Sewing 18th Century Stays

Mustard gingham with embroidered bees.
Mustard gingham with embroidered bees.

To know why I’m posting about making 18th Century Stays, you have to know about my love affair with the robe à la française (sacque gown) which I’ve previous covered.

Like all historic gowns, under a sacque gown you need a proper foundation. This is obtained via a conical-shaped corset. Ideally, this needs to be sewn by hand to obtain the most perfect and accurate shape. However, throughout my 18th Century clothing odyssey, I have always had a rather full plate with school, work, and family, so I’ve always made my garments on a machine so that my projects take days, not months. My lack of patience and ADD demands it! Besides, if the ladies in the 18th Century would have had machines to sew on, they would have used them.

The 18th Century Corset Process (for someone who’s in a hurry)

I’ve used the same corset since I made my first gown in college. Since I am not the same size I was in college, it’s time to upgrade. My main goal with this corset is:

  • To add more width so less of my back is exposed and the sides of the corset are in line with the sides of my body
  • To add length for improved tummy control

I chose the fabric, which is a leftover remnant from cushions I made for our sofa. I love the muted color and gingham pattern with cheerful little bees. Ideally, on hot days, I can wear the corset alone with a skirt as an 18th Century interpretation, or a Ren Faire outfit, on really hot days.

Corset Step One

Laying out the pieces on the bee fabric.
Laying out the pieces on the bee fabric.

My pattern is really easy. Just three pieces. One front, which I cut into two to add width but probably should have taped prior and cut the front out in one piece (you’ll see why later – whoops). One back, which is cut into two for the lacing. And, one shoulder strap, to which I had to add a few inches since my bustline has been negatively affected by gravity and seems to have relocated south. With a patterned fabric like this, you need to line up the pieces of the pattern with the design of the fabric so that the fabric matches from piece to piece. Corsets are typically multi-layered. For this piece, I used a sturdy cotton fabric as the lining.

bee-corset-helper
Our cat Loki is a big helper!

Corset Step Two

The corset shown sewn together.
The corset shown sewn together.

Once the pieces are cut, I sewed the outside pieces together, then the inside pieces together, and finally the outside to the inside. The bottom is left open. Once everything is assembled, turn right side out and iron the seams down. I sew a border around the sides and top which act as a stop for the metal stays that will be inserted.

Corset Step Three

Sewing the channels for the corset stays.
Sewing the channels for the corset stays.

This is where the biggest difference is between machine corset production and making a corset by hand. Ideally, the channels are sewn by hand, making the boning very precise. Instead, using my pattern as a guide, I mark out the channels using the stays and a very light pencil line on either side on the inside fabric. Then I run the corset through the machine and voila! Nice straight channels, somewhat precise but good enough for the right shape.

18th Century corset status.

Here you can see my bees don’t line up – grrr, so I’ll have to come up with something for that. I’ve done eight channels so far with another 10 or 12 outstanding before the channels for the boning are completed. So far, about an hour and half into the project. Meanwhile, I have a house to clean, kid to feed, laundry to fold… so the rest will have to wait for another day. I’ll update this post at that time.

Doing It the Right Way

If you want to see very well done corsets, here are some websites of people who take their time and probably don’t use a machine.

 

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