Thursday, December 24, 2009

Preserving Vintage Patterns: What's Your Take?

Readers, I have a confession to make: I haven't been very good about caring for my vintage patterns. I pin them to my fabric, Scotch-tape any holes or tears, and make alterations directly on the tissue. (I can just see all you preservationists cringing as I write this!) According to many enthusiasts, the correct way to care for vintage patterns is to trace them off immediately and then neatly store them in a dry environment.

I'm coming around to seeing their point. I do want these patterns to be around for others to appreciate in the decades to come. I used to cavalierly proclaim that vintage patterns should be used and enjoyed, not stuffed away in a drawer. But the truth is that even if you're tracing them off, you're still using them and enjoying them. It's just an extra step that lazy seamstresses like myself would rather avoid.

I do still have one concern about simply storing patterns away for future generations. I think we need to be working towards having a digital archive of vintage patterns that would include pdfs of each of the pattern pieces. Because sooner or later, the tissue paper is going to disintegrate and no one will be able to use the patterns, even just to trace off of them. I've decided on my personal contribution to this digital archive, which is very exciting but in a secretive stage so I can't tell you anything about it. (Sorry! But trust me . . . it's going to be good.)

Anyway, what are your thoughts on the matter? How do you care for your vintage patterns? Are you an avid preservationist or a devil-may-care type?


  1. The digital archiving of patterns is a great idea. More people would have access to them, which may help solve dilemmas like yours: not finding all of the Vogue patterns referenced in the book you're using. Good thought...can't wait to see your solution!

  2. Since most of my patterns are not in my size, I copy them so I can cut and spread them to grade up. On the few patterns I have in my size or close to my size, I use them but with pattern weights, not pins. For my very fragile patterns, I will adhere them to fusible interfacing to prevent any further damage.

  3. I'm definitely in the pattern tracing camp. Most of my sewing is from Ottobre and BWOF so I'm pretty used to tracing anyway, and if I spend money on a vintage pattern I want to make sure I don't mess it up. I only cut into pattern tissue for contemporary patterns I buy for 99 cents or whatever at Joann's. (Actually, I think my personal cut-off for tracing is 3.99 so I can cut into New Looks-- HA.)

  4. GASP! I'm officially horrified! ;) (not really)maybe a little....)

    I iron my antique patterns on low heat, trace them and then lovingly put them back in the jacket, usually in the original folds and store in a plastic sleeve, then in an airtight bin!
    It gives me a thrill to imagine who used the pattern for the first time, especially the ones from the 1920's. They made it this far, I'm not going to be the one to kill it dead!

  5. I haven't traced off the ones that didn't seem very delicate, but I know it's a good idea. I'm so curious now about your archival plan.

    Merry Christmas!

  6. I don't, but when I die they're likely to be trashed anyway and I don't worry that the patterns I get have to be in pristine shape anyway (which means I get an awful lot of ones that have been through the wringer). If they are fragile, I will preserve them, and I do alterations on a trace off so I don't tear up the pattern.

    I think everyone is different. I don't spend that much for my patterns (or I draft them) so preservation isn't that important to me. If they begins to show signs of extreme wear I will do so, but otherwise, no.

  7. I'm a tracer for all patterns, even the 99cent contemporary ones. I know, I'm probably crazy, but I love my patterns and I want them to last!

  8. I always trace. I preserve my patterns in plastic and then file them according to decade (can you tell I'm a librarian?).

    We do have to preserve the patterns. The hardest part is scanning the pattern pieces because they are so big sometimes. I guess that is why Janet Arnold scales them down to include them in her historical pattern books.

  9. I don't like tracing, but my best vintage patterns are mainly from the 40's and early 50's, and they are so delicate it is difficult to use the originals. So, I trace them to get more use out of them. I do think we should be digitally archiving them, too, so they can be used for years to come.

  10. With every pattern I cut a copy out of a fabric, and keep it together with the original paper one.

    That way I can reuse it again and again.

  11. I'm horrible, I actually use them like I would any pattern with one small asterisk. I tape and pin but I never cut the pattern itself (I always buy my patterns used so they're already cut out.) So, if I decide I want a smaller size or if I'm going to change something, I trace it and modify from there.

  12. I work at a museum where it has been drilled into our brains not to touch anything old without gloves, so I feel like a rebel even holding the envelope in my hands. I mostly just look at my old patterns.

  13. I trace mine on -are you ready- parchment baking paper. It's cheap, about the right width for most pattern pieces and fairly durable. I also scan in the sewing instructions.

  14. I use swedish tracing paper, or non-fusible interfacing to copy all my patterns - even the non-vintage ones. It's laborious, but it preserves all the sizing and other details.

  15. I haven't used very many, but the ones I have were already cut and the wrong size anyway so they either were cut to resize or resized on newspaper. If it was an uncut pattern I would probably try to trace it, then butcher the traced paper to fit.

    While storing them on a PDF for personal use is probably ok, to try to create a database of vintage patterns, even at no charge to those that want to use them, could get sticky with copywrite issues.

    Here is a link to an informative article on Burda style relating to such matters. The copywrite on a pattern is active for 70 years from the time of last surviving designer’s death.

  16. Since I have more than I'll ever sew, I mainly look at them. I keep saying I should put each in their own protective sleeve, but have only done that with for really old/fragile ones.

    As for when I use them? I trace on Swedish tracing paper, although I could see myself using the actual pattern piece if it were an easy 70s pattern that didn't require an alteration and the tissue seemed strong enough. I wouldn't use pins, though!

    I also like to scan the fronts and enter them into the Vintage Pattern Wiki, which is a fantastic resource. I only wish that it allowed us to upload the backs of the pattern envelopes as well. Scanning pattern pieces is hard for me, since I only have a cheapo desktop 3-in-1 scanner.

    Oh, and incompletes? Those I have in a big box, ready to go off to Pattern Rescue someday!

  17. I'll be writing a post on this very subject at my blog in may want to watch for it!

  18. To continue on the copyright issue, there is someone who has already started digitizing and has their collection available for a price (due to licensing). COPA is a database that is used in costuming communities. It is usually a scan of the front and back of a pattern. Most older patterns showed the pattern pieces in mimiature on the back of the pattern, so as long as you know how to size up you can recreate the pattern from the pictures alone. Learn more about it here-

  19. I usually trace my vintage patterns twice; once to have an intact copy and once to have a copy I can alter. Several of my patterns are from the twenties and thirties and very fragile so I want to keep them as safe as possible. If I really like a pattern and plan to use it more than once or twice, I'll make a copy with the Swedish pattern tracing fabric from Folkwear.

    However, modern patterns generally get sliced and diced as I usually have to make several alterations.

  20. *ahem* I'm anal retentive and thrifty, yeah, that's the right word! enough that I trace all my patterns, vintage or not. Because if I don't, I'll want to use the pattern again, and it'll need to be in a different size, and I'm not good at sizing up and down, and... (I tend towards multi-sized patterns, mostly) Remember, I sew children's at the moment, and at Evie's age, they grow quickly.

    I would say that, for single-sized patterns at least, it depends on the condition. I have one I'm planning to make soon, and it's uncut vintage. Some might say that it needs to stay that way, but I don't. Depending on how fast Evie grows (it's a size 3) it'll be a birthday present. And I'm planning on cutting it out and using it before stashing it back in one of my pattern boxes.

  21. I like to trace my patterns and keep the original as a master copy. Swedish tracing paper makes this step easier.


  22. I typically trace my patterns on to freezer paper. I like to use freezer paper because you can iron it on to the fabric and peel it off. With that said, I don't have many vintage patterns and I have yet to make the couple that I do have.

  23. I copy mine onto interfacing or pellon, but that is mainly because I sell patterns. I copy the ones I might make.

    Sometimes when copying I'll trace the pieces onto muslin if it is a pattern that I'm unsure of the fit. I make it up and then adjust for fit, and then I save the muslin as my pattern.

    I do have several patterns that I love too much to sell. I haven't traced them, but will if I ever use them.

  24. I'm quite new to original vintage patterns, and have mainly stuck to BWOF previously, so it was very interesting to read the post/comments. I have to admit, that yesterday, just before reading this, I cut out a pattern in my size instead of tracing it... It was a new pattern though, but this post made me think, and yes, I do regret! Oh well, it will be tracing from now on. What's inconvenience and boring though, is to tape together pieces printed on a desktop printer, but I do see the future value of it.

  25. This is a great topic, Gertie! As a seller who has literally handled hundreds (nay thousands!) of vintage patterns in all sorts of conditions, I'd like to suggest some DOs and DONTs.

    Use your patterns! And if you are lucky enough to have an uncut vintage pattern and are precise in your cutting, no problem.
    Use pins! Just remember to take out the pins when you are finished as they can rust.
    Fold carefully so that the entire tissue is within the envelope. The envelope takes the hit in terms of exposure degradation. Exposure causes fraying. Fragile tissue pieces safely tucked away in the envelope remain in AMAZINGLY excellent condition after 50, 60, 70 years! Also, lack of careful folding (aka crumpling) is hard on tissue.
    Store the envelope in a plastic or archival sleeve to protect it from moisture, mold, etc.

    Tape when altering. Fold and pin instead, then remove pins when finished. Cello tape from the 40s and 50s on tissue is now stiff while oozing a sticky goo at the same time - dicey! Who knows what tape today will be like in decades hence unless it is archival tape. Only use archival tape and only to mend tears.
    Store in your basement (dampness, rodent nibbling - eek!) nor your attic. Store in the same way you would store a valuable book. Light degrades paper, as does any hint of moisture. By the same token, too dry and it sucks the moisture out of the paper, making it brittle. Balance is the key.

    I am impressed with all those who trace the patterns. And I suspect all who work with vintage patterns take excellent, excellent care of them. I just feel it is okay to actually use the patterns as intended. Care in storage is the key! IMHO. :)

  26. I normally trace mine but it's not so much because I am intent on preserving them as it is because I have so many alterations to make to get them to fit me!! Once I trace them off, I put the original pattern back in the envelope and put that envelope in a file folder and into the filing cabinet that I keep all my patterns in.

  27. Have you seen the Commercial Pattern Archive Project?

    I would just add to everyone's tips above to separate the pattern envelope from the tissue, and store the tissue with as few folds as possible.

  28. And to add to that last comment the "why"...

    The pattern envelope is often brittle, discolored, and often has that great old paper smell, right? That's because it is made from paper that doesn't stand up to the test of time. That paper is quite literally disintigrating - that great old paper smell is the product of the chemicals in the paper breaking down.

    Often times the tissue paper is made more stable, but the degenerating paper pattern envelope can actually cause some damage as it is breaking down.

    Better to separate the two if you wish to keep both the pattern tissue and envelope in good shape.

  29. I'm crying. Put me in the tracing camp. Squarely. Firmly.

  30. I just started with vintage patterns this year and after my first project, realized I better think about what I'm going to do to preserve them.

    My first project was a playsuit that was very old school. Pre cut with tiny holes or dots in the tissue and not much else. Du Barry 1930's I'm guessing by the number. I did use weights and carefully folded afterwards, but am still kicking myself for not paying better attention to the fact that THIS STUFF'S OLD! Now I'm tracing, ironing, and whatever else recommended to keep the history maintained.

    It's blogs like yours that inspired me to take the plunge into vintage and keep me going forward. The encouraging dialogue from the posts and comments keep me coming back to check out what's happening.

    Thanks Gertie!

  31. in the past I have cut and radically changed a vinage pattern, and I must admit that even though it was basic and similar to a modern day one, I still regret it. This is somehing I did when making for someone else, although making for myself I have made a resoulution to make from technical drawings when my personal slopers are complete. the last vintage pattern I used for myself was a 1960's coat pattern, which I folded rather than cut so that if would be of the cropped proportions I desired. Unfortunately the pattern doesn't fit, so the garment is left incomplete, and that is about the time I decided to make a sloper for myself, as I had wasted £60 of materials trying to make this jacket. I can reuse the buttons of course, which took up a 1/4 of the budjet, (just four beautiful vintage moulded glass buttons that scream quality)
    Unfortunately the fabric I had chosen for the lining which perfectly matches the buttons (despite being made in different eras) will be harder to come by.
    I guess its a life lesson learnt, and you can spend a lot more than that in university fees. :) I'm glad I didn't take it from my savings, or it would have left me more skint than before.

  32. Two points i'm not sure were mentioned?
    In some cases, the paper will last longer than a digital pattern. If something is in digital form, it must be updated every few years to the latest format, as the programs that are used to read them are discontinued or the standards change. I have files from 10-15 years ago that I cannot read now because the word processor used to make them is no longer available, and probably wouldn't run on a modern operating system. If you think of things like Microsoft Word, you may have noticed that under the saved file types there are options for the previous versions of Word, and that Word will open old versions in "Compatibility Mode" - Microsoft has to maintain these formats in their new programs so that people can open their old files, and people with different versions can still communicate.
    Compare all this work to just looking at an old piece of paper. Paper degrades slower than file formats become obsolete! (But of course digital forms are still very useful)
    The other thing is - if you're not going to cut up your vintage patterns, maybe you shouldn't cut up your modern ones either. How hard is to find good vintage patterns? In the future, our current patterns will be vintage, so maybe we should preserve them now!


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

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