Saturday, April 16, 2011

Where Did They Get Their Simplicity Patterns?

When I was a teenager, “Mom” Pennell made my Easter outfit every year. (I contemplated inserting a photo of me in my favorite “Mom” Pennell creation, but regained my sanity.) A retired seamstress, Mom Pennell had worked for a wedding gown designer. He drew … she sewed. Mom could transform her employer’s drawings into a 3-D object long before CAD existed. My understanding of how she did that is that God the Creator gifted her to create by perceiving spatial relationships in a way that enabled her to combine a drawing with a woman’s shape (in her mind) and then cut a piece of fabric to fit that shape. 3-D geometrical talent applied to cloth. Of course Mom also had a dress form, and I always went for at least one fitting … just like 19th century dressmakers.

In the U.S., until Butterick began to publish patterns, fashionable clothing that fit properly was the purview of the wealthy. The rest of society either wore makeshift clothing that didn’t fit very well or hoped for hand-me-downs from someone higher up the income ladder. Aprons (a straight piece of cloth gathered onto a narrow piece of cloth tied at the waist) or belts often give shape to what was little more than a long, hemmed, sack. In this engraving of a maid in the 1750s, the softness around her neck is probably a square of cloth folded and draped like a scarf. The headgear? A circle (invert a pail, a basket, or a crock and you’ve got a circle pattern) gathered to fit around the head (measure with a length of twine to see how far to draw it up). I’m no seamstress, but I think I could manage.

Of course none of that was sufficient for women who were part of the growing “middle class” 19th century America. By then, a woman’s dress required buttonholes and darts and set-in sleeves. Enter (I think) the women like Mom Pennell who had the gift to look at the page and make it happen.

While the Civil War created demand for men’s ready-to-wear in the form of army uniforms, women would have to wait until later in the century (the 1880s) for much to happen in that marketplace (and then, of course, they’d still need the means to barter or buy). I know from reading western women’s pioneer diaries that they helped each other with their sewing needs. So I’m going to make an “educated supposition” that, if there was a Mom Pennell within twenty miles, she probably helped more than one pioneer woman with her dressmaking. (It’s also possible to de-construct a dress you like and use it for a pattern. Seam-ripper in hand, a pioneer woman could have taken a dress apart and used the resulting pieces as a pattern for years to come. Did they? I haven’t a clue … but I once did that with a beloved dress.) The brief research I’ve done on the history of dressmaking indicates that Godey’s Lady’s Book offered full-size patterns in the 1850s. When I learned that, I rushed to my bookshelf to check my 1875 Godey’s. Alas, no dress patterns that year, although pull-out fashion plates abound.

I did, however, find the pattern on the left in an 1869 edition of Peterson’s Magazine. How long do you suppose it took a woman to transfer the drawings into usable size ... and how did she make this "one-size-fits-all" approach work for her child? The brief instructions include the admonition that, “by the letters it may be readily seen how to put it together.” Oh ... really????

Mass-produced, sized, dress patterns came along thanks to Ebenezer Butterick. The family cut and folded the patterns by hand at first, moving into mass production by 1866. Millions had been sold by 1871. James McCall became a competitor. I enjoyed reading the Butterick company history here:

Thanks to Vince for suggesting this topic. (Simplicity, by the way, was founded in 1927 ... I didn't know that!)

I, for one, have new appreciation for how easily I can don an "Easter outfit" if I so choose...although I am far more interested this year in snuggling my Easter grand-babies than thinking about new clothes! Here's the First Arrival with his big sister ... hours after his April 14 arrival. The next Easter baby is due any day now ... she and her cousin will be in the same church nursery soon.


  1. Again such wonderful history. I love this blog. Congrats on the new grandbabies. We are expecting another one come fall (it will make number 10). Hugs

  2. When I grew up my mother would take the sleeves of one pattern and add them to the skirt of another. I grew up improvising as I sewed. But I don't know what I would do without instructions--though I have been known to stray from those on occasion.

    I am in the process of moving my mother and father to a retirement home--at age 90 and 91. It's been a lot of fun looking through her old patterns. They are a slice of history.

  3. I love this blog, too! I started sewing as a young girl, made mine and my friend's prom dresses in high school, etc. When I found myself getting divorced and having to support myself after being a career mom, sewing was the only way to earn a living. 9 years later, I'm still working in my 'shop' at home, altering/making wedding gowns, bridesmaids, etc. Now, at 50 years old, I'm learning pattern-making and draping techniques. Awesome to look back and see how God knew all along!

  4. I was referred to this website by a park employee at our local historic State Park - thank you Karen! I smiled when I read the above comments because although I started sewing in 6th grade, I have had an at home sewing business for 37 years. It still gives me great pleasure to have my clients say, "I love my new dress!" In most cases, these ladies have some figure challenges which prevents them from getting off the rack clothes to fit well - much less historic attire that requires a close fit. Although such ladies do require more fittings and patterns drafted especially for them, I guess it is not so different as years ago when seamstresses made dresses that were unique for one person.

  5. I'd like to thank Karen, too! It's great fun to have someone comment on a blog that's been in cyberspace for a while. I hope you enjoyed it ... and I wish you lived nearby so that I, who have some of those "figure challenges" you talk about, could access your gift. Actually, I've always had those figure challenges, which is why Mom Pennell was such a blessing. When there is a 12" difference between a young lady's waist and her hips, ready-to-wear isn't always so ready to wear. TINY waists run in my family. My sister's was only 21" on her wedding day. True. Mine was 24 1/2". That was then ... sigh.Thanks so much for taking time to post. May your holidays be bright!