Vintage Sewing

workshop tips!

January 18, 2012

hey everybody! i am teaching a quick little workshop on saturday on ‘how to use a vintage sewing pattern’ to what i am assuming are people with little to no sewing experience…. i have my whole little lecture laid out with a lot of little tips and tricks…. but i was thinking that maybe some of you might be interested in sharing some of your favorite helpful tips and secrets when it comes to using old patterns!

i’ve got a few things in there on storing patterns, cutting them out, reading marks on unprinted patterns, altering the bizarro b-w-h proportions from the 1950s to 2011 sizing and so on…. so any other good hints would be appreciated 🙂 thanks folks!


  1. Frankly, I use old patterns way more than new ones: I actually find the markings on new patterns distracting and confusing.

    I think all of mine are obvious:
    1) Read all the directions before you begin. Pay attention to seam allowance (ignoring seam allowance tanked my first-ever garment project), order of assembly, recommended methods of finishing, etc.
    2) Vintage pattern directions are sometimes a little vague. Figure out ahead of time if there is something that isn’t clear to you so you don’t get too far down a wrong path before you realize you need help. Test unfamiliar methods on scrap if you need to.
    3) Don’t get impatient! Sometimes–very often, really–you have to spend more time now in order to save more time later. Have the self-discipline to measure, hand-baste (take it from the Rick-Rack Queen: Sometimes pins just don’t cut it), etc. when you need to so that you’ll get a better outcome with fewer mistakes and re-tries than you would if you tried to wing it.
    4) Ask for help! Anywhere you can get it. Don’t be self-conscious about lack of experience: The rest of us all started out knowing nothing and worked our way up, and we’re glad to help out.

    1. I second the suggestion to show how to alter a pattern so that it will fit without shoulder pads. (And then come and tell us how to do it. I have a couple of nice patterns from the ’40s which I’d like to sew, but I don’t know how to adjust them in order to omit the shoulder pads.)


  2. Unfortunately I’ve never sewn from a vintage pattern (yet) but your little workshop sounds really neat! I’d love to be able to attend something like that.

  3. Flatten/iron the folded pattern first before copying it. I have found this is very helpful – I do it with a lightly warm iron with another piece of paper over it (no steam!). This may seem like a ridiculous extra step but it’s easier to copy if the pattern is very flat, and the result more accurate. Even if you are cutting a more modern pattern it’s easier and neater when cutting fabric to have a super flat pattern. If the pattern has already been cut out used pattern weights instead of pins (this may be another really obvious tip) to preserve the pattern. I think someone here posted a really good project to make your own pattern weights using heavy washers. I wish I could take your workshop too!

  4. I would say one of the biggest tips that has helped me is take your measurements and compare them to the paper pattern measurements, not the measurements on the pattern back. Learning how to measure the bust, hips, waist, etc. of the paper pattern minus the seam allowance, darts or other design features is important. Some of these patterns have a lot of wearing ease, and some have less- not to mention, styles have changed a lot, and the amount of ease most people want in the modern day is far less than people would have expected in the past for many garments.

  5. Katherine, you can say that again. Reading these tips is so helpful! I am new to the art form of sewing/vintage patterns and this site is just tops for inspiration and advice! Y’all rule.

  6. How to take out the extra room for shoulder pads… although if anyone has figured this out I would love to know. I hate shoulder pads and will never use them ever in anything. I butchered my last attempt at dropping the shoulder. It was probably the wrong pattern for it. The shoulder seam was tied into the back neck finishing (weird and stupid 1940s nonsense). I’m not bitter about it…. I promise.

  7. What a great idea. I actually have degree in fashion design but i have only ever made patterns i have never sewn with a commercial pattern, frankly they kind of scare me. I would love to try sewing a vintage pattern but i wouldnt know what i was doing, i hate altering things and i just figure it will be a big mess. Am i crazy to want to use a vintage pattern when i can just draft my own? More to the point i would definetly come to this workshop were it geographically possible despite not being a novice sewer. Is any part of it going to be on the internets? Thanks and good luck!

  8. Always Alice:

    You need to alter for sloping shoulders (increase the slope from neck to point of shoulder) to remove the extra room allowed for the pads. You may also need to narrow the shoulders slightly (shorter distance from neck to point of shoulder), depending on the cut of the dress.

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