Archive Saving from the Trash: Home Sewing History

clothes

Sewing patterns deliver a uniquely detailed look at the dynamism of working-class people throughout history that clothing collections held at museums or academies seldom offer.

These patterns delicate packets of paper covered in shapes, numerals, and symbols are the guide for sewists through the process of creating everything from sweatpants to wedding dresses.

And thru most of the 20th century, before manufacturers forced the display to capitalize on cheap labor abroad, sewing at home was a method to have high-quality apparel for little money.

But scholarship about patterns and home sewing is still underappreciated, often dismissed as women’s work or insignificant to fashion and art. Moreover, the typical pattern’s ubiquitousness only adds to its disposability designs were cheap to purchase, finicky to preserve, and never meant to last.

Lara A. Greene holds her antique sewing patterns in plastic tubs, stockpiled in the first-floor activity place of her old Victorian home so she can discard them out the window if her house moves up in flames. Greene has gathered at least 10,000 patterns perhaps 20,000 since the 1990s. She is paranoid about misplacing them: to fire, flood, and mice or simply the boredom of people whose first intuition would be to throw them in the trash.

In 1994, Greene was a 24-year-old tailor at the New York City Opera. She was carried along to visit Betty Williams, a costume designer, and researcher with an expansive antique pattern collection.

Costume designers use old patterns as references, especially when working on period details, and seeing Williams’ collection was constructive for Greene. It began a decades-long hunt as she explored the oldest possible measures to add to her archive.

The Consumer Pattern Archive is housed in Carothers Library at the University of Rhode Island. The most extensive of its sort in the world, it contains over 60,000 patterns dating from 1847: Rhode Island, Kingston, on April 21st, 2022.

For the community of vintage sewing fanatics, an unassuming website sustained by the University of Rhode Island is an invaluable and irreplaceable gem. The Commercial Pattern Archive is the few scheme that safeguards these tender documents, easily forgotten and born to die.

A labor of love and affirmation on the part of a small team of historians, costume creators, archivists, and hobbyists, the archive started in the 1990s. It included a physical store and digital database of English-language patterns unparalleled in scope and depth. CoPA is home to approximately 56,000 physical designs from the 1800s, along with books, pamphlets, journals, and other related material.

Home sewing designs aren’t meant to be saved for decades they’re made to be disposable. Compositions are packaged in paper envelopes, with sizing, fabrics, and example garments illustrated on the sleeve. The pattern inside is printed on flimsy tissue paper that might pull if a sewist looks at it incorrectly.

That pattern paper is then layered atop textile and cut along the printed lines, making reuse and resizing boring. In addition, once pieces are cut out of the more extensive sheet, it’s effortless to fail them a rogue sleeve or an absent front bodice piece generating the pattern insufficient.

For most of the 20th century, completing your clothing was cheaper than purchasing off the rack, states Susan Hannel, associate professor of textiles and innovation at URI. Patterns were affordable and easily accessible, and sewing was an ordinary activity for thousands of years.

And yet, most museum packs don’t include clothing from everyday, working-class experiences whether a work uniform or a dress suit sewn at home using a commercial Dior creation. For one, home-sewn garments aren’t as vivid as clothes shown on a runway or modeled by the wealthy. And home sewing accomplished by women and working-class homes is usually undervalued.

The most aged works in CoPA are from 1847, when patterns in this format first came into being and included ruffled wraps, baby bonnets, and robes. Though the collection is primarily women’s pieces, curators will take designs for just about any garment, from clergy robes and Halloween ensembles to Cabbage Patch Kids doll clothing. The ’40s via ’70s are especially well-represented, with 7,000 to 9,000 patterns per decade when home sewing grew in the US.

The most extensive of its kind in the world, the Consumer Pattern Archive comprises over 60,000 patterns dating from 1847.

Though the library is open for in-person viewing and use, Morse speaks of the online database is the primary way people utilize the patterns. Requests for access range from hobbyists and home sewists to developers, researchers, and curators. But unique requests illustrate the collection’s value beyond the fashion industry: Morse recalls the graphic novelist who enjoyed drawing characters in period-accurate clothing using the library as a research tool.

She also recently had a recommendation from an applied mathematics professor who tried to tag garments at critical points like neckline and hem to witness if there was a formula to describe changes to clothing through the decades.

When patterns are granted to CoPA, they’re first analyzed and compared to the existing inventory, checking for dates, a pattern number designated by the publisher, and the type of garment. Older pattern sleeves often did not include the year of publication, and publishers regularly reused pattern numbers. CoPA staff expertly date each piece using supplemental materials like industry magazines, journals, and pamphlets.

Next, the front and back of patterns are scanned and uploaded to the online database. The physical copies are placed in a protective plastic sleeve and stored in a filing cabinet in the library, where temperatures are maintained, and exposure to light is limited. Though the pattern sheets are not digitized, some users have broadened envelope scans showing outlines of garment pieces to create usable patterns.

Donations from organizations and libraries, collectors, publishers, and people make up CoPA’s vast catalog, considered the world’s most extensive collection. The basis of CoPA comes from Williams, the costume designer in New York, whose collection was acquired following her death. Joy Spanabel Emery, a theater professor at URI who became the leading expert on home sewing patterns, served as the curator of CoPA after retiring from teaching and eventually added her collection.

Greene, the tailor and pattern collector, has used the online database for her work to research how particular garments were constructed while working on stage productions, films, and TV. For example, without CoPA, 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, a type of outerwear resembling a shawl that wraps around the wearer’s arms.

In her work for the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Greene used antique patterns to outfit Ben Stiller’s character in a 1940s playsuit. Greene, who specializes in corsets, also served as a corsetier for the 2017 film The Greatest Showman and season two of the TV series Boardwalk Empire, among many other productions.

 Director of Distinctive Collections Karen Morse gives a tour of the Consumer Pattern Archive housed in Carothers Library at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, Rhode Island, on April 21st, 2022.

CoPA is also a popular tool for members of the Vintage Sewing Pattern Nerds Facebook group. The group’s more than 42,000 members convene to share stashes they find in attics, show off garments created using decades-old patterns, and ask questions and CoPA is often the first stop for research in dating patterns or to find garment construction techniques that are rarely seen today.

Members sort through the tens of thousands of entries, hoping to find a match to the pattern they recently came across or to dig up more information about a pattern they haven’t been able to get their hands on.

The search continues for patterns that are impossible to find for sale and not documented in CoPA. One particularly sought-after pattern is Advance 2795, a 1942 women’s coverall designed by the US Department of Agriculture that’s not yet archived in CoPA. Members of the Nerds group have tried to reproduce the piece by sharing what they know about similar garments and experimenting with construction.

“I search for this every day,” one member wrote about the coverall pattern. “I missed out on it once about ten years ago. It was in my Etsy cart but sold when I went to check out,” says another. “Been hunting ever since!”

Though CoPA is not complete, those who use the archive say its existence is a marvel there is nothing else like it in the world. Moreover, 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 do not, says Charity Armstead, a fashion professor at Brenau University in Georgia.

“What’s preserved in museums is often the best of the best. It’s wealthy people’s clothing; it’s their best dress,” Armstead says. In contrast, CoPA’s focus on home sewing provides essential data on what rural and working-class people made, wore, and used. Armstead also notes people of color who sewed out of necessity, like Black shoppers who were denied access to fitting rooms during Jim Crow.

“We don’t know necessarily who these patterns belonged to. But we do know what groups of people used sewing patterns the most,” Armstead says.

The database incorporates individual donations but has also absorbed other collections, like those formerly held at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Most pattern companies did not keep consistent records of pattern designs they published or lost what they did save as companies were bought out or shuttered, Morse, the curator, says. Butterick, one of the largest publishers of patterns, was an exception; the company’s archives now live in CoPA.

“If we weren’t doing this, where would all this stuff go?” Morse says. “FIT decided they didn’t want to maintain their pattern collection anymore. So what would have happened if we didn’t take it? Would it have just gone in the dumpster?”

People who rely on CoPA can’t help but worry about the collection’s future, especially following the 2018 death of Spanabel Emery, the founding curator. Armstead, who knew Spanabel Emery and visited the exhibition in person, says her death was a significant loss to the field of research.

Funding, too, has caused delays. In 2017, the university shifted the database from being a paid subscription service to being open access, Morse says, which allowed more people to use it but also resulted in a loss of income that was used to pay students who worked on the collection.

In addition, money from an endowment set up by Spanabel Emery has yet to kick in, resulting in the current “fallow period.” Morse hopes to hire a dedicated coordinator and curator with funds from the endowment later this year.

Greene, the collector and tailor, is now selling off some of her thousands of sewing patterns that she no longer uses. Before Spanabel Emery died, the two were discussing how Greene’s vast collection could be integrated into CoPA, whether through donations or filling in information gaps. But, mostly, Greene wants to make sure CoPA lives on and that these irreplaceable patterns are saved and available to anyone who is drawn to them as she was.