Whalebone and its Substitutes


We all who are sewing period costume know this problem: What to use when whalebone is called for?

Definition and History

The term "whalebone" is confusing because we're not talking about the bones of whales. It is actually baleen, i.e. the horn-like plates attached to the upper jaws of baleen whales instead of teeth. The whales use them to filter plankton from the water. I

Baleen is fibery, so it can be easily split into sticks of the desired size. It comes in large plates, so the sticks can be quite long. It's firm, yet at the same time flexible, and doesn't break easily. All these properties made it uniquely suited for use in stays and hoop skirts. No other material had all these qualities, which is one of the reasons why the whale population was taken to the brink of extinction in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Baleen has never been cheap, so other materials were used as well. For 18th century paniers, for example, flexible wood (hazel, willow) were good candidates. In corsets, you may find willow or reed. They had a tendency to break, however, so the really good stays were always made with baleen. Around 1850, watch spring steel came into use for crinolines and turned out to be even more suitable for that purpose than baleen.

During the 19th century, a negative property of baleen that had as yet been undiscovered made itself felt: If it is bent too much in one direction, as is the case in the hourglass-shaped corsets of the time, it breaks after some time. Not as quickly as the period substitutes, but still. Reversible corsets were tried, but either that didn't help or they were too expensive to make. The only witness to their existence is a contemporary magazine ad, so apparently didn't catch on.

As whales became rarer, baleen became more expensive, so towards the end of the 19th century, corset-makers started to look for alternatives. Horn and steel were tried; the latter did have some success in the shape of coils pressed flat, the kind you can still buy nowadays. These coils bend sideways, so they are well suited for the curvy parts of hourglass corsets.


Modern Substitutes

Nowadays, there are three possiblities of stiffening a corset: Plastic, steel and the steel coils mentioned above. And of course the materials that had been used in period, i.e. reed and wood. From time to time, someone remembers that Norway and Japan still hunt whales and that one might get baleen there. Please forget about that really quickly! Authenticity is all good and well, but it certainly isn't worth contributing to the extinction of the largest and, right behind dolphins and orcas*, probably most intelligent creatures on this planet. The fact that the former owner of your piece of baleen has been killed anway is no excuse: Demand generates supply.

After having experimented with baleen I had removed from an unsalvageable bodice, I can tell you this: Modern plastic boning is a very good substitute, in some respects even better than the original. Unlike baleen, it doesn't break. Here's a picture: steel coil above, steel band to the left, plastic to the right, a busk below. And this is what baleen looks like.

Plastic boning of 1x10 mm is suitable for 17th and 18th century stays, especially for half-boned ones. For fully boned ones, 5-7 mm wide boning is better. In extant stays, the boning often was only 2-3 mm wide, but plastic isn't available that narrow. If you're slender, you could try spanish reed instead. Steel bands are also suitable, but only for half-boned stays: Stays fully boned with steel would be too heavy.

If you compare plastic and steel, you will find that steel is a little stronger than plastic of twice that width (i.e. 1x10 mm plasic roughly corresponds to 0.5x10 mm steel), but a lot heavier. On the other hand, plastic tends to fatigue in places where it's bent too much, leading to excoriation. In such places, insert some steel bones in between the plastic.

Rigilene consists of thin round plastic rods woven together with plastic thread so that it can be sewn onto fabric. It is completely unsuitable as substitute for baleen.

Some people try cable binders or the kind of woven plastic binders that are often used to bind timber and the like. I have no personal experience with those. The former sound as if they could be a good idea, but the latter are so thin that I'd be afraid that they'd cut through the thread of the tunnels.

Real baleen can be softened up by steaming or soaking in hot water, allowing it to be bent into the desired shape which it then keeps. This would probably work on horn as well, but not on any other of the substitutes. You might try to iron plastic into shape very, very carefully, but if you weren't careful enough and have the stuff sticking to your iron, don't complain!



*) I'm not quite sure whether humans should appear in this list at all. If yes, it's certainly not in the first place.

  Monday, 07-Sep-2020 17:12:27 CEST



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