the vintage pattern primer

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This post has been prompted by the many emails I’ve received on the topic of sewing with vintage patterns. Where do I start? How do I use a vintage pattern? What about sizing? Any tips? I really appreciate that people ask me–vintage sewing patterns are something I love working with and enjoy sharing that magic with others. I thought it would be nice to compile my tips and resources all in one post. It’s not that I don’t like the emails (I do!!!), but who wants to wait for me to get back to them? hehe!

Vintage patterns can come off as intimidating to not only those new to sewing, but seasoned dressmakers as well. The instructions look like a foreign language, there are so many steps, and the pattern pieces sometimes don’t even have any markings! I started sewing with vintage patterns about 7 years ago. I didn’t really know what I was doing (and it can be argued I still don’t. lol!), so my learning process has been through a lot of trial and error. I hope these tips will be helpful to those thinking about trying a vintage pattern. Please remember though that my primary area of “pattern expertise” is the 1930s through 1950s; I haven’t worked with many patterns prior to the 30s, and post 1960s patterns are usually similar enough to modern patterns not to warrant discussion.

A warning: this post started innocently with a handful of tips and quickly ballooned into a novel. So, it’s a bit long. However, if you’re brave enough I hope it proves helpful!

Trace all your pattern pieces. Some people don’t bother, but it’s helpful to have traced the pattern pieces (complete with all the notches, dots and other markings) onto a sturdy paper. This allows you to not only tweak a “master pattern” to your fitting needs, but also preserves the fragile original. I use inexpensive banner paper (about $5/roll) from the office supply store. Some dressmakers use non-fusible interfacing, tracing paper or Swedish Interfacing. Many patterns from the decades prior to the 1950s are unprinted as well, which means that unlike our modern patterns, there are no markings on them beyond cut out notches and holes for dots. You have to learn to decipher them a bit (this is where the piece schematic on the instruction sheet/layout guide is invaluable!), and tracing them and marking all these things in a more visual way helps loads.

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Have a good sewing reference book handy. My favorite is a 1970s edition of The Vogue Book of Sewing I picked up second hand. Vintage patterns tend to be a bit more detail oriented and complex, not only in construction but technique, and some aspects can be a bit vague (I am in the midst of sewing a 1940s skirt, and the instructions stated to “insert slide fastener (zipper) by enclosed instructions”, leaving no clue about how to do it in the body of the instruction pamphlet. Although I know how to put a zipper in, it’s these little things that aren’t always spelled out.). It’s best to have a thorough manual to look things up when you have a question, or want to find out if there is a better/faster way to do something.

Pay attention to the pattern markings. On average, modern patterns do not usually have as many markings (though I think this is due in large part to being printed, unlike earlier patterns which relied on a series of large and small dots to map out details and grainlines), so it’s tempting sometimes to skip over these when starting out. Don’t! Take the time to mark things after you cut them out, before you sew.

FIT! I cannot stress this enough! Sizing varies greatly in vintage patterns: a 1930s size 12 is not the same as a modern 12 (it’s usually the equivalent of a modern size 2!). Proportion is also something to consider: many vintage patterns (particularly those pre-1960s) account for how foundation garments shaped women into the “ideal” figure of a particular decade. In 30s patterns I find the hips are usually very slim, since the silhouette was more sleek and smooth through the torso/hip area. In the 50s, many patterns are huge in the bodice area, or the darts are placed to create a very high, pointy bustline (which would work with a 50s bullet bra, but not a modern one). You need to learn to catch these things early on and adjust them before cutting out your muslin (or fashion fabric). Trust me: it saves a lot of head scratching and frustration!

If a pattern is something that is comprised of many pieces, cut on the bias, looks tricky, or just gives me the heebie jeebies about fit, I make a mock up or “muslin” of at least the bodice first (I can usually fudge my way through the skirt in a dress). I keep a bolt of plain, unbleached muslin on hand for this, but any inexpensive fabric (or something recycled–like old sheets) works. If your pattern calls for a “specialty” fabric, be sure to make a muslin in a less expensive version of that fabric, since material weight and drape does affect fit greatly. Oh, and for things like slacks, boned bodices, etc., I always make a muslin. These garments vary quite a bit from decade to decade!

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A subcategory of fit that should be mentioned: often you fall head over heels for a pattern that isn’t quite your size, and presents you with the conundrum about making it up. It’s quite possible to have your cake and eat it too in this instance though! Pattern grading is an invaluable skill to have when working with vintage patterns, and is actually rather easy to master. Some resources on pattern grading:

Instructions should be at least studied. Admittedly I don’t always follow the instructions; it depends on the project and how complicated the design is. However, at least reading over the instruction sheet before embarking on the project–even if you don’t intend on following it to the letter–will give you some vital clues to using a vintage pattern. For instance: many times seam allowances on vintage patterns differ quite a bit from modern ones: sometimes the main seams are 1/2″ and the side seams are 3/4″ in the same pattern! Another example would be side seams: some vintage patterns do not have you sew the side seams until the skirt and bodice are attached; in some instances this makes certain steps easier than sewing those side seams before the skirt and bodice are sewn at the waist.

Basting is your friend. Many older pattern instructions indicate this throughout the pamphlet, and it’s a great way to test fit as you go too. Although it can be a bit of a pain, it’s easier to rip out basting than smaller stitches!

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Pay attention to fabric specifications. Many times (but I won’t say 100% always), what makes a successful garment sewn from a vintage pattern is the fabric you choose. While some styles (like blouses, shirtwaist dresses, casual skirts, etc.) can be done in quilt weight cottons, not every design is suited to this medium weight material. Take a look at the pattern’s specifications for fabrics: are they drapey and fluid, heavy weight, stiff, or light and diaphanous? Many fabrics available decades ago are no longer manufactured, or very hard to find. However, there are what I like to call the “basics” readily available: silk chiffon, crepe (rayon, wool and silk being the most popular), gabardine (of various fibers), cotton voile and lawn, wool gauze, tweed, etc. Some may not be available at your local “big box” fabric stores, but will require hunting down from online retailers. In the end though, a little detective work is worth it!

Pick out patterns that you know will flatter you when you start out. Having an intuitive sense of what is going to look good in the end really helps with the process of using vintage patterns. When I started out, I made the mistake of trying patterns that I thought would look good on me, but in reality I should have known that they weren’t the most flattering styles. The results were less than happy: I didn’t like sewing with vintage patterns because I thought they were “dumpy” and I just didn’t fit into them. It was until a few tries that I started to catch on to not only fit (which is tied up in this), but also styles that looked good on me. Studying your figure shape and determining what will look best on you is key. But even if you pick a decade that isn’t your “best” (for me, it’s the 30s), you can learn to fit things in such a way as to make them tailored to your figure needs.

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Start simple. If you’re just starting out with vintage patterns, begin with something simple. It doesn’t have to be boring, but skip the more complex bias evening gowns, fishtail skirts, suits, and swimwear patterns that are so tempting. Opt for styles that are relatively easy to get through, but allow you to get a handle on working with vintage patterns: simple a-line skirts, classic blouses, shirtwaist dresses (there is a plethora of styles in this category!), simple sundresses, etc.

There are many places to find vintage patterns: thrift shops, antique stores, flea markets–even yard sales have been known to cough a few up every-once-in-awhile. But for most people (including me), spending their days hunting for an elusive sewing pattern just doesn’t fit into their days. The internet boasts a wide array of vintage patterns for sale at every price point: Ebay and Etsy are my favorite spots for a bit of virtual hunting (A Dress A Day also has advertised links to shops along the sidebar). If there is a certain style you can’t find (or afford; there are “popular” pattern styles that command rather large sums), the alternative are modern reprints of the vintage pattern. Here are a few I know of:

Do you have any tips for sewing with, or sources for finding vintage patterns? Please share!

November 23, 2009 · 36 lovely thoughts
posted in tutorials · tags: ,

Andi B. Goode November 23, 2009 at 08:36

I’m saving this to read later when I’m not about to fall asleep (I assure you that’s the result of a long day, not your blog ;])
-Andi x

Victoria November 23, 2009 at 09:00

This was wonderful. I actually have bought a couple Vintage patterns but I am still a beginner to sewing. While my mother-in-law has tried to help me, she takes FOREVER. My first pattern I started working on a 40s petticoat that she helped me on. . .that was in August and I still haven’t finished and all it needs is bodice work and the straps on. I’ve been hoping to make a dress a week, but until I know what I am doing, I can’t do that because I’m dependant on my m.i.l who takes forever to get anything done. we’re such opposites with priorities vs. laziness that who knows when I’ll finish anything. I think something like your suggestions just make me want to go on a leap of faith and be careful and work hard on my dress and learn from an old 60s how-to book. :: sigh :: thanks for the encouraging entry.

Megan November 23, 2009 at 09:01

Casey this is a fantastic post! I think a lot of people have trouble sewing with vintage patterns and your tips will be a God-send! Thanks for posting this :)

Mugsy November 23, 2009 at 09:45

This is fantastic. Thanks for posting! Just picked up a couple of Vogue reprints (1930′s & 1940′s) to get myself back into sewing again – was never that great at it, but I’m trying again. These tips will come in very handy! :)

rachel November 23, 2009 at 10:16

Great post! I tend to buy patterns on ebay in lots… you can get them a lot cheaper this way and you oftentimes get some fun surprises.

Krisztina November 23, 2009 at 11:53

You have me hunting for sewing machines!

Amy November 23, 2009 at 11:54

How thoughtful! To tell you the truth I am pushing 40 and just starting to sew. I have always loved vintage clothing and hairstyles. I was raised in my grandmother’s home. I loved to look at her old pictures. She had that natural, fresh beauty and the purity of a different era. Any who your blog is fantastic and so are you.:)Thanks Casey! Your posts are so inspiring.

reilly November 23, 2009 at 11:56

“insert slide fastener (zipper) by enclosed instructions”

I laughed at this because I got it the other day. I know how to put in a zipper but still!

Excellent post and congratulations on your anniversary!!

Laura November 23, 2009 at 12:18

Thanks for a great post! I’ve only just started to stumble my way through sewing vintage patterns and it can be pretty overwhelming at first. I’ll definitely be using this as a reference.

Dixie November 23, 2009 at 13:01

Read all your instructions before beginning. Obey seam allowances and cutting diagrams. I tended to skimp on seam allowances until doing so nearly tanked my first vintage-pattern sewing attempt.

I’ve actually used unmarked patterns enough now that I find marked patterns confusing and too busy.

ambika November 23, 2009 at 13:19

Invaluable pointers. I think the bit about fit is where I’m only now starting to feel comfortable. When you’re new to sewing, it can be hard to understand that what you make may very well not fit based on the exact pattern and altering it can be much of the learning process.

jen November 23, 2009 at 15:31

brilliant casey! i know this will be helpful for all us vintage pattern users.

regarding fit, what i have found is that, like in modern illustrations, the picture on the envelope can be a little misleading. for example, sweetly puffed sleeves in an illustration will end up looking like floaters (ready for a swim?) in real life. i often wonder, though, if this is simply a matter of my more modern tastes perceiving a vintage style as costume-y.

i just spent a LONG time last night messing around with the sleeves of an early 1940s dress – i really liked the idea of the puffed sleeves but when i put it on, i looked like a linebacker. (if there were ever possible.)

i really need to baste more – it’s a habit i haven’t gotten into but am learning the hard way that i really need to. :)

hope you have a wonderful thanksgiving!

Mel November 23, 2009 at 16:15

Love these instructions! I have a couple vintage patterns from the 1950s and 1960s, and I was a little hesitant to work on them, but I think now I’ll try to make something!

Rachel S. November 23, 2009 at 19:13

You did a fantastic job with this primer! Thank you for the effort. There’s a lot of great info and advice. The sometimes sparse directions (your zipper example) remind me of Burda Magazine’s pattern instructions. A lot of folks find them challenging but I say you mostly just need to have a book handy and be ready to read up on the techniques prior to construction. Today’s U.S. pattern makers give a lot of helpful tidbits but it doesn’t beat having a good book handy to supplement.

Also, I couldn’t believe it’s been one year already. That’s fantastic! Congratulations to you and Sailor Hubby!

Rosie November 23, 2009 at 20:38

Wow, this is such a great post! I’ve been sewing on and off for almost three years, but I have never ventured into vintage patterns. I think I will though!

ZipZapKap November 23, 2009 at 23:50

How incredibly helpful!

Casey, would you have any objection to me linking to this post from my vintage pattern store? I’m sure some of my customers would gain a great deal from it.

Nadja November 24, 2009 at 11:41

Applause!!! What a work, this is a really great post! Thank you!!!
Mabey I soon will have the courage to try out a vintage pattern ;)

Concha November 24, 2009 at 12:03

Casey,thanks so much for this invaluable information!!

I too dream of sewing from vintage patterns and you’ve been a great help!

Lauren November 24, 2009 at 13:02

WOW! This is beyond awesome! Thank you, Casey, for taking the time to write this and for including my store :)

Steph @ Tart Deco November 24, 2009 at 15:10

Found you through a post on Wearing history and just HAD to post about this on my own blog- http://tartdeco.blogspot.com/2009/11/grading-vintage-patterns.html

Wonderful post and very cool blog!

Serendipity Vintage November 24, 2009 at 22:51

By all means come visit Serendipity Vintage on Etsy and also soon- to-be at http://www.serendipityvintage.com. I have lots of vintage sewing patterns to choose from!

I’d also like to link to this post from my store for the benefit of my customers, if that’s ok?

Amanda November 25, 2009 at 00:07

Great post! It can be quite trying to alter a vintage pattern. Thanks for information

fitri November 25, 2009 at 04:39

nice blog <3

Anna Boberg November 25, 2009 at 09:38

Thanks for sharing those useful tips!

I have a question … I’m from Sweden and I just don’t know what you mean by “Swedish interfacing”. We don’t have just one type of interfacing here so it’s hard for me to figure out which type you guys call Swedish interfacing… thanks

alicepleasance November 29, 2009 at 14:47

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this amazing post! It was exactly what I was looking for :-)

Victoria December 8, 2009 at 15:36

The project is still at a halt, sadly. Thanks for responding to me, Casey. I don’t know how to do what I need to do to finish it, and that’s the problem. I need to seem up the V-neck of the petticoat and I just don’t have a clue how to do that or how to put the straps on. I wish they taught Home-Ec and such when I went to high school. Hopefully I can get some help from someone, since I do know a woman who used to sew and redesign patterns in the late 40s/early 50s when she was a teenager who said that she could give some pointers if I needed. Again thanks for the post and for the response.

Mary Van Notes March 29, 2010 at 12:31

Thanks for this post. I just bought my first vintage pattern at a flea market a couple weeks ago. But I might try to start with something easier, but it does say “easy to sew” on the front!

It’s this pattern: http://ornamentgal.com/joomla/index.php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage-ask.tpl&product_id=458&category_id=33&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=36

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