Introduction: 18th Century Stay (Reversible)
The stay is supportive and versatile as a stand alone bodice or under a dress. I don't know if reversibility is historically accurate, but as a modern woman I find it a nice feature, especially since stays are rather time consuming to make. I sewed this one by hand, but machine sewing is certainly a good time saving option.
A brief introduction to the stay in general (feel free to skip): The stay was a staple garment in the wardrobe of a woman in the western world from the late 17th century right up until the early 20th century. I call this one an 18th century stay, but really the design was similar from the 17th century on. The stay was not worn as underwear per se, but rather over a shift (linen/cotton under-gown) which was the all-in-one women's underwear. The stay was worn under nice dresses or as a bodice on its own (depending on time period and economic status) to provide support and to give shape. The stay is the equivalent of the modern day sports bra and lifting belt combined, providing support both in front and to the back. I am not quite clear on exact distinctions between a stay and a corset, but in my experience stays tend to have tabs at the bottom, no busk in front, and sometimes shoulder straps unlike most corsets. I am also given to understand that the stay has an English origin while the corset has more French influence. The first garment that truly resembles either of these was apparently first worn in early 16th century Spain and was simply wooden lathes held together by linen tape, so be it stay or corset, it has to be more comfortable than that.
Step 1: Tools and Patterns
- I used less than a yard of each of my two fabrics and of the canvas interfacing.
- All the usual sewing things: thread, needle, scissors, etc.
- Boning: Store bought boning is hugely expensive (or at least I thought it was for what I got), so I used (and would recommend) plastic cable ties. The extra long cable ties found in the electrical department of the hardware store are almost identical to the imitation whalebone boning from the fabric stores. I got about 16 yards of cable tie (in 2 foot lengths) for the same price one yard of boning from the fabric store would have cost.
- Wire cutters or strong scissors for cutting the cable tie
- Ribbon or cord for lacing: I used about two yards for the back and two six inch pieces for the shoulder straps.
I based my stay off a Butterick pattern. My first stay was exactly off the pattern, but it was ill fitting and unwieldy because it was too thick, heavy, and it didn't line up on my waist line which caused to pull in uncomfortably against my rib cage. For this one, I modified the pattern to line up with my waist, as well as a few other adjustments based off of some research. I found the books A History of Costume by Carl Kohler and Whatever Shall I Wear? by Mara Riley to be instructive. Also, this website was quite inspirational. Something that took me a while to figure out in my own mind was that the apex of the cuts that make the tabs in the lower portion is the waist line. The laces can only pull in the waist down to that point, and the tabs below this line open out to follow the natural widening on the hips below the waist line. (more on this in step three)
Step 2: Construction
I cut one of each piece of the pattern from the main fabric (blue), the lining (red), and the canvas interfacing. After this I sewed the canvas to the main fabric, and then pieced the interfaced pieces together.
Step 3: Channeling and Boning
The channels are formed by sewing the interfacing to the fabric. I sketched on the boning channels on the back of the interfacing with a pencil, and then ran a running stitch down each line to make a channel between the interfacing and main fabric. Boning channel placement was really somewhat arbitrary. The only stipulation based on historical examples is that the bones be within about forty-five degrees of vertical. Based on problems I had with my first stay, I made sure to extend the bones that extend into the tabs up past the top of the tabs. Otherwise they folded out and were uncomfortable and looked terrible.
At this point I cut the slits from the lower hem the the waist line to make the tab. I found it important to remember that the height the tabs are cut to becomes the waist line because the tabs make the bottom open out for the hips.
To make bones, I cut off the tie part of the cable tie, leaving a square end. I then cut the corners off with a wire cutters and filed the end round. (see pictures) I then laid the bone on the channel I was filling with the rounded end lined up with the end of the channel, and made a mark on the tie in line with the other end of the channel. Following which I repeated the end rounding process, starting by cutting the tie on the mark I had just made to make a square end.
After both ends of the bone that was now the correct length were rounded, I inserted the bone in the channel.
I made sure to leave the bones in channels that touch the edge of the fabric about a quarter inch short for hemming allowance. I also made all the longest bones first so that I could use the excess from making these to bone the smaller channels.
Step 4: Finishing and Lacing
After boning, I switched gears and made the lining (which for clarity is what I'm calling the reverse side). The lining is the exact same set of pieces, sewed together with the exact same seam allowance, so that the lining comes out the exact same size as the other piece (in theory, mine didn't, but it was close enough that it worked fine with just a little trimming). The lining just lays right on the main piece and is connected by the hemming/binding on the edge.
I think traditionally the edges of stays were bound with quarter inch binding, but in pursuit of reversibility with two very different colors, I folded the edges under and whip stitched the edge to finish. I like it because its inconspicuous and binds the edges strongly.
I used a leather hole punch to cut the lace holes along the back. The holes start at the top of the back and continue down the waist line at about one and half inch intervals except the last one which was at about a half inch. I don't particularly like metal eyelets for things like this, but they are an alternative to hand finishing the eyelets like I did. Note: The waist line is also the top of the tap slits and the lace holes need to end here so that the back tabs don't pull together too much. It took me a while to realize this. See the next step for more on lacing.
It was at this point that I also attached the shoulders, which I made long on purpose so that I could fit the length now when rest was more or less finished. I laced myself in and found the right length, cutting two holes here in the shoulder strap and two matching holes in the shoulder strap attachment place on the top of the front. A short section of ribbon threads through the holes holding the strap on. (see pictures)
Step 5: Wearing
From what I've seen of historical examples, its more historically correct to lace in a zig-zag rather than a criss-cross pattern, but I prefer the standard modern criss-cross because it make the lacing pull in evenly. They are also laced in almost all historical examples from the bottom to the top.
Front lacing stays are infinitely easier to get yourself in and out than back lacing stay, but it is possible to get yourself in and out of a back lacing stay. It takes me about ten minutes to get in on my own, but if you have a buddy (or in the old days a servant) to help, it takes much less time. To get in on your own it helps to lace the stay about one third or one half way up with the shoulder straps untied, and then pull it on backwards. From here you can finish lacing it in the front and then turn the stay the right way round, holding on to the lace ends and continuing to tighten with the stay the right way round. If I'm on my own and can't get the lace tied at top I pull the lace down and around under my arms and tie it in front, tucking the lace under the edge of the top of the stay. Then I retie the shoulder straps. You can fully lace the stay first and pull it on the right way round, but this requires a very long lace to make it wide enough to get over your shoulders or hips. I tried this and it took me about six and a half yards of lace to squeeze in fully laced, as opposed to the two yards pictured. Two yards leaves quite enough extra to tuck in at the end, six yards was down to the floor when I was fully laced in.
Well that's it, the rest is really up to personal taste or exact historic time period representation.