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Aug 11, 2012

Whatever Happened to Pattern Envelope Artwork?



They say a picture's worth a thousand words, and perhaps it is.  But if so, then what's an illustration worth?







Since the advent of photography, fashion illustration has had to co-exist with a rival that slowly but surely began to overtake it.  Fashion photography in magazines took off in the Nineteen-Twenties and Thirties, but for decades illustration was still common, particularly in advertising.  (You can read a brief history of fashion photography here.)





 



Illustration is with us still, of course, but with very few exceptions, it isn't used in ads, catalogs, or sewing patterns anymore.  Originally, all sewing pattern art was illustration (The first graded sewing pattern appeared in 1863).  It wasn't until the 1960s that you started seeing photographs instead of drawings, and little by little, the drawings have dwindled.  Today photography totally dominates.



Pattern magazines were initially all illustration, then a combination, then no illustration at all (and then no magazines at all -- well, Vogue Patterns).



You still sometimes see a combination of photos and drawings, primarily to show variations, which drawings do particularly well.  Drawings can also highlight a line or a feature in a way photography can't always capture effectively.



The only pattern company I'm aware of that still relies on illustrations is Folkwear.  Can you think of any others?



Kwik Sew used illustrations for a long time, but my sense is that they recently switched over to photography at long last.  Of course, their illustrations were notoriously horrendous. Now that they're owned by McCall's, I would guess they'll continue with photographs.





Readers, what do you think is behind the disappearance of fashion illustration in sewing patterns?  I can come up with two reasons:

1) Photographs are more realistic.  Most people shopping for patterns today don't want to see a idealized image of what a dress is going to look like, they want to see the dress made up for real, and worn by a real person, even if it's someone with an ideal body who looks nothing like them (It's not like the size 20 pattern shows a size 20 woman).

2) Photographs are cheaper to produce, especially since the advent of digital photography.  You can take hundreds of shots of a model wearing a dress and then choose the one that shows the dress off best.  (And yet, you still have to pay a dressmaker, a stylist, a makeup artist, a model, a photography studio, a photo editor, etc.)

Are there other reasons?  If so, what do you think they are?

In closing, do you miss pattern envelope illustration the way that I do?   It seems that in our effort to be "real" we've lost the ability to imagine something for ourselves.  And paradoxically, we're finding out that, thanks to photo editing programs like Photoshop, the photographs we see are often dramatically altered anyway (not that they weren't retouched before, but not as radically).

If you love pattern art, is there a period or a pattern company you like best?



Happy MPB Day, everybody!

47 comments:

  1. oh YES, i too miss pattern envelope illustrations - it's one of the aspects that sets my vintage pattern collection apart from my modern patterns (apart from the fashion of course).

    I realise that the illustrations are the idealised version of what the garment would/could/should look like...possibly leaving the sewist a little crestfallen at the actual product - but i've been disappointed by sewing outcomes that don't look like the photo of the pattern made up too!

    Disappointing sewing outcomes or not - give me the gorgeous illustrations of yesterday any day of the week...(with a photo on the back for prosperity???).

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  2. You are so right - I used to wish there were more photos and fewer dodgy line drawings on pattern envelopes, but now the illustrations are disappearing I'm starting to mourn for them as well.

    It's all different in the world of children's patterns, though - have a look at Citronille, or Oliver+S - there are still so many good pictures there.

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  3. I love the vintage illustrations especially on McCall's pattern envelopes. Those ladies expressions reflect some shenanigans goin' on! A friend of mine, who now works in graphic design told me his earliest Onanist inspirations were from his mother's pattern collection..

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    1. That is definitely an elegant way to say...that.

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  4. As a sewist, I'm not a fan of pattern art, although it's pretty. I've been fooled too often to think that it's a good way of communicating the lines of a pattern. I prefer photos and line drawings.

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  5. I prefer illustrations - and love them more than photos. Though i do sew almost exclusively from vintage patterns which all still have drawings.
    To me, a drawing gives me an ideal to work towards. How the garment should fit. I find with modern patterns and their respective photos, the garments dont ever look like they fit nicely - as if they've been made in a standard size and they've found a model who fits the finished item the best. Which is what they do for regular fashion photography and really, for something you are meant to make custom for your measurements, the photos should reflect that the garment is custom made. Does my reasoning make sense??

    But back to vintage - I wish they would bring back the illustrations. I think they would be much cheaper to create than photos because you'd only be paying an artist or two who can conceptualize anything.
    I guess the reason they changed is because the consumer has gotten used to photography being used for advertising.

    The best drawings are on the Mccalls patterns from the 40s. They're really great outfit and hair inspiration as well. Just so elegant :-)

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  6. I miss department store illustrations. There was such an allure of something more happening to those illustrated. Those drawings conveyed elegance, sportiness, business attitude, or casual style so well.

    The store's name, in whatever distinctive script, off in the corner, further defining the moment.

    Those line drawings, charcoals, and watercolors made one evocative statement after another, but always true to their provenance.

    The mystique of marketing is gone, and with it, any form of charm.

    Everything now appears so commoditized, and frankly, common. Patterns have slid along this path, save for the retreaded vintage offerings.

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  7. Some modern pattern companies that use illustrations: Marfy, Hot Patterns, Style Arc, Decades of Style... I love illustrations, but of course they show an idealized representation of a garment, not necessarily how it will look in 'real life'. A great pattern illustration will make me dream about a garment more than a photo. I always have to say to myself: 'Remember, this is a drawing...' In fact, what I like the most is the technical drawing, 'cause you have a clear idea of the garment lines and cut.

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  8. I love pattern art! Especially from the 40s and 50s. The 50s probably is my favorite because the poses are so silly. They try to work in the pattern into a life scene but it always comes off a little weird or creepy. I especially love Erin over at Dress A Day. She comes up with hilarious sketches based on pattern art.

    I don't base my pattern choice on cover photography. I usually go by the line art and descriptions. The art gives the feel for the finished dress though.

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  9. I collect vintage patterns for the artwork. I cut off the covers and then frame them as a collection. I also have cool graphics from magazines as well. I have never thought that the art on the front would mean the outcome would be the same. I think it makes for interesting and often a great conversation piece when they are displayed in groups.Before vintage sewing became really trendy with some sewers I was able to buy boxes of vintage patterns, which I do have, for next to nothing.

    Josette

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  10. I agree, I miss the pattern artwork, and other artwork as well. It's easier to place yourself and daydream with an illustration, not so easy with a model airbrushed and photoshopped into "perfection".
    Marfy has beautiful pattern illustrations, though no line drawings, which would be nice. Still, so much more charm that I enjoy putting their things together, and I've just sent for my first Style Arc patterns.
    Peter, your writing has a charm that I look forward to reading with each new posting. Thank you, Jeannie

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  11. I prefer to look at pattern pieces to get a good idea of the finished product on my body type. Pictures are nice but often, lighting combined with certain fabrics hides details, hence the usefulness of a drawing. I perceived pattern artwork as an idealized version of the outcome.

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  12. Great post Peter!

    I miss pattern artwork even more so now that sewing pattern super skinny models are posing in ridiculous poses that do not give you a clear idea of the pattern details. And I prefer not to be wasting my time clicking a mouse to get a better glimpse at the pattern. Although I do appreciate the comedy of those poses. A good chuckle ever now-and-then is good for the soul.

    But someone needs to tell these editors they're suppose to be selling a sewing pattern not a photo entry for Top Model! I would love it if someone should invest some time researching what sizes are the top selling patterns and use that as their guideline for models. There are many patterns that I wouldn't give a chance because the models were thin and convinced me that the pattern wouldn't work for me (Simplicity 1880) but I was pleasantly surprised when I used it in a pattern sew-a-long.

    But then again, illustrations do not always give a better indication of what a pattern will look like. Take Vogue 2885, from the illustration I assumed that the skirt was more of a pencil skirt. Thank goodness for line drawings! And this is a time when I did appreciate the photograph that was found on the website.

    What I like the most about reading sewing blogs and pattern reviews, you have an idea what a pattern looks like on real un-air brushed peeps. And that is better than an illustration or pattern photo.

    I guess what I'm saying is that I miss the illustrations of by-gone days for their aesthetic appeal over what strikes me sometimes as over-the-top pattern envelope photographs.

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  13. While it's not sewing pattern related, don't forget the J Peterman catalog! Yes, it's a real company and yes, they sell stuff. It's the only catalog I MUST get, both for the text and the illustrations with the items. I've ordered quite a few things from them and feel like the illustrations provide a great visual for what I am ordering.

    Sewing related, I do prefer illustrations too! I will usually look at the pattern direction insert before I buy it. I get a much better sense of what I can do than with a photo.

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  14. My hands down favorites are my 1940s McCall's pattern envelopes, with the same era's Hollywood patterns in close second. The McCall's have held up so nicely; the colors are as vibrant as ever and some even have backgrounds like street or beach settings. If I wasn't using them, I'd probably frame them. It is a shame about the decline of illustration.

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  15. I like pattern art too--it's just more fun and dreamy. Often the photos are really lackluster and disappointing. If anything, a lousy sample dress is a real turnoff to a pattern. It can be hard to look beyond the awful sample and imagine the potential of a pattern. The illustrations tend to offer multiple options and more idealized visions for a garment. On the other hand, I do like to see a realistic sample garment--it's not cool to buy a pattern and have your dress turn out nothing like the lovely little drawing ;) I guess I prefer drawings and a picture!

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  16. As a visual artist in traditional drawing and painting I do miss the illustrations. Though I do like seeing the photographed garment I would rather Google it and learn peoples' experiences with it than have it on the pattern envelope. My favs are anything 1950s. The 1930s are also really cute.

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  17. I, too, love the old pattern art. But have often wondered "Who are the artists?" My great aunt was an illustrator for a department store in the 1940's & 1950's. I was always fascinated by her drawings - but she always said that, to her, it was "just a job". Such great art from that era - now passed through time with no credit to the original artist.

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  18. I love the illustrations in the J Peterman catalogues, they are so evocative, as well as the stories they make up about each garment. But I just checked out their website and there are photos invading, argh!!

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  19. I love the pattern art of Advance patterns. Dynamic, modernist, gorgeous.

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  20. Let me refine that, because there are some rather dreary Advance pattern covers. I mean the 1950s-early 60s series.

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  21. I miss the artistic illustrations but on the other hand what I really want is a clear photo on a real person. Due to sewing websites and blogs we can almost always see whether a pattern delivers on its promise so there is nowhere to hide..

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  22. What an interesting post! I have never paid much attention to art or photograph... although I like them as art. I started my sewing in Germany (copying patterns out of the pattern magazines), and have never even bought a pattern until I moved to the US.
    I'd say, I look at the style of garment and whether or not it comes close to my project and then I judge the garment from the drawing of the pattern pieces. That alone decides whether or not I will make it!

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  23. Marfy and Sewaholic are two I know of that use either illustrations or technical drawings. The Marfy illustrations are actually very accurate as to garment fit and do a good job showing all the details even though the figure they are drawn on is ridiculously proportioned. I don't really like pattern photos, and always prefer a high quality illustration. The way a garment looks can vary dramatically based on how well fitted it is to the model, and sometimes the fabric they chose for the sample is too dark to to see any of the details. Recently Vogue has been following BurdaStyle magazine's lead in putting the models in really weird poses that make it hard to make any sort of judgement as to how the garment really looks.

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  24. Hot Patterns uses illustration rather than garment photos on the envelope and website. I love the illustrations of yesteryear. I think they are beautiful. But, they don't look the finished garment. I think the illustrators were too susceptible to fashion and the waists were too teeny and the poses too graceful. So, I appreciate photography now for patterns.

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  25. I think it's so sad that illustrations have started disappearing. One of my favourite things about collecting vintage patterns is the cover artwork - it's truly beautiful, and often such a commentary on the time period.

    Anyway, with regards to your question - i'm an independent pattern designer, and I rely on illustrations over photographs - http://megannielsen.com/collections/sewing-patterns

    You're right, photos are cheaper - but i think there's a romanticism and clarity to illustrations over photographs. Plus (and perhaps i'm wrong) i so often feel like photography dates quicker than illustrations.

    Though having said that - i still produce lookbook photographs as a supplement, just not in the packaging.

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  26. I collect vintage patterns and make most of my clothes based on them. Hands down I prefer an illustration on an envelope. I find it conveys vital information far more accurately than a photo, especially seam placement which often gets lost in a photo. And because it's a suggestion of an idea, rather than a fuly realised outfit, it gives my mind far more scope to imagine, modify and otherwise fill in my own details. It's a wonderful art form and I wish pattern companies would bring it back.

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  27. I distinctly remember in the '60s when the trend away from illustrations began because the pattern companies touted it as a good thing. At the time, I thought it was a good thing, too. The better to see what the garments looked like on real people. Now, I'm not so sure.

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  28. Line drawings are a must when you want information. As for seeing a garment on a "real person", each real person is different, so you need your imagination whether looking at photos or illustrations. Just a matter of preference. Speaking of preference, I love and subscribe to Vogue magazine but when it comes to their vintage styles, I really wish they would use illustrations or tell whoever does hair and makeup for their photo shoots that there was a whole lot more to the 1940s look than way too much red lipstick! I remember.

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  29. I have a few recently published pattern books - Built by Wendy, Built by Wendy Coats and Jackets and Famous Frocks - that feature pattern illustrations. I really wish they had photos, I find it difficult to visualise what a garment is like in real life. I have not made one pattern out of any of these books yet. By contrast, the Colette pattern book features lovely photographs, which I find more inspiring.

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  30. In terms of offering an accurate representation of the garment,I reckon there's not that much difference between illustrations and photographs. I recall the illustrations for a caftan pattern from Vogue a decade ago being savaged in print for badly misrepresenting the neckline. I had a total disaster with a similar neckline on a New Look pattern where the actual neckline was up lower and wider than the photographed one. (There's no evidence available; the only trace of this pattern's existence now is that every so often I wake ín the night sweating and screaming "aagh the too-wide front panel monster!")

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  31. I order my patterns from sewingpatterns.com and there I have come across the brand Neue Mode that seems to use illustrations. (it also looks rather 80's, but perhaps that's just me)

    http://www.sewingpatterns.com/subpage.php?brand=Neue+Mode

    actually, just for a giggle you should check out their men's. I mean just these pants have me in stitches :-)
    http://www.sewingpatterns.com/sub_item.php?item_num=21513neu&model=%&new_category=Men&view=gallery&brand=Neue_Mode&category=Men&pageGoto=0&pageFormat=3|186|186&pageCount=18&search=&return=yes

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  32. I love the illustrations on 70s Simplicity patterns. The artist they used could make anything look good! But for actual sewing use give me a photo plus a technical drawing any day. The ladies in the pattern illustrations are anatomically impossible; real life models may be skinny but they are not seven feet tall with waists no wider than their heads. I get a much better idea of how a pattern will make op from seeing it on a real person.

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  33. Yea rs ago i read the advice to prefer patterns with a photo, because then you knew the garment had actually been tested, not just assembled from other patterns. Vogue was particularly notorious , for a while, for having sleeves that didn't work with the armscye. But i love Style Arc, and all their patterns show illustrations. With both illustrations and models you do need to do the math to visualise ones actual figure in the clothing.

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    1. Thank you Lyndle, I had never heard of Style Arc, love their website !

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  34. Btw great post - but do I sense sewing avoidance? And do you read all the comments?( just curious how much time you have on your hands...)

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    1. I not only read them, I GRADE them.

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    2. Excellent, excellent. I always think the best people are slightly obsessional.

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  35. You know, I think Vogue had better go back to illustration after their latest pattern issue photo shoot release...
    And personally I think it's sad we see so little of commercial art, we had an exhibition at the gallery I work at of an elderly gent's artwork which included his commercial work. People loved it. I think it's a bit sad these skills are a 'dying art'.

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  36. I am often wary of buying a current pattern that does not have a photo because I heard that this means the pattern has not been actually made up into a test garment. Also, if one view is shown on a model and the other views only illustrated, if my source is correct, it means only the one view has been actually sewn together.

    Oh, I should read and grade the comments too, Lyndle already said this. I agree with Lizzy about the latest Vogue pattern photoshoot!! Wow. America's next crap model.

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  37. I would love love love it if pattern companies brought back their drawings! They made all of the patterns seem so lovely and elegant. I wonder who the people behind those drawings actually were? For some fantastic, and sometimes over the top illustration, you must check out Fredrick's of Hollywood catalogs from the 50s and 60s. Someone on Flickr under the name "The Pie Shops" has tons of scans from the catalogs. I promise it is well worth your time! :]

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    1. Better yet, here is a link to all of their catalogs. Be warned, it is a time trap. :]

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/hollywoodplace/collections/72157622533061892/

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  38. I think it really depends on the quality of the end product. Many photos suck a big deal, so do many illustrations. Combining both photos and drawings of the pattern envelope might help create a better idea of what the finished garment can look like. BurdaStyle is a good example. Although instead of the illustration they put the technical drawing of a garment.

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  39. I do feel that the big 4 pattern companies are pretty lazy with the styling of their pattern envelopes anyway. They definitely lack the charm and inspiration of vintage patterns.

    Steph over at http://3hourspast.com/ uses illustrations for her current patterns and I understand that her new Cake range of patterns will also use illustrations.

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    1. Sure do.. And a different cover-lady, differently shaped, every time... :)

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  40. I was going back to reading some of your older posts, and thought to reply to this one even though it's an old one. I worked as an illustrator for the Alameda Naval Exchange (their on base store) in the late 80's to mid 90's. My hubby and I did the hard goods, and another woman did the soft goods. There was a certain charm, crispness to the illustrations that photos can't, or don't give the viewer. Times changed, and printing changed with it. It became much less expensive to print photos. People seem to like them better. Really good illustrators became harder to find. Commercial art became non-existent, and computers came to the forefront. Everyone that sat in front of a computer thought they were an artist. Art, commercial art especially, suffered greatly. Today's people really don't know want they missed. Vintage sewers/collectors may be the exception. Those old patterns are vignettes of art. I wanted to be an artist/illustrator, but came at the tail end of that era. I. Magnin use to have the most beautifully illustrated full page ad in our local pull-out shopping sales, in the Sunday Times paper. I wish I had them now.

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    1. I remember way back when, Lord & Taylor's newspaper ads were always illustrated. Oh well!

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