sewing, sewing patterns, vintage clothing


McCall’s 4365

People email or call me from time to time, asking if I buy patterns. I do, sometimes. I’m always interested in what people have, and what the story behind them is. It’s very easy to hoard patterns, so I have to be cautious. At one point, I had 40,000+ patterns, but that was when I had a huge workspace. These days, not so much. That being said, I still have patterns in every corner of my office, mostly because I love them so much.

Last week, a lady emailed me saying that her mother had recently passed away, leaving several hundred patterns. The daughter plans to send some to the Vintage Sewing Center and Museum, but postage is very expensive, so she wanted to pass some along locally. We set a time and I went to look. What a sweet lady she is. She had all of the patterns laid out in boxes for me to look at in her garage. She even had a water bottle for me, in case I was thirsty.

The best part of getting patterns from people is hearing the stories associated with them. She said that her mother was a prolific sewist who made all of her clothes. She said that looking through the patterns was a blast from the past, because so many of them were associated with memories from her childhood. She had even found the pattern for her wedding dress in the mix, but she had thankfully pulled it out to keep it for herself. The patterns are a beautiful mix of kids’, women’s, mens and a few other assorted things like toys or home decor. She suggested that I take them home to look at them.

While I was browsing, she asked “is this you?”. I looked, and she was holding up a newspaper article about my shop, printed in the Indianapolis Star probably fifteen years ago. I told her yes, it was me — my name is different now — and we got talking. Turned out that we had lived in the same neighborhood in Indianapolis, gone to the same church, and she worked at the library we frequented for years. She left about ten years before we got there, but the parallels were crazy. Turned out that her mom had tucked the newspaper article into the boxes of patterns. “I think she wanted you to have them,” she said. I believe her.

So that’s how I ended up coming home with several hundred new-to-me patterns that I will treasure. And this is why I do what I do. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve connected to patterns from their past: their wedding dress pattern, kids patterns that their mom used for them and now they want to make it for their own kids, even one lady’s 1956 prom dress pattern, so she could make it for her granddaughter. I love what I do. I love the stories of where patterns came from, and where they are going, and I love the human connection. They are small pieces of fashion history that are so personal. I treasure them all.

Thank you, Melva. I will be custodian of your treasures until they find the next person who loves them.

Celebrity, Hollywood, vintage clothing


Who knew that Milwaukee holds a treasure trove of a couturier for some of the icons of fashion history? At Mount Mary College, in their Historic Costume Collection, there are almost 400 original Valentina toiles and garments, as well as personal documents and more. In Milwaukee. I’ve always said that the hidden gems are held in places you’d least expect, and now Milwaukee is on my bucket list.

Valentina was born in 1898, and was orphaned during the Russian revolution, and reportedly was rescued at a train station by George Schlee, who she subsequently married after escaping the country. They were married in Russia in 1920, and emigrated to New York via Paris in 1922. She is shown in the 1925 New York census as a housewife to George and notes herself as a naturalized US citizen. In 1930, she is found living in Manhattan with George, again as a housewife, though reports state she started her business in 1928, with dresses she pulled out of her own closet. Of note, the 1930 census states she is still an alien, and not a US citizen, and she subsequently applied for citizenship in 1932, noting herself again to be a housewife. In 1937, papers laud her for her costumes in the play “Idiot’s Delight.” She costumed a few movies in the early 1950’s, but was most known for the celebrities she dressed, such as Greta Garbo and Lynne Fontanne. (The photo above are of garments from Ms Fontanne’s collection and was worn in Idiot’s Delight.)

Valentina was known for her monochromatic designs, often having a stark monastic look. She costumed many stage shows, including dressing Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. The drape of the garments is beautiful and so simple in design as to not distract from the wearer. She loved to use opulent fabrics to create a lush effect that had customers flocking to her. She was held at the same level as Claire McCardell would be later, and there are some similarities in their garments, as both created simple garments that were comfortable to wear. Much of the work was hand done and there was not a lot of ornamentation. She truly was the torch bearer for the minimalism that we see today, but would not be popularized until the 1990’s.

Valentina wore her designs and was able to build her business in that way, given her status as a fashion icon of the time. Barry Paris noted in his book Garbo that Garbo and Valentina had a falling out over George in the years before he died, and though they lived in the same apartment building, they created a schedule where they would never run into each other in the lobby. She died in 1989 from Parkinson’s Disease in New York.

Valentina’s name is not as widely known today, being overshadowed by Valentino, who is not only male, but Italian. Her work still deserves to be seen and studied, because she set the bar in many ways for many designers to come.

Photos: Threads Magazine

sewing patterns, vintage clothing


I blogged about this pattern illustration some time back. Look at how weird it’s drawn. It looks rather juvenile, especially when compared to other similar patterns of the era. This is Butterick 4699, from the 1940s. I love the style and, like it says, it’s Quick and Easy to make. But that illustration is disturbing. The faces are so crudely drawn, and when you add the claw-like hands to it, it’s really kind of creepy.

Then I came across this:

Same pattern, without the wonky faces. Doesn’t it look so much better? Now, I’m not sure I’ve seen other Butterick patterns from the era that were drawn only in outline, but in this case, it’s a vast improvement. I have no idea what happened here, but I’m thinking that the fashion editors rethought it and reissued the pattern without the weird illustrations. What do you think?

Both are available in my shop. Click here for to purchase Ms. Outline (waist 24).

vintage clothing

Scarf Tricks

Scarves have come into the public eye more lately, since pandemic public figures such as Dr Birx and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi often show up wearing them. I’ve never been one to wear scarves, figuring they require a skill set that I don’t have. Also, Nora Ephron indtimated in her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck” that scarves are for middle aged ladies, and I’m not admitting to that quite yet.

But I do remember the 70s, and how my sisters would make little halter tops from bandannas and scarves. Nothing as stylish as this — we were preacher’s kids after all — but upcycle boho looks. These ones are pretty amazing, and while the 1973 article this is derived from doesn’t tell you how to twist the scarves into the look, it’s a great chance for you to DIY.


I fold, again.

I love pleats, especially tiny detailed ones. I thought I’d share this lovely illustration of different types of pleats, derived from Book 4 of A Modern Course in Home Sewing and Dressmaking, published in 1926, and availabl for download here.

So looking at all of this fancy folded fabric reminds me of a story. My youngest son talks in his sleep. As in, you can hold an entire conversation with him while he’s sound asleep. It may not make any sense whatsoever, but he will definitely tell you things. It’s legendary among those who know hi Some years back when he was about ten, we took a cruise through the Panama Canal. The kids had a fine time and spent a lot of time in the library playing poker amongst themselves (my oldest was really into Texas Hold ’em at the time. The cruise was just after Christmas, and he’d gotten cards and chips as a gift, so he took them along.) On the plane ride home from San Diego, the youngest sat next to me. He had been running like mad for two weeks, and fell soundly asleep as soon as we were airborne. An hour or two later, he suddenly sat up with a disgusted look on his face, looked me straight in the eye and said with a sigh “I fold…….again.” Then he laid his head down and slept the rest of the flight without incident. It still cracks me up fifteen years later.


Kaumagraph Transfers

I’ve come across a lot of McCall Kaumagraph Transfers in my time. They can be anything from actual embroidery transfers, to wall decor that you cut out and past to a wall. They’re interesting in the vast difference of what they involved: delicate florals, to quilting transfers to Peter Rabbit to Chinese art. They covered the gamut of pop culture of the time.

When I went looking into Kauamagraphs, I found a single ad listing in a newspaper in 1912. It only mentioned they were quick to use — no history or technique, just a quick ad. Searching another archive found that McCall sent out representatives to teach how to use the new transfers. There was nothing in 1913, though they must’ve continued to make them, because ads showed up again in 1914 for an embroidery supply store in Corvallis, Oregon, stating that there were over 500 different Kaumagraph transfgers in stock. Apparently they were popular, which isn’t surprising given the delicate embroidery done on clothing of the time period.

McCall put out an Embroidery Book catalog that listed the transfers available. This was separate from their pattern catalog, although pattern catalogs of the time referenced the associated embroidery patterns, as did pattern envelopes. McCall had figured out that there was money to be made by selling transfers separately. Ads did not begin to be seen frequently until the 1920s, and it was at this time that the transfers began to be seen for home furnishings. Again, this is from advertising — the home decor transfers may have been seen in the Embroidery Books, but I haven’t researched that genre.

A December, 1921 ad mentions that “the newest thing is applique work which can be done quickly and requires an experienced hand,” suggesting Kaumagraph transfers can help with that process. Art medallions such as this and this were seen in 1927, to be cut out and applied to furniture, then varnished over for a decorative look — probably similar to the decoupage commonly seen in the 1960s and 1970s. By 1928, ads for Kaumagraphs had disappeared from newspapers, suggesting that they either fell out of favor or, more likely, were renamed to simply embroidery transfer, as McCalls continued to market transfers in one shape or form for years. It could be that the renaming is because other companies used the term Kaumagraph for their transfers, as it is a generic term for a hot iron transfer, and is not exclusively used by McCall at the time. It is technically still used today, though most people wouldn’t recognize the term kaumographer as someone who does heat transfers.

In either event, McCall seemed to be a forerunner in embroidery transfers, especially with their foray into the decorative medallions. Have you seen any Kaumagraphs? I know there are some collectors out there. Share your favorites. I’d love to see them.

sewing, Uncategorized

I Made a Thing

My granddaughter’s name is Isla. She’s named after a server in a haggis restaurant in Scotland, where my daughter and her husband visited before she was born. They went to Ireland as well, so I’ve always gifted Isla with Irish and Scottish gifts. Last fall, I got her a kilt at the Scottish festival here. I got her an Irish knit blanket for Christmas. There’s definitely a theme.

So last winter, I saw this vintage 70s Campbell’s Soup kid doll kit on Etsy, and decided to make it for her. I actually got her the boy doll too, but decided to make the girl first to see how she liked it. She loves dolls, but trust me when I say just how creepy this thing was along the way. I wish I still had the pictures of the face before I stuffed it, because it was reminiscent of something Buffalo Bill would’ve come up with. The dogs were terrified and wouldn’t stop barking at her.

I started on it in December, but if you recal, I’m a beginning sewist and the shirt came together REALLY wonky, so I put it away in frustration. Then last week, I realized that Isla’s birthday was the next day, and I hadn’t gotten a gift. Quarantine has frozen my brain, and we haven’t gotten to see much of the grandgirls because we are in full quarantine because of my cancer and my husband’s heart disease, not to mention my 87 yo mom. So I pulled the whole thing out again and started sewing. Amazingly, the shirt came together really easily — it was a huge struggle the first time — and the rest was simple. (I had already completed the doll in December.) I decided that the hair being done in curls like it shows was just too much for my short timeframe. If I’d had red yarn, I would’ve done some crazy Merida hair, but I didn’t, so she became a blonde, which is ok, because Isla is blonde too.

You see the final results. Kinda creepy but kinda cute. Isla saw her and gave her a big hug, so I guess it was a win. I may make the boy for her for Christmas, which means she’ll get it next summer.

If you like her, you can buy the kit on Etsy here (shows the boy and the girl). It really isn’t that hard, even for a beginner like me.

Celebrity, Hollywood, Uncategorized

Hindsight is Compelling

I listed a book in the shop today. It’s called “Tell it to Louella,” and it’s written by Louella Parsons, the famed Hollywood columnist of years past. Ms Parsons was the person who knew all the gossip coming out of Hollywood, so you can only imagine the things she tells in this boo about people like Frank Sinatra, Princess Grace of Monaco, Lana Turner, and many more. But it was Marilyn Monroe’s story that I found most compelling.

I’ve long said that it’s hard to look at pictures of Marilyn, because I see so much sadness in her eyes. This book, published in 1961, acknowledges that. Ms Parsons calls it fear though. She said “if I were asked to choose one adjective with which to desribe Marilyn, I would choose ‘frightened.'”She said that when she looked at photos of Marilyn very early in her career, she saw sheer fright, to the point that it made her feel compassion for the poor girl. She described her as a Cinderella who is sure that the clock will strike midnight at any moment, and stated that this is why she could never achieven her full potential.

Marilyn was dead a year later.

Interesting that others have seen what I see through almost all of her pictures. Look past the beauty, the sex appeal, and the “it” factor, and you see sadness. And fear.

Mentioning the ‘it” factor, Ms Hopper says in her book that Clara Bow, the original IT Girl, had written her a letter the previous Christmas and said “not to [Elizabeth] Taylor, not to [Brigitte] Bardot, but to Monroe did I mentally bestow the “It Girl” tag some time ago. She and Jean Harlow are the only women I’ve ever seen who possessed the flesh impact that people said I had on the screen.” What an interesting way to put it.

Other interesting tidbits: Hollywood agent Ben Lyon always said Marilyn was a natural blonde which, of course, was not completely accurate. Ms Parsons brought this up to him one time, to which he responded “She is a naturaly blonde. I didn’t make the mistake. Nature did.” Hilarious.

Another thing that is really interesting in retrospect: Joan Crawford called Marilyn out for showing up to an event in form fitting gold lame dress which left nothing to the imagination. (This was not JFK’s birthday party.) Ms Crawford compared it to a burlesque show, and said “Miss Monroe should be told that the public likes provocative feminine personalities, but it also likes toknow that, underneath it all, the actresses are ladies.” Marilyn did not take the criticism well, being known for being very sensitive, and esponded that “I didn’t mean to do anything that the industry wouldn’t like. I just thought that I was expected to look alluring. Maybe my choice was bad, but my intention wasn’t. And the way so many people jumped on me — as if I’d committed a crime. Especially Joan Crawford.” She then added something that to Ms Hopper seemed to be out of contect, saying “I’ve always admired her [Crawford] for being such a wonderful mother. For taking four children and giving them such a wonderful home.”

Wow. Reads a little differently today, doesn’t it?

She ends the chapter by saying “no matter what, one thing I do know. Marilyn will make news for a long, long time. I hope, for her sake, that it will be happy news.”

I guess it’s up to the reader to decide whether memories of Marilyn are happy or not.

sewing patterns, vintage clothing

Bicentennial Celebration Patterns

Left to right: Butterick 4208,4260,4207, and 4261

I came across this illustration in a Butterick brochure from 1976, and it got me remembering what the bicentennial was about. 1976 was a huge year for our country, as we celebrated America’s 200th birthday. Red, white and blue was everywhere, and there were all kinds of events to celebrate. Many of these events had people in period costume, so pattern companies put out patterns so that people could create their look. These four patterns are the ones Butterick put out, and I always wondered how they measured up to today’s attention to detail in costuming.

According to the brochure, Butterick did a great deal of research into colonial Americans, so as to make the costumes as authentic as possible. They also consulted with Robert Pusilo, an antique clothing expert and Bicentennial costume consultant to get the fabric details correct. Mr Pusilo has a number of movie credits to his name (Klute and The Owl and the Pussycat among them), but also did Broadway costuming, most notably for Hello, Dolly. According to an article in the Atlanta Constitution in 1974, Mr Pusilo owned hundreds of articles of 18th century clothing, putting him in a unique position of being able to not only design for period clothing, but to handle the originals. He felt that 18th century clothing wouldn’t lend itself to the mass marketing of the 1970’s, because the result would just be a 1970s version of the original. He had a real respect for the men’s shirts of the late 1700’s, stating that they were “truly comfortable”, in contrast to more modern shirts. Interestingly, Mr Pusilo is quoted in the article as saying that there were only a few houses in New York where appropriate fabric could be obtained for such period clothing, as the patterns used in that era were very distinct. I’d love to have been listening to the conversation as he made fabric suggestions to Butterick, knowing full well that the fabrics a home sewist would use would be wrong, no matter how accurate the pattern might be. I wonder if this offended his sensibilities, or if he just accepted it as it was — a modern take on antique clothing?

These patterns came with an insert that gave suggestions on how to make your costume authentic. Three accessories suggested were a gentleman’s can, a lady’s panier, and a lady’s sleeve ruffle. The insert gave instructions on how to make each of these accessories, and the sleeve ruffle is illustrated here, as well as a small panier, on the lady on the right. (I can’t tell if the lady on the left has it as well, but she may.)

The costumes shown are for an affluent colonial family. The called the lady’s costume their Dolly Madison costume, and the father and son costumes Stateman costumes. Reading the descriptions of the patterns makes one think that perhaps these patterns were a bit more accurate that the more modern interpretations of the 18th century, since they closed with buttons instead of the zippers seen in today’s renditions. I may have to do a deep dive to compare the versions. I’ll add that to my to-do list.


A Little History of the Business of Sewing

I don’t know about you, but when I think of sewing, I remember everyone learning how to sew, at least to some extent. I was the baby of the family, and I remember sitting at my mom’s feet while she sewed on her old Necchi machine. She never really enjoyed sewing, and says she was never very good at it, but I didn’t know that at the time. I remember her making summer clothes for us. Simple patterns that I still come across today.

Mom says that her sisters, especially the second oldest, Blanche (there were 18 of kids in her family), was especially good at sewing, and made all sorts of things, including coats. She said my grandmother sewed all the time too, which I consider to be a miracle. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in a three bedroom house with 18 kids, where grandma had a huge garden, cooked and baked, AND sewed for the kids, all while grandpa was away much of the time, doing his thing as an engineer on the railroad. I’m in awe, I tell you. But I digress.

I remember my older sisters taking home ec, and taking the mandatory sewing module, and my mom helping them. They did 4-H too, and there was sewing there. But somehow, things changed when I got to middle school, and it wasn’t mandatory to do sewing in home ec. I took the semester of cooking, then took wood shop instead of sewing. I was already doing embroidery like crazy, so I don’t know why wood shop interested me more than sewing. Truth be told, it was probably that the boys were all in wood shop, but I don’t really remember. But those memories combinged to lead me to believe that home economics class had always been a thing. It wasn’t until I read The Lost Art of Dress, by Linda Przybyszewski, that I realized that home ec wasn’t always a thing. If you get a chance, read the book — it tells how home ec classes weren’t needed in the beginning, because girls learned household management, sewing and cooking from their mothers, but as mothers went to work and mass marketing started, those skills were no longer taught at home, hence the start of home ec, and the ladies who steered fashion. It’s fascinating reading.

So although I knew that, I came across an article from 1958, in the St Louis Globe-Democrat , talking about a “sewing revival” and how it was generating a billion dollars a year. Wow. It states that two out of three girls were now sewing, as a revival in the art had started five years prior. There was a decline in home sewing after World War II, and it’s stated that sewing was a practice done mainly by those in lower incomes in the 1930s and 1940s. Come 1953, “all income distinctions were erased,” and now women in the higher income brackets were sewing as well. The number of home sewists increased fourfold over several years, and by 1958, reportedly twenty percent of all women’s clothing was made at home. WOW.

The story was conceived when the reporter, Sylvia Porter, decided to see what was happening that Pierre Cardin had come to New York on a tour to promote his sewing pattern line for McCall’s. She found that it was projected that in 1958, 95,000,000 patterns would be sold, to the tune of $48,000,000. Pattern sales were expected to increase to over $100,000,000 by 1960. This does not take into account fabric sales — projected to be $250,000,000 in 1958, and increase to 265,000,000 by 1960.

She states that a large factor in the increase of home sewing was the cost of well made ready to wear clothing. She states one style from Cardin’s McCall’s pattern would cost hundreds of dollars if bought off the rack, but could be made at home for about $40. She notes that there was, at the time, an “increase in leisure time” in middle and high income households, so women and girls looked for a creative outlet.

Marketing played a big part in the draw of sewing during this time, as this was about the time you started seeing big designer names on patterns. Pierre Cardin was not the only one to license patterns with them. Givenchy did a line as well, notably creating patterns with Audrey Hepburn styles from Sabrina. McCall’s also contracted with Helen Lee to make children’s patterns, as she was a leading designer for children during the fifties. Stores joined in the surge, because they realized that if they sold patterns, they could also upsell when customers bought fabric, notions and trims.

Here’s hoping that we see a similar resurgence as people embrace simpler lives, slowing down, and lifestyles like cottagecore. When they do, I’m here for them.

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