The Vintage Pattern Primer: Reading Vintage Patterns.

For a lot of people starting the venture of sewing, the idea of following pattern instructions and not forgetting something can be daunting. With vintage patterns, that concept can be 10x of a challenge. Depending on the type of vintage pattern you start to sew with, a whole set of mental tricks might be needed in order to keep things straight.

I guess now would be a good time to urge all to please PLEASE trace off your pattern before using it. Pretty please!

There are essentially three types of vintage patterns: The unprinted perforated pattern, the printed pattern, and my personal favorite, the printed perforated pattern.

Learning the secrets in how to read each of these presentations can help you pretty much make the instructions irrelevant. Now don't we all want to be at that point?

-The unprinted perforated pattern.
The oldest of the patterns.

The most traditional presentation of vintage patterns, and for many who are starting to sew, the most frightening. Not so, I say! All patterns have their own language. From individual pieces, to pattern manufacturer, unprinted patterns often have to be looked over. Even so, there are still some basic consistencies that are threaded (no pun intended) across the board.

Take this sleeve piece for instance. A couple of things I've discovered with these type of patterns seem to be universal.

1) Generally the pattern ID will be found in the lower right of the pattern piece (the unprinted pieces I've shown are all on their side, but I'm sure you get the idea). It can be a number, a letter, which is the norm, or you can get an annoying 40s Vogue where they perforated entire WORDS onto their pieces! I've also seen some mail orders do that for some instructions as well.

This rarely helps when you are looking for a pattern and its all wadded and folded in its envelope, but from the hundreds of pieces I've looked over, a creepy majority are identified in that space.

2) Sleeves can be confusing. Which way is which? At least I often have that problem. I've found out over 90% of the time, the double notch is an indication that that side is the back. Go ahead, check the back bodice piece it goes with. I've only found on e obscure 20s pattern that didn't follow this rule. Id say those are pretty good odds. A good mnemonic device I came up with is to look at the two pointed notches as the letter B laying on its side. B is for back! HA! I need to do stuff like that or I am all turned around.

I tend to like sleeve patterns that have the center mark in the cap of the sleeve. Its a great thing to have especially if the sleeve is gathered. Also, to compensate the elbow, often two notches or a dart are marked on some patterns. I remember when I was first sewing, too lame to throughly read the directions, Id say, "What the frick is this sleeve doing so lop sided!?" Then Id just cut off the uneven cuff. Oh how silly I was...

To get a sense of the overall markings of a pattern, those handy diagrams that are given in every unprinted pattern always mark the center lines, the places where the pattern is to be on the fold (often marked with two or three large circles, or three circles forming a triangle which is a marking I always use to mark the fold).

Grain lines are generally a series of three small groupings of dots, or two rather large dots spaced out on the pattern piece.

Other odd markings that can appear can be in the shape of ovals, squares, even triangles. They are often marking where a placket should be, outlining seam allowances, or where to fold a pleat. There generally isn't anything too special that would warrant such an elaborate shape, but perhaps there were too many circles and such on said pattern that pattern makers though women might get confused. I wouldn't put it past them.

-The Printed Pattern.
To tell you the truth, these are my least favorite. I find them overly complicated, and wordy. One thing is, they are often printed on one flat sheet making the buyer cut out each shape. Going to that from perfectly shaped unprinted patterns just creates an extra step. I've never understood the need to mark seam allowance on a pattern. The instruction page will always tell you the SA, so why have it on the pattern? I think it just creates an overly complex maze of lines to follow and really, who is ever going to transfer that onto their fabric?

In the 20s, McCall came out with their incredibly beautiful 'printed patterns'.

I find they are so lush, so elaborate, they could be famed. But to work with? So much over information. Everything was printed on the pattern pieces. Everything. Every word, every sentence, every instruction. See how cluttered it is? I can bet these were all the rage. Even the notches, where you match pattern piece to pattern piece are numbered! What woman wouldn't want to have a pattern that lists all you are to do on the pieces? But I often wonder how much of that information was genuinely used.

From the 30s on McCall pretty much refined their process of completely printed patterns, ditching the blueprint novelty look for one that we pretty much know today.

But there was another type of printed pattern, one that used the best of both worlds. The visual of the perforated pattern, with the ease of the printed.

-The Printed Perforated Pattern.
I LOVE this type of pattern.

They seem to be very sporadic, having been used by some of the lesser known pattern makers like Pictorial as early as the 30s, and then surprisingly by Simplicity exclusively in the early to mid 40s before they switched to all printed. I just find their use of this such a divot in the timeline of pattern history.

I wonder why Simplicity did it. Can you imagine, the marked notches along with the actual notches, the pieces already cut out, the grain lines printed on the pieces, each piece labeled often with its pattern size? Wonderful.

So there you have it, the languages of vintage pattern pieces all laid out for your viewing pleasure. I thank you for your time.


  1. Great post, thanks for making it sound so simple.

  2. I seem to have a vague recollection that the combo printed and perforated was done because of the copyright held by McCall on the completely printed pattern at the time.

    For those afraid of the unprinted pattern, once you trace the pieces, it's not all that different than if it were printed to start with. :) My personal pet peeve is the printed patterns with the double lines that you are supposed to cut between. Makes them a pain to trace.

  3. A friend of mine (who also sews) and I were emailing the other day and realized that we've used so many old patterns that we now find printed patterns busy, cluttered, and confusing. Unprinted patterns are marked, after all, and the sewing instructions, unless they are unusually sparse or the garment is unusually complex, make up the difference.

  4. I didnt know that Jennifer, and that does make a lot of sense. They're just such a blip in pattern history. I would think that they would have been more popular.

    I agree, Little Black Car. With the pattern pieces, and a good view of the pattern illustration, Im in pretty good shape most of the time.

  5. Thank you so much for this! I had been thinking about doing a short post on "decoding unprinted patterns" for awhile, as I get a *ton* of emails with questions about them. But darn if I could figure out a non-confusing way to explain things! ;) I shall definitely be linking to this post in my weekly roundup of links--you explained things so clearly!

    ♥ Casey
    blog |

  6. Thank you so much for posting these little tidbits. Ive just started both sewing and collecting vintage patterns and need to learn everything!!

  7. Another great post, NVL. I haven't used an unprinted perforated pattern before, so your diagram will no doubt prove invaluable when I do - you make it look so easy!

  8. Wonderful!
    If you don't mind, I'll add this post to my vintage sewing info links on my blog :)

  9. Cool! Thanks! Im glad everyone is finding the post useful! :)

  10. This is wonderful! I definitely will need to add this to my list of resources on my blog. Thank you!

    I am intrigued by your suggestion that the 1920's McCall's printed patterns are so "lush, elaborate" that they could be framed. I thought I was the only one who found pattern pieces beautiful. And I don't even sew! But I love old paper, and the history behind it.

  11. Hi Shelley, just wondering where do you purchase your paper to trace the vintage patterns? Your blog is amazing and I have already learned so much. Thanks!

  12. Hi,
    I use a roll of tracing paper you can get at any art supply store. It'c cheap, transparent, and pretty stable paper.

  13. I just linked to your post because of a reader who asked about unprinted patterns. Thanks for the clear photos and explanation. I like your line about "threaded -- no pun intended" because the punched holes that marked places where the fabric needed to be marked (like the beginning and end of a dart) allowed you to make a "tailor tack" in the fabric -- thread marks that were used before tracing wheels and pattern transfer paper became widely available. Sew happy!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


1940 (656) catalog Sunday (490) dress (409) 1930 (402) progress (216) suit (188) coat (169) repro (153) cotton (146) shoes (120) pattern (117) blouse (115) hat (112) day dress (111) 1950 (108) 1920 (104) Chicago Mail Order (99) jacket (97) etsy (94) Lane Bryant (90) WWII (87) personal (87) separates (81) butterick (78) foundation garments (76) skirt (75) Wards (73) gown (73) fabric (72) illustration (72) day project (67) cocktail dress (66) simplicity (65) vintageville (65) linen (63) nvl (63) pants (63) McCall (62) homemaking (59) sweater (57) cmo (56) accessories (55) music (55) event (54) rayon (54) 1930s (50) dubarry (50) flower (48) house coat (48) slip (48) stockings (47) playsuit (45) Sears (44) wool (44) purse (40) Spiegel (37) make and mend (37) pajamas (36) robe (36) 1960 (35) advertisement (33) apron (33) gloves (33) hollywood (33) holiday (32) catalog (31) showcase (31) buttons (30) National Bellas Hess. (28) 1940s (27) dance (27) denim (27) dust bowl (27) furniture (27) In Memoriam (26) dyeing (26) hats (26) Man Month (25) drawing (25) underpants (25) children (24) cloche (24) costume (24) overalls (24) NRA (23) men (23) navy (23) sewing (23) MnM11 (22) bra (22) sew-along (22) jewelry (20) coats (19) girdle (19) giveaway (19) nightgown (19) patterns (19) hair (18) lace (18) royalchrome (18) collar (17) craft (17) mnm12 (17) silk (17) stout (17) velvet (17) CVTotI (16) PPP (16) 1910 (15) Montgomery Wards (15) bathing suit (15) cape (15) jacket in a week (15) lingerie (15) scarf (15) socks (15) Air Raid (14) beret (14) men's (14) quilt (14) swimsuit (14) MnM13 (13) jimjams (13) loungewear (13) mail order (13) panties (13) pictorial (13) repair (13) sweaters (13) National Coat and Suit Company (12) advance (12) alteration (12) dress form (12) rick rack (12) seersucker (12) wardrobe (12) MnM14 (11) food (11) plaid (11) uniform (11) New York (10) border print (10) cicada (10) depression (10) evening gown (10) piping (10) redingote (10) the gardenia dress (10) tiki (10) 1970 (9) anne addams (9) bag (9) boots (9) cocktail (9) family (9) flapper (9) handkerchief (9) red (9) shirt (9) smock (9) underdress (9) belt (8) corduroy (8) embroidery (8) excella (8) garter (8) knitting (8) marian martin (8) pleats (8) sale (8) sleeve (8) slippers (8) toys (8) tweed (8) vogue (8) watches (8) bolero (7) brooch (7) crepe (7) design (7) halloween (7) just because (7) movie (7) novelty print (7) shopping (7) sleepwear (7) Phantom of the Opera (6) bargain (6) calico (6) classic (6) color (6) costuming (6) dicky (6) expo (6) fur (6) glass (6) house dress (6) housewares (6) notions (6) restoration (6) shirtwaist (6) sick (6) ski suit (6) theater (6) zipper (6) applique (5) architecture (5) blackface (5) bloomers (5) body (5) book (5) cat (5) chambray (5) cosmetics (5) fashion (5) furnishings (5) jacket in a week 2 (5) jumper (5) little things (5) mary jane shoes (5) maternity (5) mock-up (5) museum (5) necktie (5) party (5) photos (5) pimp (5) sweater dress (5) vest (5) vintage (5) winter (5) wrap dress (5) 1945 (4) 1980 (4) comments (4) dog (4) elastic (4) monogram (4) monster making (4) pattern making (4) pets (4) revolution (4) scallop (4) swing dress (4) tappants (4) wedding (4) 1800s (3) 1900 (3) VPP (3) WWI (3) beauty (3) books (3) bracelets (3) cookies (3) corset (3) cuff (3) darning (3) deco (3) doggie (3) ebay (3) groceries (3) lindy (3) nurse (3) outsize (3) retro (3) rings (3) sailor (3) satin (3) shirring (3) shorts (3) sporty (3) styling (3) summer (3) teaching (3) turban (3) upholstery (3) viva (3) 1990 (2) PDF (2) SAT (2) UK (2) adventure (2) baby (2) beach pajamas (2) bedspread (2) beer (2) blue (2) caplet (2) cardigan (2) chair (2) cleaning (2) clock (2) comic (2) commission (2) cooking (2) couch (2) curtains (2) detail (2) diner (2) doll (2) feedsack (2) gowns (2) handmade (2) hiking (2) history (2) interview (2) kickstarter (2) lamp (2) learning (2) lucite (2) makeup (2) natural (2) nylon (2) pin-tucking (2) pique (2) playclothes friday (2) plus size (2) radio (2) raglan (2) ruffles (2) rugs (2) sequin (2) shawl (2) singer (2) slacks (2) snoods (2) stripes (2) sundries (2) superior (2) thrift (2) two-tone (2) umbrella (2) wearing history (2) woman (2) women (2) workwear (2) year (2) yellow (2) yoke (2) ADSLA (1) Brian (1) Casts of Color (1) Facebook (1) Hart Schaffner n Marx (1) Lady Day (1) Promotion (1) Rowman's (1) San Francisco (1) Steampunk (1) apple (1) articles (1) atomic (1) awards (1) bakelite (1) baking (1) ball gown (1) bar (1) barettes (1) baseball (1) batman (1) bead (1) bed (1) berthas (1) bike (1) birthday (1) black people (1) blankets (1) blogs (1) bonnet (1) boys (1) braces (1) breeches (1) brushes (1) burda (1) cameras (1) candy (1) canned goods (1) chiffons (1) christmas (1) closet (1) cloth (1) cosplay (1) custom (1) decorating (1) diamonds (1) disaster sewing (1) dishes (1) drawers (1) dressing gown (1) drinking (1) drop waist (1) fagoting (1) fat people (1) felt (1) flannel (1) flocking (1) flooring (1) fonts (1) footware (1) fruit (1) gadgets (1) glasses (1) godet (1) gold (1) grading (1) guest comments (1) gusset (1) halter (1) heels (1) hints (1) hood (1) hosiery (1) household (1) hygiene (1) infants (1) instructions (1) jewels (1) kitchen (1) knickers (1) landmark (1) lawn (1) loafers (1) masks (1) mensturation (1) mid-century modern (1) mirror (1) misses (1) muppet (1) necklace (1) needle (1) notches (1) office attire (1) oilcloth (1) oxfords (1) pandemic (1) patternbook (1) pearls (1) pen (1) pictures (1) pins (1) plants (1) plus fours (1) pocket (1) portraits (1) puppet (1) raincoat (1) recreation (1) refashion (1) ric rac (1) sash (1) savings (1) sci-fi (1) serger (1) shades (1) sharkskin (1) sheets (1) silhouette (1) skit (1) standard (1) star trek (1) store (1) suspenders (1) swagger (1) swing (1) table (1) tablecloth (1) teen (1) textles (1) thermal underwear (1) thread (1) tips (1) toiletries (1) tools (1) tote (1) tour (1) travel (1) trousers (1) tv (1) twill (1) type (1) underware (1) veil (1) video (1) vintage outing (1) virginia (1) wallet (1) white (1) writing (1) yay (1)