How to Sew: Part 1
Before I begin, I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to everyone who chimed in with opinions and suggestions for my new yellow dress. The discussion was quite lively, with tons of amazing ideas tossed around. In the end, I’m going for the plain yellow dress with no other colors sewn on. Then, when I wear it I can accessorize with red, blue, green, black, white, brown, purple and even orange if I wanted to. In the long run, it’s probably the best way to get the most wear out of the dress.
Today I’m going to share about how I begin working with a vintage pattern. In my case, Advance 2973 from the 1940s. Vintage patterns are quite fragile, so instead of using the original pattern pieces that come in the envelope to pin to the fabric, I like to trace them all out onto brand new tracing paper before I begin. I only make a working copy of the pattern when working with vintage. For the brand new patterns you can buy in the fabric store, I cut right into them and use them as is.
First, you’ll need to gather your supplies.
– 1 roll of regular tracing paper (I got mine from here, but I’ve seen it in my local Hobby Lobby in the drafting section) Wax paper, packing paper and butcher paper will all work fine, too.
-1 reliable pencil (I like mechanical)
-1 fine tipped permanent pen (I used a Sharpie pen)
-1 regular clean iron (I say clean because you don’t want any yucky burned stuff coming off onto the pattern when you iron it.)
-1 pair of paper scissors (see note below*)
-1 vintage pattern
–an assortment of household items to use as weights while tracing (candles and small cans of food would be good, but you can use whatever you have – you just don’t want it to be too bulky that you can’t get your arms around it to trace)
-1 large plastic zip-top bag
Take all the pieces from the envelope very carefully. The paper is fragile and tears easily. Unfold each piece, one at a time and smooth them out with your hand. (Make sure you don’t have any lotion on your hands.) Make a little pile of your smoothed pieces.
Turn on your iron to its lowest setting – the coolest it can be while still being on. On my iron, that is the “synthetic” setting.
When the iron is ready, take your first smoothed pattern piece and gently but quickly glide the iron over it to smooth out the wrinkles. [Disclaimer: I’m sure some sewers are going to be horrified at the idea of ironing vintage pattern pieces to smooth them out, since heat is so well know to be a killer for vintage items. I can’t come up with any other way to make the pattern usable. If you have a better way, please share it. I’m always open to suggestions.] Continue using the iron to smooth all the rest of the pieces, taking care not to catch the iron on any marking perforations in the paper.
Lay out all your ironed pieces and compare them to the pattern instructions to see if they are all present and accounted for. This is very important, because vintage patterns often have pieces missing. If you find your pattern is missing a piece, it’s not the end of the world. Sewing forums or blogs like Sew Retro are great places for connecting with other sewers who may have the same pattern as you and would be willing to trace your missing piece and send it to you.
Get acquainted with your pattern pieces. On my pattern, all the information is marked with perforations made in the paper. The letter of the pattern, signifying which piece it is, is marked with a dotted letter. Small circles and notches are used as matching points, so you know how to match up the different pieces. Most of the early patterns (1930s-1960s, I think) were marked with perforations. The idea of printing on the patterns didn’t take hold until the mid 60’s, I believe.
Time to trace. Roll out your tracing paper on a large flat surface. You’ll want a good amount of room, but this can be done in a smaller area. Lay your pattern pieces out on the paper, rotating them to make as many fit as possible and set your weights on top of them. When laying out the pieces, make sure you notice where the notches are – these look like little triangles cut into the side of the paper. When you have the pieces arranged the way you want, start tracing around them with your pencil. Trace the outline, the inside of the perforations and draw out your notches. Make sure you look over the pattern carefully to be sure you have found all the marking perforations. It’s easy to miss them sometimes. Many patterns, like my Advance, have all the perforations and notches labeled on the instruction sheet. Compare your tracing to that to double check. Trace each piece individually out onto the paper.
Before we continue with the new traced pieces, let’s preserve the vintage pieces and keep them safe. Here’s where you’ll need your zip-top bag. Fold each pattern piece back up into a manageable size. Gather the folded pieces, together with the pattern envelope and slip them into your plastic bag. At the end of this project, when you are done with the instructions, they will also be stored in this bag. The bag will help to keep the pieces from being lost, and also provide some protection for the yellowing paper.
Now that you have all the pieces traced in pencil, get out your fine tipped permanent pen and go over all the perforation markings and the pattern letter. These are the most important pieces of information on the pattern, and you don’t want them to get smudged or rubbed out. It’s not necessary to mark over the outline in permanent pen, since it is only a cutting line.
Break out those paper scissors now and cut the new traced pieces out of the background.
One last step: look at the cutting layouts on the pattern instruction sheet. On a vintage pattern, this is the only way you are going to be able to figure out how many of each piece to cut. On modern patterns, this information will already be printed on the pattern piece. You’re going to see rectangle boxes with all the pattern pieces laid out on them. The rectangle represents a yardage of fabric as you would buy it in the fabric store. It is a huge piece that has been folded in half to create this slender rectangle. On the instruction sheet, one long side of the fabric is marked with the word FOLD. On the other, you’ll see the word SELVAGES. The selvages are factory finished edges of the fabric. On my cutting instructions you can see that we have 5 pattern pieces that need to be cut on the fold. The fold is marked on each piece with two large dots in a vertical line. Usually, when a pattern piece is cut on the fold, you only need one. Pieces cut on the fold are mostly back and collar pieces, since they are symmetrical. From the cutting instructions, we can ascertain that for Advance 2973, we will need:
2 of A
1 of B (on fold)
1 of C (on fold)
1 of D (on fold)
2 of E
2 of F
1 of G (on fold)
2 of H
4 of J
1 of K (on fold)
2 of L
2 of N
Go back to each of your traced pattern pieces now and mark the number of fabric pieces you ‘ll need for each and whether or not it is cut on the fold. This will help you immensely when you are ready to cut the fabric.
Armed with your new set of pattern pieces, you are now ready to begin your sewing endeavor! Up next, Outfitting Your Sewing Kit.
As always, if you have a comment, suggestion, see something I said that is wrong, or have trouble understanding a step, leave me a note and tell me about it. I’m a big believer in feedback!
*In the sewing world, there are 2 kinds of scissors – fabric and paper. Each is kept separate from the other and used for their specific purpose only. They aren’t special scissors you can buy and before they are used they are exactly the same. The difference comes with use. Paper dulls the blades faster than fabric, so you never want to cut paper with your fabric scissors.