Making 1776 stays

So one of the things I really enjoy about period costume is the undergarments. They were where I started with period costume, and it’s the first stop when thinking about a new project. When I first got into sewing, the first two things I made were stays using Norah Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines. The first was 1630s stays, and the second were 1776 stays. Although I had a pair that I could wear, it was really just practice – I didn’t have the correct materials, I didn’t even bother to sew straps.

Here’s an old photo of them from my Instagram.

I’ve also made some 18th century stays using the Outlander inspired Simplicity pattern by American Duchess. I really like them, but they have a different shape which I think resembles more the first half of the 18th century, while I need the conical shape of later on for the project I’m planning.

My other 18th century stays.

So with new things in mind, I drafted my own pattern for the 1776 stays using this book:

The pattern only has two pieces (and a strap) and it looked like this:

After the pattern was done, I did one mock-up just to make sure that the fit was about right. The mock-up seemed to fit fine, so I went ahead and cut it out of a heavy cotton drill.

The strap.

After I had all the pieces cut out, I went about transferring the boning channels to the drill. I used several different methods, but mostly measuring and positioning the pattern over it and marking it. I also used tailor’s tacking. It’s important that they’re symmetric, so I really took my time with this.

I then stared at the front panels and realised I hadn’t added horizontal bones. Horizontal bones held with the shape and also add support to the bust. My bust didn’t really need extra support but I did want a challenge, so I decided to add the two horizontal bones that are also in the Norah Waugh pattern. This would provide sewing headaches further on.

After all the bones were transferred onto the panels, I cut out the panels from the outter fabric. I bought a meter of this lovely old Liberty cotton.

The outer panels.

I’ve had trouble before with flatlining bodices by machine as my machine doesn’t have one of those extended tables so the fabric shifts a lot. Since I loved this fabric and wanted everything to go as right as possible, I decided to hand baste the layers together. So I positioned the cotton drill onto the flower cotton, right sides out (the cotton drill right side is actually the one with the boning markings so you know where to sew).

The effort was worth it in the end I think.

Then it was time to sew the boning channels! This is really tricky and tedious, so my only recommendation is to take your time. I went so slow with these and I still made some mistakes, especially at the little crossroads with the horizontal bones.

I backstitched as I reached an intersection, lifted the needle and shifted down over the channel. Then I backstitched again and continued sewing that channel. This leaves little bundles of thread like this:

Which I then clipped away. If you have enough thread, the best way it to pull both tails to the back and neatly knot them.

For the back panels, I had added a 1” seam allowance at the back, so that I could turn it inwards. This would help support the eyelets. So I turned it inwards and basted it down, and only then I remarked the edge boning channels and sewed them.

This concluded all the boning channels! I went around and knotted all the threads I could and trimmed the rest. Then it was time to do up the seams. Super easy, since there were only three seams.

Then I measured and cut the pieces of synthetic whalebone. I’ve used flat steel boning, plastic boning, and cable ties before. For this, I decided to try synthetic whalebone. I think it’s my favourite so far! It’s light and flexible like the cable ties, but it’s stiffer and provides more support. I also find it more comfortable and cheaper than flat steel boning.

I filed down the sharp edges until they were nice and round and slotted them into position. I used my clips to keep some of them in place, and then went around to the binding.

For the binding, I got it into my head that I really wanted to use leather. I know it’s historically appropriate, there are many extant stays with this sort of binding, plus it would be something new and different. My initial plan was to find soft leather, like suede, that matched the colour of the contrasting thread I’d sewn the boning channels with. THIS PROVED IMPOSSIBLE (unless I was willing to sell my soul for a huge piece of leather).

I took to Goldhawk Road and thankfully found a really nice scrap of soft, brown leather that cost me £10. I was hoping it would be enough, but as it turned out, I didn’t even use up half of it, so it was an excellent buy!

To make the binding, I took my trusty ruler and marked 1” wide strips across the widest direction of the leather. This was my first time working with leather, so forgive any mistakes!

After that, I cut the strips. Because leather doesn’t fray, I didn’t have to sew the strips together. I only needed to overlap the ends when I ran out, which was great. I got a sturdy needle (which bent halfway through binding the stays!) and my thimble. I’m usually terrible at using a thimble just because I haven’t bothered to adapt to use one, but for this, it was my best friend.

Another tip, pinning this was impossible, but little clips worked wonderfully. I use them to secure the binding to the stays. I started on the bottom first, because I wanted to get it over with. I used SO MANY clips that I could only pin small sections at a time because I ran out of clips, but it really help to speed up the sewing (less fidgeting). Also, before pinning the binding, I also cut around the shapes of the tabs. I’d left them uncut because this prevented fraying. I cut them at this point and immediately wrapped the binding around them.

The cut tabs.

Now, tabs are horrendous. Everyone hates them. The only way I could get around them was to settle that I couldn’t make them look pretty. The excess around the corners is just… it’s just gonna stay there. I tried my best to fold it in to try and make it look half decent. But oh well! I think they turned out better, and they’re easier to handle as you go on.

Ugly little tabs.

After the first side was done, I went to the wrong side and whip stitched that down too.

Now, compared to the tabs, the top edge of the corset was a piece of cake! And it also took only a quarter of the time the tabs did.

An example of overlapping the strips of leather.
The top edge included the shoulder straps.

At this point, I did the eyelets. These were handsewn with embroidery thread that matched the boning channels thread. They would’ve been easier to do when the corset wasn’t assembled, but I was afraid it might need some seam adjustments or taken in at the CB, so I left them from last when I was positive they would fit fine.

One day I’ll be able to make even eyelets.

After the eyelets were done, I tried the stays on so that I could arrange the placement of the straps. I pinned them in place and then sewed them together with extra strong thread.

I also hand fell the seams so that they were neater.

And they were done!

Making an 1860s ballgown: plans and foundations

This project has been in my head for a while now. I first ran into a photo of the extant gown that inspired it last summer, so nearly a year ago. I found this photo of this 1860s ballgown held at the National Museum of Denmark:

Søgrøn selskabskjole, 1860'erne

Although the photos are blurry, there was something about it that grabbed me. I love the colour but also the simplicity of the design. There is no trim but the gathered tulle on the neckline. Though I absolutely love detail, I thought it might be interesting as well to make something where I can’t hide mistakes under trim. I really want to work on my fit and construction so I decided to tackle this.

I found the fabric for this dress back in December, when I visited New York and had the best time in the garment district. I don’t think any fabric shopping will ever compare to that. I found this lovely mint/light green satin for $5 a yard. FIVE DOLLARS. I could never find anything so affordable in London. Anyway, I got a bit confused. I was frazzled because there was so much fabric around and I was so excited and a bit overwhelmed by the shopping and the shop owners, so I didn’t buy enough. I originally asked for five yards, and then six when I remembered yards are different from meters but still… as I drafted the plans for this, it was just cutting it close and I still had to reduce the gloriously long skirt.

It really didn’t photograph well.

The museum has a whole page on the original dress here. It had some useful information about materials and dimensions. I had found this page before buying the fabric, but when I actually sat down to plan this dress properly, I made the best discovery: on the bottom right corner of the page, tucked away, is a pdf of a pattern drafted from the original dress! SCORE.

My next hurdle was that I don’t speak Danish. Thankfully Instagram is amazing, so a huge shout out to lillea84 on IG, she kindly volunteered to translate it for me. These notes on the pattern were very helpful in understanding its construction.

I sketched out the project and set about making the foundation garments.

Some of them were already made. I used my Victorian corset, which I made quite a while back, using a pattern by Redthreaded. I already have a Victorian chemise, though I think it’s too big for this so I might make a new one with a lower neckline and no sleeves. But the big missing item was the crinoline. Although the dress is dated 1860s, I thought the crinoline definitely looked elliptical so I went for the Truly Victorian 1865 Elliptical cage pattern. I bought a kit from Vena Cava Design which included the pattern and everything I would need for it.

Though it ran a bit pricey, I calculated what the items would’ve cost if I bought them individually and this was a very good deal in the end. The pattern was fairly easy to follow, and the kit was wonderful. My only comments would be that I would’ve used a lighter weight cotton drill or something cheaper, because the twill provided was very good quality but also very heavy and for a cage that was already going to have 30 meters of steel on it, weight was a concern. Secondly, their buckle and waistband didn’t work for me. The cage was too heavy to be secured properly with the buckle they provided. I would’ve needed an extra hand. I ended up stabbing my finger on one of the teeth of the buckle and bleeding all over the cage. I switched out the buckle and used two sets of hooks and bars instead.

Because I followed the pattern, I didn’t actually take any construction photos, I didn’t think they would be very helpful? Feel free to tell me if you think otherwise.

Cage in construction.

Here are some photos of the foundation garments:

Here I was wearing with the tied drawstrings, but I think I’ll loosen them for a fuller shape. I’m also making an extra petticoat in case I want extra pouff (I probably will). And that is it for foundations and plans!

Update! I did make an extra petticoat. It is three tiered, the top layer is plain cotton and the bottom two are organdy. I measured around the crinoline so that I made sure each tier was bigger than the corresponding hoop, gathered the long edges down and sewed it together. Then I did up the back seam, leaving a seven inch gap so I could get into it. I turned the gap edges inwards, attached a waistband and ta-da, extra poufiness!