Tips: Vintage Pattern Primer
Hello fellow sewing enthusiasts! I’m Laura Mae from Lilacs & Lace. It will probably come as no surprise that I am a huge fan of vintage patterns. I adore reproductions, which are generally a little more forgiving because of the added markings and updated instructions, free of damage and strange smells. But there is something wonderful about working with a vintage pattern that is decades old. Some have written notes or postmarks, and even contain newspaper clippings, or facing pieces cut from newsprint. I love to imagine what the original purchaser had in mind when she picked out her pattern!
I chose a beautiful lightweight navy wool for this mail order pattern from the late 1940s. A classic fabric for a classic silhouette!
If the idea of working with a vintage pattern intimidates you, here are a few hints.
Pattern envelopes and instruction sheets are often in worse shape than the actual pattern tissue, so don’t let the outside condition dissuade you from a fabulous design.
And check your sizes! If you have been using a size 12 with contemporary Vogue patterns for as long as you can remember, do not expect that a vintage size 12 will fit. Have you ever heard the rumor that Marilyn Monroe was a size 16? Well, a 1940s or 50s size 16 has an upper bust measurement of 34” or sometimes 32”, depending on the manufacturer.
Another thing to watch out for is seam allowance. Do not assume that a standard 5/8” will be included with your pattern tissue. I have come across ½” and even 3/8”. There is also a chance that side seams will have a larger allowance given for fitting adjustments.
Many vintage patterns are unprinted. This means that you are working with a single sized pattern that has a bunch of perforations and notches scattered throughout each piece. A quick peek at the instruction sheet will verify what is what. Grainline perforations are generally larger in size. Darts and tucks are indicated with small circular perforations. Pieces that are to be cut on the fold are indicated by perforations as well, often three in the shape of a triangle. Square perforations that line up with an opening edge mark the placement of buttonholes. A long sleeve can also have small perforations to indicate where to cut for the short sleeve view.
Perforations are also used to label each piece, generally with numbers, which correspond back to the instruction sheet.
I believe perforations went out of style, at least in part, because they become the weakest part of the pattern, and can tear easily (as do the triangular cutouts along the edges). However, if you are a fan of the thread tack, they certainly make life easier!
Instructions are generally a single sheet of paper, one side with general information and cutting layouts; the other with design specific instructions. Do not expect step by step diagrams – most images will include multiple steps that are numbered to indicate the order in which the pieces are put together. But do not be discouraged – just plan on reading twice (or thrice!) and stitching once.
If the idea of working with blank tissue paper does not agree with you, there are plenty of printed vintage patterns! They are single sized, but look almost identical to contemporary patterns.
Vintage patterns assume at least a basic knowledge of garment construction. If the purchaser of the pattern did not know much about sewing basics, certainly a family member or friend would be able to help. Today we have the internet, full of tutorials and helpful people a click away, so even if you cannot find a local sewing class, you can find answers to your questions!
Some terminology has changed. For instance, “slide fastener” refers to the humble zipper, and “press studs” are snaps. Many vintage side closures use those press studs in place of the now standard zipper. Of course, substituting one for the other is easy enough!
Facings are rare, and neck and armhole edges are often finished with bias pieces of fabric for which no pattern piece is given.
Pattern envelopes will include yardage requirements, but fabric layouts are generally multi-directional. I prefer to cut all of my pieces in the same direction, which uses a bit more yardage.
One thing I have learned from working with old patterns is that cellophane tape and pins are the enemy. Pins rust and create tears in pattern pieces and envelopes over the years. And cellophane tape becomes a sticky mess that transfers from one tissue piece to another, sometimes making it impossible to separate the pieces. Cellophane tape is and always will be banished from my sewing room!
My personal bias aside, there is a wonderful assortment of vintage pattern goodies to be found. Even if you do not want to look “vintage,” so many of the designs are timeless. I hope you take a chance on some old gems and rescue them from the trash bin!