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!