Sewing

Making 18th-Century Stays in a Week or Less

Pretty ambitious, eh? I’ve avoided staymaking for a long time because it seemed like every blog post I read by someone who made their own stays measured finishing their first pair in years. That doesn’t sound like an undertaking I would have the skill or patience for!

However, I’m going to a local 18th-Century Market Fair at the end of October and want to attend in proper late 18th-Century attire. And every time I would think about making a petticoat or jacket (or even just a bumroll!), I kept circling back around to the conviction that I needed stays to get the overall shape of any Eighteenth Century outfit right.

18th-century-half-boned-stays-front-1

Why a week or less? Well, mostly because imposing such a short deadline meant I had to dive right in, thereby forcing me to overcome my worry that making stays would be beyond my abilities. And a week has a nice ring to it. In this first attempt, I went from prototype to finished stays in 7 days. While I was successful on the time front, I’m not completely happy with the results and learned a lot to set me up for my next attempt!

Time-saving measures

Obviously the divide when it comes to pre-Nineteenth Century historical clothes making is hand vs machine sewing. To be perfectly honest, I know some of the principles of hand sewing, but I haven’t put the time or effort into learning how to do it well. Since I don’t have the skills, my opinion on machine sewing historical clothes is a convenient one: I don’t think it ruins a piece of clothing, nor does it make the final shape of the piece inaccurate enough to bother me.

I know there are lots of people with Opinions on this topic, and I can understand the arguments against machine sewing. But I’m a novice seamstress who works long hours, so I took the route of efficiency (historicity, mayhaps?) over historical accuracy:

  • Eyelet grommets instead of hand-sewn eyelet holes. I personally would not use metal grommets on an exterior garment, but I’m willing to take liberties left and right with an undergarment.
  • Pre-made bias tape for the binding. This turned out to be more of a pain than a help
  • Machine sew everything possible, including the binding. This was a success!

Materials

I started by raiding the stays page on William Booth Draper:

  • JP Ryan 18th Century Half boned Stays pattern, size 8
  • Quarter inch cotton cord (4 yards). You’ll want to whip the ends (to keep them from unraveling) once you know how much you need for lacing
  • 3/16″ Caning for stays. This stuff is really easy to work with, being quite flexible and soft enough to cut with scissors
  • Wooden busk (mine turned out to be a lovely walnut shade), which keeps the front of the stays from bending

18th-century-half-boned-stays-front-with-busk

Plus, I also nabbed some fabric from them:

  • 2 yards of green worsted wool (WWV 542) for the cover. This turned out to be much darker than I was expecting, but feels absolutely lovely. It’s so soft, smooth and drapes like nothing I’ve ever used before. However, I will likely try linen, or maybe a lighter shade of worsted wool (like the WWN 180,) next time
  • 3/4 yard of 100% Natural White Linen Buckram (WLG 170) for the lining. Man, this stuff is STIFF. Made for a good lining, and 3/4 yard was the right amount, though you could maybe get away with a 1/2 yard

I ordered the fabric at the same time as the pattern, and I didn’t really catch that the 2 yards William Booth Draper mentions in their blurb with fabric suggestions included the cover and the interfacing. You don’t need 2 yards for the cover of these stays. You do need about a yard (depending on the bolt width of your fabric) for the interfacing and about a yard for the cover, which I somehow missed. So to get my interfacing fabric (because the wool would be wasted there) I grabbed a yard and a half of printed duck remnants on the cheap from my local fabric store, and that served for the prototype and the interfacing.

Other stuff I found useful:

  • Fray check
  • An awl
  • Eyelet pliers (if you want to use eyelet grommets)
18th-century-half-boned-stays-fray-check
Fray check for the win!
18th-century-half-boned-stays-awl
An awl to punch holes for lacing

The Process

As with most sewing endeavors, I started by reading through the pattern instructions from start to finish. For many patterns, this is usually an exercise steeped in fascinated incomprehension, but the instructions that come with the J.P. Ryan pattern are very clear and thorough, so even before I started cutting fabric, I had a clear notion about how the stays would come together.

Mona the Cat and my 18th century stays
Mona, quality control cat

The first night of work, I made a prototype, which in this case was literally just making a single layer using all of the pieces that one would cut and sew for the cover. It came together easily, and I made the happy discovery that I wouldn’t need to adjust the pattern size (phew! Even though the pattern includes incredibly detailed instructions for making adjustments, I was really hopeful I wouldn’t have to). I went from start to finish in about 4 hours, which is fast for me.

Then it was time to start on the real garment! I made the poor decision to use high-contrast thread for the channeling. What was I thinking?! My seams are wobbly, my backstitches sloppy, and all of that is verrrrry plain to see. Plus, further research has shown that the boning channels were never supposed to be visible on half-boned stays, anyway. Oh well! Live and learn, right?

20170921_181128323_iOS

The only change I made to the pattern was instead of trimming the vertical edge of the lining, I folded it under and machine sewed it to make the inner boning channel along the lacing holes. Everything was going quite swimmingly, actually: I cruised through the majority of the pattern in 4 days. Then I got to the binding.

Oh binding, why do you vex me so? My problems here were multi-fold. The bias tape was too wide (1/2″ vs 3/8″…that 1/8″ made a big difference) and not as flexible as you would expect from bias tape. Plus, when I started with the binding, I was pretty fixed on the idea that the caning needed to extend into it…which meant hand sewing the binding.

So I girded myself, got out my needle and thread and asked my SO Justin if he wanted to binge watch something while I attached the binding. I had a lot of confidence that I could knock it out in an evening (maybe two), but after four episodes of Community, I had stitched about 5 inches…and it was ugly. Loose, loopy thread, uneven stitches.

Justin looked over at one point and asked if everything was okay (my face was apparently a mask of resigned despair). He sidled over to me on the couch, took one look at my handiwork, and asked if I wanted help from his mom. She’s an amazing quilter (which I knew), but she got her start in sewing clothes (which I did not). Even though I wanted to make these stays myself as a point of pride, I knew that if I was going to get them done quickly, I needed help.

So Justin’s sainted mother offered to figure out the binding (did I mention the bias tape I got was possessed by a demon?). In the end, she actually sewed all of it (I had two long days at work, so she went ahead and knocked it out for me). We had to make few compromises to get it to done.

18th-century-half-boned-stays-half-of-front

First, we cut the caning so it wouldn’t be in the binding. I though this would compromise the structure of the stays, or make the binding floppy on top or around the tabs, but that’s not the case; the lining, interfacing and cover fabric are all enough to keep it pretty stiff.

The other big changes were making the corners on the tabs sharp (by using miter corners) and cutting the binding at the top of each tab (instead of making it one continuous scallop edge). All of these changes allowed the binding to be completely sewn by machine.

The Finished Product

And now the obligatory front, back and side views. I laced myself into the stays (this was my first time ever putting stays on!), which is why the back lacing isn’t as even or properly spaced as it should be. Other than that, I have to say, these suckers are comfortable. They’re so supportive, and I love how they make my waistline smooth and straight. I’m excited for the next pair, and to wear these with outer garments!

18th-century-half-boned-stays-front-2
My research suggests that when a lady tied her own stays, she wrapped the excess cord around her waist to make it easy to get out of them again
18th-century-half-boned-stays-back
Ack! The spacing is off…I’ll try for a 2″ gap next time
18th-century-half-boned-stays-side
The most bosom I will ever have

Changes for the next attempt

After learning so much from this first go-around, I have a few ideas for how to make attempt number 2 even more successful.

  • Face and turn out the tabs at the bottom. To make the bottom tabs easier to finish, I plan to adjust the pattern a bit, so that once I have the channeling done, I’ll put right sides together of the lining and cover, sew the tabs (there will need to be a small seam allowance on the tabs—that’ll be the tricky part, but I have a couple of ideas), then turn it out and finish the sides and bind the top like the pattern suggests
  • Make my own bias tape out of the cover material. I thought using pre-made bias tape would be a big time saver, but it created its own set of problems. Making bias tape doesn’t take all that long
  • Lighter color for the cover fabric. I chose William Booth Draper ‘s WWV 542 variety because it was one of the cheaper worsted wools and the color looked light enough in the photo on their site. Incorrect! This green is very dark, and will probably show through lighter garments. The next pair will be of a lighter color.
  • No high-contrast thread! Since I discovered that on half-boned stays, the channeling wasn’t supposed to be visible anyway (for fully-boned stays, the channels were considered decorative, so were left showing on the cover), so it kills two birds with one stone: hides my sloppy stitches and masks the channels (a bit).

18th-century-half-boned-stays-full-front-not-worn

XO,

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