There are a number of different corset boning options you will have, each with benefits and problems. I’ll try to go over some of them. Most of these options include both high and low qualities, which can add some problems to a good compare/contrast. Ultimately, you may wish to do additional research to decide what boning you think is best for your needs.
If you’re not making a corset, you might also be looking at boning for craft projects or costumes.
Spring steel boning
Also called “white bones”, these are usually purchased pre-cut, with the ends already capped for you. However you can also purchase the steel in rolls and cut it and tip it yourself. Unless you are making mass quantities of corsets, and have the tools, skill, and time to cut and tip your own bones, I highly recommend you purchase them pre-cut.
These steel bones are covered in a thin white plastic which keeps them from rusting or spoiling your fabric. They have limited ‘bend’ and generally are considered to only bend in one direction. They come in a few different widths as well. In the less expensive, lower quality bones, the tips have a tendency to come off, and the white plastic surrounding the bone can be very thin. I’ve seen bones come out of lower-quality ready-to-wear lingerie corsets where the white plastic had been split or cut, and the bones were rusting, and staining the corset.
I prefer to use these bones on the ‘straight’ areas of the body such as the center front (underbusk) and center back on either side of the grommets.
Unless you live in a major center, you will likely need to order this kind of boning.
Spiral steel boning
Like spring steel boning, these are usually purchased pre-cut with the ends already capped for you. Like spring steel, spiral steel boning is also available in rolls for you to cut and tip it yourself, and I would likewise recommend buying it pre-cut and tipped for ease of use. These bones look like a squished spring, don’t rust, and bend and twist quite easily. They also recover quite nicely from being bent or twisted (within reason). In less expensive, lower quality bones, I’ve seen the tips come off, and the bones have less recovery from being bent sharply. This boning is available in a few different widths.
I prefer to use these bones on the highly curved areas of the body such as the side seams or over the bust.
Unless you live in a major center, you will likely need to order this kind of boning.
Molded plastic boning
This is sometimes called “German Plastic”, and it’s a solid plastic boning, typically sold by the meter or in pre-measured packages of a few meters. You can then cut the boning to the length you need it with scissors. (Not your fabric scissors!) This boning needs to be melted (with a candle) and curved to avoid sharp edges that will eventually work their way through your fabric. I’ve tried a few different brands of this plastic boning, and all seem to be about the same in terms of quality (so far!) and all the same width.
This boning also has a slightly larger profile than other bones, which can be positive (when you want to make something appear obviously boned) or negative (when you don’t). This boning typically comes with it’s own casing which you can use for your project. This boning will bend and twist quite easily, but also has the tendency to ‘heat mold’ to the body, and is unlikely to recover from a sharp bend.
I generally don’t tend to use this boning anymore for corsets, however it still has a wide variety of other uses. For instance, since it’s more easily available, and you can cut it to the lengths you need, it’s a great option to use in your muslin.
This kind of boning is generally available at specialty stores, through online order, or through larger fabric stores.
Woven plastic boning
This boning consists of many tiny plastic rods, woven together with thread. It usually has a very narrow band of ‘fabric’ on either side of the plastic bones that you can sew through. This boning is usually bought by the meter from your local fabric store – you can usually find it in boxes near the elastic or other by-the-meter notions. This is the only boning that you can effectively sew through, making it useful to add structure to lightly structured garments.
Like the molded plastic boning, you’ll need to melt and shape the edges, however often the individual rods can still wiggle their way out and poke through the fabric if not properly capped with fabric/boning casing. I’ve tried a few different brands of this boning, and the lower quality (or perhaps simply older stock) seems to be more fragile, less likely to recover from being bent, and more likely to snap. This boning will easily bend and twist, has an even higher tendency to mold to the body after being worn, and is highly unlikely to recover from a sharp bend. I’ve only ever seen this boning in one width.
I generally don’t use this boning for support in corsets, however it still has a variety of other uses.
This kind of boning is easily available at major fabric stores.
Cable ties used as boning
If you’re looking for a lower-cost, more easily found alternative to molded plastic boning, cable ties are the old costumer’s favorite. You can find them in a variety of widths, lengths, thicknesses, and even colours.
I have only used this material as boning once, and had results similar to molded plastic boning.
This material is readily available at home improvement stores. (Home Depot, Rona, Lowes, etc)
Steel lumber strapping used as boning
Penny-pinching costumers have long talked about using lumber strapping as a very affordable (free!) alternative to steel boning. However, you need to source the steel strapping, clean it, cut it, file it, shape it, tip it, and coat it to avoid rusting. I personally think that the amount of work that goes into making this usable isn’t worth the cost savings, however your mileage may vary!
As I have never used this material for boning, I can’t comment on how it works or what it compares to.
I’ve heard that this is infrequently available by sourcing discarded material behind home improvement stores, though have never looked for it to find out how readily available this is. Please comment below if you’ve used this, where you found it, and how you think it shapes up!
Plastic strapping used as boning
Like steel lumber strapping, you can also get a plastic strapping. This is very thin, very flexible, and in my opinion, is likely not a good alternative.
If you have used it, please comment below and let us know how it worked for you!
I don’t know of a reliable source of a lot of this material, but generally boxes of paper are strapped with this stuff, so you could always check out your office photocopy room garbage can…(?)
Historically, ‘summer’ corsets were boned with reeds as an alternative to whalebone. With this boning method you need to channel-stitch your corset, and then stuff each of the channels with the reeds. This is apparently time consuming and fussy. I remember reading an evaluation from someone who tried it, who was quite happy with the results (from a re-creationist standpoint) though I can’t imagine wanting to do this as a first choice.
I’ve never done this – please comment below if you have, along with your results, and any tips you might have!
Yarn or other channel-stuffed ‘boning’
Channel stuffing (with either yarn, wool, cord, or scraps of fabric) adds very light support when the channels are stuffed firmly.
I’ve done this as a decorative element on hip panels, to give the illusion of boning, while still keeping some flexibility and recovery. It has a nice aesthetic appeal, and can bend quite easily and is easy to wash assuming your materials are all pre-shrunk. Using this method is quite time-consuming compared to other boning methods that I’ve used.
I’ve “channel stuffed” my Italian Renaissance bodices with cotton cord to give them additional support and structure.
Folded sheet plastic
I only include this as a bit of a story…. A number of years ago, a friend asked me to replace the boning in her ready-to-wear lingerie corset. Looking at the corset itself, it didn’t look as though it had experienced much wear at all – other than the boning. The bones were in terrible shape, and it didn’t support her or look attractive.
When I opened up the corset and removed the bones – the majority of the bones were merely folded pieces of plastic. The plastic was less sturdy than the lid of a yoghurt container, more like a piece of laminated paper, and folded once lengthwise. It just goes to show you that the manufactures of the lingerie-style corsets really don’t intend for their garments to be worn for very long at one time, or for very long in the life of the garment!
This one I’m just including because sometimes people will ask “where do you get whalebone for corsets?” The answer is – you don’t. Whalebone was actually made from the baleen from humpback whales, and in North America we no longer harvest these animals for this purpose. If you are looking for vintage whalebone, you’ll find it brittle and thick in comparison to the steel boning you can get today.
I took a whale watching tour in Hawaii once, where they showed us some vintage whalebone used for corset boning – it was interesting, but I far prefer our modern alternatives, no matter how sentimental I am for days I never had to experience!
As an aside, often bones are called “stays” – so if you are looking online for boning, and having no luck, try this other word instead. Of course, corsets themselves were also called “stays”, along with a host of other names depending on the era and culture. Apparently this is one of the confusing things about English – having so many words for the same thing, and having so many different things use the same words!