How to Read a Vintage Sewing Pattern Envelope

When you first start sewing with vintage sewing patterns, the pattern envelope may seem a little odd, confusing and pretty strange to read. Don’t let vintage sewing envelopes put you off, once you learn the basics, they are informative and easy to understand. After sewing for a few years and learning how to read vintage sewing patterns, I wanted to share all you need to know to make your own vintage sewing adventures just a little easier. It’s worth noting that all vintage sewing patterns vary slightly but hopefully you’ll find the answers on this post to help you out.

Envelope Front

Pattern Code and Company
Every pattern will have the pattern companies name printed on the front of the envelope which for experienced sewers, can already give you an insight into how the pattern will be printed, how the instructions will be written and some expectations with the sizing and fit. As a newbie, you will start to learn this with time.
The pattern code, the four large numbers at the top of the envelope, can help you search the code online and organise your patterns for storage. If I buy a vintage pattern, I like to search the code to see if other people have sewn it up before just for fun and inspiration.

Pattern Illustration Variations
This refers to the illustrated depiction of what the pattern looks like once sewn up. The illustration often gives you styling suggestions, ideas of fabric colours and contrasting fabric examples. The pattern illustration is generally what draws you into the pattern and a great way to start brainstorming what you want your finished garment to look like.
There may be a few variations of pattern illustrations and each will be labeled with a letter which you can use to identify corresponding information on the back of the envelope.

Pattern Size
Possibly one of the most important pieces of information that you can find on the front of the envelope. Vintage sewing patterns are generally only one size so you need to make sure you buy as close to your actual size or get ready to resize the pattern yourself. The size is generally divided into a numbered size and then the bust size. In today’s measurements, the numbered size doesn’t really help as women’s sizing has been changed and altered so many times there’s no telling what some vintage patterns would measure up in todays clothing. After sewing with vintage patterns for a while, you might start to recognise that some patterns just fit better so just keep trying new patterns.
The bust size is often a number in inches (unless stated otherwise eg. on vintage Australian/New Zealand patterns which are in centimetres). This is a great way to see if a pattern will fit as by measuring your own bust, you can see how close the pattern will fit. Personally I find that once sewn up, the pattern is often slightly larger (it’s easier to make a pattern smaller than make it larger). Try to get a pattern in a bust size as close to your own as you can or get ready to size the pattern up or down as needed.

Pattern Price
Some vintage patterns will have the original price printed on the front of the envelope. This means nothing in today’s world but I like knowing that originally a pattern cost only a few cents or something in pounds, shillings and pence’s that I personally don’t understand.

Envelope Back

Not all patterns are the same so unfortunately I cannot tell you where all the pattern information will be located on the back of your envelope. Take some time to slowly get familiar with the back of your vintage sewing pattern envelope and locate all the information as you go. The more you sew and use vintage patterns, the better you will get with recognising envelope information.

Sizing Information
The back of the pattern envelope will always have sizing information; after measuring your own bust, waist and hips you can use your measurements in comparison to the envelopes sizing. It’s worth noting that your measurements may fit a variations of sizing and I’d recommend sizing up and using the largest size there. Once you find your measurements, you can then locate your pattern size, compare it to the size printed on the front of the envelope and then you will know if the pattern will fit you.

Pattern Description
On the back of the envelope you may find a short paragraph depicting a description of the finished garment. This description will give you a vague idea of the fit, any variations and certain details such as ruffles, lace, gathers etc.

Fabric requirements
Normally the largest part of the back of the envelope is the fabric requirements chart, don’t worry, it’s not as daunting as it looks once you learn how to use it. Start by knowing you pattern size and make sure it matches your measurements. Then decide what garment you want to sew (look at the illustrations on the front and find the corresponding letter/number for that garment piece). Looking at the fabric requirement chart, follow it down until you find your desired garment, then move across that row until you find your pattern size. Here you will see how much fabric you require in yards including yardage information if your fabric is with or without nap.
Some vintage patterns may also give you the required fabric yardage depending on if your fabric is 45″ or 60″ wide. It’s also worth getting a little bit of extra fabric as mistakes can be made.

Fabric suggestions
The pattern knows best so by reading the recommended fabric suggestions, you can make the best garment possible. Although most of the time some good quality cotton is best for most patterns, some patterns may recommend a knit, silk, chiffon or wool fabric. It’s worth noting what fabrics patterns recommend as you can deduce how much stretch the pattern allows for especially when comparing cotton to a knit for example.

Notions refer to extra trims or decorations such as lace, ribbons, bias tape, buttons, interfacing and zip sizing. Most patterns will mention how much of a certain notion you will need to complete the garment and it’s always worth noting things such as zip size or the length of ribbons and lace you may need. The notions will generally be in a separate section of the pattern somewhere on the back of the envelope.

Finished garment measurements
Although not all vintage patterns will have finished garment measurements, this little chart can be very helpful as the finished garment may vary from the sizing information chart. The finished garment will always vary slightly from the sizing chart.

Pattern Pieces Illustration
Most vintage sewing patterns will have a simple illustration of the pattern pieces found inside the envelope. Each piece will be labeled with either a letter of a number and sometimes there will be a depiction of the grain line. This chart can be useful to see how the garment will be put together, if it has facing or lining and you can get an idea of how complicated the pattern will be to use.

Number of Pieces
Most vintage patterns, somewhere on the back of the envelope normally near the pattern code or the pattern piece illustrations, will tell you how many pattern pieces are inside the envelope. This is helpful if you are buying vintage patterns and want to make sure the pattern is complete.

Garment Illustrations
As lovely as the front cover illustration can be, normally on the back of the pattern envelope there will be a straight forward illustration of the finished garment, both front and back. This illustration will give you a clear idea of what the garment will look like including location of the zipper, where darts are located and how the garment is cut.

Variations and Extras

Pattern Age Group
A lot of vintage sewing patterns will somewhere state what age group a pattern is aimed at through the use of the terms, “misses”, “junior” or “teen”. This gives you an idea of the sizing fit for certain body types and if they will fit you. Not all patterns will have such terms but as some patterns have sizing variations, some will so it’s worth noting. It is common to find this information on the front and back of the pattern.

Pattern Location
Most vintage patterns will somewhere state where their country of origin is. Although the location doesn’t normally effect the pattern, some patterns, especially vintage couture patterns, may be a little different to Western patterns. For example, a vintage couture French pattern I have has no pattern pieces and each piece must be drawn up itself, theres no seam allowance and of course, the pattern instructions must be translated.

Some vintage patterns will have a ruler printed along the edge to help you measure out notions and other such things.

With the wide variation of vintage patterns out there, it’s not always easy to understand them at first but most patterns will have the same information printed on them. Once you start sewing and using a range of patterns both vintage and modern, you will soon learn how to read them with ease. Of course there are some patterns which can pose more of a challenge but a quick Google for help can often deliver you all the information you need.

Coming soon to the blog will be a Part Two where I take you through the basics of how to read a vintage sewing pattern as they certainly differ from modern ones. I will link this blog here once it’s up so stay tuned.


Note: This is not a sponsored post. All opinions and thoughts expressed are solely my own and not influenced in any way. There are no affiliate links and I do not benefit from any link clicks or purchases made.


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