Sunday, 8 January 2017

Book review - A History of the Paper Pattern Industry

I came across this book entirely by accident. I was ordering something serious and academic for my course, and it popped up on the 'You might also like' screen. Now bearing in mind that the previous time I'd ordered something serious and academic online, it had suggested that I might also like 'Finding Dory' (possibly Amazon's algorithms thought that I needed some light relief), getting a suggestion that at least vaguely related to my order was progress.

(Note: all other images in this post are from my own collection, not from the book.)

It looked like something that I would indeed like, and it was December, so I thought, 'Merry Christmas to me', and added it to my order.

I was hoping for an interesting read, and it certainly is that, and much more besides. Joy Spanabel Emery is a costume designer and Professor Emerita of Theatre at the University of Rhode Island, USA. She is also the curator of the Commercial Pattern Archive at URI, and knows her subject in depth. The result is a book which as well as being entertaining and immensely readable is thoroughly well-researched (I may have been slightly too thrilled by the discovery that it's got references and footnotes!).

Emery begins with a brief review of the earliest works to offer patterns, mostly written for tailors. She then considers how nineteenth century technology such as sewing machines and dress forms affected home sewing, before going on to the formation of the first pattern companies in the 1850s.

1874 dress pattern, read about it here

The now virtually unheard-of Demorest was the first firm to sell mass-produced patterns, followed by Ebenezer Butterick in 1863-4 and James McCall in 1871. The 'cut and punched' tissue pieces familiar to anyone who has made up a vintage pattern seem to have become the norm early on, and continued unchanged until 1921 when McCall introduced printed patterns. I had no idea that they started so early, although thanks to a comprehensive patent only McCall offered printed patterns for several decades.

'Cut and punched' pattern pieces

1930s pattern; McCall was also the first to produce envelopes in colour

Printed piece from the above pattern

And that is the joy of this book. It is stuffed full of fascinating snippets about the pattern industry; how smaller players such as DuBarry and Hollywood Patterns came into existence, how patterns were sized and marketed, and how the industry coped with the changes to home sewing as the twentieth century developed.

DuBarry and Hollywood patterns

Some parts provided answers to questions I'd always vaguely wondered about; for example, where on earth did the word 'Deltor' come from?

Butterick 'Deltors'

Others facts are jaw-dropping, such as the 1962 estimate that the American home sewing market "consisted of over forty million individuals who averaged twenty-seven garments per person per year". Twenty-seven???! I’d have to give up work, housework and possibly sleep to manage that.

27 - sadly, it's not going to happen

My only minor gripe was with the references to 'English' rather than 'British' pattern companies. It is corrected in later chapters and I doubt if most readers would even notice it, but as someone who grew up in Scotland and now works in Wales, I tend to be particularly aware of this.

British patterns: Style, Weldons, Economy Design (an offshoot of Style) and Maudella

The book also makes full use of the Commercial Pattern Archive to provide plenty of illustrations; mostly of patterns, but also from magazines and marketing materials.

Advert for a Bestway pattern offer in Woman's Illustrated magazine, October 1954

Finally there is an appendix of nine complete patterns, dating from 1850 to the 1960s. These are drawn out on grids to be enlarged, like those found in Janet Arnold's and Jill Salen's costume books.

As Emery says in her introduction, whereas garments preserved in museums tend to be high fashion and/or for special occasions, dress patterns are more representative of popular culture. Therefore although I'd primarily, and wholeheartedly, recommend this book to anyone with an interest in vintage (or even non-vintage) dressmaking, readers with an interest in fashion or social history would find a lot to enjoy as well.


  1. i love the commercial pattern archive! ill have to check this book out. thanks for the review!

  2. Sounds great! Thanks for recommending. I was a child in the 1970s and the norm was still for mothers to make (sew or knit) all their children's clothes, at least in small town New Zealand. We wore a lot of pinafores and simple dresses or skirts, and so did most of my friends. If you're assembly line sewing singlets or dresses for a few growing children, it probably doesn't take long to reach 20 or 30 a year.

    1. Ah, I hadn't even thought about children's clothes Lyndle, but yes that could rack up the numbers pretty quickly! Thanks for the observation.

  3. What a super fun book to have! I love finding interesting things like this that give you a glimpse, that you were so not expecting, into something that you are fascinated with! Way to go Amazon!

    1. I still haven't bought 'Finding Dory', though!!

    2. Ha! I haven't even seen it yet...

  4. Looks great - so I had to do an impulse buy on Amazon! Thanks for your excellent review. This topic seems long overdue to be written about and celebrated - and yet has been part of women's lives for decades (almost centuries?)

    1. Thanks Kate! I was surprised to find that the book had been out since 2014 but I hadn't heard of it, so I thought that it merited a review to get it a bit more widely known.

  5. I have this book but I'm yet to read it as I'm too busy sewing and crocheting! I did wonder about a 1930s McCall printed pattern I had (I swapped it with a friend for other 1930s patterns!) because it was printed. I'd never seen a printed one from that period, so I was surprised when I saw it, but I guess their patent explains it. xx

    1. Yes, McCall seem to have suddenly gone from so-so to leaving the other companies trailing in their wake. xx

  6. Does the book go over the instruction leaflet instruction changes over the course of time? I remember a few vintage patterns I could not use because I had no idea what the instructions were saying. And this was one "easy" and one "intermediate" pattern from the 50's and 50's. Lord help with "difficult"!!!
    I tried getting some older books to see what is what. Most of the ones I have are basic introduction books.
    I would like to see a central online how to tutorial reference, all the knowledge locked up in people's noggins, needs to be disseminated.

    1. It just mentions that the instruction sheets were 'improved' over time - certainly the 1950s and earlier ones were, to put it mildly, brief.

      I think that the expectation was that everyone would have a book at home which covered all the basics. Charity shops sometimes have them; I've seen a few copies of 'Weldons Encyclopedia of Needlework' around, which is quite good.

      If you're in a charity bookshop it's always worth asking if they have anything like that in stock - sometimes these books don't get put out on the shelves because they're considered too old to be of general interest. Hope this helps.

  7. I received this for Christmas and am looking forward to reading it, it sounds so interesting.