Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Corded Stays

For Challenge #2 of the Historical Sew Fortnightly, I am finally finishing a set of corded stays that have been languishing unfinished for a very long time.

About two years ago, I decided to embark on a mammoth project to create a late 1830s gown and all the underpinnings for it — by hand. I love to sew by hand, and the purpose of the project was to hone my handwork skills while also exploring a new period. Great idea, yes?

Well, the first two garments I started working on were a corded corset and a corded petticoat. I spent the better part of a year on these two garments. The cording takes forever!! I know people who have set out to make a corded petticoat by machine, and given up in despair after the 15th or so row of cording. And here I was doing it all by hand.

The miles and miles of cording were somewhat demoralizing, and my pace slowed to a crawl. I eventually finished the corded petticoat, and also sewed several other petticoats to wear with it, but for some reason the corded stays remained incomplete. I finished the cording and construction, but the stays didn't fit quite right (much too large), weren't very comfortable (the straps wouldn't stay up), and were completely unflattering (they gave a strange shape to the bust). I managed to fix the size problem by taking them in along the side-back seam, but couldn't muster the motivation to address the other issues. In frustration, I threw them into the UFO pile, where they sat untouched for over a year. I never did end up sewing the gown that was intended for the project (maybe it will happen this year), but I did wear the petticoats with an 1840s evening gown and of course my brown wool 1840s day dress.

Now that I have decided to break into the Regency, it seems like the perfect time to resurrect these unwearable stays and figure out how to make them work.

The pattern I used is Past Patterns 001 1820s-1840s Corded Stay — View B (the one on the right in the illustration).

Despite the dating, I can't find anything about these stays that would prevent them being worn for a slightly earlier period. The main difference between these and earlier stays is that these provide more waistline definition. While not necessary or accurate for 1800-1820, I don't think it will matter much underneath dresses. With a little tweaking, I think they will give a shape that will work.

I made these from a fairly lightweight cotton sateen, with cotton twill tape binding and Sugar 'n' Cream cotton yarn for the cording. They are entirely handsewn with tiny backstitches worked with Gutermann hand-quilting thread.

Here are some pictures of what the stays looked like when I pulled them out to start rehabilitating them:

Past Patterns 001 Regency Corded Stay

In this photo, you can see what I mean about them being unflattering... The overall shape is okay, but the bust area is a little strange. The straps are falling off my shoulders, and aren't doing much to support my breasts. The neckline is too wide and is not snug enough across the top.

Corded Stays Lacing

Here is a view of the back — not too bad, but you can see how the straps are barely staying up.

Corded stays side view

The side view really shows how the straps are placed too close to the edge of the stays. But it also shows that the overall shape is good and definitely worth saving.

Corded Stays bust closeup

Here's a closer view of the strange, sad neckline. You can't even see where the straps attach — they're buried somewhere behind my boobs. And shouldn't Regency stays provide a little more oomph to the bust?

But the following detail shots show why I am so determined to save these stays — the hand-sewing is lovely and I spent too much time on it to throw it all away!

Past Patterns 001 Cording detail
See how much cording there is!

Handsewn cording
So neat and even!

Cording closeup
Look at those tiny backstitches!!

Another thing I disliked about these stays is the busk. The pattern includes detailed instructions for making your own, but I have neither the skill nor the inclination to attempt such a thing. Determined to find a ready-made alternative, I tried all the usual sources, but none of them seemed to offer a busk in the appropriate dimensions. I ended up settling on the busk you see above, which I found at Lacis (it's not on their website, but was available in store). It is a bit too long to be perfectly comfortable and is not as wide as I would like, but it was the best option I could find, so I made do. I added extra rows of cording to make up for the narrow width, but I was never very happy about the finished look.

A couple of months ago, I was exploring resources for period sewing supplies, and happened upon the website for Hedgehog Handworks. Not only do they sell all kinds of hard-to-find threads and accessories, but they offer a perfect Regency corset busk. It is much shorter than the one I had, is a fair amount wider, and has holes pre-drilled for a cord to hold it in place. When I decided to rehabilitate the stays, the first thing I did was to order a new busk.

Here's a picture to show the difference (the new one is on the right):

Busk Comparison

Now that you know the whole backstory, here are the changes I plan to make so I can finally call these stays finished:

1. Take out the old busk and make room for the new one by removing one row of cording on each side of the busk channel.

2. Add some short rows of cording at the top of the busk channel to stabilize the area above the new shorter busk.

3. Add two eyelets in the busk channel for cording to hold the busk in place.

4. Add a drawstring through the neckline binding to snug up the neckline.

5. Move the shoulder straps in from the edge of the neckline by about 1".

6. Work buttonhole stitches to reinforce all the bust gusset points.

Hopefully once all of this is finished, I'll have a functional and flattering set of Regency corded stays!


  1. Wow, those are indeed fabulous and worth saving! What about shortening the straps a touch so that they'd pull up on the bustline a bit and provide a bit o' lift?

    1. Thanks! I've already started tweaking these a bit, and it looks like doing exactly that will solve most of the fit problems. I'm moving the attachment point for the straps in from the edge and shortening them a bit in the process. I want lift!