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Working with Vintage Patterns

Photo: Jack Deutsch

by Alexandra Reynolds
from Threads #132, pp. 47-51
Ever since I was a preteen, I've been captivated by vintage style. Back then, I fantasized about being a woman from the '30s wearing all of the fabulous clothing that my favorite old Hollywood actresses wore. Inspired by my grandmother's dropped-waist dresses from the early '20s, I soon started making my own dress patterns from paper bags. As an adult, I finally discovered some real vintage patterns at a garage sale, and I've been hooked ever since.

Today, with the help of the Internet and the popularity of all things vintage, it's easier than ever to acquire vintage patterns. There are tons of Web sites devoted entirely to the buying and selling of original and reproduction vintage patterns (replicas of vintage patterns, some of which offer clarified instructions or patterns graded into multiple sizes).

Sewing with the real-deal pattern in its original form is a wonderful experience and a fun way to re-create the innovative details and flattering designs of the past. However, vintage patterns can be intimidating. Aside from their fragile envelopes and delicate pattern tissue, they look and read much differently from the commercial patterns we're used to today.

Here, I'll explain the major differences and show you techniques that will help you easily navigate the world of vintage patterns. Once you know what to expect, and with some practice, you'll be able to pick up any old pattern that you like and create a fabulous garment from the past.

Vintage speak: a glossary of terms
Vintage patterns come with vintage terminology, not all of which may be familiar. Here are some of the terms you might encounter.

Continuous lap: A strip of fabric cut on the straight grain and used to face edges of an opening or slit in a garment.

Jabot: A ruffle or cravat-like accent attached to the front of a dress or blouse.

Lapped seam: A seam in which one seam allowance edge is lapped over the seam allowance of its joining piece and stitched.

Pintuck: Very small tucks stitched just a pin's width from the fold to slightly shape a garment piece. In the late 1920s, a series of pin tucks were often applied across the natural waistline of a frock for shaping and detail.

Plaits: An array of narrow (known today as "knife") pleats often applied at the hem of a dress, the ends of sleeves, or around the neck opening.

Shirring: Three or more rows of gathers made by small running stitches in parallel lines. The rows are spaced as desired.

Slide fastener: The original term for zippers.

True bias: Fabric that is cut at a precise 45-degree angle to the fabric grainline.

Toile: The French term for fabric pattern. Originally pertained to the muslin test garment.

Created from a 1933 vintage pattern (Butterick Starred Pattern 5156, A Katharine Hepburn Frock), this jacket and dress exemplify the head-turning beauty to be had in vintage designs. This design was modeled after an actual garment worn by Katharine Hepburn in the film Christopher Strong.

Vintage pattern
Jacket and dress

Patterns today vs. yesterday
Part of what makes vintage patterns thrilling to work with is that they're so different (for a decade by decade overview, see the description below). Of course, when working with something that's unfamiliar, challenges are bound to arise. Read on for more important details to know about before you get started with any vintage pattern.

Vintage pattern timeline
  A vintage pattern timeline (click to enlarge).

Early 1900s-French couture designers and theater actresses influenced the pattern designs of the time. Seamstresses and dressmakers started buying "affordable" fabric goods.

1920s-By the late 1920s, women were wearing trousers and short skirts for the first time. The McCall Pattern Company began the trend of beautiful, full-color fashion renderings on their pattern envelopes.

1930s-During the Depression, more women than ever sewed garments at home. Patterns were designed to use up every inch of fabric possible. American screen actresses like Bette Davis greatly influenced the fashions.

1940s-Marked by the onset of World War II, fabric goods were limited by U.S. Government mandates. Trouser styles were slimmed down with no cuffs to conserve fabric. To help save paper, pattern companies reissued their patterns with less paper. After the War, the trouser with cuffs reemerged, as did silk and wool goods by the yard.

1950s-This was a time of decadence as reflected in the Parisian-influenced fashions, which used many yards of fabric that were manufactured in larger widths than ever before. Sewing for the home flourished. Vogue implemented a special line of patterns highlighting big designer names such as Jacques Heim, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Christian Dior.

Pattern envelope information-The first place that you will find some differences is right on the pattern envelope. Here, aside from the beautiful artwork and lithographs of the garments, you will find a variety of information, such as yardage charts and instruction.

One area in particular that can be confusing is the yardage recommendations. The reason is that before the mid-1950s, fabrics were available in narrower widths than those of our contemporary fabrics. Back in the day, fabric was rationed to be affordable, so fabric cuts of 36 or 39 inches wide (rather than today's 45- to 60-inch widths) were commonplace. That means you can expect to do some yardage conversions when you shop for fabric.

Pattern format-You'll also discover that the format of pre-1950s vintage patterns varies from the preprinted tissue sheets we know today. With vintage patterns, the tissue paper pieces come pre-cut and devoid of any printing. Only McCall featured the "Printo Gravure" pattern (the earliest printed pattern) in the early 1920s. Instead of printing, machine-made perforations, consisting of circles, squares, and triangles, were used to indicate information like the straight of grain line, marking symbols, and notches. Making it even more confusing, the meaning of these perforations also varied from company to company. Often, not even the maker's name or pattern number is included on each piece. Rather, you'll find them marked with a perforated number or letter corresponding to a diagram. I recommend labelling the pieces on your traced off version to avoid any mix-ups.

To help you figure out these sometimes elusive marks and to get you familiar with the types you'll encounter, here's a guide to some common pattern perforations:
Vintage pattern perforations

Large circles lined up in pairs with a few inches between them typically indicate the grainline. Large circles alone typically indicate stop-stitching points, button positions, center fronts, or seam allowances with a let-out.

Small, individual circles around the edges of the pattern indicate the seam allowance, and small circles in a series of two or three close together indicate matching points.

Two small circles placed a small distance apart indicate buttonhole placement and length.

Square perforations, prevalent in Vogue patterns, typically refer to the placement of buttonholes.

Triangular perforations, also found often in Vogue patterns, indicate where to match one part of a pattern piece to another.

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Comments (11)

Ashtonjames Ashtonjames writes: Smart pattern.
Posted: 12:56 pm on January 27th

Teresarusso Teresarusso writes: Fab
Posted: 12:00 pm on October 24th

Ashtonjames Ashtonjames writes: this is amazing
Posted: 10:46 am on May 12th

KathJ KathJ writes: Vintage all the way!
Posted: 5:26 am on February 25th

ParrlaSonders ParrlaSonders writes: Really wonderful info!!
Posted: 3:59 am on January 30th

FrankoBaldWin FrankoBaldWin writes: Such an in depth look about vintage patterns. Nice job.
Posted: 4:07 am on September 8th

Subscriber_in_NYC Subscriber_in_NYC writes: The declaration in the article that "women were built differently in the past" is rather silly, and made me guffaw out loud! No, of course, women came in all shapes and sizes just as we do now and have done for eons. I could not believe that statement got past the editors. And to brocadegoddess - thank you for your comment!

Of course, foundation garments changed throughout history to accommodate the fashions that were popular. Before the 1920s, corsets cinched the waist and emphasized the bust; in the 1920s, corsets and long line girdles flattened the bust and de-emphasized the waist by smoothing the waist and hips, as a straight line was more desirable (in addition, the 1920s was the first time suspenders were attached to girdles and corsets to attach to and hold up stockings. Prior to that, garters were worn around each individual leg - so we can thank flapper era fashion for today's garter belts!). The lines and styles of popular fashions of each era were also influenced in no small part the changes in modes of transportation and increased mobility for women of all ranks in society.

Personally, I prefer using patternless instructions to make vintage garments based on my measurements. I just mark the fabric and cut - no patterns needed!
Posted: 12:34 pm on July 15th

MollieJ MollieJ writes: Big thanks for the article, found quite interesting stuff there.
Posted: 10:04 am on July 9th

pattyv pattyv writes: Thank you for this article. I've been following Alexandra Reynolds for many years, she's brilliant. Thank you for the great tutorial!
Would you please continue with this subject and talk about proper storage for vintage patterns.
Also, I want to learn more about grading patterns.
Thank you
Posted: 7:27 am on February 23rd

PetalRose PetalRose writes: Thanks for such a wonderful article. This was very helpful to me as I have quite an extensive collection of vintage patterns but had been honing my dressmaking skills on newer patterns before attempting the advanced techniques seen in vintage. I really think early patterns exemplify the height of dressmaking skill and creativity. It is hard to find anyone willing to explain some of the instructions and markings though, so thanks again and happy vintage sewing!
Posted: 5:25 pm on October 17th

brocadegoddess brocadegoddess writes: This is a really great article! Although I'm quite familiar with using vintage patterns already there were a couple tid bits I hadn't thought of before. And this will be uber helpful to those starting out!

I'd like to point out one prissy detail though. The reason that some of the proportions of vintage patterns/garments are different from those of today has to do with undergarments, not the way women were built. Humans have been built the same way for about 2 million years now. What was different in the fashion periods up to the 60s were foundation garments - pretty much all women wore them. These modify the body's natural shape and did different things to it depending on the time period. 1920s foundation garments were geared towards creating the boyishly streamlined and angular silhouette then popular. In the 1950s it was the opposite: emphasizing and creating curves and hourglass figures.

So a note to people venturing into vintage patterns: don't expect it to look *exactly* like the envelope/illustration unless you're willing to wear foundation garments similar to those of the period, or at least those that will create a similar effect.

This doesn't mean it won't still look fabulous, it just may not have exactly the same silhouette.

Thanks again for a great tutorial!
Posted: 1:39 am on May 4th

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