1930s Sew-along with Norma: Sources for fabric ideas

The fabric swatches previously ordered for the 1930s Sew-along  are all pretty in their own way.  But I’ve yet to find just the right one.  The challis swatches are the right weight but their prints are too busy.  This would cause the details of the dress to get lost.  The pink crepe I had selected would be perfect for a lightweight suit but not a dress.

I plan to study vintage pattern envelope scans for styles similar to the one I’m working on.  The fabric selections given there will be of great help.  Advertisements from vintage magazines and newspapers also offer resources since many ads describe the fabrics used to create the fashions.  It’s true that some of these fabrics are no longer available but I think research on the internet can help one find equivalents.  Fabrics like rayon, silk, linen are still used today.  I think even a blend of synthetic and these fibers would work well.

I’m finding the main challenge to be whether or not to go with a print.  This is where advertisements from period publications are a big help.  Sometimes pattern envelope illustrations only show solid colors for a garment because the purpose of the illustration is to show the garment details.

Here is the advertisement from the  May 2, 1938 Chicago Tribune that got me to thinking along these lines.  How do you shop for fabric when making a vintage or vintage inspired style?  Please share your stories and any guidelines.

Sheer Femininity-Advertisement for Fashions at Carson Pirie Scott & Co.
May 2, 1938




Note:  I find the names of two colors rather odd.  Perhaps “copen” means Copenhagen blue?  Could “luggage” be a shade of brown?


Chicago Tribune
May 2, 1938
Page 9



1930s Sew-along with Norma: Lessons Learned and Next Phase

I’ve found the reasons why Version 2 of my 1930s toile still had rippling at the neckline and a very tired look. I was using a very lightweight draping muslin that did not work well with my touch and how I was using it at the neckline. I practiced binding the neckline again but using a medium weight muslin. This time I had success with the neckline.

I’m not satisfied, though, with the overall results I’ve produced for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma. I’m very fussy about the way a garment fits. My progress at draping is not at a level where I can successfully create a pattern for an entire garment. Yet I do feel that reconnection to this skill coming back. It’s going to take time, a lot of time, for me to get it all together. Draping is a little like learning how to play a musical instrument. The more you practice on a consistent, scheduled basis the greater the progress. Since I have many personal and job related activities right now this practice time is not continuous. Days lapse without me continuing the movements of the day before and it takes awhile to get back into the groove.

I have learned several things about vintage sewing and draping from this exercise. I’ve also realized several things about all the books on vintage sewing, draping and patternmaking. I want to share these with you:

• Sewing vintage is a specialty. So call yourself a specialist in vintage sewing and patternmaking techniques.
• You need sufficient knowledge of alterations to render the garment wearable with today’s undergarments and your own body shape.
• Journeying into the work involved with vintage patterns is like learning a foreign language. There many perforations and shapes you need to know the meaning of since most patterns did not have grain lines or sewing details printed on them.
• Some of the books available for draping like “Precision Draping” by Nellie Weymouth Link or “”Draping & Designing With Scissors and Cloth 1930s” by Sandra Ericson are not for the beginner. I say this because they lack the level of highly detailed books we have available today. Our modern books offer much more detail and better illustrations to take you step-by-step through the process. Which is why our modern draping books can cost more than $75 to $100 each.
• Vintage patternmaking books like Margaret Ralston’s “Dress Cutting” offer what appears like a quick way to make your own patterns using a block method. I’ve googled and seen some results of other bloggers who use her basic bodice and the results are very good. I do think that one would have to experiment with the amount of style ease needed for each dress in the book since Ralston does not even offer a guideline.

I’m going to complete this project using the patternmaking system I learned in design school. Otherwise this dress will never come into expression. What I have learned through all the versions of the dress will prove very valuable:

• I have learned where the most flattering levels for a flounce are on a skirt—Never put one into a seam at abodomen level or let the seam cross the end of your backside—This will not be flattering.
• When working with a tubular silhouette of the 1920s or very early 1930 it is best to place the dart at bust level or above, such as in the armhole or at the shoulder line.
• French darts to not look very good with an unfitted tubular dress or bodice. The long French dart that starts almost or slightly above the waistline looks better with an A-line type of flare at the side seam.
• 1930s long sleeves were quite fitted at the wrist with ease starting at the elbow. Consideration has to be given as to the level of comfort and movement we are used to today: do we give that up to keep the look authentic or do we alter the pattern?

So while my method for creating the dress will be a patternmaking system that developed after the 1930s I think the back story of the dress details will be from the 1930s. All the draping and experimenting done through the past versions of the dress have made it possible for me to know exactly how much style ease is needed as well as which sewing techniques from 1930s will work.

This will also provide a good lesson in the differences in fit the different methods and mediums produce. I have a rare four days at home this weekend so I plan to make the most of it and complete a drafted paper pattern before next Monday.

More to come…

“Edith Head & Co.” exhibit at The Decorative Arts Center of Ohio

I have always associated Edith Head with the glamorous fashions of 1940s Hollywood. Her career, however, began much earlier than this.  In the late 1920s she began work at Paramount Studios.  Edith worked at the studio during the time two other top Hollywood designers were there: Howard Greer and then Travis Banton.  After Banton left Paramount in the late 1930s, Edith rose into a position of prominence at the studio.


“Edith Head & Co.” is the current exhibit at The Decorative Arts Center of Ohio. It features costumes Edith designed for such stars as Barbara Staynwyck in “The Lady Eve” with its clever use of a sheer fabric under a beaded midriff to give the appearance the actress is not wearing anything underneath.  There are also costumes designed by Greer and Banton that provide a basis for comparison and contrast to Edith’s designs.  Into this are mixed the creations of other famous Hollywood designers like Irene and modern costume designers such as Colleen Atwood.  On display are also accessories and jewelry used in films from the 1920s through today.

You can see a preview of the exhibit at Youtube. Each costume is beautifully presented in a space that creates the sense of entering a temple of enduring glamor and elegance.  I think actually visiting the exhibit will add to the experience since the costumes may be viewed up close and in relationship to the other costumes they are grouped with.


The exhibit runs through August 14th, 2016 at:


Decorative Arts Center of Ohio
145 E. Main St.
Lancaster, Ohio 43130
Phone: 740-681-1423


For further information please visit http://www.decartsohio.org/exhibitions.html





1930s Sew-along with Norma: Completed Toile V.2

Observations on vintage garments:  darts, flares, armholes and sleeves

Version 2 of the toile for 1930s Sew-along with Norma is completed.  I have a much, much better idea where improvements are needed.  Better yet, I also have some solutions that will take me forward.  I’m not ready to cut the fashion fabric yet.  There is still more to accomplish in the learning curve.  I’ve come a long way since diving in and taking up vintage draping and drafting techniques these past two months.

The drafted sleeve from the Ralston book “Dress Cutting” did not work out.  I think it is due to the shape of her armhole being different from the one in the toile.  Also, I discovered a few things about draping for set-in sleeves:

*Drawing the armhole on a draped garment is not always easy.  Sometimes the toile tightens up after sewing.  The markings that were in the right place when pinned to the form shift slightly inward.  This can happen if the drape is too tight.  When there is too much ease it will shift outward after being unpinned and sewn.

*Draping a set-in sleeve results in more ease than I’ve ever seen in a sleeve pattern before.  Dealing with 1-2 inches of excess ease is a big problem.  Alterations that work for lesser amounts do not succeed as you’ve seen with the previous postings.

*From drafting and sewing the sleeve from Ralston’s book I got several impressions about vintage garments.  First the armholes in some years were higher than what we are used to today.  Second, sleeves were tighter at the wrist and elbow.  This means that the concept of style ease was different.  Today we require comfort and movement from our closthes.  This is why we do not see many sleeves with darts or elbow ease.

Bust darts are another problem in vintage garments.  I think whether you sew from a vintage pattern or use a system from the period to drape &/or draft you’ll find the bust darts are too high for modern standards.  The apex goes past the natural point of the bust.  I think this is due to the different foundation garments women wore in the past.  Uplift, underwire, padding and cone shaped bras lent to that shape.

The flares of the dress need adjusting and greater depth if the dress is to have more pizzaz to it.  Right now they look so tired.  Thankfully, there is a solution to that.  There is also a solution to the bust darts.  I plan to play around with some muslin again.  I’ll try the double French darts that were shown in the pattern illustration from “Paris Frocks at Home”.  If that doesn’t work I’m going to modify the dart to a more modern interpretation and put the apex at the level we are used to today.

Even if the sleeve worked out it, too, would need adjustment.  It should cover the arm but not encase it.  So it’s back to the drawing board and dress form.  My  modification is to go back to a sleeveless style.

The ongoing problem I have is with the bias binding at the neckline.  I am applying it right on top of the neckline and using pick stitches or back stitches.  Even though I’m hand sewing the bias binding keeps rippling.  I’m going to try opening it up, stitching on the edge and then turning it to the wrong side.  Do you think that will stop the rippling?  If that doesn’t work, I’m going to look to different, non-1930s techniques that will provide a solution.  I really don’t want to use armhole and neckline facings since this is a pull-over dress.  It needs to be lightweight.  But I can’t have the neckline damaged by normal wear and pulling on and off.  Stay-stitching hasn’t completely solved this problem.    Any suggestions most welcome!

Version 2 photos


The flares need working on.  I plan to fix the placement and depth.    I need to fix the level of the dart.


The sleeve I made using Ralston’s drafting instructions sings too much to the front of the dress.  It was somewhat tight at the wrist.  Since the underarm seam has to be 3/4 ” to the front of the side seam this may have something to do with it.  I think using a sleeve drafted from a different patternmaking system was part of the issue.  Also my armhole was not that well positioned.


The mitering went pretty good this time but I’m still not satisfied with the rippling that takes place.  I’ve steamed, stretched and shaped before applying but it still doesn’t lie flat when sewn on as “Paris Frocks at Home” recommended to readers in 1930.  The Butterick pattern directions I have from the book also recommend sewing it on by placing over the neckline and machine stitching.



1930s Sew-along with Norma: The Drafted Sleeve, Part 1

I’ve completed cutting out and sewing the sleeve for the dress I’m making as part of the 1930s Sew-along with Norma.  I’m hoping with all my heart that it works out.  I’ve yet to sew it into the bodice because I have to complete other parts of the bodice in this order:

  1.  Sew the facing for the slot seam at center back.
  2.  Sew the shoulder seams.
  3.  Apply a new technique to miter the bias binding before sewing to the neckline.
  4.  Sew the bias binding to the neckline and sleeve hem.
  5.  Sew side seams of bodice.

This doesn’t seem like a lot to do but I’m in need of some serious nap time after a 4 hour train ride back to New York last Sunday and another travel day to New Jersey on Thursday.  If it’s one thing I’ve learned it’s never to sew when sleepy.  More time will be spent undoing stupid mistakes like sewing the sleeve in backwards.  How many of you have done that, too?

The very first thing I did after cutting the new toile out was to stay stitch the neckline front and back.  I also stay stitched part of the side seams.  The sleeve, too, got stay stitched along the wrist and side seams because they are curved.  The vertical dart has a very large intake.  I do not think I will cut it open and press it flat.  Instead, I’m going to trim the dart intake and press towards the center of the sleeve.  I’ve decided to leave 2″ open from the bottom of the sleeve seam upwards.  This will allow the sleeve to go on without any pulling.  I think a button and thread loop will work as a closure.

The sleeve drafting instructions come from “Dress Cutting” by Margaret Ralston.  She notes that the sleeve seam has to be placed 3/4″ in front of the bodice side seam.  Now I have to figure out if the center marking on the sleeve cap should also go 3/4″ forward from the shoulder seam or match up at the shoulder seam.  This is why I’m going to wait  until I’m more rested to proceed with the next steps of the sewing.

Here are some progress photos…


Sleeve drafting instructions from “Pattern Cutting” by Margaret Ralston.


Drafted pattern after alteration to remove excess ease.  If this works I’ll tell you all about it.


Sleeve before pressing seams and dart.  Sleeve cap needs to be steamed.


This dart intake is very large but gives the wrist such a lovely curve.  Now let’s hope the cap works out when sewn into the armhold.


The Dressmaker’s Library: Vintage books on-line

I’ve just discovered two on-line vintage books  you’re sure to enjoy browsing through.  They are complete and available for viewing.  You’re able to print one page at a time but not download the entire book.

“The Mary Brooks Picken Method of Modern Dressmaking” by Mary Brooks Pickens was published in 1925.  Many of the new techniques Mary promotes are now very familiar to the home sewist.  What I found interesting were the chapters dealing with figure types and standard measurements.  The average measurements give some indication that women did have curves and were not at all the wispy, tubular shaped girls we  imagine when we think of the 1920s.  There are many photos of garments, seam finishes and Mary at her sewing machine.

Use this link to get to the on-line book:

“Pattern Drafting, Pattern Grading, Garment Making, Garment Fitting” was written by a professional tailor named Edmund Gurney.  He teaches a method of pattern drafting using standard measurements.  This is done to keep the drafting, as he says, simple.  A method for adjusting the resulting pattern to your own measurements is provided.

Mr. Gurney must have had what I’d consider a sparkling personality.  He intersperses pages of poetry and witty quotes between the technical chapters.  He does draw the reader in.  I especially liked his family history and how one of the earliest ancestors became a tailor.

This book was published in 1939.  The basic shell has the beginnings of what we see as the fitting shell used today.  The main difference I see is that the 1939 fitting shell had an A-line type of skirt.  Today ours is closer to a pencil skirt.

This book is available at:  https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924003596545;view=1up;seq=1

1930s Sew-along with Norma: A possible solution to the sleeve problem

A fast update before I go away for the weekend.  I’m so determined to stay true to the period that I had an “Aha!” moment in the middle of last night!

I have to break my habit of falling back on what I know as the only possible solution.  The whole purpose of the 1930s Sew-along with Norma is to learn new skills and problem solving approaches.

I realized this as I tried to alter the draped sleeve again.  It still is too tight.  But rather than draft a sleeve based on the 1950s origins of the French Fashion patternmaking technique I decided to try drafting the sleeve from the 1932 book “Dress Cutting” by Margaret Ralston.  I made a few changes to the way the sleeve cap was drawn.  For the alteration to reduce the cap I used an alteration mentioned in the 1930s draping book.  This might be the solution.  I’ll have to try but at least it’s truer to the period.

I may end up with a draped bodice and a drafted sleeve but it will all have originated in the 1930s.  If the sleeve works out I’ll share how I made a few changes so that it would work with my drape.  Sometimes using different systems is tricky but maybe I’ll get lucky and have a good result.