Several years ago I decided to make the best pair of bodies possible in terms of accurate period construction etc. – avoiding real whale bone and hand spun hand woven fabric but using the most appropriate modern materials.
Being a member of the UK Costume Society and also The Costume and Textile Society of Wales gave me access to seminars and people with a lot of advice and experience. I am indebted to all the help and advice from Jill Salen who encouraged me and was a source of inspiration. After I had decided on the project The Costume Society held a very useful Symposium on underwear including an extra day with Ian Chipperfield, the Staymaker and a lecturer from the London College of Fashion, which I attended with added interest.
One of the main problems I had was finding appropriate boning. I wanted fine boning similar to the boning as shown in the V&A book Costume in detail 17th and 18th century. But it needed to be strong enough to correctly hold me in shape. Jill gave me a few contact details but it was the London College of Fashion’s technique of folding plastic boning in half lengthways that gave me the boning which was narrow but strong; stronger than normal boning, which I recommend.
Jill advised me that red edge linen was the correct linen and Whalleys of Bradford was able to supply it. I had a piece of pink silk which I wanted to use as the top cover. I was content that the style of the original stays was ok as it was from a Janet Arnold book and used a pattern I had prepared before.
I had noticed that all the early stays seemed to be bound at the edge, generally in a contrasting colour and it was that fact which lead me to the most extreme change in my sewing technique. Instead of making a lining and a top part and sewing them together by bagging out, I cut out the lining, two layers of the red edge linen and one layer of the pink silk and placed them on top of each other – both slightly bigger than the pattern required in case of shrinkage due to the boning process.
Tacking the layers together I sewed boning channels in a simple running stitch in white silk thread. After making the channels I inserted the boning and busk between the two layers of linen and sewed up the pieces, keeping them in layers. After making the bodies into one piece I then prepared several metres of bias binding in grey silk.
I checked the bodies for fit and cut the layers into the right size, then I used the bias binding to cover the edges which also keeps all the layers as one.
I made eyelets holes centre back, as it was a back lacing pair of bodies, and for the shoulder straps using whip stitch. With a lucet I made lacing cord using perle cotton with silver coloured tags.
I was quite pleased with the results of the project and was happy to wear them until I put on too much weight to get into them and now use them as an example of underwear when talking to the public and re-enactors interested in the foundation garments of the 17th century.
Of course I forgot to take photographs of the construction but my husband has taken some costume in detail photographs for me. Hover over the picture to pause the slide show.
Since the project I have learnt more about the construction of 17th century clothing and that will be part of my next article.
Patterns of Fashion III Janet Arnold
Corsets and Crinolines Norah Waugh
Cut of women’s clothes Norah Waugh
Costume in detail 17th and 18th century Avril Hart and Susan North.
Patterns for Stage and Screen Jean Hunnisett