The new book by the curator of the Commercial Pattern Archive is the first comprehensive study of the sewing pattern industry. Published through Bloomsbury’s academic imprint, Joy Spanabel Emery’s A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution traces the history of commercial patterns from their beginnings in early modern tailors’ drafting systems to the 21st century.
Emery is Professor Emerita of Theater at the University of Rhode Island, where she also taught in the fashion department. In addition to her articles on commercial sewing patterns, she is the author of Stage Costume Techniques (Prentice-Hall, 1981).
The materials found in the University of Rhode Island’s Commercial Pattern Archive (CoPA) and the personal archive of CoPA founder Betty Williams are the main sources for the book, which focuses on the pattern industry and its role in the production of everyday clothing. Emery presents her research in short, textbook-style chapters, ending each chapter with a brief summary. In the back, readers will find an index, endnotes for each chapter, and a detailed bibliography with sections for primary sources, secondary sources, and archival collections.
As a special inducement to those who sew, the book also includes an appendix with nine patterns, each laid out on a grid by Susan Hannel, the chair of the University of Rhode Island’s fashion department. The gridded patterns range from an 1850s Demorest basque [bodice], originally published as a pattern sheet supplement in a ladies’ fashion gazette, to a 1960s men’s Nehru jacket from Spadea.
Emery’s book takes a more conservative approach to the material culture of sewing patterns, aiming to lay the groundwork for further study by focusing on the historical timeline of commercial production and technical development. Each chapter traces the industry’s new technologies and companies, mergers and closures as the pattern business landscape shifted from early diversity to today’s conglomerates.
CoPA’s holdings are so extensive that they show not only the industry’s response to dramatic developments in fashion, like the New Look or youthquake, but also to historical events like the First and Second World Wars. A 1918 issue of Butterick’s magazine, The Delineator, shows two women in naval uniform (Butterick pattern no. 1101), while a 1943 McCall’s pattern for Victory aprons is printed with patriotic verse:
(For more on Butterick 1101 see Michelle Lee’s blog post.)
Industry players competed to improve the sewing customer’s experience. We have McCall’s to thank for the printed pattern. Other pattern companies couldn’t duplicate the technique until McCall’s patent expired—although Pictorial Review found a creative workaround with patterns that were both printed and perforated.
It was during the economic boom of the 1920s that the industry produced the first fully conceived designer patterns. As Betty Williams found in her research, McCall’s interwar couture patterns were based on garments purchased from Parisian couture houses for copying purposes. When Williams shared an early McCall Patou pattern with staff at the house of Patou, they agreed that the design looked like the couturier’s work, but were unable to find documentation of a McCall-Patou relationship (Williams 1995).* Intriguingly, Emery mentions a business agreement model along the lines of today’s licensing, but does not go into further detail.
Infelicities of layout and organization occasionally disrupt the flow. Including the discussion of interwar couture patterns in the 1920s chapter means that we read about the 1933 closure of the Paris Pattern Company, and see a 1930s example of a Paris Pattern, before reaching the 1930s chapter. Paris Patterns in fact survived beyond 1933: by the following year, the company seems to have merged with Style and was still releasing patterns for June, 1934.
The text is sometimes marred by typographical errors, as well as errors traceable to data entry errors in the pattern archive. Schiaparelli’s first Vogue Paris Original (no. 1051) is included in the chapter devoted to World War 2 rather than the postwar chapter, and its date is given as 1947 when it should be 1949—the year Vogue Patterns, still owned by Condé Nast, launched its Paris Originals with great fanfare. (See my postwar Schiaparelli post here.)
Countering the claim that commercial pattern designs are already out of fashion, Emery argues that patterns historically allowed their customers to keep abreast of trends, giving some interesting before and after examples of patterns adapted to reflect the new proportions of the postwar New Look.
The question of the relationship between high fashion and the commercial pattern industry is an interesting one. Contemporary high fashion adaptations in pattern form are relatively current. Roland Mouret’s Fall 2005 blockbuster, the Galaxy dress, was adapted in 2006 as Vogue 8280, and Carven’s dress for Spring 2013 was adapted for that season as Vogue 8900 (see As I Said…). Current adaptations can be seen in McCall’s #sewthelook series on Instagram.
But licensed designer patterns are a different story. While trend-setting styles such as those from Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian and Ballets Russes collections could count on expedited production, more often there seems to have been a seasonal lag. A 1950s Laroche pattern discussed as typical in a contemporary report, Vogue 1450, is a design from the Spring 1959 couture that was released a season later, in late 1959.
Today, when the production time for a commercial pattern has been cut to as little as four weeks,** it’s still unusual for a new designer pattern to represent the current season. To take some recent examples: of Simplicity’s Cynthia Rowley patterns from the Summer 2015 release, Simplicity 1105 is unusual for being from the current season, Spring/Summer 2015:
In Vogue Patterns’ Fall 2014 release, the Donna Karan, Guy Laroche, and Rachel Comey selections are from the Fall 2013 collections, while the Ralph Rucci coat, Vogue 1419, is from the Pre-Fall 2013 collection:
The fashion industry has changed, and fewer designers are willing to enter into licensing agreements for commercial patterns, let alone license current-season designs. Historical analysis of the pattern industry shows how it has adapted in response not only to economic and social trends, but also to home sewers’ changing relationship with fashion. Emery has taken a much-needed look to the archives in this essential resource.
A while back, I mentioned that I was editing a sewing book. Now that it’s out, I can share the details: the book is by Julianne Bramson and Susan Lenahan, and it’s called Bias Cut Blueprints.
Bramson and Lenahan are the duo behind Fashion in Harmony, an independent pattern company based in California. My connection to the project was Toronto illustrator Danielle Meder, who created the technical drawings. (You may have seen her fashion paper dolls.)
Inspired by Madeleine Vionnet, the book presents a method of sewing bias-cut garments that minimizes sewing on the bias. Diagonal seams sewn on the straight grain are a Vionnet trademark. Bramson and Lenahan apply this technique to a zero-waste concept, the bias tube, and use it as the basis for a customized bias wardrobe.
The authors are passionate about making the bias cut accessible, and the book contains a range of projects as well as tips and useful tables ranking fabrics’ performance on the bias. You can see a preview on the Fashion in Harmony website.
Julianne Bramson and Susan Lenahan, Bias Cut Blueprints: A Geometric Method for Clothing Design and Construction, Livermore, CA: Fashion in Harmony, 2014.
Thanks to Paco Peralta,* I received a review copy of the new book from Museu Tèxtil i d’Indumentària de Barcelona, Pedro Rodríguez: Catalogue of Maria Brillas’s Dresses. The museum’s collection of Pedro Rodríguez’ work was recently expanded when it acquired the wardrobe of Maria Brillas (1905-1992), a Barcelona society lady who dressed exclusively in Rodríguez for much of her life.
Brillas’ extensive wardrobe—over 300 pieces, from the 1920s to the 1970s—covers most of Rodríguez’ career, and in 2011 the collection was the subject of a major exhibition, ¿Qué me pongo? El guardarropa de Maria Brillas por Pedro Rodríguez (What to Wear? Maria Brillas’ wardrobe by Pedro Rodríguez). The book concludes the museum’s project of cataloguing the new collection.
As I found when preparing a brief discussion of Rodríguez for a Mad Men series post, it isn’t easy to find English-language studies of the designer and his work. Vintage sewing enthusiasts will be aware of Rodríguez through his licensed sewing patterns, which were available from Advance, Spadea, and especially Vogue Patterns in the 1950s and 1960s (click to enlarge):
Three short essays accompany the catalogue. Fashion historian Sílvia Rosés’ contribution, “Pedro Rodríguez: the Birth of a Fashion House and the Evolution of a Style,” gives readers an overview of Rodríguez’ 60-year career, with special attention to collections presented during the golden age of couture. Museum preservationist Sílvia Ventosa’s essay, “From the Wardrobe to the Museum: The Dresses of Maria Brillas in the Museu Tèxtil i d’Indumentària de Barcelona,” recounts the story of Brillas’ donation to the museum and its efforts in transferring her private wardrobe to a public, institutional context.
In “The Role of the Client in the Creation and Popularizing of New Trends,” Miren Arzalluz, who curated the 2011 exhibition, offers an intriguing perspective on the couturier-client relationship. Noting the long friendship between Maria Brillas and Pedro Rodríguez and the designer’s published observations on his clients’ role in the design process, she argues that “the relationship between designer and client was far richer, more complex and more fruitful than many people were willing to recognize” (67).
The book’s introductory material includes photographs of Pedro Rodríguez and models wearing his designs, but none of the client whose wardrobe the catalogue documents. Although an image gallery may be seen on the museum’s website, Brillas’ absence from the book feels like an oversight. In this photo taken in the 1950s, Maria Brillas dances with her husband at a formal event:
The catalogue proper is divided into eight sections organized by type; a brief summary introduces each section. There are five sections devoted to Rodríguez’ couture garments for Brillas: day dresses; suits and tailored ensembles; coats; cocktail or ceremonial dresses; and evening gowns. Here are some highlights:
Two sections are devoted to accessories, one for hats and the other for shoes, gloves, and bags. The hats are the earliest pieces in the catalogue, with many from the 1920s and 1930s. Some hats were produced at Rodríguez’ studio, while others were commissioned by him from prominent milliners. Brillas’ shoes were made to match her dresses.
The final section documents the collection’s miscellaneous other pieces: blouses, skirts, boleros, a bathrobe dress, a marabou-trimmed cape, and a fancy dress costume with mask headpiece:
It’s a beautifully produced volume, with high-quality photos presented in a reader-friendly smaller format. (You can see more photos at the website of Folch Studio, the design firm behind the book.) My only quibble is with the English text (I don’t read Spanish or Catalan), which contains infelicities that seem to be an effect of translation.
This book is a valuable addition to English-language resources on Rodríguez, and will assist in further study of the designer and his place in the history of haute couture.
* Paco was a member of the collection’s monitoring committee; you can read his post on the exhibition here.
Rossend Casanova (ed.), Pedro Rodríguez: Catàleg dels vestits de Maria Brillas / Catálogo de los vestidos de Maria Brillas / Catalogue of Maria Brillas’s Dresses, Barcelona: Museu Tèxtil i d’Indumentària de Barcelona, 2012.