URI professor emerita writes book about history of paper sewing patterns

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University has largest collection of patterns in the world

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 1, 2014 – Looking for a pattern for a Zoot suit? How about a bodice from 1875? Bell-bottoms from the Sixties?

If you’re a seamstress or just curious about the history of sewing, check out Joy Spanabel Emery’s new book, “A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution.”

Emery, of West Kingston, a professor emerita of theater and former adjunct professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design at the University of Rhode Island, has been collecting paper sewing patterns for decades.

She retired from teaching in 2000 and is now curator of URI’s Commercial Pattern Archive, the largest collection of patterns in the world, with about 56,000 entries in an electronic database, including 46,000 on paper.

The patterns represent nearly 100 different companies, including the powerhouse McCall’s. Donations also came from home seamstresses and families cleaning out their attics.

Emery’s book, published by Bloomsbury, is the first major study of the industry and solidifies her reputation as a worldwide expert on the feathery paper that a 1916 ad called the “tissue of dreams.”

We sat down with her to talk about the history of sewing and fashion, her love for patterns, her work at URI as a costume designer and the precociousness of men’s ties today.

When did your passion for patterns begin?

I’m a costume designer. I’m always looking for everyday clothing for characters in plays. Patterns are an incredible resource for that. Years ago, I was looking for a costume for Miss Stacy in a URI production of “Anne of Greene Gables.” I found a wonderful 1895 Butterick pattern for a skirt that was perfect for the character, and I was hooked.

The URI collection documents dressmaking over time, from 1847 bodices and 1870 smoking jackets for men to women’s coveralls during World War II and cocktail-party aprons for 1950s housewives. What are your favorite patterns in the collection?

My favorites are from the 1930s. The patterns are amazingly intricate – beautiful sleeves, wonderful cuts. Think Jean Harlow. It’s that lovely bias cut, so you get the shape of the body – gracefully flowing.

How did you manage to collect 56,000 patterns?

Many of the holdings are from my friend Betty Williams, URI’s theater department and my personal collection. We’ve also received thousands of patterns from families around the country. Word spread fast that we were amassing a treasure.

When were patterns introduced?

Around the early 1500s, mostly for men’s garments. The first pattern emerged in Spain in 1580 and then the French picked up on it. Tailors created the patterns, which they guarded closely. They protected them like crazy. The tailors often referred to their patterns as gods.

Who were the customers?

The tailors were making clothes for the upper class and nobility, the only people who could afford them. Clothing was precious back then. It was inherited and left to people in wills. Remember, it had to be hand-woven. Dyes were expensive, too. When you see peasants wearing earth tones in the movies, it’s because that was the cheap dye made from readily available plants. The reason purple is identified with nobility is because it comes from a very rare sea snail.

Did most women sew back then?

Most women learned how to sew at an early age, from the Middle Ages through the 19th century. Old samplers are a wonderful example of the skills girls were taught. Girls applied that skill to dressmaking. One how-to book from the 1850s suggested girls practice on their dolls, which would lie still and not fidget.

How did the invention of the sewing machine in the 1850s change dressmaking?

Seams could be sewed together much faster and that saved a lot of time. The clothes, in turn, became more elaborate, with swags and drapes and ruffles, all things that could be done quickly with a sewing machine. By making their own clothes, people could get the fashions of the day. They could look like the celebrities and models they were reading about in magazines. To keep up with demand, there was an explosion of pattern companies.

Did pattern companies thrive during World War II?

There were restrictions on fabric during the war, so more people started to sew and re-make their clothes at home. Women took their husband’s suits and reused them for clothing – for themselves and their children. Booklets were available that showed women how to “make and mend for victory” and ads boasted, “I’m wearing Dad’s old suit.”

How did patterns come to represent the dreams of the middle class?

You could get the latest fashions very quickly. Sharp-looking, handmade clothes became an option for everyone. It was less expensive to make your own clothes. And patterns were ubiquitous, available in fabric shops or by mail order from stores like Sears Roebuck. An ad in 1916 calls patterns one of the “great elemental inventions in the world’s history” – much like the wheel.

Do you sew?

I sew, but I’m not a master seamstress. I love to drape fabric and see the final look. It’s instant gratification.

What’s a Zoot suit?

It’s sort of the early 1940s version of punk. It’s over-sized jackets and huge baggy pants. The original Zoot suit is attributed to the jazz musician, Cab Callaway. The suit was a reaction to government restrictions on fabric, so it was perceived as rebellious.

Clothes must reveal a lot about a person.

Clothes are a very precise kind of language. They express everything from class status to personalities. Have you seen the men’s ties lately? They are a rainbow of colors. We’ve gone from sedate colors in ties to much more flamboyant colors and patterns. I’m not sure why. Maybe a future costume historian can figure it out.

For more information about the book or URI pattern collection, contact Emery at jemery@mail.uri.edu or 401-874-2713.

Pictured above: Joy Spanabel Emery, of West Kingston, a professor emerita of theater and former adjunct professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design at the University of Rhode Island. Emery is the author of “A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution.” Susan Hannel, chair of textiles, fashion merchandising and design at URI, drafted nine vintage patterns in the book. Photo courtesy of Joy Emery.