Corsetry, or stay-making, was an important craft in the eighteenth century – as much as dressmaking and tailoring. Every woman wore one, and even the poorest women still owned the basic garments – a pair of stays and a petticoat – even if she could not afford a gown over the top.
Stay-making was generally a male-dominated field of work, though females could make stays as well.
Sarah Hurst (1736-1808) spent her youth as an assistant to her father, who was a tailor in Horsham, England. She records in her diary on 31st July, 1762, that she “begin[s] making Mrs Hurst a pair of stays.” On the 13th August, she records that she “Finish[es] Mrs Hurst’s stays and she greatly approves of them.” Sarah had been staying with the Hurst’s for a short holiday and, despite being busy almost every day, she still managed to finish handsewing the stays in two weeks.
This week I was sorting through some boxes in my wardrobe and I found an unfinished eighteenth century corset that I started 13 years ago. I got it out and then remembered why I had put it away! I had made a few corsets before this one (and have made some since), but the tabs on the bottom of the stays had me completely stuck! I just didn’t know how to cut and bind them properly.
With a sudden burst of motivation, I decided that I should try and finish them, and here is my finished product! Sorry about the quality of the photos, as they were taken on my phone.
The outer layer is a peach and cream brocade, with a lining of calico. The boning channels are in twill tape and I have used plastic boning. The stays are bound with some peach-pink satin bias binding. The seams and channels have all been sewn with a sewing machine, but I ended up hand-sewed most of the binding. This made the tabs much easier to bind! The eyelets are hand worked and it is laced with the spiral lacing common to the 18th century.
Unfortunately, the top is a bit too big and the waist is a little too small. Obviously the last 13 years and 5 pregnancies have had an impact on my figure! Nevertheless, I am so pleased to be finished it. It means I can start another one that fits a bit better!
Sources and Relevant Links
The Encyclopedia of Diedrot and d’Alembert, translated and available online.
The Diaries of Sarah Hurst, 1759-1762: Life and Love in Eighteenth Century Horsham, transcribed by Barbara Hurst, edited by Susan C. Djabri. – buy through Amazon
Corsets from the 18th century, (1700-1750) from the Kyoto Costume Institute
Corset, Panniers and Chemise, (1760-1780) from the Kyoto Costume Institute
Corset (c. 1770-1799), from the National Trust Collections