Tag Archives: Spadea

Designer Sewing Patterns

Today’s post is an updated version of an article I wrote for my website, Fuzzylizzie.com.  I’ve been transferring these articles to The Vintage Traveler mainly because there is no interaction on the website, and it’s just more fun for things to be here where people can discuss them if they wish.

For a home sewer, the best way to get “the look for less” has always been to buy and make a dress from a pattern designed by her favorite designer.  And since the 1950s, there has been a large variety of designer patterns from which to choose.

Possibly the first designer patterns were published by the Paris Pattern Company.  Starting in 1929 this company released the designs of more than a dozen Paris couturiers.  They were sold through the Ladies’ Home Journal and in department stores.  Today these patterns are a rare find.

Advance patterns had some of the best ready-to-wear designers working for them in the 1950s.  Among the designers in their American Designers series were Anne Fogarty, Adrian, Madeleine Fauth and Tom Brigance.

In the 1960s Butterick did a line of designer patterns, Young Designers, which capitalized on the Youthquake trend.  Two of the best known designers in this group were Mary Quant of London and Betsey Johnson, but other bright Young Designers such as Jean Muir and Deanna Littell also did patterns for this series.  It continued into the 1970s, with designers such as Kenzo, Clovis Ruffin, Jane Tise and John Kloss.

I have quite a few of these patterns shown on a page I’ve made on the  Young Designers series.

McCall’s produced a line of designer inspired patterns in the 1920s and 30s. These are quite rare, but it is possible to find patterns by designers such as Patou and Schiaparelli.  In the 1950s, McCall’s started featuring some designers, such as Pucci (or Emilio of Capri, as his patterns were labeled) and Givenchy.  These Givenchy creations are very much in the style of the dresses he was making for Audrey Hepburn.  And in 1966, four designs from the Hepburn movie How to Steal a Million were adapted by McCall’s into patterns.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, McCall’s also had patterns designed by American fashion designers.  Claire McCardell did designs for McCall’s, as did Geoffrey Beene and Pauline Trigere.

Vogue is probably the pattern company most associated with designer patterns and they continue to be a leader in this area. Vogue began doing designer adaptations in 1937, calling them “Couturier” patterns.

It was not until the late 1940s that Vogue began the Paris Original line, with designers like Schiaparelli, Patou and Lanvin. The Couturier line eventually was designed by other European designers such as Pucci and Simonetta, and it was not until 1967 that Vogue featured American designers in their new Americana line. Among these were Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Diane Von Furstenberg.

Besides the major pattern companies, there were a few mail order companies that specialized in designer patterns.  Probably the best known is Spadea, originally called American Designers Patterns, which had a large and impressive list of designers working for them; Ceil Chapman, Jo Copeland, Philip Mangone, Tina Leser and Helen Rose were just a few.  Another brand, Prominent Designer Patterns, featured Oleg Cassini, Estevez and David Crystal.

While adapting this writing for the blog I was surprised to see how many times I’ve actually written about designer patterns.  I’ve done a bit of linkage so if any of the designers I’ve mentioned here sound interesting, just give them a click and you’ll be taken to an older post.

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The Spadea Pattern Company

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/

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From Anne Spadea Combs

I received a lovely letter and some photos from Anne Spadea Combs last week.  The photo above is of her parents, Jean and James Spadea.  The photo was taken sometime in the mid 1950s.  Anne said her father always wore a hat, often a beret!

She also sent a copy of an invitation to a Jean Spadea Retrospective which was held at the Stover Mill Gallery.  The cover of the card has a self portrait Jean painted in 1936.  Inside are examples of Jean’s work from the 1920s through the 70s.

Finally, I want to share a photo of Anne.  Anne and her brother and sister were all artists.  Sculpting was Anne’s talent.  As a little girl, she watched her mother sculpt mannequins for Bonwit Teller, and at the age of 39, Anne began sculpting herself.  She did over 100 pieces before “retiring” at 75.

Illustrations copyright Anne Spadea Combs

Comments:

Posted by Kevin J Solar:

I’m the nephew of Sarah Spadea Black, Jean Spadeas’ daughter. I was not aware of the history behind this fine woman. It is good of you to tell her story. I was at the Stover Mill Gallery where I met Mrs. Spadea and her husband James. I was about 8 yrs. old. Very interesting. Thank You.

Monday, March 16th 2009 @ 9:38 PM

Posted by Seija:

You Have Great pages! I sew 40´s and 50´s glothes and i love old times! Have i nice spring! Greetings from Finland!:)

Sunday, April 5th 2009 @ 10:16 AM

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Anne Spadea Combs of Spadea Patterns

One of the great things about the internet is how it has increased the availability of information.  Some people argue that there is too much info out there, but that is another story.  This one is about how the Net brings people together so that information can be shared.

A little over a year ago I pieced together a short history of the Spadea Fashion, Inc for my website.  It always amazes me when this happens, but last week I got an email from the grandson of the company owners, saying he would like to talk with me about the company, and that his mother really had a lot of great history.   I emailed back to arrange a time for me to call, and didn’t hear back.  so yesterday I decided to just go ahead and call.

As it turned out, he did put me in touch with his mother, Anne Spadea Combs, and this morning she called me to chat about her parent’s publishing business.  Or should I say her business because she worked there as a fit model and in later years, as the person who actually worked with the designers, and finally, she and her husband ended up owning the company.

It was amazing, talking with a woman who actually knew and worked with the likes of Claire McCardell, Ceil Chapman, Anne Klein and the Duchess of Windsor.

Her stories about the Duchess were particularily fascinating.  I had assumed that the patterns that had the Duchess’s name on them were designed for her, kind of like things today that have Kate Moss’s name on them.  You know, a stylish woman lends her approval and name to the work of others.  But not so, according to Ms. Combs.  The designs were actually conceived by the Duchess.

Twice a year she would visit the Duke and Duchess at their apartment at the Waldorf Astoria Towers.  There they would work out the details of the designs.  Ms. Combs said she was reluctant at first to work with the former Mrs. Simpson, but soon realized that her preconceived notions were wrong.  In fact, she loved the Duchess, who turned out to be a warm, loving person.  The Duchess knew how to sew, and was very aware of how to minimize figure flaws, and she was very good at adapting her ideas to actual designs.  Spadea’s relationship with the Duchess lasted for 10 years.

It is always exciting to get information straight from the people who were there.  With Ms. Combs help, I’ll be updating my article and filling in some gaps.

Comments:

Posted by Sue:

Lizzie, this is fascinating! What a treat to be able to speak with this woman and hear her experiences!

I love posts like this!

Sue

Wednesday, January 21st 2009 @ 3:18 PM

Posted by Bonnie:

Thanks to your blog again for bringing interesting people to the forefront!! Love this story.

Wednesday, January 21st 2009 @ 5:13 PM

Posted by KD / Decadence_Past:

I’m not a blogger; nor do I still sew, but found your Spadea blog (and others) well-written & fascinating.
I love hearing stories about this era in fashion & style. As a young adolescent, I was just starting to twirl and look in the mirror back in the late 60’s. My Mom was an avid sewer & often spoke of the Duchess, so I feel a “connection” to this info.
Thanks for taking the time to bring these stories into the present. – KD

Thursday, January 22nd 2009 @ 8:02 AM

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Filed under Designers, First Person Stories, Sewing