Under my bed you’ll find a number of things: a yogi mat riddled with cat teeth marks, a folder containing embarrassing chick flick DVDs, and maybe a few ferocious dust bunnies. Surrounded by these hidden treasures is a giant, flat Tupperware box, filled to the gills with stacks of sewing patterns. Ranging from the 1920s to present day, the tissue-packed envelopes represent years of careful collecting. Though I keep my stock pile hidden away, when I drag the box out into the middle of the room and proceed to thumb through the patterns, I’m reminded of my own history with sewing and what patterns meant for an entire industry. Not only did sewing patterns liberate women from the stress of clothing their families, but they also democratized fashion by enabling people of all classes to buy into trends for the very first time.
The first demand for standardized clothing in America was during the Civil War. As hundreds of troops geared up to wage battle, there was an unprecedented need for uniforms. With a clear demand for quick, easily-produced clothing in large quantities, seamstresses and tailors set to creating the first standard measuring system in the United States. Uniforms were cranked out in three sizes — small, medium and large — marking the beginning of the men’s garment industry. By 1895, 90% of men and boys wore ready-made (manufactured) clothing, unlike women who were stuck at home, sewing their own clothes.
Home sewing wasn’t easy before the turn of the century. While a wealthy woman had the option of hiring a dressmaker, others were subject to disassembling worn out garments and using the pieces as a pattern for a new dress. To keep up with the latest fashion trends—-Through an international network exchange between the 13th to the 19th century, royal courts traded dolls dressed in the country’s highest fashions. When dolls from England or France arrived in America, women paid to gather in parlors and study the doll’s dress, eventually replicating the style in a human-sized garment. These dolls, or “babies,” as they were often called, remained the most educating fashion experience for women until women’s magazines arrived on the scene.
In the middle of the 19th century, Demorest and Godey’s Lady’s Book were the Vogue of their day, containing stories, household hints, and most importantly, early sewing patterns. The patterns were drawn at a small scale, printed on a single page. Women converted the pattern to full scale, transferring each measurement to her fabric. While this was a small step towards democratizing fashion, it still resulted in terrible fits; a sewing pattern is rarely one-size-fits-all. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, the race was on to patent a drafting system or machine. All sorts of contraptions appeared, looking more akin to torture devices than sewing aids.
The first business devoted solely to paper patterns began in 1864 when Ebenezer Butterick watched his frustrated wife try to sew new clothing for their children. With a background in tailoring, Butterick saw an opportunity. He opened an office in Manhattan and sold crude patterns by his own design. At that time, purchasing a Butterick pattern meant receiving a stack of tissue pieces stapled together, accompanied by a card with meager instructions. Each tissue piece was traced onto fabric that the sewer would then cut and assemble.
Butterick’s big break came in 1864, just as a war hero named Giusseppe Garibaldi conquered Neapolitan forces and unified Italy. In the Western world, Garibaldi became a hero — but he was also a fashion icon. For his military exploits, Garibaldi had adopted the traditional red shirts of South American gauchos. The billowing red shirt with tight cuffs became his persona, and eventual fashion trend. While tailors busied themselves with replicating the look for their clients, Butterick wasted no time in producing two sewing patterns: a Garibaldi suit for young boys, and a blouse for women. As the first fashion trend that lower classes could buy into, the patterns were an overnight success, establishing Butterick as the definitive source for sewing patterns in America.
As the turn of the century neared, the sewing machine and the refined, commercial sewing pattern formed a perfect marriage for the home. The most popular supplier of sewing machines, the Domestic Sewing Machine Company, claimed they were selling 100 machines a day during 1875.
Sewing patterns continued to evolve through the first half of the 20th century, with better fits and much more accurate measurements. Several other pattern companies formed — McCall’s, Simplicity, and Vogue — but in 1950, Butterick had one more trick up its sleeve. Yet another cultural phenomenon, Butterick pattern number 6015, the Walk-Away Dress, was a must-have garment for a mid-century housewife. The name of the pattern is derived from its simplicity — start sewing in the morning, walk away in a new dress by lunch! The Walk-Away Dress contained only three pattern pieces, far fewer than other dress patterns that contained an average of fifteen. It was the ultimate post-war dress, calling for nearly five yards of fabric, an amount that would have been wasteful and indulgent during wartime rationing. The overwhelming popularity of the pattern prompted Butterick to halt production on all other sewing patterns until demand was met. Recently reissued, the Walk-Away Dress is still among the company’s most popular patterns.
As the price of clothing dropped due to outsourcing and cheap labor, interest in sewing patterns fell to an all-time low. The pattern industry began waning in the 1970s, slowing to a crawl by the 1990s. But just as it seems there’s no hope for the home sewing industry to be revitalized, the past five years has seen the greatest growth in sewing machine sales since the 1960s. The sewing machine no longer saves time or money — the very dress that might cost only $18 at a large retailer might cost the home sewer at least $25 in materials. Once a symbol of thrift, the sewing machine now represents the desire for expressing individuality. Though it may cost a little more money and time than a trip to the nearest mall, there’s nothing quite like that feeling of putting the final stitch into a garment that you made with your own hands. So if you’ve always been talking about pulling your grandmother’s sewing machine out of the attic, now’s the time — dust it off, make do and mend!
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.