1920s | 1960s | Featured Members

Featured Member: Sarah of PatternVault

December 18, 2011
My mother’s Singer 411G. I learned to sew on this machine.

I don’t know about you guys, but I love finding out a little bit more about the people behind the patterns. In this second installment of our Featured Member series (see here for the first on BoPeep), we meet Sarah of PatternVault who caught my eye recently when she posted some amazing 1920s fashions….

So, Sarah, how long have you been sewing and why do you do it?

I’ve been sewing since I was a teenager. Not steadily, though. I brought my mother’s 1960s Singer with me when I moved to Toronto for school, but the tension is finicky and I seldom used it. I only got back to sewing a couple years ago when a friend of my wife’s was moving to B.C. and getting rid of her old machine.

My mother’s Singer 411G. I learned to sew on this machine.
My mother’s Singer 411G. I learned to sew on this machine.

When I was starting out, I sewed for the usual reasons: to have garments that were exactly what I wanted, with better quality fabrics, and that fit. Off-the-rack clothing, including vintage, seldom fits me because I’m not a standard size.

Since getting into vintage patterns and ephemera, I’ve found I also sew out of curiosity—as a kind of experiment, to see what something looks like made up. Halloween definitely provides a good excuse for more experimental sewing projects.

In the case of really early patterns: I have a doctorate in an unrelated subject, so I enjoy both the opportunity to research something fairly obscure and the practical, tactile, and finite nature of a sewing project.

Toronto strikes me as a pretty fun city to live in. What’s the vintage scene like there?

Toronto has a fantastic vintage scene. I don’t do a lot of vintage shopping, but when I do I tend to hit the more established stores like Cabaret on Queen West, or Exile and Courage My Love in Kensington Market.

For designer vintage there’s I Miss You on Ossington, which is owned by a friend from university. I’ve heard good things about Gadabout on Queen Street East, but haven’t had the chance to visit yet.

Newer stores can be found in Parkdale and the Junction, which also has interesting reclamation and vintage design shops like Smash and Metropolis Living.

In terms of events, I’m no expert, but the speakeasy-style bar Unit, just down the street from me, has a great vintage vibe; apparently it used to be a railroad workers’ saloon. And just visiting the Distillery District is like walking into a Victorian film set.

When my wife and I were in New York City recently, we saw two young men and a young woman in Greenwich Village dressed in full 1940s outfits—hair, makeup, everything. I don’t know whether this subculture has reached Toronto yet, but I hope it does soon!

P.S. The Telegraph recently ran a very positive story about vintage in Toronto

Anyone who has been to your blog can see you’re a huge fan of vintage fashion ephemera. What do you consider to be the highlights of your collection?

Yes, I have a real passion for vintage fashion ephemera. My collection focuses on a few different periods; the earlier ones are probably most interesting to readers of We Sew Retro. I love the fashions of the earlier 1930s, especially between 1932 and 1935.

Two McCall catalogues I have from this period, the Fashion Bi-Monthly for September-October 1932 and the Spring 1933 Fashion Book, are definite highlights of my collection.

McCall Fashion Bi-Monthly, September-October 1932
McCall Fashion Bi-Monthly, September-October 1932

The company had some really strong illustrators in the Thirties. It kind of blows my mind that, during this period, the average woman would have picked up one of these to plan her next pattern purchase.

McCall Fashion Book, Spring 1933
McCall Fashion Book, Spring 1933

These two mid-Thirties patterns for formal wear are my current favourites. The pleated cuffs on the evening gown are so crazy and wonderful, and I just love the beautiful draping on the dinner dress.

McCall 7714, a bias evening gown from 1934, and McCall 8524, a dinner dress from 1935
McCall 7714, a bias evening gown from 1934, and McCall 8524, a dinner dress from 1935

I’ve loved seeing the garments from the 1920s you’ve been making recently, especially because the 20s have never really appealed to me before. Tell us a little more about sewing with such old patterns…

Thanks, Katherine! I became interested in 1920s patterns when I found out that I McCall had Paris designer patterns back then, well before their ’50s designer line. I keep my eyes peeled for these McCall patterns, and yes, they can be hard to find!

1920s patterns
1920s patterns

Despite the fact that these McCall patterns are printed patterns, sewing with them does present some challenges. The markings are more minimal than on modern patterns.

Although the Printo Gravure instructions give a basic construction diagram and numbered steps, they omit everything not involving joining notches, so there can be a fair bit of guesswork in terms of when to do what; it also helps to know where you’ll need to add your own markings. I often consult sewing books to supplement the instructions.

Another difficulty is that the patterns don’t give any fabric recommendations. I don’t try to be absolutely accurate in re-creating Twenties fashions—I think it may be a while before I try any printed chiffons! But I’ve found studying contemporary illustrations can help give me an idea of the weight and type of fabric that would work for a particular design.

One lesson I’ve learned is that ornamentation can be more essential to earlier fashions. My instinct is to strip away old-fashioned details like rosettes or shirring, but after completing a garment where I’ve left off these details, I see how they could actually add to the design. And of course, the little surprises that come from puzzling out the patterns are teaching me a lot.

What’s your favourite outfit that you’ve made?

I’m still just starting out with vintage sewing. So far, my favourite outfit that I’ve made is Vogue 1556, an Yves Saint Laurent shift dress from 1966.

Yves Saint Laurent shift dress from 1966
Yves Saint Laurent shift dress from 1966

I made it up in black wool crepe with Bemberg underlining, with the contrast yoke and bands in black sequins. I found the sequin fabric on sale at Fabricland—the sequins are open, rounded squares, which seems very Sixties to me. The design’s proportions really are perfect. I love the bracelet-length sleeves and how well the dress moves.

Yves Saint Laurent shift dress
Yves Saint Laurent shift dress

Thanks for the invitation, Katherine! It was a great chance to reflect on collecting and vintage sewing.

I hope you enjoyed digging through Sarah’s head and pattern collection as much as I did. Let us know what you think of the feature in the comments below, and pop over to the PatternVault blog for more.
(As a sidenote, ‘Courage My Love’ might be the best name for any business I have ever heard. Roadtrip to Toronto, anyone?)


  1. Toronto is a beautiful, CLEAN city and it’s been too long since I vistied. I collect vintage sewing books and love “discovering” techniques which are no longer in use ( ie. faggoting, etc. ).
    Women used to dress to impress and the modern woman just dresses for comfort- isn’t there a happy medium?

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