angled seams and so on), I also gave a brief to a student called Poppy for her Final Major Project this year. The idea is to create a Sparklewren showpiece ensemble, something to fit within the brand and the “In every cloud, in every tree” collection, with reference to construction, colouring, patterning, etc. etc. One might assume this would result in a multi-panel corset? Nope, her eyes did go immediately to a beautiful antique corset housed at Snibston Discovery Museum, but not the Birds Wing, and her design is turning out completely her own. It’s wonderful to see, and has a reciprocal function in that I am now inspired to perhaps return to an idea or two from years ago that we had hit upon in discussing her project. Likewise, overseeing the FMP of my friend Rosie last year (of Rosie Red Corsetry & Couture) really fueled my desire to do more in the way of gowns than corsets alone, and her excellent selection of a taupe silk duchess ended up being so beautiful that I just had to work with the same fabric myself at a later point.

Leah Axl in “Seafoam” worn over the “Pigeon” corset, by InaGlo Photography and Samantha Gardner MUA, 2013.

We, the industry and the artform, we all benefit when we are encouraging, respectful, and generous. We all, naturally, have certain skills and knowledge that was hard won, skills that we need to protect in order to protect our businesses, and there is certainly an etiquette to things… For example, an email from a stranger or fellow designer with your name spelled wrong, no pleasantries, and no content other than, “tell me where you got X, tell me how you made Y” is never going to be received well. But those extreme and rude cases aside, I have never suffered for helping other corsetieres. Quite the opposite, I would say I have always benefited. Ideas are bounced around, you reach beyond your existing knowledge, everyone is inspired to do more.

It is simply a question of being respectful and creative with it. Every piece of encouragement I receive from corsetmaking friends I consider a gift, not a right, and every piece of knowledge I accrue (whether from studying an antique or contemporary piece) is a starting point, not a thing to be unthinkingly adopted wholesale. The end result is that your work becomes more and more your own, through these interactions with others. You develop your own principles and “truths”, whilst admiring those of others (even if you don’t agree with them). You perceive value even in the work you dislike, as it teaches you what you love. And often, you’re lucky enough to find numerous, limitless, examples of wonderful corsetmaking, each “perfectly imperfect” in their own right.

Contemporary study pieces from last year's inaugural Oxford Conference of Corsetry. Left to right: Royal Black Corsetry & Couture, Sparklewren, L'escarpolette.
Contemporary study pieces from last year’s inaugural Oxford Conference of Corsetry. Left to right: Royal Black Corsetry & Couture, Sparklewren, L’escarpolette.

Having rambled my way away from multi-panel corsetry, I must say I am greatly looking forward to this August’s Oxford Conference of Corsetry. We are now sold out on spaces having many returning guests from last year and a handful of lovely new people to meet as well. The sweetest part about last year, was that a few ladies were in tears by the time “goodbyes” were being said. No-one wanted to leave. Why would they? If you’ve found yourself surrounded by like-minds all weekend, with no censure, no unkindness, no Queen Bee hierarchy, and none of the needless bitchiness that dogs even the nicest community once proceedings go online, then of course you’re going to have a wonderful time. Many of our ladies have said that their experiences last year let them finally “feel like a corsetmaker”, and they’ve subsequently gone off to create new designs which are more and more distinctively their own.

Contemporary study pieces from last year's inaugural Oxford Conference of Corsetry, featuring pieces from all our facilitators/tutors: Clessidra Couture, CrikeyAphrodite!, Morua Designs, Pop Antique and Sparklewren. Things became even more interesting when the attendees got their corsets out also.
Contemporary study pieces from last year’s inaugural Oxford Conference of Corsetry, featuring pieces from all our facilitators/tutors: Clessidra Couture, CrikeyAphrodite!, Morua Designs, Pop Antique and Sparklewren. Things became even more interesting when the attendees got their corsets out also.

I believe the secret of it is this… If you give someone “permission” to do the thing they are afraid of doing (attempting a particular style, being inspired by something you’ve done, embarking on a big project), they will generally excel and surprise you with how well they do. What’s more, they will do it uniquely. So I would like to see more multi-panel corsetry, whether inspired by my work, the original Birds Wing, or otherwise. But I would hope for it to be made new again. For it to be innovative. Surprising. Not a Birds-Wing-lite, but something entirely different.

What is the “Birds Wing”?

The Bird’s Wing corset is an unique style from Sparklewren, seen no-where else in contemporary corsetry and as inspired by an antique of the same name…

Leah Axl by InaGlo Photography and Samantha Gardner MUA, 2013. From the “In every cloud, in every tree” collection.

The primary feature of the Birds Wing style, is a surfeit of panels and seams. Whilst most contemporary corsetry makes use of somewhere between 4 and 6 panels per side (occasionally 7), the Birds Wing as I have developed it generally has at least 14. I have also been working on less dramatic versions with 10 panels per side (such as the Goldcrest underbust style), but the particular magic of the Birds Wing really happens at the higher numbers.

Leah Axl by InaGlo Photography and Samantha Gardner MUA, 2013. From the “In every cloud, in every tree” collection.

Having very many panels is not the end of the story though. Indeed, multi-panel corsetry (excuse the term, *all* corsetry is multi-panel really) is something of a blossoming trend and it is a surprise it had not already been revisited by us modern makers. There is a good reason for that though… it is very hard to do well.

It isn’t simply a high number of panels that makes a Birds Wing. My approach to multi-panel corsetry has been to be very inspired by the antique which started the whole idea (a 1900s piece with spoon busk, longline hip, *very* mild shaping, and 21 panels per side…), by considering constructions which break or bend many of the usual corsetry rules. In doing so, I compared and contrasted 16 different fabric/seam combinations (each one works subtly differently), tested and sourced the most appropriate steels and busks, developed techniques, commissioned specially-made equipment, sewed a thousand seams in a very particular way, refined patterning at least 10 times over (creating entirely new patterns in the process), and assessed the results on dozens of lovely ladies (and a couple of willing men). This process is still ongoing, one is never finished refining their techniques, but it is through that process that I now have my preferred approaches and aesthetics. I do not yet know if my construction is actually the same as was used on the antique, but I hope to schedule a study date sometime this year to find out.

The Mink corset-body, with sunlight shining through it.
The Mink corset-body, with sunlight shining through it.

The most important point of a Birds Wing, is that it is about a lightness of touch. It may visually become the most complex piece imaginable, replete with layers of couture embellishment and textures, perhaps even entirely obscured beneath them… But the actual construction, the heart of the piece, must be as simple as it is possible to be.

Cassie Rae Wardle by InaGlo Photograpy, 2013.
Cassie Rae Wardle by InaGlo Photograpy, 2013.

This simplicity, however, is excessively difficult to master, requiring concentration, patience (or, in my case, impatience to become good at it), practice and more practice.

A gorgeous client in her trial-run Phoenix corset.
A gorgeous client in her trial-run Phoenix corset.

The Birds Wing has, of course, its triumphs and its limitations.

Despite its dramatic silhouette on the clients seen above and below, it is not (currently) possible to create a more “nipped” waist reduction than that shown. No matter how wonderful and flexible the Birds Wing is, it is still best suited to those who prefer either a gentle waist shape or a vaguely conical rib. For a very nipped shape or a sharp hipspring or ribspring (ie: a large circumferential difference within a very short vertical distance), I tend to favour a more classic 6 panel pattern and a more ordinary construction (though I still tend to do it in a less-than-ordinary way, opting for a fully-boned aesthetic which requires dozens of steels and many hours work).

The success of the Birds Wing, however, is in its peculiar lightness and particular construction. Each seam acts as a hinge, allowing the corset to flex to the body in a very subtle way. Ie: the body inside the corset controls the outward appearance of the corset to a greater degree than ever before. This can contribute to comfort, longevity of the corset (it is doing less “work” in forcing your body into a shape), and a flexible fit. If two individuals with the same measures try on the same corset, one may find that her hips push it into a broad shape whilst the other may find her hips push it backwards into an almost Edwardian aesthetic. The Birds Wing, being so made, allows for this. It is also great as a longterm, luxury addition to one’s wardrobe, as the lack of a definitive side seam means the corset can (if needed) be worn with a very large lacing gap at back and still retain beautiful curve that wraps around the body. That is to say, weight gain and loss is less of an issue with the Birds Wing. Where most couture items can be almost imperceptibly altered to fit as time goes on, corsetry with its precision and negative ease (waist reduction) does not really appreciate this. Making the flexible fit of the Birds Wing a wonderful thing.

Many ladies in their Phoenix corsets, demonstrating the subtlety of flex and fit which the Birds Wing style affords.
Many ladies in their Phoenix corsets, demonstrating the subtlety of flex and fit which the Birds Wing style affords.

Of course, the Birds Wing and its studies has given rise to other ideas too… Other antique-inspired pieces which make use of the same construction and, more recently, a very small variation which could prove very fiddly or very wonderful! Time will tell…

Test seams, at which we hit upon a potential variant for the Birds Wing.
Test seams, at which we hit upon a potential variant for the Birds Wing.

We happened upon this variant when I was stitching together off-cuts of coutil (one must practice these seams in the appropriate fabric, since fabric choice has such an impact on how they stitch and the end result), to teach a former intern how it’s done. If you look to the right of the image above, you will see a triangular shape beneath two seams. It looks almost like a gore, but is in fact a full-length vertical panel.

Mink, on the left. Red Hearts, on the right.
Mink, on the left. Red Hearts, on the right.

I then tweaked an existing Birds Wing corset-body pattern and created a design to test the idea (the Red Hearts corset, above). It needs tweaking further, but could prove an interesting and effective way of simplifying the construction further whilst still retaining that beautiful conical rib and rounded hip of the style. And I felt it reminded me of the flared primary feathers of a bird coming in to land. Seams that flare out over the hips are, I feel, very beautiful.

Tjärn

My beautiful client in her bespoke Tjärn corset. Elle sent me many inspiration images and we discussed ideas a lot, looking through drawings from Swedish fairytales, paintings of nymphs from John William Waterhouse, and photographs of antique corsets for detail inspirations. In the end, we focused the piece around the notion of “dark waters”, uncertainty, depth, danger… We found we were both drawn to the idea of Sirens, so that became a starting point, until the tjärns themselves took over. I wanted it to be at home within the imagery Elle had sent me as inspiration, so the corset was all about tone, texture and layering, with silk satin that has been scrubbed and painted before the embellishment of lace, tulle and beading was worked. I adore it, and Elle does too. 

 

 

We will next be collaborating on a shy and delicate sister piece to Tjärn, something more pale and muted. 

Daydreaming through the creation of Elle’s corset was also especially lovely, as I was reminded of Dock Tarn in the Lake District. It is only a tiny place and not so dark or mysterious or blocked in by forest as the tjärns of our inspiration… but it is a place I love and hope to visit again. 

Lace

This is my favourite lace design, this time in off-white (I’ve previously used it in pale pink, as seen on the Cloud and Sunshine gowns, and others). It is so beautiful it needs very little fuss to make a gorgeous bridal/lingerie capelet as shown… But it is also so intricate and so well made that it functions perfectly when carefully cut into motifs for hand appliqué. Delicious. 

The above shows a Little Bird corset (Birds Wing underbust) with closed front. 

Broken Branches

The “Twig” corset is a work in progress, commissioned by a model of the same name.

For this piece, I created an entirely new pattern inspired by an Edwardian corset (first image below, copyright of Leicestershire County Council), making use of the construction methods previously developed for the Birds Wing. The first step was to create an unusual pattern, which I did in my usual manner. I will be talking about this technique more, with particular reference to the Birds Wing, at this August’s Oxford Conference of Corsetry. A toile was then created from a light though strong coutil (in Dove-grey, one of my favourites, shown below before the busk was inserted) so that we could assess fit, function and shaping on the lady herself.

The whole process of such a design is naturally more time-consuming than standard corsetry, there are often more steps required to get to the deliciously refined end point… but that is how I create interesting things. The Sparklewren approach is very much about innovation and craftsmanship, and my best work is invariably made when I have free-rein and am pushing the boundaries of my knowledge and skill. I believe this is why so many of my clients give me a basic brief and then trust my judgement, as they have seen the results it produces. My aesthetic is not everyones’ cup of tea, but if you love what I’ve done so far you can feel safe that you’ll love the piece I make for you… After all, these is no benefit to Sparklewren if my clients are unhappy! My approach is all about internalising your preferences with reference to imagery, inspirations, existing Sparklewren designs, etc., so that the piece I create is an expression of those things, as filtered through the brand. And of course, I keep in touch with clients as the design develops, which allows us both to ensure we’re happy at every step of the way.

I certainly believe that whoever you work with on bespoke pieces, it is most fruitful to be mindful of their best working practices. Some of us do well with tightly controlled designs, right down to the exact colour code for the thread, whilst others do best with freedom. I have had a few commissions where every single detail was tightly controlled and whilst such pieces are satisfying in their own way they aren’t the best fit for me as a craftsperson… As soon as I become a pair of hands for hire, as soon as my imagination is disengaged, I lose interest. This is why I focus on the elaborate side of things, and why I am hoping to soon hire my first assistant at Sparklewren, to help out on the commissions that are a little less bonkers (the classic pieces, and so on). I believe it is important to, as far as possible, marry your work tasks to your natural aptitudes rather than force yourself to be all things or to fit into a box that doesn’t suit.

Some do well with tight deadlines, whilst others are frozen by them. I personally do better with a firm due date to work towards, but one that is quite distant so that I’ve time for the ideas to generate naturally (and to wrap up current orders, of course). Knowing this about myself, I schedule commissions on the basis that they will take at least 10 weeks, but I also try to encourage the client to give me firm deadlines where-ever possible (an event to work towards, bridal, etc. etc.). Ultimately schedules can and do change for both parties (designer and client), but having that framework helps. Other corsetmakers will be different though and I do think it’s worth being aware of these things. It is very easy for any one of us to say how things *should* be done, to attempt some sort of industry-wide rule book, but I think that’s a foolish move. You will certainly never see me publicly criticising another brand or artist’s manner of working as it is nothing to do with me. They will have their own T&Cs, their own preferred ways of working, their own timeframes, their own production methods… Try to trust that they have these things for a reason.

Back to “Twig”. Sloping diagonal seams and a light use of steel gave a toile with beautifully mild shaping and interesting lines, and the pattern has since been refined for the final corset. The final piece is being created in “mink” coutil with black embellishment of silk tulle, lace and so on, to reference visions of dark branches cutting through hazy skies. You can see in the last picture, that I have used black thread also, as I wish to emphasise those sloping lines. 

Dark Haze

I adore this set of images from 2013. The haziness, the blurs, the uncertainty of analogue photography… Utterly beautiful. This is the Moth corset that I created for Karolina. Paired with her lingerie designs and modeled by her great friend Twig, the result is stunning. There is a certain nonchalance to it all, which I love. One should not become too precious over things. I create heirloom garments to be treasured, naturally, but also to be used.

Photography: Caroline Bonarde Ucci
Corset: Sparklewren
Lingerie: Karolina Laskowska
Model: Twig
Make-up and Hair: Jade Crean

Recent commissions

The Tjärn corset…

 

Classic black underbusts…

 

And others in progress…

Of all the above, only one was for a UK client. I love that corsetry connects me with so many interesting people that I would otherwise never meet.