Sunday, April 18, 2010

A walk through a vintage pattern

My next sewing project is working with a vintage pattern. Part of the fun of working with a vintage pattern is learning about the pattern's past. Who owned it and what was she like? Did she make the pattern? Why not? What was life like at that time? Many people collect vintage patterns for the cover art or because of the designer. Come along with me as I peruse this pattern for the first time.

Merriam-Webster defines "vintage" as: "of old, recognized, and enduring interest, importance, or quality : classic;  dating from the past : old." Classic and enduring. That is the appeal of vintage, no? Styles and trends come and go.  Vintage (classic) styles will be around forever. Classic styles for me are fitted jackets, pants and dresses;  tops and jackets with peplums, pleats or tucks, and anything Asian inspired. I also adore anything Art Nouveau (1890's-late 1920's) and the clean lines of Modern (late 1950's, early 1960's). So this Asian-inspired pajama set is definitely vintage in my definition of style.

This is my first time working with a pattern from this era.  I remember my mother making a vintage dress for my sister's prom. (That's it on the right.) It was a strapless gown with boning and a petticoat. I remember the delicate pattern pieces, pre-cut and folded into the paper envelope. We found that pattern up the creaky back stairs of a thrift store run by Mennonites in my home town. Oh, that attic was full of the most delightful things, including a huge stash of vintage patterns! And cheap, too. I remember getting a vintage wool coat there in high school for like $2.00. They also had hats, suits, shoes.  The thrift store changed hands a few years after I left for college. It is an "antique mall" now where the great finds have already been found and priced exorbitantly high.

My first task was to find a date for this pattern. Careful examination of the envelope and instruction sheet did not reveal any copyright date. A quick Google search later and I found out that Advance patterns of this time period were not dated. From the style and sizing, however, I can determine that it is early 1950's. More information about Advance patterns can be found at Cemetarian.

Another clue to the age of the pattern is from the bottom of the envelope where it says that the pattern was featured in Woman's Home Companion. This magazine, I found out with another Google search, was a very popular magazine that folded in 1957.  Here are some terrific images from the magazine's early years.

I'm curious to see the pattern in the magazine. Was it just an ad? Was it featured in a story? The archives are not available online anywhere that I can quickly find. I'll had to do more research on this. Perhaps our local university library has the back issues on microfilm.

A quick look at the back of the envelope also shows that  the pattern pieces are "pre-cut". Seam allowances are 1/2" instead of the 5/8" that is standard today. The dress sizes are much smaller than in patterns of today. This pattern is a size 16 with a bust measurement of 34 inches. I will have to significantly alter the pattern to fit me. I generally use a modern size 14 for tops and a 16 or 18 for bottoms.

The garments are not listed separately, but are grouped together for fabric yardages. So you can buy fabric for the coat and long pants; short sleeve top, pants and coat; or short-sleeve pajamas with short pants. Fabric widths are much narrower. Today you can usually buy fabric in 44/45" or 56/60" widths. This pattern lists fabric in 35-54 inch widths. Since I need to grade up the pattern to my size and make other modifications and I plan to make the top and bottoms in different fabric, I will wait until I get the pattern modified before I purchase my fabric. Or I can try to convert the yardage.
I'm considering using some Amy Butler fabric from

Further down the pattern you are given additional body measurements, but finished garment measurements are not given. I will definitely need to take careful measurements of the pieces themselves and probably make a muslin, or mock-up, of the pattern before cutting out my final fashion fabric. Notions include 2 - 50yd spools of thread, seam binding, buttons (It doesn't say what size or how many.) and two pair of frogs for the coat.

Upon inspection of the instruction sheet (only front and back of one sheet), I see that these pattern pieces are not printed on. Instead they have a series of holes punched into them to mark darts, lengthwise grain, place on fold, etc. Correctly interpreting these marks is part of the fun of using a vintage pattern. I have plenty of experience using contemporary patterns, so that should help in knowing how to lay out, cut and put things together. I love this note on the pattern instructions:
When you follow in this order and consult your dressmaking steps as you go along, you will complete your garment with ease, to fit right, to look right and to be admired by all.

Isn't that what we all want? Great fitting clothes to be "admired by all." Contemporary patterns just don't use that kind of language. Why not?

Finally, a quick look over the directions and I see that the pants have a "slide fastener", aka zipper. Hmm...that wasn't on the notions list.  I wonder what other surprises await me. Stay tuned.


  1. I love that Amy Butler fabric! It would be perfect for the pattern. And thanks for clarifying "slide fastener". I saw it mentioned on one of my patterns and thought it meant a buckle like you'd run scarf ends through.

  2. Thank you for "protecting the innocent" in that photo! I can't believe you found that picture! I loved that dress. I remember when mom made it she wouldn't let me see it until she was finished. If I remember correctly the fabric was actually lining fabric. Mom also went back to that same thrift store and bought an old corset and removed the boning because she couldn't buy it anywhere. My bestfriend and I both had vintage dresses for our Junior and Senior prom. My Junior Prom the dress was made from white dotted swiss fabric. It was very heavy, but beautiful. I can't wait to see how it all turns out for you.