The book “A History of the Paper Pattern Industry” was written by Joy Spanabel Emery, who works in the Commercial Pattern Archive at the University of Rhode Island, and was published in 2014. The content of the book is based on research by Betty Williams who created 19th and 20th century costumes for Broadway and other theatre productions. Even though Betty died before she could collate her research into a book, she had encouraged the author to continue her research. The first 9 chapters are based on Betty’s papers, covering the first pattern companies up to the 1940’s.
The book focuses on American pattern companies, but does mention significant European pattern companies. It goes into detail about companies that have come and gone, including some that are still around today. I was surprised to learn that Butterick has been around since 1863, McCall since 1871, Vogue since 1899, Simplicity since 1927, Burda since 1950 and Kwik Sew since 1967. Over the years there have been mergers of these companies with McCall now owning Butterick, Vogue and Kwik Sew.
The book provides actual costs of patterns and other monetary figures like total pattern sales. All figures have been converted to 2011 prices, giving a good idea on how much they would have cost at the time.
There are 182 illustrations including pattern covers, pattern sheets, garments made from patterns, advertisements from newspapers and periodicals, actual pattern pieces and a couple of photos of people working in the factories. It is a real eye opener to garment styles and patterns that were used, but there are also a lot of familiarities to what we use now.
There is an extensive bibliography with references used throughout the book showing exact sources of information. These books would provide even more in-depth knowledge of particular areas of interest.
Susan Hannel created 9 patterns in the Appendix of the book in the style of garments from the 1850’s to the 1960’s. Each pattern is only in one size and it doesn’t mention what size that is, only that the Nehru jacket uses ready-to-wear measurements, but all the others use the Bureau of Standards of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The patterns are:
- Basque from 1854
- Domestic Dress from 1890
- Shirtwaist from 1912
- Seven-gored skirt from 1912
- One piece frock from 1929
- Women’s blouse from 1937
- Women’s Slack-Suit from 1942
- Misses’ Dress with Cowl Neckline from 1952, and
- Men’s Nehru Jacket from 1968.
The book starts by explaining that tailors started publishing books in the 16th century, and goes on to review the sewing pattern industry in chronological order. Each chapter discussing significant changes in the paper pattern industry or world events like the Depression and the Second World War that affected pattern companies.
Pattern companies began appearing in the 19th century when the sewing machine and paper making machines were introduced, improvements were made to the US Postal Service and a growing literate population.
Early patterns had limited instructions, no mention of sizes or only one size. There were no pattern pieces for facings, pockets, lining, etc. The pattern pieces were lightweight tissue paper that were “cut and punched”, where each pattern piece was cut out and holes, triangles and squares punched into each piece to indicate significant markings like darts, pleats and grainlines. It was McCall in 1921 who created printed patterns like we have now. At the time they claimed to be more accurate than “cut and punched” patterns as they were an exact duplicate of the original. McCall patented the printed pattern sheet so other pattern companies couldn’t use them until the patent expired in the 1950s. The “cut and punch” patterns were used up until the 1990’s.
Patterns were advertised in newspapers and periodicals; and were available through mail order. Some periodicals included patterns on a large supplementary sheet often overlaying pieces on top of each other, like you would see in Burda magazines today. Through affiliations select patterns became available in multinational stores like Woolworths after the 1930’s. From the 1950’s all pattern companies had large counter catalogs for the retail market, and is what we now see at Sewing and Craft shops.
Pattern instructions improved over time. From 1910 they started appearing on the pattern envelope itself along with a diagram of the cutting layout. Instructions were later transferred to an instruction sheet on paper heavier than the pattern tissue and put inside the envelope. From 1921 pattern companies started using more illustrations to accompany instructions. Colour images on pattern envelopes started to appear in the 1930’s.
Pattern companies reacted to the changing needs of their customers and the world around them. World War 1 saw paper and fabric shortages, so pattern companies only printed ordered patterns and created designs that used minimal amounts of fabric. World War 2 saw slogans from the US like “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without”, and from Britian “Make-Do and Mend”. So patterns that used scraps or just had a range of sleeves or collars and cuffs were released, allowing existing garments to be changed into something new. Rural populations were catered for in the 1950’s with patterns that used their ready supply of printed cloth bags made of rayon or cotton that had been used for seed, feed and bulk household products like flour. The pattern included the size and number of bags required. Patterns from the 1960’s suited the new synthetic fabrics – polyester, single/double/bonded knits. The 1980’s saw the evolution of the “power-suit”, a style that used padded shoulders and wide lapels; and punk that stayed around until the 1990’s. Pattern companies struggled during the 1980’s when there were more working mothers with less time to sew, and ready-to-wear clothes became more affordable.
This is just a small taste of what is in the book “A History of the Paper Pattern Industry”. To see some pages take a look at the book’s page on Amazon. It was an interesting read with plenty of images from history. I’d highly recommend it if you like to read about history or want to know more about how the Paper Pattern Industry has evolved over the years.
Have you read any other books about the Sewing Pattern Industry? What are some good ones you can recommend?