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Hello everyone, and welcome back to Sewing Vintage! Through writing my blog, I’ve realized just how intimidating the world of vintage patterns can be. The prices vary wildly, the sizing is different from contemporary patterns, and the styles can be very intricate and complex. Not to mention how different the patterns themselves are: the instructions are much more abbreviated than today’s patterns. And some pattern tissues are even unprinted, meaning you only have perforated holes to guide you, rather than the nice black lines and symbols that we have now.

So, how to make sense of all this? Here are a few things to keep in mind as you start to navigate the wonderful world of vintage patterns.

1. Style.
Choose a simple style to start out with, like a basic sheath dress or a pencil skirt. It helps if it’s similar to a style you’ve sewn before so that you’re not completely new the construction process. Also, start with a pattern from a decade that is stylistically simple, like the mid-50’s though early 60’s. These years were generally about clean lines and not too much fuss, unlike the bowties, peplums, and rows of buttons that you see in patterns of the 40’s. Think career girl attire from Mad Men.

2. Sizing.
Vintage patterns are generally sold by bust measurement, so get an accurate one. Start with a pattern the closest you can find to your measurements. It can be heartbreaking when you fall for a pattern that’s several sizes too small or big for you . . . but save the complicated re-sizing for later. (In the meantime, that pattern will probably pop up in just your size!)

3. Google Alerts are your friends.
If you do get your heart set on a certain pattern but can’t find it in your size, set up a Google alert for it. Patience pays off!

4. Find your favorite online pattern dealers.
I order the majority of my vintage patterns from eBay and Etsy. Pay attention to which sellers you think offer fair prices and have a good selection. Once you develop a relationship with certain dealers, you can even ask them to keep an eye out for you if there’s something you’re looking for. (Tip: all three of the above fab patterns are currently for sale from one of my fave Etsy sellers, Midvale Cottage.)

5. Buy a good vintage sewing book.
The instructions on vintage patterns can feel incomplete compared to today’s. The pattern companies simply assumed you knew more about sewing, and therefore didn’t walk you through every step, like patterns do now. Vintage books are helpful because they describe techniques in the same jargon that you’ll see in your vintage patterns. One of my favorites is a 1960’s edition of the Vogue Sewing Book and I also love Constance Talbot’s Complete Book of Sewing from the late 1940’s. (Alibris.com and eBay are great places to find vintage sewing books.)

6. Don’t rule out reissues.
All of the “Big 4” pattern companies reissue select vintage patterns from their lines to put out in modern sizes with updated instructions and sizing. If you wear a hard to find size, these can be a goldmine. Also, check out the company Decades of Style which reproduces vintage patterns in a wide variety of sizes.

7. Fit.
And last but not least: when you’ve selected the perfect pattern, spend plenty of time getting the fit right. Fit is everything! Check back next week for a post on the most common alterations needed for vintage patterns. In the meantime, you might want to check out a book on pattern alterations to get your skills up to the task. I recommend Fit for Real People.

Have a missed anything? Also, what are your tips for locating great vintage patterns?

17 Comments

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    Aug 13, 2011, 05.18 AMby wintersky

    Thank you ^^ really interesting to read

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    Nov 4, 2009, 06.31 PMby maracallahan

    I’ve been collecting vintage patterns for many years and I can’t stress enough how important it is to preserve your patterns. I know when you get caught up in just wanting to finish your project right now, it’s easy to forget someone (or yourself) years from now might want to make the same pattern or maybe you might sell the pattern someday. I buy the poly bags used for storing comic books or magazines and I try to mark the pattern number, year and size on the outside of the bag for quick reference. Although they printed thousands of patterns, they are delicate and degrade easily. Each one is a bit of history and should be preserved. OK, I guess you can tell how passionate I am about vintage patterns:)

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    Oct 30, 2009, 12.55 PMby Betty Cox

    http://www.oldpatterns.com is a fantastic online shop with tons of patterns dating back to the 30s!

  • Missing

    Oct 25, 2009, 04.26 PMby julial

    I just sewed a Vogue Vintage pattern from 1956. When I was finished it looked….awful! It was like an oversize garbage bag. But I won’t give up. I think the problem was that I took the wrong size (Even though I measured myself before…) I will make it smaller now and create something out of it myself…

    1 Reply
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      Oct 25, 2009, 07.30 PMby seasidelaundry

      A lot of the vintage patterns I prefer are teen & junior from the 60’s….some say “Gidget” style (casual to party dresses) & they are tinier. The tops may need to be switched out or cut a little larger-but, if the measurements are in your range, it may be worth a try. I adore Vogue, too, but Simplicity & McCalls had this sizing then. Great positive attitude & appreciate a younger person loving these styles.

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    Oct 25, 2009, 03.55 AMby ladysophie

    This a really cool article! I have bought heaps of vintage patterns and I have a few with out any black lines and just holes. I have made a few of the vintage patterns too, and I like how easy it is to understand the instructions.

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    Oct 25, 2009, 03.55 AMby ladysophie

    This a really cool article! I have bought heaps of vintage patterns and I have a few with out any black lines and just holes. I have made a few of the vintage patterns too, and I like how easy it is to understand the instructions.

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    Oct 24, 2009, 04.58 AMby seasidelaundry

    My favorite vintage book is Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book – a big looseleaf binder type with drawings, not photos. Copying from an old garment is a method I have tried- tracing with pinpoints into freezer paper. The skirt in my studio is from 60’s Home Ec pattern…easy but, did run small. Thank you, Gertie for terrific motivation & advice. I love thinking about what all of you may reproduce!

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    Oct 23, 2009, 12.10 PMby cynthia-1

    Wow, this is very interesting. I have been collecting vintage patterns from various markets and have just inherited a whole bunch of vintage patterns from a work colleague’s mother. Now i just have to pick my fav one to begin with…

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    Oct 23, 2009, 04.09 AMby apieceofcloth

    I use vintage patterns all the time. I am a bit of a 60’s Vogue Designer fiend. I also use the Vogue Sewing book. My copy is from 1972. I think its the best sewing book I have ever used. Also the Simplicity books from the 50’s and 60’s are very good. These books also cover a long lost art of the ‘interlining’ which makes a lot of these outfits fit well. Well worth the effort on a structured styles I found my books in op-shops and on a fantastic second hand book site called www.abebooks.com

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    Oct 23, 2009, 04.07 AMby the-gilded-bee

    Thanks for the tips :) I’ve recently purchased some vintage patterns as well as reissued patterns and will take courage and make some projects with them. :)

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    Oct 23, 2009, 12.28 AMby tangerine-dreams

    I find great vintage patterns around here at garage sales and vintage shops for supa cheap! Great article.

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    Oct 22, 2009, 09.56 PMby Juliana Mateus

    go, Gertie! loving this.

    I just put my hands on the amazing “Clothing consruction and Wardrobe planning”, printed in 1955. Many tips on how to sew, and amazing infos. I got it thinking it could be a way to get familiar with vintage pattern sewing. We’ll see.

    thanks a lot! i’m getting more and more cofident to go on with your wise words. ;) *

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    Oct 22, 2009, 09.13 PMby nutmeg1

    Thanks for the tips! I just tried a vintage pattern for the first time recently and was surprised at the lack of instructions – and it wasn’t even from that long ago!

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    Oct 22, 2009, 08.17 PMby foggynotion

    Great tips! Still trying to find the guts to dip in :)

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    Oct 22, 2009, 07.21 PMby bellamabella

    i have a singer sewing book from ’53, its filled with great info.

    thanks gertie for this article :)

  • Spiderlilyspats11_90x90pix_large

    Oct 22, 2009, 06.44 PMby spiderlily

    Great info! Thanx Gertie.

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