(Re)Making History

Ta-da! This week I finished my very first vintage pattern from Grandma’s collection.

The finished skirt with a Violet blouse I made from Colette Patterns.

The finished skirt with a Violet blouse (Colette Patterns)

Years ago she had given me a  handful of patterns that were from her stash, and unfortunately, they were all a size or two smaller than I was. Since I was new to sewing, I thought that was a problem, and they were unusable. So I set them aside and worked on patterns that were for my size instead. Yep, I chickened out. To be fair, you need to start with training wheels before you tackle the ten speed. But I kept looking at those patterns, thinking, “There’s gotta be a way to fix that sizing issue.”

After a few years and quite a few projects under my belt, I decided to make an attempt at adjusting a pattern that was the wrong size.

When I went through the pattern collection we found at her house, I found a duplicate of one of the patterns she had given me four years ago, Simplicity #5884 from 1965. This copy of the pattern was too big. I felt, however, that this was a good place to start: a simple skirt, some extra room to make mistakes, and the infinite resources of the sewing community on the internet.

Simplicity #5884 vintage 1965

Simplicity #5884 vintage 196                                                

Confession time: I’ve never really had to alter a pattern to fit me.

I am one of those rare women who can make a pattern without a muslin and it will (usually) fit with little or no alteration.  Sure, I’ve moved darts over a little. Sometimes, because I have a long waist, I have to adjust the waist an inch or three longer or move the shoulder seams inward a tad because my shoulders are dainty. I’ve done shortening and lengthening for skirts because I wanted a more flattering hemline. Sometimes I’ve had to fix fitting issues that were created because I changed sizes between cutting time and when I finally got around to sewing the project. (I only cut what I’m ready to work on now, by the way. No more cutting for future projects! I don’t like to sabotage myself!) However, I’ve never had to do a full bust adjustment, or for a swayback, or sloping shoulders, or anything like that.  They fit me, out of the package, 90% of the time, as long as I don’t make dumb mistakes.  So I was understandably intimidated. I had, to this point, been completely spoiled.

So just how do you adjust a pattern that is the wrong size?

It turns out, there is some math involved. The pattern is for a 30″ waist and 40″ hips, and I am one size down, with a 28″ waist and 38″ hips. So, 2″ too big for me.

The thing about vintage patterns is that most of them are one size in the envelope. Modern patterns tend to be multi-size, but this didn’t really happen much until the 1970s, and even then there were tons of one size patterns, as evidenced by Grandma’s stash: the majority are only one size.  So if you want to sew vintage and you’re not lucky enough to find what you want to make in your size, you’ll have to make some adjustments. I noticed that for new Simplicity patterns in the multi-size format are consistent- there is a set measurement between sizes. So for example, there is 1/4″ between the line for size 6 and size 8. Using this as my baseline measurement, I found that if the skirt was all put together, that difference between one size and the next one down on each seam is 1/2″. Multiply that 1/2″ by the three seams in my skirt, and you get 1 1/2″. If you subtract that 1 1/2″ from the 30″ waist, you get 28 1/2″ which is way closer to my actual 28″ waistline. Not perfectly adjusted down to my size, but a half-inch is easier to adjust than dealing with that extra two whole inches. What I did then was to trace out the pattern the original size onto freezer paper. Some people buy special paper for patterns, but I’m a gal on a tight budget, so it’s rolls of freezer paper for me. Then when I goof it up I don’t feel so bad. I can go to work and buy more.

Anyway, once I got those patterns traced, I  measured the pattern down 1 1/2″. I decided I was going to use french seams on it since I was using flannel and it likes to fray all to heck.  French seams can keep naughty fraying fabric in check and they look very, very nice. So the extra 1/2″ stayed in my measurements to account for the seams. It’s a generous amount, but I like room for error. I made little dots all along where my new lines would be, and using my french curve ruler, I redrew the pattern lines. Then I cut new pattern pieces and followed the cutting diagram on the directions. I cut the fabric and followed the directions from there and it wasn’t bad. When I did sew the seams, I ended up trimming some of that extra fabric off, but my adjustments were pretty close to where they should be. I just did a new seam about another 1/4″ inside, trimmed off the bulk and finished my french seam.

Vintage directions for my skirt.

Vintage directions for my skirt.

I’ve often heard that vintage sizing is different from modern sizing. I didn’t actually notice anything being off. Whether this is me being oblivious, or my body being more vintage-type proportionally, I do not know. I feel it fits pretty well, if a tad too roomy in the waist. But I know I will likely tuck a blouse into the skirt, or just wear sweaters with it anyway since it’s a winter skirt. So a little room in the waist isn’t really a bad thing when you’re layering up for a nice, super snowy Ohio winter.

I had some trouble with the darts, finding that I needed to make them shallower and shorter to make the skirt hang properly, and I’m still not entirely sure I got them exactly right. I opted to leave off the vintage waistband to update the skirt. I actually decided to make this one because there is a pattern for an inverted pleat skirt on Burdastyle.com that looks a lot like this pattern, but without the waistband.

Then disaster struck! I was humming along, making great progress, when a cat invaded my sewing space and plopped down on my project, staring at me and purring. I had no choice. It was time to stop sewing and cuddle.

Ace demands I take a break by parking himself on the skirt I was working on.

Ace demands I take a break by parking himself on the skirt I was working on.

When I came back to my project and did a fitting, I realized my zipper was nearly diagonal. That was not the fault of the pattern or my adjustments. I have zipper issues. That botched zipper installation was ALL on me.

I did fix the zipper after some minor cussing, and all is well. The zipper is straight again.

I experimented a little on the waistband, or lack thereof. Since there wasn’t a waistband, I had to finish the waist some other way. I first tried twill tape, which another pattern I had made used to finish a skirt without a waistband, but it wasn’t really right for the bulk of the flannel and the darn fraying. So I pulled that off and went to another finish: double folded bias tape. I finished the interior of the waist with bias tape which I stitched on by hand. And I am very pleased with the result. Tres elegant.

Such nice needlework!

Such nice needlework!

I want to shout out to one of my favorite sites, Colette Patterns. I feel I’ve gained some polish after following their blog, The Coletterie and reading their sewing book. I highly recommend both to anyone who loves to learn new skills.  What I have learned from The Coletterie combined with my own experiences:

  • I’ve learned to go slow. While it’s tempting to zip through a project, grab it and wear it, that’s not always the best approach. Taking the time to do it is so rewarding- fewer mistakes and a really nice garment comes from patience and planning.  I’m sure my method for adjusting the fit on this pattern is a little unorthodox and certainly isn’t totally accurate, but I have found that the extra planning was worth it.
  • I carefully chose my project following the Wardrobe Architect series. It is a really eye-opening look at what you sew, and what speaks to you. It helped me get to an organized, practical approach in my project selection.
  • I chose the correct fabric and planned around the flannel’s fraying by choosing french seams and bias tape finishes.
  • I hand-stitched certain elements to give greater control.
  • Neatness counts. Tidy up your threads, exposed edges, and make sure that hem is the same all the way around! Clothes can be pretty inside, too, not just outside.
French seams, a  carefully sewn hemline and some snazzy purple nails.

French seams, a carefully sewn hemline and some snazzy purple nails.

On a side note, when I opened this pattern envelope to begin my project, I found that most of the pieces were uncut. Only one version of the skirt had been cut, and it was the same pieces I needed for the version I chose. Grandma had written yardage notes on the back for version 3, but those pieces remain uncut. I think that back in the 1960s, she changed her mind, and made the same skirt I chose to make. Complete coincidence. Pretty interesting, huh?  I like to think that somewhere in the afterlife, she’s laughing.

Nice skirt!

Nice skirt!

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