Making 18th Century stays for theatre
Materials required for a reproduction 18th Century corset
The stays will be under a lot of stress when worn, so several layers are used to help them keep the right shape and to add strength.
- Drill – this is the base layer that sits closest to the body.
- Canvas or Coutil - used to strengthen the corset. The fabric should have no stretch and should be strong. The drill is mounted on to this layer.
- Calico – used to add strength to the shell fabric. The shell fabric is mounted on to this layer.
- Top fabric – The shell layer of fabric which will show on the outside. This could be any fabric of your choice, although some work better than others and ideally should not be too delicate. Drill could be used for the top fabric if you want to keep it plain, or if the corset will be seen, you can choose a fabric to match or contrast with the petticoat fabric.
The boning goes between layers 2 and 3, the canvas and the calico.
In the 18th Century and earlier most boning in stays would have been made out of whale bone (hence the name boning), but I have heard of other materials such as straw, reed, or hemp cord being used. In the Victorian period, spiral steel bones became popular for corsets as they tend to be more comfortable and easier to get the hourglass shape.
There are many different types of boning available in different widths with various properties which can be used depending on the type of garment you are creating. The online corsetry supply shop VenaCava has a good overview of types of boning .
Most boning you can buy continuous or in prefinished lengths. Continuous lengths are often cheaper, but you have extra work to finish the ends with caps or another method to make them comfortable and not tear through fabric (or the wearer). Metal bones are often hard to cut with out proper tools and can be very sharp if left unfinished. Prefinished lengths come with caps or are tipped with plastic depending on the boning type. I prefer to use the pre-finished steel bones as they are more comfortable.
You can now get a plastic equivalent of whale bone, but we will be using Rigiline polyester boning for the main body of the stays and steel bones for strength at the corset openings, especially next to the eyelets.
You can buy Rigiline buy the meter, or in a box of 10 meters. You then cut it to the required length.
For the flat steel boning we will be using 8 lengths:
- 2 on each side of the stomacher.
- 1 (2 in total) on the centre side of panel B, where it joins to the stomacher.
- 2 (4 in total) each side of the eyelets on panel E where both panel E’s join at the back.
The lengths of the steels are determined by your measurements, but the should be slightly shorter (1-2 cm) than the length of the corset so that you can sew on the bias binding at the top and bottom. If they are too long, they may become uncomfortable and you can not machine stitch to the edge without breaking a needle.
Summary of materials
- Cotton drill – 1 m
- Canvas/Coutil – 1 m
- Top fabric/shell – 1 m
- Calico – 1 m
- Rigiline: white 12 mm – 10m
- Flat steel boning: plastic covered 7 mm – 8 lengths
- Eyelets and washers: 5 mm – 40
- Bias binding (could be made from top fabric) – 2 m
- Sewing cotton
A to Z of making and 18th Century corset for theatre
Cut pattern piece A for the stomacher on the fold, so no seam allowance at centre front.
Using a tracing wheel and dressmaking copy paper, follow the lines on the pattern to mark the fabric. To mark both the left and right sides at the same time, fold the tracing paper in half (wrong sides together) and place it between the paired pinned panels with the pattern piece on top. As the stomacher pattern piece A is cut on the fold just one panel for left and right, this was just folded in half and the tracing paper placed inside.
I had a serrated edge tracing wheel, which I had to press on very hard to make the colour show up on the bottom layer. In the below you can see that the colour on the left hand side of the panels shows up a lot better than on the right which was on the bottom when I used the tracing wheel.
Pressing very hard with the serrated tracing wheel and having to go over lines several times, cut in to my pattern pieces. If I was to use it more than a couple of times I would have to recopy the pattern. I have recently bought a smooth tracing wheel, but have not had a chance yet to see if this would work better.
I also labelled all my panels on the side closest to CF with the name and weather it was the left or right panel. There is nothing more annoying that sewing up the wrong panels to each other.
Place the canvas on to the wrong side of the drill layer so you can see the traced lines. Stitch around the just outside of the pattern piece outline, except at the tassets where you should leave 3mm extra outside.
Cut seam allowances of the canvas down to 5 mm, except at the fitting lines (side seams between C and D) which can be left wide.
Sew from the top to the waistline only. Press seams.
Some people find it easier if you cut and shape each length of boning just before you sew it. This is particularly true if you only have a limited amount of Rigiline as it is very easy to loose bits or end up with a piece for the wrong side. However I had a whole box and found it easier to get all the boning ready for each pair of panels, then apply them, and then move on to the next set of panels. I made sure I labelled each bone so I could tell which side it should be on. The labelling did not look very attractive while I was sewing, but it will be covered up by the top layers. When labelling, make sure you do not use an ink that would run when damp.
I started with the stomacher (panel A), then boned panels B,C,D and E on the left then right sides. Although in ‘Period Costume for Stage and Screen’ it has sets of horizontal boning (marked as K) on panels A and B, we will not be using these for our corsets.
You can work out the length required by measuring against the outlines on the canvas layer or by comparing it to the lines on the pattern. So that you can sew on the bias binding easily at the top and bottom, the Rigiline lengths should be about 5mm shorter at each end.
Cut Rigiline to desired length using all-purpose scissors (Rigiline will blunt fabric scissors).
As the Rigiline comes in a coil, it wants to curve when you get it out of the box. To avoid your panel curling, you should cut every other length so that it curves the opposite way.
Shape the ends as best you can to avoid sharp edges.
Carefully soften/melt the ends by running them back and fourth near the base of a flame and while still warm, flatten them on a hard flat heat resistant surface. I found using a household candle was easier than a tealight as there was less chance of getting wax on the end of the boning. If you have a craft heat gun, this could also be used instead of a flame. After doing the first few, my finger started to get sore from the heat when I was moulding the ends, so I used a thimble when pressing the boning on the the hard surface.
Once you have prepared a length of Rigiline, place it on to the canvas and sew up each side. Rigiline has several thicker clear plastic threads running along the length which are woven in to polyester. On each edge there is a narrow strip of polyester without threads and for this type of application, this is where sew the boning on to the canvas. An advantage of this is that the steel bones can be slid between the boning and the canvas to hold them in place where the stays need reinforcing.
When Rigiline strips are running parallel next to each other, they should slightly overlap on the edges (where there are no plastic threads). This helps to keep the shape of the stays and stops them from being able to crease where the bones join.
I tried sewing down one side of Rigiline, then pinning on the next and trying to sew them both where they overlapped, but found this very difficult as they would often try to slip off each other and the stitches would only catch one layer and push the other to the side. In the end it seemed quicker to just sew up and down each side of one bone and then lay the next and sew up and down that as the first was firmly in place. When you finish sewing a bone in to place, pull the thread from the drill side to the canvas side so it will not show on the inside of the corset.
On our pattern it shows which bones should go on top when 2 bones at different angles met, but when doing this yourself, think about which way the corset will be bending and try to make it so that any short ends are not going to poke in to the wearer or try and escape out of the top fabric. I also found that if you were placing a bone at an angle over other bones, it was easier if you first sewed down the side that was not covering the other bones to hold it in place (see picture below).
Starting with the stomacher (A) I sewed on the the Rigiline starting at the sides and going towards the CF. The two CF lengths were sewn on after all the side lengths had been applied – this also makes the corset more comfortable as it keeps the ends of the side lengths further away from the wearers body. As Rigiline is quite soft, it was easy to sew through two layers of Rigiline where they overlapped near the centre.
After I had sewn the bones to the stomacher I realised that as I had sewn up to the ends of the diagonal bones rather than to the line where the vertical bones would meet, the finish on the inside was uneven. The additional sewing was unnecessary as the ends of the diagonals overlapped would be kept in place by the fixing stitches of the vertical bones. For the other panels, I only sewed up the the joining lines so it would look neater.
For a finer finish on the inside, if you leave enough thread, when you pull through, you can tie off the tread on the inside rather that using back stitch to secure the ends, although this is more time consuming.
Tasset boning should be laid first so that the longer vertical bones lie over the top to conceal the cut ends.
If the horizontal layers of boning on panels A and B were to be laid, you would do this last over the vertical bones.
Using your pattern, cut out the panels of the top fabric and the calico you will be using to mount it on. If you are using a patterned fabric it is a good idea to think about where the pattern meets on the seam lines, as this will affect where you lay the pattern pieces before you cut the fabric. It may mean that you can not use the fabric so economically as you might with a plain material. As I am using a stripy fabric, I want the stripes to look as even as possible all the way round and not end up having a half width stripe anywhere if possible.
The striped fabric made it easier to line up the grainlines on the fabric, this helped me to make the pattern look more even. You may wish to mark the pattern outline on the calico, but if the pieces are cut accurately, then they should match the base layers. You do not need to mark the boning lines.
Make sure you label the panels so that you know which panel it is and for which side. This makes it easier in the long run.
Mounting is done in the same way as the base layers.
With my striped fabric, this is where the planning at the cutting stage helped, but it wasn’t perfect. I ended up slightly mis-aligning the panels to make the pattern look good, but I made sure that this only ate in to the seam allowances.
I also forgot that you were only meant to sew down to the waistline and so ended having to unpick a bit.
Part way through I realised I had labelled the E panels the wrong way round and had sewn the right hand side to the left. More unpicking.
(we will be doing A the stomacher later).
Start by taking one set of panels – I started with the top and bottom layers of the right hand D and E panels,
Line up the top and bottom layers with the right sides together, and try to get the existing seam line to match as this will make things easier later on.
Sew the top and bottom layer together along the CB seam of panel E.
Clip the seam allowance at the waist line to allow the tasset material to sit flat (I forgot to do this the first time).
Then turn the right way round.
Now you want to make sure the inner seam lines of the top and bottom fabric line up so you can sink stitch down the seam to hold the two layers firmly together. I found this quite tricky and so put pins through both layers to line them up and then used others to hold the fabric in place so I could sew it.
Repeat for left hand side of D and E, and also for the right and left of B and C panels.
On the opening edges of E and B make sure that on the fold the top and bottom are even, press and then edge stitch to hold firm.
The seams did not quite line up in some places and so some of the stripes are not terribly straight where I had pulled the fabric to fit. This is mostly under where the laces would go, so I am hoping it will not be too noticeable.
To hold the layers in place, top stitch using a fairly long stitch following the boning stitch lines on the base layer. Where there are two rows of stitching close together to hold two bones next to each other, then you only have to do one row of top stitching. Sew right to the edge of the the fabric in to the seam allowances.
To make the tassets more secure and hold the fabric layers in place, you should straight stitch and then satin stitch around the tasset edges. Satin stitch is just a zig-zag stitch with the length of the stitch set to near 0, the width should be about 2-3 mm wide for this purpose.
- First eyelet 15 mm from top seam
- Last eyelet 10 mm down from waistline
- Approximately 10 eyelets in total
- 25 mm to 30 mm spacing between each eyelet
On the each of the corsets opening edges, we have put two lines of Rigiline with an unboned 10mm gap in between. A line of eyelets will sit in the centre of this space. Take one side and place the first eyelet 15mm from the top seam line, and the last should end up 10mm down from the waistline. The eyelets in this style of corset do not need to go all the way down to the bottom as the tassets are loose anyway. Mark out these two points and measure the distance between. As we want 10 eyelets, divide the distance by nine (if you divide by 10 you will end up with 11 because there is an eyelet at the first point), and mark these points between the first and last eyelet marks.
One you have put in the eyelets (see step O) on one side of the corset, lay this side on the other and mark the eyelet points through the holes to make sure they line up.
If you have modified the corset to make it taller or shorter, you may wish change the number of eyelets accordingly, but generally you are aiming for a gap of between 25mm and 30mm between each eyelet.
If you are using metal eyelets, you can either use a punch or a large awl to make the holes for the eyelets.
If you have a good punch it may be quicker to use it, but I found that with a hand punch I did not have the strength to go through all the layers of fabric.
If you are hand stitching the eyelets it is better to use an awl as it does not cut the fibres of the fabric and so is less likely to fray. You need one that is wide enough to bore a hole large enough for you to get the lace or eyelets though.
When using metal eyelets, make sure that you use a washer as well. This helps to grip the fabric better and will be more comfortable for the wearer. To crimp the eyelet and the washer together, you will need tool such as Prym Vario pliers, which have a fitting for crimping eyelets and punching holes too.
I am using 5mm silver eyelets with washers, which are not of the period, but are a lot stronger and far less time consuming than stitching the eyelets by hand.
Now is a good point to see if the corset will fit, to do this we temporarily sew on the the boned base layer of the stomacher on the inside of the corset, following the lines of the eyelets so it sits in the correct place. Also sew the fitting (side) seams together temporarily with the seam allowances on the outside (as they are quite bulky), and cut in between the tassets so that they have free motion. You will also need to lace the corset.
This is all a bit tricky to do on your own and is more fun if you have a friend to help.
Once the corset is on, check that it fits well. Sometimes the top of the stomacher needs to be made lower, or the side seams need to be let out and more bones added.
Make any alterations, fit again if necessary.
When you are happy that no more alterations are required, sew up the side seams.
To finish these, you can either cover them with bias binding or lease enough seam allowance to turn the edge under and sew down. Do not split the seams as this will weeken the join. You want to avoid the seam being bulky, so cut back the calico or canvas mounting layers as much as possible without risking them fraying or coming undone under the stress they will be put on when the corset is worn.
If you are using prefinished lengths, pick the correct length and slide it down the channels between the top and bottom layers either side of each set of eyelets. Make sure there is a little space top and bottom so that you can stitch the bias binding in to place without braking a needle on your sewing machine.
The channels were quite tight so I was pleased that I used the prefinished lengths, otherwise I would have had to make sure the ends were very smooth and not bulky, otherwise I would have risked getting stuck or ripping the fabric. I ended up having to use other bones and a narrow flat ended piece of metal to get some of them all the way in.
When you are sure there will be no further modifications to the stomacher, then sew on the top layers and top stitch along the boning stitch lines as you did with the other panels.
Pin the bias binding to the front of the stomacher and machine stitch around. Fold the bias over and hand slip stitch it in to place on the back.
Hatch stitch in any large of the areas of the corset where there is not Rigiline boning.
As there are tassets on the bottom of the corset, it is very difficult to machine stitch on the bias binding, and so it is best to pin it in place and hand slip stitch on the front and back. This is quite time consuming to do well. Where the bias binding meets an opening, fold over the edge and tuck in at the back when you hand stitch it in to place.
Although I was told that you should do the front first, then flip over and stitch the back, I found that I had more control of ohow the fabric sat on the second side, so ended up sewing the back and pulling through to the front.
Cut out the pattern pieces in the base fabric and the top fabric. You only have to mount them if you feel you will need extra support or if the top fabric is thin or delicate.
At the back of the corset where you are going to attach the straps, take the base layer and align on the inside of the corset with the right side of the strap fabric facing the inside of the corset (right sides together).
Take the top fabric and align on the outside of the corset with the right side of the top fabric facing the outside of the corset body (right sides together).
Baste the seam. When you flip up the base and top layers up and press, both layer should line up and grain line of the shoulder strap should be at 90degress to the basted seam.
Try the corset on and make sure the straps are lying correctly and are the right length. If not, adjust them. When you are happy, sew them firmly in to place.
You can pin the bias in to place, machine stitch on the front side and then hand stitch at the back. If this is proving to be too tricky, then hand stitch both sides.
Once deciding on one or two, and marking where they should go, insert eyelets in the same way as the rest of the corset.
Although stomachers would have most likely been loose in the past, it is a good idea to hand stitch it in place on at least one side if not both, so that you make sure it stays with the rest of the corset. Especially in a large wardrobe department, it might get lost.