Collecting Vintage Sewing Patterns
The first thing to know about collecting vintage sewing patterns is that the temptation to add "just one more" pattern to your collection is irresistible. A hundred patterns here, a hundred patterns there -- after a while it adds up to quite a bit of space....
No matter what your favorite style or era, eventually you may have questions. How old is my pattern? How much is it worth? What happened to the company that made it? Where can I find my favorite styles or brands? What's the best way to store my collection?
There's a lot of information available out there -- some of it accurate; some not so much. Here's a roundup of some of the sources we've found the most useful and reliable.
FEB 2014: Many of articles referenced here have been removed by their owners. This article needs an overhaul, and we'll get to it soon.
For an overview of practical matters, A Beginner's Guide to Pattern Collecting by Jennifer Warris is an excellent place to begin. Jennifer's guide hits all the points you need to consider (including quite a few you've probably never thought of) and it's easy and enjoyable reading. Although originally posted in 1999, the guide remains pertinent today. One thing we would update: the book A Century of American Sewing Patterns 1860 - 1959 Identification and Price Guide by Lori Hughes has been supplanted by other resources.
For your next step, we recommend the vintage patterns overview written by Vintage Fashion Guild members Karen Gray and Elizabeth Bramlett. It's an easily digested summary of the history of sewing patterns and a good introduction to the important pattern companies.
Reference books on vintage sewing patterns are few and far between, unfortunately. A Century of American Sewing Patterns was sold directly by the author and based largely on her collection. For many years it was the only book available, and you still can track down a copy for quick, hard-copy reference. But its popularity declined after the publication of two Blueprints of Fashion books, one covering the 1940s and one the 1950s, by costume designer Wade Laboissonniere. (Both titles are available directly from Schiffer Books.)
Antique and collectibles price guides sometimes include a line or two about sewing patterns, but the focus is usually on antique sewing machines or those wonderful (and pricey!) antique sewing tools.
Most vintage pattern sellers include tips, links, and other useful information on their sites and/or blogs, and you'll learn a lot just browsing. You'll also find contradictory information. Learning about vintage sewing patterns is a ongoing process, and the more you learn yourself, the better you'll be able to evaluate online sources.
How much to spend
One of the joys of collecting vintage sewing patterns is that it's a relatively inexpensive hobby: pricing on vintage patterns starts at just a few dollars. You'll find an extensive selection of great patterns for $25 or less; most exceptional patterns for under $100, and virtually any sewing pattern ever made for less than $350. So adding to your collection is manageable without blowing your budget -- with a little willpower!
On the other hand, there is no Blue Book of vintage sewing pattern values. So when you get started, you're not going to know if that $10 pattern is a bargain -- or if that $50 pattern is outrageously overpriced. Nor will you be familiar with the many factors that go into pricing decisions on the part of sellers.
Narrowing your focus helps because you can learn about and recognize patterns in your chosen area much quicker than if you try to digest the whole range of sewing patterns made since the 1860s. Concentrate on a style, maker, era or theme -- and when you do see a pattern in your specialty, you'll know whether it's common or not; you'll have a general expectation of the price range; and then you can decide if you love it enough to spend the money.
Which brings us to one basic precept of collecting anything: Buy what you love, and buy the best example you can find and afford. There are two prices for any sewing pattern: (1) what you could reasonably expect to sell it for on the open market, and (2) what it's worth to you. The pride and joy of our collection is the 1920s McCall breakfast coat pattern show here. While it's nice to know the pattern's fair market value is much higher than the price we paid, it's even better to know that we could have paid five times what we did and still felt it was worth it. That's what makes for happy collecting.
Finding great patterns
Local availability of vintage sewing patterns varies tremendously depending on where you live -- and how much shopping stamina you have. Some people can find great patterns at their neighborhood thrift shop; others can't because their shops throw away donated patterns. Estate sales, auctions, even garage sales can be sources of wonderful patterns -- if you have the time and the patience.
Happily, the number of vintage sewing patterns available online has never been greater -- although you may have to spend more time looking. As eBay changed its policies, any of the folks who started out selling patterns on eBay have departed to other sites like the Sewing Palette, or opened their own storefront.
Naturally, we hope you'll shop here first. You may also enjoy the 22 sites listed in the annotated directory compiled by Sweet Sassafras. You may find it helpful to keep a few notes on the places (and date) you've visited. Some sites will be a better fit to your collecting taste, and some are updated more frequently than others.
If you're looking for a specific pattern without any luck, pay a visit to the Vintage Sewing Patterns Wiki. There are over 40,000 vintage patterns cataloged as of March 2011. And while they're not for sale, the entries may include a link to an online shop that does have it.
If all else fails -- or if you discover a favorite pattern is missing pieces or instructions -- head on over to Pattern Rescue. It's a not-for-profit site that maintains stray pieces for vintage sewing patterns, and there's a Post section where members help each other find replacement pieces or complete patterns for sale. You can also donate patterns you don't want -- and pick up a few patterns that you do!
Dating your patterns
Dating vintage sewing patterns is largely a matter of experience and practice. You learn the date of one pattern, then another. Your brain records the sometime subtle differences (honest! it does!) and eventually all those bits and pieces of information come together. You, too, could someday be able to glance at a bad photo of a large group of so-called 1940s pattens and realize instantly that half of them are from the 1950s and 1960s.
The easiest patterns to date are those from McCall's and Simplicity. Nearly all McCall's patterns are dated somewhere on the envelope, and the majority of Simplicity patterns from the 1940s are too (for 1940s and 1950s patterns, check the instruction sheet; from 1964 on, check the envelope). You can figure out the approximate date of your undated pattern by comparing it to patterns whose date is known.
For an at-a-glance history and dating resource, check out the guide at Vintage Fashion Library. Organized by pattern maker, Lisa's guide includes bullet points about the company, specific dating tips where available, and a row of photos illustrating their patterns over the decades. It mentions the lesser-known companies, too.
The general vintage sewing pattern dating guide at Cemeterian is organized by decade and include photos of patterns, pattern catalogs and fashion magazines, giving you a good sense of the styles. Rita uses the same decade organization for individual pages covering the major pattern makers, with more photos and a bit of company history thrown in, too. (Look for links to these pages at the bottom of the start page.)
There are also dating charts by pattern company and number in both the Blueprints of Fashion books. The charts cover only the decade discussed in the book.
Every month seems to bring new sites and more information online about vintage sewing patterns -- which is great news as far as we're concerned! There are things we have to add, and new sites we haven't visited yet. We'll be expanding this article from time to time, and we hope you'll let us know of any resources you find along the way. In the meantime, happy collecting!