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What is a Busk (and do I want one for my corset)?

A 'busk' is a piece of corset hardware consisting of two steel stays, one with metal loops, the other with pegs over which the loops fit when closed. This item is placed into the center front of a corset and (in theory) allows the wearer to get into and out of the corset without disturbing the laces. In practice, this works only if the laces are not pulled very tight. A busk adds a bit of historic detail, and versatility to a Victorian or Edwardian style corset. It also adds a certain amount of thickness and bumpy texture that may not be desirable for all corsets.

A Bit of History:

Originally, a busk was a piece of carved wood or bone that was set into a pocket in a corset front to make the front completely straight and ridged. Busks were nearly always used in Tudor and Elizabethan corsets, and in certain styles of the 17th and 18th, and the early 19th century.

Elaborately carved busks were a common gift from a young man to his sweetheart. Sailors carved bones with Scrimshaw designs as gifts for the girls back home. The bone or wood was usually an inch or so wide, and often triangular (like a cricket bat) in shape for strength. They were rounded at the bottom or came to a gentle point, and they had a hole or two in the top to accommodate the tie that held the busk into place. (This is the traditional explanation for why bras have those little bows in the center front - a holdover from the busk tie).

By the mid 19th century, the main function of a corset was to narrow the waist, so it was not important to have a straight center front. We don't see busks again until the mid 1860's when busks with loops and posts, much as the ones we use today, began to appear.
In 1873, as fashions became smooth below the waist the 'spoon busk' was invented. This was a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, combining the fastening features of the busk on a curved steel base that became wider at the bottom and 'dished' to pull the corset in over the tummy. This support, combined with the new steam shaped corsets, created a formidable garment.

The spoon busks available now are lacking the 'dish', but can be slightly curved to achieve the same purpose. The spoon busk was in fashion until 1889, but the straight busk continued in use up to the 20's. For more information on Corset history, consult 'Corsets and Crinolines' by Norah Waugh.

Busk 1
Figure 1

Busk 2
Figure 2

How to install a Busk:

For modern use, a busk can be used alone or combined with lacing, hook and eyes, or buckles, or, let your imagination loose and see what you can come up with. Hear is the method for setting a busk that I use - there are others, but I have found that this one works well for me.

Preparing the pattern: Your pattern must have a center front seam with 1/2" seam allowance. Your pattern should also have at least two layers of cloth for the center front sections as the busk is 'sandwiched' between these layers. The Loop side of the busk is on the right hand side, the pegs on the left.

First, place your center front fabric sections right side to right side as if you are preparing to stitch the front seams. Mark the right hand side as shown in figure 1 to allow for the loops to slide through slots in the seam. Stitch between the openings, back stitching at each stopping point. The slots should be snug when you slide the loops through.

Stitch the left hand side straight down with your 1/2 inch seam allowance. Press and turn. Do not trim the seam allowance as it serves to pad the busk. For the right hand side, slide the loops through the slots and place it as snug to the seam as possible. Stitch through both layers as close to the busk as possible to secure the busk and create the busk 'pocket', as shown in figure 2. Be careful! You are stitching next to a steel stay and can easily break a needle. Use protective eye ware.
For the left hand side, lay the loops over the left front in the position that they will be in on the finished corset. Mark where the pegs should be and use an awl to spread the threads enough for the pegs to be pushed through the top layer of fabric. Do not punch a hole unless you have to and then make it as small as possible. The busk should be "sandwiched" between the two layers now. Stitch as you did for the right side to complete the pocket and your busk should be in place. If you would like your busk to be a bit more sturdy, place a 1/2 inch stay in each pocket, behind the busk. You can also add a bit to the length of your busk by using a longer stay.

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