Objektet och Museet: Museum Patterns

I’ve been sewing historically lately, working on a 1912 skirt from La Mode Illustrée as part of the 1912 Project as well as a 1940s two-piece sunsuit–definitely a study in contrasts! So with vintage sewing on the mind, I happened upon two exciting new resources yesterday.

Apparently I’m a bit of a Johnny-come-lately, but this is new to me: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has made available for download free patterns taken from extant garments in their collection! They are currently limited to men’s patterns from the 18th century.

Later the same day, I found this gigantic envelope at Livrustkammaren in Stockholm:

Pattern bought from the gift shop at Livrustkammaren, Stockholm, April 2012. Photo: Arianna Funk.

It contains a pattern after a French men’s suit from the 18th century as well, although this one was worn by Swedish royalty. At 50 kronor, it’s a bargain–I’ve patterned from a nineteenth-century extant garment, and it’s time-consuming and exacting work. I imagine this is especially so when it comes to older and more delicate pieces or those of great import, like the above suit, which was worn by Gustav III on his wedding day, November 4, 1766.

These are not directly useful to my research, as I’m more interested in middle-class women’s wear of the late nineteenth century. But I like to build clothing from as many different decades as possible to expand my understanding. I am also interested in supporting museum initiatives in producing interactive objects like these patterns, which I see as a reach toward accessibility. Living history museums have long offered historical sewing and knitting patterns, which reflects the inclusive attitude many living history programs take toward visitor interaction with historical clothing. The seventeenth-century stockings I knitted as an intern at Plimoth Plantation turn out to be perfect for the Swedish winter.

Booklet available for sale in the gift shop of Plimoth Plantation, probably first produced in the mid-1980s. Photo: Plimoth Plantation.

As a material culture scholar, working with clothing in a tactile way is indispensable. Many objects in our museums are not available for a good shake-down or try-on (for good reason), and so building one’s own versions of historic clothing can be an excellent way to connect with the decade, the style, the wearer.

Following a vintage pattern (one published contemporarily) allows access to not only the finished object, but also to a version of the contemporary process. The modern wearer of the resulting garment experiences the weight of a full skirt, constriction at the armscye, or other sensations not often available to the modern wo/man.

Patterns taken from extant garments are a bit different; aimed at a modern audience, both the pattern and any subsequent making of the garment aim to re-create an object that was worn by an historical figure (or effigy), personal modifications notwithstanding. The process, on the other hand, is difficult to re-create if one considers differences in labor practice, gender roles, and technologies of the chosen historic era, among other constraints. This method is often used for re-creating clothing from the centuries before patterns were widely available; why take a pattern of a 1950s dress when patterns dating from that decade are so easily purchased?

The patterns that I’ve found in gift shops also connect the person to the museum; like any other memento, it reminds the owner of their experience: that time we visited Plimoth on the hottest day of the year, the day the Finnish Prime Minister and I both visited the Royal Castle in Stockholm. The method of presentation (pamphlet, book, download, full-sized paper pattern) would be interesting to examine once the object base grows.

The cover of Janet Arnold's beloved 1964 book of historic patterns. From the Costume Society (Britain) website. Copyright Janet Arnold.

The greats like Arnold, Waugh and Baumgarten have created excellent resources and are often quoted and emulated; I probably could have taken similar patterns from the latter two instead of purchasing or downloading those I found yesterday. But diversity is the key here; the intricate and intimate understanding of each of these garments–most of which are unique–needed to create a pattern builds value and strengthens research. I look forward to an expanding collection of patterns taken from extant garments in museums, as in the recent work of Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, a protegée of Arnold’s. Hopefully pattern-making will become more closely associated with museum collections, to their mutual benefit.

The garments that are patterned are often celebrated objects (I am very excited that I live in the town that boasts the Sture Costumes), and it would be a boon to the field if we had access to patterns from a greater number of museums, across a wide spectrum of geographical areas, classes, age groups: not just the most beautiful, exquisite, or odd.

Kristen Haggerty, intern at Old Sturbridge Village, plays "Graces" in reproduction 1830s dress, 2010. Photo: Kristen Haggerty.

Seeing sartorial objects in motion is a vital part of understanding historical clothing practice, and re-creations reconnect the objects with the body. As Llewellyn Negrin notes in her chapter for the new book, Fashion and Art, “the disinterested mode of contemplation that privileges the visual over the tactile cannot do justice to our experience of fashion.” (1) Traditional static display and purely visual considerations of clothing history are here seen as inadequate, begging more dynamic interactions with museum visitors, journal readers, theorists, and really, anyone with a clothed body. Museums providing resources for exploring the tactile show a responsible and forward-thinking attitude toward their collections, despite the very un-modern feel of sewing long seams by hand that might be part of one’s dress-making experience.

Do you sew re-creations of historical clothing, either for yourself or for an institution? Do you think it’s an important or necessary part of being a fashion/costume historian and enthusiast? What are your thoughts on authenticity vs. accuracy in re-creations? What other museums have patterns available, taken from extant garments, that our community should know about? Please leave your thoughts and suggestions below!


(1.) Negrin, Llewellyn, “Aesthetics: Fashion and Aesthetics–A Fraught Relationship”, in Fashion and Art, Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas, eds. London: Berg, 2012.

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  • Andrea April 19, 2012 10.14 pm

    The Northern Society of Costume and Textiles offers some wonderful pattern packs, including one for Charlotte Bronte’s going away dress. A knitting pattern for Charlotte Bronte’s shawl has been around for a while (ownership seems to change over time,) so there is the potential to dress like an author whom one admires.

    I regularly sew from original commercial home sewing patterns dating from the 1890’s through the 1950s and always learn a lot from the experience.

  • Arianna April 21, 2012 03.26 am


    Excellent suggestion! The patterns for clothing of a specific person brings up a whole other part of this, wrapped up in the fetishes we create out of objects owned or touched and places visited or lived by these famous figures.

    Your blog is so interesting (now one of my bookmarks), and I think it’s a great resource for thinking about our modern interaction with vintage patterns.

    Thanks for commenting!


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