18th Century Stays - Inserting Boning, Seaming, and Grommets

Tuesday, 6 November 2018 | 16:35

This is part 3 of my 18th century stays project.
Continued from: Fabric and Boning Channels

Inserting Boning, Part 1

I inserting boning in two stages to make the job easier and to allow me to be more precise. The first stage is for bones which will have both ends of their channels closed off by seams, rather than binding. The only occurrences of this are the horizontal bust bones, since one end butts against a full length bone and the other against a seam.

Cutting Boning

For the 75 pound cable ties, you can just use a pair of stout and sharp scissors. For the 175 pound duct ties, you’ll probably damage your scissors, so use a pair of diagonal cutters, making sure to point the end that will be cut off into a garbage can. It will go flying at a high rate of speed. If I didn’t already wear decently large eyeglasses, I’d totally be wearing safety glasses. Seriously. Pointy plastic in the eye has never been fun for anybody.

Boning End Preparation

Once you cut it to length (with the correct angle on each end), you’ll want to slightly round the end so that it isn’t going to damage your fabric or binding. I did this in two stages. First, use scissors to slightly clip the corners, just enough to take off the point. Second, hold the end near a candle flame until the edges just start to soften and round over. This may take some practice, but it’s far easier than using sandpaper. Note: If you over-melt the plastic, it will become bubbly and brittle, which you don’t want. If that happens, get a new piece and start over. Plastic is cheap.

The final length should allow you to insert the bone into the channel and have it flush or just below flush with the end of the channel, which is defined either by the edge of the fabric or a seam allowance line. Better to err on the side of being too short rather than sticking out; a 1/16 inch isn’t going to make much of a difference if too short, but will if too long. To get this right, I fully prepare one end, insert it into the channel, mark the length with a pencil (on the smooth side, which should be facing towards the outside fabric), remove it from the channel, cut it, and prepare the second end. You’ll probably get more than one bone per cable tie since a lot of the bones are short.

Seaming and Lining

Seam the four pieces per side together and press the seam allowances open, making sure not to overheat any bones you’ve already inserted. It will look like this.


Assemble and attach the shoulder straps and lining as stated in the instructions, then turn everything to put the outside on the outside. When sewing on the front and back seam allowances, make sure to not sew the resultant channel too tight, since you’ll need to insert a 175 pound tie into that space. You can make it smaller, but larger requires taking out stitches.

When you stitch all three layers together, don’t sew over any boning channels, since you still need to insert those bones. Stitch around the cut lines for the tabs, then cut the tabs (there are two, the full length and the extension on the frontmost tab.

Inserting Boning, Part 2

Now you can take care of the rest of the bones, using the same process as before. You’ll now look like this.


Mark and Stitch Bust Line

This line of stitching holds in the vertical bones which don’t extend all the way to the binding.


Finish Shoulder Seam

Grade the seam allowances of the shoulder strap and body to reduce bulk. Note that I’ve only done this on some of the layers, since I want the durability provided by leaving the inner layer of the shoulder intact.


Press the tab of the lining under, so that the fold is even with the stitching line that holds the strap onto the body.


Slip stitch the lining to the shoulder strap. This is hand sewing, but totally worth it to hide the stitching.



If you haven’t already, mark the locations for your grommets. For help with this, refer to Jen Thompson’s excellent blog post on spiral lacing. I made sure there would be a horizontal top and bottom lace, with those parts also on the outside, her second method. It’s easy math. Tip: Make a few practice grommets with scraps of the fabric you used. I found that compressing the grommet until it just started to crimp, rotating 45 to 90 degrees, then finishing the crimp resulted in a much better finished product than not rotating it midway through.


Next will be binding, but let’s face it. You won’t be able to resist putting lacing in and trying it on. Go ahead, it won’t hurt anything! Just take out the lacing before moving on to binding.

Next: Binding

18th Century Stays - Fabric and Boning Channels

Tuesday, 6 November 2018 | 15:30

This is part 2 of my 18th century stays project.
Continued from: Introduction and Materials

Prepare and Cut Fabric

Tip: starching your fabric before cutting will make this whole project much easier, since it won’t be stretching on you. You’re trying to get a bunch of layers to match up and look nice and you’re doing a lot more sewing than typical for a lined garment. And, yes, always pre-wash your fabric. Run it through a couple of cycles on hot water and hot dry. You want any shrinkage to happen now, before you spend days cutting and sewing.

Cutting it out was easy with a rotary cutter. Just take your time and be precise.

Mark Seam Allowances

Go ahead and mark your seam allowances, so that you know how much space you have to work with. You’ll notice that I’ve pre-marked one large boning channel inside of the grommet line on the back and one small channel on the front. Since they are needed, no matter the rest of the boning layout, I drew them in with the seam allowances. For the reason for these channels, read below under My Approach. You’ll also want to transfer the bust line stitching line to the coutil for later use. Any cutting lines (like for tabs) I marked with a pencil.


Draft Boning Channels

The pattern comes with a suggested layout for the bones, using only the 36 inch (175 pound) heavy duty duct ties. This will make a very stiff pair of stays with larger gaps between each bone. As an improvement, I used the 175 pound duct ties only at the lacing edges and used 75 pound cable ties everywhere else. I used the 1790 half boned pattern from American Duchess (more or less, you’ll need to make it work for your particular size). The great thing is that you can draw the lines directly onto the coutil, since the lines will be hidden by the lining. I used a washable fabric marker, which was good because I had to re-draw a few lines. This amount of boning turned out perfect.

My Approach

  1. There should be a channel at every seam or lacing edge, but having a channel on only one side of the seam is OK.
  2. Tabs need to have some boning extending up into the body past the waist so that they don’t just fold at the waist. Any that don’t extend past the beginning of the tab do butt up against bones that do extend, usually from much higher up.
  3. Lacing needs extra strength, so I have 175 pound ties at the front and back edges. The back, which doesn’t need to curve as much, has a second 175 pound tie on the other side of the grommets. For the front, I put a 75 pound tie, which serves the same purpose, but with greater flexibility.
  4. Channels can’t be in the same spot as where the binding will go. A channel can be parallel and adjacent to the binding, but not under.
  5. Channels will extend all the way too the edge of the fabric, underneath the binding. Keep in mind that most channels will not intersect the edge at right angles. You want to minimize the number of sharp angles, since they are both difficult to cut and make for a very pointy bone that will want to poke its way out. I did end up with a couple of spots with angles slightly smaller than 45 degrees, but these are rare.

One modification I made to the American Duchess method was the horizontal channels in the bust and one tab. Instead of sewing in a separate pocket, I just made all the channels in the same layer, making sure to not stitch across the intersecting channels. Take a look at the picture at the bottom of this post for the best illustration.

How wide should the boning channels be? This is critical; if they are too wide, the bones will shift and twist, but if they’re too narrow, you won’t get the bones inserted. I more or less used 1/16 inch greater width than the cable tie, so that comes to:

  • 175 pound (1/2 inch wide plastic) - 9/16 inch channel
  • 75 pound (1/4 inch wide plastic) - 5/16 inch channel

You really should do a mockup with scraps of coutil and your outer fabric, because the specific fabric and ties make a difference.

When you’ve drawn all your channels, you should end up with something like this.

You can see that I had to re-draw some of the channels to make things fit better. I couldn’t get the old line to erase completely, since I didn’t want to saturate the fabric and lose my starchiness. You’ll also see that some of my horizontal and vertical channel intersections aren’t drawn right. Just smudge out the line with a damp finger as best you can. When done right, the intersection should look like a + with openings from all four sides.

Once you’re done, you’ll see why I had to buy the 18 inch 75 pound cable ties online - they aren’t available that long in that width in retail stores. You may find some from electrical distributors, but most guys I know just put two together to make a longer one. That clearly doesn’t work for us.

Now, go ahead and sew all of these boning channels using a thread color that will look nice with your outer fabric. I used a dark brown. Use the same thread color on both sides; it won’t show on the inside anyway and you don’t want a different color peeking through to the outside. Don’t sew the seam allowance lines, those only get sewn when seaming the pieces together. Now it will look like this, except you’ll have a back piece on the left instead of the other front jumping into the photo. But, hey, at least you can see double the examples of how to sew those horizontal and vertical intersections.


Next: Inserting boning, seaming together, and installing grommets.

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!


  • 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.