“A paper pattern so perfect every lady can make it up herself:” 1911, 1874, 1915

"The international encyclopedia of scientific tailor principles, for all kinds and styles of garment-making ... Also designing ... embroidery, crocheting, knitting, worsted work, fancy and artistic needle work .." (1885)

“The international encyclopedia of scientific tailor principles, for all kinds and styles of garment-making … Also designing … embroidery, crocheting, knitting, worsted work, fancy and artistic needle work ..” (1885)

New Phase of the Paper Pattern Business

The newest development of the sartorial business is the manufacture of paper patterns, made to measure and fitted, with the aid of which it is possible for a woman to wear a gorgeous gown of an unimpeachable foreign design at a very small cost as compared with such a garment purchased from a high class dressmaker. The cost of these paper costumes range from about $3.50, although occasionally they are less than this. The average is about $6.00.

“Six dollars does seem a big price for a paper pattern,” admitted the manager of the pattern place referred to, “but the same pattern not cut to measurements or pinned together may be had for $4, and skirts, coats and other pieces separately cost $1 and $2 only, unless cut to measurements.

“Nevertheless the demand for these patterns in New York is so large that there are now two or three places which deal in nothing else. At this time of the year, for instance, our business is so brisk that we do not guarantee to furnish a pattern cut to order in less than ten days.

“By far the largest percentage of our private orders come from women who keep a lady’s maid and can afford to buy imported gowns; who do buy imported gowns. All the same these women come here and send their maid in for certain patterns to be made up at home by the maid and a seamstress.”

At this particular place only paper models are shown, but every one of these is marked with the name of one and another noted French house and is an exact copy, a saleswoman explains, of a recent model put out by that house. But supposing a customer doesn’t care for any of the models on the dummies, she looks over books filled with illustrations of the latest French costumes and it would be strange if any woman with $5 in her purse hesitated about handing it over to the saleswoman and having her measurements taken.

At a Fifth avenue place the procedure is a little different. Here early in the season an exhibition of imported costumes is held for a week or ten days, primarily for the benefit of dressmakers, although outsiders who pay for the privilege are admitted. Models from all the leading European houses, made of various materials and costing up to the $1,000 mark in some cases, are displayed and sold to anybody who cares to buy, and before the sale closes most of the costumes have changed hands. The majority of these in turn before they leave that place are copied in paper, and, after the exhibition of originals closes, the paper duplicates have a show of their own. The most popular of these duplicates are made in several regular sizes and sold for less than those cut to fit. But needless to say it is the chance of getting a pattern of an imported model cut to fit that has spelled success for a branch of the paper pattern business undreamed of not many years ago. Information and advice respecting materials, color, and probable cost are handed out with the pattern.

“Tell your dressmaker,” or “Tell your seamstress not to deviate from the pattern” is included in the advice, and probably this hint is needed, for results have justified the enlargement of show-rooms and the hiring of more expensive quarters since the concern started.

A man long connected with the paper pattern business, old style, said that this was one of the surprises of the business that while the price of ordinary paper patterns had declined steadily since reaching a certain stage of popularity and competition, the newest phase of the business represented prices equivalent to the price charged by old-fashioned dressmakers for making a gown. Said he, “I worked for years for the concern which first put paper patterns on the market nearly fifty years ago. The head of this was a custom tailor who by request cut a paper pattern of a skirt to oblige a customer. By advice of his wife, who herself made her children’s clothes, he made a paper copy of a suit she had made for her little girl and sold it, and after that a wrapper pattern designed by his wife. That was the beginning of the paper pattern business, which grew so tremendously that some other folks started in making paper patterns too and then some more, till now there are a dozen thriving concerns in the field. The output of the original concern, still the largest of all, is 50,000,000 paper patterns a year, nine-tenths of which are for women’s and children’s garments. For some years the lowest price for a pattern was 45 cents. Today no paper pattern of this concern is sold for more than 15 cents.”

This man believed that were the output of the other manufacturers of paper patterns added to that given the figures would be doubled. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 14 May 1911: p. 3

Many magazines such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Godey’s, and Peterson’s printed patterns for men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing. Here is an advertisement from Frank Leslie’s:

Every Lady Her Own Dressmaker

It is now a conceded point that the very best and cheapest mode to dress in Fashion, and with the most admirably fitting dresses, is to send on a stamp to the Pattern Department to Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Journal, with your address in full, when a Catalogue will be sent, which will afford full information of all the fashionable dresses of the day, and how to make them.

Ladies have merely to mark the dress in the Catalog, and to send the exact measurement, taken under the bust, and a paper pattern will be sent for 25 cents, so perfect that every lady can cut out the dress, and make it up herself, thus saving the expense and trouble of a dressmaker.

We receive on every hand the most gratifying testimonials of the superiority of our patterns to all others. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper [New York, NY] 24 January 1874: p. 14

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has, in her capacity of lady’s maid, made up dresses from patterns. She may therefore rightfully claim to be sceptical that there exists a pattern “so perfect that every lady can cut out the dress and make it up herself.”  Gowns in 1874 were not some simple frock one could make at home and repent at leisure, (to use Saki’s memorable phrase) but richly layered confections of a richness and complexity that would do credit to a state bed.

The Bunch of Lilacs, James Tissot, 1875

The Bunch of Lilacs, James Tissot, 1875

Each generation had its own intricacies in paper patterns. A gentleman describes the perils of a pattern “with instructions” in 1915. He exaggerates, but only a little:

A correspondent of the New York Evening Post says that she wanted to make a plain little white waist, the kind that you pay $9 for in the shop and that are obviously worth about 14 cents. So she bought a pattern with instructions. You know the kind of pattern, at least you do if you are married and know anything at all. They are made of extraordinarily thin yellowish paper that tears if you so much as think about it. It is perforated all over with holes like piano-player music and you get into trouble if you absently use a piece for a cigar-lighter. You must have seen it about. Now the pattern was all right. Any one can make anything with a pattern. In fact we have long cherished the conviction that we ourselves could construct any article of women’s clothing, upper or under, if we only had a pattern, solitude, and the ability to restrain our manly blushes. All you have to do in the case of an undergarment is to lay the pattern firmly upon the raw material, mark the outline with a pencil, leaving a margin for hems and errors. Cut it out. Do it a second time with another piece of raw material, stitch them together along the edges, construct a sort of tunnel for the pink ribbon, stitch on the lace around the lower extremities or the upper edge as the case may be, and there you are.

But to return to the lady who pours out her sorrows on the sympathetic bosom of the New York Evening Post. She has no complaint to make about the pattern. It is the elucidatory instructions that have reduced her to the edge of a gibbering idiocy. And here they are:

“Tuck front creasing on slot perforations; stitch three-eighths inch from folded edges; or omit tucks and gather between double ‘TT’ perforations. Gather back on crosslines of single small ‘o’ perforations, and adjust stay under gathers; centre backs even, bringing small ‘o’ perforations in stay to under-arm seam. Close under-arm seam as notched, terminating at stay. Sew sleeve in armhole as notched, easing any fullness.”

Now in all humility we ask to know: Do these ravings mean anything?  How do you ”adjust stay under gathers” ? What is the process by which you “centre backs even”? Of course you “sew sleeve in armhole.” We should not be likely to sew the sleeve into the neck or into the small of the back. We know enough for that. Even in our own unobtrusive garments we should greatly object to find the sleeve anywhere but in the armhole. That is obviously where it belongs. But when it comes to “easing any fullness” we  may frankly confess that we should be stumped.

And we do not know how to ‘”tuck front creasing on slot perforations.” We have an inner conviction that it cannot be done except perhaps by prayer. If the mysterious hand of destiny should at any time require us to make “a plain little white waist” we believe that we could do it in the way already outlined, but we shall avoid the false aid of the commercial pattern with its insanity-producing “instructions.” The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 3 July 1915

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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2 thoughts on ““A paper pattern so perfect every lady can make it up herself:” 1911, 1874, 1915

  1. Ann

    “All the same these women come here and send their made in for certain patterns to be made up at home by the maid and a seamstress.”

    Should probably be “end their maid in.” Ah, autocorrect.

    I believe the first paper pattern, for a baby’s dress, was created by Mrs. Butterick.

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    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Many thanks! You are quite correct about the phrase: “send the maid in.” Autocorrect is a heartless dictator. The Butterick history does suggest that Mrs Butterick had the inspiration for graded paper patterns. If so, the fact-checker at the Philadelphia Inquirer, should have been sacked. Or perhaps, as with so many inventions, two persons were simultaneously inspired.
      Best Wishes,
      Mrs Daffodil

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