Vintage Sewing Library: 1930s-40s Draping

I’m not sure if I have shared this link before or not, but I returned to it recently and thought I should share. These books were linked to on The Vintage Pattern Files blog, which is itself an incredibly generous resource for knitting and vintage fashion too. But the books themselves are great resources on draping, and one of them happens to be a Woman’s Institute booklet produced in the mid 30s. Evie of La Couturiere Dimanche scanned it and made it available on her blog (here). I love all things Woman’s Institute, and their materials from the 30s are especially hard to find. Yay for the internet!


There’s another by Mary Evans from 1935–Draping and Dress Design.


It goes into some depth on draping sleeves and shoulders and necklines, which are my current problem areas to get the fit just right. Also interesting historically, since there seems to be an erroneous contemporary idea that toiles or muslins weren’t really used, despite Mary Brooks Picken advocating them in notes in Fashion Service in the 20s and these draping guides. My suspicion is that wartime shortages made fabric more expensive during the 40s, or maybe people had less disposable income for muslin, or the make do and mend mentality changed sewing practices during that time, and maybe that stuck until our contemporary era. If anyone knows more about that, I’d love to hear it!

As far as my own projects go, I have two wearable muslins in progress at the moment–one is a blazer jacket that actually allows some movement and incorporates tailoring techniques (thank you Craftsy courses!) and another is my first decent self drafted corset.  Both started as flat pattern attempts, went wrong multiple times, and gradually morphed via draping and chalking and cutting and cussing into something more like a workable pattern. I think draping is more my style than flat patterning, despite all my attempts to do it the hard way. Sigh.

Woman’s Institute: Inspiration and Fashion Service Periodicals. And Mary Brooks Picken on the Muslin!

inspirationflagHappy Memorial Day! Ours was spent battling a broken air conditioner, dealing with a barfing young’un and the compulsory roasting of requisite meats but all in all, a pretty good day. Had some time to play in my ephemera collection, so it was Read-Up-on-Fashion-Service-All-Day Day at our house, too. Well, for the significant other I think it was more Read-Up-on-Vampire-Fiction-Day, but to each his own.

The Woman’s Institute had (to my knowledge) two publications that came out regularly to supplement their educational materials. While the educational books are more general, universal stuff, the supplementary publications are more era-specific, individual fashion content. I’ve been on the lookout for these little marvels lately, and it’s been like a fun, stupidly expensive treasure hunt trying to figure out the print history. (The curse of being incredibly obsessive is tempered by the Indiana Jones-esque thrill of discovery I get from trying to put this all together.)

Bears a striking resemblance to making a credit card payment, yes?
Bears a striking resemblance to making a credit card payment, yes?

One publication they put out is called “Inspiration,” pictured above, illustrations by Alice Seipp as usual, which seems to have been published from the beginning of the Women’s Institute, though it is extremely rare and barely even referenced on the Interwebz. Evidently at one point, Bramcost (who publishes a lot of reproductions) had a few of them available for purchase on Amazon (see here, here and here), and occasionally they must pop up on ebay, but never when I am looking for them, alas. I found a few at Garrison House Books, and Tess, one of the owners was kind enough to send me one as an extra special surprise when I bought another publication from them (<3). While I could probably fall down a hole trying to track down more, one must choose ones white whales carefully. I guess. Sigh.

The other publication the Woman’s Institute regularly offered was the Fashion Service magazine. It seems to have been intended initially as a supplement for students exclusively, but then later offered for subscription to anyone who subscribed. I had been unable to figure out when the Fashion Service began being published, but recently found a horribly water damaged copy of an issue from Winter 1920-1921 with an insert, torn and cockled. (Google tells me that “cockled” means rippling of paper usually caused by water exposure; of course from now on my inner pervert will work that into conversation any way possible.) The magazine is *almost* beyond hope but according to the insert, it’s the first issue. YAY. The insert (and the magazine) are credited to Mary Brooks Picken, who writes in her usual charming, encouraging way. And it also represents one of the only references I think I’ve ever seen in a vintage sewing text to sewing a muslin–most seem to suggest tissue fitting, basting a garment together, or measuring at least 37x to make sure that pattern is going to fit your actual body before you cut. (Burda and Gertie’s Blog discuss here and here, respectively.) So here, transcribed from its cockled wobbly almost-entirety, the insert from the first ever Fashion Service. (Which, for any fashion history junkies/freakish OCD completists like myself out there, I’m in the process of laboring over and cleaning up in order to offer pdf and paper reproductions on etsy. It will take me a bit, as the warping of the pages plays hell on scanned output, but I’ll get it!)

My dear Friend:

One early autumn afternoon, four years ago, just after I had returned from a very elaborate fashion fete, my mind ablaze with the possibilities of developing beautiful garments, I promised myself that the Woman’s Institute should some day have a semi-annual Fashion Service–a service so comprehensive and instructive that every member might know the joy of seeing the new things and have an opportunity to become intimately acquainted with the lines, colors, and fabrics in reign for the season.

At that time the war was on, our student body was small, and there seemed to be a thousand and one reasons why we could not have a Fashion Service immediately. My realization of this meant great disappointment to me. So I have waited, but I never gave up the idea nor allowed anyone at the Institute to forget that some day we should have a really truly Fashion Service–one that we could all be proud of and that our students could be happy about.

In my messages to you through “Inspiration,” I have many times voiced my belief that earnest desire is prayer and that prayers are answered. My prayer for this Fashion Service has been answered. And, now–here it is with this letter.

I believe you will find on every page information and inspiration that will help you make for yourself the prettiest, most becoming clothes you have ever owned. Our Fashion Service differs from fashion descriptions in magazines because we have searched the fashion market and selected styles that we think will please you personally and at the same time are definitely representative of the fashions for this fall and winter.

The Institute desires you to use this book in connection with your studies. In preparing the text we have mentioned the kinds of seams and finishes and the plans of construction. If you are not thoroughly familiar with these from previous study, you will find them distributed throughout your lessons.

If you have any doubt about any part of the construction or the development of any garment in the Fashion Service, refer to your lessons. You will find them ready guides and advantageous helpers, for they teach definite sewing and construction principles applicable to any time or mode.

Before you start to make up any of these beautiful garments, I must […remind?] you of the advantages of muslin models, for they are the […essence of economy?], even with muslin at its present price. If they were not so valuable, it is very certain that the best custom shops would not show them with so much prominence and assurance.

You may want to make one, two, three, or possibly four dresses similar to those illustrated in our Fashion Service. But even if you make only one, it is essential that it be right in every detail. So, before you cut your material, develop in muslin a model guide pattern that will give you lines exactly in the right position for your individual measurements.

Experiment with the muslin model; have it just right. Then when you cut your material you can be certain that the garment will carry lines in a correct position for you. In making a second dress, you can recut the model and by adding a yard or two more, have enough muslin from the first model to develop the second one satisfactorily.

I have found that there are two things which lend to home-made effects in clothes: First, the position of the lines, and second, the hesitancy of thought that the dress sometimes evidences. How often we hear a woman say, “I know now, for my build and this material, that this tunic should have been longer, or the shoulder line should have been shorter, or the waist line a little longer or looser.”

Find these things out first from the muslin model and thus avoid errors in cutting. See from this just how the garment goes together and where trimming will be desirable for your, giving very special attention to the shoulder line, the waist line, the collar and the skirt length. Then sit down and make a dress. Your progress will be more rapid and the finished garment will reward you many times, for it will show skill and ripened though–points always evident in the product of a master hand.

The prominent commercial pattern companies were very kind in cooperating with us in developing this book, allowing us to select from their advanced styles types of patterns that will be helpful to you in developing some of the garments illustrated. The name and number in such instances are given, so that you can purchase the patterns if you desire.

To send this book to you is just like sending a cherished handmade gift to a friend who I feel sure will appreciate it. It has been a great task to prepare so that it would be wholly helpful and entirely reliable, but the hours spent on it have been constantly filled with the belief that it would make you happy and help you–and it is sent with that thought, together with all the good wishes at my command.

Very sincerely yours,

Mary Brooks Picken
Director of Instruction

This makes me ridiculously happy.