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.