Thursday, January 9, 2014

Preserving and Storing Antique and Vintage Patterns

I have in my extensive pattern collection several dozen antique and vintage patterns. These garment patterns not only speak of historical fashion, but also of cultural expectations regarding modesty and gender in society, shifts in gender attitudes, human adornment and aesthetics, advances in garment and textile technology, commercialism, consumerism, and non-Western influence in fashion and design. The antique and vintage patterns that I have in my possession I wish to preserve - with each passing year they become rarer and more fragile as they slowly succumb to environmental elements. The fact is, all organic materials deteriorate over time, it's just a matter of how quickly. I would like to share with you how I preserve and store my patterns for the next generation of dressmakers.

1). With each pattern, I inventory the pattern pieces (Is the pattern complete? Is the Deltor, Belrobe, or instruction guide included?). I examine the over-all condition of the pattern by very carefully removing it from its envelope (in some cases the pattern will not be able to be reinserted due to the envelope's fragility), unfolding the pattern, gently removing any pins, staples, and paper clips and discarding them, checking for rips and tears, foxing (brown spots), water damage (mold, water lines, wrinkling), and accretions (dirt, oil, and grime). 

Note: in most cases, accretions, minor tears or rips, foxing, and some water damage will not affect the pattern's usage. Musty patterns are common and can be aired out flat in a well-ventilated area for a few days. Moldy patterns and pattern pieces need to be discarded (I know! *sad face*). DO NOT tape together rips or tears (leave them as they are - most tape is highly acidic and will deteriorate the paper over time), carefully brush off any dirt, etc. Look out for bugs! Like old books, bugs love old paper patterns (Eeeewww!).  

 2). I prepare the patterns for copying. Copies or facsimiles give me the ability to use and distribute my antique and vintage patterns without fear of damaging the originals. Copies can be frequently handled, consulted, and borrowed while my originals are stored away safely. I trace my patterns either on large tissue paper (party outlet store, $10 for 100 sheets of 20"x30") or rolled white bulletin board paper (teacher supply store, $15 for a 50' by 48" roll). Regarding the Deltors, Belrobes, and other instruction guides, I usually scan and copy them from my printer. If an instruction guide is too large, I will take it to my copying center and have an engineer's copy made (up to $6).

After I have carefully unfolded the pattern and removed the dirt and debris, pins, staples, paper clips, etc. (if the pattern is musty, I will have allowed it to air out flat for a few days), I set my iron to its silk setting (some irons do not have a silk setting, but a good rule of thumb is to use a low, dry heat). I place the pattern on the ironing surface and carefully test a corner of the tissue with the tip of my iron. If the iron drags or pulls on the tissue, I will need to place a light cotton towel over the pattern piece before ironing it further or the iron could snag the tissue and rip it. If the corner of the tissue curls up, the heat is too high on the iron and I have to knock it down a notch. Note: for printed patterns, it is very unlikely that the ink should fade, smear, or bleed (I have never had this happen and I have ironed a lot of printed antique and vintage patterns!). 

I begin carefully ironing the pattern. For large pieces, I easily glide the iron from the center out to the edges; for small or damaged pieces, I simply press the iron over the tissue or around the affected areas. Remember, you are ironing feather-light paper, not woven fabric, and while you will find that the tissue paper is surprisingly strong and resilient (It's survived all these decades, after all!), the pieces are still delicate. The idea of ironing a pattern is to flatten it just enough, to relax the creases and wrinkles just enough for accurate copying. Do take care around the marking perforations and fold lines of the pattern, they are more vulnerable to tearing.

3). Once the pattern pieces are carefully ironed, I lay them out on copying paper or under tissue paper and begin tracing them out in pencil. I take care to note on the traced pieces of each pattern that I copy the pattern's name (Excella), size (40 bust), and style number (#3093).

4). After the original pattern is traced on paper, I cut out the copy, fold it, and slip it and a copy of the original instruction guide into 10" x 13" white envelope with a photocopied image of the pattern taped or pasted on the front.

5).  Each original pattern piece is then folded by its original fold lines, if practical to do so, and placed back in its original envelope, if the envelop isn't too fragile. I have received antique patterns that are wadded like trash or so tightly folded by their previous owner that it's senseless (and careless). In these cases, I refolded the pattern carefully and systematically after ironing, creating as few new fold lines as possible.

5). Finally, I store my original antique and vintage patterns in acid-free/archival poly-sleeves. Let me tell you a little known, inexpensive secret to safely storing your patterns: use comic book sleeves and comic book backing boards, both are archival quality (acid-free). You want to purchase the 6-7/8" x 10-1/2" poly-sleeves and the 7" x 10-1/2" backing boards. There are acid-free comic books storage boxes, but they seem a bit pricey. As an alternative, I use a basic 15" x 10" x 12" Bankers Box ($4 at Walmart) that can perfectly store up to 100 patterns (two rows of 50). If you're uber-organized, there's also comic book dividers to help categorize your patterns, etc. While I do organize my antique and vintage patterns by era and type, I don't use dividers. Instead, on the upper left front corner of each pattern's sleeve, I stick a white description label to help me locate whatever pattern I need quickly.

  • Take care to store your patterns in a relatively dry area (about 50% humidity), away from radiators/heaters and vents - no musty basements or attics, garages or storage units, if it can be helped. 
  • Keep your patterns away from direct sunlight (the storage box will help significantly with keeping sunlight out).
  • Handle your originals as little as possible and with clean, ungloved hands (Dawn Dewey, Head Archivist for Wright State University's Special Collections Library, advises that when handling paper, it is almost always better to use your own hands, washed well, where you can feel what you are doing to avoid damaging the item).
  • Do not store your patterns in plastic food bags, mailing envelops, or manila folders - these are not acid-free.

Sources Consulted:

Have a safe and wonderful New Year, blessings and happy sewing!


  1. You did a brilliant job! I made the same experience when I received a pattern from 1940. It was so fragile- my floor was covered with tiny peaces of paper - like confetti. But after scanning and copying the pattern I hope I can work with it. Can´t wait to see all the lovely new dresses you will make with your "new" patterns :-D

    1. Thank you! :) It's a wonder that some of these old patterns have survived at all! Good luck on your '40s patterns, and do send me a link to the finished garment if you get to making it - would love to see it!

  2. These are great tips! I shared your post on my Facebook page.

    Emily's Vintage Visions

  3. I am impressed with the care you take with these wonderful relics. Thank goodness there are people like you that do that!