On working with old drafting systems

I’ve been making a few 1900’s and 1910’s style garments in the last year and a half, as I mentioned the other day. So far I have produced three fairly casual, sporty daytime outfits, one that aims at around 1895-1905 and two mid- to late 1910’s outfits. Most of my opportunities to wear them are outdoorsy daytime events in the summer season, so the emphasis on sportswear makes sense to me. I also happen to love old-fashioned sportswear; the kind worn while engaging in pleasant activities like crocquet, biking, hiking, picknicking and spectator sports. At some point I will start working on an evening ensemble too, and perhaps some slightly more formal daywear. But I work so much better to deadlines, and at present I don’t have any events on the horizon to which I could reasonably wear a 1910’s evening gown.

So I took the opportunity to try out a few elderly systems of pattern drafting. There were a lot of them on the market in the early 1900’s, it seems. Perhaps the growing importance of ready-to-wear clothing had something to do with that, creating both a whole new range of fit issues and a decline in customers for small-scale businesses. They are aimed both at professionals and home sewers, and many of them are now in the public domain and available for free download if you would like to try it. Archive.org has several. So far I have made garments based on drafts from Professor Saul Schorr’s The American Designer and Cutter, published in 1915, and Professor Isidor Rosenfeld’s The Practical Designer series from 1918.

Neither system produces great patterns out of the gate for me, and there is always weirdness around the shoulder that probably corresponds to the odd results the contemporary drafting system I learned in school gives when drafting bodice slopers for a figure with a large front length in proportion to the back length – that is, shortwaisted with a comparatively large bust. (That’s me!) I’ve learned to work around it, but if you don’t, you may end up with some truly odd-looking patterns – front shoulder seams that are up to three times as wide as they should be and more vertical than horizontal, that sort of thing. I haven’t used any of these old systems for other bodies than mine, but I would be surprised if they didn’t turn out some oddness or other for different body types as well.

Also, the proofreading fails in the most confounding ways sometimes, and I would like to take this opportunity to advise anyone working with these books to:

  • Read through all the steps first.
  • But don’t expect to actually understand them until you get there, and possibly not even then.
  • Things are sometimes explained far later in the description than you need them to be.
  • If it tries to tell you that 36/6=3, don’t believe it, but do make a note to use 1/12 of whatever measurement you use instead.
  • Keep an eye out for weird things happening around the downward tilt of the bust and waistline in front that is so popular in this era, and how it affects the bust dart.
  • These patterns tend to produce unreasonably wide shoulders for me. Watch your shoulder seam and armscye.
  • Although the front shoulder has had to be lengthened a bit in both systems for me. Perhaps some of the vertical width needed over a larger bust ends up in the width of the shoulder seam instead.

Approach them with a hefty grain of salt, all the drafting and fitting common sense you can muster and count on doing extensive adjustments, is what I’m saying. If it looks completely unreasonable to you, chances are that it is. Do a muslin. Do several muslins.

But I have only tried these systems on my own measurements so far, and even with the correct undergarments for the period I am larger and bustier than a 1915 standard size, so Your Mileage May Vary. I have produced garments that I am pretty happy with, after all, even if it involved a great deal of head-scratching and extensive changes to the original draft.

This is all perfectly clear, right?
This is all perfectly clear, right?

All that said? Schorr’s The American Designer has the edge so far. There were less fit issues than with Rosenfeld, and it turned out a really great sleeve pattern for me. I have no complaints about the chemise I made after a Rosenfeld draft, but a chemise is far more forgiving than a tailored jacket.

So I am inclined to agree with the book I’ve found the most helpful so far, Edward Watkins’ The Secret of Successful Tailoring, published in 1910, which is not a book on pattern drafting:

If you have a “system” with which you can make a well-shaped pattern, use it by all means, but let the most of your study be devoted to the actual fittings.

Love the scare quotes! He is not wrong, you know. As much as I enjoy the brain teaser aspect of these systems, they are often quite limited in scope and simply stop working properly when applied to a body with proportions that differ from the standard proportions the system is built for. However, I have at least two or three more 1900’s and 1910’s systems lying around just waiting to be tried out; Weiler’s, Work’s, Thornton’s. Perhaps one of them is drastically different than the others. I have my doubts, but you never know.

I will write about my experience with Harriet Pepin’s 1942 book on pattern drafting too, but that’s another post for another day.

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