Sunday, 26 February 2017

How to work with a vintage pattern

Recently I happened to mention to someone that I sometimes make clothes from vintage patterns, and she replied that a friend of hers wanted to try using a vintage pattern, but wasn't sure where to start.

This got me thinking. I’ve written posts about making up specific patterns, with references to the issues I've encountered, but I've never written about using vintage patterns in general.

So without any further ado, here is what I've learned over the years.
(Warning: long post ahead! Not because I've learned a lot, but because patterns have changed so much that there's a lot to cover.)

Where to find them
The easiest place to find vintage patterns is online. The obvious starting points are Ebay and Etsy, and Marie of A Stitching Odyssey has helpfully listed some of her favourite Etsy sellers here. All of these shops are American however, so if like me your taste runs to British brands such as Style and Maudella/New Look you will have to do some digging of your own. There's plenty to be found; ask me (and my credit card) how I know!

Some charity shops such as Oxfam have also started selling vintage goods, including patterns, online. If internet shopping is not your thing however, you can also sometimes find patterns in bricks-and-mortar charity shops, as well as at vintage fairs. They aren't often centre stage on stalls or in shops however, so you have to keep a sharp lookout. 

Be aware that charity shops in particular are unlikely to have checked if a pattern is complete. In my experience, it's the smaller pieces such as pockets, facings and collars which most often go missing. If you're confident about drafting replacements this isn't an issue, but most online vendors will make it clear whether or not the pattern is complete, and what condition it's in.

Multi-size patterns are a relatively new development; most vintage patterns are a single size. And that size can be confusing. I've read in several places over the years that whereas dress sizes have changed over time, pattern sizes have remained constant. This is simply untrue, as these three Simplicity patterns from 1952, the early 1960s, and 1970 show.

Size 14 patterns for 32", 34" and 36" bust

Pattern sizing seems to have remained fairly constant from around the 1970s onwards, but if you are buying a vintage pattern it's best to always check the measurements; don't just go by the size.

Pattern pieces
Unless your vintage pattern is from McCall's (who started printing patterns in 1921), the pieces will look very different from a modern pattern. The photograph below shows some of my pattern 'orphans'; pieces which have turned up in pattern envelopes but have nothing to do with the pattern in question.

Two collars, a facing and a cuff

All the information about a pattern piece is stamped into it as a series of holes. The piece is identified by a letter or number, or occasionally by its name. Sometimes a row of holes is stamped under the number, so that you can tell which way up it goes. The stamping was done by hand, and some are clearer than others.

"back facing B - C", just

Some cheaper patterns don't have the pieces identified at all. In this example, you would need to refer back to the instruction sheet and use the shapes of the pieces and the number and position of the notches (two notches often indicates a back pieces, while one indicates a front) to identify what each piece is.

Front and back facings, I think

Usually the grain line is marked by two larger holes, and smaller holes mark the seamline or features such as darts.

Pocket piece

On this 1940s Simplicity pattern, the instruction sheet indicates what the different sizes and grouping of holes mean.

Large holes for grain and fold lines, small holes for cutting line and seams

On this Maudella pattern only the skirt pieces have grain line holes marked. Even though this bodice piece is cut on the bias, this is only apparent from the cutting layout

Bodice front piece circled on the cutting layout diagram

The collar isn't even the whole piece. As well as being cut on the fold, you have to flip it over along its horizontal edge (highlighted in green) when cutting it out.

The cutting layout shows the full collar piece

It was only when I read A History of the Paper Pattern Industry that I discovered how unprinted patterns were actually made. The shapes were marked onto one sheet of paper, this was placed on top of a large stack of sheets of tissue paper, and the pieces were cut out with a bandsaw. Some of the pattern pieces have distinctly wonky edges as a result; for example the centre front of the Maudella bodice piece above clearly isn't straight.

Seam allowances
Nowadays seam allowances tend to be a standard ⅝" / 1.5cm, and are included in the pattern pieces. However some patterns, such as the Maudella dress above, don't have any seam allowance included.

Some patterns have the seam allowance included, but it is not the same as modern patterns.

½" seam allowance

Some patterns have different allowances for different seams. My 1940s Simplicity coat has mostly ½" seams, but ¾" side seams.

Variable seam allowances in the "Important" section

The instructions on vintage patterns are, to put it mildly, brief. Some are more brief than others; for example the envelope front of the Maudella pattern is all the information you get. The envelope back is taken up with an advert for Sylko thread.

Yardage, illustration, cutting layout, what extra pattern pieces to cut and making up instructions

For this reason, if you are new to using vintage patterns I’d recommend starting with one of the Big-5 brands (Butterick, McCall's, Simplicity, Style or Vogue). While the actual construction details are sketchy by modern standards, at least the cutting layouts and keys are all there. Not all of the information is necessarily in the order you would find it on a modern pattern, but it is there somewhere.

Simplicity 4896 instruction sheet front

Simplicity 4896 instruction sheet back

Explanation of the pattern markings, and more on seam allowances

How to cut out fabric, lining and interlining

So many cutting layouts

How I work
This is the method I've evolved for working with vintage patterns.

First of all, read through everything carefully. Possibly because of the need to save paper (especially in 1940s patterns), information can be crammed onto the instruction sheet, sometimes in odd places. There is a surprising amount of information on a lot of vintage patterns, just not in the layout we now expect. With printed patterns some of the information, such as seam allowances, may be on the pattern pieces themselves.

Copy the instruction sheet. Wartime patterns in particular are printed on poor quality paper, and having a copy to work from means that you don’t have to keep handling the original. Plus if necessary you can enlarge it to make it easier to read. You can also highlight the bits you need, cross out the bits you don't need, and add on the bits which are written in tiny script somewhere else.
Update Nov 2020 - I usually do this by taking photographs and transferring them to my laptop. Although the writing on instruction sheets is frequently tiny, it is usually clearly printed and so enlarges well. It's also easy to crop images to just the sections you need for the view you are making.

Trace off the pattern pieces. I use dressmaker's tissue paper because it comes in large sheets. However you can use any reasonably see-through paper, and Gina of the wonderful Beauty From Ashes blog has the thrifty tip of buying modern Victorian costume patterns (because big skirts = big pattern pieces) when they are heavily discounted in sales, and re-using the paper.

What I use

Tracing allows me to fix wobbly edges, standardize seam allowances to ⅝" so I don’t have to think when I’m sewing pieces together, clearly mark grainlines, darts etc. and generally convert the pattern piece to modern standards. Plus I can make all the fitting alterations I need without damaging the original.

The original welt piece for Simplicity 4896, and my tidied up version

Yes all this takes longer, but it reduces the chances of doing something stupid because I’m thinking with my 'modern pattern' head on. Note the word 'reduces', not 'eliminates'! It also means that I have the original pattern unchanged if I ever want to sell it (file this idea under, "Pigs: flying").

In short, expect working with a vintage pattern to take longer than working with a modern pattern, especially when you first start. But if you've got the time for a longer project there is something special about using a vintage pattern and seeing the past come to life in fabric form.

Hopefully all this is useful if you're thinking about sewing with a vintage pattern, and have just stumbled across this post. No doubt I've missed out all sorts of things which I just do without thinking because I’ve been sewing with old patterns for *coughs* years. So, if you’ve got any questions please add a comment - I promise I do read them - and I'll try my best to help.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Pinafore progress

Despite my misgivings I have decided to carry on with trying to make my self-drafted 1950s pinafore (jumper) dress. However I’ve been on another excellent course at Hat Works this weekend (making a Gatsby cloche - more details to come soon), so haven’t got a lot of progress to show this week.

Despite checking, double-checking and triple-checking, I wasn't convinced that I'd got the bodice and skirt darts to line up properly. So I decided that as it would be far easier to move the skirt darts than bodice ones, I'd make up the bodice and than match the skirt pieces to it.

Then I completely forgot to take any work-in-progress photos - sorry.

I've decided to have a side zip; it's period appropriate, and meant that I could cut the bodice back as a single piece. As usual for anything tricky, I cut all the pieces out from a single layer of fabric. It takes a bit longer, but it ensures that the the pattern is properly centred and that the skirt and bodice stripes match at the centre front and back.

Skirt front, with symmetrical stripes and darts

I wanted to line the bodice (I haven't decided yet whether to line the skirt), and used the same technique as for Butterick 6582. This involves making the front and back up separately, sewing the lining and main fabric together round the neckline and most of the armscye. Then turning the piece right side out, and sewing front and back together along the shoulder seams. Finally the remaining section of the armscye lining is slip-stitched closed.

The completed bodice

As the above photo shows, I didn't want to have facings as I thought they would be too bulky. Instead I cut out the lining from the same pattern pieces as the main fabric, and then trimmed off a scant ⅛" round the neckline and armscye. This made the lining fractionally smaller than the outer piece. I sewed the two together, matching the raw edges. When the bodice is turned right side out and the lining is pinned to the main fabric along the lower edge, this pulls the main fabric slightly in on itself, so the lining won't show from the outside.

Showing a tiny sliver of fabric round the neckline and armscye

I eventually calculated the 12 pleats for the bust, marked the fold lines with tailor tacks, then basted the pleats in place. I may have gone slightly overboard with this.

That's a lot of basting thread!

The next step is the skirt.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Vogue Pattern Book, 1955

She's done it again! I've posted before about my friend F, who volunteers at a charity bookshop in town, and frequently alerts me to things I 'might be interested in' when they come into the shop. Well this time she's excelled herself. She texted me to say that they had four 1950s issues of the Vogue Pattern Book, and did I want to have a look? Naturally I replied with the enthusiasm I normally reserve for the question, "Would you like a cup of tea?", and am now the very happy owner of one issue from 1955, and three from 1957.

Suits for you and your mini-me, 1955

For this post I'm just looking at the 1955 issue, which is for August-September (the magazine was published six times a year). Although only 66 pages and a cover, the magazine is quite thick. It is also stapled through all the pages rather than just at the centre. This made it quite hard to lay open to photograph, so some of the images include my pattern weights to hold the pages down.

Inside front cover and page 1, showing the two staples

As with a modern magazine, there are a lot of advertisements at the front. Jacqmar have a full-colour image on the right, and a smaller section listing stockists on the left.

Jacqmar, Coats threads and Aero 'zipp' fasteners

Naturally it's mostly sewing-related adverts, plus one for Vogue magazine, and one for children's underwear.

Another ICI company (see Ardil Fabrics above)

More child-related advertising, plus Vilene.

I find this sock-wearing caterpillar quite disconcerting

It is page 11 before any editorial content appears.

The dress is made from a Vogue pattern

This edition features designs for 'children and teen-agers'. The very childish dolls in the swatch photograph form an interesting contrast to the very formal clothes on the opposite page.

A suit for 'going visiting', and an 'all round' coat

This red suit is described as "A suit to "go places in", be it college, town or country". I must admit that I never go to college dressed like this.

Clearly I need to up my game!

We are so used to magazines now being all photographs, that it's interesting to see the quantity of drawing in this one.

"Drawings by Maclean" is just visible at the spine

A different style of drawing, by "Freeman"

One of the magazine's publicity staff got married in July 1955 (the same month as my parents!), and this article is about her wedding dress and trousseau - all made from Vogue patterns, of course. The photograph is the bride herself, in her going-away outfit.

The wedding dress is the main drawing

As with current sewing magazines, there are 'how-to' articles, such as this one on lining a winter coat.

Lining a coat, and that start of the 'Paris Originals' spread

This is followed by a section on Vogue Paris Originals patterns, including one which I own.

The Patou pattern is at the top right

Clearly the magazine didn't just reuse the line art from the pattern envelope

Then there's a 10-page spread on this season's colour, marigold, with a bold use of coloured backgrounds.

Bright marigolds

Pale marigolds

The instruction sheets of all my vintage Vogue patterns stress the importance of wearing the correct foundation garment when you are fitting whatever you're making, so it's not really surprising that underwear also features in the magazine.

Scary undies!

More line drawings, this time very plain. The artist is still named however.

'Drawings by Longden'

Towards the back of the magazine there is general information, and more advertisements.

'Darling' sewing machines - no, me neither

More undies, and different stockings for day and evening

Knitting and small ads

Impossible to imagine an advert like this today

The back cover - for those times when you want your dress to match your lampshade

Next time - 1957.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Knowing right from wrong

For all sorts of reasons, it's been a difficult and stressful few weeks here at Tulip Mansions, and I've really not been feeling at my best. So as I had a more or less free weekend, I thought I'd cheer myself up a bit by doing some dressmaking. Although I've not actually got as far as any sewing yet.

One of the first things we covered when I started my course was the no-no that is plagiarism - passing someone else's ideas off as your own. So with that in mind I'll state straight away that the idea for this project came from Tasha of By Gum, By Golly. She made a stunning sheath jumper dress (what I'd call a pinafore dress) in turquoise corduroy, which you can see here. I loved it so much that even though I'd never felt the slightest desire to make a pinafore dress for about 30 years, I immediately decided that I wanted one.

Looking online for patterns for inspiration, I found lots of examples with full skirts, but far fewer with straight skirts. Eventually I came across this, which is made in one piece, without a waist seam.

1959 jumper dress, with optional pockets

And this, which has full or straight skirt options.

1958, with raised waist

I really liked the raised waist with the 'belt' detail. Simplicity had reissued a similar pattern to this one, but it's now out of print.

Simplicity 3673

So the only option was to draft my own. Now this may not be most people's idea of how to have a relaxing weekend, but I do enjoy pattern drafting. Weird, I know!

Because I'm short-waisted, my version of New Look 6070 has the waistband section coming up to just below the bust, so I used that as a starting point for the bodice section.

The basis for a lot of alterations

I lowered the armscye and neckline, and changed the deep, diagonal pleats to more, smaller, vertical ones. There is something about calculating pleats which just turns my brain into mush, so this took some doing! I then made a toile of the bodice, and it fitted almost perfectly; I only needed to pinch out a little of the front neckline.

For the skirt I took my standard self-drafted skirt pattern, and raised the waist by the width of the New Look 6070 waistband. And that is as far as I got over the weekend.

I'd bought the fabric a couple of weeks ago, when I first decided that I wanted to make a pinafore. It's a wool-mix remnant, and is a perfect example of just how scrambled my brain has been recently.

Much as I love the check fabric examples on the pattern envelopes above, I know that checks don't love me. But, I didn't really want a plain fabric, so I was thrilled when I found this black and white weave with a blue stripe across it.

Blue stripes on a chevron weave

The stripes have a slightly odd, broken effect, and they go across the fabric. Horizontal stripes do me even fewer favours than checked fabrics, but as the fabric is 150cm / 54" wide, I figured that I could just cut the dress out sideways.

If by this time you are shaking your head at your screen and yelling, "Oh for the love of Pete, woman! What were you thinking?", I can only say that I honestly didn't realize. It was only when I washed the remnant and hung it up to dry that the truth finally dawned.

This is the wrong side of the fabric.

It actually looks like this.

Blue flecks on a chevron weave


This does not suggest that an ambitious, draft-your-own project is going to be a roaring success, but we'll see.