Patterns in our lives


So, inspired by our blog you’ve redecorated your bedroom with colorful walls, chrome accents, period art work – a true deco boudoir. Then using the reference library you’ve overhauled your living room into a masterpiece of streamlined furnishings with warm accents and one-of-a-kind vintage art. Impassioned, you worked your way room by room until your home is a showplace to the art deco period.


Your inspired creation


Still, something is missing. No, something is wrong! What could it be? Then it happens. You glance into the cobalt trimmed mirror, framed by exquisite French glass sconces hanging over your rosewood side table and you see yourself. Tee-shirt and jeans, or worse, flannel pajama bottoms and a hoodie! After all the work you’ve put into making a stylish home and here you are looking like a shlump.


This will never do; but what to do?


Our male identifying readers have it a bit easy. With a bit of research and effort, you can approximate the style and panache of “then” with available contemporary clothing or thrift store finds.  Generally speaking lapel and tie widths, fit of the armhole (which have become so impossibly low that you can no longer comfortably raise you arms), and a proper hat (not the thin brimmed, poor excuse for fedora currently so popular) represent the majority of fashion changes to men’s apparel. The exceptions, perhaps, being the nerue jacket (which I think are sort of cool) and leisure suits (what’s not to like about double knit polyester with contrast stitching – definitely NOT cool) of the late 60’s / early 70’s.



For female identifying readers, as usual, things will be a bit more difficulty for you. By-and-large and depending on the era you are trying to emulate, there are essentially few options available to you: thrift stores (not likely), vintage clothing shops (limited choices/sizes at premium prices) or the most readily available to you – make it yourself.



Being the frail, sheltered, noble-minded and thrifty people you are, you’ll use the skills passed down from mother to daughter for generations. You will experience the joys of taking a flat sheet of material, hand sewing the seams and creating that one-of-a-kind creation, trimmed at the throat and cuffs with the lace you tatted – surely the envy of your friends!




All kidding aside, I will not be instructing you on how to sew a dress. (Yes, I heard that collective sigh of relief!)  What I will be writing about is an easy, fairly inexpensive, decorative and, for some, a useful collectible – vintage magazines and commercial (clothing) patterns.


First a brief history:


Ellen Curtis Demorest is credited with marketing the first commercial paper patterns in 1860.  Patterns were available by mail-order via her magazine, Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashion.  Prior to this, most women would take apart worn-out garments and use them as a pattern to recreate the garment. Only women of means could afford to wear the newest styles coming out of Paris and New York made for them skilled designers and tailors.  Mme Demorest’s goal was to bring the latest European styles to the home sewer.  Successful in this, she sold her business in 1887.




Three years after Mme Demorest started her company, Ebeneezer Butterick, introduced graded (different sized) patterns marked with sewing reference points and printed on tissue paper – for boys and men! He did not produce patterns for ladies until 1866. His biggest contribution to the pattern industry was the deltor (sewing instruction) that came with each pattern.  Prior to this it was assumed women had enough experience to construct the garment without assistance. By 1867, Butterick was also selling patterns via mail-order through the Ladies Quarterly of Broadway Fashions and in 1868 via the monthly Metropolitan.  Butterick launched his own magazine in 1873 called The Delineator as a vehicle to sell his patterns. It quickly became one of the most popular women’s magazines in the country and is collectible in its own right.  Expect to pay from $5-$20 depending on condition.



By 1903, Butterick was one of the largest manufacturers in the world.  Many pattern companies followed throughout the years with varying success. Vogue (1905 by mail order), McCall’s (1920’s), and Simplicity (1930’s) were the most successful. A late comer to the business was Burda. Made in Germany, they were first available in the U.S. in 1970 and known for their “hard to sew” reputation. These companies are still producing patterns to this day.  (As a sewer, I find McCall’s and Butterick patterns give the most satisfactory result.  Simplicity runs a bit big; Vogue runs a bit small and Burda, true to its reputation, is “hard to sew”.)




Condition, completeness, rarity and the designer are important factors if you are collecting for investment. The envelopes should be free of tears and creases.  All pattern pieces and the deltor should be in their original, unused condition.  Day-wear tends to have a lower value due to the sheer volume available; unusual special-occasion wear or limited pattern runs designed by big name designers command premium prices.  Generally speaking, patterns are fairly easy to find and range in price from $1.00 to $10.00.  Rarer patterns can go for hundreds of dollars!



Should you decide to collect a few (they look great framed), you may note that the sizes are somewhat at odds with preset-day patterns.  They can be sized by age (because every female is the same size at the same age) or by “then” sizes.  For example, size 14 then would be a 32″ bust with 35″ hips while today size 14 is 36″  bust and 38″ hips.  It may not seem a lot but any woman knows what a difference of a few inches can make in fit and comfort. (Get your minds out of the gutter.)




Sizing was fairly standardized between various companies in the early 20th century but it wasn’t until 1968 that patterns were sized up to their current proportions. The big four (McCalls, Butterick, Vogue, and Simplicity) currently offer some reissues of their vintage line in contemporary sizes.



Realizing that millions of women were looking to their favorite stars for inspiration, patterns featuring stars and starlets studios produced Hollywood Patterns.  Those featuring Lucille Ball are extremely desirable.




For more information on the history of commercial patterns:

 Chris – Half of the “Freakin’ ‘Tiquen Guys”


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