When Vintage Patterns Go Wrong

Time to chalk up another learning experience.

I’ve been working on a muslin of this adorable 1940s Mary Dunbar toddler dress. I love the sweet little scallops! I could just see it made up with a pink and white stripe fabric for the main body and a light breezy floral print for the scalloped sections with coordinating buttons down the back. I almost used this pattern last year, but I decided that the scallops looked too intimidating and I put it back into my pattern drawer. This year, armed with new knowledge about sewing curves, I decided to give it a try.

1940s Mary Dunbar 2013-02-24 003

Unfortunately, this pattern is more flawed than any pattern I have ever used — and believe me, I have used some really crazy patterns.

Before I began tracing the pattern, I decided to merge the scalloped sections with the main body pieces of the dress. I figured this would keep things simple and help stabilize the dress. The scallop sections are not exactly on the grain, and I was concerned that this would make the dress pull down on the bias and ruin its shape. The scallop sections would become giant appliques.

I wondered why the dress wasn’t designed this way in the first place, and then, while studying the “1st Prize for Simplicity and Economy” badge on the instructions, I realized why. This pattern was most likely developed during WWII when fabric was scarce, so the pattern designer made it use as little fabric as possible. I suppose this was a good decision and the pattern designer certainly had the best intentions, but that’s where the brilliance ends.

1940s Mary Dunbar 2013-02-24 005

Here’s a summary of the mistakes I found in this pattern:

  • Edges do not line up in at least half a dozen places; notch marks in the seams rarely meet. I cleaned up some of these while tracing the pieces and merging the scallop sections and the main body pieces, but I found many more wonky edges while assembling the muslin.
  • Some of the dots for tailor’s tacks are in the wrong places. For example, the markings for the darts form a zig-zag “lightning bolt” shape rather than a V-shape.
  • The back button placket makes absolutely no sense. I couldn’t even Google this one, and every configuration I tried created an odd twist or awkward bunching at the bottom of the placket.
  • When the pieces are joined for the front skirt panel, they are supposed to form a rectangle. Instead, they make a slightly skewed quadrilateral.
  • The instructions omit several critical steps and some of the listed steps are very vague. Most vintage patterns have this problem, but not to this degree.
  • At one point, the instructions tell you to sew the shoulders together before sewing the facing the front of the neck opening. This creates unjoined gaps in the seams on either side of the neck opening. Instead, you need to sew the facing first and then integrate it into the shoulder seams as you join it to the back.

1940s Mary Dunbar 2013-02-24 006

In addition to learning tricks about pattern drafting and making unusually shaped pieces come together, I learned a major lesson about vintage patterns: sometimes they are really awful and poorly made. All this time, I’ve been living under the mistaken belief that vintage patterns are superior to modern patterns because people were better seamstresses and designers back then. That’s not true. Every era has terrible seamstresses and designers. Also, now I think I know why Mary Dunbar is a very obscure pattern company with few surviving patterns. They sucked. Most of the patterns were probably thrown away by angry customers and the company probably didn’t stay in business for very long, so that’s why so few of their patterns still exist.

Anyway, in order to make this pattern work, the entire thing would have to be redrafted. I’d need to redraw every edge with French curves and a ruler, checking each edge against its counterpart, and redraft a new back button placket. It didn’t sound too bad and I knew I could do it.

However, when I had my daughter try on the muslin, I realized that I shouldn’t even bother. The boxy bodice fits poorly on her body because (A) it’s not designed very well to begin with, and (B) her body has changed since last year. Her torso and legs are getting long and lean, and she’s losing her chunky toddler physique.

I’m going to have to start sewing for a child. Not a baby. Not a pudgy toddler. A child.

I’m setting this pattern aside once again. I really like the scallop elements and I think I can incorporate them into another pattern someday using what I have learned from this pattern. I also want to save this pattern because it seems to be extremely rare. For this year’s Easter dress, I’m going to have to reach into my box of sewing tricks and pull out another idea!

Fortunately, I have plenty of ideas on hand. I used part of New Look 6577 for last year’s Easter dress, so I already know it’s a pretty decent pattern. I’m seriously considering view A or view B, though I don’t know what kind of fabric I want to use. I’m leaning toward blues and greens for this year. My daughter looks amazing in bright pink, but I don’t want to use it every year!

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