A very brief history of Sewing Patterns

I say very brief because I focused much of my energy hunting down the extensive history of suits and tailoring. In the last week of the class was I fully able to research the history of pattern making, which was quite interesting. I didn’t actually think of how far along pattern making had been a practice in dress making in general. So this is what a brief history of pattern making looks like.

First of all, the main purpose of clothes was to cover the body, and fabrics were expensive to produce. Before the production of clothing became apparent, garments were draped over the body, tied or in the rectangular cut. The fit was a luxury for the wealthy as the concept of fashion progressed [1]. Form-fitting garments advanced in the 13th century, which expanded to dressmakers and tailors [2]. According to Dickson, Charles Daillac, a master tailor from France, “began making patterns out of thin pieces of wood”, in which tailors’ guild fought against in fear of revealing trade secrets [5]. Marcel Tassin, tailor to King Jean Le Bon, later made his patterns for the king’s clothing from cardboard, which was accepted by the tailoring guild eventually and by the end of the fourteenth century, dressmaker and tailors use patterns [5]. It was continued to be refined in the following centuries that patterns became so important that in England, tailors were including their patterns as inherited pieces in their wills [5].

In the mid-fourteenth century, guide books on construction and cutting were published by tailors [2] and the earliest surviving tailors pattern was found in Juan de Alcega’s Libro de Geometric Practica y Traca in 1580, the time when Spain dominated European fashion [1]. Emery continues, citing Kidwell, that “Garasault’s Descriptions des arts et mètiers (1769), and Diderot’s L’Encyclopédie Diderot et D’Alembert: arts de l’habillement (1776) played a crucial role during the Enlightenment to disseminate practical knowledge” [2] in “measurement, cutting, garment fit and construction” [1]. Home sewing manuals were also made available especially in the late 1700s providing full size patterns for practical clothing.

A modern reproduction of measuring tape before the invention of the version we know today. Photo from https://www.moodfabrics.com/blog/a-history-of-measuring/.

The development of various technologies allowed for the progression of pattern making. According to Emery [2], there were key technological advancements that developed the pattern industry. First, around the 1820s, the inch tape measure was invented and revolutionized the pattern making industry as it allowed tailors the ability to measure the proportions between body measurements and development of a drafting system [3]. Before the availability of tape measure, tailors and dressmakers had various and unreliable ways to measure the wearer’s body and the clothes. One is which, according to Paul White from the Mood website, uses a strip of paper notched at one end to indicate the beginning of the strip [3]. The paper will have non-standardized codes using cut and marks on the paper to indicate the half measures of the body (fig 1) [3].

Second, the invention of the sewing machine in the 1850s sped the production process. A machine designed with “a curved eye-pointed needle moved in an arc as it carried the thread through the fabric, on the other side of which is interlocked with a second thread carried by a shuttle running back and forth on a track” was a feature of the machines designed by both Walter Hunt and Elias Howe, with the former’s unpatented [4]. Howe’s machine was widely copied and manufactured, including a design by Isaac Merritt Singer, the largest sewing machine manufacturer [4].

Third, dress forms were developed and were made available to the average home sewers in 1860s. Finally, postal service were made available that allowed the manufacturing of patterns and be sold and sent to home dressmaker. In 1854, Godey’s sold full-scale patterns by Ellen and William Jennings Demorest and Frank Leslie’s Gazette of Fashion included foldout full-scale Demorest patterns obtained through mail order [2].

Graded patterns available for home sewing was made available by Ebenezer Butterick, a former tailor [2]. He began making patterns for children and menswear and later expanded to include women’s [2] . His familiarity with grading sizes allowed him to offer a range of sizes when most of his competition only offered one size garment [2]. James McCall competited in 1873 offering patterns with a range of sizes printed on paper [2].

The invention, development and refinement of computers introduced computer-aided designs and pattern making in fashion as well as other industries. This system of pattern making made manufacturing of garments faster and easier in a globalized society. The full history of computer-aided design and pattern making is written in the article Computer-aided design—garment designing and patternmaking by Yamini Jhanji found in https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780081012116000112. Unfortunately, I’ve tried the library online resource and its access to google scholar, it, sadly, has no access to this article. This is definitely one to read.

  1.  “The History of Pattern Making”, Alabama  Chanin Journal, accessed 9 June 2020, https://journal.alabamachanin.com/2016/05/history-of-patternmaking/
  2. Emery, Joy Spanabel, “Patterns and Pattern Making”, The Berg Companion to Fashion, accessed 9 June 2020, https://www-bloomsburyfashioncentral-com.ezproxy.massey.ac.nz/products/berg-fashion-library/encyclopedia/the-berg-companion-to-fashion/patterns-and-pattern-making.
  3.  White, Paul, “A History of Measuring”, Mood Sewciety, accessed on 9 June 2020, https://www.moodfabrics.com/blog/a-history-of-measuring/.
  4. “Sewing Machines”. Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed 9 June 2020, https://www.britannica.com/technology/sewing-machine
  5. Dickson, Carol Anne, “The Pattern Industry”, Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion (Berg Fashion Library, 2010), accessed 9 June 2020, https://www-bloomsburyfashioncentral-com.ezproxy.massey.ac.nz/products/berg-fashion-library/encyclopedia/berg-encyclopedia-of-world-dress-and-fashion-the-united-states-and-canada/the-pattern-industry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *