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It’s no secret that I have a deep love of history, especially when it comes to fashion. Over time, I have come to appreciate and understand how the domestic arts have empowered women and, in turn, affected their societal roles. This is one of the reasons I love sewing. This simple craft has, over time, had a measurable affect on women across generations. Sewing gave women control. In the early days, it gave women a place to find solace and, within the confines of their homes, allowed them to maintain their traditional roles while exploring new ones.

It’s also a skill that they could call their own, a key component early on when women had few rights and fewer outlets for their talent or business acumen. In addition, and I have come to know this personally through my businesses, Indygo Junction and The Vintage Workshop, sewing is an activity that can make your creative spirit soar – whether as a designer, sewer or both.

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There is so much sewing history that I find fascinating, it’s hard to pick one aspect to focus on. However, today I’d like to talk about the history of the paper pattern and how is helped to shape the industry we know and love today.

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Patterns have been around for what seems like an eternity. Originally patterns were made out of wood and thick cardboard and overwhelmingly used by the trade only in the construction of suits and dresses for the upper class. For homemakers, clothing was often eye-balled, adjusted and then copied from existing clothing. All of that changed, and changed rather quickly, in the mid to late 1800s due to the efforts of Ebenezer Butterick. In 1863 this Massachusetts tailor, disgusted by the difficulty and complexity it took to make children’s clothing patterns in a variety of sizes for growing children and families, began making graduated and marked patterns out of paper (easier to cut). Folded by his wife and family and packed in boxes of 10 each, he sold these patterns to tailors and seamstresses throughout New England. These patterns proved to be hugely popular, possibly due to the fact that Butterick hired a staff of door-to-door traveling salesmen to spread the word. Homemakers began clamoring for them and Butterick could barely keep up. Technology stepped in next when Butterick invented a process and machine that would allow him to cut stacks of paper patterns concurrently, thus providing him the ability to produce his patterns in quantity. Whether Mr. Butterick was omniscient or simply a good businessman, throughout all of this local and regional sales success he opened an office in New York City. When his ability to produce in quantity materialized, Butterick’s business grew in epic proportions. It’s reported that in less than a year he went from his humble tailor shop in Fitchburg, MA to opening the NYC office with The Butterick Publishing company producing nearly 6 million patterns a year.

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The paper pattern, developed and refined in all of its variations by those who grew the industry alongside Ebenezer Butterick (e.g. James McCall & The Simplicity Company), became hugely popular due to two other advancements of the time: Access to sewing machines and the availability of beautiful fabrics went hand-in-hand with the growth of domestic sewing.

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Prior to the 1890s, magazines were only read by the wealthy in America as they were subscription-based and very expensive to produce. In the late 19th century publishers began the practice of selling advertising in quantity, thus lowering the cost of a subscription and making them available to the masses. As you can imagine, with tissue paper patterns weighing next to nothing while simultaneously being so easy to fold, the marketing and distribution of paper patterns skyrocketed. Vogue, Condé Nast and Hollywood patterns (who printed movie stars on their pattern packaging to increase sales) flourished. It’s also fair to say that without these two advancements, Mary Brooks Pickens’ success with The Woman’s Institute would never have materialized. The ability to affordably send patterns and instructions back and forth to sewing machine-equipped homes across the country was an absolute necessity.

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While obviously glossing over the next 100 years, there have only been incremental changes in paper patterns. Fashion became more of a driver, while advancements in sewing machines shortened the creative process and improved the overall quality of the clothing produced. In fact, it isn’t until recent history and the advent of the World Wide Web have we seen huge shifts again. The Internet has ushered in a multitude of new sewers and created fantastic communities of women (and men) dedicated to nurturing the craft and the crafters (note: here’s an earlier post I wrote in which I called blogs the new sewing circles). Today, downloadable patterns are redefining the pattern industry, reducing the distribution time and costs even further. In fact, Indygo Junction is about to launch our new Website and will be following up that activity with downloadable patterns later this year.

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Vintage patterns are more than just food for my love of history. They also are an important part of my vintage sewing collection and have provided creative inspiration and reference for Indygo Junction pattern development since we first opened. We’ve also used some wonderful vintage pattern illustrations in some image sets over at The Vintage Workshop. Vintage patterns are more than just food for my love of history. They also are an important part of my vintage sewing collection and have provided creative inspiration and reference for Indygo Junction pattern development since we first opened. We’ve also used some wonderful vintage pattern illustrations in some image sets over at The Vintage Workshop. The examples above are from Fashion Patterns (IE478). The images scattered throughout this post are from my private collection.

Thank you all for allowing me to share my love of vintage pattern history. As a little gift, I’ve made available artwork from a vintage sewing label – from a McCall’s Pattern Catalog – that we sell up at TheVintageWorkshop.com. No need to comment to win, just download it here.

Thank you again for letting me share.

~ Amy

27 Comments

  • Sepiaglow_large

    May 23, 2011, 04.52 AMby mponterio

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I am fascinated with vintage patterns.

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    May 13, 2011, 06.55 PMby boppygreen

    Thank you for this wonderful and informative article. I also love the vintage patterns I own and want more!

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    May 11, 2011, 08.41 PMby pogotown

    My Mom sewed for our family and my Aunt Margaret, a widow with five daughters, sewed for them and my Grandma sewed for everybody! I was tall in high school and had to sew all my own clothes. When I look at all the quilts they made I can point out the patches to my daughter (also a wonderful seamstress and designer) and tell her what item of clothing was made for which person!

  • Missing

    May 11, 2011, 08.24 AMby spicelmf

    I’m dying to find that Butterick 4189 pattern in the third picture. The coat is exactly what I’ve been looking for!

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    May 11, 2011, 03.50 AMby stitchikles

    Great article, very interesting reading. I really appreciate the way you tackled the restrictions of women’s lives in the early days… their views of ‘freedom’ were very different to ours now I think. I too love vintage patterns and grab them whenever I can. I love that most pattern companies are now reproducing some of their vintage patterns! I can now make a vintage dress without ‘destroying’ a beautiful old pattern.

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    May 11, 2011, 03.45 AMby Nermina Croata

    Thank you so much for this article. Since I am from Croatia, I never heard of Butterick or other American patterns until I started learning sewing here in USA. Your article explained a lot. I finally get it. I am crazy about old patterns (1950’s) and I have been fighting on ebay for them and realized that a lot of people out there are “old-pattern crazy”. I had no idea they had clubs related to love for old patterns. Thanks for info.

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    May 11, 2011, 02.33 AMby aglanceatmyworld

    I have such a love for vintage patterns…and for history! Don’t know why I’ve never put the two together and learned more about the history of patterns. Thanks for sharing all this great info; you’ve inspired me to go out and learn even more :)

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    May 10, 2011, 09.13 PMby fayettebelle

    Thanks for the great read! Sewing is such an integral part of our lives, historical and modern. I also just inherited several boxes full of patterns from the 1940’s – 1970’s. I’m not sure what to do with them but they certainly bring back wonderful memories of the dresses my family made with them.

  • Missing

    May 10, 2011, 08.31 PMby Rebecca Gold

    I was just chuffed to see paper patterns my mom doesn’t/(didn’t?) have! and such excellent photography! Thank you very much for the plug at the moment, too, and I wish you all the best of luck on your career endeavors!

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    May 8, 2011, 09.28 PMby ellen-lumpkin-brown

    Wonderful article, Amy. I so appreciate learning about one of the foundations of home sewing. Thanks so much for writing this for us!!!

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    May 6, 2011, 09.47 AMby marrrija

    I love the story. :)

  • Avatar_beardsley_large

    May 5, 2011, 11.43 PMby imogens

    I LOVE vintage patterns but I think it’s a bit wrong to romanticise past women’s experience of sewing… It seems dubious to me to suggest that sewing “gave women control” or “allowed them to explore new roles” back in a time when they were so restricted, especially given that sewing actually fits perfectly within that restricted role that women had. Today we’re lucky because we get to combine awesome vintage sewing, designs and fashions with much, much greater freedom…

    3 Replies
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      May 9, 2011, 08.24 AMby Andrea Beresova

      Hi there,
      I think you´re right. The past isn´t present and I´m grateful for our grandmums who were so brave and got through that time.

    • Missing

      May 10, 2011, 08.39 PMby llevise

      I also agree. I’m a little older, and remember what my daughter now looks at as history. Sewing didn’t empower women—in fact, once the womens movement really took hold in the 70s and women were more expected to hold a job AND take care of the kids and home, sewing spiraled out of fashion and there were now generations of girls who never learned to sew. I remember hating the feeling in Junior High of HAVING to take Home Ec because I was a girl. Boys weren’t allowed to take it back then, nor were girls allowed to take shop. There was nothing “empowering” about being forced into having to do something because of my sex. I already knew how to sew at that point of my life, and wanted to learn something I DIDN’T know.

      Paper patterns did, however, allow people of lower income to make clothing that people of higher incomes would buy from a store. This was back when sewing your own clothing actually saved you a lot of money, so you could dress very, very nice for a lot less money. If you had that skill, you could dress nice and be fashionable and keep you family dressed nicely too. I do remember my mother, who worked a full time job, coming home, cooking, and then sewing almost every night until she went to bed. There was some enjoyment of sewing for her, but she had so many projects she HAD to produce for our home that I’m sure she would have loved to be doing something else many nights. I was lucky to have learned to sew from her and also knit, embroider, rug punch, cross stitch, etc.

      What is also interesting is how the sizing has changed over the years. That one Advance pattern shown about—size 14, bust 32, waist 26 1/2 is a far cry from the size 14 we have now! LOL

    • Missing

      May 31, 2011, 10.10 PMby redslippers

      agree precisely!! a reality that i think is sometimes glossed over.

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    May 5, 2011, 07.51 PMby perlimpinpin

    Thank you very much for the article!! It makes it so easy to learn more about one’s hobby!

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    May 5, 2011, 07.38 PMby caramia-made

    Great article, thanks for posting! It’s so interesting to read about the history of something I use on a regular basis (paper patterns) without having any knowlege of the history behind it. Thanks again!

  • Cara_kiss_large

    May 5, 2011, 07.38 PMby caramia-made

    Great article, thanks for posting! It’s so interesting to read about the history of something I use on a regular basis (paper patterns) without having any knowlege of the history behind it. Thanks again!

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    May 5, 2011, 05.36 PMby FabricUiPhoneApp

    I love this story too..as you can see from the Prairie Farmer photo above, printed patterns have strong Chicago connections too.. The Chicago Tribune was in the business of selling printed patterns at one point. I’m certain the competition – the Chicago Sun-Times and the Daily News also were in on the act. I’ll bet that building on W. Washington Blvd. is still there. Would be fun to peel back the walls and see what old pattern pieces have slipped down the rafters, awaiting a modern discovery.

  • Margesimpson18_large

    May 5, 2011, 12.53 PMby ellie-sew

    Thanks for that juicy piece of history! I am addicted to vintage patterns and the pics just inspired me to go on with some new projects!

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    May 5, 2011, 08.34 AMby zaarissima

    Thank you for sharing! I love vintage pattern and I am keeping my small collection of vintage pattern like a treasure. I’m excited about the art of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers!

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    May 5, 2011, 07.39 AMby lennert

    Lovely article… Nice to see there are so many people sharing the same interest!

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    May 5, 2011, 05.09 AMby cooi

    Too bad you didn’t include an image of Victorian era patterns. Those are especially interesting (and dizzying)!

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    May 5, 2011, 04.43 AMby leahfranqui

    This is so fascinating. I love reading this history, I think it’s amazing and helps me feel connected to generations of other sewers. Thank you.

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    May 5, 2011, 01.44 AMby mydear

    Loved reading this! thank you…

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    May 4, 2011, 11.55 PMby rifka

    Thank you for sharing Amy. So much that I didn’t know concerning the history of patterns. I look forward to reading another piece from you soon. Blogs really are the new sewing circles!

  • Priscilla_03_large

    May 4, 2011, 11.43 PMby be-bops1

    I love all my vintage patterns. Thanks for a fascinating article.

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