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Jan 27, 2013

Were Sewing Patterns More Complex in Days Gone By?



Readers, I spent hours today working on my 1939 McCall's dress but I'm still not finished.  This day dress -- which is lovely but hardly exceptional for its era-- has proven to be a major time suck, and I haven't put in the side zipper, hemmed it, made the belt, or finished the cuffs yet.



I wonder: were clothing patterns more complicated back then or does it just depend on the pattern?  I mean, McCall's 3338 seems pretty straightforward: no lining, no boning, no drapery.  But that gathered plastron, dickie-like thingy is challenging, especially because in addition to all the even shirring around it, it has to fit perfectly at the neck and lap, shirt-like, right side over left.

I think I did a pretty good job, especially as it's cut on the bias and the plaid actually lines up.  It's interfaced with the same stiff cotton I muslined the dress with last week.



After I made the buttonholes I remembered I had some vintage covered-button-making kits, so I decided to try making covered buttons.  They weren't very hard to make and I think they look elegant.



The kit I used is by Prym (which I believe is British) and you basically just cut a circle of fabric, stretch it over the front, and pull the edges over the sharp little teeth on the back (wetting the fabric helps a bit).  Then you snap the back piece on and you're done!







The pattern also calls for a matching fabric belt but I wasn't sure about the buckle.  I tried a vintage black plastic buckle first but it looked too pilgrim (according to Michael).  I also had a covered-buckle kit, so I figured, why not?  The result wasn't bad at all (same principle as the covered button) but ultimately the whole thing looked too matchy-matchy, what with the covered buttons and all.





I tried a red vintage buckle (which also allows the belt to be slightly wider) and liked it better, but I'm still on the fence and may just wait until I have a better idea of shoes, hats, etc.  I could also go with a solid belt, I suppose.  It's a lot of plaid, right?



But back to the topic at hand: Do you think sewing patterns were more complicated during the heyday of home sewing, the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties?  If yes, does this reflect a) a higher skill level on the part of home sewers back then, or b) fashions that required more tailoring and fabrics that were less forgiving (i.e., no spandex)?

While there are certainly exceptions, I think most home sewing patterns I see today have fewer frills, reflecting a more minimalistic, less ornamental aesthetic.  A few random examples pulled from Vogue:

Vogue 1336, Sandra Betzina pattern

Vogue 1336, Sandra Betzina pattern

Vogue 8848

Vogue 8848

Still, just like yesteryear, seams have to be finished, hems sewn, linings inserted (much more common today than seventy years ago, when dress linings were rare), etc.  I've only sewn a handful of contemporary patterns myself -- Burdas most recently which, thanks to instructions that bordered on the incomprehensible, were hardly a walk in the park.  Of course, one's skill level comes into play too: the more experience you have the less likely you are to be thrown by a particular technique or detail.

Still, I wonder if a generalization can be made about the skill level required by most of today's patterns.

If you sew (or have sewn) both vintage and modern patterns, do you find older patterns to be consistently more complex, less complex, or about the same?

Given that there are so many shortcuts available to home sewers today -- everything from fusible web to invisible zippers to home sergers -- is sewing just less effort than it was in an earlier era, regardless of how the pattern is drafted?

What do you think?

54 comments:

  1. Great topic. I think the patterns were more complex (before the advent of "industrial techniques", and knits. Time was thought of differently too. As for Sandra Betzina (and I love her) her styles are simple, often, but her book Power Sewing is chalk full of technical help, for most styles and techniques I would need. As for buckle, Hubster found a small windfall of enamelled buckles, looking more Art Deco. I have already split the small cache with my niece. Maybe something white and black. And a pin to match worn up high. Maybe the appeal of vintage is it takes us to a different era (which had it's own troubles), but what was good then is healing to us. More modesty being a part. Cathie, in Quebec.

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  2. The patterns seem to have had more detail and be more fitted. Both take more time and patience, a rare commodity these days.

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  3. I'm guessing it has a lot to do with skill, every woman knew how to sew then. Now we're seeing a resurgence, but the people who are sewing are often self taught and fiddling their way through. Make patterns too complex and you'll send potential customers running.

    And, given that households are now dual income or, like myself, females flying solo, the time spend sewing clothing isn't there. We also have a lot more available to us in the realm of ready to wear and it's more affordable.

    That said, I haven't sewn any vintage patterns, but I did use a Burda pattern for my first ever suit so that has to count. 15 steps in 1 confusing sentence, it's the Burda way!

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    Replies
    1. HillBill:

      I think you've hit all the reasons, plus, as Peter said, tailored styles were more popular and tailoring requires fitting and special construction skills and time to look good.

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  4. There are so many possible factors - yes, there was probably a greater assumed level of competence. There was certainly a wider acceptance of having to spend time hand-sewing, because there were only straight stitch machines.

    I think it's also worth looking at RTW... I think most of what we *wear* is simplified, too. From our underwear to our minimalist outerwear, fussy styles are just less common.

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  5. I don't think that Burda or Vogue designers pattern can be considered as specially easy or basic (which is most of what I make). The big four are probably under pressure to release a lot of styles and therefore they release a lot of basic ones.
    It's kind of the same thing for RTW and couture, fast fashion is pretty basic because of the number and the frequency of releases but couture is still extremely intricate (maybe even more and that would explain how the price went up and the number of customers down).

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  6. Just for the records: Prym is a German company and they are proud of having invented the snaps. :-)

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  7. May your vintage Pyms work much better than the modern Dritz--in my experience, the shanks tend to pop off.

    The instructions say it all about assumed knowledge. Most vintage patterns have one single page of instructions as compared to three or four in modern patterns. Vintage patterns also have different, more unique features than modern. I'd never seen a darted sleeve cap or shaping darts at the back neckline until I started sewing vintage. Unique features seem to be fairly common, just because in an era when people didn't have as many clothes as we do now, it was how the pattern companies attracted business. (In my opinion, that's also why you can still find unused patterns from as early as the teens!)

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  8. LOVE the fabric-covered buttons. No idea about vintage versus contemporary patterns, but style may have just as much to do with it, no?

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  9. Think it depends what you make. I made a Butterick Maggy London cocktail dress last summer, and it was complicated! Lining, under lining, interfacing, fashion fabric (chiffon), the whole bodice had four layers and the skirt two! It was one of those gathered chiffon jobs on a very fitted bodice, so gathering the chiffon, sewing it to an interfaced underlining for all the 12 pieces that made the bodice, making the lining for same.... But a lot of other patterns are easier!

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  10. I think more detailed patterns are emerging now as home sewists become more demanding. I think when home sewing went out of vogue and there was a preference for RTW, we became more accepting of less than perfect (or sometimes downright poor)fit. Back neck darts are a case in point. They are pretty much standard on patterns until the early 70s but a lot of patterns I bought in the 80's, 90's, and even into the 00's didn't have them. I do see them on some patterns now, though. I'm sure it's expensive to reproduce a complicated pattern for commercial sale so when few people were sewing it probably wasn't worth printing them. Now more people are sewing I am sure the demand has increased for better fitting, more complicated patterns. Interested to hear what others think.

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  11. I worked in the costume dept of a museum, and was very lucky to be able to look over complex garments, inside and out. The idea that home sewers back in the day were highly accomplished in their skills was turned on end for me, when I saw the actual stitch work! The reality is our grandmothers before us were not all proficient, and a lot of them hated sewing and knitting! Printed patterns made their jobs somewhat easier, but they struggled with the same issues of fit, and access to proper fabrics, as we do today. It's just that now, we all show our work to each other, pointing out our mistakes as well as our successes. Complexity in design comes and goes in fashion. I think we are all very lucky to have the internet, and access to help 24/7, which enables us to tackle a difficult pattern, mostly for our own pleasure, rather than the fashion/societal dictates of the day.

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  12. I have only ever sewn a couple modern patterns and they were all "retro" reproductions. I actually find modern patterns much more complicated to follow than vintage ones. Every time I go about making a current pattern I pull out the directions and have a tantrum. Why must it take 4 pages to express what 1 page in the 40s used to. For me, the older patterns seem to be more concise. I hate the fuss of having a simple seam explained in 4 steps. It only serves to confuse. Although, I have to say in my defense, I usually end up sewing unmarked patterns so I guess I'm used to a certain amount of mystery. I just tend to ignore the marking on marked patterns now and make little chalk dots instead. Of everything I have made, which is nothing to shake a stick at, I suppose I've only run into trouble with old directions maybe a few times. Usually it's just old terminology that throws me, or maybe an old technique that is eliminated with newer sewing notions. Ill just peek thru one of my old sewing books and it usually shows a picture of what I'm looking for. Then I head slap and just do it my own way. I suppose to make a more informed opinion I should make a few more modern dresses but I generally find the fit to be awful. It takes too much work measuring out the enormous ease they include in everything now.

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    1. Can I get an AMEN??? 9 times out of 10 with a modern pattern I look at the instruction sheet front page with all the pieces and to make sure I've got the pieces I need and then I ignore the rest. Because a lot of the time modern patterns do things back-asswards. Or in a way that doesn't make sense down the road.

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    2. Also agree! I refuse to sew from modern patterns. They are ridiculous and oversized with horribly flimsy paper. My 70 year old patterns hold up better!


      (ack and Peter, PLEASE get rid of the word verification thing - they drive me nuts!! - sorry!)

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  13. The vintage patterns I have come across are infinitely more complex than 90% of the modern ones I have seen. I have also noticed quite a bit more variety from year to year among vintage patterns. Lapped seams (which I do not believe I have ever seen in a modern pattern) allow for a seemingly infinite amount of design possibilities. The collar and sleeve options, also, are much more varied in vintage patterns.

    I am continually tempted by new modern patterns, but chances are I already have a pattern in my stash from a few seasons before that have the same a-line skirt, button front bodice, or three-quarter cuffed sleeve. The same cannot often be said for vintage!

    Perhaps the larger pattern companies are catering to the fast paced lifestyles we all lead. I, for one, am willing to spend a bit more time so I have something that will look different from the mass-made stuff most people buy. That, and I enjoy sewing, so it it takes a bit more time that is fine by me.

    Can’t wait to see the finished dress! I actually like the self-fabric belt and buckle. How about a minty green paired back with pink and matching accessories – or is that too precious?

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    1. I also like the self-fabric belt and snaps. For accent, how about cufflinks?

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  14. I wonder if we line garments more now because we don't wear many structured undergarments (with the exception of Spanx, of course.) Remembering my slender mother's (dob 1918) bras, girdles, etc., she was already "lined" whenever she put on a dress, blouse or skirt. Also, sometimes putting a full lining in a dress is less work than separate facings for armholes and necks,

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  15. Peter.

    Just a small message to tell you that you made me laugh a lot with the first photo. The contrast between the dress and your solemn air is quite amusing! Keep clowning around; I am sure other people enjoy it too!

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  16. Oh Peter, after spending a morning trying to make head or tail from some Burda Young instructions (an ornate dress for my daughter), I am stopping for lunch ergh! I'm looking forward to seeing Cathy in the finished dress, will you post pics? Jenn.

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  17. It's A & B really. Clothing bought or sewn wasn't disposable and cloth wasn't exactly cheap and maybe in certain time periods hard to come by so if you were going to make something then you were going to make it worthwhile.

    Also if you were a housewife it was kinda your "job" to be able to sew and sew well so whipping up a complicated dress was like a badge of honor.

    The better you are at some the more fun it is.

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  18. I think as already mentioned most women knew how to sew. I know they did in my family. I rarely make clothes, but have on the odd occasion. I prefer simplistic designs but good quality fabric. There are so many things you can make or buy to enhance something that might be too simplistic and make it look detailed. I made a couple of 60's fashions for my daughter last year. The patterns were simple, easy and quick. They were from vintage patterns. I don't have the skills or the patience to make things that take too much time.

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  19. All of the comments above make very good points and I generally agree with all of them, though the question of the big 4 market now being 'committed' dress-makers rather than nessecity based dress-making makes an interesting digression. My two cents though is particularly around fit, let's face it fit is hardly a concern with todays patterns or RTW. Just to really showcase this open any of the Vogue Vintage repro images and check the fit out baby, absolutely rubbish. I am beginning to think that we are all worried that ae are suddenly going to go and down 4 dress-sizes in a week. Getting fit, matching plaid, ensuring nice seams is what takes all the time and it just seems that this has become largley considered superfluous by buyers, pattern releasers, brands - these things make a dress look a million dollars, they also add a few dollars to construction and we have been conditioned to accept a sloppy finish for more 'fashion dollars'.
    Love your work, looking forward to your solution to the matchy-match dilemma.

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    1. I was in a class (CPR - do renew or get the training if you can), and a classmate was wearing a shirt with the yolk cut WAY off-grain. That wouldn't have been acceptable a few decades ago. Everything has slid, fabric weaving and integrity, construction, and our standards along with it all.

      Can we blame the suburbs for this?

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    2. We can try. ;)

      I don't get what all the extra ease is about in contemporary patterns. Don't you want the garment to fit?

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    3. That's why I just can't bother with new patterns too much. I measure everything because they include design ease in with the wearing ease. So even though it tells you on the pattern (most of the time anyway) what the wearing ease is you can't take it at face value. They could have an extra inch or two in their design ease. Then you put on your completed potato sack and cry nd toss it in the "ill make a sad quilt with you" pile. At least with a vintage pattern you can take a quick waist measurement and figure it out fast and add in more "I don't wear a girdle" ease if you need it. However, the last repro Butterick dress I made didnt have any funky ease issues and the fit was spot on. Maybe they are getting better??

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    4. The last dress I made had THREE INCHES of wearing ease. THREE!!!!! I had to take 3 inches out of the back neck just so it wouldn't slide off my body!

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  20. Yeah, vintage patterns are generally more complex than today's. Stands to reason. Pattern manufacturers could assume a higher skill-level amongst seamstresses (for it was mostly women doing the making) and a whole lot more time (a male breadwinner in a household still being the cultural norm, leaving wifey time to sew). Good luck with this pattern, Peter. I admire your determination in pursuing that chequered fabric!

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  21. Whatever the answer, I think that dickey is quie the feat to pull off - curved seams are always a b*tch to get sitting flat, and with matching the plaid too - heck I've been sewing 35 years +, and it took me 5 hours to cut out the next shirt for the husband because of matching the pattern. So I think it is as much about this pattern.
    As for the belt, matchy matchy is very vintage! It makes the dress look super mart and authentic and I would go with it myself. :)

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  22. Hi Peter
    I'm a first time commenter but I have been reading your blog for a while as I'd like to have a go at vintage sewing and your blog is really helpful. I do sew, but only very simple a line skirts and wide leg trousers using modern patterns. I also sew for my kids. However, I'm a really keen knitter and knit both vintage and modern knitting patterns. I can tell you that despite fair isle and lace knitting which is prevalent in vintage patterns, modern knitting patterns can be far more complex. Keen knitters tend to enjoy the complex. Anyway, I digress - I'm an antiques dealer and although clothes are not my stock in trade, I do often come across bits and bobs when I buy a job lot of household linen at auction including very complex muslin blouses. I've noticed a lot of French seeming, smocking and pin tucks, embroidery and broderie anglaise. However, I rarely deal in anything after 1920 so perhaps the Victorian and Edwardians went in for embellishment and the deco girls went in for complex fit. Either way, I find it fascinating and I could go on and on and on...
    Natalie

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  23. Yes, I think because people had fewer clothes, they took the time and pride in making each item. My mother, born in 1928, learned to sew from her grandmother from the age of 5. If you started learning to sew from the time you were a young girl, then by the time you were an adult, the sewing knowledge you would have learned would be great. Now, you would only be as good a sewer as the people who taught you. I also know my mother could sew FAST......the sound of the humming machine is still in my ears. Also, many women could sew quite well without much reliance on patterns. My MIL, who is 82, is like that. I once asked her to explain something about a pattern to me, and she tossed it aside and left me in the dust.

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  24. My theory is that in the past most patterns were actually made into clothes (I rarely see an uncut or unused vintage pattern) whereas today the pattern companies have come to realize that they're the publishing business not the fashion business. It doesn't matter to them if their patterns are ever made up or not, they just want to sell patterns. So if that's the case, what's the point of drafting something complex that will never be made?

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  25. I haven't sewn 40's or 50's patterns but I think yesteryear people had fewer clothes that lasted longer. People expected that and that reflects the more detailed patterns I think. Nowadays we have so many options and expect to have a lot of clothes that people replace very quickly without much thought - why put so much work into it?

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  26. I've sewn new and vintage, and I've sewn from patterns I've drafted for costumes. There are all levels of skills in the modern ones, but the vintage all seem to need a fairly high skill level. The easiest are the ones I draft myself: I don't have to translate right-handed instructions for my left-handed self.

    The clothes are lined now because we don't wear slips any more. It's not easy to even find them, and I haven't owned one in decades.

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    1. I wonder if it's cheaper from a labor perspective to line a garment than to finish all those seam allowances.

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    2. I rarely line things, because I sew from 40's patterns - and yes, I think it's because people wore slips then. I find this a much better option as it means I don't have to wash my clothes as much, instead washing the slip which is more durable.

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  27. How about a ornate silver buckle or a large plain silver one

    it possibly was more complex making clothing years ago - that's why people who could make them were considered very, very cleaver, patterns were made easier as people 'complained' they had less time to make them

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  28. I think this is true to all clothing and not just patterns. The clothing in the past was much more complex, it involved a whole ensemble (suit or blouse and skirt) rather then a T shirt and Jeans. This is why I enjoy looking at vintage clothing so much, every little detail was thought of and they weren't manufactured in a way that would be the least costly so there was no cutting corners and simplifying things.
    I really wish everyone put so much thought into what they're wearing like they used to!

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  29. Peter, I remember reading an interview of the head of Marfy (can't remember her name), and she was asked by her patterns don't come with directions. She said it has been a tradition--when the family first started, the patterns were sold to professionals, then the general public. She said that the average seamstress's skills were more advanced than they are today, and they didn't need instructions. I can say that, in reading sewing books from the 1950s (for example, Clothing Construction by Evelyn Mansfield), I find much, much more technical information. It's all very fascinating.

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  30. OOps--that's "why" her patterns ... not by! Sheesh!

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  31. I think it is probably a combination of several of the things you mentioned - skill, available fabrics, styles... I also think that back in the day clothing was made/meant to last for longer than now, so there was more of an investment made (whether in time or dollars) in the garment. Perhaps the rise of disposable fashion has also lead to more "quick and easy", "one hour" sewing patterns with less involved construction.

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  32. I'm just reading through this and the comments with interest, because I don't know the answer! When I want to sew a garment with complex details, I purposely choose a vintage pattern. If I want a simple shape, more often than not I just draft something myself rather than using a pattern.
    I would agree that many modern patterns seem to be technically simplistic, maybe just in acceptace of the loss of sewing know-how over the last couple of generations.
    Still, there were the dirndl skirts in the fifties and sixties, where the pattern envelope contained two gigantic, square pieces of tissue. In case you could not figure out how to cut that from your fabric.

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  33. Lining is more prevalent now because fabric is more available. In those days fabric was nicer but you used every scrap if possible. Women have less time today due to jobs etc but in those days you spent more time on housework and cooking than you do today. I think the main difference is in the interest and dedication. A mother with 3 or 4 daughters might spend less time on finishing her seams. I know I did years ago.

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  34. I think patterns were definitely more complicated in the past - and not necessarily because sewers were more widespread and competent (although, that is part of the reason, just not the entire reason). I think a lot of it has to do with how simplified our RTW clothes are, and the pattern companies are now picking up on that. Clothing today is NOTHING like vintage stuff - all the sweet little details that made the garments so special, with the covered buttons and the pintucks and the gathers and the extra generous hem allowances - that doesn't really exist anymore. Instead of fine detail and fit, companies try to close that gap by covering our stuff with embellishments. It's definitely trickled down to the pattern industry - lots of loose, swingy shapes, with very little visual interest outside of some added embellishments.

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  35. I agree with what others have said: clothes today aren't what they used to be. It used to be OK to have far fewer clothes and wear them longer than it is now. Cheap, ill-fitting, disposable clothing has changed the way we look at clothes.

    Yes, women knew how to sew back then. But then, as now, not everyone was good at it. The old patterns are far more detailed and interesting than the new ones, and far more time consuming to make. But, look at knitting or crochet patterns from the same era. No chunky/bulky knitting yarns, but fine yarns with complex colour patterns that took a lot longer to knit. Or crochet patterns with fine thread that took forever. Those old pics of father reading, mum sewing and both listening to the radio are real.

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  36. I think so. I just picked up a Modes Royale pattern from the early to mid-1960s for a gown. From the checking I was able to do, these patterns were considered a cut above most in terms of design, but were also more difficult and involved more couture details.

    I just think seamstresses back then were more skilled because they had to be. The fashions of the time were more structured and thus more complicated. In addition, fashions from the 1930s and into the 1940s (Depression into WWII) tended to be designed to be made from a lot of small pieces as this was the best way to economize fabric at a time when most people could not afford (or afford to waste) great swathes of fabric.

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  37. IMHO, definitely a solid belt on that one--the self-belt IS way too much plaid. Rather than black, which is a little harsh, and white, which is too much, aim for accessories in a dark grey, dark brown, or even a mid- to deep caramel colour. I think youre instincts are good with red, but perhaps a dark red or a scarlet?

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  38. It seems to me that sewing patterns follow what is available in RTW. Clothing is simpler in even relatively expensive lines to keep manufacturing costs in check. There's also more wearing ease because in general women just won't wear girdles and long-line bras as a matter of course anymore.

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    Replies
    1. I think styles are more minimal for aesthetic reasons to. It feels more modern and is generally easier to wear.

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    2. Agree. Easier to wear and easier to pack. I wonder if more people traveling more by air has had something to do with the simplification of clothing? One designer, Bonnie Cashin, a contemporary of Claire McCardle, designed simple, multi-purpose garments because she was quite a traveler herself. The designer Zoran began in the late seventies/early eighties to sell ultra-simple garments made from ultra-expensive fabrics. His target customers are wealthy women who travel a lot for business. He would demonstrate the versitility/pack-ability of his clothes by packing what he considered a week's worth of garments in just one aluminum attache case. IIRC, Hillary Clinton is reputed to be a client.

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  39. "Do you think sewing patterns were more complicated during the heyday of home sewing, the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties? If yes, does this reflect a) a higher skill level on the part of home sewers back then, or b) fashions that required more tailoring and fabrics that were less forgiving (i.e., no spandex)?"

    Yes, yes, yes, yes & yes?

    I sew both vintage and modern and I prefer vintage. It does call for a higher level of expertise, but IMNSHO, the results are a cut above (pun intended) modern patterns.

    To me, modern patterns are pretty dull. Or if not dull, make me want to pull what's left of my hair completely out because the instructions make no sense at all.

    Vintage patterns assume you have a workning knowledge of sewing. Modern patterns assume you can read the pattern drafter's mind. Honey, I'm good, but I'm not *that* good.

    Vintage patterns assume women have curves and the styles are easier to wear if you have curves. If you are at all curvy, or short or in any way not the "norm", modern patterns give you a Bronx salute and then dare you to try and grade them to work.

    Vintage patterns tend to be better drafter. That is, the notches, circles, etc match each other. I have found that with modern patterns, it's hit or miss. New Look tend to be pretty good about this, but then New Look patterns also tend to be HEAVILY vintage influenced.

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  40. I -adore- Lucy's dress. Think if you made it people would recognize it :-)?? You'd need a new wig though.

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  41. How about keeping the self fabric covered buckle and using a grosgrain ribbon instead of the fabric for the belt?
    Definitely agree: patterns are getting simpler and simpler, these days most issues of Burda magazine include a pencil skirt, an elastic waist skirt and a loose fitted top

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  42. I do a lot of historical sewing from different eras. Modern patterns are definitely much easier than older ones. The instructions are also incredibly clear. In dealing with Victorian and Edwardian patterns, there often weren't very good instructions. But people were expected to know how to sew if they were using patterns, as you were clothing your family and did not have the option of off the rack clothes. I've noticed many more darts and more complicated sleeves than now. But it's worth it. The clothes are far more beautiful in their complexity. I just made my 6 year old daughter a wool coat from an 1876 pattern. It's fitted and has a cute tail. All the little details with the trim make it far more interesting than modern patterns.

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