What are 18th century stays? Essentially, they are a type of corset, a foundation garment, worn by women of all ages and social status during the 18th century. Usually made of linen, but often made of fine silk, brocade or wool, stays were stiffened into a conical shape by narrow strips of baleen, a keratin-based material which forms a bristle plate across the top jaw of whales. The narrow strips of baleen were sewn into channels in the fabric, forming a firm yet flexible support to the garment. Stay makers also used metal or wood to create the shape, and sometimes stays were made of leather, which was scored to allow for movement.
Unlike the waist shaping corsets of the 19th century, 18th century stays were believed to provide postural support, and were usually not tightly laced. Stays also helped to support the layered fabric of gowns and petticoats. A conical torso and flattened bust were most desirable for the 18th century fashionista, so this was a primary goal of wearing stays. It would appear that women were uncomfortable wearing stays, but I have not found that to be the case in my research. Because children also wore stays, a woman would have been accustomed to the fit and feel of wearing such a garment since childhood. Working women may have experienced a feeling of support provided by the stays, which would be similar to a person wearing a back brace in the 21st century. An exception to wearing stays seems to be during and after pregnancy, when stays were either modified to accommodate the increasing waistline, or were replaced by a less boned bodice.
A variety of styles were popular, as evidenced by extant garments in museums. There were stays with tabs and without tabs, with straps and strapless, with front lacing or with back lacing, with a stomacher, or with a busk ( a long flat piece of wood inserted into a pocket down the center of the stays). Some stays appear to have been purely functional, while others seems to serve a more fashionable purpose.
Stays were a coveted article of clothing, so much so that the stealing of stays was a very common practice. Until the last quarter of the 18th century, staymaking was a male dominated profession. Stays were mostly custom made for the wealthy, while the poor and middling classes could purchase ready-made stays. The very poor may have had stays provided by a church charity.
Successful staymaking requires skill, dexterity, and knowledge of how to fit a garment. After my attempts at staymaking, I can certainly attest to the fact that it takes strength and dexterity to wrestle a set of boned stays into submission while applying binding and finishing edges! It also takes a boat load of patience.
The following blog post details my efforts to sew a set of stays. Despite my many years of sewing experience, this project posed several challenges for me. I actually made two sets of stays, the first ending in a tangled mess of linen threads, leather binding and boning. But the second attempt had much better results!
I am not an expert on stay-making, and I defer to those who have dedicated years of research and experience to creating historically accurate clothing. [disclaim]This is simply a sewing diary of my own project, and I've knowingly chosen to use some modern methods and materials.[/disclaim]I am sharing it so that it may, at best, provide a bit of inspiration to others.
So with that said, let's find out how I made a set of 18th century stays!
Pattern and Materials
I used the pattern by J.P. Ryan - 18th century Half-boned Stays, and the following materials:
- Linen fabric, linen thread, and twill tape from Burnley & Trowbridge Co.
- German plastic boning from Vogue Fabrics
- Pre-made bias binding
- I also used Mettler cotton sewing thread for my machine sewing.
Favorite Sewing Tools & Supplies:
- Saral Transfer Paper - for accurate transfer of pattern markings
- Lint Roller with Cap - for picking up the linen threads and tiny scraps
- Ott LED Floor Lamp with Magnifier - for hand sewing
- Bernina 750 QE Sewing Machine - because I don't have enough time to hand sew all my projects!
- Bernina Eyelet Attachment - for making the most beautiful eyelets ever!
- Adjustable Dress Form - I use one from Fabulous Fit, padded to my measurements
Making the Fit Garment
I began by making a muslin fit garment, or "toile." My measurements were close to the pattern sizing, but I wanted a more accurate fit. This meant cutting out all the appropriate pattern pieces from muslin, then sewing them together in the specified order. Once I had it sewn together, I pinned the muslin toile to the dress form and began to look for areas of poor fit.
I decided to reduce the bust area but increase the waist area. I also reduced the large seam allowance for the center back pieces. I used the book The Complete Photo Guide to Perfect Fitting by Sarah Veblen as a reference for making the alterations. Because I took in the center front seam, this would alter the lining pattern, so I used the pattern pieces for the front of the stays for the lining also. Fitting the muslin toile required a couple of revisions and testing the fit not just on the dress form, but on me too. Although the dress from is padded to my measurements, the form does not compress under the garment like a real body, so it was essential to try it on myself.
Following the pattern directions, I cut out and marked all the pattern pieces, using the Saral paper to transfer all the channel markings. The pattern calls for sewing the boning channels after all of the front and interfacing pieces have been sewn together. To make matters easier, I sewed each interfacing piece to its matching front piece, basted around the edges, and treated them as one unit.
I then sewed the channels on each unit. When all the channels were sewn, I then assembled the stays by sewing each unit to the next according to the proper sequence. Then I removed the basting threads.
There are several extant stays which show a very similar construction. You can usually identify this construction method because a narrow braid of trim is often used to cover the seam.
I then sewed all the lining pieces together, then basted the lining to the front/interfacing section.
Next, I sewed the bias tape along the sides and bottom edges, leaving the top for later. Turning the binding to the lining side, I hand sewed it in place, using small stitches which hid in the fold of the bias tape. I have noticed during my research on stays, that most were bound with a narrow tape of some sort, so I chose a single fold bias tape and trimmed the garment edges to allow for a more narrow binding. I prefer the look of the narrow binding.
Before proceeding with the boning, I marked the placement for all of the eyelets. The eyelets need to be staggered, so that when the stays are laced up, the top and bottom edges are even.
Using the eyelet attachment for my sewing machine, I sewed a set of eyelets down the back of the stays. I also made an eyelet on each tab end and at each "point" on the back panels. By sewing the binding on first, it allows for better centering of the eyelets, and it's a lot easier to get the stays under the sewing machine without the boning!
At this point, the stays have binding all along the sides and bottom edges, but the top has not been bound. I then inserted the boning into each channel, taking care to round off the ends of each piece. I trimmed the boning so that there was enough room to apply the binding at the top edge of the stays. I then sewed the binding on, and finished it by hand as I did before.
I learned several important things by making these stays:
- It's much easier (and still historically accurate) to assemble the stays in sections comprised of the front fabric, interfacing and lining, all treated as one unit.
- Tabs are a menace when applying binding. I'll be rounding off and shortening my tabs in the future!
- Eyelets can be done before inserting the boning.
- Bind the sides and lower edges (tabs) before the top edge.
- Binding looks best when narrow.
- Eyelets could be reinforced with narrow strips of leather or tape.
- Careful measurement and fitting of a muslin toile will save you time in the long run!
- Dress forms are great but it's still best to try the garment on the real person.
There are many ways to make 18th century stays, and this is just one way I tried. I hope you'll be inspired to make something, too!