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Where have all the patterns gone?

January 21, 2010

Having lurked for several years in the online world of vintage sewing, I’ve noticed something missing. Lots of us enjoy wearing and sewing the fashions of World War 2, but nearly all the vintage patterns circulating for sale on the internet are American, even though British wartime fashion is arguably more interesting to the geek seamstress due to the challenges posed by rationing, material shortages and the sheer number of design restrictions. I adore US fashion from the 1940s, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see how British pattern companies, and the British arms of international companies like Vogue and Butterick, rose to the challenge of designing for the austerity years?

UK Board of Trade restrictions during the war dictated in dizzying detail exactly what design features commercial garments could and couldn’t have. For instance, according to the civilian clothing regulations of 1941 (CC 41), a  woman’s suit was allowed no more than two pockets, six skirt seams and four meters of stitching in order to prevent labor and materials from being diverted from the war effort into the civilian clothing industry. That sounds unbelievably drab, but just look at this chic little dress by Victor Stiebel:

The restrictions applied to tailor-made clothes as well as ready-to-wear. British home sewing patterns of the time come marked with a warning:

“Professional Dressmakers are reminded that they must comply with the Making of Civilian Clothing (Restriction) Orders.”

However, home dressmakers in the UK would not have been bound by CC41 design constraints, although they had other challenges to contend with, including super-tight fabric rationing and shortages of trimmings, haberdashery, needles, thread and practically everything else. Assuming they could get hold of what they needed to make a dress in the first place, you would think they would have tried to make it as un-austere as they could. On the other hand, I have read that along with official austerity regulations came a patriotic trend towards greater simplicity in dress and ornament. It would be interesting to have a more comprehensive view of home sewing patterns to see how much they reflect the austerity aesthetic and how much room they left for departure from it.

From combing through the VADS image library, I’ve discovered that in addition to the Big Four (Butterick, Vogue, Simplicity and McCall’s) and Du Barry, plenty of other UK-based companies supplied the British public with patterns during the war years. Mike Brown’s book The 1940s Look reproduces magazine advertisements for mail-order patterns from, among others, Woman, Modern Woman and Home Notes. And there’s more. Ever heard of Weldons? Maudella? Practical Patterns? Odhams? Blackmore? How about Bestway, who made this charming little frock pattern I found at Vintage British Style?

Nearly everybody must have done at least a little sewing in those days. Making your own clothes cost fewer coupons than buying the same garments ready-made, and local schools, colleges and women’s groups all over the country taught basic dressmaking and make-and-mend classes for those whose skills weren’t up to scratch.

So what happened to all those patterns? Wartime publishing restrictions were tight, and paper was so scarce that newspapers in the UK shrank to four pages, books and other paper products were pulped and re-pulped (50 million prewar books were pulped in 1943!) and toilet paper didn’t bear thinking about. Were the print runs too small for spares to have survived? Did they all get used and re-used to death? Did the women who bought them ditch them later as they abandoned austerity and flocked to the New Look? Or am I just looking in the wrong places?

If you have any experience buying, selling or working with WW2-era patterns from the companies I’ve mentioned, do please drop me a line and tell me where they can be found!

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39 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2014 8:29 am

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say great blog!

  2. Aileen Klarmann permalink
    June 2, 2012 2:29 pm

    Recently I discovered a copy of ‘Weldon’s childrens fancy dress and masks’ in my deceased mother’s kist in South Africa. Since then I have been ‘Google..ing’ does anyone know if patterns from these Books/Magazines still exist?

  3. Quincunx permalink
    April 9, 2011 1:03 pm

    Not all of the pattern systems floating around at the time were cut-out-and-sew types, though. Maybe it was the restrictions of the war era that killed off the chart systems, where a cardboard multi-size template was traced to make the base pattern and quarterly subscriptions showed how to extend that shape into a fashionable garment? (Sort of like BurdaStyle magazine now in that you needed the periodical to make the current pattern, only you would have bought the template separately and there would not have been the traceable magazine pages but drafting diagrams.)

    http://artisanssquare.com/sg/index.php/topic,10343.0.html A discussion of patterns not of the cut-out-and-sew variety.

    Haslam scans, including charts, are offered for sale on Ebay. A quick look at the sample images doesn’t show any Haslam wartime fashion although at least two could be shortened to conform to austerity regulations. (Oo, new material since the last time I looked! The ‘Bethjan’ drafts on the sampler are much more suitable for wartime if something can be done about those huge revers.) Maybe you could email the seller and ask if the set has specific coverage of the WWII years.

  4. Jane Muscat permalink
    November 3, 2010 7:55 pm

    I have original Weldons catalogues selling at 28€each if interested contact me

  5. Mel permalink
    September 24, 2010 6:08 am

    I have English books from c1928 that detail how to adapt tissue patterns, so if they were not around it must have been due to the war, eg not enough people dressmaking to make pattern making cost effective or printing resources used for the war effort I think

  6. Lesley permalink
    September 13, 2010 2:15 am

    am trying to date a Bestway Knitting Number 67 Dolls’ clothes and toys. Pre WW2

  7. September 3, 2010 11:12 pm

    I’m currently making a Practical Patterns dress from the 1940s, which is interesting. I am also a huge fan of Maudella patterns, many of which are available on ebay.

    I found you through Sew Retro, and am finding your blog very interesting.

  8. Nathalie permalink
    May 10, 2010 4:56 pm

    From talking to my grandmother who was 19 when WWII started, I’ll second the statement that many women – and not just the wealthy ones – would rely on a local seamstress for clothing. Not all seamstresses had the luxury of patterns. My grandmother says that her seamstress would copy the latest fashions as seen in magazines, adapting them to the client. She never used ready made patterns; she made her own. I would guess that this was the norm rather than the exception. Women also had far fewer clothes generally, so printing patterns can’t have been very economically viable.

    My grandparents were bombed and lost their house and all their belongings. It wasn’t until much later that my grandmother got a sewing machine (an early 50s Elna, which she still has to this day), at which point she was able to start making her own clothes. But even then, she still used a steamstress every now and again until finally RTW took over.

  9. Zoe permalink
    February 10, 2010 9:29 pm

    I think a lot have ended up in UK museums. I know my local museum has a large collection of dressmaking and knitting patterns that they have just started cataloguing with the aid of volunteers and are hoping to make them accessible to researchers in the future. Maudella certainly produced patterns throughout the war with specific instructions to adhere to CC41 regulations.

  10. February 2, 2010 4:00 pm

    I’ve actually got a Weldon’s pattern – email me and I’ll send you the scan of it. I bought it at This Shop Rocks on Brick Lane a few years ago – it’s a mostly vintage clothing store, but the man who owns it is an amazing dressmaker/tailor and showcases his own stuff, too, and we totally geeked out together over the vintage patterns I’d chosen from the pile and what details drew them to me. It’s totally worth a visit if you’re round this way.

    • Susannah permalink*
      February 3, 2010 7:10 pm

      This is awesome! I’ll have to add This Shop Rocks to my list of planned field trips.

  11. taylor permalink
    February 2, 2010 5:09 am

    I found this bestway pattern on ebay tonight and remembered reading this post, so I thought I would drop you the link.

    http://cgi.ebay.com/1940s-Day-Dress-w-Pintucked-Skirt-pattern-Uncut-B34_W0QQitemZ350312117087QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item51903ab35f

    …mostly because this pattern is adorable, and I want somebody to have it!

  12. January 29, 2010 5:28 am

    Just found this seller on Ebay, who’s got a couple of these british patterns up for auction, although I think most of them were circa the ’30s.

    http://shop.ebay.com/*kzm*/m.html?_nkw=&_armrs=1&_from=&_ipg=&_trksid=p4340

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 29, 2010 9:35 am

      Thanks for this! Amazing how many UK vintage items have found their way overseas!

  13. Anonymous permalink
    January 25, 2010 2:00 am

    Hi – had to reply as my grandmother ran a home dressmaking business in London in the 1940s. I chatted with my father about the patterns she used, and he recalls that she preferred Simplicity and Butterick and was aware of Vogue (but regarded them with scorn as she thought the quality was poor). She had a suitcase full of commercial patterns, each in one size only, which she resized as needed for her customers. Dad said that he thought everyone went to dressmakers for their clothes as he can’t recall anyone making their own. Perhaps that’s why there are so few British patterns around from the 1940s, as the dressmakers would have used their patterns until they fell apart.

    I wish my grandmother had kept her patterns! Apparently she had a selection from wartime through to the full New Look skirt suits.

    Love your blog!

  14. Lynn permalink
    January 22, 2010 6:04 pm

    Maudella patterns were still available in the 1970s,(I remember them from school dressmaking lessons!).The company started in 1937 and carried on until the 1980s.

  15. Hannah permalink
    January 22, 2010 4:37 am

    Interesting post. I used to work in a costume museum and one of my jobs was to catalogue and date the huge number of patterns that we had received as donations. They paid me to do this but I would have done it for nothing! Anyway I saw very few 1940’s patterns and the ones we had were mostly for underwear! I can’t be sure but I suspect very few if any paper patterns were printed during the 1939-45 period – I know my Grandma always made patterns herself from existing clothes and this was probably a common skill and so patterns would likely have been considered a luxury not worth the paper.

    I have a very large collection of patterns but only have maybe 5 from the 1940’s. I have many patterns from Maudella and Weldons but all from the 1950’s and 1960’s.

  16. January 22, 2010 4:08 am

    Speaking to my mother last night, she said that my Nan did not have any dress patterns and that all of their clothing was made by a local seamstress. Using the ration coupons, fabric would be purchased and brought to the seamstress’ home, where it was made into the desired clothing. My mom reacalls very deep hems, for letting down and standing with the paper pattern pinned to her clothing for fitting and eventually the purchased fabric fitted in the same manner. My mother, her mother, all my great aunts and cousins frequented the same seamstress. None of her family members had a sewing machine and she said that needles, knitting and sewing were not to be found. This sounds much as atomic mom posted and Hazel Avery. Knitting was very popular and my Nan would “free” knit, which I imagine would be comando style sweater and sock making!! My father had similar memories with the exception of thinking back to some paper patterns that were carefully used and not shared outside of the family. He could not recall any brand names. Knitting was big with his family and my paternal nan was an accomplished knitter!! What a great post. I wish you luck in your search. You’ve got to know that I heard some delightful stories yesterday evening. I wish I could tell you the one about my mother’s introduction to sewing at school. Amazing!

  17. January 22, 2010 2:36 am

    this is a very interesting topic. I know that these patterns were also often issued under licence in New Zealand. I’ve noticed that often the patterns for sale on NZ sites come from deceased estates where the family are cleaning out a loved one possessions. So perhaps people do tend to hang onto their patterns rather than throw them out.

  18. January 21, 2010 11:30 pm

    I’ll post a link on sewretro about my fab WWII find!

  19. January 21, 2010 11:29 pm

    It’s possible that many of these patterns were lost in bombing raids. Large parts of London were bombed and many official records were lost, so maybe these went too.

  20. hazel avery permalink
    January 21, 2010 6:52 pm

    During world war two I and my family lived in London all through the bombing etc and we mostly did knitting for the troops,the yarn was khaki color which some stores gave for free and patterns.I kept those patterns for many years but cleared them out when I emigrated to this country in 1955.I cannot remember people making their own clothes although we were ration for clothing,I think it was 7 coupons for shoes as I worked in a shoe store in my teens,garments we just made do and mend which was a popular slogan in those days.

  21. Petite Main permalink
    January 21, 2010 6:37 pm

    You can find some Weldons, Bestway, Practical Patterns and Maudella on the “Vintage Sewing Patterns Wiki” created by Erin.

  22. January 21, 2010 6:00 pm

    I love your post! If I had to pick one of your suggestions above I’d say they were used to death. Especially if women were innovative enough to elaborate on a simple design in multiple ways. We do it now adays, or some of us anyway. I have a simgle pattern that was for one style of dress that I’ve ended up making multiple different dresses out of By adding different elements too. Maybe they did the same thing, then passed it to friends who did the same thing and they simply got worn out.

    I always assume the older ladies are still holding on to everything, hidden in an attic somewhere and hopefully their heirs won’t tss them out by the curb. Recently I found an entire box (over 70 patterns) at a thrift store. They were from the 50’s and 60’s (a few from the 40’s and even one from the 30’s!) where the woman had added pieces of her own making to them and refferenced other patterns that it was now able t be made into… like say pattern 1 can now be pattern 5 if you use this sleeve… she had extensive notes, original recipts and even fabric samples stuffed into the envelopes! Those patterns actually make up the majority of my private pattern collection.

  23. Mrs. Grackle permalink
    January 21, 2010 5:14 pm

    I would imagine the quality of pattern paper available for printing was pretty bad. It takes no time at all for low-quality paper to fall apart. The patterns were probably discarded as unusable.

  24. January 21, 2010 4:39 pm

    Perhaps everyone was cutting their own patterns, or endlessly modifying their personal pattern for a little more variety?

    I’m sure you know that many of the fashions of the day are very simple variations on seam placement, gathering and yokes. I have a copy of Harriet Pepin’s Modern Pattern Design (1942)* that makes it seem like a seamstress of even average skill could vary her dress designs by rearranging straight seams and yokes. One fo the things I love about my 1940’s patterns is the straightforward simplicity of the seaming destails. Even a self-taught halfass seamstress like myself can look at a 1940’s dress design and grasp the cut and construction methods.

    *Complete text with images available here: http://vintagesewing.info/1940s/42-mpd/mpd-toc-long.html

  25. Petite Main permalink
    January 21, 2010 3:51 pm

    Hello,
    Have you looked at the Vintage Sewing Patterns Wiki, there are:
    *some Blackmore patterns http://vintagepatterns.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Blackmore;
    *some Weldons patterns http://vintagepatterns.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Weldons
    *even some Bestway http://vintagepatterns.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Bestway and some Maudella http://vintagepatterns.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Maudella
    * and Practical patterns http://vintagepatterns.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Practical

    Enjoy! And add yours if you have some

  26. January 21, 2010 2:26 pm

    Is it poossible that because we (the US) joined much later, that our 4 big companies wouldn’t have been initially hindered with rationing and such. My mom suggested that since the war was also more directly on British soil, and they were being bombed, etc., that they probably did not produce as many patterns.
    Perhaps some women got rid of them after the war because for them it provoked bad memories?

  27. January 21, 2010 1:06 pm

    Hi, my family are all big on sewing and lived through WWII, gran told me they would unpick an old outfit and use that as a patten, then use the good fabric from the old outfit to make clothes for the children. So on down the line. I have a very thin dress my father wore, all the bits were horded till the dress was made, it was for his baptism.

  28. January 21, 2010 12:23 pm

    That was a REALLY interesting post! Good question that I cannot answer. Since you’re interested in WWII fashion.. I strongly recommend you read a book called “Nazi Chic” by by Irene Guenther. It’s about German fashion during the Third Reich. It’s incredibly interesting and I’m sure you’ll love it.

  29. January 21, 2010 10:10 am

    What an intriguing question. Maybe one person is selfishly hoarding all the patterns, sitting atop a mountain of 1940s goodness. I love that Bestaway dress!

  30. January 21, 2010 8:21 am

    Have you ever seen the BBC series “1940’s House”? If you haven’t, I’d recommend it–it’s a four part show about a modern day family placed back into WWII times in London and how they had to deal with rationing and things like that. The daughter does make a dress, if memory serves me well, although it isn’t documented in detail. It was one fo the most fascinating things I’ve ever watched.
    Just a thought.
    Laurie

  31. January 21, 2010 8:04 am

    Unbelievably gorgeous and chic! I love your taste and sensibilities.

  32. January 21, 2010 6:25 am

    Do you think it’s possible they crossed the pond? I have found stacks and stacks of British women’s magazines from the forties and fifties in deepest darkest Kentucky, which I can only speculate came over with the English girlfriends of American soldiers.

    Still, you’d think they would have turned up by now. The only British patterns I’ve found over here have been from the 60s. I have to admit I’m rather partial to them – there’s a good feeling that comes from finding something a fellow expat from a previous generation might have stowed away in a suitcase.

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 21, 2010 12:51 pm

      I’ve noticed this! Some of the best-preserved stocks of British goods from the war and postwar years (like china) seem to be overseas, whether because of expat movement or just because Americans and Aussies are such keen collectors. Maybe I should be searching eBay.com instead of eBay.co.uk.

  33. January 21, 2010 3:44 am

    Great post! I always assumed that the US and UK operated under the same rationing systems during the war, but that just doesn’t make sense. Have you seen the book Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look? I have a feeling you’d love it!

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 21, 2010 12:48 pm

      It’s on my wish list. Along with about a bazillion other books.

  34. January 21, 2010 3:20 am

    Hi, I just had to reply, as my mother was a little girl during WWII and was raised in London. I will ask her for any recollections regarding patterns, fabric, notions, etc. My Nan was not much of a seamstress and didn’t enjoy the sewing arts. She did knit. However, she was able to do so much with so little and never passed up a challenge. She was a creative and immaginative woman and always had ways of getting what she needed and making do. I’ll get back to you.

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