I have come, reluctantly, to the realization that Fiore would certainly have owned several pairs of bodies and a farthingale if making any attempt towards relevance at Court in the late 1500s. Which, of course, she was. Illegitamacy and mixed racial heritage could be overlooked in polite society however archaic fashion choices would not stand.
What finally made me break down was the opportunity to build the stays while taking a proportional pattern making class.
I have been using the Bara method to draft patterns for about a decade however, I am self-taught as a sewist and have always had doubts about my gaps in understanding there. So when Mathew Gnagy of the Modern Maker announced a 6-week course on proportional pattern making I decided to jump in and see what the modern tailor sees in the period patterning methods.
As it turned out we drafted a pattern of the Effigy stays in our first class. I suddenly felt like I really understood how to adapt the stays in Patterns of Fashion (worn by Plaszgräfin Dorothea Sabina von Neuberg d. 1598).
The first part was to draft a new set of Bara tapes as the pandemic has certainly altered my proportions. We will get into the Bara themselves at another time. Then it was research time. Sadly, my new copy of Patterns of Fashion 5 did not arrive until I was just about finished with this project so I missed out on some details that were not included in Janet Arnold’s original analysis.
Next I used my Bara tapes to draft the pattern from PoF in a proportional context onto a drafting block. Once that was complete, I cut out those pattern pieces to use on the fabric.
I decided to make this stays from a charcoal grey silk satin I had in my stash. I cannot document this color of stay at all. The references we see to color in these types of garment indicate that white, yellow, and red were common. Red in particular was to be worn to help with feelings of health and well-being. So while I can’t prove or disprove the choice, I used it anyway. The decision was made easier as I had no white, yellow, or red silk in my stash. The interlining of the stays was another important decision. The original stays were probably lined with linen. This speculation comes from the fact that this layer is almost completely gone. But, there are linen fibers present in parts of the stays. Cellulose fibers do not stand up well to the normal decay of a human body. Protein fibers do much better which is why we find many of these silk and wool layers intact. A quick look at types of fibers found in this period (analysis from Crowfoot and Patterns of Fashion 5) and the interlinings used in Eleonora di Toledo’s wardrobe led me to some opinions. It seems that linen, felted wool, and glazed wool were all typical interlining layers for bodices. I did not wish to learn the process for glazing wool as part of this project and was not going to purchase any additional fabric so I decided to interline with a medium weight, even-weave linen and line the stays with glazed linen both of which I acquired from Burnley and Trowbridge.
The glazed fabric was especially of interest to me as stays were not often laundered. They were worn over a camicia which certainly kept them cleaner. However, they were will still susceptible to body heat and potentially perspiration. A glazed fabric can help keep that moisture away from the inner layers of the stays.
Once I had decided on my fabrics, I had to choose my boning. In the late 16th-century our choices are bents (reed) or whale bone. The original PoF entry on this item did not say whether these stays were reed or bone. I decided to assume bone so that I could try a synthetic baleen produced in Germany purported to function and feel like the real thing. This baleen was my only additional purchase in the making of these stays. As I was finishing this item, my Patterns of Fashion 5 arrived wherein they defend the presence of reeds in this set of stays. Ah, well. We will try reeds next time.
In practice building the stays was fairly straight-forward. I treated the silk and medium weight linen as one layer, basting them together and the glazed linen as the lining. I marked the channels for my 4mm synthetic baleen directly onto the silk using tailor’s chalk. I was very careful with the measurement of these channels (6mm as per PoF) and my markings. Tailor’s chalk is very waxy and the marks can be hard to remove from silk.
Once I had marks on I proceeded to sew the channels by hand using a modern Bodin needle and and 80/2 s-twist silk thread in white. These were not as tidy as I could have wished which was another reminder that if you haven’t been sewing for a while you really have to work back up to efficiency and neatness. Because of this there is a world of difference between my first row and the last one. Once the channels were sewn I removed any remaining basting stitches and cut the synthetic baleen using utility shears. The ends were then filed with whetstone to prevent any point bits from causing issues. I chose to work the eyelets before I inserted all of the baleen so that I could do a fit test. The first fitting was just the busk and the boning adjacent to the eyelets in the back. The busk is a length of wood inserted into a set of stays to help with supporting the shape. This set of stays uses a busk that can be removed from the bottom and is tied in place with a set of eyelets and ribbon. I am using a busk given to me by my Laurel years ago which had been formerly been part of her Elizabethan stays.
Once it was clear the overall fit was good, I inserted the baleen between the layers of the linen and sealed the stays. The edges were finished with 13mm black silk ribbon. I use a 7mm silk ribbon to lace the stays since silk ribbon was used in the original. Normally, I use lucet cord for lacing and honestly don’t detect a functional difference.
Then it was done. I am very pleased with them. They fit extremely well and are super comfortable such that I have worn them with modern clothing as well. I will definitely be making another set guided by the newer analysis of the extant garment and with specific consideration for the sottana and veste of the late 16th century.
Important to note that these stays are not intended to reduce the size of the wearer. The shape of these stays simply alters the line of the body to make it appear more straight and conical as appropriate to the fashions of this era. You can see in the side view that all of the compression from side to side makes for a deeper body from front to back. My proportions are unaltered by the garment.
Hope you enjoyed the write-up. Let me know if you end up making stays of your own.
Alcega, Juan de Tailor’s Pattern Book 1589. Fasc. New York: Costume and Fashion Press, 1999.
Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c1560-1620.