Preserving Vintage Patterns

My current project is a 1940s toddler dress with scalloped overlay (more on that later), and it has made me think about preserving my vintage patterns. I hate to admit it, but until now I’ve been keeping my vintage patterns in a pile in a drawer. You’d think I’d know better, being a historian and all! I’ve also been using the physical patterns while cutting instead of making copies. Shocking! Scandalous! Shameful!

Well, I have repented and I want to testify about the gospel of preserving vintage patterns.

I hope you read that in a twangy Southern accent.

Pattern Preservation Tip 1: Trace your vintage patterns and use the traced pieces for paper fitting and cutting the fabric. 

I know that some people like to use the actual pattern pieces. This puts the pattern at risk for tears, snips, and other hazards. No matter how careful you are, you aren’t perfect and something can happen, especially when sharp tools are involved. Tracing the pieces on to new paper lets you put the old ones out of harm’s reach.

Another advantage to tracing the patterns is that you have pieces that are much easier to work with. You can redraft the pieces easily, make helpful markings, and write notes. Some vintage patterns use only letters or numbers on the pieces, and it’s better to know at a glance that something is “D: back skirt panel” rather than having to look over the instructions to figure out the identity of “D.” You’ll also have a nice smooth pattern piece instead of something that’s crumpled, folded, or torn in places. I have yet to find a vintage pattern that doesn’t have annoying folds and tears. Even the original factory folds can be a pain.

You can use a pencil to trace your pattern onto ordinary gift tissue paper, fancy pattern tracing paper, or you can heed this advice from one of my sewing goddesses, Claire Kennedy, and use the most humble paper of all…

Medical exam table paper. Yes, it turns out that this paper has a higher calling beyond getting stuck to your butt during a doctor’s examination!

Vintage Pattern Tracing 2013-02-12 003

You can buy it from Amazon, Office Depot, and various medical supply websites and stores. It’s sold by the carton, it’s on rolls, it’s sturdier than tissue paper but you can still see through it, and if you shop around, you can get good deals on it. It’s only about 21″ wide, but you can tape pieces together for extra width. Because it’s one long piece on a roll, it can accommodate lengthy pattern pieces such as dress and coat panels.

When you trace the pattern pieces onto the paper, you can simply tack down one end of the roll and then roll it flat across the pieces. Leaving it on the roll means that you can use the roll to pull the paper straight and keep it smooth while weighing down one end. Also, make sure that the pattern pieces are smooth.You can use a warm iron to minimize the folds and smooth out the ripped and crumpled sections. Just be sure that your iron is dry and that the steam function is off, and iron slowly and gently so that you don’t damage the pattern by catching a fold or a tear with the edge of the iron.

Pattern Preservation Tip 2: Store your patterns in comic book bags.

I’ve read about using comic book bags here and there on the internet, and it’s a wonderful idea. Comic book bags are the right size for patterns and they’re acid free. I bought a pack of 100 from Amazon for about $8.00, but you may be able to find them for less.

Vintage Pattern Storage 2013-02-16 006

In some cases, you may want to remove the pattern pieces from the original envelope. It’s difficult enough to get pieces to fit back inside the envelope, and rips in the envelope can damage pieces as they are removed or reinserted. Major commercial patternmakers tend to be a little more generous with envelope sizes, while mail order patterns tend to have fussy skinny envelopes. I’m looking at you, Marian Martin and Anne Adams.

Vintage Pattern Storage 2013-02-16 008

As shown here, I have separated the envelope, instructions, and pattern pieces of 1940s dress pattern, and I will store them together in the same bag. I suppose that if you want to be really fancy, you can layer acid-free tissue paper between the different components.

In addition, when I purchase a pattern from an online seller, I remove them from the seller’s bag and put it in my own acid-free bag. The seller’s bag may be acid-free, but I don’t know for sure.

Finally, when you have your patterns bagged and ready for storage, you may want to fold the edges of the bags down and tape them shut. I don’t. Several years ago, I nearly ripped a 1910s dress pattern by catching it on a piece of tape as I slid it out of a seller’s bag. If you choose to use tape on the outside of the bag, be very careful with it and always pull it off the bag completely before removing the pattern.

With proper care and gentle handling, vintage patterns can last a very long time. Please remember that these are not merely mass-produced utilitarian objects. They are historical artifacts. Many vintage patterns have been lost in fires, floods, and trash bins, so its important to preserve what little we have left!


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