Sunday, 8 September 2019

Focus on - CoPA

My deadline for my Masters dissertation is rapidly approaching, leaving very little time for sewing or indeed blogging. Many of the books and other resources which I have used for my research have been very academic and some have been, to be honest, painfully dull. Others have been a joy – indeed part of the reason why my studies have taken so long has been the discovery that I’m incapable of skim-reading: if I find something interesting then I have to read it from start to finish. So for the next few weeks I’m going to cheat a bit on the blog and share a few of the things which I’ve come across which I think might appeal to a general readership with an interest in vintage dressmaking and/or women’s history.

Working hard

I have already blogged about one of the books I've used - the excellent A History of the Paper Pattern Industry by Joy Spanabel Emery, which I reviewed here. So now I'm moving on to the Commercial Pattern Archive, otherwise known as CoPA, of which Spanabel Emery was formerly the curator. The always fascinating Witness2Fashion has recently blogged about CoPA and how she has used it for her research, you can read her post here.

The archive is based at the University of Rhode Island, and it is possible to visit it by appointment. However for most people the main resource will be its amazing online database of patterns, over 61,000 at the last count, drawn from collections in the United States, Canada and Britain. You have to register to be able to access it, but the process is easy and free. Once you have registered, you can log in and search the database, either just by entering the pattern number or by selecting from a number of criteria such as year, pattern brand and type of garment. If the pattern you are looking for is on the database, the search will return information including the year, price, and size of the pattern held, as well as the envelope illustration and the schematic of the pattern pieces taken from either the envelope back or the instruction sheet.

Because the website states that the images may only be used for private research and study and not reproduced, I have created a mock-up of the information which CoPA would show if it held one of the patterns from my collection, Style 2596.

Style 2596 as it would appear in the CoPA database

The archive doesn't include the pattern instructions, but if you are interested in a simple pattern and/or a confident sewist, it would be possible to enlarge the schematic and create a pattern from it - and yes, this is on my (very long) list of Things I Want To Do Once The Dissertation Is Completed.

Because until recently pattern companies seemed to have some sort of phobia about putting dates on patterns, I've used CoPA a lot to date patterns in my collection. Even if the exact pattern isn't in there, it's often possible to work the date out. For example, once you know that DuBarry 2478 and 2518 both date from 1940, then it's a safe bet that a DuBarry pattern number 2500 with a 1940s-style illustration is from the same year. I've also used it to find a pattern illustration if the original envelope is missing or torn. Unsurprisingly the archive contains lots of patterns from the Big 4, plus a good number from smaller brands such as Hollywood and DuBarry, as well as names I'd never heard of such as Green Pepper, Of My Hands and Vanata.

My only, very minor, quibble is that the illustrations from the patterns are very tightly cropped to show the figures only, and no other information. Obviously this makes sense, in that it makes the actual figures larger and therefore easier to view. Occasionally however it would be useful to see more of the envelope. This Butterick pattern in my collection has a three-digit number, unlike any other other Butterick pattern I've seen.

Mystery pattern

The only things I have to date it with are the logo and the price. The logo has changed a lot over the years.

Butterick logos from 1937 to 1987

Based on patterns I have been able to date, I think that my mystery nightdress dates from the early 1950s.

From a wider perspective, it's fascinating to track trends in both fashions and pattern art through the archive. Naturally most of the patterns in my collection are from Britain, and it's interesting for example to see how much later colour printing was introduced here than in the United States. Occasionally though the differences go further than that, such as with Vogue 8753.

My British copy, identifiable by the currency

The illustration on CoPA wasn't just in colour, it was entirely different. It dates from 1940, but I found a version online with a copyright date of 1951 printed on the bottom.

This illustration, minus the back view, appears on CoPA

I would love to know why the British version was changed, replacing the telephone with a pipe, removing the tie, and adding a rather bold spotty contrast fabric. Also to my eyes the trousers look ever-so-slightly baggier. All input and suggestions gratefully received, as ever.

Long may the wonders of CoPA continue to educate and intrigue me!

Finally, much as I like the opening image of elegance and calm poise, I'll finish with a photograph which is a more realistic depiction of life in Tulip Mansions at present.

It's as if the photographer is in my house!


  1. So interesting- I'll have to sign up to see the CoPA website.
    I've often wondered who designed all of the patterns (past as well as present). It must be (have been) extremely frustrating to say the least!

    1. You're welcome Lodi. CoPA is definitely worth signing up to.

  2. I love the final photo!

    1. Thank you - sadly I fear that it's going to get worse before it gets better!