Tips For Working With Vintage Patterns

I have been making up some new vintage sewing patterns over the summer and have rediscovered the joy of working with them. I really enjoy the feeling that you are sewing up a little piece of history- it’s so much fun imagining who was making up the pattern when it was first printed. It’s also a great way to gain a true insight into the styles and silhouettes of a particular era.  I will be sharing some of these recent projects with you in more detail over the next few posts but first I thought I would give you some handy tips and tricks of working with vintage sewing patterns.

vintage sewing patterns
Some of my vintage sewing patterns

Sizing: When picking out a vintage sewing pattern always go by measurements rather than dress size. Dress sizes today are completely different from vintage sizes. A size 14 vintage sewing pattern is a bust 32 which is the equivalent to a modern UK size 8. Although resizing patterns is not too tricky the closer the size is to begin with the less work involved.

Complexity: If you are fairly new to sewing then be careful when choosing a vintage sewing pattern. The general standard of sewing was a lot higher back in the day and so the patterns can often be more complex than modern ones without necessarily having particularly comprehensive instructions. Try to go for a more simple pattern and always have a good sewing book to hand just in case you need some more detailed construction tips. A great all round sewing book is ‘The sewing book’ by Alison Smith, it covers all the main techniques and has great clear photos. There is also a great online video resource for techniques on the Husqvarna viking website here.  Just click on the ‘sewing techniques’ tab for the videos.

Pattern markings: Those of you used to working with modern patterns will be familiar with lots of printed guidelines on your pattern pieces. Whilst a lot of vintage patterns will also be printed- some of them  will only have perforations and notches to guide you. On these patterns you will need to be careful that you spot all of the little holes and that you pay special attention to the seam allowances. Vintage patterns have more varied seam allowances than modern patterns and one pattern piece can have different seam allowances on each of its seams.

Shape and fit: The ‘ideal’ figure shape that the pattern manufacturers draft their patterns to will be different for every era. This will definitely impact the shape and fit of your sewing project. This doesn’t mean you need to be shaped like Marilyn Monroe in order to wear a 1960s wiggle dress it just means that making a calico toile (mock up) of your pattern is even more essential than ever. This would always be my biggest piece of advice when sewing anything as it gives you a chance to adjust your garment to fit your shape before cutting out your fashion fabric. Ikea sell a great toile fabric  called Bomull for £1.75 a metre and the fabric shops on Goldhawk Road also sell calico very cheaply. Old sheets and duvet covers can be useful for this too so never throw them away. If your final project is to be made from very lightweight fabric then try making a toile in an inexpensive muslin or cotton lawn rather then calico as the drape of this fabric will be more similar to your final project. Once you have made up your toile make sure you move around in it a lot as it’s the best way to test the fit of the garment. I tend to wear my toiles around the house, cook dinner in them, do a little dance, sit down…standing poker straight in front of a mirror for five minutes will tell you very little about how your garment behaves when worn. Pin any necessary adjustments and mark them on the calico with a soft pencil so you can transfer them to your pattern pieces. Just be sure to remember you have it on before you leave the house!

Vintage patterns are delicate: be careful when handling your vintage sewing patterns as the tissue paper, the instructions and the envelopes all tear very easily. I like to trace mine before working with them and that way you can make your adjustments to the traced version rather than the fragile original. I buy plain pattern cutting tracing paper on a 300 metre roll from Morplan which lasts an age even if you do lots of pattern drafting / alterations. The other benefit of tracing your patterns is that you can mark on your guidelines and the correct seam allowances- this makes the pattern quicker and easier to work from if the original is an unprinted pattern. Because the envelopes are often already torn I usually end up using manilla envelopes for my vintage patterns- you don’t want pattern pieces falling out as there is nothing worse than embarking on a project only to realise the pattern is incomplete!

Fabric allowance: if you have a fabric in your stash that you are buying a pattern for then be sure to check the yardage required when picking your pattern. In the 50s it was very in vogue to use lots and lots of fabric as the fabric rationing of WW2 was finally over. A dress I recently made up from 1957 used nearly 4 metres of fabric which is very unusual for a knee length dress by modern standards. If you only have a small amount of fashion fabric or you are looking to make a dress within a certain budget then wartime patterns or wiggle dresses are both good options.

Sourcing vintage sewing patterns: I buy a lot of my vintage sewing patterns from, most of them are shipped from the States but the prices are general reasonable and they never take any time to arrive. I have also bought quite a few from Ebay and you tend to find some good lots on there which can be very cost effective and sometimes you will get a good surprise in there. You can also pick them up in vintage shops and fairs- the P & A vintage fairs are also a good place to pick up vintage buttons etc…to use with your patterns and they run quite regularly in London.  

I hope some of these pointers prove handy and encourage any of you who have previously been daunted by vintage sewing patterns to give them a try. They really are such a great way to get an authentic vintage dress and can be so rewarding to work with. If you have any questions then feel free to leave a blog comment or contact me via email.

Happy stitching!

7 responses to “Tips For Working With Vintage Patterns”

  1. Hello
    So lovely to read about someone else who loves sewing with vintage patterns – it’s something I’ve been doing for more years than I care to remember.
    I’ve just started a blog too (seems you’re quite new, although not as new as me!). Good luck with it. I’ll add it to my reading list 🙂
    Best wishes

  2. Hi Janet,
    Thanks so much for your comment!- I had a nosey at your lovely blog- you have such an amazing vintage pattern collection. I will def keep reading, am looking forward to seeing the flapper dress made up one day.

  3. What a great post and I found it at the perfect time! I am just about to embark on sewing dresses from a few of my mom’s vintage patterns that she used many years ago. Thanks for the great advice – I’ll pick up some manilla envelopes next time I’m out and I’ll try to be less annoyed about the sizing 😉


  4. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog – when my grandmother passed away I inherited her dress making patterns, she was a prolific dress maker and I took after her for my passion for sewing. There are some gorgeous patterns but many have pattern pieces missing so I’ve been put off trying to make any plus the icing issue! But having read your blog I feel re-energised!

  5. What wonderful tips! I sew vintage and have my characters in my novel sewing too! LOL. You bring up many wonderful points. I haven’t sewn much since we moved to Texas, but your blog is very inspiring.Now if I could just clear all the mending jobs off my sewing table I might be able to sew.

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