Collecting Antique Or Vintage Sewing Patterns

Antique and vintage sewing patterns make a fascinating collector's item. Learn more about their history and how to evaluate and care for them.

People who sew have always collected and enjoyed both the beauty and usefulness of paper patterns, but until recently, vintage and antique patterns were often difficult to locate. Sometimes a box or bag full showed up in a thrift store or at an estate sale. Perhaps a fabric store went out of business and emptied its files. Old patterns were frequently not seen as valuable once they'd been used, and many ended up in the trash, so building a collection of vintage sewing patterns involved a lot of searching and plain old luck. Nonetheless those who value paper ephemera find old patterns offer a beautiful and fascinating window into the past. They're full of period charm and provide a rich fund of information about style and how it's changed through the years.

Now that we have the Internet, all kinds of patterns and related materials are available through a multitude of sites, and most are modestly priced. This is a perfect time to put together a collection of vintage patterns. Because there are so many patterns to choose from, you may find it useful to begin your collection by choosing a period or style which particularly interests you, and in which you would like to specialize.

True antique patterns are defined as those more than one hundred years old, and are consequently quite rare. Vintage patterns, on the other hand, are less than one hundred years old, and may also be defined as Period or Collectible. Period is often defined as more than thirty years old, while Collectible is defined by the amount of demand for the item, and whether its value is increasing. For example, any pattern from the thirties would definitely be classed as Period. An inexpensive but unusual pattern from the sixties might be both Period and Collectible, and a more recent pattern for which there is demand, and which has increased in value might now be considered a Collectible and in the future might be classed as Period.

Let's begin with a bit of history. The first pre-printed, size-graded tissue paper patterns were invented in 1863 by a gentleman named Ebeneezer Butterick. Before Mr. Butterick's stroke of genius, seamstresses made their own patterns by cutting apart and copying existing garments or by modifying generic, sizeless patterns to fit the person for whom they were sewing. Mr. Butterick's patterns were enormously successful, and many pattern-making companies followed his example. Sewing machines became increasingly affordable, and paper patterns helped home sewers use them to make fashionable and affordable clothing.

There are relatively few really old paper patterns available now. Because they were made of inexpensive paper and ink, and were not carefully stored, patterns from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rarely survived the ravages of time. More are available from the nineteen twenties and thirties, and many more from the forties through the seventies and eighties to the present. For example, if you are interested in patterns from the seventies, you will find many from which to choose. If you protect them properly they will last until they too are antique. The condition of the pattern always affects its value.

Time of publication is not the only criteria to use in selecting the type of pattern you'd like to collect. Consider what you really enjoy, and go from there. Such specialty items as doll dress, stuffed toy, wedding or designer patterns can also provide the focus for a collection. Narrowing the search doesn't mean you can never collect anything else. You may change your focus, but it gives you a place to start. If you intend to take your collecting seriously, you've got a lot to learn.

It is useful for the new collector to do some study before buying. A good source for information on pattern values is Lori Hughes' book, A Century of American Sewing Patterns, 1860-1959: Identification and Price Guide. Since it was published in 1998 there's probably been some upward shift in prices, but it's a good place to start. Another wonderful resource is the online Vintage Pattern Lending Library. The VPLL is more oriented toward sewers than toward collectors, but it has some beautiful vintage and antique patterns which members can borrow. Just looking at these patterns online can help you get a sense of what really beautiful old patterns look like, so it will be easier to spot them. Writer and collector Jennifer Warris has a fascinating and extremely detailed article on collectability, pattern condition, storage and other critical topics concerning pattern collection available through the VPLL reference section. It's worth reading several times, as she really knows her stuff. Other forms of paper ephemera connected with sewing include iron-on paper embroidery transfers, period pattern books and fashion magazines. You may choose to enrich your collection with such items, especially if they are from the period which interests you.

Once you've purchased some patterns you love, taking good care of your collection is the most important thing you can do to protect your investment and increase its value. Old paper is extremely delicate. Handling the pattern envelopes and pieces can stain them, even if your hands are apparently clean, since the oils on your skin are absorbed by the paper and darken with time. It's important to have some kind of additional envelope to protect your patterns.

There are special mylar envelopes and other archival materials available for paper collectors. However, they are not always the right size for your patterns, and they can be expensive. Don't put off protecting your patterns - a large ziplock bag will go a long way toward protecting the pattern envelopes from wear and tear. To protect them from humidity and temperature changes, store the patterns upright against an interior wall in a cool dry room, well above the floor, and make sure no rodents or insects get to them.

Old patterns are interesting to another group of collectors and historians, but for very different reasons. Theater and film designers, Civil War and other period re-enactors and Renaissance and Victorian Faire performers are all eager to know every detail about how historical clothing is designed and constructed. Although some of the garments in which they are interested predate paper patterns, they often are as eager to get their hands on old patterns as any paper ephemera collector. Not only do they want to see and examine them, they want to sew with them. Collectors may worry about the wear and tear inflicted on elderly patterns by using them to sew with, but after all, vintage and antique patterns were originally designed for use in making clothes. The beauty of the pattern envelopes was originally just a marketing tool to sell the tissue patterns contained within.

For such designers, there are a number of fine companies which specialize in replica patterns that capture precise design and detail features of the original vintage or antique patterns in a newer and more stable form. In fact, these new replica patterns might be good material for a collector who takes the long view. Whatever the goal of the pattern collector or user, antique and vintage sewing patterns present a fascinating area for search and study, and make wonderful collectibles.

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