The first commercially produced sewing patterns were designed in the mid-1800s by an American milliner named Ellen Curtis Demorest. With her husband, William Jenning Demorest, she founded a company to bring au courant French fashions to the United States via sewing. To market these latest European styles and her patterns of them, the couple launched a magazine called “Madame Demorest’s Mirror of Fashion” in 1860.
But American tailor Ebenezer Butterick was the first to produce sewing patterns—which were pre-cut and marked with notches and perforations—out of tissue paper. His first patterns for men’s and boys’ clothing came out in 1863, and they were the first patterns to be offered in various sizes, what are known as “graded patterns.” An early hit for E. Butterick & Co. was the Garibaldi Suit for men. In 1866, Butterick finally produced its first dress pattern for women.
Before the invention of patterns, most women could only afford to take apart old, worn-out garments and reconstruct them out of newer fabric. Only affluent, high-society ladies had the money to wear the newest styles coming out of Paris and New York made for them by high-end designers and tailors. Butterick’s graded tissue paper patterns had a wide-reaching impact, offering access to high fashion to almost anyone who could sew, in the United States and various countries around the globe.
By 1903, Butterick was one of the largest manufacturers in the world. After Butterick started, three other major pattern brands emerged: McCall’s, Vogue, and Simplicity. These four brands are still available today, while names like Advance, Hollywood, Style, Anne Adams, Burda, Hawaiian, DuBarry, Modes Royale, American Designers, Spadea, New York, Marian Martin, Woman’s Day, and Superior have come and gone. Many of these were among the myriad pattern brands offered via mail order during the 20th century.
Butterick, too, pushed its mail-order patterns through fashion magazines, the first being the “Ladies Quarterly of Broadway Fashions” in 1867, and the monthly publication, “Metropolitan” in 1868. Then, in 1873, Butterick launched a magazine called “The Delineator,” which was first simply a vehicle to sell patterns, but quickly became one of the most popular general-interest women’s magazines in the country.
Scottish immigrant James McCall, a tailor, began publishing his own patterns branded as Pictorial Review in 1870, and he also created a four-page magazine to market them named “The Queen: Illustrating McCall’s Bazaar Glove-Fitting Patterns.” McCall passed away in 1884, and his wife hired a new editor of “The Queen,” who expanded the magazine to 12 pages, selling patterns and offering homemaking advice.
In 1893, the McCall Company was taken over by James Henry Ottley, who increased the page count again, this time to include articles on international travel, beauty tips, health a...
“Vogue” weekly society pages were launched by Arthur Tumure in the United States in 1892, and in 1899, a clothing-pattern maker named Rosa Payne pitched editor Josephine Redding with her vision of a feature on sewing patterns. Every week, “Vogue” published a spotlight on one pattern, available for 50 cents via mail order. Early patterns included a petticoat, a golf skirt, and Louis XV jacket, although they were only available in size 36. Payne cut the first Vogue patterns herself, at her dining-room table.
This was a controversial move, given “Vogue’s” editorial mission, which was to appeal to moneyed, high-society women on the East Coast, who bought handmade haute couture fashion on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Offering patterns to women who could not afford to simply buy these clothes seemed a little too inclusive to many staff members, and early pattern pages were qualified with this statement, “Vogue does not publish patterns as a rule. The exception is one pattern a week.”
Other magazines like “Ladies’ Home Journal” and “Woman’s Home Companion” were not so squeamish about publishing patterns for plebes. One early believer in the pattern business was “Collier’s” business manager Condé Montrose Nast, who left the magazine in the 1900s to become vice president of Home Pattern Company, which made the patterns for “Ladies Home Journal."
As “Vogue” shifted its focus from the social scene to high fashion, Nast succeeded in purchasing the magazine in 1909, and expanded the pattern business to a wider range of sizes and style. In 1914, he established a separate business, Vogue Pattern Company, and in 1917, Vogue was the first company to offer its patterns in department stores. Around the same time, Vogue pattern showrooms opened in top U.S. cities.
Then in the 1920s, Vogue came out with large-format envelopes, and stopped publishing pattern features in its magazine. Instead, a catalog called the “Vogue Pattern Book,” highlighting more than 350 patterns, was issued six times a year. A British version of this pattern book led to Vogue Pattern Company expanding to London and Australia.
The 1920s also saw the introduction of uncut printed patterns, although those didn’t take off until after World War II. That same decade, Butterick started to include much larger and clearer instruction sheets in patterns, called “Deltors,” a shortened version of “Delineator.” Butterick did not adopt the printed pattern until 1948, when the company purchased new high-tech printers that could transfer markings to the tissue. Four-color printing presses also allowed the company to print color illustrations on its pattern envelopes, and color images were added to its monthly pattern books, also known as counter catalogs or counter books.
Simplicity Pattern Company started in 1927, because founder James Shapiro wanted to make everyday American fashion patterns that were more affordable (15 cents instead of 35 cents to $2). This was the first U.S. pattern company ever established without direct association with a magazine. True to its name, Simplicity hoped to make sewing less complicated, with easy-to-follow instructions for its patterns. In fact, the 1940s, Simplicity went on an educational campaign, with traveling sewing tutorials and fashion shows that toured the country.
During the 1920s and 1930s, McCall Company changed its pattern brand from Pictorial Review to McCall, and began to produce patterns inspired by the works of Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Mainbocher, and Jean Patou. Vogue, too, produced a Couturier Line starting in 1930s, but the first patterns for both companies were not exact copies of what was seen on the runway. Even Simplicity issued a “couture” line in the '30s called Customode, and one in the '40s called Simplicity Designer.
Starting in the 1930s, patterns designed to emulate the couture looks of glamorous movie stars were also popular, and in the ’30s and ’40s, Hollywood brand patterns, loosely based on looks from the movies or the red carpet, even featured celebrities on the envelope. (Hollywood patterns are now highly coveted by collectors.)
Finally, in 1949, Vogue got the lock on trademarked designs by many major French haute-couture houses, which the company offered as Paris Original Patterns. This was the first time women could purchase the exact pattern of runway designs by Pierre Balmain, Schiaparelli, Lanvin, and Jacques Fath.
In 1956, this concept expanded to the International Designer Pattern featuring Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, and Emilio Pucci. By 1953, Vogue was also offering hat patterns by Patou, John Fredericks, and Sally Victor. After Butterick purchased the Vogue brand in 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy made American designers cool. The Vogue Americana line offered original patterns by designers like Oscar de la Renta, Teal Traina, Geoffrey Beene, Chester Weinberg, and Bill Blass starting in 1967. Then in the 1980s, the Vogue Individualist designer line, including the likes of Issey Miyake, Isaac Mizrahi, and Claude Montana. This was followed by Vogue Attitudes in the 1990s, with looks from Anna Sui, Byron Lars, and Isabel Toledo.
In 1951, McCall patterns were re-labeled McCall’s. That decade, McCall’s revived its designer line, too, which included a piece Hubert de Givenchy created for Audrey Hepburn and a work by Emilio Pucci, while a 1960s McCall’s line called New York Designers’ Collection Plus offered patterns by Geoffrey Beene, Pauline Trigère, and Claire McCardell. The mail-order company American Designers (sometimes called Prominent Designers) featured pieces by Oleg Cassini, Ceil Chapman, Don Loper, Estevez, David Crystal, and Mr. Blackwell; another mail-order company, Spadea, had names like Ceil Chapman, Irene Gilbert, Jo Copeland, Suzy Perette, and Lachasse of London.
While Butterick didn’t have the same designer cache after War World II, it still had popular patterns, particularly because those designer pieces from Vogue and McCall's were so difficult to make. When its No. 6015 was introduced in the 1950s, the easy-to-make and flattering wrap dress became the biggest pattern sensation since the Garibaldi Suit of the 1860s. It was nicknamed the “walk-away” because its instructions were said to be so simple you could “start it after breakfast (and) walk-away in it for luncheon.” Butterick’s Young Designer line from the 1960s and '70s featured designs by Betsey Johnson and Jean Muir.
The Vogue pattern license and trademark, as well as the company’s pattern division, were sold to Butterick in 1961, and the company continued to publish patterns with Vogue labels including Vogue Paris Original, Vogue Couturier Design, Vogue Special Design, Vogue Young Fashionables, Miss Vogue, Junior Vogue, and Little Vogue. To maintain two distinct brands, Butterick maintained separate creative staffs and merchandisers for each.
Finally in 2001, the McCall Pattern Company took over both the Butterick and Vogue pattern brands, which it continues to make today. The Simplicity brand is also alive and well.
Today, the most collectible patterns are from the first pattern maker, Mme. Demorest, who sold her business in 1887. Collectors also love Hollywood patterns of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, as well as '60s cocktail-party patterns by Modes Royal. When it comes to mail-order companies, look for names like Anne Adams, Laura Wheeler, Alice Brooks, and Marian Martin, which often sold patterns through newspaper ads in the 1940s.
The Advance pattern company operated between the 1940s and mid-1960s, and its patterns were sold exclusively through JC Penney’s. This was the first company to offer licensed patterns for Barbie Doll clothes. The trend toward “Easy to Sew” patterns started in the 1950s, and patterns with tissue paper marked to be cut in various sizes were first offered in the 1970s.
McCall’s is the only pattern company to consistently date its patterns, so dating pattern by other companies can be difficult. Some are marked with copyright dates for a method of construction but not the style. Pattern books can help immensely with dating. And the design itself, as well as the hairstyles and accessories depicted on the envelope, offers clues.
When it comes to condition, the most desirable patterns are uncut, with their “factory folds.” But if you’re buying a pattern to sew with it, a used pattern can be employed. Just be sure it has all the correct pieces, and the material recommendations on the envelope’s back are legible. Sewers should be wary of alterations made to a pattern, as well as those cut with pinking shears. Finally, don’t forget that sizes got slightly larger between 1968 and 1970, so an older garment might end up smaller than you expect.