29 October 2013

A Brief History of Paper Patterns and Home Dressmaking in the 1930s

Don't you love it when you make a new friend? I mean, not just any friend, but someone who you think is AWESOME. For years, two pals kept pestering me to meet their mutual friend Amber as they thought we'd get along so well. I don't really like being told what to do, but eventually I met Amber and omigawd she's amazing! We've started what I hope will be a tradition of chatting about our plans and schemes over mezze and toxic looking rose martinis, and during one such conversation we decided that Amber should share some of her vast knowledge of fashion history with you, my dear readers. So what follows is a guest post by Amber Jane Butchart, fashion historian and author of Theatre of Fashion, on a very brief history of dressmaking patterns in the 1930s. It draws on research she conducted at the University of the Arts as part of a Research Fellowship looking at home dressmaking and the influence of Hollywood costume on London fashion in the early 1930s. Enjoy!


Despite the growth of the ready to wear trade in the 1930s, paper pattern manufacturers were keen to situate themselves as a fashionable option. Vogue patterns in particular drew on signifiers of high style such as the couturiers of Paris.
"The growth of the paper pattern industry in the second half of the 19th century mirrored the development of the domestic sewing machine and the increase of fashion print media. It was a time of great development, and the fashion industry - always at the forefront of technological and industrial changes - was growing in size and reaching more people than ever before. For women in rural America, keeping up with the latest styles was best achieved at home. In 1851 Isaac M. Singer patented the first ‘rigid arm’ sewing machine (which used a foot treadle instead of a hand crank) and overnight home sewing became much less laborious, encouraging women to engage with the latest trends.

To help with this process, the fantastically-named ‘Madame Demorest’s Emporium of Fashion’ sold paper patterns to middle class American women from the mid-19th century. But the Emporium was swiftly overtaken by Ebenezer Butterick in the 1860s. A merchant tailor by trade, Butterick experimented with graded shirt patterns and when he moved into children’s clothing the business really took off. He moved to New York and by 1871 he had over 140 operatives throughout the States, with an astonishing average daily output of 23,000 patterns. Butterick used aggressive advertising tactics, investing a lot of money into marketing and targeting working class shoppers as well as the middle classes. His first London branch was opened on Regent Street in 1874.

Film stars were increasingly being used to sell fashion throughout the 1930s as the movie industry expanded and the cinema became a more acceptable pastime for middle class viewers. The association we have today with celebrity and fashion was in its infancy with fan magazines like Film Pictorial above.
The paper pattern industry has been inextricably linked to American democratisation of fashion and entrepreneurialism. Due to this the majority of studies into its history and significance have focused on the American market. There hasn’t been a great deal of research into British home dressmaking, which is a gap for future generations of researchers to fill. In Britain the use of paper patterns grew with expanding magazine circulation. Despite the success of Butterick in the late 19th century, they were most popular during the interwar years as a reader-service given away in magazines. Home dressmaking is anonymous. Unlike ‘designed’ pieces, homemade clothing is rarely reified in museums and likewise it’s rarely discussed in fashion history, where big designer names will always draw crowds for exhibitions or readers for books. It can also be a difficult area of material culture to study; paper patterns are ephemeral, delicate and rarely dated - all challenges for historians and researchers.

This McCall pattern from 1932 perfectly demonstrates the costume designer Adrian’s maxim of ‘above the table dressing’. Famous for creating Joan Crawford’s wide shoulders, Adrian believed that film costume should all be about the close up: ie, the neckline and sleeves were key to the designs.
Contemporary opinions towards home dressmaking in the 1930s were varied. The traditional view is that home dressmaking was a cheap alternative to ready-made which was becoming increasingly available but was still the more expensive option, as was seeing a dressmaker. However, later research shows that this wasn’t always the case. In a groundbreaking book on home dressmaking, one oral history study showed that many practitioners believed that making clothing at home provided a quality of fit and finish that wasn’t available in shop-bought ‘shoddy’ clothing. Also the variations that could be created from paper patterns (at least 2 or 3 different options were given from each pattern) allowed the sewer an individuality of style that wasn’t available with ‘conformist’ ready-made clothes. It is this creativity that people value today, with home dressmaking on the rise for the first time in decades. At a time when fashion is faster than ever before in history, crafting your own wardrobe offers a freedom and an individual take on style that is again becoming highly valued.

The influence of Hollywood is clear in this McCall pattern from 1932. The same year, ‘Letty Lynton’ was released, starring Joan Crawford swathed in organdie ruffles (left hand picture). The dress caused a sensation and was referenced in fashion magazines for years to come.
If you're interested in reading more on this subject, take a look at The Culture of Sewing: Gender, Consumption and Homedressmaking, edited by Barbara Burman."


  1. Really interesting to see the development of the paper dress making pattern. Also, notable that the desire for creative freedom and individuality gained from creating your own wardrobe, is these days, returning more and more, as was the ideal back then. Great stuff!

    Faded Windmills

  2. This was interesting to read this morning over my cup of coffee. Thanks for sharing all of your knowledge.,

  3. Thank you for bringing this to us Tilly! I love fashion history and I too wish there was more info out there about paper patterns and their designers from the early years. How interesting that seeing a dressmaker was cheaper than buying ready to wear. I guess that still applies today, but most people only go to see a dress maker on special occasions.
    What I love about patterns is studying their illustrations - i could spend hours on Vintage pattern Wiki just drooling at all the lovely ladies and their outfits!

  4. Wonderful! It's great to read the British perspective on the history of pattern making. Thank you.

  5. Nice! Some of you may be interested in looking at old women's magazines for the 1860s to see how patternmaking for home sewing evolved. This blogpost is a good example: http://ladiesofthe1860s.blogspot.ca/2012/01/petersons-magazine-january-1862.html

  6. I think it's sad that home dressmaking isn't a bigger topic of interest to fashion historians, so it's a pleasure to me when I find a historian who gives us a bit more information on the subject! What a wonderful, informative post! Thank you!

    The Middle Sister and Singer

  7. Very interesting, thanks Tilly and Amber! I find the history of sewing so intriguing. Maybe the current resurgence will inspire some more historians to look into home sewing of the past, I certainly hope so!

  8. Fascinating reading. I particularly liked the pattern for all the different collars. One of the things I love about 20s and 30s clothing is the variety of necklines.

  9. Imagine a shop just devoted to patterns, heaven. Wonder where the Butterick shop was on Regent Street. Fascinating post.

  10. Thanks for enlightening and inspiring me this morning! It's always fun to take a look back at how things started! The patterns you shared are gorgeous... all this makes me want to head to the fabric store and start a new project!

  11. Thanks for that, a great little snippet of domestic history, and how brilliant was that dress pattern - one dress, nine looks!

  12. A nice time travel piece ! Fascinating to see that people in the 30's quite possibly sewed for the same reasons we do today, to get a look and fit you can't buy. And I also like to think of sewists throughout time looking at that collar pattern and, just as I do today, thinking... and next time I'm going to make this one, and then I'll just make that little change and ...

    Laurel Shimer/Enchanted By Sewing Podcast

  13. Thanks for sharing this with us. What a fantastic article.

  14. Wonderful post, well written. I'd love to read more.... and more.... These fashions are so fun and so contemporary. I'll post a link to this on my own blog. Thank you!

  15. This book is now on my wish list for Santa. I have spent hours researching the history of patterns and thoroughly enjoyed finding out about different influences on clothing through recent history – there is so much more to sewing than generally perceived! The way we have dressed ourselves has been an integral part of international relationships, trade, economic growth, cultural and social identity… And the technical skills of different eras are so interesting! Different approaches to the human form, both aesthetic and in terms of construction, changes in function as new materials were introduced, and the level of skill ordinary people had. It’s fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing!


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