August 26, 2015

Stays: The Good, the Bad, and the Binding

Recently I have had a few requests for information about making stays for the first time, so I thought I would compile some tips and links for any of you who are jumping into 18th century costuming!

The first step once you have decided to make stays is to determine what style/era of stays you are after. Stays at the beginning of the century were more rigid with a straight front and fully conical shape, as the century continued, stays relaxed a bit as the front was allowed to curve or "scoop" over the bust and torso. Once you have chosen a general still have more decisions to make! Strapless or with shoulder straps? Half boned or fully boned? Front lacing or back lacing, or both?

 I have made a lot of stays over the years, and my favorite pairs have always been strapless and fully boned. This is just one girl's opinion of course, but that is the combination that has worked the best for me. My favorite stays pattern has remained the same through many different other incarnations I have tried, and that pattern is the one I drafted from this pattern generator years ago. I have tried other patterns, but none have ever been as comfortable as the one from the generator! I think it is a great pattern to start with for any era of stays. Start with the basic pattern and modify it for the specific style you are looking for.

my ancient pattern from the generator above
 I absolutely recommend making a mock up version of your stays before you start the real thing. Stays aren't inherently difficult to construct but are rather time consuming, especially if you are making them fully boned. Sewing lots and lots of parallel straight lines over and over again isn't the most fun thing ever, so do yourself a favor and make sure your pattern works before getting that far. My favorite way to test patterns for stays is to cut the pattern out of thick upholstery weight fabric, sew it up, and then use masking tape to tape the boning in place on the inside. Gingerly lace them up and see what needs fixing. Making sure the waist (where the tabs begin) is at your own natural waist, and neither too short or too long, is particularly important as getting this wrong will result in stays that are painful to wear.

What about boning? Obviously it is very rare for anyone to use whalebone (baleen) anymore, which was what they used in the 18th century. Another historically accurate option is to use cane, but because it is harder to get a hold of I have never tried using it. Steel boning is an option, but was not used in the 18th century and is much more suited to corsetry than stay making. One of the best substitutes for whalebone is surprisingly large cable zip ties from the hardware store!  See my in progress fully boned stays above? All cable ties! I cut them to the length I need, use sandpaper to file the ends rounded and smooth (yes, this is annoying and creates a lot of plastic "dust"). An added bonus is that the cable ties are both easy to find and inexpensive at the hardware store.

There are some seamstresses that really like stay-making, and I am not actually one of those people. Stays can be fiddly and binding the tabs (see pin forest above) is not my idea of a relaxing time in the sewing room. I recommend checking out this free article from Your Wardrobe Unlocked (a great resource for stay making and corsetry) for help on binding. It's one of the last steps, but also one of the more annoying in my opinion! Once the binding is on (the home stretch! wahoo!) it's time to add the eyelets in the back (or front, or both). Now here is where stays are very different again from corsets, the lacing holes are staggered for spiral lacing (with one lace) as opposed to right across from one another. Here is a very nice article about spiral lacing. I would also note that it is inaccurate to have metal grommets in stays, as they were not used until Victorian corsetry decades late, so lacing holes/eyelets for stays are sewn by hand. That sounds harder than it is, once you sew a few they become easier and in the end are quite strong.

My current set of stays, they aren't pretty, but they are rather comfy and have held up well over the last year!
I think the most important thing to do before you start is to read through other costumers tutorials and stay making processes, that way you can learn what not to do from other people's mistakes and learn shortcuts you may not gather anywhere else. Here are a few articles on stays from great historical costuming bloggers to get you started:

-Super Authentic stays from the Rocking the Rococo project
-Red Cotton and Linen stays from the Dreamstress
-The Fashionable Past's 1780's stays
-Bridges on the Body 1780's stays

I recommend checking out your favorite costumer's posts about making their own stays. If you go back in my archives I too have some posts about stay making. I really need to make a new set soon! I hope some of these little tips were useful for those of you thinking of making some stays, feel free to ask me any specific stays related questions and hopefully I can either answer them or find you a link to something that can help!


  1. That is completely fascinating about sturdy zip ties being a good substitute for whale bones. That is officially my cool new fact of the day for today. :)

    ♥ Jessica

    1. They are both sturdy and yet flexible! Plus hypothetically no whales are harmed in the process :)

  2. Thank you SO much for this post; you've been so helpful, and now I'm not as nervous as I first was at the thought of making stays! <3

  3. Thank you for this! I'm about to start on my 18th century wardrobe (already bought fabric for the chemise) but have been dreading the stays. This really helps :)

    1. You can do it! 18th century costuming is really fun, good luck with the chemise (and stays too)!


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