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How often have you wished that a modern pattern had better, longer, or clearer instructions? Well, believe it or not, today’s patterns are tomes compared to eras past. I recently bought this fabulous “Lady’s Overall” pattern from the 1930’s, and was fascinated by the brief instructions.

As you can see in the image above right, all of the instructions are on the back of the envelope – there are no inserts included. It’s a mere paragraph! Just check out this sentence: Make the collar of double material and sew on as notched, and make 2 slot pockets in the front. Anyone who’s even sewn a convertible collar and made welt pockets knows that a little more instruction than that is required!

Since the 1930’s, instructions have become more and more detailed. My theory is that as women moved further away from domesticated lives, patterns required more instructions. Sewing skills were no longer a birth rite passed on from generation to generation. You couldn’t just ask your mom or grandma to teach you how to make slot pockets anymore.

My Vogue patterns from the early 1950’s fit into a small, single page and can be terse, but they do have illustrations. In the late 60’s (women’s lib time!), you start seeing the introduction of “Learn to Sew” patterns, which were meant to teach you to sew as you made a garment. No previous knowledge necessary!

Instructions today are lengthy—often needing several large double-sided sheets of paper. And each step is illustrated. But is this necessarily a good thing? Pattern companies are required to write instructions that appeal to a wide level of skill sets. Often, this means the instructions take short cuts rather than showing couture methods. When sewing any pattern, vintage or contemporary, I think the best thing you can do is arm yourself with a comprehensive sewing book, and make sure the methods described in your instructions are really the best way to do something, not just the easiest. Knowledge is power, baby!

P.S. On another note . . . I’m having a contest this week on my blog inspired by the most hilariously heinous pattern I’ve ever come across. It truly has to be seen to be believed. So click here to have a peek and to make your entry for “Most Awesomely Bad Pattern EVER.” Hope to see you (and your awesomely bad patterns!) there.

5 Comments

  • Missing

    Nov 15, 2009, 08.33 PMby neostargurl126

    that’s crazy!! I need my illustrations to confort me in times of sewing!

  • Eb882cf3947765ff90adf9d40522a23e56385a98_large

    Nov 14, 2009, 12.33 PMby gray

    My grandmother in her youth was encouraged to sew a lot and although she never taught me any of her skills when she died I found all her patterns. Among these old patterns (without much in the way of instructions-just the patterns) was a book, by vogue, with instructions. I suppose you could call it a DIY helper booklet. It was unfortunately lost in the clear out of her house and I regret deeply not keeping a closer eye on it now!!

  • Madmen_fullbody_large

    Nov 13, 2009, 04.21 PMby brocadegoddess

    I concluded the same thing myself a few years ago while helping to accession commercial sewing patterns into my university’s clothing and textiles collection. I worked with patterns from the 1910s up to present day and experienced a little epiphany about this very thing. I think the change in commercial sewing pattern instructions over that time frame is such a fascinating commentary on shifts in both general society and gender expectations. I even considered writing an article on it – thanks for reminding me about it!

    Btw, the patterns from the 1910s (our collection has an ASTOUNDING 645 never used McCalls patterns from 1918-1923) also have instructions only on the envelope back. It also includes a pattern layout at the top, so you actually get half an envelope-back of instruction. I’ve seen a couple from the 19th century, and those come with hardly any or no instructions at all!

    I really enjoy the instructions from 1950s-60s patterns. I find them very informative and the techniques just delightful! As for modern instructions – I hardly ever use them.

  • Vatten_large

    Nov 13, 2009, 01.03 PMby ichigogirl

    I have a few vintage 1930’s patterns with a full page (a bit bigger than an A3) full of clearly illustrated step-by-step instructions, and at first glance I actually thought they were much better than modern pattern-instructions… but I haven’t tried to follow them yet, so I don’t really know. But I agree, the one above is a bit brief, to say the least… and I think Gertie’s theory is probably right. I am a firm believer in sewing-technique-books, anyone who wants to learn how to sew should get one, it’s so frustrating when you don’t understand the instructions! And they are fun to browse through once in a while!

  • Missing

    Nov 13, 2009, 08.58 AMby sam7992

    I’ve found that while the instructions from the 40s and 50s are brief ,they’re far more helpful than instructions from modern patterns. The instructions in the vogue designer patterns from the 50s and 60s are definitely way more informative than any other instructions I’ve looked at but are definitely not targeted to a beginner sewer!

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