Friday, 4 March 2016




Image credit: Anya Baker.

Sewing close-fitted and tailored clothing takes a fair bit of skill. When tailoring came in to fashion in the Middle Ages, it helped develop a garment-making industry that set apart those with enough money to hire someone to do it for them, and those who had to do it themselves. Patterns for home-sewers were fashion's original great equalizer--sort of like a 19th-century Forever 21. And despite the fragility of paper, it's a history that is still preserved and interpreted in both academic and commercial archives.

Yes: 19th-century. It seems late, but commercial pattern production and distribution depended entirely on the rise of cheap printing and the infrastructure necessary to support mail delivery. Although tailors were publishing guides for other tailors as early as the 14th century, guides for the non-professional were not developed until the very end of the 17th century. For more info, look at Joy Spanabel Emery's article. What is important to me is that home-sewers, instead of just using "cheats" like gathers, loose fits, and drawstrings to make home-drafted clothes fit better, could recreate the latest tailored fashions from afar as fashion magazines began including free pattern as magazine supplements in the 1840s.

Can you imagine how excited you would be, if you were a 19th-century woman in a little village far from the fashion centres of America and Europe, to have well-made, on-trend clothes? There were limitations, of course: patterns only came in one size. The home sewer still had to figure out how to grade the pattern up or down according to her measurements. One of the greatest breakthroughs for the likes of me and you was the development of the graded pattern in 1863; you just cut along the lines that indicated your size. That was the start of one of the big names in patterns: Butterick.

If you recognize the name Butterick, you might know its famous sister companies: McCall and Vogue. They're all owned by the McCall Pattern Company. When sorting through the bins of $0.69 vintage patterns at the local Goodwill or Value Village, those names come up a lot.

These are very 80s, but you get my point.
Image credit: Anya Baker.
Finding older vintage patterns can be tricky. You can buy them online, but they can be expensive. The Commercial Pattern Archive outlines a number of repositories for commercial patterns: the University of Rhode Island, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Glenbow Museum, The Fashion Museum, and even the ROM! But unless you know what you are looking for, are allowed to copy the pattern itself, and can puzzle together the sizing and expected measurements, actually using vintage patterns is more trouble than a fancy dress is worth.

Which makes the secret archives of Vogue, McCall's, and Butterick alluring. I call them secret only because I can find no information on them. But they exist; they must! Each company has a collection of 20th-century patterns conveniently resized for 21st-century measurements: Vogue's Vintage Vogue, McCall's The Archive Collection, and Butterick's Retro Style. The pattern gives its date of origin, and whether its use is courtesy of an individual or a collection outside of Vogue. Re-releasing these patterns is a magnificent union of archiving, research, adaptation, repeated commercialization, and intense public appeal.

I have a few Vintage Vogue patterns (they go on super sale to $5 every couple months) and they're incredibly beautiful. But, as with all commercial patterns--even graded ones--from their first inception to the present day, it takes a fair bit of skill to sew something close-fitted and tailored. The home sewer still has to know how to adapt a pattern to her own unique measurements and proportions.

If you want a taste of that sweet 20th-century home-sewing style without the fuss, here's a little project I worked on recently with Historic Kitchen's Leah. Look for it in her next post. To make it easy, draft your own pattern as you go; just use your measurements. Mark the outline or corners with pins or a bit of tailor's chalk and start cutting. It's based on aprons from the mid-20th century, when home-sewing was booming, commercial patterns were incredibly popular, and fashionable, decorative frills and jazzy prints were all within reach of anyone with a needle and thread. You need about a metre to a metre-and-a-half of print cotton.

Image credit: Anya Baker.

The idea is to make everything simple and boxy and then "cheat" with gathers. Measure your waist and decide how long you want your apron, and guesstimate the rest--add a button and a couple of button holes on the waistband for customized fit, and gathers along the top of the bodice so that you don't need to put in darts. You cut out two waistbands because sewing them together, one as the outside-facing waistband and one as the inner, makes it look cleaner and gives the band some weight. Same with the halter.

Decorative touches give the air of having tried hard. Image credit: Anya Baker

Bind the edges with ribbon or make bias-tape from fabric scraps. The whole thing should take you an hour if you have a sewing machine, or a couple of hours if you prefer to hand-sew while binge-watching costume dramas.

Add pockets, if you want; just cut out squares. Image credit: Anya Baker.
Leah! Image credit: Leah Moncada.

As fast fashion has eliminated the need to sew fashionable clothes for yourself, all that might have been clear as mud to you, dear Reader. That's the weird thing about garment production in the 21st-century; commercial patterns and home sewing were the democratizing forces of 19th- and 20th-century fashion, but sewing and tailoring have become specialized skills once again. So Medieval, man!


  1. OMG I want to make that apron! I am sensing an Easter project...

    1. Do it! Great rainy day/lazy day project!

  2. I love this, Anya. The Butterick and McCall's patterns really bring me back to being a kid, sitting in the Bouclair watching my mom rifle through the patterns box. I adore aprons and would wear one every day, all day. This flowery one is super cute <3

    1. <3 Make one! We should have a MMSt Crafternoon Tea.
      I have so many memories of my grandparents or my mom sewing stuff and their boxes or drawers of patterns--mostly Halloween costumes, curtains, pillows.

  3. As I do every time you publish, I sent one to my Mother. She looked over the apron when I brought it home and immediately recognized the 1950s style. (Thank you once again for that beautiful apron!) A great post, as always Anya. I especially loved the thought of those grandly tailored Medieval outfits. The textiles! The colours! The silhouettes!

    1. <33333
      You're very welcome! It ties so well into our exhibition haha
      Living history museums tend to be focussed around 17th-19th centuries, but I would love to work at a dubiously historical Medieval edutainment gig like Medieval Times just to wear the clothes.

    2. We could make a (very long) field trip to this place:
      We can oogle the clothes while partaking of bounteous Medieval food! (If you go to their classes page, they even have a course on Medieval clothing construction!)