In Sew For Victory

Working With Non Printed Vintage Patterns

It’s my pleasure to have Debi of My Happy Sewing Place here today to share some tips for working with non-printed vintage patterns. Recently I bought a 1946 Hollywood pattern and was a bit startled to open it and find such a lack of markings on the pattern! After reading Debi’s post I’m sure you’ll find they’re really not much different to work with than modern patterns. Read on and you’ll see why…



“It has happened to us all.  You see a lovely vintage pattern online and get really excited and before you know it, it is winging it’s way to your mailbox.  Only to open it and find it is an UNPRINTED pattern! Slight panic!  Not to fear….sewing with vintage unprinted patterns is not as difficult as it looks.

The McCall Pattern Company was one of the first to produce printed patterns.  Below is an image from the patent they filed through the United States Patent Office for the printed paper pattern.  It was filed in 1920 and granted in 1921.  Which means it would have expired in 1939 (which is also around the same time Simplicity started printing on their patterns).  You can read the entire patent application online here.


In fact, I have a 1939 unprinted Simplicity pattern—so they might have started printing partway through 1939 or may have started in 1940!  Which means it was McCall and Simplicity that had printed patterns in the 1940’s.  Despite the patent running out in the late 1930s, there were still many pattern companies that produced unprinted patterns throughout the 1940s including: Advance, Anne Adams and other mail order patterns, Butterick, DuBarry, Hollywood and Vogue to name a few.

My most recent 1940s make, the ‘Aviator’ dress used an unprinted Advance pattern.  From making this pattern and a few other unprinted ones, I’ve come up with some helpful tips for sewing with vintage unprinted patterns that I’d love to share with all of you that are embarking on the ‘Sew for Victory’ challenge.


Tip 1:  Use the back of the pattern envelope and pattern layout diagrams as guides

Usually on unprinted patterns, each piece will be hole-punched with a letter of the alphabet.  This will indicate what piece each one is.  Here’s an example from my recent dress, this pattern piece is marked with an ‘A’ so I know it’s the bodice front.

pattern piece a_700

The back of the envelope is usually very helpful as it clearly indicates each pattern piece but also usually shows the various dots and marks that will become important later in the construction of the pattern.

Unprinted patterns use a series of holes and marks on the pattern to indicate darts, cut on fold areas, and straight of grain.  This is usually very clear.  However since we are working with 70+ year-old patterns, there may be tiny tears and other marks on the pattern pieces which make it more complicated to figure out what’s an actual pattern mark and what is just a tear or pinhole.  This is where the back of the pattern envelope will be tremendously useful.

back of pattern envelope_700


Tip 2: Make sure all the pattern pieces are facing the right side up, unless otherwise indicated on your pattern cutout guidelines

Another tricky thing about unprinted patterns, especially when they mark each piece using a letter of the alphabet, is that some letters of the alphabet look the same from both sides of the pattern.  Take for example the letter ‘c’, if your pattern piece is backwards and upside down, you might mistake it for right side up.  This is where consulting the pattern cutting guidelines and the back of the pattern envelope will be helpful as you can see the shape of the pattern piece right side up.


Tip 3: Consult the pattern directions for the meaning of various pattern marks.

Each pattern company is slightly different but I’ve found that two large circles nearby each other is almost always marking the straight grain of the fabric (for cutting out) and three medium size circles together at the edge of a pattern almost always indicates when the piece should be placed on the fold of the fabric.

These are the markings on my Advance pattern:
mark guide_700


Tip 4: Sew as usual but why not take advantage of the pattern marks?

I actually like unprinted patterns as I find it easier to mark dart legs with pins when there is small holes in the pattern.  I just enter a pin in each hole, take the pattern piece off and then line up my dart.  You can also do this with tailor’s tacks or other marking methods.


A super big thank you to Rochelle for inviting me to guest post as part of the ‘Sew for Victory’ month.  And a special thank you to Sally who blogs over at the Quirky Peach for the idea for this guestpost!!


I’m curious, is your 1940s pattern an unprinted one?  Any other tips you want to share?”


See, non-printed patterns aren’t so bad are they? Now that Debi so graciously pointed me in the right direction, I’ll be sharing my own experience with my 1946 non-printed pattern, including how I traced it, transferred the markings, and sewed the darts. Stay tuned 🙂 

Oh, and seriously, if you haven’t seen Debi’s Aviator Dress yet, you REALLY need to go and marvel at its amazingness!! Seriously. Amazing. Not to mention she has a slew of truly fantastic 40’s sewing projects on her blog, including her recent personal challenge to sew every McCall pattern from 1940! It’s not hard to guess who’s a HUGE inspiration to me and my 40’s sewing 😉

Thank you so much, Debi!


  • Hannah

    How do you transfer a design you like on one of your shirts, to a blanket you want to make? I am making one and don’t know how. Can you please help me out?

    • Rochelle

      Hi Hannah. I’d love to try and help you but I’m not quite sure what you mean by transfer. Do you mean cut the design off a shirt and sew it to a blanket? Or actually recreate the same design on the blanket?

      • Hannah

        I would like to recreate the same design on the blanket if that is possible.

        • Rochelle

          Well most designs are added to t-shirts by either screen printing or ironing on the design. So you would need to copy the design and then transfer it to the blanket in that way. If it’s a one color design, or just text, that would be pretty easy to do yourself. If not, you’d have to take it to a professional printer and see if they could do it.

  • Thank goodness I came across this. I just bought a 40’s blouse pattern set from Ebay. I knew that most vintage patterns are unprinted but having this little guide will be useful when I go to sew! <3

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  • Sabs

    This is like the perfect telepathic timing for me as I’ve just bought an unprinted 50s dress pattern from eBay today! I’m a bit scared but I’ll follow your advice and see how I go, thanks both!

  • Jessica Cangiano

    Wonderful advice (so bookmarking for if I ever become a much better sewer and find myself in a situation with an unmarked pattern), thank you very much, sweet Debi and Rochelle.

    ♥ Jessica

  • Rachel Proffitt

    I have to admit, the holes are a favourite of mine for marking too 🙂 Tailor’s tacks AND marking pen/pencils work much better when there is a hole there!
    Like Tasha, I found unprinted patterns early on in my vintage sewing, and just plowed on. I think it was more a case of not realising that not all patterns from back then were unprinted LOL
    Thanks for sharing Debi and Rochelle!

  • thequirkypeach

    This is such a great post! Definitely feeling much more confident in taking on these new vintage sewing patterns 🙂 Thank you Debi and Rochelle!!!

    • Debi_myhappysewingplace

      thanks for suggesting the topic!!!

  • Thanks! My first un-printed patterns arrived yesterday. So i need a bit of encouragement to start 🙂 Can’t wait to get stuck into them!

  • agirlinwinter

    Thank you for this post, very helpful! I have several unprinted patterns from the 40s and I haven’t been brave enough to tackle them yet 🙂

  • I buy these great patterns and ask my mum to do them for me whom sadly lives overseas and it is hard, I thought using these patterns would be much harder but I am really willing to try my hand at one. THANK YOU

  • the Garment Farmer

    oh yay, I’m much less intimidated to use my 1940’s pattern now 🙂 phew! Thank you Debi and Rochelle!!

  • Emily Stringham

    Great post! Thank Debi and Rochelle for sharing this.

    Another tip to keep in mind – if you plan on using your unprinted pattern more than once, or if its clear you will need to make major adjustments, make a copy of the pattern. I’ve done this a few times with my vintage patterns. I use either tissue paper or a heavier brown paper and trace the vintage pattern will all its markings. This way I can write on and pin away with my copy and not worry about damaging the original vintage pattern!

    • Medical exam paper! I was super paranoid about using my precious (and expensive) Swedish Tracing Paper or trying to hoard craft paper and such to trace things and I seriously think it held me back in sewing. Once I ordered some rolls of exam paper I feel so much more free to do this and make/try adjustments with glee. 😀

      • Emily Stringham

        Medical paper is a great idea! My giant role of brown paper I picked up for free at the local recycling center. Hard to say no to free. 🙂

    • Yep, great tip! I always trace my patterns (even my modern ones) just so they last longer!

  • Yay, love Debi’s guest post! And really interesting to know about the patent expiration! I can’t recall the first time I used an unprinted pattern but it was early on in my sewing and I think I more or less said, “Well, this is odd but I guess I’ll figure it out” and plowed ahead. lol! Now I’m so used to them and I love the holes so I can easily mark darts and tucks!

    I have been known to write on the pattern pieces to indicate what they are. Recently I opened up a pattern and found the previous owner (whether from the 40s or more recently I can’t tell) did the same! 🙂

  • Nice post Debi, it was nice to find out about the history of the printed pattern too.

  • Debi_myhappysewingplace

    YAY! Thank you so much for asking me to guest post! I am SUPER excited to see all the great 1940s outfits in the ‘Sew for Victory’ challenge and I can’t wait to read more about your 1946 dress!!!

  • Alexandra Cuckoo

    Wow! I really had no idea that it was as simple as that! I’ve been deliberately avoiding many vintage patterns because they just seemed far too complicated to deal with, but I think I’ll have to give them a go now! Thanks!