Mena Trott shares her clothing sewing at the fabulous The Sew Weekly. Since Fall of 2009 Mena has sewn something to add to her amazing wardrobe every week, with the hope that by the end of 2010 she’ll have an entire wardrobe full of clothes she made herself. You can learn more about The Sew Weekly and see the entire wardrobe so far here. Most of Mena’s sewing incorporates vintage fabrics, patterns, notions, etc., and Mena is a huge fan of vintage styles. We’re so happy she’s here today to share some tips for sewing with vintage patterns.

I have a few confessions to make:

  • I don’t make muslins.
  • I don’t trace my patterns onto tracing paper.
  • I don’t know how grade a pattern up or down.
  • I’m still learning how to insert a zipper without it looking like a big mess.

With all those secrets out of the way, I have to tell you a bigger secret: You don’t have to be a pro to sew a nice vintage garment.

So if Sew,Mama,Sew! has tasked me with writing a tutorial on sewing with vintage patterns, why in the world would I start my article like that? It’s simple: I want to inspire you to open those dusty and age-worn pattern envelopes and conquer any fears about sewing vintage. I’ve only been sewing seriously since September 2009 and in the past nine months I’ve gained all sorts of experience from the mistakes I’ve made. With only a few exceptions, I’ve only sewn from vintage patterns– about 45 articles of clothing since last September. I’ve worked from patterns ranging from the 1920s to the 1970s and in no way am I an expert. But that’s okay because sewing vintage is not as difficult as it seems!

For those of you who have yet to discover the vintage sewing world, here’s what I have learned along the way:

Pick an era, any era. I mostly sew from patterns from the 1940s for a number of reasons. One, they require a lot less fabric than other decades and that’s a cost savings. Early and mid-1940s style wasn’t just a preference, it was a mandate. The rationing of fabric is clearly reflected in the strict guidelines these 1940s patterns follow. Two, 1940s fashions are incredibly wearable in 2010. A 1945 dress can blend in with modern styles (if you actually want to blend in) in a way that dresses from, say, 1955 can’t. Three, I’m a mother of a toddler and need practical clothing. Four, I just like the style! Spend some time on sites like the Vintage Pattern Wiki and discover what style is best suited to your body shape and your lifestyle.

Decide whether you’re a vintage sewing purist or a vintage pattern enthusiast and be content in your decision. Here’s a quick quiz on whether you’re a purist or an enthusiast:

Your pattern instructs you to sew in muslin for interfacing. Do you:
a. Faithfully consult your vintage sewing book and follow the steps to interface your garment like in the good old days.
b. Embrace the fact that iron-on interfacing was invented for a reason.

It’s button hole time! Do you:
a. Hand stitch your bound buttonhole. After all, that’s what the instructions call for!
b. Get that buttonhole sewing machine foot out and press a button.

“A” you’re a purist, “B” you’re me. But even if you’re an enthusiast, you’re going to want to invest in an old school sewing book. Vintage patterns are not only sparse in instructions (compared to modern patterns), they also call for techniques have often been improved upon. If you’re a vintage sewing purist and want to stick to all the old techniques, you’re going to need a book to guide your way through construction. If you’re not a purist (like me), you’re at least going to need these books to make sense of the terms used. By the way, a slide fastener is a zipper.

Sewing vintage doesn’t have to be expensive! My number one source for patterns has been estate sales and flea markets. To find estate sales, simply do a Craigslist search for “vintage” “sewing” and “estate sale.” Flea markets are usually on Sundays and can be found through online directories. Both options are likely to be sources of fairly inexpensive patterns covering a huge range of years. eBay and Etsy are also good sources but be wary of being price-gouged (more on eBay than Etsy) — if there’s a pattern you love for $65, be patient. You’re likely to find a similar pattern somewhere else for $15. The pattern companies of yesteryear were notoriously ruthless about copying styles and that benefits us today. You’re going to have the most luck finding McCall’s, Simplicity, Butterick and Vogue patterns; the older (and often more expensive) gems tend to be patterns from companies like Hollywood Patterns, Pictorial Review, Advance and New York Patterns.

As a rule, I usually don’t pay more than $10 for a pattern. There are exceptions, but few. Even with that limitation, I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself of buying the styles I like.

It’s not just about patterns! I love using vintage fabric and notions. And if you shop at flea markets and online, you can find your supplies for prices that rival their modern counterparts. Just be sure to pay attention to selvedge width. Older patterns will most often call for yardage based on 35″, 39″ or 44″ width. Vintage fabric corresponds with those measurements so you’ll want to take that account when purchasing.

All of this came from one estate sale. The cost? $20.

Know your bust size! Modern sizing and vintage sizing vary greatly so you’re going to be relying on your bust, waist and hip measurements. Thankfully, bust size often is enough of an indicator of the general fit of an entire outfit. Depending on the fabric you’re using and the shape and silhouette of a garment, you might be able to buy a size above or below your bust size and have few issues. My general rule of thumb is stick with my correct bust size when working with non-stretch fabrics and snug dress lines. While I don’t make a muslin, I constantly try on the pieces I’m working with and then make adjustments. Once you’re ready to re-size patterns, there are a number of tutorials online.

A dress form is your friend. While my resizable dress form is fairly true to my measurements and I can check for basic fit, the dress form serves more as a way to wrap my head around a pattern’s construction. Often, when I can’t make sense of instructions, my dress form puts it in three-dimensional perspective. I can honestly say that having a dress form improved my sewing skills drastically.

Mark up that fabric! Those notches and circles and dotted lines? They’re all there for a reason. Sewing with vintage patterns (all patterns, really) will be so much easier if you error on the side of over-marking. There are tons of supplies out there that will aid you in marking up your fabric pieces. Check out Sally’s guide to sewing tools to get you started.

Don’t tackle more than you are comfortable sewing. At least for now. If you’re not ready to sew sleeves, look for sleeveless styles or sleeves cut in one with the blouse. If you’ve never worked with a vintage pattern, stick to printed patterns. (Yes, there are patterns that aren’t printed — they are simply marked with holes — circles, squares and notches). Pick a pattern that you could imagine constructing even if you lost the instructions. Basically, don’t feel like you need to start with a couture masterpiece. Practice will make you a better seamstress and you’ll soon be creating real works of art.

Additional resources from our archives to help you work with vintage patterns:

We also really like this Pattern Making Measurement Chart from Michelle from Keyka Lou Patterns.


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We’re giving away fabulous prizes this month from SINGER, Ottobre Design and Sew,Mama,Sew!

1–Comment Here

Comment in any post this month to be entered into a weekly drawing for great prizes from SINGER and Sew,Mama,Sew!

2–Enter the Make It, Wear It! Challenge

Submit a photo of clothing you make this June in our Make It, Wear It! Challenge photo pool or in this thread in the Forum. You might win a SINGER sewing machine or a subscription to Ottobre.

See this post for details about all the prizes this month!