Monday, February 21, 2011

18th Century Stays

As I mentioned in this post in January, I got it into my head recently that I needed a pair of 18th stays, which meant that I had to make them. I know some fine professional (costumers? tailors? sewists?) but I wanted the stays for early January and I only started asking around in late November. Not a good time to get on anyone’s custom project list. I was incredibly reluctant to take on a project as complex as stays, they’ve got to be really well fitted, and involve sewing little channels that all have to be the right width, and basically I was Nervous! But Stephen promised to help me, and Reconstructing History offered a before Christmas sale on their stays pattern and reed (for boning) kit, so I bought the kit and I was off!

One of the first suggestions in the RH pattern is to make a cardboard mock-up instead of a muslin one since it will give you the best approximation of the stiffness you will be going for. I used posterboard, and I’m afraid it wanted to rip rather a lot, but I felt I got close. I did not however, choose the right size, so Stephen kept taping me into the thing and telling me to cut off an inch here, a half inch there, I must have cut down and re-tried the thing 4 times before deciding I was ready to cut out the cloth. I used an adorable light pink linen that I had already in my stash for the outer and lining layers, I cut out a medium weight white linen (probably scrap left over from lining something else) as my two middle layers. I probably would have been happier with something a little stiffer, but I think I got the thickness right.

As soon as I had all the layers cut, I ran a basting stitch around all the pieces, and basted them together at the seams because I was feeling so worried about the fit. We fitted it again, took off a tiny bit more on the sides, then Stephen was kind enough to draw out all the boning channels for me. I sewed up all the channels on the sewing machine, in fact, I did as much as I could for the whole piece on the sewing machine. Since this is my first pair of stays, I was pretty sure they would be far from perfect, and as underwear they would not be seen by too many people. After I stitched the sides to the fronts and backs I tried them on again. They were still too big around. By almost 2 inches per side! I had tried them on before, but apparently, I had just not got them tight enough yet, and it was hard to tell until the pieces were boned.

I got incredibly discouraged then, and put them aside for a few days, but a couple week deadline was looming, I’m not the fastest at sewing (or anything else for that matter) so I knew I had to keep at it if I wanted them done by the colonial dance. So I pulled out the side seams, cut off 2” and before sewing them back together, put the eyelets in at the back. Most Colonial American stays only lace up the back, but I really dislike not being self sufficient. I hate not being able to dress myself. So my stays would lace up the back, and lace up the front. I started with the back eyelets since I knew they would be the less perfect eyelets, that I would get better with practice, and also that there was less room in the back so if I still needed to bring the stays in I might still loose a bit off the front, but none off the back. Once I had two rows of eyelets I stitched the sides back together, and finally! They fit!

The rest of that weekend and week was taken up sewing tape along the seams and outside edges. I only managed to sew the tape (I used off-white twill tape) to the outside with the machine, then turned the tape under and whipped the tape to the back by hand. All that hand-sewing meant that I ran out of time, but was still able to wear them to the 1775 Ball, I just sewed the front closed for the evening and pinned the shoulder straps there eventually they will tie, and since they were underneath everything, who could tell?

We had a great time dancing and hanging out with friends, and after wearing them for an evening I was fairly pleased, and happy to finish them up.

Now, I did not get the lining put in before the dance, because according to the RH pattern the historical thing to do was to put the lining in last so you could take it back out and wash it. I’m not sure I’d do it again this way, but I’ll see how I feel after wearing them for a couple weekends in the middle of July, then I’ll know better. I fitted the lining and serged the edges because I was not about to take out the lining and wash it if I did not think it could handle being washed. I hand stitched the lining while in front of the TV on quite a few snowy evenings.

In the meanwhile, I had started on a new sewing project (which will be my next few posts) but it meant that I took my time on the stays. I did manage to put in enough time that I got the lining in, and put in front eyelets and arm strap eyelets just before wearing them again this past weekend. I feel incredibly accomplished and very proud of my 18th century underwear! They are definitely not perfect, I have things I would do differently next time, but I am happy with the final product.


  1. You should be proud, your stays are great! My first attempt at stays were an absolute trainwreck and I tore them apart eventually. Well done!

  2. Thanks! Having help made a huge difference, that and fitting them about a million times!

  3. I can vouch for the fact that they looked great both the first and second time you wore them.

    So you said, "I’m not sure I’d do it again this way, but I’ll see how I feel after wearing them for a couple weekends in the middle of July, then I’ll know better." Were you just talking hypothetically, or is there an event in July that I don't know about? =)

  4. I was talking hypothetically. There is a chance I'll get to wear them for 1 weekend in May as we might try to participate in Needham's 300 celebrations: other than that, we've got nothing colonial planned. Yet.

  5. Great job! We LIVE history too!

  6. Thanks Mary, You and I are actually located in the same state. Some day we might bump into each other at an event, though mostly we do 16th century at this point, we never know what we'll find ourselves doing next.