Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Simple Stays: Leather Stays Tutorial, Part 3 (Final)

We're in the homestretch! If you missed the first installments, they are here and here

By now, you have something that qualifies as a pair of leather stays. A bit rough around the edges (literally) and probably smelling heavily of cow (yeah, it's LEATHER) but they are stays none-the-less, and they are yours. 

No binding necessary. 

The last leg of this truly amazing and rewarding journey is the finishing touches and final adjustments. First, get thee into thine stays! Stays generally (though not always) lace in a spiral pattern from the bottom to the top. You will literally be lacing them UP. For fitting purposes, lace them exactly as you plan to wear them.

This is a good time to address any rubbing/poking/uncomfortable areas. (As opposed to later, when you're dressed at an event and suddenly realize you can't move your left arm because your shoulder blade is trapped under your boob, or whatever.*) Stays are meant to shape the body, not constrict it horribly. Leather stays in particular were worn to be worked in. You should be able to move and bend reasonably. Don't expect to be able to do gymnastic back-flips, but make sure you have a pretty full range of movement.

* If this actually happens, please take a picture and email me. Then see a doctor. 

If the fit is good, pay attention to the "look" of the stays next. See if there are any areas where they could use additional shaping or trimming. 

The above picture was taken the night I cut the stays out and laced them for the first time (cotton cord for fitting, 1/8 linen tape for usual lacing). You can see how high the back rises above the front bust line, despite the fact the stays are resting at an angle. High-backed stays were more common early in the 18th century, but it wasn't working for me. I cut two inches off of the top of the back panels, including the top lacing holes, and tried them on again. After wearing them off and on for a day, I decided to create a wider gap in the back (they nearly closed when I laced them) and improve the fit by cutting the back edges flush with the original rows of holes on each side. This, of course, required the creation of new lacing holes. Ultimately I also trimmed the tabs and slightly deepened the under arm area on each side.

Un-lace your stays and lay them flat. Using a handy-dandy bevelling tool like I used or even the side of a razor blade, trim the rough and uneven edges of the leather, front and back, inside and out, several times. After this, it's time for decorating!

Leather stays were traditionally scored in vertical lines to encourage flexibility. You can sketch boning channels on your leather just as you would for a pair of conventional linen, wool, silk or cotton stays and score the lines with your razor, or you can come up with something wacky and original. Since I am a boring person, I went with the "faux boning" look:

I went over some of the "boning" seams and around the tabs with a wartenburg wheel to give the look of stitching where I fancied it. 

My theory on decorating leather stays is that women probably carved their initials, or whittled decorative patterns, etc. whenever they could and as they desired. Consider some of the extraordinary (and superfluous) stitchery perpetrated upon stays of the 18th and early 19th centuries... Obviously, women took pride in exercising their decorative and creative abilities at every level of society. (And on just about any unsuspecting garment.)

That said, I have done precious little decorative work to my own leather stays, other than what I mentioned above. Some of that decision was born of fear and some was practical. As I made them and through the series of trims and small adjustments that followed, I was concerned that I would have to cut into and interrupt an existing design during a future modification. So I kept it simple. I'm at the point now where I feel that they fit me well, and so I plan to use knives and stamps to tart them up a bit at some point in the future. 

The interior:

Boob sweat patterns!

A few words on fitting and wearing them the first few times: sweat is your friend. The leather will become more supple with wear, allowing the stays to mould and shape to your body better with time. The first couple of times you wear them, spritz the inside with water to expedite the forming if you wish. 

Weird angle, but you can see how the front has bowed and the tabs curve up and out.

And that's it! Obviously, this is a tutorial best suited for people who have no interest in using an existing pattern. But it's important for the reluctant leather stays initiate to know that it can be done without a pattern. 

Things I would do differently next time:

* I would use a thinner leather. 8-10 oz. rather than the 12ish that I used. It gives fantastic support, but it's really a little over-kill for stays.

* The great lacing-hole debacle. I know better now. (See Part 2 for dirty details.)

* Lacing material! I have been using 1/8"-1/4" Dutch linen tape to lace them and I keep breaking the laces. I've gone through 4 in a year, and I don't put the stays on more than once every week or two. I've come across some better information on stay laces since I made these, and I intend to investigate other options.

* Not really a regret, but something to note: If you're used to pinning things to your stays (kerchief/gown/stomacher/whatever floats your boat), keep in mind that it's harder to pin to leather. 

Thanks for checking this out! If anyone has any question about things I didn't address, please let me know. I will be happy to clarify whatever I can. Happy Stay Making!

Leather Stays Tutorial Part 1

Leather Stays Tutorial Part 2


  1. Those look great! I'm glad you've been so thorough about documenting your steps, as we need more people to try out leather stays.

    1. It would be grand if they did! Hopefully more people give it a try. By the way- your series on the place in society of various fibers/fabrics continues to be awesome! "Cotton" is still my favorite, but "Silk" was a treat.

  2. I'm really glad that you finished this series! It will definitely help me out when I get to the actual leather part of my leather stays!

  3. A friend posted this to my attention and I love it! I'm a leather worker and I was approached by Williamsburg museum to make a set. I didn't even know they existed! They gave me a pattern drawn up from an extant set of traditional stays. I've made 6 sets so far based on the original front lacing pattern with a few tweaks (i do GaOP) I've been trying to get more people to wear them and I'm now making and selling them as well. They are extremely comfortable and very easy to make with the right tools. I'm thrilled that someone has a tutorial and sings the praises of them!I usually have them front lacing as a working woman usually would and I make wide decorative panels/busks/stomachers to fit under the lacing. My only addition to your tutorial is that vegetable tanned leather doesn't have a grain (soft upholstery leathers do) but there are areas which are firmer than others. The belly of the animal is very stretchy with loose fibers (look at the back and you can see and touch that it's soft and it pulls up) you'll want to cut your stays from the back or shoulder of the animal where there is minimal to no stretch. Just fit your pattern to how it best fits the Leather you bought. Excellent tutorial! Thank you!

  4. Did you ever find a better material to lace it with?