When you think of the collector of vintage (glassware, jewelry, decor, figurines) often times you imagine glass front curio cabinets, locked jewelry boxes, and high shelves that are out of reach from touchy, grabby fingers. And there is nothing wrong with a preservationist collector who wants to keep their items as pristine as possible.
I, however, am not that collector.
At the tender age of nine years old I caught the sewing bug. Winters in northern Minnesota are very long, very cold, and very boring, especially when you live 30 miles from the nearest town. Things must be found to occupy both one’s hands and one’s mind. Sewing it was, along with any other form of needlework and craft we could come up with, as well as painting and drawing. It was a very Laura Ingalls Wilder childhood.
Fast forward 30+ years and sewing is my life. The funny thing about youth is that you don’t always recognize the thing that will become your life’s obsession or passion as it is quietly working its way into your heart. At the time I was learning to sew, it was simply something to do to pass the time, something my mom could occupy me with to keep me out of her hair, a simple hobby.
I started with a pillow for my first project. As each project succeeded, on some level my yearning for new projects and new challenges grew. My imagination for the things I could create began to grow with my skills.
I was also a veracious reader (again, what else is there to do in northern winters?). I started imagining making the clothing of my favorite characters — Laura Ingalls being one, Scarlett O’Hara another.
Sewing evolved into a way for me to time travel. Eventually I found my way into studying costume design for the theater, and it was there that I started to learn about and appreciate vintage sewing patterns, sewing books, and all forms of advertising ephemera that had pictorial representations of fashion. I learned, in the theater, how to go about recreating the past using all of these resources.
I was in college, working in the costume design department of the community theater, when I caught my first windfall of sewing patterns. Someone donated 6-8 giant trash bags of brand new, last season patterns to the theater. I couldn’t have been more in awe if someone had dropped off that many bags of solid gold bricks. I was a broke college student and patterns were not in my budget. Unwittingly, the costume designer set me on the collector’s path. She took the patterns she wanted for the theater and gave the rest to us lowly stitchers. I took home around 50 patterns that day stunned with my new sewing wealth.
A couple weeks later I was at a rummage sale and there I spied a box of sad, overlooked patterns from what I now know were the 1950s/60s. I think I paid $1 for the whole box. And the rest is history.
I collected mostly modern patterns over the next couple of decades while I operated a custom sewing and alteration business. Every once in a while I would stumble on a great vintage cache and snatch them up, but I wasn’t using the vintage ones, only the modern ones. I would just stare at the beautiful artwork of the vintage pattern envelopes and dream about making the outfits they depicted.
Eight or nine years ago I decided to quit being afraid of my vintage patterns and actually try putting one together. The instructions, the style lines, the finishing details, while basically similar to modern patterns, have a flavor of their own. Each era slightly different from the one before or the one behind. Different fabrics are favored in the 20s vs. the 60s. Buttons and snaps vs. metal or nylon zippers. Loose fitting, drop waist flapper dresses vs. nipped in New Look 50s dresses. Hand written notes on sizing and fabric choices, dress A for Betsy, dress B for Jane. Every pattern, a portal in time!!
Now I use my vintage pattern collection every chance I get. While I am careful to preserve the delicate tissue paper and pattern envelopes as best as I can, I want to USE them and recreate the feeling and essence of all those different eras. I carefully trace every pattern piece and make copies of the front and back of the pattern envelope. Then I tuck away the originals to continue in their preserved slumber.
I don’t just want to stare at the pretty pattern envelope and imagine what it might be like to wear a slinky 1930s bias cut evening gown, I want to experience it! Well, I haven’t tackled this one yet, but it’s on my bucket list!
The way I look at it, is these patterns are paper and they are eventually going to break down into dust, even with the most perfect care. Making and recreating these pieces is a way for me to contribute in a small way to keeping the knowledge and understanding of these patterns alive.
These days I am much more particular and specific about the patterns I collect. Mostly women’s lingerie, dress, and gown patterns that are pre 1960s. That means I have a HUGE collection of patterns that are no longer my interest area, but they are someone’s. Those patterns I sell so that other vintage sewing lovers like me can keep them alive.
Some of the Vintage Sewing Items in Your Vintage Friends’ Shops
Click on any of the images below to be redirected to the shop item.