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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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?
Mail Order 9213. Check out the gored skirt with partial yoke and those cute cuffs (collar optional):
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.
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.”
- …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:
And 9066, from 1963. It’s not even belted!
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?
It’s not 50s style, but it is belted and pocketed:
- 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:
By 1983, she was quite relaxed!
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):
Crossposted to my blog, of course!