Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Pattern Archive

As you know, I have a rather large collection of sewing patterns. In spite of donating several dozen to the Salvation Army recently, the number is still somewhere in the hundreds.

A subset: dresses, 1970 through 2012.

If you read some of the vintage sewing blogs, you know that there are different methods of handling very old patterns. Some people create precise digital copies in order to save the information, because the paper is nearing the end of its life. Others feel that all possible measures should be taken to protect and preserve the paper originals. They copy the pattern so that it does not need to be handled, and then they store the pattern tissue, instruction sheet, and pattern envelope separately so that the different chemical compositions do not react with each other. They use Mylar sleeves, calcium-buffered boards, and air- and water-tight storage boxes. 

I have a more moderate approach, because I can’t see spending thousands of dollars for preservation of items I spent a fraction of that on, but at the same time, these are historic treasures that I want to protect.
I scan the front and back of each envelope so if I just want to look at the drawings or check the yardage, I can pull up the digital image without ever touching the pattern.

If the pattern is in very good condition, I might use it for actual sewing, that is, stick pins (gasp!) into it. But if it’s crumbling, I’ll trace it onto pattern paper before it disappears completely.

Luckily for pattern collectors, comic book collectors had this all figured out long ago. Archival plastic sleeves, stiff cardboard, and sturdy boxes keep printed materials clean and unwrinkled. I store every pattern, new or old, in a polypropylene comic sleeve (less than 1/3 the cost of Mylar). 
 Patterns in comic sleeves with cardboard. Simplicity, Butterick, etc. fit in “New” comic sleeves, 6 7/8” wide. McCalls patterns fit in“Silver Age” comic sleeves, 7 1/2" wide.

For the oldest patterns, I also slide a comic board into the sleeve to keep the envelope from bending or tearing. Usually I separate the tissue from the envelope as well, unless the pattern has never been opened. I just put the tissue behind the board, the envelope in front.

The range of conditions between different patterns, even of similar ages, is quite amazing. I have one from 1942 which is in nearly new condition, even though the tissue has been in the envelope for 70 years. Another one from 1946 is in a dreadful state, showing discoloration from the tissue inside, disintegration around the edges from temperature and light, and possible insect or fungus damage. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know what handling and storage conditions resulted in such a difference between the two?

During my “time off” I managed to sort, scan, and file all the patterns from 1908 through 1960.
My oldest pattern, M 4922, dated 1908

With a few exceptions, my patterns from the 60s and later are in excellent condition with no discoloration or foxing, and minimal tearing.
 B 9367, ca. 1960 (Why are my 52-year-old paper patterns in better condition than my 52-year-old body?)  

I’ll just keep the newer ones in plastic sleeves without the added bulk of cardboards.

Are you a collector of ephemera? Do you go to great lengths to preserve things, or just enjoy them while they last?



  1. Your collection is amazing.

    I have only a fraction of your patterns but thanks for that helpful preservation advice - my patterns are stuffed into shoe boxes and scattered around in various bags of sewing in progress.

    I've always been a collector by nature but try to control myself - until after I've won the lottery and live in a large house with more storage!

    1. I don't know why I have this tendency to squirrel things away - especially patterns. Maybe there will be a big demand for them in a post-apocalyptic barter economy? Really there's no sense to it other than sheer love, so I have to try to keep it under control and keep winnowing things out.

  2. I don't have any vintage collections of ephemera of any genre but I'm a seamstress and learned to sew from my mother in the 70's when I was a girl and absolutely enjoyed and poohed and ahhed over these. That would be ooooohed and hah he'd - my iPad always wants to correct me

    1. Hi, yes, it's better not to pooh over them but fine to oooh over them. Silly iPad!
      I did a lot of sewing in the 70s as well, and then stopped for 30 years. Now when I'm browsing pattern shops I see lots of 70s styles that I remember well, and have to stop myself from buying them out of nostalgia. Some of those styles might not look quite as cute on me now. LOL

  3. Wow- what a fabulous collection. I love the idea of the comic book sleeve to protect them. My oldest (of my very small collection) are from the 40's and would benefit from some protection like that!

    1. Hi Patti, if you have just a few that you want to protect, you might consider putting them in Zip-Loc bags or those clear pockets that go in 3-ring binders. Zip-Loc is polyethylene, which is not as good (according to archive experts) as polypropylene, but it's better than nothing. Alternatively, a trip to the comic book store can be quite entertaining!

  4. I am with Snippa on this one regarding storage although I don't even have the luxury of shoe boxes.Obviously the warmer climate where you live affords lots of spare time to be able to collate
    and index such a gorgeous collection whereas where we are, in the gloom and COLD,we have to spend all of our time just trying to keep dry and warm!
    Those 1940's dresses look absolutely gorgeous by the way.

    1. Certainly there's a strong correlation between warm weather and luxurious free time, that's why when I'm not sorting patterns I'm reclining on my chaise lounge with an umbrella drink. With your dreadful, COLD climate, I imagine all you do 24/7 is patch the holes in your roof and chop wood for the fire, poor thing!
      I do love the 40s dresses, and I really should sew more of them.