Time Traveling | Making 18th Century Stays

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Voila! I've put the finishing touches on my 18th century stays and I could not be more excited and proud of the final result. I've made these as the foundation to complete my 1780's style costume that I'll wear this fall with my family to a Revolutionary War re-enactment. But before I go into any of those plans, let me tell you more about this project!

Historical Background

Once upon a time, stays were the foundation to every woman's daily outfit. They provide an elegant conical shape, give back support, lift and enhance the bosom (hello!) and inform one's posture. Women of all social classes wore stays, which later evolved into corsets. Normally stays would be worn with a linen shift or chemise underneath, but I haven't completed mine yet so I'm just wearing a simple white dress I already had in my closet. 


I wanted my stays to have an antique quality to them, which is why I chose natural linen as my fashion fabric. I also knew I wanted to make them a little extra special, and chose to embroidery an 18th century design. I'm not going for a super bourgeois look nor am I wanting to be a laborer/camp follower. So although this fabric does lend itself to a more modest (financially speaking) approach, I think the embroidery makes it special and a little more luxurious. All that said, no one but me and you will see this piece because it will be completely covered by my gown and petticoats!  

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The floral design I've used was actually something I found at a garage sale! The pattern was part of a Colonial Williamsburg embroidery kit for a bell pull. I used this design as a basis by scanning it into Photoshop and adjusting it to fit the center front pattern piece (which was a PDF download). Next I printed that design out to scale on adhesive embroidery paper, which dissolves in water once you have completed your design. It was really cool! I also recolored it into shades of blue, which really pop against the natural linen! 


I purchased the digital download from RedThreaded patterns online. I met the proprietress Cynthia at the Jane Austen Festival and she was great! I had a look at her stock corsets and this particular 18th century design spoke to me. I like the look of the horizontal boning and the shaping of the all in one tabs. I sewed a medium and did not make alterations to the pattern pieces. I did add some additional decorative boning channels because I love the ribbed effect it creates.

Stitching Notes

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Because I embroidered the motif directly onto the linen, I did a lot of stopping and starting with my boning channels, as I did not want to sew over/through my design (minus some small branches). The end result is so beautiful and I don't think the starts and stops will negatively effect the functionality!

I used a faux silk charmeuse (It's poly and the best I could find locally! It has a really nice hand feel for not being the real thing) for my binding and hand sewed it around the entirety of the stays, using the bias to create as smooth of an effect as possible. This was fiddly, but I actually really loved doing the hand work on this step. I then wrapped the bias around the edges and basted it into place. Finally, I stitched in the ditch oh-so-carefully to hold the binding in place.

I also really loved doing all of the eyelets BY HAND (there are 24 of them!) Using a sewing awl and button thread, these lil guys are so sturdy. And they're beautiful! 

Finally - I did end up making two orders for my boning and had to adjust the lengths (I needed longer) than the pattern notions suggested. And that's my fault because the pattern says to measure before you order (but I wanted all of the supplies at once...)

Final Thoughts

I LOVED this project. All of the handwork was really enjoyable and something I am able to do as my children play nearby or while they are napping (getting time with my sewing machine is a different story). Sewing it was a pleasure and it's fun to create something with such attention to detail, even if I'm the only one who will be able to appreciate them.

Actually lacing up and wearing these stays was even better than making them!! I love the silhouette it creates and how it really directs how you move about. Weird as it may sound, I always feel more myself when I'm dressing in costume and this foundation garment is no exception. It's remarkably comfortable and doesn't constrict my breathing as you might expect. Now I cannot wait to get started on my 1780s Italian style gown! 

Project Sources

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