The Vintage Pattern Primer: Cost effective patterns.

As someone who spends a considerable amount of time scouring the web and other places to find vintage sewing patterns, I thought now might be a grand time to sort of introduce a primer to those who are new to sewing with vintage patterns, or who are interested in collecting them.

First thing to do is to get a feel for the pattern makers, styles and eras. Here is one of the best consortiums of dating vintage patterns. I plan to give better tips on this in a later post.

Prices have gone up. Way up. I'm seeing more and more 3 figure patterns, and truth be told, I would attribute a lot of that to a pattern that sold on Ebay about half a year ago for $350+. It was a 20s/30s evening gown, lovely, but to hell with $300 for a sewing pattern unless its made of gold and even then, Id have reservations.

Not to say that there are not patterns that can command a 3 figure price. Generally accessories patterns go high. I am still lamenting over loosing a 30s hat pattern in a 23" head.


It went on Ebay for $120+, but I bid just over $100. That would have to be the largest miss for me. (If anyone has this pattern I'd love a copy!)

From there you get into the mire of pricing based on what the seller thinks they can get away with. This will vary across the board, as there are no real rules. But Im about to make some observations.

I think we first need to realize that $3 patterns from the 1930s are gone.

(Here are some of my actual $3 30s patterns.)

I never understood people being so sore about that anyway. A contemporary pattern can go for $20, yet people seem to still believe that an old pattern has to be a buck. Whatever. I price honestly, based on style and age and completeness of the pattern. Most people think because its old, that is by default valuable. So not the case.

Just because its from the 1920s does not mean you need to pay bank for it.
People don't want you to know this, but 20s patterns, in vintage pattern terms,
are pretty much a dime a dozen.

They are everywhere. If you are paying more than $40 for a 20s basic day dress, you are being robbed. Now, of course there are grand acceptations, there always are, especially if you are collecting the pattern not just for the pattern, but the wondrous graphics on the envelope-
(I'm looking at you McCall)
-then the sky can (and often is) the limit.

But if you see a 20s/early 30s dress you like, take a breather before you fork over the bank.

1930s patterns are the most expensive right now. Probably a modest second are new look post war mid to late 40s patterns. Their dramatic lines and large gored skirts are really in now. Which sucks for me because 30s patterns are my favorite. You can find 30s patterns for $30 and under but they tend to be 'plain', which isnt always bad. That brings me to rule 3.

Invest in plain patterns.

I have tons upon tons of basic shirtwaist patterns. Each one has an interesting flourish, be it a lovely sleeve, a back pleat on the bodice, yoke gathers, etc. If you mix and match from different patterns instead of getting that one super $$$$ one that has all the things you want, but you already have in 3 basic patterns, you'll save money.

I'm all for saving money even with a hobby, thats why I snap up basic patterns. If you find a basic '40s shirt waist with a standard shawl collar for sale at $25, move on! These types of dresses are generally $10-$18. What is that, the price of a modern pattern?

Buying your size can be pricy.
I have one pattern that is my exact size and it is my most expensive pattern to date.

Generally with 30s and 40s patterns, buying above a 36 bust can get expensive depending on design elements. If you see a pattern that is not your bust size, why not take a chance at grading? If you are a 46 bust and you get a 30 bust pattern, youll go crazy, but if you are a 36 and you see a cute 32, why not give it a try? I don't know too many 32 bust people, so Id assume most people buying those patterns are grading them anyway. It could be a good cost effective way to get some patterns into your collection.

Prices plummet after 1955.
Don't pay $20 for a 1960s pattern. Just don't.

Dresses are more expensive than blouses. Blouses are more expensive than nightgowns. Nightgowns are more expensive than slacks. Slacks are more expensive than skirts. Skirts are about the price of children's patterns. Aprons don't count in this or any logical thought process.

The first one went for $25, the second one went for $50, and the last McCall went for $120!
My brain can't process this.

Sadly some mail orders are starting to command the same prices as retail patterns now. Often the designs are similar so just keep an eye out.

There is no real pricing difference in printed vs. unprinted patterns.

Don't put too much stock in a factory fold. Sure, some collectors think that is the way to go, but Id rather have the pieces counted before I buy the pattern, especially if I plan to make it, as opposed to getting a FF and finding out the collar is missing! CRAP!

Like with collecting anything, collect only what you like. Don't go bananas just because its an old pattern. Get it if it suits your tastes. Also, buy form a seller who knows that they are selling. You might think you are not getting a 'deal', but after you feel a seller out, you will know if they price fairly or if they gouge. I get tired of the crap shoot with people who price patterns sky high, but have no clue on era, condition or what have you.

Also, you might want to thin the herd every now and then. Reselling patterns you don't mind parting with is like giving pack to the pattern pool. It keeps all us collectors going. Try it every once and a while.

I guess thats enough yammering for now.
Any other tips you'd suggest?
Happy pattern collecting!


  1. Great tips! I definitely learned some stuff. I do a fair amount of pattern collecting (I have 500+ -- yikes!) And need to start selling off some extras I've accumulated that either aren't my size or style. I actually do have a 32 bust (actually a little smaller!) and I know I'm lucky, since it is one of the most plentiful sizes out there.

    Where are you seeing affordable 20s patterns? I don't see many, and when I do they're super pricy. And you're right, pattern prices are definitely going up. I think there's more interest in them, which is not a bad thing.

    My "pattern that got away" was a Pauline Trigere pattern from the 60s. Normally I won't pay extra for a designer pattern, as you can typically find knockoff patterns of the same designs for less that came out in the years following. But this one was special, and I haven't seen it for sale in any size since.

  2. Excellent overview -- great info. What I really like about Etsy (and eBay with Buy it Now) is that you can shop strictly according to price. Occasionally a 30s pattern will show up there that's quite cheap (less than $10) perhaps not carefully listed using the most accurate keywords, so it will get lost in the crowd. I've paid more than $20 only once, for a McCall's 20s pattern in excellent condition. And funny: only days later I won an eBay auction for an even better McCalls 20s pattern for $10 less! I don't even look at patterns I can't afford.

    My advice would be to look often; what's available changes daily. Thanks, Shelley!

  3. Love this post! I've definitely seen prices go up the past year or so, which has me kicking myself for not starting to buy patterns more often back when I first got on Ebay (c. 2003). :p Oh well--live and learn! I really appreciate your break down of pricing and such; it's something I've noticed but never articulated.

    I think my best plan of attack is to always watch and wait and have a budget. I try really hard not to get caught up in the hype of bidding, and if something goes for more than I think the design is worth, I skip it. Eventually I tend to find either the exact pattern, or something similar, for less. ;) Patience young Padawan! (At least, that's what I try to preach to myself. ;) I've had some great finds though--even in the crazy bidding that seems to go on lately on Ebay. Plus, I've noticed it goes through cycles--I tend to wait out the super active moments for the lulls and then pounce! ;) It's all about the thrill of the hunt!!!

    ♥ Casey
    blog |

  4. Great post, thanks for your tips! I'm new to this game and have been buying a bit willy nilly, including patterns not in my size with a view to getting around to finding out how to grade them at some point. Hasn't happened yet, but some day! In any case, everything I've bought has been a bargain in my eyes - oh, they're so beauuuuutiiiful!

  5. Good post! It is so silly that the 1960's patterns have gone up in price to cheat the few unknowing Mad Men enthusiasts who are new to pattern purchasing.

  6. 90% of 1965-1969 patterns, it seems, are variations on the shift dress. You only need one. Ever.

    The problem with buying plain patterns is that those are also the ones that are easiest to improvise from patterns you already have. I'm more likely to skip 3 plain patterns that I like but could probably fudge from a pattern I already have, and spend more on a really cool pattern that would be harder for me to reproduce. (But then, I have a strict upper limit on what I'll spend on a pattern. $20 is a stretch.)

    I also don't buy 1920's patterns. Get one of those One-Hour Dress booklets instead. Most 1920's dresses can be faked with one of those.

  7. I just found your blog and your etsy site. I enjoyed reading this article today. Thanks for writing it! I actually buy patterns from the '70s! They are most likely to suit my body type. You can still pay quite a bit for those, if you aren't careful. My biggest beef with the big vintage pattern sites is the general clunkiness of the search engines. And why oh why don't the pattern descriptions put size info foremost? And why can't I see the backs of the pattern envelopes? And I'm not buying anything if I can only see a thumbnail. Get with the 21st Century pattern sellers! But this is a fascinating new hobby!

  8. Awesome post! Thanks.

    I also love searching by pattern brand and number in order to see who else is selling the pattern. I would hate to buy a pattern and then find someone else was selling it for a lot less. I am shocked the prices some people spend for pretty common and plentiful designs.

  9. Great tips and great patterns! I just love the vintage 30's and 40's. You are on the money about the classic dresses. You can always add to it.

  10. Fantastic post! I love buying (and dreaming of buying) vintage patterns. I don't let myself look at anything I can't afford so I'm not disappointed! I look for the most interesting details as opposed to classic dresses, since I already have a few classic styles that have worked for me.
    Also: I add my favourite Etsy sellers as an RSS feed, so I know right away when they have new patterns. The really cool ones go quickly!

  11. Thanks everyone!
    You are so right. I cant stand sellers who dont list bust size in their pattern descriptions, or ones who purposefully block out the diagram on the back of the envelope. I think its crass and building a level of distrust between the buyer and seller right off the bat.

    News flash, if you can make a pattern by looking at the diagram on the back, then chances are you can make it by looking at the picture on the front.

  12. Really interesting, thanks. I can't imagine paying so much for a vintage pattern. A DRESS maybe but a pattern?! :)

  13. I would never in a million years pay more than $20 for a vintage pattern. This is for a few different reasons, but the biggest is that as long as I have a picture of the dress I can recreate the pattern to a certain extent using the patterns I have already. Also, I never allow myself to NEED a pattern enough that I can't wait to try and find it (or something similar) for a decent price just by waiting and looking.

  14. I use to be that way too, Tart Deco, Then I realized, 20s patterns are 90 years old. 30s patterns are 80 years old. I wont pay more than $20 for something thats 80 years old and still usable?

    I think there is a difference between a bargain and a fair price. When I shop for patterns online, I look for both. I might not *want* to pay more for something, but if I want it, Ill pay for it.

    When I choose a pattern on ebay, I bid to win. I hate the 'hoping it does not go over my price' feeling. I do have a buffer as to how much I want to pay, but Id fork over money for a real nice pattern if it would save me from looking for it all over again.

    Not everything comes back around. Im still sour about loosing that hat pattern. *sigh* But I guess Im approaching all of this now with a collector mentality as opposed to someone who is just looking to accumulate patterns. For my personal collection, Im quite selective.

    Like right now I pretty much only buy patterns 40 bust and over and primarily 30s Du Barry. And they are not always a bargain :)

  15. NVL, I like your tip about mixing and matching pattern details. I've decided to be more open to that sort of thing. And I've yet to learn to do a FBA, but I need to learn, and perhaps a stunning vintage pattern might be the reason I finally do so. I really enjoy your blog!

  16. Totally agree with your post! I started buying about 6 years ago, and I think the average price for a 40s/50s pattern was $7-10?
    Kicking myself, I wish I bought more evening dress patterns now. I'm seeing 60s patterns fetching much higher prices due to Mad Men though.

  17. I think your info was spot on (except where are you finding 20's patterns cheap?). But I'd like to remind folks to look beyond etsy and ebay...try Google, or just look around a bit. I sell at Main Street Mall Online with several good pattern sellers and we have lots of goodies.
    Come visit!

  18. I find slews of 20s patterns at all the big online malls, Main Street, Ruby Lane, Artfire, Ebay, Tias, Etsy. And some of the smaller places too.
    Those I wont name because they are some of my special places to shop :)

  19. What a great post! I've been sewing all my life, and am a big fan of vintage clothes, but am just now taking the plunge to sew some of my own from vintage patterns. I will definitely be visiting your blog again for some more tips!


  20. I should add:

    (With apologies) I shop more on eBay than on Etsy or through vendors. eBay has more disinterested and/or clueless sellers who are less likely to charge a premium. (This applies to my other hobbies, too. I buy more animal figurines there than through specialty sites, because I'm far more likely to find a deal.)

    If I want the garment and not the pattern for its own sake, I don't get stuck on a particular pattern company. Once in awhile, there is a dress design I can *only* find through a certain pattern company, but for basics (like 1940's two-piece dresses) all the pattern companies released nearly-identical designs. If the Hollywood or DuBarry version is expensive, I can probably find its Simplicity twin for $6. There are patterns I've bought because I wanted *that pattern* specifically, but I don't do that for ones I just want to sew.

  21. This is a great post. I agree with you about the factory folds. I would rather know that it it all there.

    Love your blog. Love your Gardenia dress.

    Thanks for sharing with us.

  22. I have 60 vintage patterns..not sure the date's... I can find out..but how do I find out the worth of them?


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