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Working with Vintage Patterns

Photo: Jack Deutsch

Pattern instruction-In the earliest commercial patterns, very little instruction was included because it was assumed that the majority of women knew how to sew most any garment. Starting in the mid-1920s, pattern companies began printing more detailed instructions, layout diagrams, and schematics of the pieces on a separate sheet. Depending on how old your pattern is, you may find less instruction than what you're used to, and you may need to look to the Web or to sewing manuals for guidance.

Seam allowances-The major pattern companies today (independent companies aside) have an industry-established seam allowance of 5/8 inch. But that wasn't always the case.

Depending on the company and the year of manufacture, seam allowances may be 3/8,1/2, 3/4 or 5/8 inch. Rather than being standard, seam allowances were set by each pattern manufacturer. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Butterick Publishing Company patterns had 3/4-inch seam allowances at some edges, and a standard 3/8-inch allowance on all the remaining edges. It wasn't until the early 1940s that the company established a standard uniform seam allowance of 5/8 inch.

Sizing standards-When addressing size, the first thing you'll note is that vintage patterns come one size per envelope. This means you'll often need to grade a pattern you like to your size.

Next, the sizing standards (the set of body measurements) that were once used are not the same standards used today. For example, a pattern in size 18 from before the late 1950s was made to fit a figure with a 36-inch bust, 30-inch waist, and 39-inch low hip (taken 7 inches below the natural waistline). Generally, today's pattern size 18 has been made to fit a 40-inch bust, 32-inch waist, and 42-inch low hip. So, when choosing a size, be sure to look at the measurements on the envelope rather than going by the given size.

Cut-away shoulder
   A cut-away shoulder and detachable scarf make this jacket pattern a star.  

Fitting issues-Not only were women built differently in the past, but garments were made to fit closer to the body than they are today. This varied ease and fit may require you to make some alterations.

In particular, a surprising amount of ease is often found at the bustline, even for sizes smaller than B cup. Especially with pre-1940s McCall patterns, the placement of the bust dart is also quite high. By lowering the bust dart, however, you can eliminate any extra ease here.

Another common area of adjustment is in the long rise of trouser styles before the mid-1950s. Depending on the pattern, there can be as much as 1-1/2 inches of additional length built into the rise that doesn't fit with today's style or taste. You may also need to adjust the ease of set-in sleeve styles at the armscye and the shoulder, as it can be restricting.

Although some of these vintage pattern quirks can be frustrating, knowing about them ahead of time lets you focus on what is an otherwise truly rewarding experience.

How to handle a vintage pattern
Now that you know the ins and outs of vintage patterns, here's how to get the best results:

Always trace off the pattern-Because of their delicate nature, it is imperative that you make a copy of your pattern to work from. To remove the factory folds for ease of tracing, gently press each pattern piece on a low heat, dry iron setting. Then, lightly trace each piece onto your pattern paper using a pencil, or a pen that will not bleed through. Be sure to transfer all markings, such as straight of grain symbols, darts, or stop-stitching points and notches. I also find it helpful to number the pieces and check to make sure you're not missing any.

Make a muslin to fit-When working with any pattern, it's always a good idea to make a muslin to ensure a good fit. Considering all of the fitting and sizing differences in vintage patterns, it's even more important. Aside from adjusting the fit, a muslin lets you take a practice run at figuring out how the sometimes complicated pattern shapes go together, and at using vintage techniques with which you may not be familiar.

Embrace vintage sewing techniques-The old saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" goes for vintage patterns, too. Although they require more time and effort than some of our modern methods, in some cases using the vintage sewing techniques your pattern intended can yield you a better-looking, more authentic garment. Here are a few old-time methods to embrace:

Bias bindings. Since linings were rare, rayon bias bindings were often used to finish seams. A double fold bias binding was used in lightweight fabrics and a single fold bias binding for heavier fabrics. Photo: Deana Tierney.

Bias bindings
Bound buttonholes. Bound buttonholes were the prevalent method for creating buttonholes in vintage clothing. The edges of the buttonholes are finished with a stitched-on fabric or leather binding to create a beautiful garment detail.    Bound buttonholes
Tailor's tacks. Long before tracing wheels and carbon dressmaker's paper, the traditional method of transferring markings from the pattern piece onto the fabric was with tailor's tacks. In light of the unique symbols and perforations in vintage patterns, I find that tailor's tacks work best at transferring the markings accurately.   Tailor's tacks

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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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