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.


  1. So when you fold a hem with these old patterns, do you use the seem allowance holes? DO you fold to them? Or use them as the base of your fold? This is my first sewing project (sewing the sleeping bag for baby on Vogue pattern 2551 from 1951).

  2. Thanks for the comment, Veronica. That's a great question, and something which I completely forgot to cover in the post.

    The lengths of old patterns seem to vary a lot on me. Vogue are usually far too long, whereas some other brands are too short. As a result, the hem allowances are one thing which I completely ignore. I hold the pattern piece(s) up against me to check the length, and when I make my 'tidied up' copy I draw it to the length I want - and make sure to write on the pattern piece what hem allowance I've included.

    For your pattern, I suggest that you use the seam allowance holes as a rough guide, but cut the sleeping bag pieces to the length that you want - including the hem allowance, of course. If you're not able to measure the pattern against the baby, do you have a piece of clothing like a sleepsuit/babgro that you could use as a guide instead?

    I hope this helps. It's a really cute pattern and I'm sure the end result will look great!