One of the things I love about wearing vintage clothing is that you are going to have an individual look when you wear vintage pieces. Whether you mix and match vintage and more modern pieces or go for a top to toe authentic look of the era, you are not going to meet someone else wearing the same outfit.
However, there can be problems. You need to be open minded about the vintage piece you are searching for, because the chances of you finding exactly the same outfit you have imagined or have seen in an illustration in your size are very small. The vintage store is not going to have a rack of "THAT DRESS!" in different sizes.
Butterick 6529 - SOLD
One option is to buy reproduction vintage clothing. Another option is to sew your own vintage outfit from a vintage pattern. Patterns come in all ability levels from beginner to advanced. So perhaps this is the time to start honing those skills.
McCall's 2177 - SOLD
Features of Vintage Patterns
Vintage patterns also have some features that you may not be familiar with if you have only sewn using modern patterns.
1. Vintage patterns generally only come with one size in a packet. Multi-sized patterns did not become available until the latter part of the 1980s. This means that searching for your ideal pattern can be almost as frustrating as searching for that individual vintage garment. You may find a pattern of the EXACT thing you have in mind, only to find it's three sizes too small for you. A great resource to help with this problem is the Vintage Pattern Wikia, a wiki with records of tens of thousands of vintage patterns, including illustrations, descriptions, links to blogs and links to vendors selling the patterns.
Weigel's 1815 - SOLD
2. Vintage patterns may be unprinted. This means that alteration lines, dart markings, etc may not be printed on the pattern pieces like they are on modern patterns. They may just be plain shaped pieces of tissue paper. Depending on the brand, an unprinted pattern may be found occurring as late as the mid 1960s. Other brands have been printing on their pattern pieces since the 1940s.
3. Vintage patterns may have minimal instructions. Old patterns assume a working knowledge of sewing techniques. Some old patterns as late as the 1950s may only have a few brief instructions printed on the back of the packet. Patterns from the1960s onwards have explicit instructions. Many 1950s patterns also have full instructions.
4. Very old patterns may not have seam allowances. Some old patterns as late as the 1950s may not include seam allowances on the pattern pieces, so when you cut you may need to allow 1.5 cm extra around the edges of the pattern piece. If seam allowances are not included, it should say so on the packet, so read the packet carefully to avoid wasting that precious fabric.
Pauline 5110 - SOLD
5. Most vintage patterns have been used. Check that the seller has checked the pattern and states that all of the pieces and the instructions are still there. A missing piece or two may not matter. If it's a facing you can always use bias tape instead, or if you feel confident, trace a facing piece from the other pattern pieces. However, if you pay $$$ for a vintage pattern and when you receive it you find that some of the main pieces are missing, you should ask to return it. If you pay 50c for a pattern in a thrift store, it's a chance worth taking.
You may have trouble finding fabric in a modern store which looks appropriate for a vintage garment. Vintage stores sometimes sell lengths of unused fabric, but this can be hard to find. Alternatively, like our ancestors did, you can look to repurpose some vintage curtains (think Scarlett O'Hara), sheets or a full skirt. Prior to the 20th century it was common for women to save the skirts of outmoded dresses and cut them down to make a more fashionable garment. Considering the amount of fabric in an 18th or 19th century skirt, and the cost of imported silks, for example, this was good practice. Also consider that vintage garments were likely to be made in cotton, silk, wool or rayon. By all means use synthetic fabrics, especially if you want to machine wash, but be aware that this may affect the overall vintageness of the look.
Who can forget Scarlett fingering the velvet curtains and thinking "Hmmm...?" when amidst the poverty and destruction of the war she has to pretend she is flourishing and come up with a fabulous outfit in an attempt to win the man with the money that will save her estate (Gone With The Wind). Yes, this used to be the curtains.
Unless you are experienced with sewing stretch fabrics, these are better avoided. You can progress to stretch lingerie and swimsuit sewing, but these are more advanced projects.
If you are a purist and you want the authentic vintage look, consider looking for genuine vintage buttons and trims. There are lots of these available on Etsy and Ebay. If you are a real purist, you may even want to use vintage metal zips in 1940s or 1950s dresses rather than modern nylon zips.
Look for a simple pattern that is not very closely fitted. Be wary of vintage patterns that say "Easy" on the packet. What they mean is relatively easy. 1970s and 1980s patterns that say easy probably are easy. Consider the kind of closure that is required. Can you put in a zip or will you go for a style that pulls on? Can you sew buttonholes or should you avoid them?
Vintage patterns sometimes include helpful instructions for altering the pattern for a better fit. If you are exactly the size described on the packet you are lucky. Alteration lines are marked on most patterns from the 1950s onwards. It may be a simple length alteration or something more complex.
So well armed with all this information, why don't you have a go? Check out some of my patterns here: