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 the poor 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.