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One of the many delights of learning to sew has been experimenting with old patterns and recreating the popular styles of yesteryear.

One of my recent Etsy finds was a vintage 1939 men’s shirt pattern with a convertible collar. Convertible means that the shirt can be worn either with the collar buttoned on or with just the collar band. For the record, according to shirt guru David Coffin, the collar band is what you see on a shirt with no collar. The collar stand is what supports the collar on a shirt that has one. So for this 1939 shirt, I’d be making both a band and a stand.

This shirt harks back to the day when most people had very limited wardrobes. This was toward the end of the Great Depression, and a shirt with a convertible collar was desirable for a number of reasons: 1) It meant that the collar — the part of the shirt most likely to get soiled — could easily be replaced without replacing the entire shirt, and 2) the shirt could be both casual and dressy. One might wear the shirt without a collar for regular wear and save the collar for a dressier occasion like church.

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If you’ve ever sewed from a vintage pattern, you know that most patterns from this period weren’t printed like those of today, nor were they multi-sized. You chose a shirt pattern, for example, in your specific neck size and the pattern pieces were pre-cut. Instead of printed notches and dots, there were perforations. Once you’ve sewn a few of these patterns you learn how to read all those little hole punches but the first time was a little bewildering! For example, instead of “cut on the fold”, the edge of a pattern piece has three large cut circles. Interesting, right?

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My convertible collar shirt was pretty straightforward except for one thing. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out whether the collar was worn inside the shirt or outside. In that day and age, the pattern company assumed a man wouldn’t need instructions! After considerable online research, I realized that the collar and attached stand were intended to be worn outside the collar band itself. This also explained why the collar stand (again, this is the part attached to the collar and not to the shirt) was cut wider than the band itself.

Both stand and band have button holes, and you were expected to use a shirt stud to attach stand to band. The buttonhole, located on the outside of the band, however, only went through the outer layer, so that you wouldn’t have a stud poking you in the neck. Clever!

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You may be surprised to learn that you can still find convertible collars out there, though they are few and far between and are usually associated with formal wear. Most of us aren’t trying to extend the life of our shirts with multiple collars, but it certainly is a good way to create different looks with the same shirt — say, contrasting white collar and collar stand with a striped shirt.

It takes a lot less time to create a new collar than it does a completely new shirt.

Have I “converted” you yet?

Have you ever experimented with vintage patterns? (If so, how’d you like it?)

When native New Yorker Peter Lappin bought his first sewing machine two years ago to hem a pair of thrift store jeans, little did he know he was initiating a journey that would bring him fame and fortune. While awaiting his fortune he stays busy writing “the world’s most popular men’s sewing blog,” Male Pattern Boldness, and now contributing to BurdaStyle.

“For more than twenty years I’d lived on the edge of the Garment District without even knowing what a seam ripper was. Now I rip daily!”

21 Comments

  • Mzl_ljixuoxi_320x480-75_large

    Mar 17, 2011, 02.45 PMby FabricUiPhoneApp

    I see old, never used collar stands at vintage fashion shows..They’re generally white, with rounded edges…and they’re very stiff! Oh yeah, I think I saw a collar stand on a very fashionable woman on the Sartorialist recently. It looked very fresh and innovative….

  • Missing

    Mar 16, 2011, 03.37 PMby newyorkbuilt

    In the 1980’s, (sigh, when I was a newborn) I ran the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Troy, New York, is still known as The Collar City, where the detachable, changeable shirt collar was acknowledged to be born and created by the thousands, from the plentiful waterpower available to run fabric mills and garment factories during the past two centuries.

    This factoid might flavor your search, draw others into the movement, or inspire new creations. Have fun!

  • Missing

    Mar 13, 2011, 09.55 AMby belit

    This is great! I just remember some of my loved elderly neighbours used to wear shirts with convertible collar. All shirts were sew by hand by their sisters,very litlle stitches and too much love involved. I dind’t remember, thanks for bring me back these memories. And yes I’m a converted so when I post this I’m going to try to find one or two patterns. Regards form Barcelona

    1 Reply
  • Missing

    Mar 12, 2011, 01.09 PMby anthropophagus

    I used to work at a living history museum (1905 era) as a seasonal job, and we wore shirts with convertible collars everyday! You used to be able to buy many different styles of collars, including disposable collars made of a stiff cardstock with a fabric-like texture!

    Another advantage of the convertible collar is ease of laundering. Often, the shirt body only needs a rinse, but the collar needs more attention because it is right against your neck all day. Additionally, collars really should be hand washed and dried at room temperature to preserve their shape and finish, whereas the shirt body can be washed like any other garment, assuming a softish style of cuff.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 12, 2011, 05.00 PMby Peter Lappin

      Great info — thanks. Sometimes I feel like my life is a living history museum! LOL.

  • Missing

    Mar 12, 2011, 06.36 AMby danakey

    Certainly converted. Great to read your article.

    1 Reply
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    Mar 12, 2011, 03.32 AMby A. Nguyen

    Peter & others in NYC: you may know this already but FIT’s library is open to the public (you need to make an appointment in advance). When I first got curious about pattern drafting, FIT’s library was very enlightening. One drawback is the pattern drafting books I found there are quite… period, dating from the late 19th century to 1920’s. I don’t know if that’s still the case. Since you’re into vintage patterns, that might be of interest.

    2 Replies
    • Missing

      Mar 12, 2011, 01.03 PMby anthropophagus

      You can get books about drafting in digital formats for free from openlibrary.org, too. Many of them are from the same era (1880’s-1920).

    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 12, 2011, 05.03 PMby Peter Lappin

      I had no idea. That’s great to know, thanks!

  • B6e8478911e32abbfa88924d28cbff1d359e089d_large

    Mar 11, 2011, 06.20 PMby atrinka

    Hey! look who’s in Burdastyle!!!!! Good for you Peter!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 12, 2011, 01.40 AMby Peter Lappin

      Today BurdaStyle, tomorrow the World! ;)

  • 6e3656aa7036783b3e4bbc29f34d1029385afafe_large

    Mar 11, 2011, 04.09 PMby wzrdreams

    Hi Peter, I’m really enjoying your blog. I appreciate all the construction detail & discussion you have in regards to shirt fit and construction. Thank you!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 11, 2011, 04.55 PMby Peter Lappin

      So glad to hear it! I’m usually just one step ahead of everyone else (if that) on the learning curve. ;)

  • 2461d3ff22a640375f9b713e9af06831ec452057_large

    Mar 11, 2011, 09.54 AMby junespoon

    hi peter, great post! i hadn’t thought of doing that, and am really excited about giving the convertible collar a go for some of my many work shirts. I love contrasting collars but had been making a new shirt each time rather than simply switching collars…d’oh!

    I’d love to have a go with a very plain shirt fabric and a statement fabric for the collar with a matching tie!!! oooo! thanks for the inspiration!

    is there anything to secure the stand to the collar band at the back?…or do you find that it doesn’t need it? I just wouldn’t like it to come adrift with movement…

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 11, 2011, 01.01 PMby Peter Lappin

      Hi, June! I think your best bet is to sew a button onto the outside of the back of the collar band (the part attached to the shirt) and a buttonhole on the inside of the collar stand (which is attached to the collar). That should be enough to keep the collar on at the back.

      Good luck with it!

  • Headshot_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 09.58 PMby tinybows

    I love 1930s patterns because some of them take one garment, and make it very versatile with add ons and such. Very clever. Your shirt is so well made! I absolutely love it. Also, what a wonderful pattern!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 11, 2011, 01.03 PMby Peter Lappin

      Thanks Tinybows! What’s interesting is that these old shirt patterns are not really that difficult to find or expensive (Etsy is a great place to look). I think I paid about $5 for mine, which is cheap considering its age. What I would REALLY like to find is an even older men’s shirt pattern, say, from the Teens or Twenties. Wish me luck!

  • Dodo_large

    Mar 10, 2011, 09.57 PMby lila-1

    I use vintage patterns most of the time, and will always try to do so over a modern pattern – mostly because they are so much easier to work with. There are less pieces and construction tends to be a lot simpler than modern patterns. Plus the clothes are FABULOUS. Love your convertible collar shirt project! Please feel free to post a tutorial on sewing a detachable collar, as you know instructions tend to be a little bit on the light side and it would be great to learn how to produce a well finished collar :)

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 11, 2011, 01.05 PMby Peter Lappin

      Thanks, Lila! Maybe I’ll look into doing that. Frankly, anybody could take a men’s shirt pattern (or women’s, provided it had a collar stand) and turn it into a convertible collar shirt, simply by making a band and attaching it to the shirt, and a somewhat longer, wider stand and attaching it to the collar itself. You might want to start with a muslin, but it’s very do-able. Thanks for the feedback!

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