What my stays look like today, after about a year of use.
As promised, a post on the making of my leather stays!
Except that I tend to ramble incessantly, so it's going to be more like a few posts on the making of my leather stays. Kelsey at Historically Speaking is currently working on a set of leather stays for herself using the Mill Farm pattern as a base. I only recently found her blog and was delighted to see someone undertaking leather stays. Inspired by her lamentations on the lack of love for leather (see what I did there?), I decided to document my own experience for the Good And Benefit Of Humanity.
My leather stays were constructed over the course of a few days in early 2011. If you have ANY experience drafting conventional stays or corsetry, you could probably make them from scratch in about 5 hours. Cost is equable to, or even less than traditional stays, depending on what you already own and how accurate you want to be.
Without parroting Kelsey's observations (which I agree with), leather stays are grossly under-represented in the 18th century reenacting and historical costuming communities. Part of the problem is that there just aren't many extant pairs compared to the plethora of traditional boned and reeded stays. But I think a great deal of the issue is that many people are intimidated by the idea of making their own.
It's not hard. It just takes a little patience and some planning.
Before we get started, here's a list of what you will need for your own leather stays, if you want to do things the way that I did:
* A nice piece of leather, consistent in thickness, at least 8 oz. (The leather I used was around 11-12 oz. and was purchased at a Tandy Leather.)
* A piece of something thick and disposable for the mock-up.
* A busk. (Anything rigid will do, including the ubiquitous paint stir stick.)
* The heaviest thread or cord that you can successfully cram through the eye of the biggest needle you've got.
* A clear ruler and a measuring tape.
* A dark colored marker
* A pencil
* Brown craft paper
* Vellum or wax paper (you just need to be able to see through it enough to make out shapes)
* An awl (and if you're a wimp, a hammer.)
* A box cutter and a nice selection of new blades
* Heavy twine or thin cord
Things that you need to have access to:
* A place to do lots of cutting without compromising the integrity of your home or furnishings.
* A cat, so that you can be adequately distracted while painstakingly slicing through an expensive piece of leather with a fresh razor.
* A pattern or a plan.
Got all that? Great! Here we go.
I drafted the base of my pattern using Drea Leed's Elizabethan corset generator. If you haven't checked her site out, go do it. (According to the proprietary information on the site, she hasn't messed with it in close to 4 years. But it's solid gold. I hope she updates it one day.) So the generator! Follow the instructions, and make yourself a pattern.
Ta-da! Totally NOT 18th century!
The generator does just what it says. You'll have a rough mock-up of a quasi-Elizabethan-looking bodice. And that's okay, because the silhouette of the 18th century was born out of something similar to what you've just drawn. Now comes the creative part! Using pretty much any set of stays you like as inspiration, correct your pattern with the 18th century elements that best reflect your preferred part of the century, location, etc.
These are American, 1725 and made of cotton. From the Met.
The pattern you've drafted represents 1/2 of a finished pair of stays. Hold it up to your body and see what adjustments need to be made. Take note of where the bust line of the pattern hits you, and the curve of the hip notch. Elizabethan silhouettes were tubular (radical!) versus the conical silhouette of most of the 18th century. Keep that in mind as you make adjustments. You will probably need to lower or widen the bust line, and shorten and/or widen the base of the center front. Lay your vellum or wax paper out over the paper pattern you've created, and use a pencil to re-draw the pattern. Add the tabs (if your inspirational stays have them) and create the shape of the bottom front.
Things to keep in mind as you draft your new pattern: Don't keep the front overly pointed or low at the bottom. (Hard leather, cut to a point will NOT feel good pressed into your stomach or other sundry organs.) Remember that leather stays are meant to be common garments for working women. You can use fancier stays to model your pattern, but keep in mind the utility of the garment.
I went ahead and folded my wax paper so that I could have a full pattern to use for the mock up. I had already determined that I wanted my stays to be back-lacing. If you want yours to have front-lacing capabilities, just adjust the pattern accordingly.
The next step is tracing the wax paper pattern onto the material for the mock-up.
It's really important to find something that "acts" like your leather. I used a remnant of synthetic suede upholstery material and it was GREAT. The thicker, the better! If you can find enough of it, consider using fun foam sheets (or whatever it's called now) from a craft store. If at all possible, try to use something that you don't have to piece together. Your stays will be cut in one piece from your leather. The mock-up needs to be as similar to this condition as possible.
Pardon the toes. I am not a small-footed woman.
And then cut! Cut for your very life! You can see here (at the bottom) that I originally cut a rougher, fuller shape for the base of the stomacher area and the tabs. After they were completely cut out, I went back and refined those areas to suit my taste.
Sorry for the lack of contrast. Conditions were neutral.
Next up: Fitting the mock-up and chopping into the leather!
Side note: The pictures from the construction process are all from my old cell phone. The quality sucks, I know. Plus I didn't get pictures of every step. If anything seems unclear, feel free to ask questions.
3.24.13- UPDATE! I never linked to the follow-up posts. Here ya go:
Leather Stays Tutorial Part 2
Leather Stays Tutorial Part 3