Friday, January 27, 2012

Stays: the Cording Conundrum

Indecision--the bane of a seamstress' existence.

Actually I'm pretty sure that would be fabric scissors touching paper, but that's not why I'm having issues with these %$#&@* stays. It's not the sewing that's the problem, or even the patterning. I'm pretty much ready to go as far as those things are concerned. All my pieces are even cut out and basted appropriately.

The issue is that I now have to make a design decision. You see, stays of the type I'm making were often corded, embroidered, trapunto-ed, and otherwise embellished--for both aesthetic and structural purposes. All of them serve to stiffen and stabilize the fabric, and in some cases that's all that's used, taking the place of boning completely. I happen to have more "topography" to maintain, so I'll be partially boning mine--but I now have to decide on a layout for the boning and cording that I want to do.

So, because I had no idea what I wanted, I turned to the World Wide Web for assistance. Except, I then had the opposite problem. Too many options! For those of you who haven't already followed me on Pinterest, you're welcome to. I have a 1812 inspiration board for stuff like this, and I've been obsessively pinning stays examples. It seems like varying levels of cording are acceptable, embroidery too, and there's everything from diamond grids to swirls and crop circles. I've narrowed it down, though, so here are a few of the images I'll be using for inspiration. And then I'll be spending some quality time with gridded paper and No. 2 pencil to plot my own layout!


A lot of these are dated in very general terms. You'll see things like "1800-1820" or "1810s" or even "Early 19th century." So, rather than try and reproduce a specific pair or design, I'm taking a sampling of various pairs of roughly the same style as I want. Normally I wouldn't really recommend decade-hopping, but I've looked at dozens of pairs and as far as I can tell, there was no right or wrong way to cord or embellish them. There are trends, certainly, but they're not specific to decade, and the main differences moving from 1800 to 1820 are in silhouette and shape, rather than in embellishment.

The pair above is pretty heavily corded, as far as the examples I saw. The underbust looks nice and sturdy, and there's cording in the bust gores. There's no boning visible in the front, though there's no telling what the back looks like. The horizontal lines of cording running 'round the stays at waist level are pretty common, as are the diagonal lines angling up from the bottom of the corset up towards the busk pocket over the lower abdomen.

1810; Live Auctioneers

Another example with corded bust gores; these would have been stiffer than the pair above them, with multiple rows of cording laid side by side like that. I love the embroidery on these! Here is a full view; you can see that the body isn't very heavily corded at all, and those over-the-belly diagonal lines are clearly in evidence.

1825; Victoria & Albert Museum

Thanks to the V&A, I have several super huge, high-resolution images of this pair, and they are gorgeous. There's light boning in the torso, and it's a great example of trapunto. The first couple examples are most likely cording, but all the latice-like diamonds in this one are made by stitching the pattern and then using a stiletto or other pointy object to separate the threads in the back of the piece and shove wee tiny bits of stuffing or fluff between the layers to make a raised pattern.

I'm still debating whether or not I'm crazy enough to do this. I'm leaning towards "not," because it sounds like a lot of work and I like one-way diagonal lines just fine!

Also, it's a little hard to tell in the smaller size picture here, but the parallel lines over the lower front of the stays aren't corded or anything; they're just stitched in. Embroidery can also add structure to a garment, just by virtue of cramming more threads into a small space. And, the stitching on these is so fine it looks like machine work. Like I said--they're gorgeous!

1815-1825; Manchester Galleries

These look fairly similar design-wise to the V&A pair, but they really are a different pair. The back is really interesting; it's not uncommon to see bone eyelets, or "pulleys" (like on this pair at the Met) for lacing. I also found an example of the bone eyelets here on Etsy, which I thought was really fascinating. Good luck finding them now, though. A Google search for "bone eyelets" gets you a lot of results for body jewelry.

I didn't include a lot of pictures of backs of stays because, to be honest, they're usually not very exciting. A lot of the examples I saw had light cording across the shoulders, and then nothing over the lower back. Some of them had cording and some of them had boning in the center back, but for the most part they weren't very exciting! There are a couple on my Pinterest, though, so by all means go take a look.

So, for me, the next step is to decide what I actually want and to plot a layout for my own stays. After that, we get to talk about busks! I'm so excited...either because of or in spite of the fact that Katie + woodworking tools usually = "Adventure." An by "adventure", I mean "bleeding."


  1. Decisions!Decisions!
    It's true, that the generalization of date/order of extant garments often isn't very helpful! Too bad that there have never been fashion plates about undergarments.
    The pair from the V&A is amazingly beautiful!

    I'm looking forward to following your progress, whichever pair you may chose to sew!

    1. I've been doodling ideas! Hopefully I can get started this weekend with the actual sewing. :)

  2. To much thought about something no one will see? I think straight lines would be easier. Really, you just want something that will hold the shape of the outer garment! You say you have a lot of topography...I would put a lot of cording there but keep the pattern simple. You will be poking your eye out with a stick if you go to wild! Especially if you are not going to cheat and handsew this puppy!

    1. I do plan on handsewing them, and I'm leaning toward straight cording rather than trapunto. For one thing, I think the cording laid tightly together will offer more structure than trapunto. For another, less work! ;) Also, in my experience, there's no guarantee that nobody will see your unders at events. Between fashion shows and curious visitors, pretty much anything that isn't considered public indecency is within the realm of possibility!