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Conversational Threads

Vintage Sewing Patterns

Kristine_Kadlec | Posted in Patterns on

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I collect vintage sewing patterns and currently have approx. 50 patterns. The oldest pattern is from 1938. I’d like to store my patterns in the best way possible to keep them in the very best condition. I was thinking of 3-ring binders and plastic sleeve protectors. Any ideas?

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  1. Sue_Wilson | | #1

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    Care of Jennifer Warris, comes this information from her web page on Vintage patterns -- I purchased some of the bags from her for my collection on e-bay once!!

    As collectors all over North America are discovering, the Internet has made it easier than ever to gather whatever our hearts desire. And my heart desires patterns. McCall's patterns from the 1940s, Canadiana, and anything Edwardian to be precise.

    What makes a pattern collectible? How do you put a value on an individual pattern? What is the best way to store your collection? How do you get started collecting patterns? What does the future look like for pattern collecting as an investment? Here are some tips for new and established pattern collectors and for the people who scour the countryside to find patterns to sell to us.

    In keeping with the spirit of information exchange via the Internet, please feel free to copy and use this material for your personal use. In keeping with the spirit of creativity, please give me credit for what you use. And P.S., if you're looking for vintage patterns and they aren't coming up for bid on eBay, check out the Vintage Pattern Lending Library at http://www.vpll.org/index.html. This site, maintained for the benefit of seamstresses everywhere, is an incredible historical resource and a tribute to the dedication and hard work of one woman (I love patterns, but they couldn't pay me enough to trace fragile old patterns by hand!).

    Enjoy!

    Jennifer Warris
    Text copyright Jennifer Warris, 1999
    All patterns are copyright their respective copyright holders.

    What Makes a Pattern Collectible?
    Start with the question: what makes anything collectible? Supply and demand does. What else? The condition of the envelope ... the beauty of the envelope artwork ... cultural or historical significance ... a real postage stamp and a crisp cancellation stamp on a mail order envelope ... even the flotsam that occasionally turns up tucked into the envelope by a former owner! Here is an overview of what makes a pattern valuable.

    The Original Supply and Demand Factor
    Like art prints, only a limited number of patterns were originally printed, based on the expected demand at the time. We may never know how many, but we can make certain generalizations: more lingerie and nightwear patterns were printed than wedding gowns. More women's dresses than men's suits. More baby clothes than prom dresses. More aprons than bathing suits. You get the idea.

    Current Supply and Demand
    If you're selling patterns, you will notice trends come and go. As of this date, Hollywood Patterns featuring photos of 40s starlets are highly sought after. Aprons are hot right now. Barbie is a perennial favorite, but a near mint Vogue doll pattern is worth a heck of a lot more.

    Condition
    The only mint condition pattern I have ever seen was an empty envelope distributed to a store for use in their marketing. The flap had never been folded over and there wasn't even a size printed on the outside of the envelope. The fact that there weren't any pattern pieces at all was a minor detraction, but hey, the envelope was a piece of mint condition, frameable artwork!

    If it sounds like I'm being a bit tough on condition, you're right. Most of the pattens I see are either "good" or "very good." A few are "excellent" and maybe half a dozen in the several thousand in my collection are "near mint." Chances are, if you set out to buy a mint pattern from the store today, you couldn't find one. Patterns get damaged in various ways in the printing and shipping process. Just stuffing all those pattern pieces into the envelope creases the edges. Take the pattern pieces out just once and you'll probably tear the opening putting them back in. Here is a first cut at establishing a standard for describing the condition of patterns.

    Mint: The envelope shows no yellowing, no tears, no creases, no "patterns cannot be returned" store stamp, no nothing! Pattern pieces still have the original "factory fold" job and certainly were never used (uncut, no pin holes in the corners). Pieces are still in original tissue wrapper in some older brands.

    Near-mint: Envelope may have minor edge creasing, but no scuffs or tears. Inventory tag on flap intact, no store stamp. Pattern pieces never used, factory folded. In original tissue wrapper in some older brands.

    Excellent: Envelope may have a store stamp, minor edge creasing and scuffs but no tears; even yellowing consistent with age of pattern. Pattern pieces never used, factory folded.

    Very good: Envelope with minor tears or stains; envelope yellowing is blotchy, paper slightly brittle. Pattern or transfer may have been used.

    Good: Envelope with obvious tears or stains, but all pattern pieces, instruction sheet and front and back of envelope are present. Paper fragile. Pattern or transfer may have been used.

    Fair: Envelope with extensive tears or stains; paper may be highly brittle. Some pattern pieces missing or transfers used.

    Poor: Envelope torn and pieces missing or so brittle that pieces break off. Many pattern pieces missing or transfers used.

    In tatters: you know it used to be a pattern of some sort.

    Artwork
    Not being much of a sewer, I collect patterns for the beauty of their artwork, and to my mind, the McCall's patterns of the 1940s represent the height of fashion illustration until New Look Patterns reached their flambuoyant zenith in the 80s. Art lovers also watch for topical illustration eg. a toy rocket ship on a late 60s children's pattern that signals the rise of the world's space programs. Edwardian (1920s) patterns, with their soft feminine drapery and bias cut layers, are just plain amazing to me!

    Famous People on the Cover
    Hollywood Patterns are the earliest example of celebrity patterns that I have seen, but others may exist (tell me! send me pics!). Photos of famous designers popped up from time to time, and Miss Frances of American television's "Ding Dong School" promoted a child's educational apron with her picture. The "celebrity series" of patterns originated in the 1970s with TV's "That Girl," Marlo Thomas, and went on to showcase Linda Evans , Diahnne Carroll and the rest of the cast of "Dynasty," fashion's evening soap opera. Brook Shields and a host of others followed.

    Famous Designer on the Inside
    Apparently only Vogue had an exclusive contract with the haute couture designers of Paris. Admittedly, some of Vogue's interpretations were pretty tame, but others had a style and flare that is recognizable even today.

    A mail order pattern company operating under the name "Prominent Designer Pattern" brought Paris, Milan, and Jackie K's styles to rural dressmakers. Designers featured by this company included Edith Head, Carolyn Schnurer, Oleg Cassini, Nat Kaplan, Estevez, Philip Hulitar, Gothé, Alan Phillips, Isabel Dobson and Muriel King, to name a few that have flowed through my hands.

    Mail Order Specialties
    I will admit that my eye for art tends to move too quickly over the mail order patterns in their plain brown envelopes and two color printing process. But while I'm skimming, I look for an original envelope with mailing label intact (usually the label has the pattern number written on it, so don't let anyone sell you a mismatched pair!), a stamp (the stamp collectors often beat me to these collectibles), and the return address of a defunct newspaper. To mail order afficionados, a complete collection would be a combination of a seasonal mail order catalogue plus all the patterns that were described in it.

    Decals, Appliques and Transfer Patterns
    Surprisingly, many otherwise well used patterns have unused, intact transfer patterns. The transfer was issued as part of the pattern company's pattern marketing scheme, although busy mothers did not necessarily have time to embroider or applique a child's dress. Although methods exist to recreate a worn-out transfer, an original unused transfer adds significantly to a pattern's value.

    Pop Art
    Toys and trademarked goods fall into this category of collectible patterns. Think "Barbie," "Holly Hobbie," "Cabbage Patch Kids," etc. and you'll know what I mean. Even abstract artist Paul Klee's "Seneca" was briefly available as a 70s needlepoint pattern from Simplicity!

    Signs of the Times
    Wartime patterns are a particular favorite of mine (in keeping with my 40s fixation!). During that time, both the Canadian and American governments encouraged dressmakers to cut down on the amount of fabric that went into a dress. Skirts narrowed, hemlines rose, and flowing gowns became a thing of the past as women everywhere adopted the new regulations. [Of course some people flaunted the regulations, giving rise to the fabric-wasting "zoot suit" which sparked riots between soldiers and too-cool civilians in big cities across North America, but that is another story!] Pattern makers, stuck with non-regulation stock on their hands, did their patriotic bit for the country by saving paper: they simply stamped their patterns "This pattern does not meet Canadian WPTB Regulations," or words to that effect.

    Flotsam: Original Receipts, Fabric Pieces, and Other Hidden Treasures
    I use the term flotsam, the debris that floats around on the surface of the ocean after a shipwreck, to describe the bits and pieces that people tuck into pattern envelopes. I recommend keeping the flotsam with the pattern because it adds to its historical significance. Older patterns (with the exception of McCall's) were often undated. Finding a receipt in an envelope, often from a defunct department store, can be particularly exciting. Similarly, finding a piece of fabric in an envelope gives another tantalizing little glimpse into the past. If you're lucky, your Vogue Pattern will have a "Vogue Special Edition" dressmaker's tag tucked into the envelope (you generally had to ask for a tag, and most seamstresses couldn't be bothered). My most exciting find was a red plastic elastic shuttle tucked with the original elastic and bias tape into a 1940s clown costume. The shuttle almost made up for the fact that the pattern was just about in tatters with all that stuff inside.

    Freebies and Promotional Specials
    I have an apron that was given away to promote the new printed pattern. Lori Hughes lists an Advance Pattern promoting the Jane Russell and Bob Hope movie "Paleface" that was given away compliments of Penneys. They are few and far between, which makes them that much more special!

    Categories
    Let's face it: collectors are categorizers. It is impossible to have a collection of patterns and not break it down into categories. My collection, for instance, consists of 1940s McCalls ... long-term investment pieces ... patterns I can sell to make more money to buy more 1940s McCalls and investment pieces ... and patterns that aren't worth the storage space I've allocated to them.

    It would be impossible to name them all, but here are the categories I've encountered in my chats with other collectors: turn of the century patterns, aprons, Hollywood general, Hollywood starlets, Barbie clothes, Cabbage Patch Kids, doll clothes in general, smocking transfer and clothing patterns (and instruction booklets), bridal, accessories, stuffed toys from the 1940s-50s, 60s flower power, 70s glam, 80s TV stars, patchwork and quilting patterns, 50s decor patterns (dressing table skirts, etc.), and so on. You name it, someone collects it. Value, of course, is another matter.

    How do you put a value on an individual pattern?
    Look at demand, age, and condition, as a starting point. At this time, value is almost totally in the eye of the buyer. If the pattern you're selling is the missing piece in my collection, you could be looking at up to $US 100. That's almost as good as getting in on the eBay IPO if your original investment was 25¢ at a garage sale! Most of the time the price will range from a modest $US 3 to about $US 36. Lori Hughes lists a value range for more than 3,000 vintage patterns in her book A Century of American Sewing Patterns 1860 - 1959 Identification and Price Guide" available from Ms Hughes at Box 5595, Concord, CA 94524), but prices have definitely gone up since the 1998 edition to judge from Internet auction prices.

    Since part of the value of a pattern depends on its age, it is nice to know how old it is. Look in the fine print on the envelope for a copyright date. If there is no date, refer to Lori Hughes' book. Even if your pattern isn't listed in this extensive guide, she may have an illustration of a pattern in a similar envelope of a known date. It is this lack of dates that makes pattern counter books, seasonal pattern catalogues and flyers so valuable to collectors.

    After suitability, collectors look at the condition of the envelope, condition of the pieces, presence of the original instruction sheet. That is why it is vitally important to protect your collection from damage.

    On Storage ...
    Storing Your Patterns
    Store your patterns in a cool, dry room.
    What is the greatest risk facing your collection? Think about this for a moment before someone talks you into shelling out a fortune for mylar sleeves for your collection. IMHO, it is handling damage and water (including humidity problems). Handling damage can be minimized with just about any kind of plastic bag, humidity is managable with air conditioners, and the most expensive mylar in the world won't protect your collection against freakish storms and accompanying water damage (I live on the fringes of a tornado alley).

    Handling Damage
    Bag your collection.
    Every time you riffle through your collection, every time you remove the pattern pieces to see if they are all there, every time you show a particularly precious piece to a friend you run the risk of widening existing tears or creating new ones in the brittle, high-acid paper that pattern envelopes are made of. Sticky fingerprints become dark age spots over time, and you can imagine the mess cookies crumbs will make!

    Here are four plastic sleeve options to minimize handling damages. Mylar is the plastic of choice for archivists, but it can be expensive, hard to find, and so rigid that it won't provide a good flap to keep out moisture or insects. Polypropylene is the plastic of choice for your most valuable patterns. Buy it at your local comic book specialty store. Everything except the large Vogue Patterns will fit in these sleeves. Ask for low-acid cardboard backers to reduce wear on the pattern itself. One day the polypro industry will recognize pattern collectors and create sleeves and backers just for us, but right now they just don't get it! Polyethylene bags can be bought inexpensively by the boxful from local plastic bag suppliers. Polyethylene is not recommended for long-term store of valuable materials, but again, don't get snowed by the sales pitch: handling

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