Vintage Sewing

Caring for vintage patterns

November 10, 2011

Through the inspiration of this blog, I too, have entered the past and started collecting vintage patterns. I have made one dress. It’s beautiful but doesn’t look right on me. Oh well, on to the next pattern.

My question is…what’s the best way to care for these vintage patterns? Are you using the original pattern or tracing it to preserve the paper?

A big thank you to the past operators of this blog. Job well done! And to the new operators, thank you for taking it over. I love both the old and the new blog. Old and new is what it’s all about.


  1. I always trace! I like to pin my pattern, make marks on them, cut into them for alterations etc. I’d feel like I was violating a treasure if I did that to an original pattern, no matter if it was old or new.
    Old patterns should be protected for the future, who am I to decide I am the end of the line for a 60 year old pattern? New patterns comes in multi-size and if I cut them to my size I won’t be able to fix it if I cut the wrong size. Or use it later if I gain weight. Or use it for a friend who’s not exactly my size.

    Sorry, long and rambling… This is a subject that’s very close to my heart, can you tell? =)

  2. I am not super careful with preserving my vintage patterns. I do trace them all and use the tracings to do my actual sewing from. But, I never cut patterns, not even modern ones – for one thing, it means not being able to make a larger or smaller size later and any changes or wear and tear doesn’t hinder me from making the “original” again.

    I then keep my vintage patterns in a large ring-binder. The original pattern and envelope is generally already in plastic, and then I put that into a plastic pocket with the traced pieces.

  3. Most of my vintage patterns come to me well-used – some with straight pin in the pieces holding together the altered tissue paper. It’s almost always necessary to carefully trace a new pattern from the delicate tissue paper but because they are in my mental category of meant-to-be-used, if there is a pattern piece that has never been cut out before (the original owner didn’t use it for some reason) I have no problem cutting out the piece from the tissue, and, if it’s in good enough condition, using it.

    However, realizing this will probably only last me another decade or so I’m hoping to scan in all of my pattern envelopes and digitize the patterns so I can keep them safer and not handle them as much.

  4. I’ve started tracing (most of my patterns are 1930’s and 1940’s–very difficult to replace).

    I work in an historical archive (office assistant, not archivist) and my boss would say the following about paper and fabric in general:

    1) Never do anything you can’t undo. No glue, tape, or ink. Glue and tape are incredibly destructive over the long term. Trace torn pieces and used the copies, but don’t try to repair the originals.
    2) Newsprint and other cheap papers, and wood, are highly acidic and will hasten degradation of even good-quality paper. If you want to keep a newspaper clipping in with other paper (say, an ad for your pattern clipped from an old newspaper), isolate it in an envelope or folded piece of acid-free paper. Don’t store things in wooden boxes or wrapped in newsprint.
    3) No fasteners: Pins, staples, paperclips, etc., can rust, and rubber bands will rot and stick to paper and fabric. Don’t keep them with your patterns.
    4) No baggies. Unless the plastic is intended for long-term storage, common plastic bags a) will deteriorate over time and b) can create bug-friendly environments.
    5) Avoid attics and basements. This somewhat depends on your climate, but you want to avoid dampness and temperature extremes. Items are also more at risk of damage by flooding and roof leaks, and more likely to get infested with bugs. Keep them in a [relatively] temperature-controlled room in the residential part of the house.
    6) Quarantine new materials coming from questionable circumstances. You don’t want them to infect your other things with bugs or mildew.
    7) Monitor. Check periodically for bugs and mildew.

  5. apparently i’m the bad one! i don’t trace my patterns at all.
    instead i iron them flat ( i iron EVERYTHING when i sew!) and then i use pattern weights to keep the pieces in place and cut them out with a rotary cutter so there are no pin holes or tears from moving it around. when i am marking darts and such, i stick straight pins in to mark where i would be tracing, and then lift the pattern and join the pins together to make the darts!
    when i am done i fold them back up, iron them flat so they fit in the envelope and store them in plastic bins so there is no moisture, critters or clutter around them!

  6. I agree with all of LBC’s suggestions especially the first about glue and tape. Once you put something like that on the pattern it is impossible to iron out flat again. I am totally neurotic and always trace out my patterns before I use them. I iron them out, trace all the pieces onto tracing paper, if I need to alter it then I use the Slash and Spread method, then I retrace that and then I make a muslin! If I like the fit and am ready to commit to the alterations then I trace it out, ONE MORE TIME, onto Swedish Interfacing. I find it easier to work with the Swedish Interfacing and it stores much better than the tracing paper that gets all distorted if you try and iron it out to us again. I keep all my patterns in a box as well. I am considering getting a package of those plastic storage sleeves since some of the envelopes have seen better days. Enjoy your vintage patterns they are a terrible addiction.

  7. I am obviously a rebel here, because I treat my vintage patterns like they are regular patterns. I alter the pattern pieces, I write on them, I use pins, I remove factory folded uncut patterns from their envelopes and cut them out! And I never trace, EVER, because when I have a project in mind I just want to DO it and not mess around with a bunch of intermediary steps.

    The way I see it, sewing patterns are utilitarian items and not museum pieces. Granted, I’ve never paid more than $18 for a pattern. I’d probably feel different if I had a $200 Vogue Couturier!

  8. I land somewhere in the middle. I trace a lot, because I am learning to fit and obviously wouldn’t want to make the wrong change to a tissue pattern piece. Plus, I have a few that are harder to come by, and I do like the idea of keeping them around for the next generation. It stinks opening a vintage pattern to find that it has been altered and put back together with tape that is now yellow and brittle.

    I do use, pin, trace, cut and tape brand new patterns. And, I will use a pattern without tracing if it has already been cut and has no real markings- for instance a lot of my kid patterns have already been cut and used, and they often just have grain lines and notches. I keep my best and oldest in acid free sleeves in a binder, and the rest are in boxes in my sewing cabinet.

  9. I trace everything now, mostly because I’m a student and can’t really afford to go and buy the pattern again if I ruin it by cutting the wrong size etc. It doesn’t help either that I got the hard word from my mother about cutting. A big no no! from her.
    Its time consuming and annoying to find nice paper to trace to but worth it.
    I cut the pattern for some harem pants from Burda about a fortnight ago. I still feel guilty…

  10. If I have to make a lot of alterations, or if the pattern is so delicate it’s literally falling apart I will trace it. I honestly do this more for myself than anything else. There have been so many times where I’ve gone to use a pattern, and I’ve altered something about it so long ago that I can’t remember why, that I just want to go back in time and kick myself. So I’m basically tracing it off so future me will still have the original to work with plus the copy with the alterations that I made.
    I highly recommend buying exam table paper. This stuff is the BEST for tracing patterns – it’s a little heavier weight than the pattern tissue paper, so it holds up better, but not so thick that you can’t get pins through it. It has to be bought by the case, but I go through it so quick that it isn’t a big deal to have all those extra rolls on hand.

  11. I’m relatively new to collecting vintage patterns, but not new to collecting paper ephemera (I have a substantial collection of geisha/kimono postcards from 1900-1930) – so the first thing I did was obtain archival quality comic book supplies, like Lauren mentioned. I really love this method of storage.

    As for using vintage patterns, anything pre-50’s, I trace out and use the copy. From the 50’s onwards, as strange as it is to say, it depends on my gut instinct with the pattern and whether I need to make alterations. Anything still factory folded and uncut, and rare-ish, I would trace, but then something that I’ve seen many copies of and my copy is already cut and I’m going to use without alterations, I would use the original.

  12. Thanks so much for sharing this, and all the tips!

    So far the patterns I have used have all been loved and cut by someone else, and I have a couple which are missing pieces.. I have some others that I plan to make up and I think I will do as suggested and trace the pattern to preserve the original.

    Great idea to preserve these beautiful artifacts, but I’m also torn between loving and using them!

    So glad to hear from the pros 🙂

  13. Thanks for all your wonderful input. I did trace the first pattern I used. My pattern had not been used. However I was disappointed I couldn’t fold it back the right way.It wasn’t one big piece, but already in individual pieces. You guys are great! Keep up the inspirational motivation!

  14. Well after learning to sew ‘proper’ I now never cut patterns, I trace them onto paper to create a ‘Plan of action’ where alterations and adjustments are made, never cut this up either. Then I trace off the new pattern from the POA. This is used to make a toile and then is put onto cardboard to become a permanent pattern (unless there are more changes, which are done onto the POA). Its a lot of work but I reckon worth it.

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