Working with Vintage Patterns
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.
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.
|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.