The joy of paper patterns
The joy of paper patterns
My current work in progress is a western set in 1870 Oregon. In that time, a dress was sewed by taking an old, worn-out garment apart at the seams, laying the pieces flat on the selected yard goods, and cutting around them! That might explain why styles in the Old West didn’t change much over time: the pattern template could have come from one of Grandma’s old dresses.
In 1863, Ebeneezer Butterick changed all that by inventing the tissue-paper sewing pattern in various sizes. It all started when his wife, Ellen, spread out a piece of blue gingham on her dining room table and drew her design using wax chalk. If you couldn’t draw well, your clothes looked funny....
There were patterns that could be used, but they came in only one size; the maker had to enlarge or reduce as needed. Ebeneezer watched his wife struggle with the chalk and the blue gingham and a lightbulb flashed.
He experimented, using heavy cardboard templates that turned out to be unsuitable for folding or shipping. Then he found that tissue paper was easy to package. The first “graded” (in various sizes) sewing patterns were cut and folded by the Butterick family at home in Sterling, Massachusetts. Business grew and they later moved it to New York City.
Originally, paper patterns were available only for men’s and boy’s garments. But after three years of successful sales, in 1866, Butterick began to make and sell women’s dress patterns. Then came patterns for jackets and capes in 13 sizes and skirts in 5 sizes.
This revolutionized the clothing industry. Dressmaking became easier and fashionable garments became available to men, women, and children of all classes all over the world.
In 1867 Butterick introduced Ladies Quarterly of Broadway Fashions, a showcase magazine for Butterick home-sewing patterns. Patterns could be purchased by mail order and by 1876, E. Butterick & Co. had 100 branch offices and 1000 agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada. The patterns were also introduced in Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin. In fact, more Butterick patterns were purchased in Paris than anywhere else in the world.
In 1929, with the Great Depression, Butterick stock fell along with the rest of the market, but they continued to produce and sell patterns; home sewing turned out to be the backbone of the company and served as the means of pulling the company out of the slump.
In 1961, Butterick licensed the name “Vogue Patterns” from Conde Nast Publications, Inc. and bought their pattern division. Readers of Vogue magazine could buy patterns by clipping a coupon and mailing it in with 50 cents.
Demand for Vogue and Butterick patterns increased and when 1914 and World War I came and the Paris couture business halted. New York became the new fashion center, and Vogue patterns were carried in stores across the country and in Canada.
Home sewing continued to be popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and as early as 1937 the pattern books began to feature “couturier” patterns. This was the first time originals from Paris had been duplicated in pattern form, and Vogue Patterns was the only company licensed to produce these designs until the mid-1970s, when Italian and English designers were added.
In 2001 The McCall Pattern Company acquired both Vogue and Butterick patterns. Sewing machine sales must have soared.
My grandmother sewed dresses for my mother on an old treadle Singer sewing machine. My mother sewed endless skirts and blouses and formal dresses for me on her portable Singer, all the way through high school. And when I grew up and got married, naturally my sewing machine went with me.
One of my most treasured memories is going to the yardage store with Mom, running our fingers over the bolts of challis and cotton and flannel, and sitting down at a small table loaded with pattern catalogs to choose a pattern.
It still makes my fingers itch to walk through a fabric store.