A Guide to Vintage Sewing Patterns: Victorian Era to the 1980s
Vintage sewing patterns are a great way to revisit the olden times and revive some cultural retro clothing appearances. Most designers also use them for teaching retro culture or as inspiration for designing new garments.
The vintage sewing pattern industry has been in existence since the early 1800s. Its popularity peaked in the late 1970s-early 1980s when there was an increase in women’s equality and participation in fashion design.
This article will introduce you to some of the most popular eras of vintage sewing patterns and provide information on where to find them online.
History of Sewing Patterns
The creator of the first-ever sewing pattern was a woman named Ellen Curtis Demorest. This pattern featured in her magazine called Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashion in 1860.
The magazine listed several sewing patterns that were available in one size only. The patterns were flat, and you could cut them to shape or pay an additional fee for an assembled pattern.
Image: Hub Pages
After the Demorest sisters introduced the first sewing patterns, others soon followed suit. An American tailor, called Ebenezer Butterick, brought something new to the table two years later.
He introduced tissue paper patterns in multiple sizes, stealing the spotlight.
The now widely-known Butterick company soon became famous for:
- mass production of various dress patterns for kids, women, and men,
- Introducing a detailed envelope that held the paper,
- Introducing an enlarged instruction sheet called Deltor,
- Producing printed tissue patterns somewhere around 1920.
By 1932, all pattern envelopes had full-color illustrations on them. The Mccall Pattern Company, which started in 1870, played a significant role in introducing color illustrated patterns.
Sewing patterns became popular in the 19th century, and their popularity peaked around 1910. The introduction of sewing machines made pattern use more accessible to a wider audience as they were easier to mass-produce and offered standardized sizing options.
Sewing patterns became popular for beginning sewers who needed step-by-step directions.
They also became convenient for experienced sewists looking for new ideas or designs that they could alter easily by switching out fabrics or other materials like lace.
Best Vintage Sewing Patterns Companies that Still Operate
In the early 19th century, many new pattern companies sprung up, producing various retro dress patterns that marked the century’s clothing style. Out of these many companies, only four managed to survive and still operate as the best pattern sellers among us in the 21st century.
If you’re a sewing geek, you must already be familiar with the following companies:
- McCall Pattern Company
These companies have the best vintage sewing patterns in the world that date back to the Victorian era.
From vintage titanic costume patterns to vintage dress sewing patterns, you are likely to rediscover a new world of retro-style clothing with this extensive sewing pattern archive.
Image: Sew Direct
The Simplicity pattern company is the most prominent pattern producing company in today’s world. James J. Shapiro started the company in 1927 in New York.
Simplicity relieved the women during the Great Depression by allowing them to create fashionable clothing at home.
The reliable Vintage Patterns Wikia site shows 21,000 search results on the keyword Simplicity. The site is a dedicated online resource with more than 83,500 patterns available to the public.
Some of these vintage collectibles include:
- Bridesmaid’s dress patterns
- Ladies’ gowns retro dress sewing patterns
- Maternity shirtwaist dress
- Top pants skirt patterns
- Full-length coat patterns
- Lingerie nightgowns
- Girls’ jumper dress patterns
- Hiphugger pants
- Strapless jumpsuits, and thousands more to name.
Simplicity patterns have produced new sewing patterns for men, women, and children since the 19th century. These are highly affordable and come with many easy-to-follow instructions and pieces.
Butterick is the sewing pattern company credited with inventing the modern-day paper sewing pattern as we know it today.
Image: Eye Mu
With over a century of experience manufacturing patterns for women’s clothing, they are among the most enduring companies in this industry next to McCall Pattern Company.
Butterick published their first catalog featuring various styles at an affordable price point and has grown to be a household name among sewers worldwide.
The line includes everything from timeless classics like pencil skirts to innovative designs such as reversible dresses or jumpsuit sewing patterns.
McCall Pattern Company
Image: Eye Mu
McCall’s publishes vintage sewing patterns that range from women’s wear to men’s wear and children’s clothing. The company also sells home decorating products such as draperies and gift wrapping.
McCall also produces books on various topics relating to fashion design, fabric selection, tailoring techniques for skirts and jackets, etc. The books emphasize making custom garments rather than commercial clothes production based on standard sizes or generic templates.
McCalls Pattern Company offers online access to its sewing pattern archives which date back over 100 years.
Here are some examples of the vintage patterns the company sold in the mid 19th century:
- Ladies bathing suit swimwear
- Ladies sheath skirt
- Infinite dress gown
- Annie top pants shorts
- Ladies stretch knit tops
- Halloween costume patterns for kids
- Christmas costume pattern
- Decorator birds craft pattern
- Ladies maxi dress
The Vogue pattern company started selling sewing patterns in 1916. The Vogue pattern line falls under the Mccall Pattern company. Each year the magazine produces more than 700 patterns. Here are some of the vintage patterns that the Vogue Patterns Company sold back in the day:
- Ladies’ blouse
- Ladies’ lace top
- Sheath slim dresses
- Cocktail evening gowns
- Ladies’ gloves
- Lingerie robes
The table below gives some information about some old sewing pattern companies no longer in business.
|Company name||Date started||Date ended||Manufacturer||Popular for|
J.C Penney Company
Making unique frock styles
New York Pattern Company
The early 1950s
Drawing characters on the pattern sleeves and using non-glossy paper
Printing pictures of Hollywood characters on patterns
Creating patterns for all skill levels
Vintage Sewing Patterns Reproductions Companies
The four renowned companies we mentioned above aren’t the only vintage pattern-producing brands. Lately, many independent designers have taken to reproducing old sewing patterns.
They update the pattern instructions and produce them in several different sizes so women with all body types can experience the vintage retro clothing style.
Most of the time, the vintage sewing patterns reproduction houses only make copies of old sewing patterns they’ve collected, with no modifications to them.
Some designers, however, provide a personal touch to the pattern to make it better than the original without compromising the vintage feel of the pattern.
Here are some top vintage pattern vendors that are personal favorites:
Reconstructing History is by far the best vintage pattern-selling site online. It is a one-woman brand dedicated to bringing people closer to the historical culture of the 19th century. Kass McGann is the owner of this company that she started in 1997.
Reconstructing History started selling reproduction sewing patterns in 2003, allowing reenactors and clothing historians to create vintage replica clothing.
The brand focuses on producing beginner sewing patterns with easy-to-follow instructions without losing the old sewing patterns’ vintage accuracy.
Reconstructing History is one of the most authentic historical clothing researching brands, trusted worldwide for its 100% accuracy and mass production of beginner vintage sewing patterns.
You will find an assortment of patterns from the early 19th century (the 1920s-1950s) that the company has tailored to suit a sewist of today’s time.
The company has sorted all patterns on the site under the following categories:
- 1920s Patterns
- 1930s Patterns
- 1940s Patterns
- 1950s Patterns
- Coat Patterns
- Equestrian Patterns
- Historic Patterns
- Larger Size Patterns
- Men’s Patterns
- Steampunk Patterns
- Swimsuit Patterns
- Underwear Patterns
- Vintage Patterns
The Vintage sewing pattern pieces come in 11 different sizes, printed on thick bond paper with instructions for beginners.
2. Decades of Style
Decades of Style is one of the finest vintage sewing pattern reproduction companies, selling reproduced 1920s-1950s patterns tailored according to modern instructions.
The company started in 2005, and since then, it has been working to provide the highest quality patterns to its customers worldwide.
Decades of Style started selling the vintage patterns in nine sizes initially, but in 2017, it upgraded to include 11 measures. The company prints all its patterns on commercial tissue paper.
The company sells its patterns worldwide in paper and PDF formats. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the worldwide shipment facility is at a halt. International customers can purchase the PDF downloadable pattern on the site instead.
Image: Decades of Style
One drawback of the company is that it only sells patterns for personal use. Using Decades of Style vintage patterns to produce garments for sale is not allowed.
So, if you’re a dressmaker looking for vintage patterns to include vintage clothing in your line, Decades of style isn’t the way to go.
You can always make some changes to the pattern to personalize it as yours by adding some originality.
But for that, you need to know how to sew well, so you can make considerable alterations yourself without messing up.
3. Vintage Sewing Pattern Company
The Vintage Sewing Pattern Company is a company based in the UK. Although it mainly sells reproduced patterns with high-quality printing and easy instructions, it also has some original vintage pattern copies for sale.
The company has been collecting vintage patterns for over a decade. The patterns all come from the 19th century—from the 1920s to the 1980s.
The site has a sorted list of all the vintage patterns under different categories such as:
- Dress patterns
- Infants patterns
- Women’s fashion
- Blouses and tops
- Coats and jackets
- Autumn and winter
- Skirts sewing patterns
- Men’s and boys fashion
- Evening and cocktail wear
- Curvy and plus-size patterns
- Jumpsuits, culottes, and pants
- Loungewear and house robes
- Beach pajama and bathing suits
- Shop by eras (the 1930s-1960s and later)
The company also sells PDF vintage patterns that are instantly downloadable. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced dressmaker, the Vintage Sewing Pattern has something for everyone in the store, organized by various timelines and apparel types.
4. Lady Marlowe
Image: Lady Marlowe
Lady Marlowe is another fantastic site to shop vintage sewing patterns from. The company deals with patterns from the 1920s and early 1930s to the 1960s.
Each era has further subdivisions into apparel types, including:
- Tops & Skirts
- Trousers & Jumpsuits
- Vintage summer day dress sewing patterns
The site also features:
- Vintage lingerie
- Bras and shorts
- Slips and Gowns
- Pajamas and Rompers
2. Vintage swimwear and playsuits
You can instantly download the patterns in a PDF format or order online paper formats. Lady Marlowe also sells original vintage patterns from brands like Simplicity, Advance, and McCall’s.
Vintage Stitching is the best place to buy vintage patterns from renowned brands like Style, Advance, Vogue, Simplicity, Butterick, and McCall’s.
The site has divided the patterns by company name, gender, and apparel type. You can find the ladies’ and children vintage patterns subdivided into eras (the 1940s-1990s).
You can find original copies of vintage patterns from the mid and late 19th century here. The patterns are available for download as PDFs and in paper format as well.
6. The Vintage Pattern Shop
The vintage pattern shop is a fantastic store to shop vintage sewing patterns dating back to the 1930s. The shop features more than 2300 vintage patterns from various old magazines such as Vogue and Advance.
The shop sells original and full-scale, high-standard vintage patterns reproduced to meet the needs of a modern seamstress.
This online store sells a range of vintage patterns, including:
7. Sense and Sensibility
Sense and sensibility is a great choice for choosing a vintage pattern that is both premium quality and affordable. The company provides an extensive range of patterns for ladies of all sizes.
S&S focuses mainly on the eras from the Victorian to the 1950 styles.
The site also offers several tutorials and sewing tips to help you learn to sew. The site also provides a free vintage sewing pattern of a circle skirt with detailed instructions and photographs (for more free sewing patterns, refer to our blog).
You will find everything from vintage blouse patterns to doll patterns here.
One downside of the company is that its collection is pretty limited. This makes it pale against other sites that have thousands of vintage sewing patterns to offer.
Antique Sewing Patterns
Anything that is a century-old is antique. The old sewing patterns from the early 1930s and before that time are all characterized as antique.
Only a few companies hold a collection of patterns that date back more than a hundred years.
Here are some details on patterns from these respective eras:
One of the most popular clothing styles comes from the Victorian Era, which started in 1837. It ended around 1901 and is recognizable by its very structured designs.
Women who had higher social status wore long dresses that were often ornate with a lot of decoration. You may recognize these gowns as directors now commonly use them to portray historical figures in films and plays.
Many vendors and brands offer vintage sewing patterns from the Victorian era. The most popular go-to store for vintage-style dresses, skirts, and gowns is The Truly Victorian.
This site offers sewing patterns from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. (1830-1914). You can either buy these online as a downloadable PDF file or order a paper pattern to your doorstep—the site handles both.
Image: The Truly Victorian
You can find women’s and men’s patterns from the Victorian era here. The site shows 126 results for women’s patterns, including everything you can imagine—from all sorts of different skirts and corsets to petticoats, dressing gowns, and bonnets.
Other Victorian patterns selling brands are:
- Sense and Sensibility
- Black Snail Patterns
- Bloux Patterns Co.
- Reconstructing History
- Wearing History
The Edwardian era was a time of refinement, and many women wore long dresses belted at the waist with dainty petticoats. The sleeves were narrow compared to those from earlier times but often had an overlay such as lace or embroidery.
Another style that emerged during this period is known as art nouveau (1890-1914). Nature was the inspiration behind this type of design.
Curving lines, floral designs, and continuous use of the color green characterized the design of the pattern.
Image: Wearing History
You can shop for quality vintage patterns from the Edwardian era on the following sites:
- Reconstructing History: No matter which time in the history you’re looking to revisit, Reconstructing History will help you with that.
The site also sells vintage patterns from the Edwardian era in addition to the Victorian patterns.
You can find garment patterns for men, women, and kids and add to your collection vintage accessories from the Edwardian era.
For more patterns from this era, you can refer to the Vintage Dancer. The site has a collection of a bunch of different Edwardian patterns from sites like Etsy and Amazon.
The emergence of the “flapper,” a carefree young woman who wore short skirts, boyish haircuts, and lots of jewelry, characterized the 1920s.
Decades before feminism became popular in American fashion, clothing designers for these women began dressing them as powerful beings who could earn money and have careers outside the home.
The 1920s fashion trends were not just for flappers, however. Working women of the 1920s would wear long skirts with blouses and fitted jackets to show that they could be both fashionable and professional.
Many sites online sell original and reproduced sewing patterns from the flapper period, such as Past Patterns, Decades of Style, S&S, and Lady Marlowe.
The 1930s were a time of economic depression, with much higher unemployment rates and lower wages than previous decades.
Despite this hardship, the world sees women in fashion during this time as glamorous icons of style and elegance.
Women’s clothing was mainly narrow skirts that accentuated their curves and fitted bodices or blouses to show off their shapely figures.
They would often wear slinky fabrics like silk or lace over patterns such as polka dots, making it seem more material on the dress. Hats also became popular accessories for women during this period.
Vintage Style Sewing Patterns
Anything that is vintage falls under a period no older than 100 years but not less than 20 years. Below is the fashion history of the periods 1940s-1960s and some sewing patterns from this time.
World War II dominated the 1940s. Women often wore pantsuits to work, but skirts remained popular for casual wear.
The wool coat was the fashionable garment of choice in the wintertime. This look is perfect for someone looking to try something new with their wardrobe!
Hemlines dropped significantly during these years as well. They typically hit just above mid-calf height on women’s clothing. Waistlines also rose a few inches while sleeves grew shorter over time, too—a sizable change from earlier 20th century trends such as cinched waists and long flowing hemlines.
Some great sewing patterns to try out from this period would be:
- Overvest blouses
- Draped silky evening gowns
- Voluminous bustle ball gowns
- Gilets dress
- One-piece dresses
You can find these online on sites like Eva Dress Patterns and The Vintage Pattern Shop. They both offer patterns in PDF and paper formats. These are either a single-size original pattern or come in multiple sizes.
You can also shop from them online on Etsy stores or sites mentioned above.
Today, the world thinks of women’s fashion in the 1950s as glamorous and elegant- a stark contrast from previous decades when most people dressed conservatively.
This decade was also the time of significant world events such as WWII, the Korean War, and McCarthyism, profoundly impacting people’s attitudes in fashion and culture.
This time after WWII is a great place to start if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary. There was an explosion in creativity with new dress styles such as corsets, petticoats, and girdles, which had been staples since the 1850s.
Image: Weaver Dee
The 1950s represented an era when women started to rebel against what they thought society should dictate for them, especially concerning their sense of style and beauty.
Women began taking more risks with clothing choices that would have been considered risqué only a few decades before, including sleeveless dresses or skirts above the knee.
Nylon stockings became popular because they are durable, and you can easily wash them by hand or machine. While this may seem like common knowledge now, it wasn’t until after WWII that manufacturers switched the stocking material from silk to nylon.
A great place to shop for 1950s sewing patterns is Weaver Dee. The site doesn’t sell reproduced patterns but has a five-page collection of 1950s patterns from renowned brands.
If these aren’t enough for you, you can always refer to any of the sites we discussed above to shop for a vintage pattern from this time.
The 1960s saw the start of a new era for sewing patterns. Sewing Patterns from this period often had shorter hemlines to account for changes in fashion trends.
Designers introduced key pieces into the market during this decade: Halter dresses in 1967, A-line skirts in 1968, maxi dress in 1969, and jumpsuit in 1970. All these styles are still popular today when wearing them is appropriate.
Apart from this, a few other notable fashion trends from the 1960s are:
- mini skirts
- bell bottoms
- and flared pants
These were considered ‘fashionable’ during this era and have resurfaced again recently.
For unique 60s sewing patterns, check out Rusty Zipper. The site has organized vintage 60s patterns according to brand and apparel type. The site also sells patterns from other eras, including the 40s and the 50s.
You can browse through an assortment of original vintage sewing patterns for men and women and order them online. Unfortunately, you can only have the pattern shipped as there is no PDF option available on the site.
Retro Sewing Patterns
The term “retro” refers to anything symbolizing a particular culture in the past. Retro style clothing mainly comes from the 1970s-1990s.
The 1970s saw a shift in what was considered fashionable for women. Skirts became progressively shorter and tighter. Tunic dresses were popular.
One of the most basic dress types from this time is the Maxi Dress that stems from 1973. Holly Beth Vincent it at her show “Endless Summer.” The maxi dress can be worn as an evening gown or during daytime occasions such as weddings.
The 1970s sewing patterns were heavily influenced by the environmental movement, with many designers opting to use fabrics such as linen and hemp. Notable fashion trends from this era are:
- Long circle skirts
- Short swing dresses
- Front button jumpsuits
- Loose-fitting mini dresses
- Shirt and halter dress
- Haute dresses
So Vintage Patterns sells classy-vintage sewing patterns from the 70s. The site only sells authentic dress patterns from popular brands and not copies.
Most of the patterns sold here are in used condition, but you can find a pattern that hasn’t been cut or used even once.
Fashion in the 1980s generally had an unstructured appearance, often with looser fits. It is most notable for its impact on fashion trends and fast-paced changes, which include:
- higher hemlines (to below the knee),
- more revealing clothing such as cropped tops
- and pants that are tighter at the hip.
Skirts became wider to reveal more legs, and designers often made them with various materials, such as chiffon or lace.
Women also wore suits in the 1980s—wraparound skirts with jackets that buttoned up to form a bolero suit coat. In 1984, Madonna popularized wearing clothes from men’s wear, which soon became a trend that we follow up to this day.
You can find high-quality sewing patterns from the 1980s at the Vintage Stitching. The patterns on this site are old sewing patterns and hence not in top-notch condition.
Resizing Vintage Sewing Patterns
Most vintage sewing patterns come in only one size. Those that do have a range of sizes are also limited only to a few. You shouldn’t leave a pattern just because it is not your size. Quality vintage patterns are rare and difficult to find.
It is easy to resize a pattern according to your size. This Youtube video on Resizing Pattern Pieces by So Sew Vintage teaches you how to do that. You can now buy a pattern, not your size, and still manage to recreate a garment using that pattern.
Dating Vintage Sewing Patterns
Determining the date of a sewing pattern can be difficult, especially if the manufacturer hasn’t put a date on the envelope. But there are some foolproof methods of determining a pattern’s age.
You can do this by looking at the illustrations on the envelope or looking at the font style. They usually give you a fair idea of the time of the publication of the pattern.
Another way of determining which era a pattern is from is by looking for changes in the pattern.
Here are some of the things to look out for in patterns to determine their age:
|Company name||The 1920s||The 1930s||The 1940s||The 1950s||The 1960s|
Deltor sheet included
Plain envelopes with a simple design
Printed patterns introduced
Logo with a colored box on the corner left
The logo appeared on the left side
Eiffel tower appeared on the logo
The logo appears on the top in bold
Logo moved to the side
“S” added in the McCall
Colored logo added
Dated on the second page of the instruction sheet
Dates on the second page
Font appeared as a script
Dates appeared on the top back
Dates printed in a color script