This post has been prompted by the many emails I've received on the topic of sewing with vintage patterns. Where do I start? How do I use a vintage pattern? What about sizing? Any tips? I really appreciate that people ask me--vintage sewing patterns are something I love working with and enjoy sharing that magic with others. I thought it would be nice to compile my tips and resources all in one post. It's not that I don't like the emails (I do!!!), but who wants to wait for me to get back to them? hehe!
Vintage patterns can come off as intimidating to not only those new to sewing, but seasoned dressmakers as well. The instructions look like a foreign language, there are so many steps, and the pattern pieces sometimes don't even have any markings! I started sewing with vintage patterns about 7 years ago. I didn't really know what I was doing (and it can be argued I still don't. lol!), so my learning process has been through a lot of trial and error. I hope these tips will be helpful to those thinking about trying a vintage pattern. Please remember though that my primary area of "pattern expertise" is the 1930s through 1950s; I haven't worked with many patterns prior to the 30s, and post 1960s patterns are usually similar enough to modern patterns not to warrant discussion.
A warning: this post started innocently with a handful of tips and quickly ballooned into a novel. So, it's a bit long. However, if you're brave enough I hope it proves helpful!
Trace all your pattern pieces. Some people don't bother, but it's helpful to have traced the pattern pieces (complete with all the notches, dots and other markings) onto a sturdy paper. This allows you to not only tweak a "master pattern" to your fitting needs, but also preserves the fragile original. I use inexpensive banner paper (about $5/roll) from the office supply store. Some dressmakers use non-fusible interfacing, tracing paper or Swedish Interfacing. Many patterns from the decades prior to the 1950s are unprinted as well, which means that unlike our modern patterns, there are no markings on them beyond cut out notches and holes for dots. You have to learn to decipher them a bit (this is where the piece schematic on the instruction sheet/layout guide is invaluable!), and tracing them and marking all these things in a more visual way helps loads.
Have a good sewing reference book handy. My favorite is a 1970s edition of The Vogue Book of Sewing I picked up second hand. Vintage patterns tend to be a bit more detail oriented and complex, not only in construction but technique, and some aspects can be a bit vague (I am in the midst of sewing a 1940s skirt, and the instructions stated to "insert slide fastener (zipper) by enclosed instructions", leaving no clue about how to do it in the body of the instruction pamphlet. Although I know how to put a zipper in, it's these little things that aren't always spelled out.). It's best to have a thorough manual to look things up when you have a question, or want to find out if there is a better/faster way to do something.
Pay attention to the pattern markings. On average, modern patterns do not usually have as many markings (though I think this is due in large part to being printed, unlike earlier patterns which relied on a series of large and small dots to map out details and grainlines), so it's tempting sometimes to skip over these when starting out. Don't! Take the time to mark things after you cut them out, before you sew.
FIT! I cannot stress this enough! Sizing varies greatly in vintage patterns: a 1930s size 12 is not the same as a modern 12 (it's usually the equivalent of a modern size 2!). Proportion is also something to consider: many vintage patterns (particularly those pre-1960s) account for how foundation garments shaped women into the "ideal" figure of a particular decade. In 30s patterns I find the hips are usually very slim, since the silhouette was more sleek and smooth through the torso/hip area. In the 50s, many patterns are huge in the bodice area, or the darts are placed to create a very high, pointy bustline (which would work with a 50s bullet bra, but not a modern one). You need to learn to catch these things early on and adjust them before cutting out your muslin (or fashion fabric). Trust me: it saves a lot of head scratching and frustration!
If a pattern is something that is comprised of many pieces, cut on the bias, looks tricky, or just gives me the heebie jeebies about fit, I make a mock up or "muslin" of at least the bodice first (I can usually fudge my way through the skirt in a dress). I keep a bolt of plain, unbleached muslin on hand for this, but any inexpensive fabric (or something recycled--like old sheets) works. If your pattern calls for a "specialty" fabric, be sure to make a muslin in a less expensive version of that fabric, since material weight and drape does affect fit greatly. Oh, and for things like slacks, boned bodices, etc., I always make a muslin. These garments vary quite a bit from decade to decade!
A subcategory of fit that should be mentioned: often you fall head over heels for a pattern that isn't quite your size, and presents you with the conundrum about making it up. It's quite possible to have your cake and eat it too in this instance though! Pattern grading is an invaluable skill to have when working with vintage patterns, and is actually rather easy to master. Some resources on pattern grading:
Instructions should be at least studied. Admittedly I don't always follow the instructions; it depends on the project and how complicated the design is. However, at least reading over the instruction sheet before embarking on the project--even if you don't intend on following it to the letter--will give you some vital clues to using a vintage pattern. For instance: many times seam allowances on vintage patterns differ quite a bit from modern ones: sometimes the main seams are 1/2" and the side seams are 3/4" in the same pattern! Another example would be side seams: some vintage patterns do not have you sew the side seams until the skirt and bodice are attached; in some instances this makes certain steps easier than sewing those side seams before the skirt and bodice are sewn at the waist.
Basting is your friend. Many older pattern instructions indicate this throughout the pamphlet, and it's a great way to test fit as you go too. Although it can be a bit of a pain, it's easier to rip out basting than smaller stitches!
Pay attention to fabric specifications. Many times (but I won't say 100% always), what makes a successful garment sewn from a vintage pattern is the fabric you choose. While some styles (like blouses, shirtwaist dresses, casual skirts, etc.) can be done in quilt weight cottons, not every design is suited to this medium weight material. Take a look at the pattern's specifications for fabrics: are they drapey and fluid, heavy weight, stiff, or light and diaphanous? Many fabrics available decades ago are no longer manufactured, or very hard to find. However, there are what I like to call the "basics" readily available: silk chiffon, crepe (rayon, wool and silk being the most popular), gabardine (of various fibers), cotton voile and lawn, wool gauze, tweed, etc. Some may not be available at your local "big box" fabric stores, but will require hunting down from online retailers. In the end though, a little detective work is worth it!
Pick out patterns that you know will flatter you when you start out. Having an intuitive sense of what is going to look good in the end really helps with the process of using vintage patterns. When I started out, I made the mistake of trying patterns that I thought would look good on me, but in reality I should have known that they weren't the most flattering styles. The results were less than happy: I didn't like sewing with vintage patterns because I thought they were "dumpy" and I just didn't fit into them. It was until a few tries that I started to catch on to not only fit (which is tied up in this), but also styles that looked good on me. Studying your figure shape and determining what will look best on you is key. But even if you pick a decade that isn't your "best" (for me, it's the 30s), you can learn to fit things in such a way as to make them tailored to your figure needs.
Start simple. If you're just starting out with vintage patterns, begin with something simple. It doesn't have to be boring, but skip the more complex bias evening gowns, fishtail skirts, suits, and swimwear patterns that are so tempting. Opt for styles that are relatively easy to get through, but allow you to get a handle on working with vintage patterns: simple a-line skirts, classic blouses, shirtwaist dresses (there is a plethora of styles in this category!), simple sundresses, etc.
There are many places to find vintage patterns: thrift shops, antique stores, flea markets--even yard sales have been known to cough a few up every-once-in-awhile. But for most people (including me), spending their days hunting for an elusive sewing pattern just doesn't fit into their days. The internet boasts a wide array of vintage patterns for sale at every price point: Ebay and Etsy are my favorite spots for a bit of virtual hunting (A Dress A Day also has advertised links to shops along the sidebar). If there is a certain style you can't find (or afford; there are "popular" pattern styles that command rather large sums), the alternative are modern reprints of the vintage pattern. Here are a few I know of:
Do you have any tips for sewing with, or sources for finding vintage patterns? Please share!