Bones & Boning, 1894

"With any attempt to wear a very close-fitting unboned bodice, it is soon evident that the movements of the arms and shoulders lift the waist out of place and as there is no weight or tension to draw it back again, it remains up, and the surplus length thus created forms itself into a mass of fine wrinkles across each piece between the seams. The stitching of the seams also yields to the strain of the figure, as there is not downward strain to counteract it, and every stitch draws slightly apart, increasing the wrinkling in the same proportion as the lengths of the seams are shortened. Bones are used in bodices to obviate this. The use of the bones is therefore to keep the length of each seam smooth and to slightly stiffen it, that the waist may remain in its right place and the bodice sit close to the figure without wrinkling. They also serve to keep the lower part (sometimes called the basque) of short (pointed or round) bodices from curling up and sewn under the buttons, keep the fronts smooth and the points of the bodice from rising up. They do not, as a rule, improve the appearance of a bodice that fits imperfectly and should not be relied upon to remedy defects, which they are more likely to accentuate, especially if these take the form of seams sprung out sharply from the waist or badly turned there in machining. With and eyes (edge to edge) or with lacings they stiffen the bodice edges so that they can be drawn closely together and set smoothly down the figure, instead of drawing apart between each hook and eye or each pair of eyelet holes, as unstiffened edge would do. The bone or substitute should be thin, not to take up much room inside the bodice; flexible, that it may not be easily bent out of shape, but if turned up will spring back again; and above all, strong, fine in grain and cut exactly with the fibre, that it may not easily snap. Brittle bones are a source of great annoyance.

Whalebone unites in itself all the good qualities above enumerated and is therefore the standard bone used in dressmaking.

It was at one time a fashion to join the bodice seams ins such a way as to bring the turnings outside, thus leaving the inside quite neat, and to finish on the face by pressing the seam open and hemming a ribbon down each side to entirely conceal the turnings. To keep all smooth, a length of whalebone was tacked to top and bottom of the seam, outside the dress but under the ribbon. This was when the curved seams only were piped or corded, and a survival of it may yet be traced in the habit of fixing the under-arm seam with the turnings outside for trying on, which many dressmakers still keep. In time people tired of the bone outside the bodice; it therefore went inside and for long time was stitched between the turnings, which were not then laid open, but finished fourfold, the two stuffs and two linings being overcast together with the bones between them, as may still be seen in the work of old-fashioned country dressmakers, who cling tenaciously to the old rule and enclose the bones in the darts, where in time they push through to the outside of the bodice and ruin it utterly. The method answered well enough with the short-waisted bodice of the period, as now with any bodice not extending below the waist (though such thick seams are clumsy and apt to show through if the fit is close); but where there is a basque extending below the waist, if only for a few inches, the curve of the seam presses the ends of the bones forwards, and they soon make their way through the outside material and lining. They are now therefore always put quite inside the seams, and both ends left loose for from one-half to three-quarters of an inch, that the push of the bone may be on the ribbon in which it is encased and not against the bodice itself.

In high-class work a strong narrow ribbon (galloon, silk binding or for very delicate fabrics good sarcenet ribbon) is made into casings for the bones. These should reach about as high as the level of the bust at all seams; it is not wise to carry them higher at back or front, where the curves of the figure begin to recede; but, if preferred, they may be carried up to within two inches of the side level on the two straight seams under the arms. The end of the ribbon should be turned over and sewn down each side for a full inch, thus forming a little pocket, against the top of which the bone presses. It is then finely herringboned, cross-stitched or hemmed down each side to the turnings only of the seams, an extra inch of fullness being allowed in the length, which is to be eased on at the waist and for about two inches above and below it. The sewing-in should be stopped about three-quarters of an inch short of the top of the casing, the pocket being left free and not fastened to the bodice in any way, and the same at the bottom end, which is afterwards to be turned up over the end of the bone and stitched to it to keep it from pressing down to the edge of the bodice and pushing against it.

If the ribbon is folded exactly down the length and the fold pinched along, it assists the worker to keep the centre of the casing exactly on the seam; and if any difficulty is experienced in regulating the quantity of fullness about the waist, the edges of the casings at that part may be whipped along and drawn up into the required length first, the whipping thread to be drawn out after the sewing is done. The rules of extra fullness at the waist and above and below it and of loose ends, must be carried out, whether casings or cased bones are used. For the latter, the surplus fullness of the casing should be pushed towards the waist and eased on there and a little above and below it. The rest of the casing should be cross-stitched, herring-boned or hemmed down to the seam without strain, the dress being held over the hand to keep the bones rounded at the waist while the stitching is done. This certainly causes the material to get more handling than the use of bone casings, as the latter can be stitched in with bodice lying on the knee or table, the turnings only being held in the fingers, whilst with cased bones it is necessary to hold each seam on the hand and strain it. With pile fabrics, or those easily crushed or soiled, this is a serious consideration and is, no doubt, the reason cased bones, steels etc. are considered to belong to an inferior class of work. The double casing, too, makes ain increase of bulk very slight, but taken into account by particular wearers.

The strips of whalebone require cutting into suitable lengths for use (one half-inch longer than the casing after the latter has been sewn in, which has shortened it to the extent of the quantity fulled at the waist, and turned over at the ends); the ends are rounded and scarped smooth and a little hole pierced in each, which is done either with the point of a pair of scissors or a hot knitting needle; or, in large establishments, with a punch, which stamps out a clear hole; those bought in dozens or sets are generally already rounded and pierced.

The bones being prepared, are slipped up between the casing and the seam, the top ends into the little pockets, where they are fastened by a "fan" of five or seven stitches, the half inch extra length left on the bottom of the casing being turned up under each bone and securely sewn to it. This presses the length of the bone up into that part of the ribbon which had been eased at the waist and slightly rounds it there. They should then be gently bent to the shape they will take when the bodice is on, the bend being a very little above the waist, that it may set the dress well down as it comes to the figure. Some workers adopt the plan of soaking the bones in hot water and shaping them, whilst softened, to the curves of the figure. Either plan prevents straining of the seams until the bones have shaped themselves to the body of the wearer. The upper and lower ends should also be slightly bent inward, to prevent them from showing through the outside stuff, as they are apt to do if this slight precaution has not been taken.

Fans of stitches are ornamental as well as useful and are worked in thick, bright silk.

Finishing boning: fans of stitches to secure the ends of bones to casings

They are used for fastening the ends of bones to the casings etc. The silk is first firmly fastened on at the back of the casing and then brought through the hole in the bone to the face; the longest centre-stitch is first made and then sides of the fan worked either from the bottom upwards or the top downwards to meet it, the second side being carefully made to match the first, and all the stitches put in from the face of the doubled casing and brought back the hole on the bone. The fastening-off should be at the back.

For perfectly plain bodices there should be a bone at every seam, with an extra one to each front (the casing sewn to the lining only) between the first seam and back dart [side seam and second front dart] and one under the buttons also.

The question of deciding between bones or no bones in the centre seam of the back and the two curved seams is one that continually presents itself in different aspects, owing to changes of fashion. When the back basque of the bodice is box-pleated, full in any way, or has a lapped centre seam and is not sewn together much below the waist, it is wiser to stop the bones at the waist, or just sufficiently below it to keep the seams smooth. Pointed bodices are apt to curl up, and some dressmakers simplify this by using a triangular weight instead of a bone for the centre back seam, the curved seams being boned. The weight is very useful for short points where there is no centre back seam, as in Eton jackets etc.. The curved seams are likely to pull after boning, if the line of curve is one that begins to round immediately above the waist - the straight bone does not lie to it and cannot be manipulated; in that case boning must be dispensed with.

Many wearers, especially stout ones, find the front points of the bodice curl up and stay up in wear; this is remedied by sewing a strong piece of elastic to the bone, one end at the point and the other end to the bone again, nearly as high as the waist. The elastic should be about half an inch shorter than the bone, to curve it in a little, and when the pressure of the figure comes against it, the point is kept firmly down. The elastic does not answer for the back point; owing to the finishing of the back of the skirt at the waist there is nothing firm to press it out and it remains bent.

For long bodices the bones, whether in casings or ready cased, end about four or five inches below the waist, and it is essential that the lower ends (as well as the upper) should be free from the seam for at least half an inch, to save the appearance of strain upon it.

The fact that whalebone is expensive (averaging one shilling per yard) and likely to become more so, has led to the use of many substitutes, some of which lack one or other of the good qualities possessed by whalebone. These substitutes are both natural and artificial - including horn, fins, quills, stiffened horse-hair, cane, vegetable fibre, vulcanite, steel, platinum etc. - and are affected in various ways, according to their nature, by the natural warmth and moisture. Some are softened and lose their spring, and the fibres of other separate and fall apart; unprotected steels rust, or rather, this was at one time the risk the dressmaker had to face when trying a new invention. Great attention is now given to these points by the manufacturers, and lack of spring is the chief defect of all the manufactured substitutes. There has arisen of late years the idea that two or more narrow strips of bone places side by side in the seam give more spring with less danger of breakage than single bones, and these "twin" steels and bones are to be obtained both covered and uncovered. Corrugating the surface is considered to give the same advantage. Whalebone or baleine is sold in lengths of from half a yard upwards, at from two pence to sixpence per length; it may also be bought ready cased in silk in graduated sets or dozens, prices varying with quality. French horn in its best qualities is presumably a natural production and sold in sets of graduated lengths (seven to inches) or in dozen-bundles at from sixpence per bundle upwards. It can also be bought in half-yard lengths, in light or dark colours, at from three-halfpence per length and in these lengths and in the cheaper qualities is manifestly artificial.

Cased steels of various makes (the platinum-cased steels are included under this head) are now very well made; they are thin and flexible, the ends rounded and protected by shields and the whole cased in double or tubular ribbon ready to be sewn in; they are sold in sets graduated in lengths, or in bundles of twelve, at prices ranging from four pence-halfpenny per set or bundle upwards; a little more length on the ribbon casing would be an advantage, as there is not sufficient to ease it well at the waist. Edge-bones (very narrow steels, to be used for the front edges of dresses, fastening edge to edge, lacing or otherwise) belong to this class and should be chosen as thin and flexible as possible.

Antarctic bone is a recent invention and consists of short split lengths of whalebone bound together with cotton to make a continuous length; it is sold at from five pence to sixpence the yard.

Feather-bone is of the same class - quills bound together with cotton to make a continuous length also - as is to be bought for four pence-halfpenny the yard.

Fin-bone is presumably fins similarly prepared, and there are also the "Coraline" dress stiffener, "Flexyle", "Corrubone" and others too numerous to mention."

Elements of Dressmaking, 1894

For further information on 1890s clothing, see our article  THE NEW WOMAN - Fashions in the 1890s.

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