Monday, September 08, 2008

An Enviable Pair of Stays

I went to an 18th century workshop this weekend in Colonial Williamsburg to learn to make a custom fitted pair of stays (i.e. corset). It was the perfect indoor activity for a weekend of hard rain and wind courtesy of Hurricane Hanna. The workshop was run by Burnley and Trowbridge, and taught by Mark Hutter, the Tailor of Williamsburg. Mark brought all sorts of interesting goodies for us to look at - period tools, reproduction stays, and actual baleen (also referred to as whalebone). I had never seen whalebone before, and was fascinated to see it for the first time (and no, we were not using baleen as boning for our stays). The baleen is the black stuff below:

The Stays course was certainly a unique experience, which involved most of us standing around in only our near-transparent shifts for a good part of the day. I give Mark credit though - he was able to make jokes and put us all relatively at ease. We were each paired up with someone that had a similar body type, and we worked with our "Bosom Buddies," as Mark called them, for the rest of the day. We started by taking measurements in the 18th century method - using only a strip of paper and clipping little markings into the paper. No tape measures were used at all.
Next up was the most frustrating portion of the workshop for me. My partner and I chose a corset pattern that was recommended for our era and body types. We received about 10 minutes of oral instructions on how to size up an original 18th century stays pattern. Without any written instructions and no pattern drafting experience, this was a crash course in pattern drafting that had me going pink in the face with frustration. In the end with more than a little bit of help, all was well, though class ended a good hour and forty minutes later than it should have. I left the class on Saturday with pattern pieces chalked onto my corset fabric. Our homework was to baste the chalk outline of the pattern (and to secure all three layers of fabric together). I was a little surprised to learn that we were expected to hand sew (I had not gathered that from the class description). I went ahead and bought linen thread and beeswax to strengthen the thread, and got to work. The next day, we assembled the pattern pieces and wound up with the following product:
I know it doesn't look like much, but this is a PERFECTLY fitting corset, made especially for me. Mark actually sewed us all into our corset so we could be sure we had the right fit, and helped us make a few minor last minute tweaks. It's up to me now to chalk the final pattern, take apart the corset (it's only basted together), rebaste the chalk lines, hand sew the boning channels, insert the boning (I think I'll use ash reed), and bind the corset in white leather that I purchased this weekend. I think this is going to take a couple of months to complete, but I really want to take my time and get a perfect set of stays. If all turns out well, I may use some leftover silk taffeta to cover the corset and make it fancy.

Now, you can't expect a group of costumers to get together in Williamsburg without going out on the town in costume. We went to one of the Williamsburg taverns for dinner and had a great time. I know the photo above is dark, but I like the candle light effect.

Here we are in a bit more well-lit photo. The ladies on each end of the photo are members of my Tuesday Night Costumer's group.

BIG thanks to my husband for driving me down to Williamsburg. I know he enjoyed taking a tour of the local ale factory and playing WoW online in the hotel room, but I know it wasn't his preferred way to spend the weekend. Thanks Dave! Hope you're ready to go back up in November for the gown draping class. :)


Anonymous said...

Hi, I've just been reading through your blog a bit (hee hee, what fun!). Although I have only read through the most recent page (so far) it appears that you almost exclusively use commercial patterns for your creations - is this true? If so, I am wondering if there is any chance you are unfamiliar with Goddess Janet Arnold and her Patterns of Fashion series in which she presents patterns drafted from real historical garments? There is goddess Norah Waugh's Cut of Women's Clothes 1600-1900. Jean Hunisett's Period Costume for Stage and Screen series is also quite good, also drafted from either extant garments or contemporary illustrations.

My apologies if you are already aware of these treasures and have made the concious decision not to use them; or have done so on other projects I haven't seen yet. I thought I would mention them just in case, I know that for me the works of Goddesses Janet and Norah are like bibles, lol.

Keep up the fabulous and inspirational work!


Inoui said...

Thank you very much Carolyn. I ADORE Janet Arnold's books, and have been trying to get a copy of Norah Waugh's book for quite a while now (I keep asking for it for birthdays/Christmas).

I am a self-taught sewer (over the last five years), and I have not yet learned how to size up patterns. I got a taste of that this weekend with the Stay's course (the pattern actually was an original, I think it might have been from the Victoria and Albert museum). I clearly need to hone my pattern drafting skills.