Blue Tudor Gown: Building the Kirtle

The foundation garment for gowns in the 16th century, otherwise known as the Tudor Era, was the kirtle. The structured garment precludes the bodies that were characteristic of the Elizabethan Period, stays from the 17th century up until the advent of the corset in the 19th century onward. The kirtle can be a structured bodice coupled with a petticoat or underskirt that would serve as the window panel for dresses like the Henrician lady’s gown or fashionable French Gowns. In the case of the underskirt, the structured bodice and skirt were joined to make one garment.

Historically comprised of tightly-woven linen and whalebone, the structured bodice created the shape of the period: low, square neckline; lifted bosom; and straight, angled waist. For my kirtle, I use the pattern provided by The Tudor Tailor book.

I transferred the pattern pieces using parchment paper and then scaled using a 1:8 scale as instructed by the book. Fortunately for me, the provided pattern is nearly my base measurements already (bust, waist, hip) but I did end up taking the pattern in by 1″ at the side seams and adjusted the shoulder straps quite a bit from the mockups. I also noted that the pattern would be at least 6″ too long and would address that later when cutting the skirt.

By this point, I had decided to use the navy blue, geometric fabric from the original project for the over-gown and wanted to combine this with a yellow and burgundy floral patterned upholstery fabric I had from a yard sale. The yellow/gold and burgundy/red in the floral pattern was the exact shade of colors as the center of the diamond pattern of the blue fabric and would complement nicer than the silvery gold geometric I originally planned to pair. In addition, the floral was close to being a damask pattern that would’ve been fashionable for the Tudor period. The only flaw in this thinking is that in most reference paintings for the project (see image above), the geometric pattern was usually in the window panel and accents while the floral/damask was used as the main fabric. I was really pleased with the combination though and planned to roll with it.

For the kirtle bodice, I used a mixture of fabrics to give the correct structure and look. The fashion side of the bodice is pieced with navy linen I had on hand ($6 for 6 yards at a rummage sale, score!) and the red/gold floral fabric at the neckline to match the window panel of the skirt. Since the linen was actually quite lightweight and I worried about the integrity of it once boning was added, I interfaced the pieces with scraps of tightly woven cotton. Finally, the interior of the bodice made use of heavy-weight tan linen from a drapery clearance.

The bodice is constructed of a front and back with the straps extending from the back to the front. I opted for two side closures rather than a single back lace-up since it would allow me to lace myself into the garment. The side closures also will allow the garment to adjust size easier. I cut the panels in the blue linen, minus 2″ for the pieced neckline, plus 1/2″ for seam allowance. The 2″ strip of floral was then cut and stitched in place.

In this image, the back panel has been cut into two pieces with a center back seam. I felt this would be easier since I was adding the pieced neckline in the floral fabric. Stitching the floral to blue and then center back seam was MUCH easier than attempting a mitered seam if the back were all one piece.
Here is the back panel with the center back seam. My seams with the pieces got a tad funky and caused the center back to not line up exactly, but I had given myself a generous seam allowance and was able to just trim and blend between the two sections.
Both the front and back panels were interlined with cotton and flatlined with tan linen. I made sure to only stitch the sides and bottom, leaving the top open for insertion of the bones.

To finish off the back panels, two 1/4″ boning channels were added at the center back and one on each side seam to support the eyelets that would be added.

The boning structure on the front panel was a bit more complicated. The front is fully boned (or cord if you prefer) under the bust. I used the grid from The Tudor Tailor pattern to plot out the bust curve and edge of the boning sections by marking the center of the front panel and then marking outward equivalent to the ratio on the grid (1 grid = 1″). The grid was also used to determine the bottom location of the angle lines.

With the outlines in place, the boning channels were stitched based on a 1/4″ spacing offset from the center and two angles, creating three distinct boning sections:

Here it is with the ungodly amount of bones.

I was actually shocked by how flexible the bodice was with this method. Since all of the bones are vertical, or at a slight angle, the bodice wraps nicely around the front of the body. It provides a good stomach structure and bust support without feeling cinched in. Surprisingly comfortable!

With the panels and boning finished, the straps were stitched to the front panel and all edges were surged to prevent fraying. There was a bit of finessing the fit of the straps when stitching in place and I found using a mannequin much faster than on myself. Nest, I added a strip of navy piping to the neckline edge before folding all the edges over and whip stitching down by hand.

The side seams have spiral lacing with 1/4″ embroidered eyelets. I spaced the eyelets 1″ apart and used bright contrasting burgundy embroidery floss for the stitches. Why not add a pop of interest, they would be covered by the overgown anyway.

Structure completed, it was time to add some shine to the bodice. The area of the kirtle with the pieced floral fabric would be visible under the main gown. In paintings I looked at, the kirtle has a row of gems, pearls, or other embellishments along this area.

The neckline is finished with a row of large gems and pearls placed symmetrically

The skirt of the gown is relatively simple, and yet a place I made many errors. I had very little of the floral patterned fabric to work with; however, since I am short, I was able to cut back on the required yardage significantly. Perks of being fun-sized! I also did a bit of patching to make it work. Little did I know when cutting, that I had accidentally cut the piece on the fold with the fold going the wrong way. Luckily, the bottom hem is relatively square, but the seam with the bodice is not and this caused a lot of issues with how the skirt hangs. Even with cutting back to create the point, it still isn’t quite right. But, I only had just so much fabric and had to make it work.

An example of the piecing done on the skirt. This piece is at the bottom hem, side seam, and would be almost never seen, but less obvious.

The second major mistake was fabric choice for the unseen portion of the skirt. The yellow floral fabric is very stiff, and I needed something of similar weight so it wouldn’t get all funky. I chose a “linen-look alike” drapery fabric that I thought was on clearance at Joann. A lesson to check labels carefully. The roll I had grabbed was on sale, but the backup the sales associate grabbed when the first roll ran out, was not. I ended up paying full price on not-so-great quality fabric. It did its job, but certainly didn’t look or feel as good as it should’ve for the price. I often use fabrics not for their intended purposes (upholstery for apparel for example), but they are usually similar enough and the only way to get the look I want at the price point I can justify. I should’ve taken my time and found the right material rather than settling for the first thing that was slightly doable and then regretting it as soon as I cut it out.

Overall, the fabric was too heavy. Stitching the two fabrics together was no problem, but once the back of the skirt was pleated, stitching to the bodice was a hand-breaking nightmare.

To make the knife pleats, I measured and marked the pleat lines from the pattern and drew arrows to remind myself which line would be pulled where. My pleats were about 2″ each with 9 pleats on each side of the center back.
Once marked and folded, each pleat is pinned in place and basted with sturdy upholstery or buttonhole thread. The basting stitches can be seen on the front panel in yellow. I made three rows of stitching for the back panel due to the weight and amount of handling I knew would be necessary for attaching to the bodice.

The front and back panels are stitched together up to approximately 8″ below the waistline. The skirt and bodice are stitched together by machine using heavy upholstery thread again to support the weight of the skirt. The areas left open on the side seams of the skirt allow the wearer space to get in and out of the gown as well as the addition of pockets in the future.

Skirt stitched to the bodice, the garment is hung on Molly the mannequin and the hem is leveled to hit at the ankle bone. This is a bit high for the period, but my reduction in height and forgetting to account for seam allowance at the waist brought my hem higher than brushing the toes. In the grand scheme, this is likely for the best since I’ll be less likely to trip on the front hem now. To finish the hem, I create bias tape from a navy silk ribbon found at Joann’s on clearance. It is probably the most expensive bias tape I’ve ever used in my life, but it looks absolutely flawless when applied. To conserve the use of this material, I switch to a polyester satin blanket binding for the hem along the tan linen section of the skirt.

And that is it! After some careful pressing of the waist seam, surging of the last unfinished seams and lacing up the side seams, the foundation garment is complete. With this, the over-gown can be fit tested and work can start there!

Making a set of Elizabethan Bodies

While working on a Tudor era gown, I was struggling with fit issues on an unstructured gown. The key there is “unstructured”. My modern body technically fit the gown, but my posture and shape wasn’t quite right for the historical bodice. I opted to make a pair of bodies (pre-cursor to stays which were the pre-cursor to corsets) in an attempt to give the proper historical shape.

There are people out there who have studied costume history who are much better prepared to explain why and how different body shapes were created throughout history. But I highly recommend The Tudor Tailor for explanations of the slight variations of fit and structure throughout the Tudor period of historical dress. The book is fabulous, both for the many patterns included and the details pertaining to fabric, cut, and period techniques. For this project, I am using the Dorthea Bodies pattern from The Tudor Tailor which are reproduced from museum garments from the Elizabethan period.

The first step was to trace and scale the pattern so I could begin making mock ups and fitting. This pattern is on a 1:8 grid which means that 1″ on the book page is equal to 8″ for the full scale pattern. This can also be thought of as 1 square on the book page was equal to 1″ for full scale. I like to use the radial method of scaling where I trace the pattern, tape it to my final pattern paper, and mark points for the final pattern from one point in the corner. I use a tape measure and yard stick to do this by marking points along a straight line equal to the tracing paper measurement times 8.

To start, the traced piece is taped to a corner (I like right angles) and markings are made along straight lines radiating from the corner equal to the distance from the corner to the point on the tracing paper x8.
As the outer bounds of the pattern are marked and connected, the interior details can be added.

Scaling a pattern using this method is like creating a giant connect the dots. It takes quite a bit of focus, especially on areas with curves. I make enough points to accurately mark my lines and will then go back to the book pattern and count squares to confirm the pattern is correct. You’ll want to start in pencil since you will make mistakes and then go back later in pen and marker for the final pattern.

The interior details, in this case the boning channels, are made by completing the outline of their placement and then filling in the boning channels based on the size of bones you are using. I planned to use 1/4″ synthetic whalebone (plastic) and mark my channels as a scant 3/8″.

Once the pattern is is drafted, I started on the mockups and fittings. I am lucky in that my measurements were close enough to the pattern model to start from the book pattern without adjustment initially. The first mockup confirmed my suspicions that the bust needed adjusting (typical for me) and that the straps were too long, and too straight. For the second version, I used a french curve to adjust the strap curves so they sit farther on my shoulder points.

This process took THREE mockups to get right since my first attempt made the straps too curved and then not enough on the second try. Third time was the charm. With the third mockup, I also swapped the eyelet closures to be at the front rather than the back since I prefer front lacing. Back lacing is too difficult for me to lace myself that if I can avoid it, I do.

Pattern finished, I could cut my fabric pieces. I planned to use the sandwich method for making my boning channels since all the channels are parallel straight lines. The sandwich method also meant so I would not need a lining or twill tape. In the end, I used three layers: coutil, cotton, and fashion fabric. The outside (fashion) fabric I chose is a brown and teal cotton, but wasn’t strong enough on its own for the boning channels. I used a scrap green cotton as interlining to add structure to the fashion fabric for the boning channels.

Next, the outside fabric and cotton interlining are basted together before stitching the side seams for the basted layers and coutil. The side seams are pressed open and boning channels are marked. I make all my pattern markings after pressing seams since I use water soluble markers that disappear with heat and steam.

Here you can see the seam at the center back of the interlining. I only had 1/2 yard of the material and had to cut the back panel as two pieces and stitch together before flat lining with the outer fabric. Pretty easy way to conserve fabric, especially for patterns like this that have odd long sections (straps) that don’t fit well on yardage together for economic cutting.

With wrong sides together, the outer layer and inner coutil layers are basted together. I am leaving the neckline at the bust and center back open to allow for insertion of the bones. Since I shifted the lacing to the front, I adjust the boning channels to have 1 channel at the edge, 1/2″ space for the eyelets, and then back to the boning spacing. Adding a bone between the eyelets and the center edge gives structure and prevents the eyelets from stretching individually.

The boning channels are marked both on the inside and outside of the garment since I would be attempting to hand sew the channels with metallic thread.

Prior to stitching the channels, I added a few pad stitches throughout the channel area to ensure the fabrics didn’t shift or bunch while making the channels. I did these in a bright thread for easy removal later.

The outline of the boning channels is stitched with a backstitch for strength at the bottom of the channel which take excess strain. The channels themselves are also backstitched, but with a much longer stitch length for speed.
The interior of the bodies with basting stitches and final boning channels stitched.

As I’ve said, I often struggle with fitting the bust of garments and one of the major problems with the unstructured gown the bodies were intended to go with is that the bust is too large and cannot be easily modified due to beadwork. Since the bodies have the underbust supported by bones and bust soft, I left the excess material and padded it to assist with the right shape for the gown. I had a pair of shoulder pads on hand from a clearance rack and trimmed these to use as padding. They were honestly super for this purpose since the shoulder pads are tapered to have more padding on one edge and less on the opposite. I fudged the trimmed shoulder pads so that the thicker side would be at the bottom of the cup, providing support.

The uncut shoulder pad on the left and trimmed piece to the right.
The top of the boning channels are backstitched to prevent the bones from popping out and the pads are roughly pad stitched to prevent the coutil from gapping.

The edges are finished by trimming away the seam allowance to the basted stitching lines and application of bias tape along the neckline and waistline. The center front was surged and folded back rather than having bias tape interrupt my hard work to pattern match the center front.

Edges finished, the last steps were to embroider eyelets to the center front closure and add the tabs to the waist. For the eyelets, I decided on a criss-cross style rather than spiral lacing because . . . math is hard and I just could not make spiral lacing work. For this, the eyelets are placed parallel to each other. To embroider them, I create the holes with a tailors awl, baste stitch a guide circle around the opening with regular thread, and then stitch them with two strands of embroidery floss. Stitches start from the back with a knot, then wrap up through the opening to the thread is through, but the needle passes back down the hole and out the fabric (from inside out) at the guide stitch line. The embroidery thread wraps around the needle point before being pulled through to make a nice, neat, stitch. This continues around the opening to create the finished eyelet.

Finished eyelets at the front of the bodies, laced with white paracord (because it’s cheap!)

I deviated from the Tudor Tailor’s instructions a tad for the tabs. Rather than binding them, I cut my tabs with seam allowance and stitched the front and linings with right sides together, clipped the seam allowance, and turned them out with the top edges raw. This isn’t necessarily right or wrong, but I was to the point of wanting to move faster and get the project done, and this was quicker. I also added a layer of scrap home d├ęcor fabric sandwiched between the layers to give structure to the tabs. I whip stitched the top edge of tabs with the raw edges turned in for a quick finish. With 8 tabs in total, I generally spaced 4 on each side area of the waist and stitched in place to finish.

The finished tabs with whip stitching at the top.
Arranging the tabs was a tad of a process. Looking back, because I adjusted the sizing of the bodies themselves for my waist, I should’ve made more tabs or widened them to fit the final garment better. It’s not a great finish with gaps between them, but they’re done.

Lovely shape and relatively straightforward process, I am quite pleased with how these turned out and how surprisingly comfortable they are. I attempted to wear them with the unstructured gown in question and unfortunately did not see an improvement in the fit or shape. I’ll still wear these for other garments in the future and am proud of how they turned out, but they did not fulfill the intended purpose.

Honestly, I’m really not pleased with the odd fitting garment for more reasons than just the fit. Since I’ve had the last year to improve my skills and have now read The Tudor Tailor, I plan to restart the overall Tudor gown project with a new pattern in hopes that a second go, with the right materials and skills, will lead to a better outcome.

The Goose Girl: Bodice Finishings to Flare

Now that I had completed the structure and fit (See The Goose Girl: Bodice Beginnings to Boning), I could line the stays, finish with binding, and add eyelets and cording.

For my lining, I use the same pattern as with the fashion fabric. I decided to use a pale yellow fabric I had found at a vintage sale in downtown Milwaukee. I honestly do not think it is pure silk, though it has a similar look and feel. I tested a couple swatches using the burning method and bleach test and got mixed results. When burnt, the material turned to very light ash rather than melting. When placed in the bleach, the material broke apart and some of the fibers broke down fully after hours, but not all. So I think it is a silk-poly mix. It also has a lovely color, texture, and is far too small of a piece to use for anything substantial (though it has amazing drape).

The fabric was also a sweet nod to “The Yellow Lady” portion of Shannon’s novel. Isi is described in the book as having yellow-blonde hair that is distinctly Kildendrean (her home) versus the local dark brown or black hair colors of the Bayern people. Throughout the novel, the Bayern workers she grows close with and the other locals describe the princess as “The Yellow Lady”. I liked the idea that this tell-tale color would not be visible to the outside, much like the character’s hair.

The lining was stitched at the seams, like the fashion side, and pressed open. The wrong sides of the lining and structured outer layers were pinned and then basted together on the stitching lines. I had to be careful around the tab areas at the bottom since I had stupidly slashed these open for the outer layers. Rather than risk missing the corners of these with the machine, I hand basted the bottom edge to have more control.

Now that the garment was all in one piece, I planned to finish the edges with a very narrow bias tape binding.

I had a few choices in selecting my binding and the choice primarily came down to color. It would have been best to match the fashion fabric and make bias tape from the original material, but I had not dyed enough initially to do that and worried I would not be able to exactly reproduce the shade.

My second thought was to use a contrast color: green.

Green would tie into the screened color in the stay fabric pattern and would complement the Bavarian landscape inspiration nicely. However, small, double fold ,1/4″ bias tape is difficult to find commercially in anything other than the staple white, black, and cream. I would be making the bias tape by hand.

To make bias tape you need:

  • Fabric
  • Meter stick
  • Right angle ruler
  • Fabric pen
  • Bias tape maker (plastic or metal)
  • Iron
  • Thread

I found some green cotton with gold thread in the warp on clearance at Joann’s and purchased 1 yard. I pulled the material from opposite corners a couple times to keep the grain of the material in line before cutting.

Lines are marked using a right angle ruler at the farthest corner of the fabric. I cheated here and used the selvage as my straight edge rather than pulling a thread to make a proper straight line.

I then use my meter stick to mark parallel lines offset from the right angle based on the size of the bias tape needed. In my case, I was making 1/4″ double fold which equates to 1″ overall to be cut. Luckily, my meter stick is exactly 1″ wide.

A cat is obviously necessary to supervise this sort of work.

If I were making larger or smaller bias tape, I would mark the width needed along the selvage and then draw lines upward using the right angle ruler and meter stick. You can also cut an exact square up from the selvage, mark the necessary width on both the cut edge and selvage, and connect the dots. Any method works, as long as your strips are always on the bias.

I check my angle with my right angle ruler every 5 strips or so to ensure I’m still on track.

These strips are then cut and prepped for stitching. I cut way more than I ended up needing, but if I’m putting in the effort and have plenty of raw material, I like to make extra.

To stitch, the strips are placed fashion sides together perpendicularly and stitched at a 45-degree angle. It takes a time or two to line up just right, so take a couple scrap pieces to test the method first. Always use thread that is either an exact or close match since the thread may show ever so slightly after ironing. This depends primarily on the strength of the fabric.

The tails are trimmed back, pressed open, and the full length of strip is ran through the bias tape maker, ironing as you go. I like to use stainless steel bias tape makers since I can get right up close to the maker with the iron on full steam. But 3-D printed bias tape makers are quite common and cheap. They’re also more customizable for sizing and often have attachments to make double fold all on one iron pass.

My bias tape maker generates single fold bias tape at 1/2″ that I then fold over and iron again for double fold.

The bias tape can then either be applied by hand or machine. I’m attaching by hand because of all my crazy corners with the tabs. I start by folding open the bias tape and pinning the right side along the edge of the stay. This is back stitched in place using the ironed crease as a guide.

This continues all around the garment with care taken along the curved sections and tucks due to the tab inner corners.

After finishing with my tiny backstitches on the front, the bias tape is folded over the edges, pinned on the inside, and felled in place with tiny whip stitches. Since this was facing toward the body, visible stitches was not an issue. The process of tightly folding and stitching the bias tape was a bit tricky at the top of the tab slashes. I had to wiggle the fabric and wham it down a bit more than I would have liked. Though, again, the important part is the outside where the bias tape needed to be straight and tight; the inside could be as messy as needed.

As you might see in the prior photos, I had taken a break from hand stitching to create the structure for my eyelets. I use a cheater method for eyelets that is no where near historically accurate, but makes my eyelets stronger with use of metal grommets.

For my cheater method of stitched eyelets, you’ll need:

  • 1/4″ metal grommets
  • Tailors awl
  • grommet pliers or shank and hammer
  • embroidery floss
  • sharp, fine embroidery needle

The first step is to mark the locations of the eyelet using the pattern or calculating equal distances based on how many eyelets to be applied. Here, I made an error that is probably by greatest regret of the project. I used the eyelet locations as indicated by the original pattern which are located mirror image of each other from left to right rather than an offset or staggered pattern that would have allowed the stays to have spiral lacing. Spiral lacing would have been more period specific, but what is done is done.

After marking the eyelet locations, you can use the tailor’s awl to create eyelet holes without breaking the threads. By doing this, the surrounding material stays structurally sound and there is less likelihood of breakage, fraying, or stretching due to the tension the lacing will create. My tailor’s awl is about 1/4″ just below the grip and thus creates the exact size I need. If you were to make eyelets without grommets, you would begin stitching at this point.

A small tailors awl that creates 1/4-1/2″ eyelets. I purchased a 2 pack of these online for $9.

Since I am hard on my lacing and the stays do not have a busk to support the eyelets, I am opting to use metal grommets under my stitches. I had 1/4″ gold eyelets on hand from a previous bulk order and applied them using a shank and hammer. I have a grommet pliers but was unable to get a nice, clean finish with these because of the surrounding fabric thickness. The pliers didn’t give me as much control and caused me to catch the fabric in the metal teeth a few times. Not a great use of $35….. thanks Dritz…..

Now that all the neat metal grommets are in place, they can be covered by embroidery floss to give a great historical finish look. I use two strands of floss at a time which is faster than using thread, but gives a smooth finish to the stitches. The eyelets are covered simply by large whip stitches around the ring by starting from the back and stitching down through the fashion side of the fabric around the outer edge of the metal grommet.

This can take a LOT of time, especially if your thread knots. When I first started with this method, it could take up to a half hour per eyelet to fully cover the metal grommet. Once I am into a rhythm though, I can complete one per 5-10 minutes. I’ve found that using 3 strands of floss (or even 4 if you have the right sized needle) can seriously reduce the time to stitch them, but will also make the eyelets have a “coarser” look. I also noticed that using more stands makes hole itself smaller due to the excess bulk when the additional strands wind around each other rather than lying flat as you can achieve with only 2 strands.

A lot of time and attention, but it sure looks nice when it’s done.

With the eyelets done, the garment is complete and wearable! All that was left was to remove any baste stitches still visible from the front. I used green and white thread when baste stitching (both on the machine and by hand) so that I could easily find and remove them later.

Finally, it was time to replace the cotton twill tape that I had been using as lacing for the fit tests. Though strong, the bright white cotton clashed horridly. Since I had made so much excess green bias tape, I was able to repurpose the tiny tape as lacing. All I had to do was slip stitch the folded edges of the bias tape and finish the ends.

Poof! Yards and yards of beautiful coordinating lacing

And there it is, in all its wonderful finished glory! Now, time to wrap up the other garment elements.

The Goose Girl: Bodice Beginnings to Boning

In deciding on the Bavarian styling as my rooted inspiration and wanting to build a 17th century stay as the main structured garment, I couldn’t help but pull from those ever so darling drindls. (See The Goose Girl – Intro to get caught up on the inspiration story).

The colors, the embroidery, the trims. Ugh! To dye for!!

I’m most frequently inspired by the fabric I select and I knew I needed to select the right fabric for my stays first, with the drindl thought in mind. Usually, once I have my concept fabric, I’m and running! However, this fabric I struggled to find.

I initially thought of using some embroidered linen I had inherited from my grandmother to imitate the patterns typical to Bavaria, but it wasn’t quite right. So I began scouring Etsy and vintage shops for larger, more heavily embroidered pieces. I found a lot of pieces I loved, but none were heavily embroidered enough for the rich Bavarian colors I had in my mind. Anything I could find with enough embroidery was pastel, pastel, pastel. The pastel against the cream or white linen was pretty but didn’t quite match the Bavarian theme I had my heart set on.

No! There would be no pastel on this stay.

However, in perusing Studio Ric Rac, my local vintage shop, I found the PERFECT piece to inspire. A lovely dresser scarf embroidered with a swan on water and perfect little flowers. And! To top it off, the shop also had a length of vintage jacquard ribbon that complemented perfectly.

Yes, I know, it was swans, not a goose. However, in the novel by Shannon Hale that I was originally inspired by, the Princess learns to speak to the birds by speaking to swans.

Here was a lovely piece that could tie to the contrasting styles of her home and her secret identity against her new world of Bayern. It was perfect, but it was not enough and none of the other pieces I had gathered were the right shade or style to complement the swan.

So I was back to square one.

I thought Etsy would be my friend, but all the beautiful Bavarian embroidery I found was either too expensive for the project or so lovely I couldn’t bear needing to cut it up into pieces. I wanted to put unwanted embroidered pieces to a new use, but not at the expense of someone’s heirloom.

Then, destiny arrived. In the form of a costume shop overhaul sale.

The Racine Theatre Guild was holding a rummage sale after deep cleaning their costume stock and shop storage. There, I found the most beautiful cotton fabric, embossed with stripes of red velvet.

It was gorgeous, it was authentic, it was luxurious, and I could get 6 yards of it for $6 (way more than I needed, but extra is always amazing).

However….it was almost too vivid! I shouldn’t complain since that’s what I had spent essentially the entire summer looking for: vivid, Bavarian inspired, textured fabric. But it was just such a bright red.

So I decided to dye it.

Like what I did for distressing fabric in my Lost Labs of Dr. Z post, I prepped my dye pot and got to work. The major difference here was that I was doing a full dye rather than toning with color. This means I used the full strength quantity of Taupe dye I had on hand rather than the diluted version for distressing.

Its a good idea to always do a test piece and this was especially critical since I had prepped my dye for cotton (base fabric) but wasn’t sure how the embossed velvet would take the dye or react. I’m pleased to say, it dyed perfectly!

Before and after dying the main stay fabric

Now that I had my fabric, I could begin the process of patterning and stitching my structured bodice.

I decided to use Butterick Pattern B4254 since I had not made a stay or true corset before and wanted a bit of guidance initially. Since it was a commercial pattern, I selected the size that fit my measurements closest, which for me usually is between two or even three pattern sizes. I opted to start with the size that would match my bust measurements and adjust from there. Since my bust includes my rib cage, it would be the least “squishy” measurement and needed to be perfect without help of lacing to fit well.

The fitting process began with the first toulie, made from mock-up fabric of clearance outdoor fabric. The fabric is ugly as sin and has a terrible hand, but it is stiff and doesn’t stretch in any direction.

I marked all of my boning channels and began piecing it together, matching stitching lines precisely. I have a short torso and was nervous the stay wouldn’t accentuate my natural waist correctly or have odd bunching because of my hips, so the fitting process made me nervous. After piecing them together, I was able to do a first fitting without bones. A less than helpful experience. It was time to add mock up boning.

To save on time and budget, I stitched every other boning channel, used gross grained ribbon I had on hand, and 12″ zip ties to test the boning channels. I would not use the gross-grained ribbon in the final garment though since it stretches in the center and can fray easily. But it is a great cheap and fast method to test.

The initial toulie did it’s job and showed just how poor of a fit it was. I could tell that the back would not lace straight due to too much material at the bust and not nearly enough at the hips. This however, was actually a sorta easy fix in the pattern. I essentially needed to reduce the bust by 1″ and add 1″ at the hips.

I copied the back piece to paper, slashed it at the shoulder line along one of the existing boning channel lines, and pivoted it equal amounts closed along the bust line and open along the hip line.

Now, I made the second toulie and again added half of the bones. To save time, and my sanity, I reused the sides and front panels since no changes were made to these pieces.

Here, my fit issues were almost solved and I decided to move forward to the real deal. These are all the materials I would need for the final construction:

  • 1 1/2 yards Fashion fabric (red and tan striped cotton)
  • 1 1/2 yards heavyweight herringbone coutil
  • 1 1/2 yard lining fabric (yellow silk)
  • 15 yards 100% cotton twill tape
  • 15 yards synthetic whale bone
  • 24 metal eyelets
  • 8 yards double fold bias tape
  • linen thread

The first step was to cut out all of my pattern pieces from the coutil and dyed fabric. The strong coutil layer would prevent the other two semi-delicate layers (cotton fashion fabric, silk lining) from stretching. My plan was to baste the fashion fabric and coutil together, add the boning channels, and then flat line with the yellow silk.

After cutting, I was able to painstakingly mark all of my boning channels and stitching lines onto the coutil which would back the fashion fabric and be visible for channel sewing before adding the lining later. This was a process…

In marking the channels, I numbered them based on the order to stitch them. The order keeps the top of the channels open while closing the bottoms of many of the channels where they meet with other channels.

I had made a few additions and adjustments to the boning scheme of the original pattern from Butterick, mostly to the back panels, and with this I ended up with 56 boning channels. Since there are a few gaps between channel sections, this would be considered a half boned stay that was typical of the later portion of the 17th century.

This marked piece was then baste stitched to my dyed fashion fabric before completing all the seams. I stitched the seams as a generous 5/8″ since I would be attempting to use the seams for a few of my boning channels. This is a practice used a lot in Victorian style corsets which have more panels and thus more seams than my simple stay.

I wanted to press my seams open so badly, but would have to wait for that satisfying moment until I had my channels sewn. All of my markings were done with pens I have with which the ink vanishes with ironing. I love them, but they make sequencing difficult sometimes.

A decision I hadn’t anticipated needing to make was the thread color for the boning channels. Since my stitching would be visible on the outside, the color was a bit more critical than I had anticipated, especially since I was using a patterned fashion fabric. I pulled every thread I had on hand that was either a matching color to the pattern or complemented.

I then stitched straight lines on a scrap piece of the dyed material running both parallel and perpendicular to the lines of the pattern. This would allow me to see how the colors would either blend or pop against the base fabric and the red velvet embossing.

Of the five options I whittled down to, I was between burgundy and tan since they blended best. In the end, I opted for the tan since it matched the base fabric almost perfectly.

Now, I could start the tedious, though satisfying process of adding the channel casings. I opted to use 1/2″ 100% cotton twill tape rather than the two layer method since I had so many channels and it was easy to work with. I initially bought a few rolls from Hobby Lobby but kept running out and instead ordered some for quick delivery from Amazon (*gasp*, it was a tragedy to do and I feel dirty doing so, but I was on a roll and could get 1-day shipping). The original tape from Hobby Lobby was decent, though it had a bit more give than I would have liked. It was much better in comparison to the Amazon twill tape, which was strong but a bit thin and warped.

Please enjoy a satisfying time-lapse of stitching the boning channels (my apologies for the pajamas, but there are cats at the end!)

After completing the channels, I carefully cut my synthetic whalebone to length for each channel. Each length needed to be pressed into submission since they were wrapped tightly in shipping. To do this, I used an iron on high heat with medium steam and covered each piece with scrap coutil. The straightened pieces were then easily slipped into their channels and closed with prick stitches.

Keep reading on The Goose Girl Part 3: Bodice Finishings and Flare for the final steps in the stay construction:

  • Lining
  • Binding
  • Eyelets
  • Lacing