A Life in (Mail-Order) Patterns

Vintage Marian Martin Mail Order Pattern T 9096 Dress

Some vintage patterns come in pristine factory folds. Some come carefully cut and refolded, with handwritten hints at their former owners’ tastes (such as: “very good skirt pattern for me” or “make in brown check”). And some come with a history.

Enter Mrs. D. I first met Mrs D. in a 23-piece eBay lot entitled simply “Vintage Sewing Patterns – LOT DEAL @LOOK@”:

You will be getting all of these patterns. Each envelope has the pattern and pattern guide for cutting. I don’t know if all of the patterns are complete, but this lady seem to keep them all together but not guaranteed.

I tore the tape off the box barehanded when it arrived, crossing my fingers that a reasonable number of the patterns would be cute and within a few grades of my bust size (and they were, but we’ll get to that!) But as I gingerly opened each brittle mail-order envelope and photographed the contents, I felt as if I was traveling through time.

Most vintage lots I’ve acquired are random mixes of envelope patterns from the 40s to the 80s, with little clue as to who owned or used them. But thanks to the mailing address that appeared on every one of these pattern envelopes, I knew they were all ordered by one particular woman in Missouri as she sewed throughout her life.

The oldest patterns in her careful collection seemed to be from the late 40s or early 50s (most of the postmarks are undated, but I used this Cemetarian article for reference). For example, this gorgeous deep-V Marian Martin 9279 day dress with pocket detail: bust size 32, postage, 1 cent.

Vintage Marian Martin Mail Order Pattern 9279 Dress

The most recent ones are from 1990–I didn’t even know mail-order patterns were still available then! The last one is a multi-size pattern, but from her 80s purchases I gather Mrs. D was sewing a bust size 42 at this point. And the postage had gone up to 18 cents.

Vintage Mail Order Pattern 4209

Here’s what I learned about “this lady”:

  • She probably had a daughter or two. There are four 1950s girls patterns in the collection, and I am so keeping the below two for when Cartoonist Baby gets old enough. The first one, Mail Order 3863, is from 1954 or earlier–I was able to date it by the newspaper comic strip pages she used to trace the bolero pattern. I think the second, Mail Order 9276, could make a fun modern party dress, with that lovely notched neckline and sash.

    Vintage American Weekly Mail Order Pattern 3863 Girl's Dress

    Vintage Mail Order Printed Pattern 9276 Girl's Dress

  • She was probably on the shorter side. Many of the patterns in the lot are “half-size” patterns, meant for women 5’3″ and under. That said, none of the misses’ patterns seem to have been shortened for a smaller torso, so perhaps she either traced them, or never actually sewed them up. And I see no signs of any FBAs, but perhaps she was busty as well, as suggested by her note on the below Mail Order 1447 shirtwaist pattern from 1963: “cut shirt bigger.” LOVE the tab details on the shoulder yoke, but I’m too tall for this one.

    Vintage Mail Order Pattern 1447

  • She loved a trim button-front shirtwaist day dress, with pockets if possible. (Witness the Marian Martin 9096 at the top of this post). From her 50s and 60s orders, you’d almost think no other style of dress existed:

    Mail Order (Anne Adams) 4750, from 1958. Wouldn’t this be great made up in perpendicular stripes as illustrated?

    Vintage Anne Adams Printed Pattern 4750

    Mail Order 9213. Check out the gored skirt with partial yoke and those cute cuffs (collar optional):

    Vintage Mail Order Printed Pattern 9213 Dress

    Mail Order 4874, with its collar and pleats, is a more dressy variation on this theme–I imagine this in a polka-dot silk, especially with those gloves and bag. Though she could just as easily have done it in a cotton.

    Vintage Mail Order Printed Pattern 4874 Dress

    It wasn’t just her–the shirtwaist seems to be a staple of the mail-order pattern business, as evidenced by this pink tissue poster (enlarged version here) in one of the envelopes featuring “Pattern Hits of the Month–Voted Tops by Our Fashion Council for Style, Sewing Ease, Flattery.”

    Vintage Mail Order Printed Pattern 4540 Poster

  • …At least until the mid-1960s, when things got a little looser. Mrs. D had gone up a bit in bust size, and was trying out less fitted styles. Here’s 8349, from 1964:

    Vintage Mail Order Pattern 8349

    And 9066, from 1963. It’s not even belted!

    Vintage Mail Order Pattern 9066

    By the 70s and 80s, she was in bust sizes 40 or 42, and had gotten into relaxed jumpers (4785) and culottes (9069). I wonder if she made this tank in a polka dot and wore with sunglasses?

    Vintage Mail Order Pattern 9069

    It’s not 50s style, but it is belted and pocketed:

    Vintage Mail Order Pattern 4785

  • She made at least occasional forays into embroidery and crochet. Or not–the transfers on the three apron and embroidery patterns are unused, and I can’t tell if she ever made the very 70s owl crochet pattern:

    Vintage Mail Order Embroidery Transfer Pattern 7032

    Mail Order Crochet Pattern Design 595

    By 1983, she was quite relaxed!

    Vintage Mail Order 9459

Of course, there’s much more I don’t know about her, such as:

  • Did she also sew with envelope patterns? There was one mixed in–a 1950s Simplicity envelope pattern for a girls dress–but the pattern was so shredded that I could barely see the illustration. Perhaps she stored those separately.
  • Did she ever wear pants? Evening dresses? Blouses? Suits? Perhaps she bought those ready-to-wear, but her mail-order sewing preference seems to have been strongly in the day-dress camp.

So there you have it! A life in mail order patterns! I’ve made a Flickr gallery so you can see the whole collection and I’ve been entering all the patterns into the Vintage Pattern Wiki (here’s one, for example). I’m keeping all the non-half-size shirtwaists, but as soon as I set up an Etsy shop I’ll be selling all the larger sizes, half sizes, and styles that don’t quite suit me, like this “Patt-o-Rama 8356″ (too bulky in the bust area for me):

Vintage Mail Order "Patt-O-Rama" Pattern 8356.

Crossposted to my blog, of course!

• Meet the Author • m1khaela


Cartoonist, illustrator and graphic designer with delusions of making as many of my own clothes as possible and an obsession with bright colors, bold prints, retro and vintage styles and sewing projects far out of my skill set. I live in Brooklyn with my cartoonist husband Masheka and our sleep-averse toddler Ms. Z.


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15 comments… add one

  • Anything with the postmark Sec. 34.66, P. L. & R with a rate of 1c like your Marian Martin up there dates from between February 25, 1949 and July 1, 1952.

    I have a stash of mail order patterns myself and have been researching the postal laws and regulations (that's what P.L.&R stands for on the postmark) to be able to date them more accurately. I'll put a post up with some more detail soon : )

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  • Great post…thank you for sharing. I love old patterns!

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  • Thanks Katherine! I used this article for dating but it wasn't as specific as what you said–it just said early 1930s to early 1950s. So I look forward to your post! I'm just glad she had newspaper clippings in so many of the pattern envelopes, although I suppose they could have been from a few years after she actually bought the patterns.

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  • How interesting!

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  • How fascinating to have all of these from one owner and to think about the evolution of her style, size, and family circumstances throughout her sewing life. Thanks for sharing this!

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  • I've often wondered what the basis is for the claim that half-sizes are shorter… I always just read people stating it, or even stating it as something they've always heard.

    However, that's not my actual experience. The half-sizes I've sewn with are the same length as the non-half sizes, but have different proportions in the bust/waist/hip measurements that are suited to someone with a bigger hip. I love half-sizes because they actually fit me perfectly where the full size below would be too small in the waist and hip and the full size above would be too big in the waist and hip. The bust sizes of the half-size patterns are also odd measurements, rather than the standard even measurements.

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  • Caroline, I have no idea– haven't actually measured the ones I have, but have assumed they'd need some length alteration for me (I'm 5'6").

    I've just read that half-sizes are for women 5'3" and under with more curvy measurements in all my fitting and pattern books! And I've seen pattern reviews by petite women who say that half-size patterns are indeed shorter in the torso and in length.

    And yes, they are in odd-numbered bust sizes–the size 14 1/2 in my post is a 35-inch bust.

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  • That first half-size pattern- 1-447 in size 14.5, shirt waist dress with narrow skirt, and also the last pattern in the post, the one that you said would have too much bulk in the chest area for you. I don't suppose I could lay dibs on those here & now, as they're right up my alley, style-wise.

    -d

    Donna Jones, angldst on Sew Retro and elsewhere.

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  • What a sensational find!! I love mail order patterns and am green with envy! :)

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  • Ive never heard the half sizes were for petite women. All the half size patterns Ive had were just odd number measurements in bust size, for a more accurate fit for a gal that was between the even numbers.

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  • I just looked her up in the White Pages and although she did not come up as active (she may have passed) it did come up with two relatives John and Madeline. I looked up Madeline and it even had her phone number and address. Says she is 65+ but does not give an age. Maybe you could contact her and find out more about your "pattern friend". She still lives in O'Fallon.

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  • How wonderful!

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  • How awesome to get one person's collection all in one. I love vintage cookbooks for the same reason – reading the notes of a cook from bygone times is so magical. It's like stepping into another person's life. And it makes you wonder where that person is today. And they'd probably laugh and shake their head if they saw how excited you were getting about their "old junk". Thanks for sharing!

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  • Great find! I LOVE mail order patterns! They have such a fun, classic Americana feel to them. Thanks for sharing.

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  • What a great "history"! It's so interesting to see the evolution of fashion through one person's eyes. I must say, I'm more with her at the beginning of her stash than the end ;).

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