Shortly after I began toying with the idea of making an 1830s dress, I had the following text exchange with my sewing buddy Meghanne:
Me: dear god I just realized that if I want to make an 1830s bodice I have to make a corset first
Meghanne: hahahaha you can do it!
Me: f me
It wasn’t that bad, as it turns out. Although it was intimidating, most of the sewing involved turned out to be fairly straightforward. I’ll admit that I first looked into buying one, but without $800 on hand for a custom corset (anything off the rack is not going to fit me), I settled on Redthreaded’s 1830s Stays pattern. I’d heard people rave about the clarity and simplicity of Redthreaded’s instructions, which was exactly what I was looking for after my experience with The How-To Booklet of My Nightmares, a.k.a. my Laughing Moon #115 chemise instructions. Redthreaded also sells a materials kit on their website for $60, so I knew I wouldn’t have to spend any time hunting down coutil, making a curved busk, or figuring out which boning materials and lengths to buy. The pattern is sold separately for $24. If you aren’t sure what size to buy, it’s usually best to choose whichever one is closest to your waist measurement, since it’s not difficult to widen or narrow the bust and hip gussets for a better fit. I will note that if you have an especially short torso, it may be wise to buy your own boning and busk, since the ones from the kit may be too long.
If you prefer corded stays, Past Patterns offers a corded stays pattern and kit. It also includes more information on period-accurate sewing techniques than the pattern I used. However, it is not nearly as size inclusive. I hope that in the future they will expand the range of sizes offered.
The Redthreaded pattern is 100% made with machine sewists in mind, and doesn’t expect that you’ll be felling seams by hand (or at all, actually). Its form is period-accurate, but the seam finishes are not. This was fine with me, since what I wanted was (a) to learn more about the form and function of 1830s stays, and (b) to have a durable, more-or-less-accurate corset. And I planned to depart from the instructions and flat-fell the seams anyway.
You’ll notice that I’m using “stays” and “corset” interchangeably. Both were in use at the time, with “stays” being the older term. “Corset” was a newer, more genteel synonym, and was the one that won out in the end. This is why we tend to use “stays” for the heavily boned support garments of the 18th century, and “corset” for the more sparsely boned ones of the 19th. However, the terms aren’t exclusive. Indeed, “stays” is commonly used to refer to corded corsets or short stays that have no boning at all, as well as to lightly boned styles like the one I’ve made here.
The Redthreaded kit includes a generous amount of coutil, an ultra stiff cotton corsetry fabric with almost zero stretch. Occasionally you will hear a sewist recommend not prewashing coutil, since it can soften the fabric, but I didn’t notice any difference after washing. I wish I’d pulled it out of the dryer sooner, though, because it was HARD to press. It took an hour or two with a steam iron and an extra spray bottle in hand before the fabric finally surrendered itself.
Did I mention that coutil is stiff? Yes. Use a jeans needle if you don’t want to hear that “pop pop pop” sound of a standard needle repeatedly puncturing dense fabric.
My mockup went swimmingly, due to the clarity of the instructions. It came together quickly and did its job of pointing out exactly what I needed to change. The straps were too short, the bust gussets waaay too big, and the lacing gap at the back too narrow at the top and bottom. It should be about the same width the entire way down, so as not to stress the seams and boning channels too much.
I reduced the bust gusset width on the mockup by half (minus the seam allowance), which mostly solved the problems with the fit and the lacing gap. However, they still flared out at the top in a way that just didn’t work for my bust size. Ideally, this corset style acts like a cupped shelf for the wearer’s boobs, with the top half of them smooshed up into rounded cleavage on top. This works fine for most wearers, but those with smaller busts aren’t going to get that kind of effect. To ensure that I created the right kind of lift and shaping, I added a pair of removable foam bra cups, and re-shaped the outer bust gussets on the final version into more of a teardrop form. I don’t feel ahistorical about having done this, since I’m sure people in the 19th century were hacking their corsets for a better fit as well.
Cutting a little slice off of the top back helped remedy the lacing gap issues at the top as well. It looked weird when I cut it out, but worked just fine when I wore it. The only issue I had with this was that I had to scoot the top of bone #4 about 3/16” from its original position in order to make room for a flat felled seam. Although it sounds like it would have been easier to take a slice off the front, this would have left the side front boning channel crooked. I took a little bit out of the bottom of the back hip gussets too, and voila, the lacing gap was straight.
I mentioned above that I decided to flat fell the seams for a more historical finish, rather than zig-zagging them. Other possible finishes include hand whipstitching the seams or lining the corset. Or…gasp…just leaving the raw edges exposed. While I don’t recommend this, it was a more common choice for period garments than one might think.
Since coutil is so thick, I increased all the gusset piece seam allowances to 5/8” to enable a secure flat felled seam (I tried it with the original 3/8” seam allowance, and it didn’t work). I also added a third row of stitching at the very tip of each gusset, to better hold the folded triangle of seam allowances in place.
Next came the bone casing and busk pocket, which were simple to apply. Do be sure to stitch the casing and pocket to the INSIDE of the corset, rather than the outside. This is one of the few points where the instructions aren’t clear. I think Redthreaded is assuming each sewist will have seen a corset up close before and will know this already. However, I can imagine that some beginning costumers could be caught unawares. I found that the bone casing included in the kit was a smidge wider than I wanted, so I stitched it down a little farther in from the casing edge than I otherwise might have. This will help keep the boning from twisting when I move.
I flossed my corset before adding the boning and binding, so the fabric would be easier to handle while I was flossing the gussets. I hadn’t done any kind of embroidery before, so I chose a simple design and practiced first on a scrap piece. The most helpful resource I found in learning how to floss was this article by Sidney Eileen, which includes tips, patterns, and diagrams. You don’t need to floss a corset, but it sure is pretty! And it helps to reinforce any high-stress areas, such as gusset tips and the bottoms of the boning channels. Period corsets were sometimes flossed well after they were made, as a way of extending their lifespan once they began to wear out.
The binding was a pain to attach, especially around the strap tips. Bias tape just isn’t meant to make a 180 degree turn over the span of a single inch. I spent a lot of time pinning tiny sections, hand cranking my machine, and pinning again. One of the strap tips looked so wonky that I ended up flossing those too, even though I hadn’t planned on it. Decoration can cover up any number of mistakes!
Speaking of mistakes, I completely forgot to anchor my drawstrings and leave an exit slit for them in the binding. Because of this, I had to open up the back of the binding at the anchor points and the top center so I could anchor the ribbons and work two eyelets in as exit points. Looking back, I wish I’d stitched the eyelets on the inside of the binding so that I could keep the drawstrings hidden. I’m not all that girly, and three bows on a single item are more than I’d usually tolerate. It looks fine, though.
I love that the Redthreaded kit had plenty of grommets, but wish they’d included a grommet setter like the ones that come in the Dritz grommet kits you can find at JoAnn. I would have GLADLY paid extra. Since the JoAnn near my house didn’t have kits in the right diameter (I think they’re size 00), I worked out a method to set them with just a hammer and screwdriver. I have a separate entry on that, if you find yourself in the same boat. The backs looked messy, but the fronts looked great and the lacing glided through just fine.
The curved busk from the kit is a nice touch. It has a slight S-curve to it that sits more comfortably on most bodies than a straight busk would. That said, my sternum doesn’t curve out at my bust; it curves in just a little as it approaches my shoulders. What I really needed was a slight C curve. To achieve this, I soaked it in water overnight, which gave it enough flexibility that I could gently and gradually bend one end in the other direction. After drying in a makeshift vise, it fit perfectly.
Hey, I’m done! And it looks so good! I hope this post can serve as encouragement to anyone who isn’t sure if a corset is within their range. Happy sewing, everyone.
Pattern: Redthreaded 1830s Stays
- Redthreaded 1830s Stays kit
- Gutermann Sew-All thread
- 2 packs single fold bias tape (weirdly not included in the kit)
- jeans needle
- DMC cotton embroidery floss
- embroidery needle
- foam bra cups
- Phillips head screwdriver