I just finished reading Blueprints of Fashion: Home Sewing Patterns of the 1940s. This is my first deep dive into the history of home sewing in America and it’s made me reflect on the moment sewing is experiencing in our culture right now.
The role of sewing in the lives of women has radically changed, and that’s reflected in the sewing industry itself. The products that were on the market 80 years ago shows us what there was demand for, and looking at how they were marketed gives us evidence of what customers expected (and didn’t expect) from a sewing pattern.
During the Depression and the Second World War sewing really flourished in the United States. According to this book, prior to World War II, 50% of US women knew how to sew, but by 1944 that number shot up to 82% and Singer estimated that by the summer of1943, there were 25 million sewing machines in US homes. This was the time when Home Economics classes were added to school curriculums and department stores enlarged their fabric and patterns sections.
All of this sewing created a huge demand for patterns and there were lots of pattern companies then, some of which we have today (Simplicity, Butterick, McCalls, Vogue) and many of which we don’t (Hollywood, DuBarry, Advance, Beauty) busily pumping out patterns for seemingly every kind of garment, home dec item, and accessory as well as patterns for uniforms for all sort of vocations. Looking through the photos in this book you can’t help but be struck by the variety.
The McCall pattern department at the J. L. Hudson department store in Detroit in 1940.
The sheer volume of patterns produced in the single decade of the 1940’s, given all that was going on in the world, feels enormous. From a production standpoint it makes sense to have used a numbering system to identify them, differentiating dress #3789 from #3991, for example, both produced by Simplicity in 1941. There were thousands.
The home sewing boom didn’t last, of course. Societal and governmental changes led sewing to go out of fashion, and made it cheaper to buy ready-to-wear clothes manufactured overseas than to buy fabric and a pattern and make them yourself. By the time my generation was growing up in the late 1970’s and early 80’s there wasn’t much excitement for sewing, and today Home Economics is no longer a part of most public school curriculums.
Now, though, home sewing is seeing a revival. It’s part of an overall movement to make things with our hands and know where our products come from (like the farm-to-table movement), to disconnect from our screens and create something lasting that’s truly custom and one-of-a-kind. Sewing can easily become an expensive hobby and although it’s possible to make a garment more cheaply than what you’d pay for it at the store, most often that’s not the case.
“I’m also frequently struck by how people who don’t sew are completely in the dark about this transformation,” pattern designer Rae Hoekstra told me recently when we were chatting about this. “They still think of it as something you do to provide clothing for your family; something your grandma did.”
She went on to say, “When I tell people what I do, they’re often fascinated that I can make a living doing this. I’ve tried to explain that sewing and fabric collecting has become a bit of a luxury market. Rather than a necessity for those who couldn’t afford to shop at a department store, it’s the luxury of the privileged who have the time and resources to devote to a completely unnecessary (but wonderfully fulfilling) art.” Exactly.
With that dramatic change in the market has come the need for a dramatically different kind of pattern company. For today’s sewing pattern customer sitting at a table in the store turning the pages of a thick catalog of patterns for every sort of thing under the sun, all numbered sequentially, isn’t the optimal way to choose a new pattern. For one thing, they likely lack the skills to complete most of the patterns in the catalog. Most people today don’t have the kind of sewing skills prior generations once had. It’s not that today’s customer needs simple patterns. It’s that they need patterns that teach, and additional materials to supplement them in the form of sewalongs and videos and pattern hacks.
There also needs to be a digital option for instant access. Still, in 2018, the legacy sewing patterns companies haven’t launched an acceptable method to download and print their patterns. (They’re launching a new system soon which I covered that here, but they’re really late to the game.)
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, sewists now want connection. They want to know the pattern designer and feel connected with her company, and with her as a person. And they want to be connected with a community of makers who are all sewing from the same pattern.
This is where indie pattern companies cornered the market brilliantly. Here we have a new crop of designers we’re able to get to know, releasing just a few patterns a year each of which has a digital option (and often a copy shop option as well). The patterns are supported by a sewalong, pattern hacks, and sometimes a video class (or, if you’re lucky, an in-person class with the designer herself). We have the Washi Dress and Ginger Jeans and the Linden Sweatshirt, by Rae and Heather and Jen. And we have the #washidress and #gingerjeans and #lindensweatshirt hashtags where we can see thousands of photos from makers all over the world who are sewing right along with us – connection!
Of course, the old model still works for some customers and there are devoted Big 4 fans, but the new model works for them, too, and many people sew from both. What indie pattern companies have been able to do is to create a product that brings in new customers by giving them confidence, skills, and connection, all wrapped up in a product that’s available instantly. That’s the sewing moment we’re in now.
I follow MC CALLS and SIMPLICITY GROUP on Facebook …. I was amazed to find the resurgence of home sewing in this group. They are so supportive.
Can I join
Maret Syberg says
The big 4 pattern companies are woefully behind in producing plus-sized patterns. I wear a size 16-18 in retail, and recently made a blouse in size 22 (their largest) from a Vogue pattern. It was too tight across the bust. The other pattern companies sometimes go up to a 24 in some things, and offer a minimal plus sized section of the catalogue that is sadly filled with variations on the mu mu. I know they can do better. Sizing has changed since the 1960’s, and the pattern companies are not keeping up. One of the reasons I sew for myself is because retailers do such a poor job offering cute clothes in my size. The big 4 pattern companies are letting me down too.
Am curious to know what patterns you use due to your difficulty finding correct size.
Cashmerette is an indie pattern company that specializes in plus-sized patterns. They’re great!
Maret Syberg says
Yes. indie patterns are good, but with limited variety of styles. I have had limited success with pattern software like Wild Ginger. Taping the pieces together out of the printer is frustrating. And I have learned to alter patterns, but it’s a headache. I wish I could just use a pattern straight from the envelope like it did when I was younger, and admittedly thinner. But after a lifetime of dieting, I just can’t do it anymore. If it’s true that 50 percent of women in this country wear a retail size 14 or larger, you’d think the big four pattern companies would lead the charge in larger sized patterns.
Try Cashmerette patterns. They’re an indie pattern company with both print and digital patterns and their are patterns great!
Maret Syberg says
I just discovered Cashmerette patterns, literally yesterday. I’m so excited about them and I signed up for the he newsletter immediately.
Oh yay! That’s awesome 🙂
Kelly Caiazzo says
I want to make a Washi dress! This reminds me of the pleasures of ravelry, where you can see so many completed projects before you choose to buy a pattern. I hadn’t really connected how powerful instagram is in terms of hashtags for a specific sewing pattern. I love seeing completed projects because as a novice sewist it helps me to kind of guage the different rates of success for a given pattern. When a really high percentage of them look as successful as the original model and it seems to work in a variety of different fabric patterns and weights, it makes me more willing to give it a try. I’m still making more home goods and kids’ halloween costumes than anything else… but I really would love to sew myself a dress, and I’m one of the new people who would need instructions and want to search online for the pattern.
The downside of the internet is that everyone now makes the same things. People still say they want home sewn clothes in order to be unique, yet everyone just follows the hashtags. It makes the sewing and knitting world really boring when you have seen your umpteenth Anna or Washi dress or whatever. I agree it is good to be able to see how people got on with patterns on Ravelry.
Sewists never got a version of Ravelry. There are some good websites out there that have elements of Ravelry (The Foldline, PatternReview, and Indiesew, for example), but Instagram hashtags definitely play a role that Ravelry plays for the yarn community – the ability to search and see how other people have made that pattern. And now that it’s possible to follow a hashtag on Instagram its even easier.
Loved this article Abby! I started sewing in home-ec class (1967) and fell immediately in love with sewing. I liked the cooking bit too but my mother & I already had enjoyed many hours cooking together so that wasn’t as much a surprise. My mother didn’t sew – in fact she thought the whole thing was a waste of time. She hated the look of any garment that suggested “home-made” and had no patience to try and make something she could easily purchase and she had a strong utilitarian view of clothes anyway. A fashionista she wasn’t 🙂 I begged her to buy a sewing machine once I discovered evening classes at the high school and sewed all sorts of things often surprising my mother with their similarity to ready to wear 🙂 But university, lack of sewing machine (I had left home and had to leave the sewing machine there too) and time drew me away from sewing until it drifted into the annals of my herstory. My husband would listen to me reminisce about this old love of mine and then for a surprise on my 60th birthday he bought me a sewing machine! That set me off and running – into classes and all the THINGS like fabric, patterns, notions more machines YIKES! We had to change our apartment around to accommodate this new army of things. But what a change indeed from 1975 (when I stopped) to 2015 when I began again. I have to say however, that sewing wasn’t cheap 40 years ago. Machines were expensive and so was fabric and patterns. To make a dress, the fabric, pattern, notions, thread would cost me about $25 in 1972 and my mother could have bought me a dress for the same amount. And that’s true today – what I pay to make up a linen dress with pattern is around $100 and I could buy one for roughly that (depending on where I purchase these items) so I don’t see a big change in that respect. But what I do see is the changes in everything related of course to technology – choice, competition, connection, options, inventions WOW it’s a Brave New World 🙂
Wynn Lare says
This was exciting to read….both the article and this reply…
[We are close in age PsychicSewerKathleen, I started in 4H sewing a skirt I wasn’t that interested in as the project ….in 1966 ]
High school Home Ec in 1974 was where I really got interested in more complex projects
Is there anyone on Twitter..?
I am @RippleCreekNW on Twitter
I am not Facebook…
Going to digital patterns doesn’t appeal to me at all ….and Abby you really confirmed my thinking … the tissue patterns are as much a part of the sewing patterm experience as sewing it up
I still have a large collection of patterns that are all classic….
better hold onto them !
Janice Meisner says
I agree! I’ve never felt I had good results with digital patterns and truthfully, they a too much work!
That’s interesting. I prefer them! I like having the pattern printed on real paper, rather than tissue, and find the process of taping the pages together to be simple and quick (just cut off the bottom and right side of each sheet). I love the instant access, too, and the ability to print off a different size when I want to.
I agree completely. I am very tactile and have discovered several hundred old patterns that my mother and I used while I was growing up. We even had a “sewing room” and our own machines. When I was in high school, I remember a period when I cranked out a dress a week. I made a coat through 4-H and my mother made all sorts of toaster covers, pillows, drapes and so forth. I pulled out some of the apron patterns last week and will make a few of those for this summer…when I do another wonderful art I’ve been doing since I was 10: canning fruit. These activities continuously inspire me and remind me of happy times growing up.
Mrs.Destinie Faulkner says
Oh that’s so wonderful
K KENDRICK says
HELLO I BEGAN SEWING WHEN I WAS 10 YEARS OLD, MY GREAT GRANDMOTHER HAD STARTED ME OUT WITH A BASIC SKIRT AND IN MAKING SIMPLE PILLOWS. I HAVE THE LOVE AND PASSION TO STILL MAKING CLOTHING AND ASSORIES . AS I BEGAN HIGH SCHOOL IN THE LATE SEVENTIES TO MY GRADUATING IN 1972, I HAVE TAKEN HOME ECONOMIC CLASSES IN SEWING AND FASHION DESIGN. MY TEACHER HAD TAUGHT ALL OF US STUDENTS IN HER CLASSS HOW TO MAKE BLAZERS,JACKETS, COATS WITH THE LINING. AS I GRADUATED AND NOW TO THIS DAY I CARRY OUT THE HOME SEWING TRADITION. IT DOES NOT COST VERY MUCH AT ALL. THE PATTERNS ARE NOT MORE THAN FIVE DOLLARS, MOST PATTERN S COST BETWEEN ONE TO TWO BUCKS. MY MEMORIES LINGER AS I BEGAN SEWING AT AGE 10 , THE COST OF PATTERNS WERE NOT MORE THAN ONE DOLLAR TO A BUCK IN A HALF. AS THE COST OF INFLATION PRICES BY TIME THE LATE NINETIES CAME IN AND THE TWENTIETH CENTURY I COULD NOT BELIEVE THE COST OF ONE PATTERN WAS ALREADY 16.95 TO 19.95. SO I FOUND THE SOLUTION TO JOANN FABRICS THE PURCHASE PRICE OF SALE PATTERNS TO TWO BUCKS. THIS BROUGHT BACK KY MEMORY TO SEW BUT YET I AM STIILL MAKING CLOTHIBG ITEMS THAT WERE THE VERY CHEAP COST THAT I HAVE BEGAN MY SEWING CAREER BACK 43 YEARS GO. SEWING IS FUN AND YOU CAN BASICALLY CHANGE YOUR PATTERNS TO MAKE IT ANY STYLE YOU WISH. THERE ARE LOTS OF CREATIVITY AND LETTING YOUR IMAGINATION JUST GO. I FIND IT CHEAPER TO MAKE A SUNDAY BEST DRESS ATTIRE THAN TO GO INTO THE STORE BECAUSE ITS A LOT OF MONEY SPENT WITH READY MADE CLOTHING. I SEW BECAUSE THE IM NOT INTERESTED IN WHAT THE STORE PUTS OUT, AND IF YOU ARE A PLUS SIZE ITS EVEN COST MORE TO BUY FASHIONABLE PLUS SIZE FASHIONS. I MAKE THE TIME AND JUST TAKING A VERY SIMPLE PATTERN AND THE PURCHASE OF REASONABLE PRICED FABRICS IT IS POSSIBLE. THE KEY TO FINDING LOW PRICE FABRICS IS TO GET THEM FABRIC SALES AND GET YOUR COUPONS WHICU IS A HOMEMADE GARMENT SAVER. I HAVE MADE LOTS OF CLOTHING ITEMS FROM SUNDAY BEST TO CASUAL AND DRESS TO UNIFORM SCRUB TOPS. ITS MY TALENT ITS MY PASSION AND CONTINUE IN THE HOMEMADE CLOTHING TREND. I AM A CNA BUT I TEND TO KEEP UP MY SEWING SKILLS FROM THE LEARNING OF MY GRAM TO MY HIGH SCHOOL EXPERIENCES THAT I KNOW AND WILL KEEP.
K KENDRICK says
Revised I had graduated in 1982
Oh Certainly YES! I agree with all you replied about. For me, I ALWAYS take advantage of the sales at. JoAnn’s and Hobby Lobby for HUGE discounts ($25 for a dress pattern?!?) but my lament is Fabric.
Ordering on-line is difficult because you can’t match colors close enough to go with your existing wardrobe. Yet, that is an entirely different discussion…
The cool thing about the best fabric sites online is that they allow returns for any reason and you can order just a swatch for a dollar. I love fabric.com and fashionfabrics.com the best. They usually describe the hand of the fabric and how it hangs, whether stiff, or loose folds, etc. I am seldom disappointed.
On your recommendation I borroed an older edition by interlibrary loan. It was fascinating — I didn’t know anything about the development of home-sewing patterns. Laboissoniere quotes an article from Business Week, 6/13/43: “Singer estimated that on June 15, 1943, there were 25 million sewing machines in U.S. homes, almost 10 million more sewing machines than telephones.”
Patty S. says
Really interesting article, Abby. My mom and grandmother both were accomplished sewers, my grandmother a haute couture-level seamstress. Grandmother was born in another century, and my mom was part of the Greatest Generation, and they both sewed EVERYTHING during WWII. In fact, she actually owned what turned out to be a very collectible Singer Featherweight that my dad bought her during WWII – the crinkle Featherweight. I thought it was just ugly, and hated using it (have NO idea where it went, sadly). I never took Home Ec because I grew up behind a sewing machine, and being of Italian extraction, the rest of my time was spent in the kitchen! But, sewing was a very important and integral part of my life. In fact, my fiancee (and husband of 40 years, now) knew what was important to me: He bought me a $200 engagement ring, and a top of the line 1978 Husqvarna Viking for my engagement present! Smart man, definitely a keeper that one! What I actually find very interesting in your story were the statistics: “…prior to World War II, 50% of US women knew how to sew, but by 1944 that number shot up to 82%…” To me, that indicates there was a falling off of women needing to learn to sew between the turn of the century, and the early 1940’s. The really big story here, for me anyway, is the actual invention of the home sewing machine. And, a very novel concept introduced by Mr. Isaac Singer, that absolutely revolutionized women’s economic independence: The concept of time payments. Mr. Singer made a very bold, two-fold move for his time: He decided to market his product to WOMEN and not men, and, he introduced the time payment option, that allowed a woman to buy a sewing machine on time, but TAKE IT HOME right away, and pay it off. He figured the sewing machine would become so valuable to it’s owner that they would never default on the payments. He was right. And, it revolutionized women’s ability to generate a pretty fair income, while being able to remain in the hoe and take care of their families. He got a lot of flack and criticism for this. Industry leaders didn’t think women were capable of making these financial decisions, and would never be able to make payments, as they were either not income generators, or if they took in some hand sewing or laundry work, wouldn’t be able to generate enough money to make monthly payment. Boy oh boy, the critics were wrong. Truly the very beginning of the Feminist Movement. Owning a sewing machine meant a women could easily quadruple her ability to sew garments for others, moving from hand-sewing to mechanized sewing, and do that all in the hoe. That’s a story to tell. That little Singer sewing machine changed the world. It’s a little-known and untold story of the very beginning of women’s equality movement. And, I love knowing that my family was a little part of that.
Jamie Bourgeois says
I love this comment! Sewing was a big part of my family history, as well. My mom was a very talented sewist (she would say “seamstress”, but I am bringing the lingo up to modern times!), and even made her own wedding dress. I still have a few the things she sewed for me when I was a kid, and totally did not appreciate at the time. I now look at the work with awe. She still owns the sewing machine my grandmother bought her as a graduation present, and it will be mine when she passes.
When I was in junior high, I embraced sewing. I started making beginner projects like skirts, etc. This promptly ended when I wore a skirt I made to school and was made fun of for wearing “homemade” clothes. By this time- the 1980s – sewing was looked upon as something dorks and poor people did. It wasn’t until I turned 35 that I sat at a sewing machine again.
I had no idea that the Singer sewing machines from the 1800s were an implement for feminists….but this makes total sense! The ability to machine sew (thus increasing your production) meant these women could earn more money to support themselves and families in a time that women had limited options.
This book will certainly be on my must read list!
A great story, Patty!
I feel basics sewing and cooking skills should be taught in after school activities. When a young person goes away to colleges, those basic skills will help a lot. Gloria -Indy
Unfortunately for many of us, older sturdier machines were traded in for a pretty good discount when buying a new one. Decades later, I found out that Singer destroyed the old machines so we wouldn’t resell them. Egads! We were so happy to get $100 or so off the new one we never questioned where the old machines went. I bought the exact model I learned on, a Singer Slantomatic on eBay in perfect condition for $90 a few years back. You might be able to find your model there too.
Amanda Carestio says
Love this piece, Abby! I have often wondered if sewing is having a moment…or if my world is just very insular and sewing-centric?!?! Perhaps it’s both! I’ve been sewing for a while – back in high school, it was kind of cool and different that I sewed, but it was also lonely. No one spoke the language. With the online community now, I feel so much more connected. With the rising cost of fabric and patterns (which I’m happy to pay to independent businesses) and the focus online, I do worry a bit about accessibility. What’s to be done?
I think that’s definitely a concern. There are ways to sew affordably with upcycled fabric and thrifted patterns for sure, but this indie pattern world can definitely get expensive fast.
I often make my own patterns from my favorite ready to wear, especially when a favorite becomes too worn out/torn/threadbare to wear again. I usually do it for styles I haven’t t see a pattern for.
Ellen Fournier says
The “big four” pattern companies have not changed their sizing since forever, and I wonder how many potential customers are turned away by the fact that even though they wear a size 10 (or medium) in ready to wear, their “pattern” size is 14 (or 16)!
Hi Abby! You know I’m 100 percent behind anything that gets a person into sewing, be it one of our patterns or an indie pattern. Just start sewing, right?!
Even though we are a group of legacy brands, there’s a lot we’re doing to engage with our consumers and participate in this moment in our industry. Some of our designers are very active on social media, for example. Two of them have their own Instagram accounts (@carlosvoguepatterns and @jackiemccallpatterns) and are great about sharing their process and tips. We also publish the Closer Look videos on Instagram and Facebook, where our designers talk about recent patterns and share their insights. We have a dedicated Facebook Group for McCall’s & Simplicity with nearly 40k members; this has become a favorite destination for people to share their makes and ask for help from each other and from the McCall’s/Simplicity team. This spring we hosted the Royal Wedding Sew-Along. We’re always looking for more ways to engage with our consumers and to let them know we support them in their sewing journey. —Meg
Thanks, Meg. And you’re definitely a part of that effort. I remember the day you were hired. It was like a switch turned on and suddenly McCalls was on Instagram. I’m eagerly awaiting the new digital pattern platform.
Great article. I am in my early 30s and we had Home Ec in my middle school. We learned some hand sewing–I remember making a tiny pillow–and possibly some cooking. I just learned recently that some high schools in my area offer a sewing elective, but it’s based around fashion! The students design and make clothing and have a fashion show. I think that’s such a smart idea to bring sewing and making to kids!
Ce Humeston says
Abby, thank you for reminding me that this book is on my wish list. I enjoyed reading this article, and the comments. Have you read “The Lost Art of Dress” by Linda Przybyszewski? I found this to be a good read, too–and I liked her sense of humor!
So many sewing memories: I taught middle school Textiles (both boys & girls) for over 30 years & loved almost every minute of it. The projects were chosen to be useful, do-able & fun for them. A side benefit was discovering that after they learned to read *and* follow directions in my course, these tweens could follow the directions to do a simple tax form in later Life Skills classes. It was gratifying to hear from the high school teachers, “We always know when our students have been through your course–they can follow directions!” Nice feedback, good to know I was doing something right! (Home Ec teachers, wait, no, Family & Consumer Science teachers didn’t/don’t get a lot of respect.
I liked hearing about the mothers & grandmothers sewing skills too. My grandmother had the gift of being able to copy any garment she saw. Come time for my mother’s wedding, just after WWII, Grandma was able to replicate a dress my mom *really* loved, seen in a store on a rare trip to the nearest city. Armed with 2 surplus parachutes (@ .25 each) & a treadle sewing machine, Grandma made the wedding dress and 4 bridesmaids gowns. I still have Mom’s dress. The treadle machine completely gave up the ghost in the midst of this sewing–so it was finished on a brand-new Singer Featherweight – which is still in use at my cousin’s house.
Thanks for taking me on a lovely trip down memory lane. And I still sew, only now it is for 2 small grandchildren.
Thanks for the book recommendation, Ce.
Thanks Abby for another thought provoking article. As kids, we sewed most of our clothes in the 60s and 70s. My beautiful mum probably did most of it. We were poor and fabric was ver cheap. We would see something in a shop window and Mum would help us recreate it. Now I am part of a different demographic. I am a middle-aged overweight lady who wants to wear funky and stylish clothes. At 55 I have finally discovered ‘my style’. Most indie designers ignore us with limited size ranges and often by their styles. So I mix between quality indie designers and the Big 4. I haven’t sewn for 30 years or more so I started with bags and softies to refresh my skills. Most impotantly, it helps me connect with my mother who is no longer with us. I blame her for my growing stash of fabric. Whenever I am fabric shopping I hear her loving voice in my head saying “ that would look lovely on you”.
There’s also a very strong historical link between magazines for women and sewing pattern companies. Many important women’s magazines either sold sewing patterns, included patterns, or contained detailed sewing advice for people wishing to make their own clothes. A few were even founded by sewing pattern companies or that founded sewing pattern companies (Vogue, comes to mind). I think in some ways the world of Instagram hashtags and blogs have replaced the world of women’s magazines. There’s still speciality magazines (of course), but they have become increasingly specialized and are struggling (by and large). The point I am trying to make, perhaps not very gracefully, is that there has always been a tight connection to be how women get information about the world and the sewing pattern industry. So, I think women have always sought out the equivalent of “sew alongs” and “hacks”, but the sources of those have become decentralized.
That’s an interesting idea. The difference today is that the media is so interactive. With that added element of community and instantaneous feedback it’s very alluring.
Joanne Burnett says
The ‘big four’ pattern companies have to use government issued sizing standards. RTW manufacturers very quickly figured out they could sell more garments that are sized smaller but are actually size wise the size you would have to buy in a pattern . It’s a vanity tning. If you are measurement wise a size 14, wouldn’t you be thrilled to fit into a pair of size 8 jeans? The more expensive the garment the smaller the size you will fit into. Viola’ more sales for the manufacturer. Sewing your own may not save you money but you can have the satisfaction of creating a unique well fitting one of a kind garment that make you feel great and no size label required!
I’m not sure they have to use government-issued sizing standards, at least not today.
Hwei-Yi Lee says
Being small sized, I actually appreciate that the Big 4 pattern sizing is somewhat outdated — usually a Big 4 size 6 will fit well and saves me the need to shop in the girls’ or juniors’ department 😉
Ymana Johnson says
A very interesting article with references that I plan to explore. The picture of the J.L. Hudson department store of Chicago in 1940 gives me fond memories of the local JCPenney’s store my family frequented in the early ’50’s when we made our monthly trip to town. My mother made clothes for me and each of my 8 siblings and for friends and neighbors constantly with me at her shoulder watching and assisting. I learned so many life skills from those cherished times. I have taught sewing lessons in my home for many years. There is so much to know and learn about sewing and how to do it correctly, but most of those wanting to learn to sew want instant gratification from something made in minutes. Few are patient enough to see a well constructed project through to the end. Nevertheless, I still sew almost daily. I love the creative outlet sewing provides and the durable finished, one-of-a-kind items which, almost always, can’t be economically purchased from commercial ready-to-wear. Thank you again for this informative post.
Thanks for another great article, Abby!
One thing that isn’t mentioned here is the need for sewing–and pattern drafting–skills in order to have clothes that actually fit well. So many of us are far from being able to find either ready-to-wear clothes or sewing patterns that fit correctly. The Big 4 pattern companies tried to address the issue, but not particularly successfully in my personal experience (which is why I finally learned pattern drafting for myself!). At least for some of us, this is a fundamental motivation for sewing at home. Without these skills, many of us are reduced to having to wear fairly formless clothes which are often less than flattering.
On the issue of sewing instruction, I think you are absolutely right about the need those who are new to sewing have for additional help. Whereas many of us of a certain age learned sewing from our mothers and grandmothers (or from neighbors of those generations), the gap in sewing popularity means there are many young people today who do not have an older family member to learn from.
I have discovered I am a rare breed when it comes to making a Blazer, pants, skirt, or blouse that fits me perfectly. I have earnestly searched for twill tape, horse hair ccanvas for lapels, sleeve heads and shoulder pads.
My very favorite reference is from the Singer Sewing Reference Library, Tailoring. It shows hiw to pad-stitch a collar and lapels, how to sew welt pockets and all the HAND STITCHES required for a custom fit Blazer. Thus is literally my sewing Bible and I use it frequently to cut, sew, press and finish all my blazers. The best part? My creativity shines brightly in every garment I make. What really bugs me though, is finding supplies!
Everything from buttons to fabric has become a real challenge these days. Although the Web will show me 100’s of places that have what I want, matching colors is nearly impossible! It is so frustrating trying to put together notions and supplies these days let alone finding fabric that is suitable for my needs (polyester be DAMNED! ). I won’t even go into my struggle with knit-wear and my Serger….
Jay Frails says
B. C. Minnich says
I find most sewing patterns today are so boring. More like pillowcases with sleeves. There is no style to them. I sew to get a good fit to my petite adult frame and it’s almost impossible to find a pattern worth sewing. More style and less ‘sackiness’ please.
The picture of the McCall’s Pattern section in Hudson’s is a thing of beauty.
Once again Dear Abbey, you’ve belted it out of the park 😉 I am still devoted to the Big 4 but, I alter, add or subtract to make different outfits. I have also sewed what I couldn’t find in the ready-to-wrar departments (a White shirt?!?!). What’s frustrating to me is finding materials that I like. I managed to find a few online shops but there is a huge difference between polyester Gabardine and WOOL Gabardine so it’s tedious to find what I want. Still, I have a lot of fun creating unique, well fitted garments 🙂
Ann Jacobs says
Loved your article and comments.
Thanks for the great article. Sewing has been making a comeback, thank goodness and indeed due to the whole DIY movement. Pintrest is full of great links to Ed verything from beginner to advanced tutorials. I especially love all the great examples of upcycled clothing hacks transforming outdated fashions and thrift store finds into cool updated styles.
B C Minnich says
Looking at today’s patterns I see a lot of baggy, shapeless garments. Easy makes that require little skill…is this not dressmaking but mindless doodling with fabric and thread.
While very true, if you go to a site like patternreview.com, you’ll note that most patterns reviewed are from the big 4. There are a lot of indie pattern reviews, but most are not.
I tend to collect sewing patterns. Most of mine, stored vertically in 11X14 2mil sealed plastic zip lock bags on a wide bookcase are Stretch and Sew from the 60’s, 70’s, and ear;y 80’s but primarily the 70’s., that take up 3 shelves of a 4 foot wide bookcase. I don’t have them all, but have most of the women’s produced, and a few children’s and men’s thrown in for good measure. I also have a good percentage of the Kwik Sew patterns that were produced on heavy paper, and when making up a pattern, take the time to trace off rather than cutting vintage patterns. Over the past couple of years, I’ve purchased quite a few pdf patterns from many different designers, but have found a couple of notable ones that appear to be copying vintage patterns – based on sizing, and instructions that are included. For the most part, though, the patterns being produced now by small designers, often rival, or exceed what is encountered in the big 4. Thanks so much for your perceptions !
Me again. One other comment I wanted to make is there is one area where saving money is pretty easy. We live in South Florida, and several years ago we built a pool. This necessitated having several swimsuits. A nice swimsuit can cost upwards of a hundred or more dollars, so this is why I got back into sewing. Nylon Lycra online, even current year prints can be had for under 20.00 a yard. If you’re willing to go with last years, then you can expect to pay about half of that. It did require some skills that I didn’t possess initially, working with a serger, and elastic, and threading (oiy!), but now can put a swimsuit together in an afternoon, completely lined and with either sewn in cups or a bandeau lining for about 25 to 30 or so dollars . Lingerie can also be made better than current store bought where for the most part seams aren’t completely enclosed in crotches, and bras where really nice laces can be and used, that while expensive in themselves, a very little bit is actually needed to create something striking and matching tops and bottoms 🙂
Fair point. These are two very expensive items with very small bits of fabric!
Jojo Sewist says
I to have no desire to pay more than a big 4 pattern cost and then download, print, trim, and tape before using this digital pattern. However, I fear that may be the only choice in the near future.
My gripe with any pattern is fit, and the lack of good sewing instructions w/the pattern. Patterns from the 60s-80s, had exceptional directions and instructions.
But the most difficult part of sewing to me is where and how to purchase good fabric and notions, since nearest Joanns or other brick and motar stores are 5 hour trip. Much of my purchases online are not used due to poor quality (regardless of cost) or colors dont work together.
I enjoyed your article, and have put the book on my wish list. Thank you for allowing me to remember pleasant memories from my past.
A 2020 update as the Big 4 pattern companies (CSS) change hands for third time in five years. Big 4 has been late to the download game and the pattern magazines have ceased publication. Burda appears to be the only pattern magazine left. Is this the beginning of the end of Vogue’s luxury, designer patterns?
Love Love…must purchase the book 📚 I to like some started home sewing with my mom. It is in my blood mom and both grandmothers. So home ec classes in the 70’s and 80’s was a welcome choice for me. Thank you for the article