Friday, May 3, 2019

My Wearable, but not Finished, Mid 18th Century stays

I began my mid 18th century stays with barely a month until the Rococo picnic I wished to attend. The picnic I had nothing to wear to. I had a month to make myself both a pair of stays and a complete 1760's gown. It took me three times that long to just make my 18th century shift last summer! (Ok, I was working very slowly on hand sewing that shift with no deadline.) The gown is, of course, the pretty part that makes you feel like a princess, but the stays give the gown the correct silhouette. And the gown really wouldn't look quite right without the stays worn underneath. Thus, clearly, the stays had to be finished before I could begin the gown. Or did they?

With just over a month until the picnic, I made a cardboard stay mock-up. I fixed a couple minor fitting issues on the cardboard stays, then I was ready to cut out my real stays.

I began by disassembling my cardboard mockup to use as my pattern.

Then I proceeded to trace around each cardboard piece, marking the pattern on my stay fabric.

The stays needed to be made out of a somewhat firm, but not particularly heavy, material with no stretch to it. They would be constructed of three layers of fabric - pretty fabric on the outside over two layers of tightly woven material which the boning would be sandwiched between. For these structural layers, I decided to use a very lightweight cotton twill - originally the lining of some silk curtains in my fabric stash. Linen would have been a more historically accurate choice, but I didn't have any linen with a tight enough weave in my fabric stash, so cotton it was!

I added an extra inch to the top and bottom of each piece as my cardboard stays were borderline too short, and this would give me some extra length to work with - I could always trim it off later if my stays turned out too long. Using transfer paper and a tracing wheel, I made sure all the pieces were marked with the original top and bottom lines, just in case the stays turned out too long and I wanted to cut them back to the original length after construction.

 I also added an extra inch to the center front edge to be turned back as hem allowance, since I would be making my stays both front and back lacing, rather than just back lacing as the pattern (Simplicity 8579) recommended.

Once the structural layers were all sorted out, I proceeded to cut out the outer layer from a lightweight "home dec" cotton fabric (found in my stash), with an 18th century-ish floral pattern.

Finally, I transferred all the boning channel markings to my fabric with transfer paper and a tracing wheel (though this turned out not to be the most accurate method of marking as the layers shifted), and I was ready to actually make my stays.

My stays were completely constructed by machine, as that's what I had time for. Though, had I had all the time in the would, I probably still would have chosen to do the bulk of the construction by machine, I did not feel like hand sewing all those boning channels! So, I stitched all my boning channels by machine. Then I assembled the stays - each half is comprised of four panels. Finally, I boned my stays with heavy duty zip ties - cheap, easily attainable, and, rumor has it, they nicely mimic the properties of whale bone, which is what stays were boned with originally.

With my zip-tie boning in place, my stays were looking like stays. 

I whip stitched around the top and bottom edges to keep the boning inside the stays, as I wasn't ready to actually bind them yet, then I turned my attention to the eyelets for lacing.

Metal grommets or eyelets weren't invented until the 19th century, so in the interest of historical accuracy, I was not going to use them in my stays. Instead, I decided to hand sew all the eyelets in blue silk thread - as hand sewing eyelets is way less frustrating than attempting to machine sew them is. (Yes, I know this from experience.)

The more eyelets I sewed, the quicker I got and the better they became. After a couple days of hand sewing eyelets whenever I had down time, they were all finished, and I could try my stays on.

I put them on, laced them up, and they fit! They weren't finished by any means, but they were wearable!

After wearing my unfinished stays around for an evening, I discovered two minor alterations I needed to make. First, I'd laced my stays too far down my back - the lacing needed to end where the tabs began, not go all the way to the bottom. 

Second, the stays were too long at center front (remember I'd added an extra inch at the top and the bottom) and they dug into my legs whenever I sat down. Thus, I trimmed an inch off the bottom, and then the stays were perfect!

As aforementioned, my stays were now wearable, not finished, but wearable enough I could use them for fitting and actually begin my gown. The edges still needed to be bound, straps and lining still needed to be added, but these things could be worked on slowly, as I had time. Meanwhile, now that I had wearable, functional stays, I needed to get started on my gown, or I would have nothing fabulous to wear to the picnic.

And, just in case you're wondering, this is what I wore under my gown for the picnic. My stays, 3/4 of the way bound in leather, lacking both straps and a lining. They did their job well, even if they were unfinished.

And now, on to finishing the stays before I have need of them again!


  1. Good job! I am a huge fan of the cable/zip ties, mainly because they are also washable.

    1. Thank you! I love how user friendly cable ties are!

  2. I love the print for the stays. Really looking the part. Like the construction and fitting ideas, too.
    Do you use chamois cloth for the leather binding? I don't know what they call it in America, but it is lovely and soft. Used for washing cars! I bought mine from the Car Hardware shop - Halfords.

    1. Thank you! Yes, I'm using chamois leather for the binding - found in the automotive section at Wal-Mart. It's incredibly soft and easy to work with!