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The Stays: Part I

Before we get into the making of the stays I need to be real with you. I kept this project a secret for over two months because I was really afraid I was going to end up embarrassing myself. I kept asking myself “Am I really doing this? This is all new. This is complicated.” Even as I was fabric hunting and researching I kept having a vision of this project turning into a wreck, a sad mess of fabric that would sit unfinished guilting me from a corner for the rest of my days. I usually share things I’m excited about social media, but I was worried that I would share something and then have someone ask about it “Hey, how’s that costume coming along?” …and have to admit that I’d f-ed it up beyond recognition and abandoned it in shame and frustration.

Because it’s happened before—although no one found out. I shared a work-in-progress on Instagram, right before making a huge mistake. In my eagerness to get more done during naptime I miscut the batting for an easy whole cloth “quilt” and well, once fabric is cut, there’s no undo button! My batting was too large and I was supposed to trim it down, except I forgot that I had measured and marked when it was folded in half. YUP. I had extra batting, and somehow managed to make it too small to use. The only option was to buy more batting, and I was crushed that I’d made such a stupid error before getting the part I was nervous about trying in the first place—the quilting! I decided to only share finished or almost-finished projects after that.

Guess what? Surprise, I made more mistakes! But tackling them and problem-solving gave me confidence, instead of draining it. I’m self-taught and felt I didn’t have any sort of authority to share my work with others. I am still nervous about zippers. I don’t have a dress form or a dedicated sewing studio. I don’t have a degree in theatrical costuming or art history. I’m terrible at hand-sewing and don’t even know all the stitches used in historically accurate gowns. Don’t let your current skill set be your ONLY skill set. You just have to start. I hope if that you’re interested in sewing this project will prove that if I can do it, so can you!


The Stays

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A trio of embellished German stays from the Germanisches Nationalmuseum.
A pair of stays would have been worn by every woman and girl in the 18th century, although the fabric and quality would have reflected her station. They could have be made with silk brocade and bailene (whalebone) for the wealthy upper class, or linen and worsted wool with reed boning for lower class women. Even though I do love this exchange between Claire and Mrs. Fitz in S1e2—“What kind of corset is that?!”
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“Corset” was the term used because the writers knew the audience would only know the more modern word. An older term for them was a “pair of bodies” and “pair of stays” seems to be used into the 1800’s with transitional stays. As I mentioned before these stays are made with the Simplicity 8162 pattern and work for mid-18th century garments. If you look at extant examples in museum collections you’ll see that the style and shape alters in later decades. A pair of stays gives a foundation for the dress and should take in your waist, but not be too uncomfortable. As noted in Corsets and Crinolines:
“the shoulder blades were thus permanently pulled back to give the fashionable narrow straight back… These stays do not unduly compress the waist.”

Unlike a Victorian corset with an extreme hourglass shape and little regard for a woman’s internal organs and indulgences like breathing!

I don’t have my early process photos because my phone met with a series of unfortunate events and I lost all my back up data. (The absolute worst. We will not speak of it further…)

You’ll need to measure yourself and cut out the appropriate size pattern. Then pin it and cut out your main fabric, which you’ll see on the outside, and your thicker interlining or strength layer which could be the traditional corsetry fabric coutil or linen or cotton canvas. Coutil is very expensive, and cotton canvas is similar to what would have been used so I purchased an all natural canvas duck. Natural fiber fabrics really are a must because you don’t want to be stuck sweating in polyester stays that don’t breathe! Upholstery fabric is popular for the main fabric because of the weight and designs, but so much of what I found was 100% polyester. Since you only need 1yd you could use a cotton-silk or 100% silk decor fabric that’s perhaps too pricey for a voluminous gown or skirt, but would make a very pretty pair of stays.

Carefully transfer all the markings (boning channels, cutting lines, etc.) by poking holes with a pin and then using a water-soluble fabric pen along those points. Complete the lines with a quilting ruler. Sew all 8 canvas sections to their corresponding main section.

Here are all the pieces with main fabric and strength layer sewn together and all the boning channels. You can see in the middle I was starting to sew the sections together and I found small binder clips held the bulky layers better than pins. On the right I was testing out the boning to make sure it fit.

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CF, SF, SB, CB, CB and SB clipped together, SF, CF with boning.

Next follow your markings and carefully sew the boning channels. Rococo Atelier’s 18th century stays tutorial was very detailed and especially beneficial to a first-timer like myself. Her tip about starting where the boning channels cross, instead trying to stop exactly at that point, was like a lightbulb going off! American Duchess has a couple posts with video for making this pattern that took the stress out of working with boning for the first time. I definitely watched/read them several times just have the process feel like second nature.

Now you’ll sew center front to side front (CF to SF) and center back to side back (CB to SB), then sew the sections together. So you’ll have 4 pieces, then 2, then 1. Do the same for the other side, and now you have the left and right sides of your stays! Starting to look like something now!
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This my left side- see all the markings? The seam on the far right has been pressed and whipstitched down with upholstery thread.

See how tidy the whipstitched seam looks? This will help strengthen the seam and keep it flat under the lining. Something bumpy will be very uncomfortable once you’re laced in tight. This step is not a part of the Simplicity instructions, but I learned how to do this from the American Duchess video.

I used a tapered awl to make small holes at the front lacing marks. At last getting to see what they look like on me! So I laced up the front and I tried on the stays… but they were TOO. BIG.

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What? How is this possible?! Argharghargh. Only the front was laced because I was too impatient to make all the holes in the back, but I had a good hunk of fabric in my hand to hold it closed. It looked like a loose bodice, not a pair of stays with negative ease. Huge disappointment.I kept taking them out and looking at them, trying to decide if I wanted to undo the whipstitched seams. In the end I couldn’t bring myself to undo them (so many spare moments cobbled together to handsew them!) and gave them a closed back, taking out over an inch on each side. In the end it wasn’t as big of a deal as it felt like at first—in fact, front-lacing only is still historically accurate and easier to put on. I had considered making a size down for a tighter fit, but when I held the pattern up against me it was too short. I was already intimidated by this project and redrafting to lengthen each piece and adjust boning channels and markings—that’s a big pile of NOPE. Whenever I make another pair of stays (!!) I’ll have a better idea of what works and will remember to whipstitch AFTER trying on!

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Those blue dots on the back seam? Those were supposed to be the back lacing grommets! Obviously there is no way these stays would fit with two more pieces of boning and a laced closed back, much less a small gap like I expected.

These photos are from my second fitting after making them one piece—please ignore the odd lacing with blue yarn! Stays should not be worn with a strappy slip over lumpy jeans, but you knew that right? Sorry they’re not very pretty :/ It gets dark so early now that getting photos with good light requires some planning, and I wanted see what it looked like right away!

 

Hurray for photo timer apps! Still no straps here.
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Lots of extra fabric to be trimmed from the center back seam and the point is too long.

Mistakes conquered! In case any sticklers are concerned the stays do fit properly, but photos with them worn lower are quite indecent and won’t be shared on the internet! 😉 These stays were started at the beginning of October and most of my free time has gone into getting this far so I’m very proud of them. Are you also sewing the SimplicityxAmerican Duchess stays? How have yours come out?

Getting there, but still much to be done! Part II will cover the lining, binding, and grommets.

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