It began with the Birds Wing.
The Birds Wing was an antique-inspired design that helped give rise to the recent trend for multi-panel corsetry. It was luscious and challenging in equal measure, teaching me about corsetmaking in ever greater detail. Why the past tense? Because I have now retired our version of the Birds Wing, having been drawn in a new (old!) direction, using both antique patterns and our own cuts to create corsets which merge the best of my two favourite approaches to corsetry: the Birds Wing seam construction, combined with the fully-boned aesthetic.
Why does does it matter how I make my corsets? Well, it affects our toiles. Toiles being, for those new to bespoke corsetry, a rough and quickly made corset created to check and improve the fit of the client's bespoke pattern. Toiles are generally made very quickly indeed, with minimal expense in both time and material costs.
I have always made toiles in coutil, which many would consider a bit excessive. Using expensive coutil for something you just end up throwing away! But on the occasions when I've tried toiling with canvas or calico I just haven't been happy enough with the results. Coutil, by contrast, would let me see where the final corset was going. You would have to account for small differences, between the toile and final corset. For example, if the final corset is going to be in spot broche with a fine herringbone lining (heavy-duty!) then a single layer of soft, unbleached, coutil is obviously going to fit differently. Ie: the toile will likely give a more dramatically nipped shape, whereas the final piece will take time to mold to the body and thus give a different fit and feeling. At any rate, the results of a plain coutil toile are generally close enough to work with.
But then came the Birds Wing... You seam it very differently to most corsetry. Because of this you cannot control, precisely, the seam allowance. Instead the thickness of the fabric controls the seam allowance. So, the only way to be sure of the end result is to toile in fabric that is identical to the final fabric choice. If the corset is in silk and I toile in coutil, the result will be all wrong. A totally pointless exercise.
Now, of course, I have progressed to something else... But this new approach is still seamed in the same tricksy way as the Birds Wing and so, once again, our toiles must be made from the same fabric as the final corset in order to get a proper sense of things. Most clients want silk, of course... Imagine all those silk toiles, unused after the initial fitting! What a waste that would be. The silks we generally use would retail at £80/m, they're too stunning not to use fully.
I could make life easier by opting for a different construction and returning to ordinary toiling methods (and indeed, we have a couple of styles where this is still the case)... or by using a different fabric for the toiles (though the end results would lose quality and precision, which is completely the opposite of what we're trying to achieve for our clients)...
I just love this style too much to compromise. It gives a gorgeous end result, feeling super luxurious for the client, whilst also letting them get an idea of the end piece in more detail. It also let's me make something unusual that I can be proud of as an artist. Here is an example of a recent toile, developed from an antique pattern by Atelier Sylphe in France.
So, what to do with a silk toile?! Well, when you make toiles with as much care and expense as the final corset you must find a use for them afterwards. Our system, established over the past couple of years, is to transform them into studio samples. Which means making them almost as though we were making a proper bespoke corset, complete with full boning, hand-finishing, proper fabrics, etc. etc.
The price of a client's bespoke piece does not include the cost of this uber-toile (I know it's a silly term, I'm sticking with it for now). The client is only paying for an "ordinary" fitting process, as though it were made quickly from cheaper materials and left unfinished. Once the uber-toiles are returned to us (most of our clients are international, so toiles are returned by post) we put them to one side until we've time to make use of them. Sometimes they become photoshoot pieces, sometimes they become studio samples available to purchase, but invariably they always become opportunities to refine and explore aesthetic options. Spaces for creative play.
The uber-toiles we make will go on to be places where we can explore variations on embellishment ideas or colour combinations. They will hopefully help lead towards our next big aesthetic (perhaps one of them will reveal an idea for a new Curated Collection?). After all, the original Falling Blossoms corset started life as a plain test-piece before giving rise to that whole style.
Old ideas lead to new ideas, old toiles and test-pieces lead to new patterning tweaks and silhouettes, everything existing leads onto something exciting. It's all gloriously connected and reappropriating toiles is part of the process. Certainly I think it's interesting for the clients too, since so many of the lovely ladies we work with are creative souls in their own right. They often have more ideas to express than we can fit into one corset, and by engaging with our work (outside of their own project) they get to participate in this whole thing. Sparklewren isn't just me in isolation, it isn't even just me and my assistant Holly... It's everyone we interact with, everything we see, every thought we're exposed to.
With a wealth of colourful pieces in the studio right now, we are exceptionally merry. We have so much prettiness to play with! If you'd like to be the first to see what becomes of our silk uber-toiles do join our mailing list (sign-up form below). And if you're in the UK, do come along to our Winter Party. There are going to be all sorts of sparkly trinkets on show.