Several years ago I pieced together a little historic information about the Spadea Pattern Company. If you are a collector of vintage patterns, then you are familiar with Spadea patterns. To the collector, these are some of the best patterns produced in the 20th century. But most people have never heard of Spadea, as the company has been out of business for some time, and its history largely forgotten.
I wrote the article based on information I found in some of the books and brochures published by Spadea, and after I originally put the article online, I heard from Anne Spadea Combs, the daughter of the founders of the company. With her help I was able to update my information and add some details to the story.
Spadea was actually Jean Miller Spadea. She was a fashion artist-illustrator and husband James Spadea was a magazine ad man when they met and married in 1925. In the 1930s they started a publishing venture and launched a beauty magazine, You. The magazine had been financed primarily by money Jean Spadea made working as a freelance illustrator for New York City stores such as Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue. The magazine was published starting in 1937, but due to a lack of advertising dollars during World War II, the magazine folded in the early 1940s.
James Spadea continued working as an ad man, and one of his accounts was Butterick patterns. From Jean’s work as a fashion illustrator, she knew many of the top designers of the day. James got the idea to use these contacts to start a new line for Butterick; designer patterns. When Butterick rejected the idea, James and Jean decided to try the idea themselves.
In the late 1940s they had formed Spadea Syndicate, Inc, a company that syndicated columns and cartoons to newspapers nationwide. Around 1951, they started a syndicated column of sewing tips, You’re Sew Right.
The column was used to market the new line of patterns, called American Designer’s Patterns. After a pattern was developed, Jean Spadea would sketch the finished product for the column and for the pattern instructions. A lot of the earlier patterns are actually signed “Spadea”.
The patterns were later called Spadea Designer Patterns, and by the mid 1950s a new line, International Designer Patterns by Spadea was launched. This line was conceived while the Spadeas were traveling in Europe.
The company did not do things the way other pattern companies did. To begin with, their sizing was different. Instead of using the “Government Standard Sizing” for patterns, Spadea used sizing that was in line with regular ready-to-wear clothing.
Spadea patterns were cut directly from a master pattern which was taken from the original garment. Great care was taken to reproduce the original as closely as possible, but to do so in a way that made the construction doable by the home sewer.
Then a muslin garment was made from the new pattern, which was fitted on the Spadea’s fit model, their daughter Anne. The pattern was adjusted to fit a size 12, and was then sized up and down. The muslin was also sketched by Jean Spadea for the newspaper column and the catalog. As the company grew, new illustrators had to be hired, and Jean Spadea no longer did the illustrations.
Eventually the pattern maker at Spadea got to be so good at her job that she could just look at a dress and reproduce it in the form of a pattern. That way the original garment was left intact.
Many of the great designers of the 1950s and 60s had their garments reproduced by Spadea, including Claire McCardell, Joset Walker, Bill Blass, Ceil Chapman and Donald Brooks. The designers’ sewing and tailoring hints were included in the newspaper column, and in 1967 were published as a book. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Spadea worked with the Duchess of Windsor to develop pattern designs. They also worked with actress and singer Dinah Shore.
Even though all the other pattern companies had turned to printed patterns, Spadea continued to make theirs perforated and precut. They claimed that this gave the home sewer a more accurate way to mark the fabric.
Jean Spadea retired in 1967, but the pattern company continued under the ownership of her daughter Anne and her husband. They sold the company around 1976, and the pattern business was phased out and closed by the new owners. Jean Spadea died in Florida in 1983
UPDATE: Sadly, Anne Spadea Combs died in 2018/