Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Life in (Mail-Order) Patterns

Vintage Marian Martin Mail Order Pattern T 9096 Dress

Some vintage patterns come in pristine factory folds. Some come carefully cut and refolded, with handwritten hints at their former owners' tastes (such as: "very good skirt pattern for me" or "make in brown check"). And some come with a history.

Enter Mrs. D. I first met Mrs D. in a 23-piece eBay lot entitled simply "Vintage Sewing Patterns - LOT DEAL @LOOK@":

You will be getting all of these patterns. Each envelope has the pattern and pattern guide for cutting. I don't know if all of the patterns are complete, but this lady seem to keep them all together but not guaranteed.

I tore the tape off the box barehanded when it arrived, crossing my fingers that a reasonable number of the patterns would be cute and within a few grades of my bust size (and they were, but we'll get to that!) But as I gingerly opened each brittle mail-order envelope and photographed the contents, I felt as if I was traveling through time.

Most vintage lots I've acquired are random mixes of envelope patterns from the 40s to the 80s, with little clue as to who owned or used them. But thanks to the mailing address that appeared on every one of these pattern envelopes, I knew they were all ordered by one particular woman in Missouri as she sewed throughout her life.

The oldest patterns in her careful collection seemed to be from the late 40s or early 50s (most of the postmarks are undated, but I used this Cemetarian article for reference). For example, this gorgeous deep-V Marian Martin 9279 day dress with pocket detail: bust size 32, postage, 1 cent.

Vintage Marian Martin Mail Order Pattern 9279 Dress

The most recent ones are from 1990--I didn't even know mail-order patterns were still available then! The last one is a multi-size pattern, but from her 80s purchases I gather Mrs. D was sewing a bust size 42 at this point. And the postage had gone up to 18 cents.

Vintage Mail Order Pattern 4209

Here's what I learned about "this lady":

  • She probably had a daughter or two. There are four 1950s girls patterns in the collection, and I am so keeping the below two for when Cartoonist Baby gets old enough. The first one, Mail Order 3863, is from 1954 or earlier--I was able to date it by the newspaper comic strip pages she used to trace the bolero pattern. I think the second, Mail Order 9276, could make a fun modern party dress, with that lovely notched neckline and sash.

    Vintage American Weekly Mail Order Pattern 3863 Girl's Dress

    Vintage Mail Order Printed Pattern 9276 Girl's Dress
  • She was probably on the shorter side. Many of the patterns in the lot are "half-size" patterns, meant for women 5'3" and under. That said, none of the misses' patterns seem to have been shortened for a smaller torso, so perhaps she either traced them, or never actually sewed them up. And I see no signs of any FBAs, but perhaps she was busty as well, as suggested by her note on the below Mail Order 1447 shirtwaist pattern from 1963: "cut shirt bigger." LOVE the tab details on the shoulder yoke, but I'm too tall for this one.

    Vintage Mail Order Pattern 1447
  • She loved a trim button-front shirtwaist day dress, with pockets if possible. (Witness the Marian Martin 9096 at the top of this post). From her 50s and 60s orders, you'd almost think no other style of dress existed:

    Mail Order (Anne Adams) 4750, from 1958. Wouldn't this be great made up in perpendicular stripes as illustrated?

    Vintage Anne Adams Printed Pattern 4750

    Mail Order 9213. Check out the gored skirt with partial yoke and those cute cuffs (collar optional):

    Vintage Mail Order Printed Pattern 9213 Dress

    Mail Order 4874, with its collar and pleats, is a more dressy variation on this theme--I imagine this in a polka-dot silk, especially with those gloves and bag. Though she could just as easily have done it in a cotton.

    Vintage Mail Order Printed Pattern 4874 Dress

    It wasn't just her--the shirtwaist seems to be a staple of the mail-order pattern business, as evidenced by this pink tissue poster (enlarged version here) in one of the envelopes featuring "Pattern Hits of the Month--Voted Tops by Our Fashion Council for Style, Sewing Ease, Flattery."

    Vintage Mail Order Printed Pattern 4540 Poster
  • ...At least until the mid-1960s, when things got a little looser. Mrs. D had gone up a bit in bust size, and was trying out less fitted styles. Here's 8349, from 1964:

    Vintage Mail Order Pattern 8349

    And 9066, from 1963. It's not even belted!

    Vintage Mail Order Pattern 9066

    By the 70s and 80s, she was in bust sizes 40 or 42, and had gotten into relaxed jumpers (4785) and culottes (9069). I wonder if she made this tank in a polka dot and wore with sunglasses?

    Vintage Mail Order Pattern 9069

    It's not 50s style, but it is belted and pocketed:

    Vintage Mail Order Pattern 4785
  • She made at least occasional forays into embroidery and crochet. Or not--the transfers on the three apron and embroidery patterns are unused, and I can't tell if she ever made the very 70s owl crochet pattern:

    Vintage Mail Order Embroidery Transfer Pattern 7032

    Mail Order Crochet Pattern Design 595

    By 1983, she was quite relaxed!

    Vintage Mail Order 9459

Of course, there's much more I don't know about her, such as:

  • Did she also sew with envelope patterns? There was one mixed in--a 1950s Simplicity envelope pattern for a girls dress--but the pattern was so shredded that I could barely see the illustration. Perhaps she stored those separately.
  • Did she ever wear pants? Evening dresses? Blouses? Suits? Perhaps she bought those ready-to-wear, but her mail-order sewing preference seems to have been strongly in the day-dress camp.

So there you have it! A life in mail order patterns! I've made a Flickr gallery so you can see the whole collection and I've been entering all the patterns into the Vintage Pattern Wiki (here's one, for example). I'm keeping all the non-half-size shirtwaists, but as soon as I set up an Etsy shop I'll be selling all the larger sizes, half sizes, and styles that don't quite suit me, like this "Patt-o-Rama 8356" (too bulky in the bust area for me):

Vintage Mail Order "Patt-O-Rama" Pattern 8356.


  1. Wow you've got quite the treasure trove there! I love when patterns have hand written notes on the envelope or inside!

  2. These are fabulous! What a haul! I just acquired some vintage patterns as well that you might enjoy seeing at http://www.amyalamode.com/blog/2010/04/17/a-vintage-day/. So fun!

  3. Ooh, if you are ever getting rid of 4874, would you mail me? That collar is adorable!

  4. What a fabulous find! How lovely to be able to trace a person's life in this way.

  5. Sorry Reethi--that one's in my size!

  6. Great story, I wonder what people would think if they looked through my pattern collection! Probably the same thing - does she ever wear pants?
    Patt-O-Rama is adorable! I picture it in a print with contrast trim - super cute!

  7. Great post. What a find. It's so nice to be able to trace a stranger's history like that. I just love reading your blog!

  8. What a lovely post... I love the way you've put together history of mrs. D! It's almost a shame to separate the patterns, but I do understand that you can't keep all of them...

  9. i love polka dots. visit my blog: lepolkadotchic.blogspot.com

  10. What a great story! I once purchased a trove in east San Diego and mixed in with the traditional patterns were patterns my mystery lady had made up herself using newspaper as pattern tissue - one dress was a page featuring the Beatles first concert in San Diego! There was also an instruction sheet for a wonderful halter, skirt and shorts pattern whose pieces were sadly not included. I recently found that pattern on etsy and ordered it. Lo and behold...there were all the pattern pieces and no instruction sheet!!! I wondered if somehow I managed to reintroduce the pieces and sheet after all these years! Even if not, I'm sure the original seamstress (where ever life or after live finds her) would be amused.

  11. Eeek! What a gift to have snagged these patterns, all from the same owner and with such history. Do you feel sad to be breaking up the collection? (Of course it's crazy to keep things you can't use, but the continuity will be lost...) Have you ever tried to track down her family? (I see an ABC After School Special here!) :-)

  12. ooh i absolutely love this blog post, you have done well. Getting to know the previous owners is one of the little pleasures we in the second hand industry have - in my opinion.

  13. That was an awesome haul! I love when crafty things have actual provenance. I recently got a group of patterns that turned out to have all belonged to a seamstress, including notes about who had paid and who hadn't!

  14. K. Line, I know what you mean about breaking up the collection--but patterns are meant to be sewn, not stored in a drawer! And I did photograph them all so I have a record of the entire collection.

    Also, I kind of love the mystery that all I know about Mrs. D is what I got from this random eBay auction!

  15. Hey! I have Mail Order 9213 myself, all cut out and ready to sew on my dining room table. I actually found it in my size on eBay, a bust 46, and did a full bust adjustment and some other modifications so it should fit well. I would LOVE to see another's version of this dress, I think the skirt could be so flattering. Mail order patterns are the best. I know they will all find a good home.

    1. I just stumbled onto this page and I have 9213 all ready to be traced and graded, nasty rusted pins removed, waiting on the table. Love that skirt piecing and those sleeves! I really appreciate it when the shipping envelopes come with these (I don't have 9213's but now I have your photo of yours!) Ah thanks!

  16. amazing! I was googling, trying to find some more details on a vintage mail order pattern that I have - stumbled across your blog and your find. I love to think of the ladies who cut and sewed from the patterns I hold. . . neat how you pieced together some history.


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