A guide to buying dressmaking patterns

A shorter version of an article that I wrote for Making Magazine issue 8

The Paper Maze – A guide to working with dressmaking patterns
When selecting your pattern firstly be aware that your size in a dressmaking pattern will be size or two bigger than the size you normally buy in a high street store. To avoid confusion, make sure you know your accurate body measurements so you can alter your pattern to fit your individual body shape (see the measuring guide on the Making website www.makingmagazine.com). Look out for descriptions such as fitted, close fitting, loose fitting or semi fitted. These refer to the amount of wearing ease or ‘wiggle room’ built into every pattern. For example, your hips may be 90cms but when made up the pattern will measure 100cm. Factors such as fabric type and intended garment use will also lead to measuring tweaks but practise, as they say, makes perfect.
Amy Butler
This is an American company who produce craft based patterns designed to be made up in Amy Butler’s bright floral prints. Garment patterns come in 7 sizes ranging from X Small – XXX Large and Amy says her patterns are ‘super easy’ to follow. One thing to note about Amy Butler patterns is that they are written in imperial measurements, which is great if you think in feet and inches but otherwise you need to refer to the metric conversion chart included with the pattern. Great craft patterns and range of fabrics to make them in.
Tailor Ebeneezer Butterick developed the first graded sewing pattern in 1863. The company is now owned by American brand McCalls, and is marketed as a collection of ‘classic’ sewing patterns. Butterick patterns come in 3 ranges – misses, plus size and maternity. ‘Misses’ is a term used by most companies and it means patterns for the well proportioned, average figure about 5’5″ to 5’6″ (1.65m to 1.68m) tall without shoes. Butterick produce a nice retro range.

Burda started producing commercial patterns in Germany in the 1950s and are now based in New York. Burda follow current trends and always bring out new styles each season. They offer a good choice of patterns covering women, men, unisex (things like hospital scrubs) children, home deco and maternity. They also offer more unusual patterns such as pets and swimwear. Burda patterns differ slightly from other makes because they don’t have triangular shaped notches to help match pieces together. Their standard women’s range also comes in tall, petite and plus sizes with patterns graded at 4 levels according to the level of the maker, from novice to advanced. Good for the latest high-street styles.
Kwik Sew
Kwik Sew are an American company who have been going since 1967. Patterns are printed on white paper rather than tissue so they last longer. The instructions are given in small steps with a clear diagram accompanying each instruction. Patterns are multi-size in XS, S, M, L & XL and each size is clearly marked with a different colour. These are easy to follow patterns for novice dressmakers.
New Look
New Look was originally a British company and they still design patterns in the UK although are now owned by American brand Simplicity. They come in misses sizing only so they are good for average shapes and sizes. Good for casual wear designs with patterns priced at the cheapest end of the scale.
Owner of Butterick and Vogue, McCalls is the largest pattern company with a towering skyscraper office in New York’s trendy fashion district. McCalls produce contemporary sewing patterns which follow the latest fashion trends. McCalls patterns usefully come with alternative cup sizes which is great for larger busts.
Simplicity began in 1927 and it also has its headquarters in New York. I really like the designs in the Project Runway collection aimed at fans of the American competition. Their range of patterns includes misses, petite and plus sizes and includes the ‘Amazing Fit’ range with cup sizes A-D. Their ‘Learn to Sew’ range is useful for complete beginners.
Of all the established brands Vogue produce the most complex patterns, but ultimately this helps to produce professional results. Vogue patterns began in 1899 as a mail order service provided by Vogue magazine. In 1949 it became the first pattern company to produce patterns from the collections of couture designers. Vogue currently produce nine pattern categories, ranging from misses to plus size. They also make a petite range for women 5’2″ to 5’4″ (1.57m to 1.63m) tall without shoes. Unique to Vogue is a range called Today’s Fit where the waist and hips are slightly larger than Misses’ and the shoulders are narrower. The best patterns for achieving a couture look.
Vintage patterns
Not a brand but rather a general piece of information relating to all patterns more than about 30 years old. The sizing of vintage patterns will be different to today’s patterns, so for example a size 12 now might have been a size 16 in 1950. Also check that seam allowance is added because you might have to add it using tailor’s chalk once the pattern is pinned to the fabric. Vintage patterns might not have any pattern markings printed on the tissue pattern and the instructions may just be a typed sheet with few, if any, illustrations.
For vintage design inspiration The London College of Fashion has an archive of around 800 dressmaking patterns beginning in the 1920s and going through to the 1980s.
Make a toile/mock up version in calico or an old sheet first to test the fit and to help familiarise yourself with the pattern instructions, and to work through tricky processes such as collars and pockets.
Sewingpatternreview.com is an American website where makers helpfully record their experiences of using dressmaking patterns. You just type your pattern number into a search box and the joys and pitfalls are there to read.
Blogs and youtube can be a great source of tips and inspiration for dressmakers, my current favourite is from Gertie, a home sewer from New York with a love of all things retro. http://www.blogforbettersewing.com/

About suzannerowland

Fashion Historian. Author of Making Edwardian Costumes for Women (2016). Currently PhD student - researching the development of the lightweight mass-produced fashion industry in the 1910s, using blouses as a case study
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