Currently Reading – A History of the Paper Pattern Industry by Joy Spanabel Emery

The History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution by Joy Spanabel Emery is a book that fills a gap in fashion history research that has been needed for a long time.   Because of the multitude of companies, and the fact that they often sprang up, merged with other companies, or simply disappeared within a few years, tracking the industry has been somewhat difficult.

I’m going to start out by saying that this book is probably not for everyone, not even for everyone who sews and enjoys fashion history.  One thing I learned from teaching history to ten through twelve year-olds is that the most effective way to make history interesting is to concentrate on the story aspect.   In some cases this is simply not possible, and what Emery has produced is a straight-forward history with a minimum of story-telling.

While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that you have to want to be surrounded by lots of facts with very little  sense of a narrative.  Personally, I found the book to be of great interest because it cleared up so much about the history of sewing patterns, and also of the story of home sewing.

The book starts with the very earliest sewing patterns and goes through the present.  I found that the chapters on the 1920s through the 1960s were the most interesting, mainly because that is where my interest lies.

Of special interest were sections on designer patterns.  One thing I learned was that in 1925 McCall’s  began making patterns from Parisian designers that were faithful copies, not adaptations.  The only problem is that these were identified in the McCall’s magazine and in their pattern catalog, but not on the pattern envelope.  That means that it takes a large collection like the Commercial Pattern Archive (where Emery is curator) in order to identify these patterns by cross-referencing the patterns with the magazine copy.

The book is richly illustrated, which is a real strength.   Almost every key point in the book has a corresponding illustration.  Here you see on the left a 1941 Dubarry (which I learned was made by Simplicity for Woolworth’s) pattern, and on the right there is a photo of the dress made up.

I also learned about how like the clothing industry and Hollywood designers, the pattern companies had to really scramble after Dior launched his “New Look.”  One solution was to simply re-release a pattern in longer lengths as you can see in the above illustration.

For readers who love a challenge, the author has included gridded patterns for nine designs.  And there is a long list of references for further exploration.

Instead of putting the reference notes in a section at the end, the author opted to put them in the text.  While it is fairly easy to learn to just skip over the parentheses, it can be a bit annoying.  Or maybe that is just one of my personal pet peeves.

I do have to point out that I found one bit of misinformation, which would have gone unnoticed had I not been personally familiar with the topic.  Emery got the history of Folkwear patterns all wrong, saying that Kate Mathews was one of the original owners.  No, Kate bought the company in 2002, but was not originally involved in the formation of the company.  It’s really regrettable that such a mistake was made because it always causes one to doubt the rest of the  facts presented.  I’m hoping this was just a slip caused by the misreading of the company history on Folkwear’s website.



Filed under Currently Reading, Uncategorized

16 responses to “Currently Reading – A History of the Paper Pattern Industry by Joy Spanabel Emery

  1. Thanks for the review! I’ve been wondering if I should add this to my wishlist. Still unsure whether I need it in my personal collection but maybe I should go see if I can thumb through it at my local B&N.


  2. I was so excited to see this post! I am in the fashion studies masters program at FIT and just got this book out of my school’s library. I just started reading it, and it is great to see your review. I have also noticed the lack of books on this subject and I’m hoping to write my thesis on the history of Butterick, with a more story telling tone like you mentioned. If you know of any good sources for research I would love your input!


    • I’m not sure which FIT you’re attending; The San Francisco public library has bound volumes of Delineator (later, The Delineator) magazine from 1900 to its collapse in 1937 — over 400 issues. I have been exploring them — many color illustrations of Butterick patterns — and used the mail-order pattern charts at the back of the magazine to make a chart for dating Butterick patterns from the 1920s-30s.
      The magazine’s editorial content — re: taxation, WW I, public policy, etc. is very interesting, but not really my field. You can see the magazine struggling in the thirties, trying to introduce more photography, hold the line on issue price, etc. Good luck on your thesis — and do find some bound Delineators for your research!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’d do as Witness2fashion suggests and check your library for Delineator. You might get in touch with McCall Patterns (which now owns Butterick) to see if there is anything in the line of an archive.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love paper patterns as artifacts especially vintage ones. But my pattern making skills leave a lot to be desired. I should look but not touch 🙂


  4. Gail Ann Thompson

    Thank you for the review.
    I have a particular interest in gridded and line drawn patterns, such as those, once featured in Ladie’s magazines. I find them to be actually less of a challenge and more fostering to creativity than the printed pattern.
    If you haven’t already done so………It would be very helpful if you were to create a list of sewing and clothing books desirable for a good personal library. Thank you again.


    • A couple of years ago I did a post on developing a fashion history library. I’ve been thinking about updating it. Also, you can click the Currently Reading tab in the side bar to find all my book reviews.

      Jen at PinTucks has just posted about her favorite sewing books. Check it out.


    • Elizabeth Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion opened doors for me — I was able to successfully make and modify clothes from her gridded patterns before I ever took classes in pattern-making and draping. (Paperback, three volumes, ringbound. Patterns of Fashion 2 covers 1860 to 1940 women’s fashions; Vol. 1 covers 1660 to 1860, Vol. 3 is Elizabethan) She took her patterns from garments in museum collections, so the sizes have to be adjusted. These books are very large in format and lie flat when you’re using them. They are easier to use than Norah Waugh’s The Cut of Women’s Clothes, which are scaled but not gridded, but also classics for reconstructing — or studying — period clothing. I just read The Tudor Tailor by Ninya Mikhaila & Jane Malcolm-Davies, which covers early 1500s through Elizabethan and appears to be truly excellent, with gridded patterns (sized for women bust 36″ and men chest 38″) and many photographs of the construction in progress.


  5. Really interesting to hear the McCalls copies of Parisian designs. I’m getting the book to go with my 9 million patterns!


  6. Oh goodness I need this book! Thank you for continuing to highlight awesome resources!



  7. Pingback: My Costumer’s Library: Getting Started | witness2fashion

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