Synthetic Whalebone vs. Steel
Steel has long been considered the go-to boning material for most "modern" and "theatrical" corsetry, and it's a commonly held opinion in the historical costuming world as well.
This is for good reason: steel boning is durable, reliable, comes in varying thicknesses/flexibility and widths, and is treated for rust-resistance. It springs back in to shape. Spiral steel provides a complete 360 range of flexibility, which allows a flexible fit and curved channels in later Victorian corset styles.
However, steel is not the only option, nor is it the best option for every type of corset.
Synthetic whalebone--also known as artificial whalebone--has been available in Europe for decades. But it has become known to the historical costume world relatively recently. Luca Costigliolo has helped spread the word through his illuminating article, his 2016 classes at Costume College, and ongoing mentorship for members of Foundations Revealed (truly, the access to the new Mentors Group alone is worth the membership fee!).
What it is
Synthetic whalebone is opaque, smooth, and has no lines or striations running through it. While many people refer to it as plastic, it is an extruded polyester (OK, if we want to get *really* technical, polyester is a polymer and "plastic" is a broad term, and the two are related...and this is about where my chemistry education ends...).
To my knowledge, there is only one manufacturer of synthetic whalebone in the world, and that is Wissner in Germany. It is sold by the yard or meter. It can be cut with sturdy scissors and sanded with a file or dremel.
What it isn't
Synthetic whalebone behaves quite differently from the plastic boning we all know from prom dresses and local fabric stores. That "plastic boning" often comes in a fabric casing and is more transparent, with ridges running down the length of it. It also bends and kinks in a way that synthetic whalebone doesn't. My very first corset was boned with this stuff--it was all that was available at Joann Fabrics--and after one day of wear the waist had permanently kinked into a painful fold that dug in under my ribs.
((Confusingly, Wissner offers another product which in English is usually referred to as "German Plastic Boning." We do not have experience with this option and have not handled it. Some makers prefer it to synthetic whalebone. This product does have some striations running through it, which is how you can tell it apart from the smooth synthetic whalebone. It is also not the same thing as the "cheap" plastic fabric store boning, though.))
Why we like it
In our experiments here at Redthreaded, we have assessed that synthetic whalebone is a viable and comfortable alternative to steel for many styles of stays and corsets. It shapes to the body in an organic, gentle way which you just can't get with steel. I have handled baleen-boned extant stays and corsets dating back to approx. 1750. Many of these stays still hold the curve of their wearer 200+ years later. A similar effect is achieved with synthetic whalebone stays after a few wearings.
Synthetic whalebone is a little bit lighter than steel. If weight is a concern, this is worth consideration.
Perhaps my favorite thing about synthetic whalebone is that it allows for fully boned stays without the inconsistencies and breakage of reed, and without the weight of fully boned steel stays (which is something we just won't do). The 4mm width is particularly effective for this, because it allows us to copy the extremely narrow channels on extant stays.
For Victorian corsets, it allows us to copy the numerous lines of bones seen on extants, again without adding the weight of steel. And, because we can melt holes in it, we can copy the historical flossing patterns which go through bones.
Sweeping bust curves can be heated and steamed into place, mimicking the notable curves seen in extant 19th century corsets, like this one from the Met.
How we're using it
Because of the success we have had with synthetic whalebone in custom 18th century stays, we've decided to move forward with a new mini-collection/addition to our stock corset line. We are beginning with two 18th century styles.
These stays feature all of the same construction details of our current stays, but with 6mm synthetic whalebone in place of steel. To set them apart, we're making them in a gorgeous buttercream cotton sateen. We are taking this opportunity to introduce a strapless 1750's back lacing option, and to try some fun new bone angles on the 1780's front lacing.
We will also be using synthetic whalebone in either 4mm or 6mm for most of our corsets in our new Atelier line of made to order, detailed stays and corsets.
Which should you choose for 18th Century stays?
More choices are great, right? But that means you have to make...more choices. Here's a quick comparison between our steel boned or synthetic whaleboned 18th century stays.
- very supportive
- doesn't bend into shape of the wearer via body heat
- can be accidentally bent or kinked out of shape with force, but can be bent back
- a more traditional theatrical option
- tends to give a more rigid/conical shape
-to my knowledge there is NO evidence that steel was used as primary boning material in any stays or corsets up until mid-late 19th century. So it is an anachronistic choice for 18th century
- very supportive but with a bit more flexibility
- curves to the shape of the wearer like baleen did in the period
- springs back if kinked (unless forcibly folded *in half* on itself), has "memory"
- lighter than steel
- tends to give a slightly curvier/softer shape
- all of our wear tests have passed with no issue, but we haven't personally had the opportunity to put this product through a year+ long Broadway run or similar
- while this is obviously a modern marvel, it does behave and feel more like baleen than steel
Ultimately this is a matter of personal preference and intended use. Feel free to ask us if you're not sure which is right for you! And if you're sewing your own stays with our patterns, you can easily substitute 6mm synthetic whalebone in place of 1/4" steels.
We're pleased to be able to offer more options to the historical costume and reenacting communities!
Where to get it
Should you wish to make your own stays and corsets with synthetic whalebone, our favorite US-based supplier is Burnley & Trowbridge in Williamsburg, VA. There are a number of international vendors stocking it as well.