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Making Hand-Stitched 1790’s Stays (An Upcycling Project)

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

How a Baby Carrier Turned into Stays

About six years ago, I was a fairly new mama to my oldest son, and obsessed with DIY baby carriers. Wraps, soft-structured carriers, ring slings, mei tais . . . I had made them all!

upcycling baby wrap stays sewing 18th century
The original baby wrap, six years ago

I went thrift shopping, looking for table cloths made from natural fibres to make a baby-wrap from. A burnt orange linen table cloth caught my eye, and in no time was made into a baby wrap which I used for several months to carry my son on my back. After some wear and tear, this wrap was put into ‘retirement’. I still loved the burnt orange linen, and it stayed in my fabric scraps box for six years.

Fast forward a few years, I was almost nine months pregnant with my fourth child, and going stir crazy out of my mind! I had been furiously working to get all of my ‘nesting’ tasks accomplished - sewing baby and postpartum items, recording videos in advance, making freezer meals, cleaning and organizing my house, buying birth supplies. And then all of sudden, there was nothing left to do! I had at least a couple weeks to go, and I was bored!

jill salen stays pattern 18th century
The pattern from Jill Salen's "Corsets" book

That was when I decided to start hand-stitching a pair of 18th century stays from Jill Salen’s Corsets book which I had been drooling over for some months. And of course, I decided to used my lovely burnt orange linen, along with other scraps, to make this a zero-cost project.

Boning Channels, the U.S. Election, and Waiting for a Baby

There was just one problem: my baby wrap linen was quite soft, and had a fairly loose weave. I had barely enough linen to use two layers of burnt-orange linen as the outer layer, and I used scraps of white linen for the inner layer, with plans to add a final lining.

jill salen 18th century stays sewing project hand stitched 1790's
All the hand-stitched boning channels

I pinned my orange and white linen together, traced off my pattern pieces, and hand-basted around these outlines. One note about the pattern: As I was nine months pregnant at the time, it was impossible to make a mock-up, and I couldn’t even accurately measure my body at this time. I took a guess at what my post-pregnancy measurements would be, and adjusted the pattern accordingly. I will get into how these ended up fitting shortly.

My most poignant memory of stitching these stays is on the night of the U.S. election. We are Canadians, but like most people these days, were interested in the results of the past election.

jill salen 1790's stays 18th century hand stitched sewing historical
Side-view of the finished stays - quite 'Regency'!

My husband works from home on the computer in the evenings, and I was sitting on my exercise ball in his office room, with my stays, linen thread, wax, and tailors chalk, trying to keep my hand-stitches small and neat, while getting news updates on the election. Not to mention that I was experiencing the early labour contractions which I always experience for weeks before birth. “Is this it? Is baby going to come soon?” Stitch-stitch-stitch. “Who is going to win the election?” Stitch-stitch-stitch. You get the picture.

But would I have time to finish these stays before my baby arrived?

From Abandoned to Ferociously Hand-Stitched

My baby arrived four days after the previously-described night of the U.S. election, and I had better things to do for a couple of months! Or should I say, I laid in my bed and did absolutely nothing for as long as possible!

jill salen 18th century stays sewing synthetic whalebone 1790's historical costuming
The now-boned panels, ready to be whip-stitched

Then, the first project I got back to was my hand-made leather shoes. After finishing those, I opted to finish off my stays which had been sitting morosely around, filling me with unfinished-project-guilt. After having sewn through many layers of leather for my shoes, the rest of the hand-stitching for these stays went very quickly in comparison. I finished off the rest of the boning channels, then added the my synthetic whalebone.

jill salen 18th century stays 1790's sewing project historical corset
Seam allowances stitched down

Next step was stitching down the raw seam allowances to the inside of the stays, using a herribone stitch. Then, I whip-stitched the panels of the stays together.

Edging and Lining

jill salen 18th century stays making leather chamois 1790's seam binding
Chamois leather strips sewn over 'gutters'

I covered up the “gutters” between the panels with narrow strips of chamois leather. You can of course use strips of fabric for this, but I opted for the durability of leather. Chamois leather is very soft and thin, and similar to sewing through thick fabric. However, sewing the strips over the seams is the most annoying part of stay-making for me. Because the boning is already in place, the stays are stiff and difficult to stitch over.

jill salen 18th century stays 1790's corset binding tabs lining silk hand stitched
Binding the tabs and lining

Having finished this, I used narrow strips of the same leather to bind all around the edges of these stays. Yes, it took a while. But no, it is not quite the mind and finger-numbingly horrible process I always imagined it to be before making stays. Finally, I lined the stays with blue silk dupioni from my fabric stash. This makes a beautiful lining, but it was pretty flimsy and frayed quite a bit during the process.

How Do They Fit?

jill salen 1790's stays jill salen corsets hand stitched 18th century
Finished stays

To be honest, these stays are not my favourite, fit-wise, and I don’t see myself wearing them very often. I see them more as an art project than anything else, which is just fine! They give much more of a Regency silhouette than I had expected, but due to their short length give absolutely no tummy support, which I desperately need as a postpartum mama! But I can see myself wearing these under a Regency dress, especially once my tummy is more back to normal.

If I were to make these stays again, I would make them longer waisted, with more

18th century stays postpartum maternity 1790's regency sewing hand sewn jill salen
They could use some more tummy support!

tummy support, and have more width at the bust. I would probably also include a wooden busk at the front and back lacing. Or better yet, include some sort of front closure like a split busk or a zipper. This is the third time I have tried front lacing stays and I am simply not a fan.

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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