Patterns for the Great War

Red Cross worker on the cover of Pictorial Review magazine, July 1917
Red Cross worker on the cover of Pictorial Review magazine, July 1917. Image: eBay.

This year marks the centennial of the beginning of World War 1. In honour of Armistice Day, this post looks at commercial sewing patterns associated with the First World War.

Porter Woodruff illustration on the cover of British Vogue, May 1918
British Vogue, May 1918. Illustration: Porter Woodruff. Image: Vogue UK.

This illustration from the July 1917 issue of McCall’s magazine shows McCall patterns suitable for war work: a nurse’s uniform, apron, and cap, and outdoor workwear including women’s overalls (patent pending):

nurses’ uniform 7845, apron and cap 7847, overall suit 7860, sun hat 7850, waist 7073, skirt 7011 - McCall's magazine, July 1917
“Responding to the Country’s Call.” McCall’s magazine, July 1917. Image: eBay.

Official Red Cross patterns exemplify the volunteer production of clothing and medical supplies that formed part of the war effort. American Red Cross patterns were published by multiple American pattern companies, while in the U.K., British Red Cross sewing and knitting instructions were available in several books by Emily Peek.* In Canada, volunteers sewing for the Canadian Red Cross may have used both British and American resources.

Practical instruction in cutting out and making up hospital garments for sick and wounded (approved by the Red Cross Society)
Working Uniform (B.R.C.S.) in Emily Peek, Practical Instruction in Cutting Out and Making Up Hospital Garments for Sick and Wounded (1914) Image: University of Southampton.
"Sewing for solidarity" - Women sew for the war effort in the old University of Toronto library, Canada
Women sew for the war effort in the old University of Toronto library. Image: U of T Magazine.

The McCall Fashions for February 1918 gives a list of American Red Cross patterns for garments to be used in hospitals and refugee camps; the cover illustration shows three women dressed “For the visit to the camp”:

WW1 McCall Fashions (Style News) for February 1918
“For the Visit to the Camp.” McCall Fashions, February 1918. Image: eBay.

The inside front cover lists two types of official American Red Cross pattern: “for the relief of refugees and repatriates in the war-stricken countries, particularly in France and Belgium” and for hospital garments. The illustrations show an infant’s layette, unisex children’s cape, reversible bed jacket, and trench foot slipper (click to enlarge):

Red Cross patterns and hospital garments in WW1 McCall Fashions (Style News) for February 1918
New Official American Red Cross patterns. McCall Fashions, February 1918. Image: eBay.

Update: Weldons, the British pattern company, had similar patterns “for our troops”:

Embed from Getty Images

A news article from June, 1918 discusses the most needed hospital garments and supplies corrections for two refugee garment patterns. It seems the “helpless case shirt” (for patients with arm injuries) was available in two versions:

What the Red Cross Is Doing and What You Can Do - Drumright Evening Derrick, 17 Jun 1918
Drumright Evening Derrick, June 17, 1918. Image: Oklahoma Historical Society.

(Full archived version here.)

Andrea of Unsung Sewing Patterns has a copy of the “helpless case shirt,” Red Cross 35—more sensitively called a taped hospital bed shirt:

WW1 McCall Red Cross taped hospital bed shirt pattern - Red Cross 35
McCall Red Cross 35 (ca. 1917) Image: Unsung Sewing Patterns.

(See Unsung Sewing Patterns for more Red Cross refugee patterns.)

A 1917 article in McCall’s magazine describes the Red Cross relief effort and seven new patterns for hospital work. It presents sewing as an alternative to nursing, for which fewer women were qualified, arguing that “[s]ewing may not seem to many as romantic as nursing the wounded upon the battlefield, but without it the nursing might be useless.” Interestingly, official American Red Cross patterns were at first distributed through the organization’s national headquarters, but later became available directly to the public (click to enlarge):

"How to Help the Red Cross--Now! Army and navy look to the women of the country to provide for the comfort of the wounded and convalescent" McCall's July 1917 Red Cross patterns
“How to Help the Red Cross–Now!” McCall’s magazine, July 1917.

On the right, readers found descriptions of the new patterns, accompanied by photographs showing Red Cross officials Jane A. Delano and Clara D. Noyes, and women in a Red Cross chapter at work:

"Throughout the country, in Red Cross chapter, in club, church guild, and small home, women are doing their 'bit' for the soldiers." McCall's Jul 1917 photograph
“Throughout the country, in Red Cross chapter, in club, church guild, and small home, women are doing their ‘bit’ for the soldiers.” McCall’s magazine, July 1917.

The illustrations of the new patterns seek to include the Red Cross sewing effort in the romance of nursing. Here a nurse serves a meal to a patient who is wearing McCall Special C, a hospital bed shirt:

Red Cross hospital bed shirt pattern ilustrated: McCall Special C (1917)
McCall Special C (1917) Red Cross hospital bed shirt.

McCall Special P is a pair of pajamas:

Red Cross pajamas pattern illustrated: McCall Special P (1917)
McCall Special P (1917) Red Cross pajamas.

To be made from one or two blankets, McCall Special O is a bathrobe or convalescent gown:

Red Cross bathrobe or convalescent gown illustrated: McCall Special O (1917)
McCall Special O (1917) Red Cross bathrobe or convalescent gown.

McCall Special R is a Red Cross Surgeon’s and Nurse’s operating gown—a unisex medical uniform available in two sizes:

Red Cross operating gown pattern illustration: McCall Special R (1917)
McCall Special R (1917) Red Cross operating gown.

The illustration of the Red Cross nurse also shows the McCall Special S operating helmet:

Red Cross operating gown and operating helmet pattern illustrated: McCall Special R helmet (1917)
McCall Special R and S (1917) Red Cross operating gown and operating helmet.

The Commercial Pattern Archive has both sizes of McCall Special R its collection. The larger is reproduced in Joy Emery’s new book:

1910s WW1 Red Cross pattern - McCall Special R
McCall Special R (ca. 1917). Red Cross Surgeon’s and Nurse’s operating gown. Image: Emery, A History of the Paper Pattern Industry.

Do you have any World War I patterns in your collection?

* Seligman, Cutting for All! (Southern Illinois UP, 1996), pp. 123-24, cited in Emery, A History of the Paper Pattern Industry (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 91. A digitized version of Emily Peek, Practical Instruction in Cutting Out and Making Up Hospital Garments for Sick and Wounded: Approved by the Red Cross Society (British Red Cross Society, 1914), is available through the University of Southampton.

9 thoughts on “Patterns for the Great War

  1. I’m a little late to this post, but it’s an interesting one. I don’t think I’ve seen one in this topic before. Thank you. I’m currently watching Morocco: Love in the Time of War, set in Madrid and Morocco in 1921 and I see some similarities.

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