In case her house goes up in flames, she keeps her sewing patterns in plastic tubs in the first floor workshop. Since the 1990's, he has collected at least 10,000 patterns. She is paranoid that she will lose them to fire, flood, and mice or that people will throw them in the trash.
When she was a young stitcher at the New York City Opera, she was invited to visit Betty Williams, a costume designer with a large antique pattern collection. When working on period pieces, old patterns are used as references, and seeing Williams' collection was formative for the designer. She searched for the oldest examples to add to her archive.
I didn't think patterns were that old. I didn't think about how people made their clothes in the past, other than going to a tailor. I got lustful for them once I knew they existed.
Sewing patterns give a detailed look at the lives of working class people in history that clothing collections rarely offer. There are flimsy packets of paper covered in shapes, numbers, and symbols that sewists use to make everything from sweatpants to wedding dresses. Sewing at home used to be a way to have high-quality clothing for less money.
Patterns and home sewing are seen as insignificant to fashion and art. Patterns were cheap to purchase and difficult to preserve, and were never meant to last.
Home sewing patterns aren’t meant to be saved for decades — they’re made to be disposable
The University of Rhode Island maintains a website for the community of vintage sewing enthusiasts. One of the few projects in the world that protects these documents is the Commercial Pattern Archive. The archive began in the 1990s and contains a physical and digital database of English-language patterns unparalleled in its scope and depth. Around 56,000 physical patterns from the 1800s can be found in Co PA.
When generations inherit their mother's or grandmother's stuff, it's a nightmare for most of us who collect antique patterns.
Home sewing patterns aren't meant to be saved for a long time. The patterns are packaged in paper envelopes with materials and examples on the sleeve. If a sewist looks at the pattern in the wrong way, it might tear. Reusing and resizing pattern paper is difficult because it is layers atop fabric. It is easy to misplace pieces when they are cut out of the larger sheet.
The reporter is working on a dress from a vintage pattern at a makeshift sewing station.
The patterns in the collection are ephemeral. It is a miracle that they are still around at all.
“You just don’t get those objects in historic costume and textiles collections. That’s lost history.”
In the 20th century, it was cheaper to make your own clothing than it was to buy it. Sewing was a daily activity for thousands of years, and patterns were easy to find. Most museum collections don't include clothing from everyday, working-class background, whether that's a work uniform or a skirt suit sewed at home using a commercial Dior pattern Home-sewn clothes are not as flashy as clothes shown on a runway. Home sewing done by women and working class families is often overlooked.
The pattern archive is what people dream about wearing and who they are. There are not many objects in historic costume and textiles collections. It is lost history.
Baby bonnets, ruffled wraps, and robes are some of the oldest pieces in Co PA. Even though the collection is mostly women's pieces, curators will take patterns for just about any kind of garment, from clergy robes to Halloween costumes. When home sewing was booming in the US, there were thousands of patterns per decade.
Over 60,000 patterns from 1847 can be found in the Consumer Pattern Archive.
The archive is open for in-person viewing, but the online database is where people use the patterns the most. Designers, researchers, and curators are some of the people requesting access. The graphic novelist who wanted to draw characters in period-accurate clothing using the archive as a research tool is one of the unique requests. She received a request from an applied mathematics professor who wanted to know if there was a formula for explaining changes to clothing through the decades.
When patterns are donated to Co PA, they are examined and compared to the existing inventory, checking for dates, a pattern number assigned by the publisher, and the type of garment. Older pattern sleeves don't include the year of publication, so CoPA staff use supplemental materials like industry magazines, journals, and pamphlets to date each piece. The front and back of patterns are scanned and uploaded to the online database, and the physical copies are stored in a filing cabinet in the library, where temperatures are controlled, and exposure to light is limited. Some users use enlarged envelope scans to create usable patterns, even though the pattern sheets themselves are not digital.
The largest collection of its kind in the world is believed to be made up of donations from institutions and libraries. Following her death, the costume designer's collection was acquired. After retiring as a theater professor at the University of Rhode Island she became the leading expert on home sewing patterns and started her own collection.
The online database for her work has been used to research how garments were constructed while working on stage productions, films and TV. She wouldn't have been able to examine the unusual pattern pieces of an evening gown from the 1930s or the complexity of an 1890s dolman if it weren't for Co PA. Ben Stiller wore a 1940s playsuit in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. A corsetier for The Greatest Showman and season two of the TV series Boardwalk Empire, as well as many other productions, was the name of the person who specialized in corsets.
Members of the Vintage Sewing Pattern Nerds Facebook group use Co PA. The group has more than 42,000 members who come together to share attic treasures, show off garments created using decades-old patterns, and ask questions. The members sort through the tens of thousands of entries, hoping to find a match to the pattern they recently came across or to find more information about a pattern they haven't been able to get their hands on.
The search continues for patterns that can't be found for sale. A 1942 women's coverall designed by the US Department of Agriculture is one of the most sought after patterns. The members of the Nerds group tried to reproduce the piece by sharing their knowledge of similar garments and experimenting with construction.
One member said that he searches for the pattern every day. About a decade ago, I missed out on it. It was in my cart but not sold. Ever since!
There is nothing else like the archive in the world, according to people who use it. Because home sewing was more accessible than expensive ready- to-wear clothing, the patterns in CoPA represent swarths of people and communities that other university or museum collections don't.
The best of the best can be found in museums. Armstead says that wealthy people's clothing is their best dress. Data on what rural and working-class people made, wore, and used is provided by Co PA. Black shoppers who were denied access to fitting rooms during Jim Crow were noted by Armstead.
“If we weren’t doing this, where would all this stuff go?”
We don't know who the people were. We know what groups of people used sewing patterns the most.
The Fashion Institute of Technology's collection has been absorbed by the database. As companies were bought out or shut down, most pattern companies did not keep a consistent record of their pattern designs. The archives of Butterick, one of the largest publishers of patterns, are located in CoPA.
Where would this stuff go if we weren't doing this? The man says that. FIT wanted to stop maintaining their pattern collection. If we hadn't taken it, what would have happened? Is it possible that it went in the dumpster?
Following the death of the founding curator, people who rely on Co PA are worried about the collection's future. Armstead was one of the people who visited the collection in person.
Delays have been caused by funding as well. The database was made open access in order to allow more people to use it, but also resulted in a loss of income for students who worked on the collection. The current "fallow period" is the result of money from an endowment not kicking in. With funds from the endowment, Morse hopes to hire a dedicated coordinators and curator in the near future.
She no longer uses many of the sewing patterns that she used to. Before Emery died, the two were talking about how to integrate the collection into the organization. She wanted to make sure the patterns were available to anyone who was drawn to them as she was.
She says she doesn't want to be a dragon and not share it. I would like it to be documented and used.