1950s fashion, sewing, sewing patterns

Fashionable Friday: McCall’s 9706

McCall’s 9706, 1954

When you reach into your stash, looking for something to list, and randomly pull out this. Wow. That top is amazing. I sell a repro pattern similar to this in the shop, but this one includes the shorts and skirt too? It’s almost too much to handle that early in the morning. That lime green is pretty eye catching too, and although as a fair redhead, I couldn’t handle that color, it’s perfect for almost everyone else.

They really overdid themselves with this pattern illustration, yes? Now available in the shop.

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Spadea – Doing Things the Right Way

Spadea Catalog #28, available now in the shop.

If you’ve never seen a vintage Spadea pattern, then you have missed out on a treat. Spadea patterns are fabulous. I came across a 1965 article about them recently and learned more about the company.

I already knew some things from reading this blog post years ago by Lizzie, of The Vintage Traveller. She was fortunate enough to correspond with and interview the Spadea’s daughter, who acted as a fit model for them. It truly was a family owned business. According to the article I read, the Spadeas had over 80 international designers under contract. They travelled the fashion shows, looking for garments they wanted to replicate into their designer pattern lines. Once they had a sketch, they draped a muslin on a size 12 dress form until they got the line-by-line duplicate they needed. If it wasn’t exact, they couldn’t put the designers name on it. Once the draping was done and it all matched the original, the pattern makers went to work making the pattern pieces,grading it to other sizes, writing the instructions and figuring out the cutting chart. This was all done by hand and then checked for accuracy by a second person.

The really mind blowing thing is how the pattern pieces were cut. Unlike other pattern companies, Spadea cut their pieces by hand. They laid the brown paper pieces on top of 100 tissue paper pieces, then cut it all by hand with a knife. The perforations were marked by hand, or sometimes with a hand operated machine, and then they were sent by folding. Folding was also done by hand. Considering the thousands of patterns they sold over the years, this is really fascinating to me. I would love to see the particular knife they used to cut with. Was it more of an X-acto knife like my dad used for crafts, or more of a box cutter shape? (I’m a little caught up in the idea of knives right now, because I bought hubby some Wusthof knives for Christmas, and am sure we will end up in the ER, given his propensity for kitchen accidents, but I digress.) But cutting 100 pieces at a time with a knife is really something of awe. It’s a far cry from this 2016 video – a VERY quick view at how a McCall’s pattern piece is cut and folded by machine.

Mr Spadea stood by his process, however, stating that in the fifteen years his company had been in business, they had had fewer than five times that they had had to admit that they made a mistake, and refunded a sewist for a ruined project. His employees said that mistakes were because “women just don’t read the instructions.” I’d take his advice, even though I’m a beginner and pore over the instructions anyway. Given the fact that Spadea patterns are for designer garments, paying special attention to the instructions is a must, in order to end up with the high quality fashion you are looking for.

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1950s fashion, designers, sewing patterns

Susie Stephens – Midwest Goodness

Butterick 6879.

I listed this cute pattern in the shop this morning. It’s Butterick 6879 and it’s adorable. I love View A, but can’t imagine doing all that bias tape trim. It’d be worth the work, but wow. This pattern is part of the “Susie Stephens” line from Butterick.

Susie Stephens, in case you didn’t know, is a line of sewing patterns designed by students at Stephens College, in Columbia, Missouri. (Fun fact: I grew up not far from there, and always thought of it as a rich kids school. But I digress.) At Stephens, they had a yearly fashion show done by the students. It was called “Susie Stephens.” It commonly had a theme, such as in 1952, where the them was “Campus Classics from the Classics,” and featured garments and millinery inspired by books such as Little Women, David Copperfield and Wuthering Heights. These garments were shown in fashion shows around the Midwest.

A 1947 article notes that the designs were fresh and adaptable, with rompers that had skirts to go over them, coats with enough volume to carry books underneath during the rainy season, and much more. On the day of the show, it was surmised that the garment district of St Louis must’ve emptied out and headed to Columbia, along with designer staff from Kansas City and New York. Budding designers were hired straight from these shows. The next day, the show was done again for the people of Columbia, where customers could choose the garment or the patterns, to take to their dressmaker for adaptations.

By 1950, Butterick had taken notice, and started their “Susie Stephens” line. This line was specifically created from the Stephens College students’ designs, and was advertised for teenagers. By 1952, they had printed 30 designs in the Susie Stephens line, but it seems to have waned in popularity after 1953, and disappeared completely after 1954. It’s worth taking a look at this cute line of patterns.

1950s fashion, designers, sewing, sewing patterns, vintage fashion

Aurora Battilocchi

Advance Import 113, by Aurora Battilocchi

Aurora Battilocchi designed ladies’ fashion in the 1950s, and was thought by some to be the most creative Italian designer of the time. Her designs had a Parisian feel that combined with contemporary designs. Her designs worked for most women, because she did everything — empire looks as well as long torso looks with incredible details. She favored rich fabrics in brocades and satin, and her colors were equally so, in gold, flame red, sea blue and basic black.

One of her typical looks in 1955 was designed in tiers: a jacket where the hem created the first tier, and worn over a sheath dress that was cut again above the knee, creating the second tier above the final hem. Another model had a twilight themed skirt, with layers of pink, violet and blue organza. She was one of the only designers of the season to show a silk print. Ballgowns from this collection included a aquamarine silk dress with a pintucked bodice as well as a “tightly wound red and gold sheath with a huge bustle.” How I wish I could find a video of one of her shows!

She didn’t have much of a lifespan in American fashion though, as she disappeared from the scene here after 1961, and I can’t find anything about her from that point on. Perhaps she passed away, but she left a beautiful legacy. As was said about her in 1952, she was “renowned for her refined taste and understatement of the dramatic that is in itself dramatic.” Coco Chanel would approve.

designers, sewing, sewing patterns

Alexander McQueen Genius

Photo: Vogue
Jacket: Alexander McQueen
Model: Anok Yai
Photographer: Ronan McKenzie

I came across this photo of an Alexander McQueen jacket (designed by Sarah Burton) in the November issue of Vogue, and it stopped me in my tracks. My husband thought I’d lost my mind as I showed him the seams and tried to figure out what was going on. The seam coming from under the arm was driving me crazy. Was it a dart? Was it a side seam? I couldn’t figure it out.

The bodice and waist are obviously two different pieces. If it was a seam, then I’d like to see how it was cut, because it makes no sense to me. It couldn’t be joining front to back because it ends at the top of the pocket. But I’ve also never seen a dart starting under the arm like that either. It does look like there is a side seam behind it, but that one doesn’t appear to be coming from under the arm.

I pretty much obsessed over figuring this out, then put it out on my Facebook page, to have my sewing friends weigh in. They agreed that it’s a dart, even though the placement isn’t like anything I’ve seen before — but I haven’t seen a lot of true couture garments up close, either. But then my friend and guru of all things sewing patterns (and sewing) weighed in. She said it’s a princess seam, or perhaps just a curved tailoring seam. It’s a seam, not a dart. She also said it’s a true pocket (some thought it was just a flap). And then she drew me out what the front would look like in the pattern. It’s in three pieces:

Drawing by Julie Kempf

It makes a lot more sense to me now. The tailoring on this jacket is amazing, and the results are beautiful. I’m going to have to study more designs and marvel at the patternmaking. It seems to be an Alexander McQueen year for me, because I’ve basically watched all of his shows on YouTube during lockdown, and I really want to get his book, Savage Beauty (buy it here). Also, if you get a chance to watch the documentary about him, McQueen, on Amazon Prime, do it. His death was such a loss to the fashion community. I’d have loved to see what he would have done today.

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1950s fashion, sewing patterns, sexual abuse

Birdcage Waist

Butterick 8227, ©1957

I listed this pattern in the shop the other day, and found the waistline interesting. They call it a “birdcage” waistline. It’s a cummerbund waistline that included large tabs — like belt loops for a cummerbund.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I love cummerbund waistlines. I think they give a wonderful silhouette, whether they are on a party dress or a sheath, but belt loop looking things? Hmm. That being said, View A is pretty fabulous, so I could be convinced. I want to see this in person.

In looking around, it appears that Mollie Parnis did a “birdcage jacket” in 1956 that was a short jacket that stopped above the waistline. Her collection of that season had a lot of high waisted dresses, so I’m sure that looked nice, and have seen patterns with that effect. Here’s a photo:

© Photo: Courier-Post, Camden, NJ

Pauline Trigere did a “bird cage” jacket in that same year, but it sounds confusing to me: “…for girls so reed-thin that there is no risk of a pregnant look. The bird cage’s big pouf is caught in just below the knees. She uses it in everything — coats, dresses, even headdresses made of veiling tied at the top and around the shoulders with velvet ribbon.” The jacket was hipbone length. I can’t envision what the look was.

Dallas Dickey designed a birdcage jacket in 1957 that was just one inch bands of linen, spaced an inche apart, and sewn only at the shoulder and hip, over a fitted sheath dress. The effect was to look like you were wearing a blouson jacket, but then up close “the sheath shape under the spaced bands is as visible as a parakeet.” These were done in different color versions, with the designer’s favorite being a gold jacket over a red, white or black sheath. This sounds interesting, and I’d love to see a real life version.

I did find a version of this particular dress, described in a New Jersey newspaper, and done by Mr. Sidney. These were full skirted dresses though, worn with more than one petticoat and striped around the waist in contrast to the vertically striped skirts.

I’m not sure what the inspiration was in the mid-50s for all these birdcage looks. If you have any ideas, drop it in the comments.

1950s fashion, Celebrity, designers, sewing, sewing patterns

Who was Hannah Troy?

McCall’s 5289, 1959, by Hannah Troy.

I came across this fantastic pattern the other day, and as I was listing it in the shop, noticed that it was designed by Hannah Troy. I’ve never seen a Hannah Troy pattern, and never heard of her, so I did some digging.

Hannah purportedly entered into the fashion industry in 1940 through a design she made herself, then sold for $3. She became a fashion model, and in a rather ballsy move for a model, suggested a different drape of fabric to the designer she was modelling for. I guess she didn’t believe in the (very wrong) belief that models are just clothes hangers and shouldn’t think. That suggestion led to her immediately becoming assistant to the designer, then head designer for another company, then to her branching off on her own to create Hannah Troy, Inc. Not bad for someone who started as a home sewist, yes?

Hannah revolutionized the clothing industry when she began designing for women with short waists. She was working as a model at May Company, and after spending days watching salespeople show short waisted women how to alter clothing to fit, decided there should be a petite line, made particularly for short waisted women. She enlisted help from the military, of all places, deciding that they would have the best database of women’s measurements. She got measurements of the WACs from the quartermaster, and found that the majority of women she studied were short waisted. She called the measurements she used in designing “Troyfigure,” and went to work.

One of Hannah’s most influential designs was one that Grace Kelly wore when she went to Europe early in her career. That also happened to be the trip where she met Prince Rainier. Hannah was also considered to be one of the most influential people in bringing attention to Italian fashion. In 1951, exports of Italian goods was $1 million, and by 1955, was $1 billion dollars, all in large part of the fact that she lauded the Italian goods. She was celebrated all over Italy for the help she gave their fashion industry, even being given the Star of Solidarity — the first American woman to be so honored.

Hannah designed with “complete wearability” as her foundation, and felt that the best designs were those that “lent themselves to the individual tastes of the greatest numbers of women.” She wanted to design for the masses, and bring the European styles to American women. Not unlike Coco Chanel, she felt that the best designs compliment, not overwhelm. Interestingly, she didn’t think women’s knees were pretty on anyone, even those with good legs. As the sixties marched on, she pronounced the pantsuit trend as “silly”, and thought the trend of women wearing teen styles was “ridiculous.” She did very well for herself, designing for a number of socialites and celebrities. Newspaper articles describe her apartment as elegant, and having decor that included rare antiquities from ancient Chinese dynasties.

She retired to Fort Lauderdale in the early 1970s, after thirty years in the fashion industry, and died of a heart attack June 22, 1993, in a Miami hospital. She was 93.

sewing, sewing patterns, vintage clothing, vintage fashion

Palazzo pants

McCall’s 3541, 1973.

Palazzo pants were a thing in the 1930’s, and were glamorous as heck. You saw them in beach pyjamas and loungewear especially. But as is the habit, fashion repeats itself, reinventing itself along the way. Palazzo pants were reinvented in the early 70s as “elephant pants.” I remember seeing a jeans version of these on the playground as a kid. An older girl, probably middle school age, had them, and I thought they were amazing. I couldn’t wait to grow up to wear them. They were made from worn denim and weren’t hemmed, dragging on the cement playground. I’d never seen anything like them.

Looking back, that image is heinous to me. I don’t remember if my older high school sisters wore them. I feel like my mom wouldn’t have approved, and my tiny sisters (5 feet 1 inch and 5 feet 1 1/4 inches – and you’d better believe that 1/4 inch was fought for) wouldn’t have been able to pull them off. A denim version of palazzo pants just didn’t really work. The look was revisited in the 90s with the skate culture, where it worked better as an aesthetic. How that girl pulled them off on the playground is beyond me.

This McCall’s pattern is a much better version of the elephant pants of the time. It’s disco ready, and would work great as cocktail or loungewear too. Make it in silk if you’re not clumsy like me. Add the front wrap top and you have a really chic look, yes?

Click here to purchase from the shop.

sewing, sewing patterns

The Learning Curve

Note the wonky stitching. LOL

I think I’ve said in the past that I’m kind of a fraud. I’ve been selling sewing patterns online for 20+ years. As in, I was selling on eBay when it listings were only text — no photos. I didn’t even own a digital camera. True fact: I got my first digital camera by trading my middle school son’s best friend for it. So yeah, I’m an online seller dinosaur.

The sewing pattern thing started when eBay came up with the stores concept. I opened a store in 2001, and was selling different things, with no real focus. I was doing some selling for other people as well, but it was a pain because of trying to get shipping materials, peanuts, bubble wrap, and worrying that things would get broken. I wanted to focus on one thing, but couldn’t figure out what. I really don’t know how I came up with sewing patterns, but I do know I got my first ones in the thrift store, and can still remember the particular one I first listed. And hence my store’s focus was developed.

My now-ex was on a mission trip to Mexico. I was home alone with the kids for a week, and I, being a night owl, was in heaven. No husband to answer to and I could stay up as long as I wanted. I finally had that digital camera, so I turned on The Two Towers and started listing patterns. I had the movie on primarily to listen to the music as I worked, and I think I heard it at least a dozen times that week. (Honestly, in that time period, I listened to a lot of movies, because the kids would watch them in the van while I drove. I think I heard The Others twenty times before I actually saw it. But I digress.) I was off to the races in selling, eventually becoming the second or third highest seller of patterns on eBay, depending upon the week.

But here’s the fraud part: I didn’t sew. I loved patterns, and had a very, very general idea of how to sew, but didn’t even own a machine. I bought one several years ago, and used it to make some Tshirt quilts for my stepsons from their mom’s Race for the Cure shirts. But then nothing. So in the past year, I’ve decided it’s time. I’ve made a few things and I’m still learning. I’m definitely a rookie, as you can see in past posts, but I’m learning.

I’ve found that sewing is pretty addictive, and it’s definitely fun. I pull up Spotify and listen to a music or podcasts while I’m working. Sometimes I rip out more than I sew, but that ratio is improving. I don’t always pay attention to directions. The project I’m working on now, from Rebecca Page, is a Christmas gift, and I didn’t really even read the directions. I’m kind of winging it, but it’s a project that is designed for that. My seams are wonky, and my colors aren’t always right, but when you’re sewing for grandkids, they don’t notice. I haven’t ventured beyond cotton (though the plaid part of this is wool) but it’ll come. It’s all a learning curve.

So if you’re learning to sew, just keep doing it. Be prepared to rip out a lot. Even experienced sewists do, from what I’ve seen. You may not like the end result. It’s not going to look professional, but that’s ok. Every project you do, you will learn more. You can add to your skill set. Just keep doing it. Start with small cotton projects till you get the basics down, and then move up from there. Of course, I started with Tshirt quilts, without using a walking foot, and without knowing a darned thing about what I was doing. Those quilts are definitely wonky, but my (adult) stepsons understood it’s the thought that matters and they like them. People are willing to overlook some flaws because most people are in awe that you tried. (Thank God for that!).

If you want to find some learn to sew patterns in my shop, click here. And check out this link for books to help you along the way.