Monday, August 27, 2007

Connection to the past

A few years ago, I went through a phase where I was buying all kinds of vintage sewing patterns online. I haunted eBay, obsessively looking at anything close to my size (vintage ladies were small!). I collected quite a collection of patterns, ranging from 1920s flapper dresses to 1960s mod. I even have a pattern from the 1910s which I will probably never be brave enough to unfold.

I developed a particular love for the 1930s. The long, willowy models in the drawings, with their drapey, close-fitting, bias-cut dresses appealed to me hugely. Here are some 30s patterns from my collection:

Excuse the crappy photo!

Someday, I’ll show you my 40s and 50s patterns.

Now, the major difference I’ve noticed between these old patterns and modern patterns is that the old patterns are often just cut sheets of tissue paper, with some notches and holes punched in them, but nothing else: nothing printed on the pieces to indicate which piece is which, no instructions. Somewhere on the envelope there will usually be a diagram showing you the shapes of the pieces, so that you can at least sort them out yourself, but there are no layout diagrams. Most patterns will also at least indicate how much fabric they require, but that’s about it. For the 1930s sewer, used to making clothes for herself, no further instruction was necessary.

This modern sewer, however, was intimidated, and so I have never actually made anything from these patterns. I did once make a sample out of one of the patterns, but I never made it up in a fashion fabric, to wear.

So, when I became seized with the insane idea of making myself a coat for the wedding, I decided to make it difficult for myself, and tackle one of these patterns at last. I settled on this:

(Front of envelope on left, back on right)

I love the diamond shapes in the waist, I love the deep, luxurious collar. I love the fancy sleeve. It epitomizes everything I love about the 30s patterns: the long line, the details in the construction, the body-conscious fit. I've always had a thing for extravagant coats, and I could see this in a gorgeous head-to-toe cashmere/wool.

I decided I would make a muslin first. A muslin is a sample made in cheap fabric to work out the kinks before cutting the expensive fashion fabric. Since this coat uses 5 yards and the fabric I want costs $35 a yard, I thought I’d better know what I am doing before I put scissors to it!

This pattern is a “Pictorial” brand pattern. Pictorial is a company which doesn’t exist any more, but when I opened the pattern, I discovered to my delight what made it pictorial:

Instructions! With diagrams! And pictures! And all the pieces are printed with instructions and labeled as to what piece they are. It is almost as clear as a modern pattern.

The first step, with such fragile tissue pieces, was to trace the pieces onto sturdier pattern tracing paper:

Then I cut out the pieces from the muslin, and put it together. Here is the muslin:

I love the collar. The pattern is a bit big for me, but I think it will actually look lovely lapped a little further over and double-breasted. I like the hang of it (it looks very straight here, but has a nice A-line shape on me). I'll have to lengthen it to get the luxurious sweep I want, but otherwise I am very happy with it. With one exception.

You might notice from the above picture, that the muslin lacks the fancy sleeve of the pattern picture. Please, observe:

The sleeve on the far left is the fancy sleeve as dictated by the pattern. It's a cool construction, but I hated it on. It looks lovely in the picture, on that willowy model, but on my short body and my stubby arms it looked stupid. The two sleeves in the middle and the pile of pattern pieces on the right represent my attempts to draft a new sleeve. Note there are also two attempts on the muslin, making a total of five sleeves I’ve made, and I still am not happy with them.

At some point last week, as I began sleeve iteration #6, my sewing machine quit on me. It needed a break, and so did I. I’ve cleaned the machine, and it’s ready to go again. Having regrouped, I sat down to write this entry, and I downloaded this picture from my camera, taken early in the process:

What is this? This is two pattern pieces in the envelope which did not belong. Note, they are a much more typical 30s style: just a shape, with notches, but no printed markings. Nothing to indicate where they came from, or how they go together. I took a picture of them because I was fascinated by the idea that a woman way back in the 30s made an alteration to this pattern by using pieces from another pattern. She didn’t like the pattern as written, and so she went to another pattern, and poached a piece she liked, probably used it, then stuck it in this envelope to remember it. I loved this evidence that the pattern had been used, and this connection to someone seventy years in the past, making this coat just as I am.

Now, however, I am laughing. This woman in the 30s?

Also hated the sleeve.


fatafelice... said...

Great Post! I also have gone through an ebay-vintage-pattern-collecting phase, and the 30s are my favorite, too! I love that you are trying out one of those old patterns, and I cannot wait to see how your coat turns out. Good luck!

Sailor Mom said...

I don't know how I happened upon your blog, but I was wondering if you were still interested in a veil for your wedding? I made one for my daughter's wedding that was absolutely gorgeous. If you would like a picture let me know.

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