Anyone who has wrestled with the extra-pointy bust darts, tiny waist, and slim hips of a 1950s wiggle dress pattern can tell you that although sewing with vintage patterns can be rewarding, fit is often frustrating. In addition, many vintage patterns come in single sizes, which can make it difficult to find the right size of that pattern you simply must make. This poses a greater problem for plus-sized vintage-lovers—larger sizes in vintage patterns are in high demand, and therefore can fetch large sums on Etsy and eBay.
So what’s a vintage style sewist to do? Wait for retro re-releases? Hardly.
An attractive alternative is to go with your tried-and-true, standby dress pattern—whether vintage or new (and drafted for a modern figure, sans girdle and bullet bra)—and tweaking it to have a vintage flair. Adding the vintage details you love to patterns you are already comfortable with (either modern or vintage) can be a great way to inject some retro style into your wardrobe without sacrificing comfort or spending tedious hours muslining or grading patterns. And when you know the basic garment fits you well—it’s your tried and true, well-loved, desert island pattern, and you wouldn’t change a thing about it—this frees up the time (and motivation, let’s be honest!) to stretch yourself and experiment with the details.
There are a number of ways you can incorporate vintage details into your garments. Here are some tips for making the most of the patterns you already have, while creating a wardrobe that you absolutely love.
Browse for Inspiration
When I’m feeling uninspired, I turn to Etsy. I usually don’t spend much time looking at vintage clothing itself. I find that the pieces typically are wrinkled or don’t fit their mannequins. Instead, I love looking at the vintage pattern illustrations; as with modern pattern catalogues, sometimes you have to ignore the styling choices and just skip to the line drawings!
Don’t bother limiting your search by size—this is just eye candy. Poke around! Open a million tabs! In particular, look for the special details that set these patterns apart from your everyday basic silhouette. I save the patterns that catch my eye to my Pinterest: I have a board dedicated to saving sewing-specific inspiration (don’t we all?). Sometimes, this is all you need. Make note of the particular detail that you want to refer back to, like an interesting hemline or an unusual bow detail (I do love a bow). Next time you’re feeling bored, refer back to your pinned details and see if you don’t get inspired.
Do Some Research
More complicated details, however, might require some research. One bonus of browsing Etsy is that the listing remains, even if the pattern sells. This means no dead links—you can always refer back to the listing for more details.
Start with the Back
If the details that catch your eye are a bit more involved, take the pretty patterns you have picked out and flip them over. Inspiration is one thing, but the back of the envelope will provide the information you need to transform your vision into reality. Most Etsy sellers (even if they don’t sew and wouldn’t necessarily know how to read a pattern) provide photographs of the front and back of the pattern envelopes, and there is a wealth of information waiting to be decoded, if you know what to look for.
First, carefully read the pattern’s description. How is the garment described? Let’s look at Simplicity 7194 and 6970 as examples.
If you want to borrow that button-front detail, which technique would be easier to apply to your garment of choice? Probably the button-trimmed tab, don’t you think?
Keep in mind that the vocabulary used 50 years ago can differ from the vocabulary used today. For example, if you are interested in crop tops (perhaps to pair with high-waisted shorts for a fabulous matching set?), a quick search for “1960s crop top pattern” will pull up all sorts of items, but only some will be close to what you want. Most of what we would now call “crop tops” are called an “overblouse” in the pattern description—an overblouse was a top made to remain over, rather than tuck into, your skirt—so you might try “overblouse” to get more accurate results. Knowing how the pattern describes itself is useful because some sellers simply transcribe pattern descriptions into their listing.
Scrutinize those Pattern Pieces
Second, if possible, take a look at the pattern pieces. Many vintage patterns have diagrams of the pieces that are used for the different views, including facings or linings. If you have some experience in garment sewing, the pattern piece line drawings and the garment line drawings can provide everything you need to know about the construction of the garment. They don’t include this with modern patterns; I have no clue why, as it is extremely useful!
I’ve noticed that when I scroll through Etsy for inspiration, I am always tempted by big, voluminous skirts—I have a real weakness for those giant confections in the illustration. Often though, when I check the pattern pieces, I discover they are simple rectangles that are gathered or pleated. Do I need a pattern for that? No. I can use any fitted bodice that I want, and then add as big of a skirt as I please.
Returning to Simplicity 7194 and 6970 (photos above), you can see that the functioning placket closure (pattern piece B) is tricky. You could always draft your own placket if that is something you are comfortable with, but looking at the tab for 7194 (pattern piece C), it’s clear that it is a simple shape that can easily be drawn up and applied to any garment of your choosing.
Your comfort level determines the difficulty of the challenge you are willing to take on. When I wanted to make a tiki dress, I was able to draft a sarong skirt overlay (which I stuck onto a tried and true dress) by looking closely at several pattern diagrams, but it was a challenge.
Finally, by checking the back of the envelope, you can sometimes make a great discovery! I once spotted a vintage pattern description that read, “Tuck-in blouse with look of short, loose overblouse. Blouse below deep tuck is worn inside of skirt.” What?? A fake crop top? I had to make one. Unfortunately, the pattern was unavailable and I couldn’t find another version of this detail to purchase. But after looking at the pattern piece diagrams, I deduced that it was just a really long blouse, with no side seam shaping, and a deep tuck.
I used my go-to crop top pattern, and then made a few modifications to replicate this pattern.
So your Pinterest board is bursting with inspiration, you’ve got all the necessary information you need to turn inspiration into reality, and your stash patterns and fabric are at hand … now what?
Designing Your Garment
You have two choices: you can strive for authenticity by mimicking your inspiration garment as closely as possible, or you can mix and match.
You may want to recreate the vintage garment by using your tried-and-true pattern(s) as a sloper of sorts, no fitting required. If your inspiration garment is a shift dress with an interesting keyhole on the neckline, for example, you could dig out your Laurel or that ‘60s shift pattern you have made 100 times. You can also stay true to your inspiration but make a slight tweak to make it more you. For example, I have learned that a straight shift is not my favorite shape to wear and that I feel more confident in A-line dresses, so if I love the details on a ‘60s shift, I’ll ask myself if I would I be better off making the shift dress or transposing those details onto my tried-and-true A-line? Can I maintain the integrity of the design while creating a more wearable garment?
Going through door number two means borrowing just the detail that caught your eye and then applying it to whatever you like. That same bias bound keyhole neck would look great on a peplum top, don’t you think? Keep the proportions of your inspiration garment in mind as you play with transposing the details onto your tried-and-true pattern, so that things don’t get unexpectedly wacky. You may find a fashion sketchbook useful.
Now comes the fun part. Break out your basic pattern, and then refer to your Pinterest boards and your Etsy listings. Drawing inspiration from vintage patterns could be as simple as adding a strip of lace down the front of your dress. Maybe you want to use rick rack trim on the hem of a full skirt. Or you could draft yourself a sweet peter pan collar for your favorite top (add a teensy bow, for me). Add a false placket to your favorite shift dress, and definitely use those vintage buttons. Slash boldly into the neckline and create a keyhole closure.
Use the time you would have spent wrestling with fitting a new pattern to instead try a new detail. Remember, because you aren’t dealing with fit issues and muslin woes, you can expend all your energy on pattern hacking. We all have a limited supply of time (and patience!)—why not increase the effort–satisfaction ratio of your project? This way you can cut confidently, knowing your garment will have a unique vintage look—and fit. Happy sewing!
All pattern photos are from the author’s collection, because sometimes you just want to buy a pattern, whether you need it or not.