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Working with Vintage Patterns

Photo: Jack Deutsch

Butterick Starred Pattern 5156, A Katharine Hepburn Frock

Pattern in action
To take you step-by-step through some of the common techniques that show up in vintage patterns, we chose this stunning Butterick Starred Pattern 5156, A Katharine Hepburn Frock, designed in 1933. This design was modeled after an actual garment worn by Katharine Hepburn in the film Christopher Strong.

Get in and out with placket closures-In the early 20th century, garment closures, designed to allow for ease in taking a garment on and off, were predominantly made of buttons, snaps, and hooks. Although the zipper was developed by the early 1930s, it didn't become widely available to home sewers until after World War II.

Here's how to install a continuous lap placket closure, as seen in the Butterick Starred Pattern 5156 (above):
Continuous lap placket closure vspace=
1. Stitch the left side seam leaving an opening between markings for the placket. Press the stitched section of the side seam open. Clip to the stitching through the seam allowances at each end of the opening. Cut a strip of self or lighter weight fabric on grain. In this case, the strip is 2-1/8 inch wide and 1 inch longer than two times the opening length.

2. With right sides together, stitch the strip to the unfinished opening edges, making sure to position the strip ends at the bottom of the opening.

3. Wrap the raw edge over the seam, turn in the edge and ends, and hand-stitch to the garment opening.

4. Close the middle of the opening (generally at the natural waistline) with a hook and bar and the remainder of the opening with snaps.

Add a gusset for range of motion-A gusset is a design element located at the underarm of a garment that enables the wearer to completely move her arm.

Here's how to apply a gusset at the underam of a kimono-sleeve-style jacket, as seen in the Butterick Starred Pattern 5156 (above):
Underarm gusset
1. After stitching the side seam of the bodice and the underarm sleeve seam, slash the inner points at the underarm to about 3 inches into the garment to create the gusset opening. Then, overcast the edges.

2. Turn under the gusset opening edges along the marks and baste. Baste the edges of the gusset to the opening matching the perforated marks.

3. Edge stitch around the gusset, trim the seam allowances to 3/8 inch, and overcast.

Go for old-school hems and facings-These hemming and facing techniques crop up in many vintage pattern instructions. Here's how to put them to work in your garment:

Bias facing. Bias facings provide a narrow finish to neck or armhole edges. To create a bias facing, cut a bias strip about 1-1/2 inches wide and, with right sides together, sew one edge to the garment opening. Make slashes in the curved edges so the material doesn't pull. Turn the strip to the inside so the facing strip doesn't show on the outside, then turn under the raw edge of the strip and whipstitch on the strip edge, catching the garment occasionally. Bias facing
Rayon seam binding tape. Seam binding tape and rayon seam tape were used to finish the raw edges of hems on sleeves, jackets, trousers, and skirts before there were serging machines. Bias facing

The tape is lapped over the raw edge, and machine-stitched along the top edge of the hem. The hem is then turned up, pressed, and hand-stitched through the tape to the garment.

Magazine extra: a key to vintage pattern perforations.

Alexandra Reynolds owns the vintage pattern Web site, which sells original and reproduction vintage patterns.

Model photos: Jack Deutsch: hair and makeup: Christy McCabe using tarte cosmetics; stylist: Jessica Saal. Process photos, except where noted: Scott Phillips.

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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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