Vintage Sewing Patterns

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[Editor’s note: Flip-Pal Ambassador Thomas MacEntee stumbles upon some old dress patterns and wonders if there is a family history story behind them.]

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I’m always amazed at what I find when I go through items left behind after the passing of a family member. While I’ve been the grateful recipient of photos, letters, diaries and the standard heirlooms towards which we as family historians gravitate, some items—like old patterns for clothing—make me stop and ponder.

Family History Dwells in the Strangest Things and Places

Most folks would simply toss away these patterns and figure that they were kept as a mistake or were kept by someone who had planned to make the item shown on the outer envelope. But a keen genealogist knows that family history can dwell in the strangest places and items, including dress and clothing patterns.

Recently, as I looked at a series of such patterns by companies named Simplicity and Butterick, the “analytical genealogist” in me kept asking questions: Did my aunt or grandmother actually use the pattern or was it tucked away for a future project? Is there a photo of the finished garment somewhere? Does anyone make their own clothes anymore or is this pattern a snapshot of a thrifty practice from days gone by?

Back When Clothes Were Homemade…

There was a time in this country when making clothing for yourself and your family was commonplace. Store bought fashion was expensive and didn’t always fit properly. Sewing was a basic skill for many women and a profession for men as well: simply look at all the US census pages listing “seamstresses,” “dress makers” and “tailors.”

By the time I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sewing patterns were usually purchased to make a Halloween costume for children, or if someone was really ambitious, bridesmaid gowns á la Gunne Sax for a thrifty wedding. With the close proximity of large discount departments stores (in the Northeast we had Ames, Caldor and Jamesway), there was no longer an incentive to make your own clothing.

So when someone did use a sewing pattern, the resulting item got noticed—whether it was a stunner or simply so hideous that it stunned the viewer. I hate to say it, but my mother’s one venture into homemade clothing for her family was a disaster and a personal embarrassment, at least to a 7-year-old boy forced to wear the creation to school. Mom’s idea of a “groovy” vest in neon green made me look more Maude than mod and after running home from school crying, I vowed never to wear it again. While I may have hurt her feelings, I had my dignity to think about.

Years later, Mom and I had some good laughs when we found not only the original pattern, but also the horrifying garment itself. She admitted that the vest was ugly as sin and she probably should have tried making less trendy fashions. At one point I turned to her and said, “Mom, you know what really would set that vest off? A match.”

Vintage Sewing Patterns with Your Family History

So what do you do with these old patterns? Here are some creative ideas on how to incorporate them into your family history research:

  • Scan: Scan the other envelope of the pattern and any photos of the finished garment. Use the images for blog posts, stories or scrapbooking.
  • Sleuth: Find out if the pattern was used to actually create a garment and by whom. Try to locate photos of the finished item or even the actual garment itself!
  • Story: Write about the person who owned the pattern or used it. Were they an accomplished seamstress or tailor? How did they learn to sew? Was it a skill passed down from generation to generation?
  • Sew: A novel idea, but what about actually using the pattern to create the vintage garment?

More on Vintage Sewing Patterns

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Of course, the researcher in me just had to go and find out more about vintage sewing patterns since my knowledgebase was a bit lacking in this area. With just a simple search on Google, I found some great resources on these patterns—which have become highly collectible.

  • Etsy (http://www.etsy.com) is a good source to find old patterns; in fact some vendors like PatternsFromThePast are dedicated to selling vintage sewing patterns from vendors such as Vogue, McCalls and others.
  • Ebay (http://www.ebay.com) is another good source for buying and selling old patterns as well.
  • Vintage Patterns Wiki (http://vintagepatterns.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page) has over 60,000 articles covering every aspect of this type of ephemera. Articles are grouped by pattern vendor, garment type, time period…lots of fun and addictive browsing!
  • Pinterest (http://www.pinterest.com) is a natural place to post images related to vintage sewing patterns.
  • Auction Finds (http://myauctionfinds.com/) has a great article entitled Simplicity Posters & Memories of Sewing that provides an overview of the history of sewing patterns.
  • Simple Simon & Co. (http://www.simplesimonandco.com) recently held an online “You Can’t Judge An Ugly Vintage Pattern By Its Cover” party where readers uploaded images of the ugliest patterns they could find!
  • Male Pattern Boldness (http://malepatternboldness.blogspot.com/) is a blog by Peter Lappin who describes himself as “sewing obsessively since 2009 and today makes all my own clothes using mostly vintage patterns and vintage sewing machines.”

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