Working With Vintage Patterns

If you would like to try sewing from vintage patterns, here is some advice from those who have been doing it a while:

* If you're not an expert sewer, pick something with few pieces. Make sure pattern pieces and directions are there before beginning.

* Expect the sizing and the fit to be different. American women have become taller and more athletic over the years, and have come to prefer a looser fit. In addition, the corsetry used in the different eras will affect the look. For example, '20s corsets were flatteners, so bustlines on patterns from that era won't fit a woman wearing a modern bra.

* Experts recommend making a mock-up in muslin first and trying it on: "Be aware of the fact that it might be a half-inch too short in the waistline," says couturier Mark Jones, "or the armhole's going to be a little tighter, or that you might not have the same kind of play across the center of the back . . ."

* Study garments from the period, noting not only how they were put together but also what they are made of. "Pay attention to the quality and the weight of the fabric. That's absolutely crucial," Jones says. "If you take an old pattern and make it in a modern polyester charmeuse instead of an old satin-back crepe, you're going to get a different fall to the dress and you're going to wonder why it didn't work."

* Prepare yourself for minimally marked patterns and directions that are skimpy or missing altogether. Most companies--McCall's and Pictorial are two exceptions--did not print their patterns until after World War II. "You really have to look at the picture and have quite a bit of sewing ability," or know someone who can advise you, says costumer Diane Crooke. "There is some guessing work."

* Study sewing techniques of the era. These might be in an old pattern company pamphlet or a sewing book from the past. Acquaint yourself with some of the methods, Jones says, "such as using seam tape on a hem or seam tape in a waistline so it doesn't stretch out, or using crinoline, which is a stiff fabric, to put in the top a sleeve, so it has a nice little kick up to it. You'll find that you get a better hang, and you'll get something truer to what the pattern had in mind."

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