It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a sewist in possession of a good machine, must be in want of a coat. And, now we are knee deep in winter, it’s a good time to get cracking. If you are on the hunt for that perfect pattern for your dream winter coat (and if you are not, maybe I can persuade you here: Six reasons to love sewing coats and outerwear), read on…
There are a lot of coat patterns on the market these days. The ‘big four’ pattern companies (it’s not really the big four anymore, but this remains a convenient shorthand for the Vogue, McCall’s, Butterick, Simplicity (New Look + Burda) brigade) have a huge range of patterns, but sometimes the styling isn’t as appealing as the less plentiful but often vintage-inspired (and artfully marketed) indie variety.
It’s also fairly common that patterns that are five or ten years old look dated in a bad way (because fashion) whereas a pattern that is 30 or 40 year old looks timeless and en vogue. It’s a funny one, eh? Always worth remembering that in 30 years time we will be saying the same about patterns from five years ago.
Most of the vintage patterns we prize today were the ‘big four’ (or whatever the number of dominant brands) of their day. It’s a perpetual headbanger that the patterns I used as a teenager in the early-1990s are now considered vintage and retro cool (really? THAT ditsy floral fit and flare dress?). I remember my mum saying the same thing about 1970s patterns at the time. Plus ca change…
As it happens, I’m not here to tell you about pattern packet styling – as slick and as fun as it can be, the best tip for choosing a pattern, whatever the era, will always be to look at the line drawing. I want to discuss the joy of vintage patterns and their marvellous insides. Yes, the packet illustrations are wondrous to behold, but the instructions they come with are also well worth exploring. And here, through the medium of the humble coat, I will tell you for why!
I know a lot of beginner sewists get a bit nervy about big four patterns because of the brevity of the instructions. So when they catch a glimpse of a vintage pattern (this coat pattern barely spilled over a single page of instructions) the temptation is to run a mile. But please, don’t be deterred! Vintage patterns offer some of the best instructions for coat making going – they are concise and minimal, yes, but if you take your time you will learn a lot.
The instructions for my Maudella wrap coat for Family Circle (shown side by side, above) may be modest in size, but they pack a fair punch. There are some instructions for cutting, layout and then 12 straightforward directions. The illustrations are sheer perfection, showing just enough to guide you through the process.
If you’re new to a technique, all that would be required is a quick Google to fill in any blanks, or referring to your favourite sewing tome (mine is the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing).
Why do I think brief instructions are so good? Sometimes, when patterns hold your hand a little too much, it actually becomes harder to learn, because you are not forced to think about what is happening and why. Which way up should this go? WHY does it go this way up?
Do it the wrong way and you will soon learn what the problem is. Yes, I know, I sound like a Victorian headmaster.
Most of my initial learning to sew came from vintage patterns. As I describe here, I built on the basics my mum taught me by taking the plunge with the old patterns passed down to me by my gran. At the time this was more about saving money than it was a style statement – although some of the 1970s styles were having a resurgence at the time and, I’d wager, ask your average woman in her 40s and she may well tell you the ’70s is her favourite fashion era.
If you want a soft introduction to tailoring, go vintage. It’s not a given, but some vintage patterns give a wonderful starting point to explore tailored finishes and tailoring materials.
The Family Circle pattern I used for my grey knee-length coat and my black double breasted coat, for example, has a different collar construction to the Maudella pattern I used for my grey wrap coat (both pictured above).
Both garments look great finished, but the wrap coat has less bulk around the neckline. Similarly the wrap coat advises the use of wool and hair linen for the facings – which adds a wonderful drape and structure to proceedings. Prior to making that coat I had never used that particular tailoring material before. Having learned that trick, I then incorporated it in to other coats.
Borrowing details from patterns is a great way to get value from vintage. For me, the best and most succinct description of a welt pocket remains one I read in a 1960s jacket pattern.
Though the style of the pattern in question was not to my taste, I used its instructions, and the pocket pattern pieces it came with, to draft welts onto a completely different coat. I return to it time and time again when I need a refresher – most recently in the vintage blazer pictured here.
Real originality is hard to come by and is most likely not on the pages of your average sewing pattern, but if you want to make something that not everyone else is making, then vintage is a great starting point.
Sewing always reflects individuality in the choice of fabrics, finishes, composition and styling, but I still prefer the knowledge that it’s unlikely everyone will turn up in the same get-up.
And, as with any pattern, vintage or not, you can interpret and reinterpret however you wish. The black double breasted coat on the right is made using the same pattern as the grey coat pictured top.
Though made using the same pattern, I varied the construction and finish (for more on this read my post on Minerva here). The black coat was a faithful copy of the pattern, whereas the grey coat was shortened to just above the knee, incorporated an interlining, and used different tailoring techniques (which, again, were appropriated from other vintage patterns).
Some vintage patterns will set you back a pretty penny, it’s true. But I am continually surprised how inexpensive old patterns are to come by. On eBay, a quick trawl will turn up a whole bunch of patterns – anything from the 1940s (quite rare to be fair) to the present day.
While patterns from the 1950s and 1960s tend to have their prices hiked up a little bit, you’re rarely looking at more than a tenner, and quite often you can bag something for far less if you’re determined. Patterns from the 1970s (currently en vogue and, as it happens, the bulk of my own vintage collection) can go for mere pennies. Whatever way you look at it, that’s a lot cheaper than a new pattern – particularly if you’re into indie designs.
Now, having said all that, there are a few problems with vintage patterns which may mean you decide to look but not touch. The first is scarcity: sometimes patterns are hard to track down, particularly if you’re after a particular pattern number. The second is more problematic, and for me poses a key problem when suggesting everyone ‘go vintage’.
There is no way round this – most vintage patterns are on the smaller size. Sizing has changed over the decades, so what would be considered a shop size 10 now is usually around a size 12-14 in a contemporary McCall’s pattern. But in a 1950s pattern, measurements for a 10 would be more like what we would expect today for a size 6.
A 1970s pattern would be closer to the sizing of modern big four patterns (which is still not the same as shop sizing), but you need to check the size chart as it’s easy to get caught out. It’s also crucial to note that in vintage patterns there is far less ease incorporated into sizes, so it’s much riskier if the size is almost but not quite what you’re after.
The real issue is that these patterns rarely (as in, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it) go above a size 18. That’s at best a current UK size 16, and more likely a shop 14. When one considers that indie pattern companies are constantly working on size inclusivity – some going well above size 30 – I can understand why the suggestion to sew vintage might seem exclusionary.
As your skills develop, you may feel confident enough to experiment with grading up vintage designs to your chosen style, thereby creating your own bespoke designs from a vintage starting point. But I know this isn’t really a great solution to the problem – having to learn how to grade patterns is not the most accessible way to get into sewing!
For this reason indie patterns are worth exploring. Yes, they can be eye-wateringly expensive, but they often draw on vintage styles for their designs, so buying indie is a good way to access vintage style in a broader size range. (It’s worth noting that some of these ranges do exclude smaller and petite sizes, for whom vintage is actually a real boon.)
Whether or not you find your perfect pattern is all part of the fun when digging out vintage designs. Treating them as a launch pad can be a perfectly valid way of incorporating a bit of fashion history into your wardrobe. Limited sizing is a pain in the proverbial, but the instructions and techniques are still great value and, maybe it’s the historian in me, but these are beautiful things in and of themselves.
Today we can buy indie patterns in better size ranges than ever, and often with a nod to the vintage patterns of our dreams. This is such a positive development for size inclusivity and giving the option for vintage flare to everyone (or nearly everyone – we know there is still a long road to walk, with companies like Cashmerette leading the way).
Even though the sizing in vintage is limited, I would say it’s always worth checking them out if you’re interested in construction techniques (particularly in tailored garments like coats) or you enjoy beautiful old artefacts and ephemera in general. Pinch a detail here, a technique there or, if you’re able, use the pattern to create your own reproduction vintage clobber without the headache (or the price tag) of the thrift shop trawl.
So, are you a vintage devotee or do you worry about the instructions in older patterns? I’d also be really interested to know if the sizing issue with vintage patterns has put you off or if you’ve found a way round this – perhaps learning pattern drafting or grafting vintage designs onto newer patterns to get that vintage vibe. Let me know in the comments below – and, while you’re here, don’t forget to like and subscribe!