One thing that may intimidate people from using 1940’s patterns is the fact that many of them are “un-printed” or blank. This means that you won’t find any markings on the tissue like you do on modern sewing patterns. This lack of information is a little startling at first glance, but soon you’ll see that they’re really no different from a modern pattern.
The first thing you need to do is check the contents of your pattern to make sure you have all of the pieces. Non printed patterns only come in one size per envelope, so the pattern will look as if it’s been cut out already.
Carefully take everything out of the pattern envelope and cross reference your non-printed pieces with the pattern layout diagram found on the back of your envelope, or on the instructions (or both). You’ll be looking for a perforated letter to help you identify each piece.
Now you can really see what I mean by the startling lack of information printed on the pattern pieces!
You want to get the pattern pieces as flat as safely possible so you can accurately trace them onto your pattern tracing paper, and also so you can see what your pieces actually are. It will be hard to decipher a skirt front from the back until you can see the shape and the letter of each piece. You can use a dry iron on a medium setting to help flatten everything out. If the pattern tissue starts to curl or change color, your iron is too hot. It might take a few passes of slightly increasing temperature to get them flat. Remember to be careful and take your time. Some of my 40’s patterns are “dead stock”, meaning they’ve never been opened. That’s 70+ years of folds to iron out!
When your pieces are all ironed flat it will be much easier to tell what’s what. You can see pieces “B” and “M” shown above. By referring to the diagram on the back, you know that piece B is the Bodice Back, and piece M is the Short Sleeve.
This next step is very important if you want to preserve the life of your vintage patterns. From a historical standpoint, some of my vintage patterns are 70-80 years old, and it’s important to me to preserve them as an actual piece of history. From a sewing standpoint, if you plan to make alterations of any kind, you won’t want to cut or mark on any original pattern pieces (this is true for both modern and vintage patterns). For example, if you cut into your original pattern to make a full bust adjustment, it’s nearly impossible to un-tape and revert your changes if you decide that FBA didn’t solve your fitting issue. It doesn’t take much time to trace your patterns and it’s a good habit to get into.
There are many different kinds of papers you can use to trace patterns, but my favorite is Pellon 830 “Tracing Cloth”. This is my favorite to use because you can fold it up, and just as easily iron it out. If I had a dollar for every time I caught my cat sleeping on my traced pattern pieces, I would have a lot of dollars. No problem though, a lint roller and an iron erases all evidence of sleeping felines. You can find Pellon 830 at any Jo-Ann Fabric store, or most other quilt shops, and it is very inexpensive. You’ll want to buy at least as much yardage as your pattern suggests for fabric, but I usually buy 6 yards at a time or a whole bolt when I can. It’s good stuff to stock up on!
Usually when tracing my patterns I’ll lay down a bunch of pattern pieces at once and sort of trace in bulk with one big piece of tracing cloth. For this demonstration I’m just using one small piece of tracing cloth and one pattern piece at a time, and that’s okay too. Pay attention to the directional layout of your pieces as indicated on the envelope, especially if you only need to cut one of your fabric. You want to make sure that all the pieces are going the right way. For example: if you have a wrap dress with a diagonal bodice front, you want to make sure the front overlapping piece is going in the correct direction and the facing matches, or you’ll get lost as you work through the sewing instructions (I’ve done this many times with installing zippers on the wrong side and it tends to make your life harder). Sometimes the perforated letters to identify the pieces are backwards or upside down, and that can be misleading when you lay your pattern down to trace it. So don’t go by the direction of the letter, go by the pattern diagram.
You’ll need a few things to get started. I’m tracing on top of my rotary cutting mat because it’s dark and that makes it easier to see the pattern outline through the tracing cloth, but any flat surface will do. You’ll need something to write with like a pen or pencil (markers work well too, just be careful the ink doesn’t bleed through onto your original pattern!), and a ruler. I use a clear quilting ruler with a grid, and a design ruler to help with curved edges. Having some kind of pattern weight is also helpful to prevent your tracing paper from sliding around. I use an antique mini iron as a weight now, but before I just used my phone, a mug, or any other random things I could find.
Tracing cloth does not have a grain or anything like that, so it doesn’t matter which way you lay it down on top of your pattern. I start by making small marks around all the corners so I can quickly line everything back up if something shifts, and then I trace the straight edges of the pattern.
Next, I trace all the curved edges. Having these fancy looking rulers is not a necessity, so don’t think you need to go out and buy them specifically for pattern tracing, but as you get more serious about sewing and pattern making you’ll find they’re a nice thing to have laying around.
After tracing the basic shape, go back through and trace all of your markings. All of the perforated dots and notches mean something, so it’s important to transfer them.
You may be wondering what all of those little dots mean. Well look to your pattern diagram and they’ll start to make sense.
There will be a series of larger and smaller dots, as well as notches. The notches, like on modern patterns, help you identify the front and back of pieces and also help you line everything up correctly. On this particular pattern, the larger dots found in the middle of the pattern mark your “straight of material” (or straight of grain) and pieces to be cut on the fold. The smaller dots on this pattern mark center front, seam allowances, fabric tucks, and other general placement. On other patterns, those dots will signify darts, gathering, and things like that. Is this all starting to make a bit more sense? Here’s another step to really make things look a bit more familiar for modern times:
You’ll notice that I’ve drawn the arrowed line, to signify that I need to cut the Bodice Back on the fold, instead of tracing the three large dots as shown on the original piece. I’ve also written some other information as far as what the pattern is, what the size is, and some other things that we’re used to seeing on modern sewing patterns. Now I would say this pattern looks pretty “normal”, wouldn’t you?
I will go more in depth on working with vintage darts and other vintage sewing techniques in a later post, but I hope this has been helpful for you to get started with sewing from 1940’s patterns!