A Brief History of Vintage Sewing Patterns

A Brief History of Vintage Sewing Patterns

Pia Goddard

A Brief History of Vintage Sewing Patterns,


The box of vintage patterns came up from the basement this week. As I check them all, one by one to make sure they’re complete, then count and refold the pieces before popping them back in their envelopes, I realise I’m working my way through a mini treasure trove of fashion history. This is a paper trail leading back to the 1940s – a rare old mix of tailored jackets with cinched waists, Lady Di jackets with 80s statement shoulders, 60s zip up the back trousers and 50s housecoats!


Paper patterns have been around since at least the 1770s. Domestic patterns occasionally featured in books, journals and magazines, alongside patterns for professionals. Such early versions of the dressmaking pattern assumed a high level of skill and often came sans instructions. But there is nothing that old in our mini archive of achievable style choices, which has made its way to the shop from car boots, lofts, junk shops. This is just a small slice of textile history from the last 80 years. A neat collection of folded paper patiently waiting for re-use.


A few of the patterns are still unopened, unwanted gifts maybe, or regretted impulse buys, put away and forgotten. Others are opened but uncut, saved for later, but most of the paper patterns have been used at least once, then carefully folded back into the envelope, almost always intact. Only rarely is a piece missing. Some paper pieces still have pins attached, where alterations to the basic shape have been made, personalised touches for a better fit. Some of the older patterns look very small indeed - vintage pattern sizes ran much smaller than today’s, and pattern standardisation across the board didn’t take place until the early 1900s. In the 1960s sizes were altered upwards for a looser fit to match the change in clothing styles.


In magazines in the 1820s the paper pattern came into its own with the first full-sized traceable domestic patterns in The Lady’s Economical Assistant. The separate pattern sheet also made a tentative appearance in magazines around the same time, and as the appeal of the paper pattern gained some serious ground in the 1840s, The Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion began including instructions with its tissue paper patterns.


Some of the patterns in our box show signs of multiple use, pieces of tape and repairs with pins. These were not one-use only, they were shared, passed on. I don’t remember ever making a second version of a dress myself, but I do remember ironing the creases back into paper, fitting it gently back into the envelope, passing it on. Several decades later, handing any that I had left over to a junk shop, I felt no pang of nostalgia at all. The patterns in my collection were not just my choices but the choices of a whole extended group of friends, shared, altered, shared again. But now, looking through the envelopes, the patterns send me straight back to scenes featuring my teenage self in the 70s, alone at a treadle operated Singer, absorbed in the instructions for a Butterick Young Designer pattern by Mary Quant for an evening out, or a Simplicity American everyday style pattern for something casual. Dresses mostly from something yellow, green or orange, definitely synthetic.


Most of the patterns in the box come with instructions, but there are older ones with nothing at all, and a few even older which are just one size only pre-cut patterns with no markings anywhere, just a number punched into the paper, no notch marks, grain direction, or seam allowances. These are patterns which assume a high level of skill on the part of the dressmaker, handed down through the generations, and reinforced in schools where sewing lessons often started as early as primary school.


The 1860s saw some of the biggest changes in the availability of paper patterns. The American entrepreneur Ellen Curtis Demorest used her own publication - Mme Demorest’s Mirror of Fashion – to promote her own mass produced patterns and build up a following for her particular style – full-sized, pre-cut and unmarked - widely advertising them in other magazines at the same time as a mail order option. The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine began including patterns as supplements, building up demand both for the magazine and for its patterns.


The biggest commercial change to paper patterns came in the same decade and also from the US, when Ebenezeer Butterick, a Massachusetts tailor who already made cardboard templates for kids clothes, began to offer dressmaking patterns in a set of standard graded sizes, on pre-cut tissue paper. His product was labelled with an image, pinned to the front, and came with a brief instruction sheet. Weldon’s, founded in 1879, was the UKs first major pattern producer - their World War II So-Easy collection with its pin-up style of cover graphic one of their most memorable.


By the 1900s the whole package was neatly presented in an envelope and the early twentieth century saw the biggest push in the marketing and selling of paper sewing patterns for domestic use. The widespread use and commercial success of these attractively presented windows into ‘fashion’ fed directly into the commercial growth of the clothing and fabric industry. The 1930s in particular saw a huge explosion in branding and marketing strategies from the full colour illustrations of the 1930s McCall pattern envelopes, with their release date stamp, to the hand drawn illustrations of the New York Pattern Co, and the photos of film stars on Hollywood Pattern Co patterns.


The envelopes with our regulation school dress pattern were well-thumbed. Handed in at the end of summer term by the outgoing year 8s, counted, mended, ready for the next September’s incoming year 8s. In the run up of the previous years we had practiced on aprons, shoe bags, smocks, in preparation for making our school summer dresses. The regulation fabric, bought from Dingles Department Store in Plymouth town centre, was a mid-blue cotton, patterned with pale blue flowers, and the regulation pattern was a Burda a-line knee-length, short-sleeve, button-up-the-back dress. In the spring term we worked with used copies of the handed down pattern, adjusted the tatty paper pieces for a personalised fit, raised the hemlines as much we dared, managing in our year to leave the sewing room in summer frocks almost as short, or in some cases shorter, than the hem of our blazers.


Although our pattern came with instructions, my generation’s continuous exposure to dressmaking at home and at school meant that for most of us putting the right pieces together in the right order was second nature, so too easing in a sleeve, pinching in a waist, restyling a sleeve, adding pockets, lengthening (or shortening!) hems. Words like placket, gusset, and armscye were familiar. Trips in our lunch breaks in the 70s to the local department store, Dingles, to choose patterns from sample books the size of a Guttenberg Bible, were tense with the excitement and stress of starting and finishing a new dress in time for the weekend. Those giant, heavy books were our own windows into achievable style, style beyond the limits of the hand-me-downs of the previous generation. We pored over the Butterick Young Designer series, the springboard collection for new, young talented designers, sifting through patterns by Quant, Muir, Kenzo. Or Simplicity, with its low-priced, easy entry level patterns into American everyday style, or Vogue patterns at a push with saved up pocket money.


Those patterns we bought In Dingles in the 70s brought us much closer to the catwalk than our Victorian ancestors who waited patiently for their quarterly magazine with its supplement of Paris fashion patterns before being able to make their own versions. And we were equally distant from the 24-hour catwalk knockoff turnaround industries that flourish today, but already the clothing industry was making choices which would slow the paper pattern industry right down, and see dressmaking, along with a raft of other learned manual skills, removed from school curriculums, and the flow of familial, hand-me-down learning interrupted. All in the name of fast fashion.


So much history in the box then, and so many avenues to explore – the rise and rise of fast fashion, the history of British manufacturing, advances in graphics, branding, marketing – all wrapped up in these envelopes. But right now as we flick through the envelopes and consider the vast amount of skill, experience and continuity they represent, the biggest question for us centres around the reality of diminishing skill sets, not just in dressmaking, or tailoring, but in all those spheres that give us a sense of our own agency. How can we address the loss of making, mending and repairing skills, adjusting skills, adapting skills, the marooning of our creative impulse? What is our part in the resurrection of all this lost know-how?


The Lockdown return to craft and making skills was not a total surprise. More an amplification of a movement already well under way since the early 2000s, a slowly swelling commitment to reskilling across the board. Never more has skill revival been so key to creating an alternative not just to fast fashion, but to all those practices which stop us from sorting things out for ourselves. Classes in sewing are common currency again, the skills of mending, repairing, darning, creating are being sharpened again. The shop has customers who work to the same time frame – buy the pattern on a Thursday, cut on Friday, finish the dress in time to wear on Saturday evening. Confidence in our own choices and ability to reskill is booming.


There have been downloadable patterns since the early 2000s. Fitzpatterns from Australia, with their tagline ‘For Making Individuals’ have been making patterns printable on a home A4 printer since 2004. Other manufacturers offer both paper and downloadable pdf, and most paper patterns come with a set of instructions which is more of booklet these days, the instruction sheet all grown up and doubling up as a making guide but also as a reference source for future makes – detailed instructions on everything the garment needs to alter, adjust, insert darts, zips, make button holes and that favourite of all British Sewing Bee fans, how to run up a perfect stitch in the ditch.


We no longer have to leaf through pages and pages of pattern books to find what we want. The internet allows a more focused search for the right design, and our making processes are facilitated by the accessibility of information and support online. And shops like ours continue to support the sharing and development of skills not long ago at risk of disappearing, with classes in the basement, and real-time conversations in the shop.

Words & Photos by Pia.