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Apr 20

Working with Vintage Patterns – Let’s start at the very beginning…

…as Julie Andrews has told us, it’s a very good place to start!

For NC State University Theatre’s production of ‘Fallen Angels’, I’ll be building a series of 1930’s day dresses and evening gowns for our two female leads.  At State, we are lucky to have an extensive vintage pattern archive, with original patterns dating from the mid 19-teens through the present.  For ‘Fallen Angels’, the costume designer has chosen McCall’s 7345, a very cute dress and cape pattern from the mid 1930’s:

When working with vintage patterns, I have a few personal ground rules:

  • Don’t cut your vintage pattern!  Almost all vintage patterns, like modern patterns, are made out of tissue paper, and 80-year old tissue paper is extremely delicate – so to preserve the integrity of the pattern, always trace a clean copy of the pattern onto muslin, craft paper, or pattern paper.  When taking the pattern out of the envelope, you can smooth out the crease lines by running the pattern under a warm iron.   Be sure to transfer all pattern marks – darts, grain lines, and notches – onto your working pattern.
  • Make a toile.  A “toile” is a mockup of your pattern, typically made out of muslin or other inexpensive fabric.  A toile serves two purposes – it allows you to work out any tricky technical details prior to cutting into your fashion fabric, and it gives you a working model to fit on the body.  Typically, I will make a toile, fit it on the actor, and transfer any fitting notes to my working pattern.  Although a toile is always recommended, it’s imperative to do one when using vintage patterns.  Vintage patterns use pattern shapes and sewing techniques that may be new to you – and you’ll want to make sure you work out those details on your inexpensive fabric.   Also, these patterns are reflective of the time they were originally made – meaning that ease and proportions are set for the undergarments the women of that time would have worn.  A dress designed to be worn over a 1940’s bra is going to look very different when worn over a modern bra.  A toile will help you work out all those little kinks prior to cutting into your pretty fashion fabric!
  • Have your Mom’s sewing guide handy!  I have a 1960’s version of the ‘Better Homes & Gardens Sewing Guide’ in my shop, and it’s a lifesaver for working with vintage patterns.  Sewing terminology has changed a lot over the years – and these guides will walk you through vintage sewing techniques, as well as help you decipher odd names for pleats that are no longer used.  It’s a lifesaver!
  • But it’s not in my size!  Grading and resizing patterns is a whole other series of posts – in the meantime, this excellent article from Threads will walk you through the basics.
  • Read the directions.  Admittedly, the directions in vintage patterns are not usually extensive – the pattern companies assumed that women knew the ins and outs of putting a dress together.  However, there usually are instructions on how to put together some of the more unique aspects of the garment – using sewing techniques from the period.  If there are instructions, follow them – your garment will look the way it’s supposed to look!

So… on to our garment!

Step One: Read the instructions.

As you can see, McCall’s didn’t give us much to work with, here.  But this DOES clear up a few important details – like how the sleeves go together, and the placement of the little tabbed collar.  Helpful!

Step 2: Trace your pattern

Here are my pattern pieces, all laid out onto craft paper.  These pattern pieces came pre-cut, which made my life a lot easier.  However, the pattern pieces INCLUDE 3/8″ seam allowance – which makes my life more difficult.  I prefer to trace around my pattern pieces so I have a clean stitch line, and then add in my own seam allowance.  Since I work in theatre, I typically use a larger seam allowance to allow for future alterations.  So HERE, I’m going to trace around these pattern pieces, making sure I transfer all of my notches, dashes, and grainlines – and then I’m going to measure in 3/8″ to get rid of that seam allowance.

Step 3: Tracing out my toile

Once the pattern is transferred to craft paper, I can start tracing out my toile pieces.  Here, I’m using plain unbleached muslin.  First, lay the pattern out on the muslin, making sure your grainlines match the marking on the pattern:

At State, we’re lucky to have pinnable cutting tables – I can use those big silver push-pins to tack my pattern directly to my fabric.  At home, I use fabric weights or straight pins.

Next, I’m going to transfer my pintucks there at the top of the pattern piece.  The easiest way to do that is by using some dressmaker’s carbon (waxed carbon paper) and a tracing wheel, as shown:

It’s easy to do:  simply place the carbon between the pattern and the fabric, with the waxy side down.  Run the wheel over the pintuck lines – and your markings are transferred onto the fabric.  Easy peasy!

Next, I trace around the pattern using a plain #2 pencil.  This will be my stitch line – in the next post, I’ll discuss how we can use this line to create precise seams, every time!

Next step:  add seam allowance.  I use a clear ruler, and line up my desired seam allowance (here, 5/8″) with the edge of my pattern.  Tracing around that gives me a nice cutting line with accurate seam allowances. Like this:

(Isn’t that pretty?)

Now – this pattern piece told us to “cut on the fold”.  Most instructions will tell you to place the pattern on the fold, and cut out both sides at once.  I’ve found that, even with the most careful pinning and cutting, this creates shift in your grain – which can affect the drape and hang of the final garment.  I prefer to lay out a single layer of my fabric, trace one side of the pattern, and flip it to trace the other side.  It’s a little more time consuming, but it makes for a more accurate cut:

And: the final traced piece:

Yes, it’s a lot of work – but in the end, it creates easy-to-follow stitch lines to help you create a beautiful, well-fitting garment.

I hope this was helpful!  In the next post, I’ll cover the basics of pinning and stitching.  Stay tuned!