Loving whales and corsetry in the modern world.

Molly promised a post on revising her stays, and so here it is.  This one shouldn’t be too terribly long, as there are numerous blogs out there that have addressed this subject.  This one addresses the historic use of baleen (also known, somewhat incorrectly, as “whalebone”) in stays/corsets  Two Nerdy History Girls- Baleen Ho!   The next addresses the use of synthetic material in 19th-century reproduction corsets.  This is, in fact, the very blog I read before deciding to re-bone my 18th-century stays. Why Plastic is Better Than Steel.

I consider myself a larger woman, and while I’ll spare you the details let us say I’m well endowed and leave it at that. I also like to “tight lace” to a certain extent because if I don’t, the girls are unsupported and we simply cannot have that.  I also like to try to look as skinny as I possibly can in historic clothing because goodness knows I no longer look skinny in my modern life.  I know what you’re thinking…” vanity, thy name is woman”.  Yep, pretty much.

While I own reproduction corsets and stays representing eras from the 17th through the 20th centuries, I’ll concentrate on my 2 pairs of 18th-century stays.  The first was made from a standard sized JP Ryan pattern. The fit is imperfect because they were essentially “off the rack”, though the maker did customize them somewhat to my measurements.  I’m long-waisted and these are rather too short for me.  They are back lacing and because the front is relatively straight, they were reasonably supportive in the first place.  These were boned with reed, which is standard and available in rolls at craft stores.  Just about as soon as I received them and the manservant got me trussed up, I moved wrong and SNAP the reeds broke at the top of the waist tabs.  I wore them this way for a  couple of years, then sent them out to be re-boned and bound with leather instead of linen tape.  As they were re-boned with a combination of reed and ash caning, this didn’t actually solve my problem.


The second pair was purchased from At the Sign of the Golden Scissors (back when they were selling stays rather than kits) but were also boned with reed, so…same problem. They were also front and back lacing with a stomacher so that I could dress without the manservant to assist me, but I found the reed to be less than supportive in front. In fact, I sometimes resembled the prow of a ship, or at least the female figurehead, leading with my bosom.


No, it wasn’t quite like this, thank goodness!IMG_2628It was time to re-bone them, and I’d heard about people using plastic cable ties and other such things.  I wasn’t keen on either plastic, or cable ties which I figured would be even less supportive than the wooden boning the stays already contained.  Also, I turned my nose up at plastic as being historically inaccurate and probably wicked hot to boot.  I have some real baleen that a lady I know salvaged from a disintegrating 19th-century corset (yes it’s legal for me to own it, I checked), the pieces were too short, and I hesitated to use such an antique material in case it was fragile.  I’d save those pieces for demonstration purposes.baleenMore on baleen or toothless whales here., quite different from sperm whales that actually do have teeth in their lower jaws.  So Moby on the rampage had teeth…did you all know that?  Of course you did! Anyway, I went into research mode and read up online in blogs and sewing groups about a new product people were calling “synthetic baleen” which is an engineered plastic.  The people who used it seemed to rave about it, and since it was designed to mimic the properties of baleen without hurting an actual whale, plastic though it was, I decided to give it a shot.  I ordered 2 sizes; 6 x 1.5 heavier boning for the front/stomacher, and 5.5 x 1.35 for the rest.

I decided to unbind only the top of the stays to start and went as far as I could, removing the boning from one channel at a time, measuring it to the plastic material on the roll, sniping the piece, filing the edges with a heavy emery board, and sliding it into the channel.  I won’t lie, it’s a little tough on the fingers, but it worked like a charm.  I marked the channels containing broken reeds, or reeds I couldn’t remove from the top, with a pin then unstitched the bottom binding on the tabs in just those spots and fished out the pieces.  In some cases, I had to gently push the broken pieces down to a point where I could grasp them with pliers and pull them out.  For the most part, I was successful. Rebinding with a small glover’s needle was a snap.  I’d carefully removed the leather, fully intending to put it right back since I hadn’t purchased any new binding material, and simply slipped it back in place sewing it down through the needle holes that were still visible in the leather.


I’ve got blisters on me fingers!!!!

Now, I put them on, and MAGIC! They fit perfectly and I could move with much more freedom than I could formerly.  When people used to ask me if I found stays comfortable, I answered “yes” and I wasn’t lying, although by the end of a long day they’d be poking me in a couple of places and I’d be tired enough that I simply couldn’t wait to get them off.  I also couldn’t drive very well while wearing them, and if I fell over (yes, indeed there was a face plant right in front of the hotel restaurant window when the mister and I were leaving for the Ft. Frederick market fair.  I’d tripped over a hidden sprinkler head) or lay down I’d be like a turtle on its back flailing its poor little limbs around in a desperate attempt to roll over.


Tortoise falling over
Photo from BBC.com

stays2aNot anymore!  Just like real baleen, the synthetic material moves with your body and molds to your shape, and I find that I have much more freedom of movement and comfort that I never knew I didn’t have with the reed, if that makes sense. I can wear them all day (and drive as comfortably as one can with one’s bustline up around one’s chin) without fatigue or boning poking me, they are extremely supportive yet move with me. The best part is that I haven’t contributed to the murder of any whales! Also, I find that it is no hotter to have one’s torso encased in plastic than it was to have one’s torso encased in wood.  So folks, if you’re contemplating making new corsetry or re-boning an existing piece with synthetic baleen, I say DO IT! You’ll be happy you did, and the whales will thank you.


Photo by Robbie Shade, taken June 2014, Gloucester, MA. http://www.flickr.com/photos/rjshade





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