Back to the Future: Sewing Vintage Modern

There are so many ways for creative sewers to be inspired by designs, patterns, and notions from decades past, when elegant details and fine construction methods were a part of every seamstress’s knowledge base. Fortunately, Marlene Blessing, Interweave’s multitalented editorial director for , wrote Vintage Modern, a fantastic feature article in Stitch Spring 2010 , to pave the way. Marlene’s article walks you through myriad ways to explore the treasures of vintage sewing, from patterns to alteration basics for garments, with terrific resource links for vintage fabric, patterns, notions, and inspiration.


The Internet is a huge resource for vintage inspiration, but it’s even more fun to unearth gems right in your neighborhood. Many long-time sewers never throw away a pattern, a button, or a length of fabric, so ask your neighbors, your mothers, your aunts and your grandmothers if they just happen to have a stash you can look through. Go to garage sales and estate sales; occasionally estate sale ads will even mention a collection of sewing-related goods. Those who don’t sew are usually willing to part with sewing items for a song. You might find a jar packed full of buttons for a dollar, or dozens of old patterns for 25 cents each; you’ve got very little to lose by snapping them up!

More vintage ideas:

  • Thrift and secondhand shops are tried-and-true sources for garments that can be restyled, old linens and lace curtains that can become part of something new, and great vintage accessories. If you find a designer garment in excellent condition, though, don’t take it apart; buy it and make something modern to go with it!
  • Shop better vintage-clothing stores for visual inspiration, even if you can’t afford that 1960s Valentino dress. Carry a six-inch plastic ruler in your purse so you can measure details, like the width of a pleat or depth of a ruffle, and recreate them at home.
  • Don’t be afraid of vintage patterns! Marlene’s guidelines will keep you on track. One of her tips: Sew a vintage pattern with a 1/2″ seam allowance overall instead of a standard 5/8″ seam allowance, if you need just little more breathing room than the pattern measurements allow. Or just use them for inspiration on details, like the back bodice treatments in Simplicity 3965, at left.
  • Be an expert at deconstruction: buy worn vintage handbags just for the hardware, and dated jewelry for the beads.
  • Vogue and Butterick also reissue vintage patterns with modern sizing – a great way to get used to sewing vintage style in sizes you’re accustomed to.
  • Vintage fabrics can be wonderful, but you can also find reproduction fabrics that give you a vintage look in new fabric that might be easier to sew and care for, especially for children’s clothing and home decor. Look for charming 1940s cowboy prints, or bark cloth with big tropical flower repeats.
  • Look at men’s clothing, too. You might find a shirt in a gorgeous fabric that you can take apart, or a tweed jacket that you can size down and trim with velvet ribbon or lace.
  • Old sewing machines are decorative, but some are also coveted by sewists who love the stitch quality. If you see a Singer Featherweight in working condition, it can be a great addition to your sewing room.
  • Even small pieces of usable fabric can be a joy to work with. Julie Grieve of Pre-loved shows off her quilt of reclaimed fabrics, at right.

Making the most of vintage garments, fabrics, and patterns is creative and fun, and can also be environmentally sound and economical. Why not start this weekend? And don’t forget to let us know what you’re making, and what you’d like to see more of in Stitch.

Happy stitching!


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