I am often asked about sewing vintage patterns. I don’t use them as often as some bloggers, though I do have a collection! I finished up a vintage dress today, and I thought it might be nice to blog about some of the difficulties found in sewing something from another era. Here is my pattern, McCall’s 5336 from 1976. I have a hard time calling the 70s vintage, but I suppose they are!
Lesson #1: The drawings can be more fanciful than modern envelope illustrations.
This dress looks to have a certain elegance. I liked the full sleeves and tall neckline. The skirt appears to skim the body nicely under the empire bust. The pattern is in my size, or at least the size recommended for my measurements. When I cut and basted the pattern for fitting, here is what I actually got:
“Would you like to buy a nice caftan?”
I guess it looks like the drawing… if you squint… and if my legs were twice as long. This is actually the shorter length of the pattern. I hate to think how long the maxi would have been! I am tall (5’8″) and generally do not have trouble with long hemlines. Fashion illustrations tend to have disproportionately long legs, so if you aren’t paying attention it can be misleading. Looking closer, I can see that the dress is illustrated hitting below her knees, and that her femur is approximately twice the length it would be on an actual, non-mutant human. But length can be altered easily. What about the fit?
Lesson #2: Sizing can be wildly inconsistent.
Vintage patterns are sized for the era in which they were designed. Women in the past wore different undergarments, which may have radically altered the shape of their torsos. Different eras also called for differing amounts of ease. I find that vintage (pre 1980) patterns and garments are considerably smaller in the shoulders than modern patterns. Since I have wide shoulders for my size (and they aren’t getting smaller with all the weights I’ve been lifting!) I have to watch for that issue.
Other things I know to watch for: 1950s patterns tend to run very small in the waist, and very large in the bust. As a smaller busted person, I have to both cut the waist larger and do a small bust adjustment for patterns of that era. The bust darts can also be strangely shaped. Patterns from the later parts of the 1960s are often illustrated considerably more fitted than they actually are. Most companies use terminology like “close fitting” “fitted and flared” and “loose fitting.” Pay attention to these terms, as they have actual meaning (going back to old sewing books will tell you how many inches of ease each term allowed, and it does vary by company.) I can tell you that I don’t attempt any pattern that says it is “fitted and flared,” as they always turn out more flared and less fitted, but that’s a personal preference.
Lesson #3: Learn to fit as you go
Have you see this video?
Pattern for Smartness is a “how to sew with patterns” video by Simplicity in 1948. Printed patterns were pretty new then, and it goes into some detail about them! The interesting thing to me is the fitting – there is a little tissue fitting, but most fitting is done after basting the garment together to check for fit. This is also the case for most of the vintage sewing manuals I own. It seems that the idea of making a muslin or toile wasn’t really done. Now, we all know that I recommend making muslins, especially when you are starting out, or if the fabric is very dear. As you keep sewing, you will find you have certain alternations that you always make, and learn how to adjust without a muslin. I make the most adjustments to length and to the side seams, both of which I prefer to do at the end. I try to always make my side seams last, so that I can check fit. My enthusiasm for this method does not extend to basting in sleeves, as in the video, but if I’m really uncertain about something I will occasionally do so.
Luckily, in the case of my pattern I was not shocked. It is basted together above, including the sleeves in this case. The sleeves had a rather insane amount of ease (something like 4 inches) so I had to baste them in to see where I should take it out (I promise a tutorial on the sleevecap ease someday soon!) Here are the problems I found after basting:
1. The length: I marked 9.5 inches(!) to cut off the hem.
2. The sleeve length: I reduced the length by 3 inches (I like shorter sleeves.)
3. The bustline: Sits rather low. However, I suspected that this was caused by the weight of the incredibly long skirt, so I did not make an adjustment. Luckily I was right, and it fits now!
4. The overall size: Too big by several inches above the hips, but it fits ok below. I marked and then took it in by 4 inches total (2 on each side, so I sewed my seams 1 inch in from the original seams.) This is more than I usually am willing to do at the sides, as more than 2-3 inches can look odd, but it’s not so bad here. I only reduced the sleeve circumference by an inch.
I also decided to leave out the neck facings, as my wool crepe fabric is heavy enough. I chose to use decorative topstitching around the neck opening and all hems. The results:
I apologize for not managing any front shots where I am not folding my arms. I must have been feeling cranky!
I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite dress ever, but it is wearable and warm (made of wool you know, which the video says is very smart in a cold climate!) The color is not so much my thing, and I really don’t know why I decided to make a pattern from the 70s out of orange fabric, when the primary thing I disliked about the era was all the orange. I will say that the shoulders are not too tight, probably because it was originally so big! There is a little wrinkling at the top of the sleeve in the photo, but I think that’s because I stand with unnatural posture for pictures (or because the sleeves were so hard to set in… after removing 2 inches of ease I discovered 2 more, and had to sew them in where they wanted, so they may be a little off grain… that’s what I get for lazy measuring!)
My methods of fitting are my own, and they certainly aren’t the last word on fit! Some adjustments must be made before cutting, but luckily I am a pretty standard size so I rarely have to do them. It all comes down to what works for you – I’m still a big fan of muslins, but lately I have no time for them (which is unlikely to get better) so I will always choose finishing a garment!