18th Century Maternity Stays
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
A Maternity Corset?
After discovering “Lucy’s Corsetry” Youtube channel a few years ago, I was filled with curiosity that anyone would enjoy wearing corsets. On one of her videos, I learned that women in previous centuries even wore corsets in pregnancy - and I was flabbergasted. My shock was soon mediated, however, when I learned that:
a. Women in history were used to wearing corsets and relied on the abdominal support of a corset, especially in pregnancy.
b. Maternity corsets did not restrict the waist, and were designed to expand over the course of a woman’s pregnancy.
c. Bras were not even invented until the 1920’s. When it came to bust support and shaping, corsets were “it”.
Now, at the time of this writing, I am entering my third trimester, and have been wearing my maternity stays on most days. Why? They make me more comfortable, prevent my pregnancy-related hip pain, and keep my posture straight (among more reasons).
There are a few changes I would make were I to do this project again, which I will elaborate on in the final section of this article.
Scaling the Pattern and a Mock-Up
To create my 18th century maternity stays, I used the pattern entitled “Pregnancy Corset” from Jill Salen’s “Corsets” pattern-book. This pattern comes from an extant corset dated between 1780-85, and features extra lacing openings at each side-back, in addition to the centre-back lacing. These are presumed to be for the purposes of comfort for a pregnant woman or for an otherwise large person.
I scaled up this pattern by hand using 1-inch graph paper, and first experimented on my mock-up with a centre-front lacing opening instead of centre-back. I decided against this, however, and also opted to shave off 2 inches from the bust and 1 or 2 inches from the waist. It turns out that I should have removed even more width than this. More on that in the “Problems and Potential Improvements” section.
I now began work on my real stays. I used heavy linen for this, with a third interior layer of cotton muslin. I laid out my fabric, with the muslin sandwiched between the
two layers of linen, and traced the outline of my pattern pieces on top. I then trace basted around these lines, to hold all three layers together. Next I drew on the boning channels by eye, consulting the pattern and using a strip of my chosen reed boning as a guide to draw my lines with. Note: I recommend to always leave 1-2. mm of extra space for each boning channel, in addition to the width of the actual bone. This will make insertion much easier later on.
Boning Channels and Eyelets
Sewing the boning channels was fun but presented some difficulties. Namely, how to deal with all those intersecting boning channels! I opted to simply not sew through the intersections at all, much like how sidewalks at a street intersection do not cross the actual roads. There were few times I forgot about this, and had to go back and unpick stitches that ran through an intersection.
Next I marked all the eyelets and created them using an awl and whipstitching.
Finally, it was time to insert all that reed boning. This was quicker than I’d imagined. I used 1/4” reed, and would cut one “bone” at a time to length, insert it, and move on to the next. On panels with many “intersections” I would first insert all the boning that ran in one direction, and next insert all the perpendicular boning.
Piecing the Stays Together
Hand-sewing these boned panels together was satisfying. But first, there came the
tedious task of pressing and hand-stitching all the raw edges to the wrong side of the stays. I’d had the intention of doing a rolled hem type of maneuver so I wouldn’t have to sew in a lining, but this proved way too difficult so I opted for a herribone stitch to hold the raw edges down.
Finally, I got to whipstitch my panels together. This is when these started feeling like a pair of stays, and not just a strange jumble of fabric, boning channels, and floppy seam allowances. Finally, I sewed ribbon over the gutters of the seams by hand.
At this point I tried on my stays and fell in love with the fit and shape of them. So, on to the final leg of this marathon: binding the edges of all those tabs, and sewing in the lining. I opted to only bind the bottom of the stays, and simply fold the top edge of the stays under.
I used ribbon for binding, and while it was a long process, it wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined. Finally (after the filming of my video), I added a lining using leftover green linen from my Regency dress project. This also wasn’t as bad as expected, and it was satisfying to hide all those ugly raw edges.
Problems and Potential Improvements
Having now been wearing these stays for a couple months, there are 2 major things I would improve upon next time, and a couple more minor issues.
For some reason, soon after wearing these stays they took on a harsh inward curve at the waist, just above where my belly pops out. This is not “supposed” to happen, so I imagine it signals a problem with the overall fit. I can see now that if these stays they fit more snugly they may not have had this curved-in-waist problem.
The next problem goes along with that. Due to the extreme curve at the waist, several pieces of reed boning have now snapped in that area. *Sigh*. This means that when wearing, I have to stuff some small padding under that area to prevent the ends from poking into me. Next time I make 18th century stays, I plan on using synthetic whalebone to avoid the potential for breakage.
Finally, I have seen the American Duchess ladies use a small panel of leather in the underarm area of their stays, and have also heard of leather binding, but never understood “why” until now. Some of the pieces of reed which are angled and pointy have poked through the fabric at the top of my stays. Some leather is definitely in order.
Let me know if you found this helpful, or if you are have made 18th century stays of your own! Have you experienced any of these pitfalls?
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