Saturday, 13 June 2015

1780s Stays: the Making Of

As promised, here is the blog post on the making of my new 1780s linen stays. I began draping the pattern on April 3, and finished building the final stays this past Tuesday, June 9th. A loose estimate suggests that I spent over 300 hours on these stays, including sourcing fabric, dyeing fabric, patterning, and stitching, but not including research. Next time it won't take quite so long, since I have the pattern and have now gone through the staymaking process twice.

My mannequin at school (alas, now dismantled and in another province; RIP) was perfectly padded out to my figure, and was one of my favourite things ever. I had made so many things from it over the two years I had it that I knew exactly what to expect from it (eg, it has narrower shoulders than I do) and how patterns made from it will fit me, and this allowed me to alter the draped pattern into an historical silhouette (eg, raised bustline, molded waist) without messing with the mannequin itself. Thus, I was able to drape my stays pattern directly on "my body," rather than starting with someone else's draft.

For those who have not draped foundation garments before, I will write a detailed description of how I went about it. I highly recommend it, if you think it's something you want to try!

I started by pulling up photos of a number of extant museum garments on my phone and arraying my Norah Waugh and Jill Salen books around me on the table, and with these as references I simply drew my pattern lines on the mannequin. You will note a number of guidelines in these photos, and for those who have not draped in the past I will identify some of them: in blue I have my natural waist, a high v-back neckline (my 1770s caraco), a much lower v-back (left over as reference from the drape of my regency gown), and a raised bustline for historical garments. In green are the stays lines, a number of lines left over from my regency ball gown bodice (again, as reference, as I know where those lines sit on my body in the final garment), a raised bustline reference right at center front, and a lowered waistline.

I used a heavy cotton twill to trace off the pattern, rather than regular factory cotton, because this allowed me to ensure the smooth lines and relatively flat pieces necessary for stays (factory cotton is somewhat prone to molding and stretching to curves on the mannequin, which boned linen buckram will not do!).

I cut out 4 of every pattern piece and sandwiched two pieces of posterboard between two layers of twill to make my mockup. I stitched in one cable tie per panel, and used lacing strips to try it on and fit it. You can see this mockup beside the finished stays above. This method worked very well, and was a lot faster than stitching all the boning channels into a fabric mockup and trying to do it the traditional way! With the mockup finished, I made the relevant alterations to the pattern and traced it out into a final version.

(Needless to say, I would request that no one use this pattern without my permission)
You'll notice that I put tons of balance marks, or notches, into my patterns. I find that this is very simple to do as you drape a pattern, and makes a huge difference when you're trying to match floppy bias edges, so I try to put in as many as is reasonable.

I cut the pieces out of a double layer of outer linen and a structural layer of linen buckram. I had dyed the outer linen a sort of tea brown using quebracho, a natural bark dye. It's hard to judge what colour quebracho is going to dye, and based on my last batch I had hoped for it to be a bit more pink, but the colour it turned is a good 18thC stays colour so I'll live with it. =)

With the pieces cut and all layers sandwiched together, I drew out all the boning channels on the back of each buckram piece and pinned the lines through to the right side of the dyed linen. Then, piece by piece, I began backstitching the boning channels using white linen thread. It took me nine days to do the ten pattern pieces.

I actually had the double of each of these done too, but they didn't fit in the instagram photo. =P
Now, normally this would be the point at which the bones would be inserted, while each piece is still separate from the others. However, this would mean that the pieces would be rigid and uncooperative as I tried to butt-and-whip them together along the seams. Since I have tendonitis in one of my wrists (the left one - my fabric-wrangling hand, not my stitching hand, from exactly these sorts of things), I decided that it would be wiser to whip the seams together first and bone them afterwards.

I then put in the eyelets (or rather, most of the eyelets, as I decided later on to add more in the front so that I could ladder-lace instead of spiral lace - more on that later) and began to insert bones. I was using 1/4" halved round reed from Burnley and Trowbridge. I had planned to soak or steam it to make it cooperate, but in the end all I had to do was slide two into each channel at one time and all but the most sharply curved evened each other out.

I did find the reed somewhat brittle and I broke a few, but once they were all inserted they seemed sturdy enough. That said, I would recommend reed for projects where the bones are close enough together to support each other; bones which sit more than an inch apart from others are prone to snapping.

After the bones were in, I covered the seams with 1/4" plain weave linen tape, also from B&T, which I had dyed dark blue in a vat of natural indigo. I ladder-stitched it down using silk thread dyed in the same vat.

Now, I should add in a note here about the indigo seam coverings. By rights they should be white or tan, since these stays are intended to be worn in Virginia. In Europe, seam coverings were all sorts of fun colours - for instance, this pair from the V&A:

You can kind of see the blue silk tapes here; if you go to the link above and zoom in it's easier to see.
Or this pair, allegedly from France although I can't find the institution:

But in America, seam coverings don't seem to have been quite as changeable. There's this pair from Vermont, which has indigo and white seam coverings, but since the outer fabric of the stays is indigo as well it's quite a different situation and therefore not evidence for my use of indigo.

I really like how the indigo looks, so I'm going to keep it for now. But if it looks like it might be problematic in Williamsburg this summer, I may just cover the indigo tapes with white ones and then take them off again later.

But back to the story.

Staring at the boned and taped stays, I realized that while I had set up the center front eyelets for spiral lacing, most of the originals had ladder lacing - and I liked the look of the latter (haha pun) much better. To my own chagrin and despair, the part of my brain that is relentlessly perfectionist decided that I was going to add 14 more eyelets, and there was nothing I could do but comply. Thus, the front went from this...

...To this

Much better. Although I didn't stick with the blue ribbon in the end. It just didn't quite match.

Now it was time for binding. I had ivory pigskin left over from my first set of stays, and as it turned out I had *just* enough to do everything I wanted to on this pair. I used ~1" strips to bind the edges, sewing them first upside-down on the front of the stays and then pulling them to the back. The main thought in my head as I did this was "Whyyyyyyy did I put 8 tabs per side on these things?????"

As seen on extant stays where the binding has come off, the edges of the stays are whip-stitched first for stability, and then the binding is stitched 1/8" from the edge. I stitched the binding on using backstitch, but on each corner of my tabs I put a single whipstitch to hold the bones there in place, as they liked to swing out sideways from the tapered tabs.

At this point I also switched to the ivory ribbon, which is more correct for America (again, in Europe you find coloured silk ribbons in front, but America seems to have largely kept to white and ivory).

I next added the eyelet guards to the back lacing, to avoid wear on the eyelets from tightening the stays, and armpit guards to avoid sweat damage (important when I'll be wearing them daily in July and August with no air conditioning!), both using the same pigskin as for the binding. The eyelet guards are simply a matter of winding a 1/4" strip of leather twice through each eyelet so that it protects about 2/3 of the whipstitches where the lace is prone to rubbing. The armpit guards get stretched over the binding from front point to back point, stitched close up to the binding, and then tacked down at the bottom edge between the bones.

Please excuse the awful lighting on this one; it was very late at night.
 Finally it was time to line them. Each tab must be lined separately (straps get lined separately, too, if you have them), and then the main body of the stays gets lined in a single piece. This method is seen on almost every pair of extant stays, because it allows the main lining to be taken out to be washed without removing all the tab linings, which are fiddly and take forever to stitch in. Mine took about 4 days, because I was working extra shifts at my jobs and was having trouble finding time/motivating myself to stitch endless tabs when I got home.

You'll notice in this photo of the inside that all the seam allowances have been tacked down using large whip stitches; this happens before you butt and whip the main pieces together if you've boned the pieces first, and after the stays are boned if you're doing it in the same slightly rearranged order as I did. Additionally, you can see here that my outer linen doesn't extend all the way under the eyelets as it should. I thought I'd left enough excess when I cut the pieces out, but I was wrong. =( Luckily, the buckram is strong enough to make up for this blunder.

After the tabs were lined, I lined the main body of the stays, and put the ivory ribbon back in, and they were done!

You'll notice that these stays have no straps. I was considering adding the tape straps that criss-cross in the back and get hooked at the front waist, but to be honest I don't think I need them. I find that my stays ride up and need help staying down, rather than getting pushed down and needing assistance to stay up (largely, I think, because I have a smaller bust and thus have nothing to put weight on the top of the stays). There are many extant examples which seem to have no straps and to never have had any straps, and thus I feel justified in leaving them off. They give me headaches and inevitably show at the neckline of my jackets, anyways, so why bother?

For a photodump of photos of the finished stays, go to my last blog post, here. I'm hoping to do a photoshoot soon to get some better shots; my cellphone selfies don't really do it justice. But you get the idea. =)

Thanks so much for reading! I hope that this was helpful in some way to somebody. If you have any questions about my construction methods, research, material sources, or anything else, please do not hesitate to ask and I'll do my best to answer!


  1. Wow. Thanks for sharing your project. It's amazing!

  2. They're really lovely, and it's great to see such a detailed description of how you made them!

  3. Ooooooh these are just beeeeeeeeautiful! I'm so in awe of people who handsew everything, including things like stays. I just don't have the patience!

    I've been really enjoying your work, so I nominated you for a blog award :)

    1. Thanks so much! ^^ I am just about to head off to work, but I'll pass the award along and answer the questions as soon as I can! =)

  4. Hi Isabel,
    We wanted to nominate you for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award. If you have time to participate that would be great if not no worries. These stays are so beautiful as well.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your creation/knowledge! <3