This is a longer post, but keep reading for five tips on buying your first (or fiftieth!) vintage pattern... plus, an etsy giveaway, my new destash account, and #VintagePledge 2017!
1. Know how much you are willing to pay. This depends on how flexible you're willing to be! If you are looking for something really specific, be ready to pay more, since there might only be a few patterns produced within your parameters, and so vintage copies will be rare. For example, if you are looking for a full-skirted 60s-era dress with short raglan sleeves, there will be many fewer options than if you are just looking for a short sleeved full skirted dress of any description. If you are looking for a woven wrap dress with long sleeves and ruffles on the neckline and a bow sash, you've really narrowed down your options! Vogue patterns typically go for more than McCalls, Butterick, and Simplicity patterns, and designer patterns can go for three digits, but I usually pay about $8-$15 for a vintage pattern--about the same as an indie designer. I think a good rule of thumb is if you would feel comfortable paying a certain amount for a particular indie design, you can feel confident paying that amount for a vintage pattern. Here are the prices I paid for my last few vintage pattern purchases, for context: $12, $8, $8, $22, $10, $11, $9, $15. The $15 pattern was my raglan sleeved dress, Simplicity 4475 (which I've made 3 times already, so totally worth it) and the $22 pattern was my interesting faux-wrap dress, Simplicity 1123, which is so unique I had to have it, and haven't seen any other similar patterns. The most I've ever paid for a pattern was about $30 for a 60s Vogue bikini pattern with the most gorgeous pattern illustration ever. There's currently a copy on etsy for $8 though--bringing me to my last point: if you don't need a pattern right away, you can always wait and see if another seller will list it for less, the danger being that that there won't be one cheaper--in fact, there may not be another copy at all!
2. Know what to pay for, and what to skip. This is where the back of the envelope is important! Many vintage patterns have line drawings of the pattern pieces they contain on the back with the rest of the sizing information, etc., and these drawings can contain very useful hints at construction. I've been drawn in many times by gorgeous skirts on the front of the envelope, only to check out the pattern piece diagrams and realize they are just pleated or gathered rectangles, illustrated in a beautiful (and potentially sliiightly misleading) way. At this point, I have a pretty decent collection of basic bodices (wrap bodice, raglan sleeves, long sleeves, v-neck, etc.) and I know I can add a pleated or gathered skirt on to any of those styles easily, so shouldn't pay for a beautifully illustrated skirt. I generally look for interesting details. Be willing to pay for unique details (like the faux-wrap bodice of Simplicity 1123) but don't get suckered into paying a lot for a prettily drawn but basic pattern--that is, unless you want it for the artwork!
3. Know your size, and search by the right numbers. Most vintage patterns from the 50s and 60s are single-sized--that is, the envelope contains all the pattern pieces for once size. This is unlike modern commercial patterns, which are almost all multi-sized, with sizes layered for easy grading between sizes. While there are positive aspects to this (see #4 below), it does make finding your size a bit trickier, since you don't have the wiggle room afforded by a multi-sized, nested pattern. I think that finding your correct size will always involve a little bit of trial and error--as with any aspect of sewing--but if you have an average-sized bust, it's likely safe to start there. (Personally, I find that I fit very nicely in 60s pattern with a bust measurement of 32, even though my actual bust measurement is more like 33-34.) My main advice here, though, is to search by bust size: most single-sized patterns will be listed on etsy under both "size" and bust measurement since both are listed on the front of the envelope. Pattern sizing changes over time and varies between companies, so if you search "60s cocktail dress pattern 12" you might get patterns that are for bust sizes 30, 32, and 34! If you search "60s cocktail dress pattern 32" you will get all the patterns that are your size, and none that are not!
4. Know and understand condition. As I mentioned above, most patterns produced c. 1950s and 60s were single-sized--one size per envelope. This means that "cut and complete" is totally fine: you aren't losing alternate sizes because there are none! I generally don't mind too much about condition, since I'm not much of a collector... I'm buying them to use, not display, so if the envelope is a disaster, but the pattern pieces are all there, that's fine! When I buy a pattern that is in bad shape, I just trace the pieces and keep them all in a bag with the original pieces so I can use the traced copies and not mess around with a bunch of 50 year old tissue paper. Finally, I always check that all the pattern pieces are there when I receive a pattern; sometimes little pieces like neck facings can slip through the cracks (literally) and go AWOL. If it is something like a neck facing, you can always draft a new one, but also, get in touch with the seller, they want you to have the best experience possible. (This has only ever happened to me once in all my etsy pattern purchasing days.)
5. Know how to grade if necessary. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can't find that perfect pattern in your size. If you really love a vintage pattern that isn't available in the size you need, you might want to consider grading the pattern: slashing and spreading (or overlapping) the pattern pieces to size up (or down) the pattern. You can generally grade a pattern up or down two sizes--so if you have a 40" bust, I wouldn't recommend purchasing a 30" bust pattern, but that 38" bust pattern is now in the realm of possibility for you! Sense and Sensibility Patterns have a detailed guide on grading pattern on their blog here, or there's a quick and dirty version here.
Everyone has their own ways of doing things (I, for instance, almost always cut right into my PDF patterns, and others always trace them) but I hope this little guide gives you the confidence to go out a find the vintage pattern of your dreams!! After that comes the fun part--sewing!
Are you ready to buy your first vintage pattern? Please say yes! I'd love to get everrrryone sewing vintage, it's a lot of fun. In order to give you a little push, I've splurged on a $25 etsy gift card that I'd like to give to one of you. You don't have to use it on vintage patterns (I don't run your life, so...), but I'd be honestly thrilled if you did... all you need to do is have a bit of a look around on etsy and let me know what pattern you would buy if you won! (Extra entries for subscribing to my newsletter and following me on twitter, too.)
a Rafflecopter giveaway
If you're convinced, sign up for Vintage Pledge 2017, while you're at it! In the past, I've pledge to sew specific patterns or a certain number of patterns, but last year I just pledged to sew a bunch of vintage that I would love, and I'll be doing the same this year. I already have three vintage garments sewn up (my silk and lace swing dress, my seersucker nightgown, and my floral spring dress) and I plan on making many more! What about you? Are you planning on building your vintage stash... or sewing some vintage patterns already in it?
ps: i've also just started a destash instagram account where i'll be posting vintage (and indie!) patterns lingering in my stash! there's nothing over there yet but if you want to get a head start you can, it's @shopalliej :)
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