We previously shared The History of Tailoring and continue our series on fit with a comprehensive history of pattern making.
In order to survive, human beings had to master the arts of creating and sustaining food, clothing, and shelter. As time went on, we became better at those tasks and began to create standards for what worked best and instructions on how to replicate the best results. That is a pattern’s main function: to act as a template for recreating a design that has been created and (hopefully) perfected.
For hundreds of years, fit was not considered particularly important when it came to clothing. Clothing was largely utilitarian and the most important feature of any garment was that it covered your body. As the concept of fashion advanced, fit began to emerge as a way to create desired body shapes or to make clothing more comfortable or functional. But, initially, fit was considered a luxury – something only the wealthy had the disposable income to worry with. More affluent families could hire tailors or dressmakers to custom sew garments, but the average citizen made their own, or reworked hand-me-down clothes.
The first known clothing patterns appeared in Spain – Juaan de Alcega’s Libro de Geometric Practica y Traca in 1589, and La Rocha Burguen’s Geometrica y Traca in 1618. During these years, Spanish fashions dominated European dress – and these books gave specifics on making garments for men, women, clergy, and knights – but were perfunctory how-to books written for tailors. Later books, like L’Art du Tailleur by de Garsault and Diderot’s L’Encyclopédie Diderot et D’Alembert: arts de l’habillement, written in the 1700s, provided instruction on measurement, cutting, garment fit, and construction, but they, too, were written with the professional tailor in mind.
In the 1800s, less technical books were produced for home sewers – particularly those in charitable ladies’ groups. The charmingly titled Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor and The Lady’s Economical Assistant printed full-size patterns for practical items of clothing. The Workman’s Guide provided not just patterns, but also detailed drawings of the final garments, and pattern drafting instructions.
Around this same time, women’s magazines were gaining in popularity and many of them printed patterns, increasing the average woman’s access to stylish garments. But these early patterns and illustrations were printed on small magazine pages and were difficult to use. By the 1850s, Sarah Josepha Hale’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, printed full-sized paper patterns by Mme Demorest, but in one size, with no scale measurements for enlarging; the reader still had to size the patterns to her own figure. Eventually, foldout patterns, printed in full scale, were issued as periodical supplements in the British magazine, The World of Fashions – and other magazines soon followed suit.
During the Civil War era, tailor Ebenezer Butterick developed the mass-produced, tissue paper pattern, sized according to a proportional grading system. Butterick and his family cut and folded each pattern and began mass-producing ladies dress patterns from their New York headquarters. It is estimated that Butterick sold 6 million clothing patterns by 1871. A few years later, James McCall began developing his own line of women’s clothing patterns – which gave the American woman some options for her clothing. It was now possible to create (or have someone make) a well-fitted, stylish dress using these mass-produced paper patterns. After about 125 years, Butterick and McCall are still some of the biggest names in the pattern industry.
In 1927, Joseph Shapiro established the Simplicity Pattern Company, which created and reproduced patterns that were affordable for the average household. Most patterns on the market sold from between 25 cents to $1, depending on the type of garment – but Simplicity patterns were mass-produced and generally sold for about 15 cents. In 1931, Simplicity partnered with the Woolworth Company to produce DuBarry patterns, which sold at an even more affordable 10 cents. Around the same time, Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue patterns, introduced Hollywood Patterns – which sold for 15 cents each – and capitalized on women’s desires to look like Silver Screen stars.
Today, advanced software and imaging systems have been created to help innovate pattern and garment making. But, in truth, the most revolutionary technological development in patternmaking history is actually the tape measure – which appeared around 1800. Until that time tailors developed their own non-standardized systems of measurement, which made pattern reproduction difficult. Units of measurement varied depending on location: Britain favored the inch system, while France employed the metric system; some still measured fabric using units of “hands” or “elbows”. With a tape measure (followed by the compass, ruler, and tracing paper), sewers could produce and reproduce mathematical patterns that were designed with a three-dimensional body in mind.
The availability of paper patterns increased as the home sewing machine became more affordable, the number of fashion magazines rose, and the U.S. Postal Service expanded. Women in rural areas were able to dress in current fashions without having to shop at a major department store. A woman’s ability to make her own garments provided a degree of freedom and encouraged fashion trends to emerge. Interestingly enough, the modern-day resurgence of at-home sewing and garment making seems to be encouraging growth of individual style over trend. Though home sewing with paper patterns may never again be the norm, it is heartening to hear your descriptions of customizing patterns to create one-of-a-kind garments. We hope you will continue to make, experiment, and share your stories with us.
Find out more about altering patterns in our book Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns here.
Share your pattern making details on social media using #TheSchoolOfMaking.
This is an enlightening series and a pleasure to read. thanks.
I really enjoyed your history of tailoring and pattern making.The idea of not having a standard tape measure was something I never considered. History is really interesting. Thanks for taking the time to share this.
What an interesting read! Thanks for sharing.
So interesting! I loved patterns and sewing, my mother was a wonderful seamstress- she confined herself to her daughters and herself- used simplicity, mc calls and vogue patterns- we had such a good time looking at pattern books. And just tonight- we were having dinner with friends; one lady told that her aunt worked for Simplicity in New York, designing patterns! love this post!
Thanks for all the feedback and comments! It helps us know what content you all want to see. Look for more on fit and silhouettes in the coming weeks…
Fascinating! Thank you.
You provided a nice history of patternmaking. I need to submit an assignment for the history of patternmaking. So need to more information about it. would you refer any book or source?
Our patternmaker said that anything written by Helen Joseph Armstrong has been a great resource to her and may hopefully be of use to you. We hope this helps. Let us know if you have any other questions.
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Thank you for a very interesting article. However, could you add the references and sources you used writing it?
Thank you, Ela.
We do not have a record of the references used in this post due to the time that has passed since it was written. However, I do appreciate you bringing this to our attention so that, in the future, we can be sure to document any references and sources used for blog posts.
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Wahoo very informative
I believe that Rochester New York woman Elizabeth Balor made the first standard size patterns for children’s work clothes before the Civil War in the 1840’s according to WXXI’s production Tailor Made: the Story of Rochester’s Garment Industry.https://www.pbs.org/video/wxxi-documentaries-tailor-made-story-rochesters-garment-industry/
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