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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.