The one major thing I’ve learned throughout my years of historical costuming (or any sewing, really) is that no project goes precisely as expected. Some stick close to the original plans, and others end up diverging widely (or wildly, as the case may be). My 18th century stays project has been no different.
In my last update, I was intent on getting them completely finished with just 3 weeks to go before the event. It’s now about 1 week away, and the stays still aren’t done, but they’re much closer. And they’ve gone through a few design changes since I was first able to try them on, although I’m happy to say that the fit is pretty much spot-on–now. A little refinement wouldn’t hurt in my next version (whenever that happens), but all in all, they fit correctly.
But for a few days I was really worried that I’d gone to all the work of patterning, cutting, sewing channels, installing boning, and sewing eyelets for a poorly fitting pair of stays. Once I sewed the front bottom edges together, got the back panels attached, pinned some temporary twill tape straps in place, and laced that puppy up on myself (whining the whole time because my arms hurt trying to finesse the lacing from behind), and looked in the mirror, I was completely crushed. It was so bad. Oh, so bad. They just didn’t look right. They didn’t sit right, they didn’t give the right silhouette, and I thought something had gone terribly wrong in between the muslin mock-up and the final version, or that I had completely misread the fit on the mock-up. I thought I’d have to scrap my whole 18th century project, for now anyway.
When a project goes wrong, or seems to go wrong, it’s always best to step away for a bit, get some distance, think things through, and analyze the shit out of the problem (and yes, pray to the sewing muses for their help).
So I had a good long think about it, analyzed the photos I took in the mirror, looked at similar pairs other costumers have made and some extants from museums again, offered up a few pleas to the Universe, and came to some conclusions.
Here’s what went wrong and why:
- Back lacing woes—The original 1780s-90s design had the stays partially opened and laced and partially sewn closed in front, meaning it had to be laced fully down the back. I don’t have a lady’s maid, as I’ve said before, and while my arms will bend to the back and sort-of work properly, they don’t work well enough to lace myself up properly from the back, even when the stays are pre-laced. This is why all my past stays have had both front and back lacings, for ease of dressing and full adjustability. But I thought this time, hey, let’s try to make it as accurate as possible, within certain parameters. And it was a complete FAIL. Ask Instagram; my followers there know. With the lacing happening at the back, I just couldn’t keep the stays situated properly, so once I had them (badly, wonkily) laced up, they sat far too low in the front to give the proper silhouette. They mushed my bust while also squishing it upwards in a really unattractive bulgy way instead of pushing up and giving a gently bowed shape. And the back sections weren’t parallel, they overlapped at the top edge and splayed out over my hips too much.
- Unstable strap arrangement—My original intention was to use a plan of twill-tape straps that criss-crossed in back and wrapped around to the front waist that I’ve seen on some extant stays of similar design. Maybe this worked fine for the original owners, maybe it was just that my straps weren’t actually sewn on and were only pinned temporarily, or the fact that I hadn’t put on the strap guides yet, but: they just weren’t stable enough to keep the stays in place, high enough under my armpits and on my bustline to assist with the fit.
Once I figured out what was wrong, the solutions became clear.
- Do a full front lacing—It’s not accurate to the extant stays of the same design, but the bottom line is that I have to be able to fully lace myself in from the front. So I ripped out my stitching along the bottom half of the stays front and added 5 more lacing eyelets to each half. Didn’t take long. Couple of 30-minute sewing sessions during lunch at work.
- Use cut-on straps—This one doesn’t hurt my ego as bad, because most of the extants have straps that are integral with the body, made from the same fabric as the stays. To keep a little adjustability, they will lace to the front strap extension; wiggle room is nice to have.
I made these changes, tried on the stays again, and presto! They fit correctly. They push up my bust and give a gently bowed shape. The back gap is pretty even all the way down. Big sigh of relief!
And now all I have left to do in the week-plus remaining before the event is to finish binding the stays, sew up a petticoat, make the gown (!), and dye my American Duchess Dunmore shoes. EEEK! I can do it. It’s a lot, but I can do it. Since the chemise a la Reine/Oberkampf is based on my Regency gown pattern, I can whip it up and do the finishing in a week. I can get the petticoat and bindings done this weekend. And probably the shoe dyeing, too. I will. I will. I will!
And if there’s a little time left over (unlikely) I’ll make the second petticoat I was planning; but right now I think that’s a stretch. One petticoat will be enough for the event, especially since I decided to go with the mid-weight linen one first.
Breathe; just breathe!