Part of the preparation of my thesis work involves making a pair of long stays appropriate for around 1810-1815. I lucked out when one of my thesis committee members offered up an extant pair that I could examine. My outside committee member, who has been a wonderful mentor since my undergraduate studies, had found them in the theater department’s stock. He himself has actually created a reproduction of these, so I have received lots of good advice on stays-making! As you will see in the photos, they had definitely been used as a costume piece, but despite their treatment during that time, they have held up remarkably well.
Much information about its original state can be determined upon close examination, but I was most interested in doing a fiber and fabric identification. I am making my own stays using the Laughing Moon pattern, and it suggests using lightweight cotton twill or sateen for both layers. Others who have made the pattern reported using other combinations of fabric with success, so that was the beginning of my curiosity about what fabrics would be appropriate to use.
Fibers under a microscope have very distinct morphologies (physical forms). Linen looks a lot like bamboo, silk is quite smooth, wool looks like human hair with its scaled surface, and cotton has a distinctive twist. Below are the different samples I took. Which kinds of fiber do you think they are? Read on to see if your analysis was correct!
Fabric Weave Analysis
The stays have a cotton sateen fabric exterior (see photo above), and are lined with a plain-weave cotton (see photo below). This is contrary to what the LM pattern advises: using the same fabric for both. The plain-weave lining has a thread count of 66 stitches x 64 stitches per square inch (no visible selvedge), which if I am remembering right from my textile science readings, is a middling thread count.
I took three samples of fabrics from my stash to see what might be closest. The first, I believe was JoAnn’s premium muslin, which had a much too high thread count, 130 x something or other. Next was a bleached cotton, which came out to 68 stitches x 84 stitches per square inch. Last I tested a piece of unbleached muslin, which came to 52 stitches x 88 stitches per square inch. None will be a perfect match, so I will probably use the bleached cotton as it is slightly closer to the warp/weft ratio of the original and a better appropriate color match.
I acknowledge that as a student and researcher in my field, I am privileged to be able to have access to extant historical garments and the lab equipment to do such analysis as this. Please know, however, that many museums welcome researchers into their archives, whether or not they study historical costume professionally or personally. It can feel a little weird asking to go behind the scenes, but ultimately, if it is a publicly-funded museum, as a taxpayer you are part of that funding process, and have a stake in the museum. Please respect their guidelines as to what they do and do not permit, however, and thank them for their time!
Unfortunately, unless conservation work has been done on an object, it is really rare that a fiber analysis was actually performed, usually the fiber descriptions you see are educated guesses. I was recently looking at a digital collection online and for the first time I saw that they were differentiating when fiber analysis had been done “by eye” versus by scientific analysis. This is because many museums, especially smaller ones, do not have a lab/equipment or a trained employee to do this. Since fabric weaves can be seen with the naked eye fairly well, those descriptions are typically much more accurate, unless they were written by someone who doesn’t specialize in textiles (which is more often than you’d think!) So when it comes to these factors, we have to be careful about taking museum descriptions as hard fact.