The history of sewing patterns in the 19th and 20th centuries—and even into the 21st—says a lot about what we sew and how we sew it. And, for me, their evolution hasn’t been an entirely happy experience. But, before I get to that, let’s take a look back as I like to do.
Sewing patterns have a long history extending at least as far back as the 16th century, where they originated in tailoring manuals. According to Joy Emery in her book A History of the Paper Pattern Industry, the earliest surviving sewing pattern was published in Spain around 1589 as part of a book. “The book’s purpose was to instruct tailors on methods of cutting out pattern pieces so as to get the most garment from the least amount of fabric,” not unlike the current focus on zero-waste sewing. As the centuries progressed, most pattern-related publications continued to be for tailors rather than home sewers.
Before patterns were available to home dressmakers, only the rich could afford to have clothing made-to-measure. Anyone else who sewed did so without the benefit of a pattern, focusing mainly on the functionality of the garments needed simply for life.
Patterns contributed in no small way to the democratization of fashion by allowing anyone who could sew (or learn to sew) to reproduce stylish garments that might even reflect the work of the famous couturiers. Eventually, however, sewing patterns were made available in pamphlets or ladies’ magazines and could now be accessed by larger and larger numbers of people. At this point, it was necessary to copy and enlarge a pattern from a magazine or pamphlet. Everything changed, however, in the late 19th century.
In 1860, a woman named Ellen Louise Demorest and her husband William launched a new approach to sewing when they began holding home fashion shows and offered for sale the paper patterns Ellen created for the garments.
She was followed in quick succession by others whose names are familiar to anyone who sews to this day. (Lest you think I’ve forgotten that home sewers needed sewing machines, Isaac Singer—another familiar name, no?—patented what was called the “rigid arm” sewing machine and the presser foot in 1851 and by 1890, Singer sewing machines made up 90% of the world’s sewing machine sales, paving the way for home seamstresses everywhere.) In any case, those familiar names are these…
- Ebenezer Butterick launched the Butterick Publishing company in 1863. His Butterick patterns first started including a folded instruction sheet in the late 1910s—a great innovation, in my view!
- James McCall, a Scottish tailor, established the McCall pattern company in New York City in 1873 and began the trend for putting full-colour illustrations on the pattern envelopes in 1932. Before that time, all the illustrations were black and white drawings. [If you do a little online digging, you’ll discover that there were other pattern companies who dabbled in coloured images five years before this.]
- Vogue magazine created a spinoff pattern company that it launched in 1899 to complement their weekly pattern feature. Eventually, in 1914, media mogul Condé Nast bought Vogue then began selling their patterns in department stores two years later.
- The Simplicity pattern company was formed in 1927 with a focus on easy, lower-priced patterns.
Those are the so-called “big-four” that remain (in one form or another) to this day. Recently, however, there have been rumours of their impending demise. I hope not—and in any case, that’s a story for another day (but I will get to it eventually). Oh, and I haven’t forgotten groups like the German company Burdastyle. They, too are a player, albeit a smaller one.
Apart from those main four companies, there have been others through the years. For example, I particularly remember Style patterns from the late 1960s through the 1970s (I even used one for my first wedding dress—again, a story for another day!). There were also DuBarry patterns in the 1930s and ‘40’s, Advance patterns in the1930s, the New York pattern company from 1932 until the 1950s, and the Hollywood Pattern company that used film stars on their pattern envelopes from 1932 until the end of the second world war.
What happened then? According to some of the sewing bloggers I read, home sewers in the 1970s moved away from garment sewing to quilts-making. Now, as far as I’m concerned, this is a gross oversimplification of the issue—a conclusion for which I’ve seen no concrete evidence. No one has done a study. For example, I, for one, would never have done this since (a) I began sewing in the 1960s because I loved clothes and it was a way to produce nice pieces for less money, and (b) I hate quilts (no offence to anyone who loves them—we’re all different). The reason I stopped sewing in the late 1970s was simple: I had more money. I was still in love with fashion, but I no longer needed to sew my own garments to have stylish clothes. I could afford to buy them. I was also busy—career evolution, husband, son, travel, writing books. I simply bought what I wanted.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Many of us have returned to sewing, and younger people (not just women) have begun to see that there is satisfaction in creating one’s own wardrobe. So, what do we use for patterns?
For me, the big four are still the best syles and the best value. Despite the moaning and complaining people do about the cost of patterns, when you think about the design and production work that goes into them and the number of times (infinite) that you can use them, it’s hardly a stretch to pay even $20 for a pattern. However, I realize most of us buy them when they’re on sale. That is where the whole cottage industry of indie pattern makers stepped in.
When I returned to sewing six or so years ago (I sewed only Halloween costumes and costumes for stage plays for my son in the interim!) I had no idea that so many new pattern makers had emerged. I had also never heard of PDF patterns (dear god, I wish I hadn’t!). So, I began to explore them. Several sewing bloggers sang the praises of brands like Jalie, Deer and Doe, Paper Theory and a whole lot more (I found a really good list of some 32 such companies at https://sewingbeginner.com/pattern-stores/ ).
But, somehow, I couldn’t get around the fact that so many of them were under-designed bags that were “one-size-fits-most.,” which alternatively means “one-size-fits-no-one-very-well.” I will admit that some of them have come a long way in the past few years, but for someone like me, whose style is more tailored and classic, there’s not much on offer. Whenever anyone says an indie pattern fits well, I usually find that it’s not the pattern-drafting that’s so good. It’s a style that need not fit so well. Tents, anyone?
But, it’s always important to keep an open mind. To that end, I decided to do a battle of the indie pattern companies with two patterns I asked for and received for Christmas—one is from StyleArc, an Australian company whose designs actually have some style to them.
The second one is from Montreal-based Jalie, most of whose designs seem to be for athletic wear crafted in knits. Neither of them is a pdf—I’ll do a post on my adventures in pdf patterns in the future.
First, can we talk about the patterns themselves? Why do they have to be so enormous? I mean, the “envelopes” (which aren’t envelopes; instead, they are cellophane bags) are 12 ½ inches long by 9-10 inches wide. Dear god. Where are you supposed to store them? I guess a filing cabinet built for that purpose. Of course, they have to be that big to hold the gargantuan piece of heavyish paper on which the patterns are printed. I’ve heard sewists complain about tissue pattern paper. However, that tissue paper is acid-free and lasts for decades and can be copied off—which, by the way, is what most people do with these new indie patterns because they are so damn difficult to use directly on fabric.
Whenever I encounter these indie patterns or *choke* a pdf pattern, I long for the time when all patterns were single-sized and printed on acid-free tissue paper. Single size, you say? Well, in my next post: “The Battle of the Indie Patterns – Part 2: In which I find two I don’t hate as much as usual,” I’ll elaborate on the things I hate about them—multiple sizing among them—and what I have been unexpectedly happy about! Keep sewing!
 Joy Emery. A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. [Joy is Professor Emerita of Theatre and the Curator of The Commercial Pattern Archive at the University of Rhode Island in the U.S.]
8 thoughts on “The Battle of the Indie Patterns – Part 1: In which we take a look at their history”
Found your history compelling,it is pretty much the same for me. had no Idea such a huge cottage industry had evolved when I wasn’t looking into patterns all over the place. Having some computer issues and lack of knowledge as to just how to do that.,I have not advanced into the PDF field. To tell the truth, I look but do not necessarily buy. I have purchased Style Arc and like them very much.Although I usually hut for a better price on ebay,Etsy, or Amazon when purchasing patterns. In my early sewing days, I used all the patterns you mentioned,even some from the local newspaper. Don’t remember the brand name.Got into smocking dresses for my daughter in the 80ies and somehow stopped pretty much after that,the odd costume,etc.But with more free time,aging,weight change,life style changes, I have become more interested in the craft. (But not quilting,never could get the corners to match up just right,threw out much more than I ever kept or finished!) I am appreciating all your efforts in research,etc to present all of this in your blog. So please keep it up and don’t stop. I may even really get going one of these days!.
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Your story is a lot like mine: lots of sewing as a teenager and young adult, not so much until more time available recently. I’m delighted that you are enjoying the background. I will certainly continue it, since it’s what continues to inspire me. There’s so much to learn! And, yes, you should join me in getting going! Thanks for reading!
Love this post – especially all those 1940s pattern envelopes!
You’ve opened a big debate here, too… I use Big 4 and indie patterns in roughly equal measure, I think, so I’m on the fence here. I’m with you on the tissue paper all the way – you need to be able to see through the pattern pieces to match stripes or patterns on the fabric, for one thing.
In defence of the indies, they’ve really opened up and shaken up what felt to me in the 1990s like a dying industry, inspiring people who never learnt to sew at school or from their parents to give it a go. I really welcome that – I can now chat to people my own age who sew and it’s no longer seen as a curious or old-fashioned hobby.
I can also remember trying to help a friend who needed a pattern size 32 find something to sew in the late 00s, and there was only *one* Big 4 pattern in that size in our local department store – a frumpy, elasticated-waist skirt. She felt excluded from sewing altogether and didn’t pursue it. These days, there are multiple indie pattern companies with dozens of patterns each catering to that size and beyond, and she could even choose from a pear-shaped or apple-shaped fit. I think that’s progress, and we have the indie pattern companies to thank for pushing the Big 4 to improve diversity in their ranges and marketing too.
That said, there are indie patterns out there that aren’t up to scratch, and I wish more people would be more honest in their reviews when something doesn’t work out.
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Thanks for weighing in Janet. It is kind of a big debate, isn’t it? I plan to pursue it further in light of what seems to be coming in the big-four patterns companies.
I think the issue of size-range is even more compelling now than it was some decades ago, or so it seems to me. I also think that you make a very good point about these issues being important to promote sewing as a viable activity for people (not just women!) of all ages.
I still hold that many, if not most, of the indie patterns out there these days are under designed. They have few details (StyleArc may be the exception) and don’t challenge the sewist. That said, I do think you’re right that there is a need for all skill levels, all sizes and all kinds of designs! My personal bias, though, fundamentally, is the problem I have with ill-fitting clothes! Let’s keep talking about this issue. 🙂
I’m looking forward to the next instalment! There are so many things tied up in this – I agree a lot of indie patterns are relatively simple, and I’d like to see more design details and variety in the mix.
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Thanks for this post. I have purchased one or two indie patterns in the last few years, long after all the ridiculous social media frenzy has subsided, with plenty of thorough reviews everywhere, and have not been really impressed at all. Most are aimed at the beginner sewiwt, are simple and shapeless, and, indeed, the dreaded on-size-fits-all sort of look. But hey! Someone who had never sewn made a wearable skirt. (Wearable for how long until the next simply made garment from cheap fabric is made and the first one gets forgotten? But don’t get me started on the fast-sewing-consumer issue where a new make is necessary every week.)
I have been very disheartened by the dumbing down of the recent Vogue patterns over the last few years. Thank goodness for Marfy! And occasionally Burda will have a designer patterns, and their pants block, imho, fits much better than Vogue’s.
When Vogue Patterns changed their website name to http://www.somethingdelightful.com, it struck me as a death knell. I am so glad I have a pattern stash!
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I am so on your side about this fast-sewing stuff. It seems so counterintuitive when you consider the process fo creating your own clothes. Slow- sewing is the way to go as far as I’m concerned. As for the “somethingdelightful,” I share your concern. I’m doing a bit of research on it as we speak. Thanks for being here!