Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Shopping for Vintage Patterns: Let's Discuss!

Since I've been trying to track down all the patterns from Vogue's New Book for Better Sewing, I've been thinking a lot about the process of buying vintage patterns online.

As I've mentioned before, the book features 14 patterns that were published by Vogue sometime between 1950 and 1952, and it's my goal to make every one of them. Some of the patterns have been easy to come by, then there are others that I'm starting to doubt will ever turn up. Sadly, my favorite (the full-skirted shirtdress) is one of the latter!

The internet is a grand thing, no question about it. I mean, how else would we find these gems? But also, of course, it brings a lot of bad with the good. And honestly, I find I'm getting a bit of search fatigue. The best way I know to find a pattern you're desperately seeking is to set up a Google alert for it, so that every time a Google search matches your term, you get an e-mail. This is a wonderful tool, but it's definitely not perfect. I get a ton of non-related items, like dresses for Ginny Dolls, which are apparently made by a company called Vogue Dolls. So, you see the pitfalls.

And then I worry that perhaps my Google alert is missing something, so I still obsessively troll Etsy, eBay, and the like.

Anyway, I've gotten very curious about others' vintage pattern shopping habits. What are your favorite sites? Do you have any tips or tricks for locating a pattern you desperately want?

Also, what lengths do you go to for vintage patterns? What's the most you've paid for one? Do you generally only buy your general size, or are you willing to make major size adjustments?

I used to be very picky about which patterns I would buy--only in my general size range, and never more than $20. Ah, those innocent days are gone. Now I've paid way more than I'm even willing to admit (for the evening gown from VoNBBS) and am finding myself in the position of having to actually learn how to grade patterns, since a lot of the patterns are in 30"and 32" bust sizes. Ack!

So, please tell me about your shopping habits. I'm dying to hear!

P.S. The fab sundress pattern featured above is for sale from lovely Etsy seller Midvale Cottage. It's in a 36" bust at a totally reasonable $10. Someone snap it up before I do, please!


  1. I will buy up to 4" larger bust size and have had success with grading them down. If I see something that I absolutely have to have but it is outside my 4" size range, I just watch it and search endlessly to find it somewhere else. So far, this has worked with the exception of one that I see on Etsy that is 3 sizes too big and apparently does not exist anywhere else.

    I actually don't mind the pattern grading. I don't have tracing paper, and since most vintage patterns are used and already cut I lay them on brown paper (got a huge roll at Lowes in the painting section) and trace around it and cut it out. Then I start slashing and overlapping. I tape them in place with clear packing tape and keep them in a large artist's portfolio envelope thingy.

    I have all of my known sellers bookmarked and I checked them regularly for new stock. I was on a roll where I was buying maybe 2-3 patterns per week. I am now at over 75 and I decided to stop buying for a while...it gets so addicting.

    I paid $40 for my wedding dress pattern (it seemed worth it at the time) but now I have a limit of $10, $12 if it is really special.

  2. Thanks for your input, Kerry! Do you follow the instructions on the Sensibility site for grading? I get the slashing and overlapping thing, but how do you handle darts? That's the only thing I don't understand about that process. Help!

    $40 for a wedding dress pattern is definitely worth it! Think how much some brides spend on their dresses--yikes.

  3. I've not yet taken a pattern making class so I'm a bit trapped within patterns that are actually (or close to) my size.

    Thank you so much for linking that sundress. I never thought I'd be able to buy vintage since I'm a 2009 size 10 (36 bust) wich equals about a size 18 in the 1950's.

    I not only got that fabulous number but another dress from the 70s (can't resist anything that calls for feathers) and a pool cover up muu-muu with puffed sleeves, might be the cutest thing ever.

    Thanks again!!

  4. Jenna, I'm so happy you bought that pattern! I'm between a vintage 34" and 36", so I feel your pain. The patterns are out there, they're just not as plentiful as some of the smaller sizes.

  5. I have bought sizes larger and smaller than by (only by a few inches) and just graded them. None of these had any darts or fanciness though, just standard type dresses and I did use the Sensibility trick for grading. The ones larger than you are actually easier, I think, b/c I tend to cut in the actual pattern. The toughest part is doing it to unmarked patterns...all that blank space is daunting.

  6. Is there a book out there on pattern grading? I always screw up on cause and effect...if I take in the sides,it effects the armholes which then effects the sleeves...yikes!

    And I definitely rather grade up than down. I can't handle getting rid of the space...much better at adding it!

    I buy most of my vintage patterns on ebay. It is so much easier to look up a pattern number! Also, I love etsy. I need easy!

  7. Hi Gertie, I am so glad I stumbled across your blog, I'm addicted!

    I haven't paid over $25 for a pattern, but the one I paid that for I would have gone up a lot further if the bidding had gone that way. I think it's like what you said about expensive fabric, this pattern was an even better, 1940's version of a dress I was contemplating buying at anthropologie a few years ago, so I justify it that way by comparison (I count my labor as free in the justification arithmetic; if I didn't enjoy at least most of it I wouldn't do it). Probably there's more risk with a pattern than with fabric, you're less sure you're going to be able to figure out how to make it do what you want it to do, and you're buying it sometimes without even seeing fully all the line drawings and there can be surprises.

    I was thinking for serious pattern searching on something really specific, I got some good, unexpected help from Lisa @Miss Helene's via email when I was trying to find something she no longer had in stock, she found it for me at someone else's shop, even when it meant I wasn't spending any money at hers. I wonder if she has any insider tricks.

    And replying to Cindy, there are good reviews on Amazon: How to Make Sewing Patterns (Paperback)
    by Donald H. McCunn-- it's on my wish list but haven't gotten around to reading, has anyone? Or other suggestions? Burdastyle.com has a free downloadable bodice sloper if that's of any help http://www.burdastyle.com/patterns/show/1345

  8. Hey Gertie, I'm so glad I found your blog, I love it! I'm so impressed you can do grading, I've always found it too scary and haven't really tried. Sometimes If I really want a pattern to fit me and its too big, I make up a toile in calico in the big size, and then alter it to my size by pinning it to fit me and taking it in. Then I unpick the altered toile and use those pieces as my pattern. Such a flawed process I'm sure its 'incorrect' but it has worked for me in the past!

  9. HI Gertie,
    I do use the Sensibility method. Since I only have to go down for myself for sizing (I'm a 30 bust) I don't have to worry about things getting too out of proportion. I did great a 1970s knit wear pattern from an 8/30" bust to a 36" bust for a friend. The muslin looked OK but then when I made the actual top it looked ginormous. I haven't tried it on her yet, so we'll see.

    Sometimes I have to move bust darts around; that is a much less scientific/math oriented process. Should darts and back darts I don't worry about too much; bust darts I check on my dress form to see if the apex lines up and then I move them up if necessary. Vertical back darts often have to be moved up and redrawn when I tape the pattern back together. The dart positioning is pretty much trial and error.

    I did just recently buy on eBay a book from 1971 called The Perfect Fit; it's a pattern drafting system very similar to Lutterloh, and it is written in a similar style as VoNBSS (lot's of enthusiasm!). This will be my next experiment in pattern drafting.

  10. Welcome, Hillary and Frances! Thanks for stopping by.

    I wouldn't say that I can grade patterns at all, in the strict meaning of the word. It's actually a very coplicated process from what I've seen, and the sensibility method is really re-sizing, not grading.(http://www.sensibility.com/pattern/resizepattern.htm)

    But whatever works, right? And Cindy, I'm so with you on the cause and effect thing. Great, now I've changed the size of the bodice, and the sleeves are all out of wack!

    I tend to buy a size 34", which fits me in the shoulder and the bust, and then just add width to the waist and hips--but tapering down from the armholes, and down to the hem. This way the sleeves and the width of the bottom of the skirt stay the same. This has worked very well for me.

  11. Just wanted to stop by and say that I truly enjoy your blog. I'm guilty of paying about $100 for a pattern. That was for a to die for/hard to find pattern. Normally I try and keep it under $20. 99.99% of the time it's the wrong size. So far I've resized/graded 3 patterns. I used a combination of Andrea's instructions (http://newvintage.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/how-to-grade-patterns/) and Kenneth King's using a sloper instructions to resize my patterns. The best part of using the sloper is that it helps line the darts up in the proper place.

  12. I've always had to alter patterns since I'm 5'11" with plenty of padding and linebacker shoulders, so buying patterns not in my size just means a little more work. I've never paid more than $30 for a single pattern, but I've also waited years for something to come up that I really want.

    I concentrate on the 1940's (it's the shoulders and economical use of material) and the Edwardian period. I like Decades of Style and Sense & Sensibility and have quite a few of their patterns.

    I just found your blog (from your Sew Retro entry) and have been working my way through from the beginning. It's wonderful to see those old patterns made up into new clothes! Thank you so much for your sharing them.

  13. http://vintagepatterns.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page Is very good for finding vintage patterns. But I guess you already use that site?

  14. Love your blog! I too have a fascination for all things vintage. I've actually been trying to find the Vogue book. I am going to a wedding next weekend and want to make a dress for it. I really like the full skirt.

    A little tip for finding patterns. Try Freecycle.com. I posted something on it in my local area looking for vintage sewing books, patterns and fabric and recived a few responses. I only have to drive to pick them up. I haven't gotten anything from the 50s but I did get something from 1933. Doesn't hurt to ask. You never know what people are willing to part with when they know someone will appreciate it.

  15. Just discovered this sight today. Really enjoy it. I love old patterns as well, especially from 1950's. I've found patterns on eBay like you, but I also find them at Antique stores. I've found quite a few there, and Estate Sales too - mostly at Estate Sales I find fabric. You might show some Antique dealers in the area what you are looking for.

    I haven't sewn anything in a while. I feel like a pattern collector only now. I need to get motivated.

    Have fun sewing! Love that bolero pattern! Cynthia

  16. Hi - feel a little late coming to the party but I have been making clothes from vintage patterns since about 1985 - you used to be able to p8ick them up so easily in charity shops (I am in teh UK) but they are much harder to find. I keep my eyes open in local charity shops, and have one that specialises in vintage stuff and they have a section. In 1984 I was about a 32 inch bust, I am now verging on 40 and, having had a child, I have gone from pear (very good for vintage measurements) to apple (not so good for anything other than interesting necklines!). I had quite a collection of patterns back in the day, but most were lost in moves, and now I have rekindled my interest so am starting again. A very good book for altering sizes is: How to Use, Adapt and Design Sewing Patterns: From Shop-bought Patterns to Drafting Your Own: A Complete Guide to Fashion Sewing with Confidence [Paperback] by Lee Hollahan - about £10.50 with Amazon. I also have another which I find v good but a bit more intense: Pattern Cutting (Portfolio Skills) [Paperback] by Dennic Chunman Lo (£15 ish). Anyway - onwards to browse your site.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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