Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Buying Antique & Vintage Patterns on Ebay

When Ebay was founded and opened its cyber doors on the internet in the mid-1990s, it transformed the antique and collectors market forever, irrevocably changing how we purchase, trade, and sell consumer goods and services. It broke down regional barriers and exposed consumers and merchants alike to a world-wide marketplace accessible from the comfort and ease of our PCs, tablets, and smart-phones. Many common items, novelties, and oddities found instant popularity among delighted buyers, while other items, once considered exceptional or unique, were discovered to be widely available, and their high value, based upon their perceived rarity, immediately depreciated to the dismay of their sellers. Not only did Ebay become an overnight consumer-driven sensation, this virtual shopping bazaar became the gauge in which to estimate the value of all things sellable, great and small. Unfortunately, with the convenience of Ebay's open, diverse, and fluid virtual marketplace, there has developed a greater vulnerability to seller/buyer deception, price gouging, bid extraction, misrepresentation of merchandise, forgery, and theft. The antique and vintage sewing pattern market is no exception. 

I started collecting antique and vintage patterns several years ago when I began guest lecturing at Wright State University about the history of the American dressmaker. I used the patterns as props and for personal study to demonstrate and better understand the evolution of the paper clothing pattern, clothing construction, construction technology, and the eras of changing and recycled fashion aesthetics. In 2013, I began collecting digital images of patterns and their schematics, creating a small personal database of about fifteen thousand patterns over a 70-year history, organized by manufacture and date; this system allows me to generally understand which pattern manufacture did what when, who copied whom, and who introduced what to consumers. It sounds like a migraine in the works, but truly, it is has been an enlightening and intriguing endeavor!  

Auerbach's, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1909
Fun Fact: While the United States was not the first nation to manufacture or offer paper patterns to consumers, it was the first to standardize and mass market the paper pattern outside of women's periodicals, creating a multi-billion dollar industry that continues to thrive. Every western nation selling and developing paper patterns today is following the American industry model established more than a century ago. Go, Stars and Stripes!

The greater majority of my antique and vintage pattern purchases have been from Ebay sellers, and as a rule, these sellers are generally honest, mindful, and helpful individuals (as are most Ebay sellers). While I am certainly not the most prolific antique and vintage pattern buyer on the circuit, I am well-known among the sellers and I browse their inventory daily. There are noticeable trends and selling techniques I would like to share to help you navigate the antique and vintage pattern resale market, giving you an opportunity to purchase items in good faith and to avoid erroneous sellers and selling scams. 

TRUTH: "It's only worth as much as someone's willing to pay for it..." 

This is the driving force behind consumer demand, no matter what the product or service, no matter how common or rare the item, no matter the shape, size, or color - it doesn't matter. Consumer value for non-essential goods and services is subjective and relative to desire, including antique and vintage clothing patterns. Simply because a seller declares that an item is rare, exceptional, unique, or one-of-a-kind, and that we must Buy it now! because there is Only 1 left in stock! doesn't mean that it is so and it doesn't mean that we should

A fair price, indeed! But...
...not so VERY RARE, after all!

Q: What are antique and vintage patterns going for these days? A: There is no set standard for this market niche and prices often vary greatly from one seller to the next; what you pay is determined by the weight of your purse and your willingness to purchase.
My goodness, one for $20 or one for $100 - the agony of choice! 

Great Scott, the price variation is astonishing!

TRUTH: Most extant antique and vintage patterns are rare, but exceptional? No, not usually.

Rarity doesn't give a pattern an immediate or intrinsic value. Interestingly, there are about 400,000 patterns for sale on Ebay at any given time, and more than 70,000 of these are antique and vintage. It is important to remember that commercial pattern companies have always designed their patterns for the sewer with a basic skill set. Pattern companies keep to a few basic block designs. Without exception you can find - in any season of any year - clothing designs and patterns offered by each commercial pattern company based on the same or similar pattern blocks across the board. Where the patterns are exceptional is not usually with the pattern itself, but in the packaging and the cover art. 

Autumn 1934 - Pictorial Review 7514, McCall 8087, Vogue 6527

Evening wear 1941 - Simplicity 3865, Durbarry 2637B, McCall 4290

April 1921 - McCall 2040, Pictorial Review 9332, Ladies' Home Journal 3208
There are design variations for the purpose of aesthetics, and particular companies, like Vogue, began to introduce patterns with advanced blocking and construction techniques around the 1930s. But generally, the antique and vintage commercial patterns available for resale, like the retail commercial patterns sold today, are basic in design and construction and are meant for ease of use. 

CURRENT TRENDS in the antique and pattern resale market...

In the last two years, commercial patterns from the 1920s, particularly for women's clothing, have become difficult to find - there are not many being offered for sale. There are pattern inserts in various fashion magazines from this period, such as Le Petit Echo de la Mode and Le Revue, but these usually consist of a pattern page that needs traced and scaled. Despite their decreasing availability in the resale market, patterns from the '20s are generally offered by sellers at very reasonable prices, averaging around $15-$20. Men's and children's patterns from this period do not generally sell well and can be bought for a song; it is not uncommon to find them on Ebay in inexpensive lots and purchased for an average of $3-$8 a pattern. 

Antique patterns from the mid-1910s and earlier, are a little more abundant on Ebay, but usually they are sold as inserts in women's fashion periodicals and need to be traced and scaled, or graded if a loose paper pattern. As expected, they are more expensive, averaging $20-$30. Exceptional antique patterns, like the one pictured below, do sell quickly and for a considerable sum, but then again, these are exceptional.

The hottest vintage patterns on Ebay are those from the 1930s. They are selling well, averaging around $20-$35, and in some cases, like the pattern pictured below (top), for quite a sum more. Menswear and children's patterns in this decade are also big sellers and average about the same in price as the women's patterns. But, mens pajamas and undergarment patterns are generally inexpensive and average around $7-$15. 

~Less than $12 after shipping and handling~

Patterns from the 1940s remain a favorite among buyers, and on the rise to popularity are vintage patterns from the 1980s. For the '40s, the most common patterns available are those produced during the war; these patterns are usually "basic" in design and reflect the restrictions placed on garment yardage and fabric waste by the War Production Board in 1942. It wasn't until the late '40s that fashion really took an upswing and women's clothing patterns followed suit. The most popular patterns from this era are women's uniforms, women's trousers, evening gowns, and suits. 

Patterns from the 1980s aren't big sellers (yet), but patterns from Burda and Vogue are becoming increasing popular in the vintage resale market, especially Vogue's Individualist line (my favorite are those patterns designed by Issey Miyake). These designer patterns sell for an average of $15-$30. Interestingly, undergarment patterns from most clothing eras are not popular items in the pattern resale market, but 1980s lingerie (teddies, body suits, high-cut panties, etc.) is the exception and sells for an average of $10-$30 depending on the type of garment.

McCall (1944)
Vogue (1984)

WARNING: It is wise to be weary of a seller whose patterns have an incredible spike in high bidders and then multiple bidder retractions. This may indicate that something is amiss. It is NOT typical for vintage patterns to finish auction on such a high bid like the two McCall dress patterns pictured below - these auctions are suspect.

10 bidders, 30 bids, and the 6 highest bids retracted...hummm.
15 bidders, 30 bids, and the 4 highest bids retracted - deja-vu?

And then, there are sellers who are over-enthusiastic with their starting bids. Usually, after re-listing the same pattern 20-times over, they realize they need to drop the starting bid dramatically before the pattern will sell, or allow a buyer to make a reasonable offer. 

Whuh? NO!

With 70,000+ antique and vintage patterns to purchase on Ebay, there are good deals everywhere, and sometimes there are surprising discoveries...


This 1954 vintage Vogue reprint recently went OOP...

...but you can bid on an original!

$12.54 after shipping and handling? YAASSS!

  • An antique and vintage pattern is only worth as much as you are willing to pay for it. Do not feel that you have to pay a greater price than you are comfortable with.
  • There's no appraisal standard for antique and vintage commercial patterns - their value is subjective, they are widely available, and they are confined to a small niche market.
  • Commercial clothing patterns, whether today's or yesterday's, are for the sewer with a basic skill set; for ease of use, clothing patterns are constructed from a few simple blocks and are largely ordinary in design; their uniqueness is usually in their packaging and cover art. 
  • Because most commercial pattern companies sell the same or similar seasonal fashion designs as their competitors, if a buyer cannot find a particular pattern from one company, she will most likely find the same or similar pattern from another. 
  • The hot selling vintage patterns are from the 1930s; the 1940s remain popular; the 1980s are gaining ground.
  • While most sellers are professional, courteous, and fair, there are a few bad apples. BEWARE of sellers who make exaggerated claims and charge ridiculous prices (including shipping and handling) for their items. 
  • RESEARCH! Check out Etsy, Artfire, and other selling venues, there are deals and surprises everywhere!
  • ASK! Sellers are there to assist you with making a mindful purchasing decision by answering your questions. If the seller is not clear whether all the pattern pieces are present, whether the pattern is a copy or an original, etc., etc., INQUIRE.  

I want you to LOVE what you buy, I want you to feel comfortable with your purchase, and I want you to be treated fairly as a consumer. Blessings and happy sewing!


  1. You said 80ties patterns are gaining ground. What's your opinion about seventies ?

    1. The resale of 1970s patterns seemed to make a fairly popular comeback in the late 1990s-early 2000s when '70s fashion had a brief comeback. However, the early 1970s granny-gowns and late 1970s gunny-sacks (which gained wide popularity in the early-to-mid 1980s) have remained relatively popular. The patterns for these are generally inexpensive (so far and if you can find them!).

  2. Hi I bought recently seventies patterns. Indeed inexpensive. You do find a lot of them but no granny gowns :) i bought chique blouses and summer dresses. Very flairy :)

    1. I love a few designs from the 1970s! I especially love the blouses and women's coats from that era - very classy, very chic! :)