A Brief History of Paper Patterns

History, so long as it’s not someone making you memorize dates and places for a test (that you’ll just forget ten minutes after the exam is over), is a fascinating and interesting thing. At least I find it so. YMMV.

When I started searching for vintage hat patterns and read descriptions of “perforated patterns,” I really didn’t have a clear idea of what that meant. Modern sewing patterns come on large sheets of that irritating tissue that’s impossible to fold back into the envelope. You cut out the pieces to the size you need and pin them to the fabric according to the grainlines indicated on the pattern pieces, cut the fabric, and off you go. Perforated patterns came in envelopes, too, but the pieces were pre-cut. The “perforated” part was the dots and letters indicating which piece it was; no other markings, no grainlines, nothing.

Scanned on black paper to show perforations.

The instructions were often not as helpful. (You think they’re bad now? Ha!) But I think more women had basic sewing knowledge from their mothers or home economics classes than people do now, so perhaps those ladies from 1943 (when those pieces were made; Simplicity #4924) didn’t need as much instruction as I do.

So when were the first commercial paper patterns made?

  • Ebenezer Butterick made the first graded pattern in 1863.
  • James McCall founded the McCall Pattern Company in 1870.
  • Vogue Magazine sold patterns beginning in 1899.
  • McCall’s sold the first printed pattern in 1919.
  • The Simplicity Pattern Company started in 1927.
  • DuBarry Patterns became available in 1931.
  • The Hollywood Pattern Company began in 1932.
  • The Advance Pattern Company began in 1933.
  • Simplicity sold printed patterns starting in 1947.
  • Butterick sold printed patterns starting in 1948.
  • Burda began including patterns in their magazines in 1952.

In 1863, Ebenezer Butterick invented the first commercial graded (where you could size a garment up or down) pattern. He was a tailor, and according to the Butterick website, he was inspired by comments his wife made while she was designing something for his baby son. The first patterns were only for men and boys, but three years later, patterns for women became available. He created the magazines Ladies Quarterly of Broadway Fashions (1867) and The Delineator (1873) to help market his patterns. In 1948, they began manufacturing printed patterns. Then 4-color printing was added to the envelopes and catalogs, then black and white photos were added to the catalogs, then full-color photos appeared on the catalog cover in 1950 for the first time.

James McCall established the McCall Pattern Company in 1870. A monthly magazine, The Queen (1873), was largely a means of advertising patterns, and was later renamed McCall’s Magazine and then shortened to simply McCall’s. They began selling printed patterns in 1919. By 1932, all of their pattern envelopes had full-color illustrations.

Vogue Magazine was founded in 1892, and sold patterns starting in 1899 via the “Vogue Pattern Department” with a coupon clipped from the magazine and 50¢ after Rosa Payne (who was a pattern designer) approached editor Josephine Redding about having a weekly article about sewing patterns. Vogue was purchased by Condé Nast in 1909. By 1913, Nast had made Vogue a major fashion magazine and the patterns were a significant part of it; the pattern department was now the “Vogue Pattern Service.” By 1920, the Vogue Patterns business was so large that it outgrew the fashion magazine, and were featured in their own, Vogue Pattern Book, published six times a year with over 350 patterns in each issue. Hollywood Pattern Company was started by Condé Nast in 1932, and continued production through the end of WWII.

The Simplicity Pattern Company began making patterns in 1927, with the goal of making simpler, less expensive patterns. After 1946, all of their patterns were printed. DuBarry Patterns were made by Simplicity exclusively for Woolworth’s from 1931-1940. In the mid-1980’s, Simplicity acquired the British pattern company, New Look, and maintains an office in the UK.

The Advance Pattern Company was founded in 1933 and was only sold at JC Penney stores, continuing production through 1966 when the company was sold.

In 1950, the German fashion magazine Burda Moden was founded, and in 1952 they began including paper patterns with every issue. In 2013, the US version, Burda Style, began. Simplicity has a distribution agreement with Burda patterns.

In 1961, Butterick licensed the name and trademark “Vogue Patterns” from Condé Nast Publications, Inc., and bought their pattern division. In 2001, the McCall Pattern Company purchased Butterick and Vogue.

Kwik-Sew was founded in 1967 by Kerstin Martensson with the idea of being for “real people” and for all levels of sewing ability. It was acquired by McCalls in 2011.

So there you have it, a very brief history of paper patterns! It’s not exhaustive, and there’s so many pattern makers that got left out, but these are the ones we’re all familiar with today.