18th Century Stays - Introduction and Materials

Monday, 5 November 2018 | 18:42

In May of this year, Taryn and I vacationed in Virginia as a combined trip for her brother Dan’s wedding and a two-year wedding anniversary trip for us. Two of our stops after the wedding were Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg, where Taryn fell in love with the women’s clothing. We grilled the interpretive staff at both locations to understand construction details and style considerations. I’ve never sewn women’s clothes before, let alone from two and a half centuries ago, so I had plenty to learn!

The basic working clothing for a woman would have been the shift, stays, petticoat, short gown, kerchief, apron, and cap. Taryn wanted to have a petticoat and short gown outfit of her own for everyday wear. Now, the challenge with this is that the outfit only looks “right” with the stays underneath to shape the bust correctly. So, not only am I learning to make women’s garments, but jumping straight to the challenge of corsetry! This project turned out to not be all that difficult, but it did take a lot of time. From cutting to completion, it was one month of work. Now, granted, I have a day job that involves no sewing, but I did probably spend a couple of evenings a week and most Saturdays and a couple of Fridays on this project.

Some background on stays (and why Taryn isn’t as crazy as you might think): Unlike Victorian era corsets, which were laced so tight that they shifted the bones around and deformed internal organs, 18th century stays conform to the torso and support the breasts. One of the interpreters commented that they act more as a reminder to keep proper posture (upright rather than slouching) and proper ergonomics (squat rather than bent over) when picking things up. Spoiler alert: Taryn says it’s far more comfortable than any bra she’s ever worn, even her expensive, good bras. Thinking about it, that makes sense; instead of elastic pulling the breasts in tight and thin straps transferring the load to the shoulders, the entire torso carries the load, distributed by the body-shaped bones.

One interpreter recommended we take a look at the Simplicity 8162 pattern by American Duchess, as it’s a fairly accurate modern pattern for 18th century stays. I needed modern instructions for my first attempt, as well as sizing I could trust. You’ll also notice that I’ve used, almost exclusively, modern techniques. I love my sewing machine and I don’t love hand sewing. These will be used for everyday wear, not for reenacting, so I’m not worried about it looking 100 percent historically correct.

Oh, and the stays versus corset terminology? It depends on the time period. Stays tend to come earlier usage than corset, but both words were used at this time period (1790s). I’ll use stays for these instructions, but Taryn usually refers to them as her corset. And technically, it’s a pair of stays. Anyway, off of the boring terminology and on to the fun part, making ‘em!

Materials

  • Coutil - It’s worth buying the real stuff, available from multiple sellers on Etsy, so that your finished product doesn’t twist into weird shapes. It’s also a joy to work with.
  • Outer fabric - I used quilting cotton, but I’d pick something stronger next time for durability.
  • Lining fabric - I used the same quilting cotton as the outer fabric, which was fine for the lining.
  • Boning - I used a combination of 36 inch duct ties (175 pound tensile strength) from Home Depot and 18 inch cable ties (75 pound tensile strength) from Amazon.
  • Grommets - I used 5mm grommets from Kam Snaps (you’ll also need the tools to install). Note that to be period correct, you’d need to hand stitch the eyelets rather than use metal grommets.
  • Twill tape - 1/2 inch wide, as called for on the pattern. Once again, Etsy is your friend when trying to find natural colored cotton twill tape.
  • Chamois - I used this instead of twill tape for the binding, both for comfort and durability. Available from your local auto parts store in the car cleaning section. Just make sure it’s actual leather and not a synthetic imitation.

Make a Mock-Up

Being the cautious person that I am, I cut out the pattern pieces for the size that the pattern envelope called for based on Taryn’s measurements and make a quick mockup from cotton duck I had lying around. No bones, no grommets, just stitched together to get an idea of whether we were even close. I’ve heard that taping some bones to the fabric can help get a better idea of how it works; I’ll probably try that in the future. The mockup looked tolerably close, even though it looked terrible without any structure from bones, so I proceeded with cutting out the real fabric.

Next: Preparing and cutting fabric, and marking and sewing boning channels.

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