History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

10 September 2010

The joy of paper patterns

The joy of paper patterns

My current work in progress is a western set in 1870 Oregon. In that time, a dress was sewed by taking an old, worn-out garment apart at the seams, laying the pieces flat on the selected yard goods, and cutting around them! That might explain why styles in the Old West didn’t change much over time: the pattern template could have come from one of Grandma’s old dresses.

In 1863, Ebeneezer Butterick changed all that by inventing the tissue-paper sewing pattern in various sizes. It all started when his wife, Ellen, spread out a piece of blue gingham on her dining room table and drew her design using wax chalk. If you couldn’t draw well, your clothes looked funny....

There were patterns that could be used, but they came in only one size; the maker had to enlarge or reduce as needed. Ebeneezer watched his wife struggle with the chalk and the blue gingham and a lightbulb flashed.

He experimented, using heavy cardboard templates that turned out to be unsuitable for folding or shipping. Then he found that tissue paper was easy to package. The first “graded” (in various sizes) sewing patterns were cut and folded by the Butterick family at home in Sterling, Massachusetts. Business grew and they later moved it to New York City.

Originally, paper patterns were available only for men’s and boy’s garments. But after three years of successful sales, in 1866, Butterick began to make and sell women’s dress patterns. Then came patterns for jackets and capes in 13 sizes and skirts in 5 sizes.

This revolutionized the clothing industry. Dressmaking became easier and fashionable garments became available to men, women, and children of all classes all over the world.

In 1867 Butterick introduced Ladies Quarterly of Broadway Fashions, a showcase magazine for Butterick home-sewing patterns. Patterns could be purchased by mail order and by 1876, E. Butterick & Co. had 100 branch offices and 1000 agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada. The patterns were also introduced in Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin. In fact, more Butterick patterns were purchased in Paris than anywhere else in the world.

In 1929, with the Great Depression, Butterick stock fell along with the rest of the market, but they continued to produce and sell patterns; home sewing turned out to be the backbone of the company and served as the means of pulling the company out of the slump.

In 1961, Butterick licensed the name “Vogue Patterns” from Conde Nast Publications, Inc. and bought their pattern division. Readers of Vogue magazine could buy patterns by clipping a coupon and mailing it in with 50 cents.

Demand for Vogue and Butterick patterns increased and when 1914 and World War I came and the Paris couture business halted. New York became the new fashion center, and Vogue patterns were carried in stores across the country and in Canada.

Home sewing continued to be popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and as early as 1937 the pattern books began to feature “couturier” patterns. This was the first time originals from Paris had been duplicated in pattern form, and Vogue Patterns was the only company licensed to produce these designs until the mid-1970s, when Italian and English designers were added.

In 2001 The McCall Pattern Company acquired both Vogue and Butterick patterns. Sewing machine sales must have soared.

My grandmother sewed dresses for my mother on an old treadle Singer sewing machine. My mother sewed endless skirts and blouses and formal dresses for me on her portable Singer, all the way through high school. And when I grew up and got married, naturally my sewing machine went with me.

One of my most treasured memories is going to the yardage store with Mom, running our fingers over the bolts of challis and cotton and flannel, and sitting down at a small table loaded with pattern catalogs to choose a pattern.

It still makes my fingers itch to walk through a fabric store.

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Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Patterns are only necessary if you don't know how to drape and draft your own (which is a superior method). Most women pre-20th century would have had little trouble doing this. For the life of me I can't seem to use a actual pattern, LOL! I always have to use it to make a muslin, then redraft the whole thing to fit. *sigh*

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finding that patterns for men's clothing were the first available intrigues, for today the opposite is true. Vogue is about the only one which still offers patterns for men's suits and very few of those.

Unlike Ms. Carr, I find it far easier to slash, extend, shorten, compress paper patterns to fit measurements.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I have to have a pattern to make clothing for myself, but I have used the drape and draft method to make clothes for my dogs and for my china dolls. I don't sew nearly as much as I used to as all of my "spare" time is devoted to writing. However, I do still hand-piece at least one quilt per year. Shopping for quilt fabric is a dangerous proposition for me. I always find far more fabrics that I like than I am ever likely to need!

10:22 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I think my total inability to use a paper pattern may be because I leaned to sew by recreating historical clothing from scratch. No patterns. Just drafting and draping. Using a pattern seems like I'm being pulled backwards into some awkward and bizarre experiment, LOL! I do find looking at patterns and diagrams of historical clothing helpful in figuring out where to start though . . .

12:32 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Fascinating post, Lynna. Please, oh please, explain to me why paper patterns are sized so much differently from ready-to-wear garments. For example, if I wear a size 6 dress, hypothetically, I could never wear a dress cut from a size 6 pattern because the bust size for a size 6 pattern is a mere 32"!

So, how did the sizing end up so different? One of my greatest regrets is that I didn't take the pattern drafting course offered at Cornell; odd how the costume wing of the theatre dept. didn't offer their own course. Pattern drafting amazes me. It's why I'm in awe of the Project Runway contestants who can sketch something, then whip up a pattern for it and sew the damn thing in a day.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leslie - I can answer that. Patterns still use grades established in the 1930s and 1940s, when the US and UK gov't did big measurment surveys to establish the 'average' heights and circumferences of the populations: kids, women, men. RTW used to base their clothes on those measurements but now their measurements are all 'in house', meaning there are no standards (think vanity sizing!).

Pattern companies however are still using the old measurements, so their six is still calculated using the pre-war figures. That's why there's so much difference between the two.

(who when she isn't writing fiction writes sewing articles, too :))

2:42 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Exactly, Elyse! This is why it's so disingenuous to say that Marilyn Monroe was a size 10. That's not a modern size 10. She was more like a modern size 6. And then there’s vanity sizing. The more upscale the line/shop, the larger the measurements are for that same size “6”.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Thanks, ladies!

Isobel, in my experience, the more upscale shops cut smaller than usual, not larger. I have to go up a numerical size or two (especially across the bust) in many higher-priced lines. It's in the mall-type shops that may have a larger-sized clientele given the demographics of the location and their diets, that I find myself swimming in the numerical size I would ordinarily wear. Think Chico's, Liz Claiborne, etc.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Lynna! My mom made a lot of my clothes when I was growing up, and I sewed a bit myself (I made a costume to wear the to Renaissance Faire--hardly authentic but fun, and I can still wear it). My mom made my senior prom dress because that year everything in the stories seemed to be poofy and pastel, and I wanted a slinky black dress. She made the dress from a Vogue pattern, first in muslin (with with a paper pattern), then the actual dress. I still have the dress and still can wear it, because it's pretty timeless.

6:02 PM  

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