Thursday, March 18, 2021

Making 18th century stays for a curvy plus size woman*: Green linen 1780s stays, drafted according to Patterns of Fashion volume 5

My friend Pia (@stepsbackintothepast on Instagram) was in need of a well fitting pair of 18th century stays so I started making her one in the summer of 2019. The new Patterns of Fashion book (volume 5) had just come out earlier in the year so I was eager to try out the drafting method introduced in the book to see if it would yield better results than my own. And I was not disappointed! There's one thing I'd like to mention though. The instructions are easy to use for someone with a lot of experience in drafting patterns but I think beginners might find them lacking, as there are gaps that you should be able to fill in. I mention this because I don't want anyone to excitedly get the book and be sorely disappointed that they aren't able to understand the method and get the results they were hoping for because the instructions are very vague. Other than this, I think the book is extremely interesting and provides a lot of useful information that you can apply into making a pair of 18th century stays, whether you are a beginner or a more experienced historical costume-maker. Sadly, I didn't take many in progress photos of the stays in the making as I was trying to get them ready for wearing as quickly as possible. The first photo shows the finished stays (more of those can be found below the construction photos) so you can already see how they turned out.

Disclaimer: This is going to be a long post. :)

The idea was to make the stays as comfortable as possible, so we decided that we should use linen that we had already had available in the stash, too. The three linen layers are; a sturdy linen canvas for the middle layer, natural linen for the innermost layer and plain green linen for the outside. Here are the panels after cutting. The construction photos were quickly snapped on my not-so-new phone so the quality isn't ideal but I hope they're good enough.

The next two photos show basting around the panels in progress. Later on I realized it would have been smart to baste the middle sections with large basting stitches as well because linen has a tendency to move around when you're stitching the channels but it wasn't a huge problem. 

By this time I had learned that by using a thicker thread than your regular sewing thread, the stitching looks more like that seen on originals and it also creates sturdier boning channels so I wanted to experiment with that for fun, regardless of that the stays weren't even supposed to be constructed in a period manner.

This is how the panels looked after stitching most of the channels by machine. 

After adding the lacing grommets (this is custom work done as quickly as possible so handstitched eyelets weren't an option), assembling the stays and inserting the uncut zip ties into the boning channels it was time for the first fitting! I didn't bother to do a mockup because I was feeling pretty confident about the pattern and wanted to save time so I wasn't going to be as perfectionistic as I normally have a tendency to be. The main goal, afterall, was to make a pair of stays that create the correct shape/silhouette for the era under a gown - nitpicking about every little minor detail was absolutely unnecessary. 

As can be seen from the photos, the front panels were too large at the bust as I had overestimated how much room for the bust was going to be needed. Sorry about the mess in the background and the low quality of these photos. The lighting was less than ideal. The pin at the side marks the place above which the front panels had to mostly be taken in at the side, though the side seams was altered even below that point so that the seam line would be smooth and correspond with 1780s stay front panel shapes as closely as possible. 

See how much extra space there was... 

Unfortunately I don't remember how much I ended up taking the sides of the front panels in but it was somewhere around 3 cm per side if I'm not entirely mistaken. 

The back fitted like a glove though. As a side note, it still baffles me that I sometimes manage to lace stays incorrectly after more than a decade of making and wearing them... Anyway, it didn't really matter at this point. Also, notice that the stays were intentionally made to close entirely in the back, as per Patterns of Fashion 5. 

The following photos are taken from the second fitting. Check out how much better the fit at the bust is! The stays merely hold and support the bust but they aren't supposed to compress nor to shovel the bust upwards too much. She does have a busty figure so it may appear like there's a lot of lift from the photos, also thanks to the angle and lighting.

At the top edge of the front panel of the stays near the armpit you can see how the front panels do not compress - there's still a slight bit of extra there. This point would get correctly, gently pressed against the side of the bust once the shoulder straps would be added, as can be observed from later photos of the finished stays. 

This time I remembered how to lace properly. ūüėÖ

At the back we can also observe how the stays merely hold and support the back without compression. There is no "muffin top spillage" of flesh that would be a result of a too tight fit around the bust/back - which can happen to a woman of any size - just to point out that I'm not only taking about plus sizes here. Most of us (unless you're very lean) have more or less flesh that can be moved around and I, too, have certainly experienced spillage after gaining weight, resulting in my old stays becoming too small. It's normal if your weight and/or bust size tends to fluctuate, however, it should be avoided when you're fitting a brand new pair of stays.

After the fitting I closed the ends of the boning channels and zig-zagged around the edges of the stays to imitate the whipped edges of the originals and to prevent the layers of linen from fraying. After this the stays were wearable so they had to be put aside to wait for a better time for me to finish them. It took until summer 2020 for that time to arrive, which is when I bound the edges of the stays with tape, and finally right after Christmas I added the straps and hooks that the straps attach to. 

The stays are mainly boned with 7 mm wide zip ties for more support than the thinner (4,7 mm) ones. We were planning on putting metal bones in the channels next to the center front and center back but it didn't happen. We'll see if we find them necessary to add in the long run as the stays will be worn more regularly and for longer periods of time. 

Let's address the shape of the stays. Even though I was basing the stays off of 1780s stays we wanted them to work for a slightly longer stretch of time, at least as far back as the 1770s. Hence the top edge of the stays doesn't scoop down as much in the front as it might, nor is there as much shaping in the front overall. The front curve seen from the side isn't as radical as in some 1780s stays but there is still a little bit of that "pigeon breast/prow front" (or whatever you prefer to call it) look but it's not dramatic. If more curvature for the bust is desired for a more distinct 1780s look, the lacing can be left more open at the front. 

The stays below were one of the examples of stays that I looked at as a reference,  although I wasn't going to copy them or any other specific pair of extant stays exactly, instead Pia's stays are a mixture of typical stays from the decade. Just look how much lower the top front edge of these c. 1785-1790 stays scoops down. 

Pia's measurements* with the stays are 107 cm (42 in) bust and 83,50 cm (33 in) waist, while her natural measurements are 108 cm (42 1/2 in) bust and 92 cm (36 in) waist, meaning the waist reduction is 8,5 cm (3 inches). The bust isn't meant to be reduced in stays so it's pretty much the same. The pattern itself measures 77 cm (30 1/2 in) at the waist and 104 cm (41 in) at the bust. This is something I've learned along the way;  if you draft your pattern to match your desired measurements exactly, your stays will most likely end up being too big, especially if they are made fully in linen, as linen tends to stretch. But I've made stays from all sorts of materials and I've always had to make the measurements of the pattern smaller than your desired measurements. I'd love to provide you with some exact numbers of how much smaller your pattern should be, but that varies depending on the body of the person the stays are being made for as well as the fabrics you're working with and the amount stiffening you're going to put into the stays. But I thought I'd mention this, as a lot of people make the first mock-up of their first stays way too big (including myself) because of underestimating how much smaller the pattern should be in relation to your measurements. After all, that's what mock-ups are for... Anyhow, I hope this helps you to achieve a better first mock-up. Don't be afraid to make the pattern a bit smaller than you think! It rarely is the case that the first one turns out too small. :)

(Inches are rounded up or down to the nearest half an inch.)

*Please note that these measurement may or may not be labeled as plus size depending on country, clothing brand or other factors. However, we decided to use the term "curvy plus size" in the title and text because Pia herself thought it would describe her body the best due to her proportions, as she is short and busty.  

I also made this collage to show the difference that wearing a pair of stays makes. Notice her blouse is somewhat loose at the waist so the photos don't give an entirely realistic image of her body but you should be able to get an idea anyhow. 

Now, as for the arc method drafting instructions in Patterns of Fashion 5 book, the pattern is drawn on a curve. My main issue with it is, however, that the angles of the bust, waist and top hip curve angles are drawn more or less randomly by estimating. This is a problem especially for people like both my friend and myself who have a sway back, which means getting the waist curve exactly right is crucial for the comfort of the stays. A long time ago, when I made my first stays I was unaware of my sway back so the waistline of my first stays turned out to be too low in the back causing pain the lower back where the stays pressed uncomfortably into the back. I've since learned to raise the waist at the back of all of my patterns. For resolving this issue, I recommend you take a look at Mariah Pattie's simple pattern drafting video and/or Sidney Eileen's basic conical block drafting tutorial to compensate for where the PoF5 falls short.  In the side view photo above the collage you can see how much higher the waist is at the back. Below is the final pattern. Notice the side of the front panel might be much more curved if a more pronounced 1780s shape was desired. 

Since these stays are drafted to extend below the natural waist, it's important that enough space is allowed for the high hip in the pattern (this, naturally applies to everyone, not just someone with a sway back).

I've wanted to try out the shoulder straps that cross at the back at least ever since Sarah posted pictures of such here. Finally did! It only took me years... Anyway, I think I may have to move the loops they are attached through slightly more towards the back. As can be seen from the photos, the straps go around the shoulders very far out on the shoulder line and I fear they may slip down on the arms. Pia has sloping shoulders so that makes it even more likely. However, the last time the stays got worn to an event, no slipping happened so we might just leave them as they are so we can be sure they also don't show from the wider necklines of the gowns. Time will tell. 

Another photo of the McCord Museum stays for comparison. 

Had I been more perfectionistic about the stays or if I were to make another pair of stays from the same pattern for her, I would probably fix a few minor things about them, mainly, I think the top edge might ideally come up slightly higher in the back, for example. I was afraid of making them too high so they'd show from the back of gowns and that's probably why I ended up making it a bit too low. But none of that or other minor faults makes any major difference to the basic function of the stays and the shape they give. 

The stays can be laced at the back or the front depending whether there's help available for getting dressed or not. I didn't bother with any of the extra reinforcements for the stomach or other parts - the busk will do just enough for keeping the peak (the lower part of the front panels) of the stays down. 

Some close-ups of the details... 

The photo below shows one of the two hooks the straps attach to.

Another thing one might nitpick about... the boning channels ought to be ever so slightly thinner. That would provide more sturdiness as well as prevent the channels/stitching lines from twisting as much as they do now. Cutting the bones for the channels longer so that the panels would stay taut might help with the wrinkling of the fabric, however, it is also something that tends to happen when stays are entirely made out of linen without so much stiffening. 

The straps are sewn to the underarms of the front panels, conveniently providing more protection for an area that is one of the first places where the stays will quickly start to show wear. 

I managed to stitch the binding at the top on entirely by the machine but the lower edge proved to be too difficult a challenge for me so I quickly basted the binding down by hand at first and then secured it into place with the machine. It worked out nicely; it was still faster than doing it entirely by hand, while ensuring a neatly bound edge at the same time. 

We also took this video of the stays so you can see them in 360°. 

And the stays make an appearance on a getting dressed video we did last summer, too.

I hope you find the post helpful! If you made it this far, let me know! :)