May 29, 2012 - Happy Birthday, Ebenezer Butterick

It sure would be easier to sew if the pattern was the right size!”

Ellen Pollard Butterick said words to this effect to her husband around the time of the American Civil War. She was attempting to sew a new shirt for her son, but the paper pattern she was using to cut out all the pieces she needed for the front, back, sleeves, and collar of the shirt was a very different size than her son.

As a matter of fact, all paper patterns back then came in only one size each—and not some medium or “ideal” size, either—a different size for each pattern. Home sewers had to customize the patterns to their specific family members—and this resizing was apparently time-consuming and difficult.

Ebenezer Butterick (today's birthday boy, Ellen's husband, and a tailor) thought his wife had a very good idea—that selling “graded” patterns—that is, patterns in multiple standard sizes—was in fact a great idea. So he drew up some graded patterns on tissue paper and began to sell Butterick patterns in 1963.

The Buttericks' invention is said to have revolutionized home sewing!

They started off creating the pre-cut tissue-paper patterns in their own home, but within a year the business had grown so much that they opened a factory. At first they only created patterns for men's and boys' clothing; later they created patterns for women's and girls' clothing as well—and that ended up being the best-selling portion of their pattern business, with 13 sizes offered in blouses, dresses, coats, and skirts. The Buttericks used to give only the briefest of instructions about how to cut out and sew the garment, but customers clearly wanted more help than that, and the Buttericks began to print instructions on the envelopes and, later, extensive instructions and even cutting diagrams on folded papers inside the envelopes as well. These days, there are even some instructions printed on the pattern pieces

In 1867, the Buttericks began publishing fashion magazines to promote their patterns. By the “turn of the century” (when the 1800s ended and the 1900s began), their magazine called The Delineator was the most important fashion magazine in the U.S.

Boy, when I was a kid, I used to love to pore over giant books of Butterick pattern styles—with all the colorful illustrations of lovely girls and women in fashion-forward clothes. As a matter of fact, if I asked nicely, the women who worked at the fabric store would save the pattern books for me when they became outdated and replaced—they'd just tuck those books under the counter with a note saying “Save for Cathy,” and I'd go pick them up for free! It was like having a giant book of paper dolls, because I'd cut out my favorite 50 or 100 illustrations to play with!

I wonder if people still do that?

I imagine that patterns don't sell nearly as much nowadays. Sewing your own clothes used to be something almost everyone did, but now inexpensive clothes—often sewn in other countries—make sewing the much more expensive option.

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