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University Curator Publishes Book on Paper Sewing Patterns

Apr 14, 2015
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"A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The home dressmaking fashion revolution" delves into the complex history of the companies that built the home sewing pattern industry and the technological advances that made it all possible.

In “A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: the home dressmaking fashion revolution” (Bloomsbury, $34.95), Joy Spanabel Emery, professor emerita of theater at the University of Rhode Island, has compiled more than 100 years’ worth of knowledge about the complex history of the companies that built the North American home sewing pattern industry and the technological advances that made it all possible. Joy is the curator of the university’s Commercial Pattern Archive, considered to be the largest collection of sewing patterns in the world; it holds about 50,000 paper sewing patterns.

Joy’s book is a scholarly work that traces the development and evolution of the paper pattern industry and its innovations in manufacturing and marketing. She begins with a detailed look at the way clothing was made before the advent of the paper pattern, and then moves onward in an orderly fashion through the various decades, starting in 1800. Each chapter discusses the companies that published patterns, their patternmaking and drafting techniques, distribution and marketing methods, years of operation, and why the businesses either failed or prospered from a historical viewpoint. At the end of each chapter, Joy provides a synopsis of the pattern industry’s advancements and technological innovations both in manufacturing and in the emerging home sewing industry. She ends her review at 2010.

Interestingly, according to Joy’s research, many early companies published patterns intended for professional dressmakers, not home sewers at all; while other companies promised patterns custom-drafted to fit a specific set of measurements for the home sewer. These are just two of the fascinating tidbits of information you’ll glean from “A History of the Paper Pattern Industry.” The book is also packed with illustrations from original sewing patterns, including antique fashion magazine patterns.

The book’s appendix contains a selection of gridded patterns recreated from those in the Commercial Pattern Archive. The earliest provided is an 1854 basque by Demorest and the latest is a 1968 men’s Nehru jacket by Spadea.

This is an essential book for anyone interested in vintage sewing patterns and the home sewing industry, especially anyone seeking information about the pattern companies and their dates of operation. It could be useful to vintage pattern resellers, as well, in helping to date patterns.

To close her epilogue, Joy quotes The Designer (1916): “… the paper dress pattern is ‘Truly one of the great elemental inventions in the world’s history-The Tissue of Dreams’.” Don’t you agree? Have you read “A History of the Paper Pattern Industry”?

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