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Tips & Techniques > Vintage Patterns: Using and Storing

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Posted by: MagpieJen

About MagpieJen star
Member since: 2/22/05
Reviews: 17 (tips: 2)
Skill level:Advanced
Favored by: 22 people
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Posted on: 4/20/09 4:03 PM
Last Updated: 2/23/10 11:39 AM
Review Rating: Helpful by 9 people   Very Helpful by 41 people   
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As my collection of pre-1960 patterns grows, I've become more interested in caring for these patterns more thoughtfully. Old paper is very sensitive to light, dampness, acid and chemicals (especially from plastics).

I'm also a believer in using vintage patterns, even though I know every time I handle them I diminish their longevity, so I want to make sure that when I do remove them for use that I get the most out of it for the least amount of disruption to the pattern.

So I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on using and storing old patterns.

This is Hollywood 416 from 1940 (the movie it promotes "It All Came True" came out in that year) and it's in the poorest condition of all my patterns.

I carefully remove the pattern pieces and instruction sheet. Very often the tissue pieces are in much better condition than the instructions, which I found surprising when I first starting working with these patterns. The instruction sheet is often really brittle and will split along the folds. brocadegoddess reminds us to wash our hands and avoid moisturizer, or even wear cotton gloves, to avoid transferring oils, etc from our hands.

You can see how this pattern's instructions are falling apart. Since I try to make this the one and only time I handle the instructions, I scan or photocopy the instructions.

I find setting the copier to the lighter side helps with these age-darkened instructions.

Meanwhile, the tissue pieces are usually sturdy, but very wrinkled and need ironing out.

I iron at the lowest setting (and Karrol adds: Remember not to use steam!

Most, but not all, vintage pattern pieces are "unprinted" without any lines or words printed on them. There are markings, usually in the form of punched holes, on them instead. The legend for what these markings mean is usually found in the instructions, but there are websites that have a guide for the common ones as well.

Here's a guide from PR user twistedangel.

Another on Squidoo by Miss Helene's.

And another from Threads magazine.

Tracing these pattern pieces is the best way to go if you want to preserve them. I also like to trace because I can write information on the pieces to help me out when I go to use the pattern, like figuring out how many pieces to cut, changing the punches to markings I'm used to (like arrows for grainline, etc), and I can use the copy to do "tissue fitting" and alterations.

Tracing the pattern.

I use clear plastic sheeting that I buy in big rolls at the hardware store (sometimes it's called vapour barrier) and I tend to get heavier duty. Note if you use this - store these copies separately from your original patterns, since I'm not sure if it's archival-safe plastic. I bet it isn't.

The same holds true if you're using some kind of paper for tracing, such as - if it's not archival, acid-free paper, it's best not to keep the copy with your originals.

I never use pins on my original pattern pieces. I do all my tracing with the power of static (the plastic and paper get plenty static-y) and weights. If, for some reason, I'm cutting with original pieces, I also never pin but use weights instead.

I try to fold my original pattern pieces along factory lines. Once everything is folded I usually don't try to fit things back into the envelope, since I run the risk of tearing it.

Instead, I store my patterns in an archival plastic sleeves. I put the envelope in first, then the pieces and instructions in behind it. I've been meaning to get some more archival, acid-free cardstock paper to put in each one to use as a backing and to give the pattern support.

snoringcat describes that "the acid content of one type of paper CAN be transferred to another if they are in close contact, so if possible, you should separate the three parts to prevent this acid migration."

Hollywood 416 being put away.

Sandwich "Baggies" might not be safe, so I don't use them.

I bought my sleeves from my local comic book store and they are made of clear polypropylene. I think the comic guys are very useful to talk to and get ideas for safe storage - we're both interested in saving and storing the very same kinds of old paper, and they have fortunes tied up in theirs so they want to do it right! :-)

The sleeves I bought are big (it would be ideal to have sleeves that fit snugly, but I have some bigger patterns, so I got a size that would fit everything) so I fold the sleeve around the pattern before storing.

I write (with archival markers) information on the front of the sleeve. For instance, Ill write that I've made a copy so I know I don't need to disturb that pattern again.

At the moment my patterns are stored in a box. But be careful - if you're going to use a rubber-maid/tupper-ware sort of box, don't waste all your effort by using archival materials if the container isn't safe!

My goal is to start putting these patterns into archival binders, since that would make for easy viewing as well as nice, tight storage. And, as I alluded to in the first paragraph, remember to protect your patterns by storing them away from light, heat and humidity.

I find the information about what kinds of plastic are "safe" or not a bit confusing. In general, it appears that polypropylene, polyethylene and polyester (Mylar D) are ok, with Mylar being the safest, while PVC/vinyl is the plastic to avoid. Polypropylene is (according to snoringcat) a distant third in safety after Mylar and polyethylene.

"Acid-free" plastic doesn't mean it's safe - you need to see "PVC-free" - since, as snoringcat stresses, the issue with plastic is not acid, but off-gassing their chemical components over time.

For paper, the safe keywords are acid-free or alkaline-buffered.

snoringcat recommends University Products ( or Gaylord archival supplies ( as examples of suppliers of archival products.

Once done with your patterns, ejvc suggests you consider donating them to commercial pattern libraries, such as the Rhode Island School of Design or National Museum of Art in the UK.

Edited on Feb 23 to include all your lovely suggestions! Thank you!

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lydia610 said... (9/18/10 5:30 PM) Reply
I found everything in this review helpfull. I love vintage pattens but there is alot I didn't know. Thank you for all your info.
lydia610 said... (9/18/10 5:30 PM) Reply
I found everything in this review helpfull. I love vintage pattens but there is alot I didn't know. Thank you for all your info.
fronno said... (2/24/10 10:55 AM) Reply
Hello MagpieJen, I can not tell you what you should do, but I can tell you what I do with my vintage patterns. I have photocopied all my vintage patterns at A3 format (european) in duplo. Including the "how to sew it" and of the front. I mean the drawing of the model. The vintage patterns themselves have been neatly refolded and sealed vacuum. Then I have stored them by decennium. The photocopies are rolled up by me and put into tubes (from carton). And I have made myself an archive through means of the small photocopy of the model, stating in which box it is, the year of design and the 'how to sew it' behind it. That means, that when I want to make a model/pattern, I am going to copy the pattern from the photocopy. In that way the originals are safe, and because the copied pattern is stored away in a rolled form, I have no wrinkles. Good luck with the storage and have a lot of fun with them. Kind regards, François
Chia said... (2/23/10 11:58 PM) Reply
Great article, really learned alot. THX
pink 23 said... (2/23/10 8:42 PM) Reply
Thanks for the great info...I make copies of my most used patterns but they are from 2000 or later LOL :)
pink 23 said... (2/23/10 8:42 PM) Reply
Thanks for the great info...I make copies of my most used patterns but they are from 2000 or later LOL :)
MagpieJen said... (2/23/10 11:45 AM) Reply
You guys are the best! I was so flattered to see my tip featured, and I'm so glad to get all these wonderful suggestions and tips from you on this topic. I've edited the tip to include many of your points. Thank you! cousue: That's so nifty that you saw the film! It doesn't surprise me if you didn't see the garment featured on the pattern in the movie. Although I think some of the very earliest Hollywoods actually did have patterns for movie-worn gowns they quickly became simply a means of advertising the upcoming movie, and the dress from the pattern is unrelated to the costumes from the film.
jcanyon said... (2/23/10 8:45 AM) Reply
I have several vintage patterns I use frequently. I have preserved them two ways - traced onto pattern drafting fiber fabric or ironed onto fusible interfacing. Both preserve the original. The tracing onto pattern fabric is easy and very usable without the need to keep using the original paper. The fused one just reinforces the paper pattern itself. Probably not archival but that isn't my main focus - usibility is for me. I copy the instructions as they do seem to deterioriate faster than the pattern itself. I store all of it in see-thru folders from the office supply store in magaine holders on my bookshelves. This all works well and makes these old patterns very easy to use and keep.
snoringcat said... (2/22/10 10:46 PM) Reply
The degradation of paper is due to the acid content of the pulp. Generally, there will be different acid contents in the sleeve, the instructions and the tissue itself, which is why they degrade at different rates. The acid content of one type of paper CAN be transferred to another if they are in close contact, so if possible, you should separate the three parts to prevent this acid migration. Ditto for any cardboard ‘backers’ which can often be the cause of the problem and not the cure! Best to keep each type of paper separate. The chemical reaction that takes place in the paper is accelerated by heat and light, so whenever possible, store your patterns in cool, dark places to prolong their life. MagpieJen is correct that polyethylene and polyester are the safest plastics, in that order. I would put polypropylene a distant third. By ‘safe’, it has nothing to do with acid content. Plastics are not acidic. The problem with plastics is their chemical stability. Plastics are even more problematic than paper, as the chemical content of plastics are often unknown, since many are “trade secrets”. It is mainly the reaction of these chemicals to air, heat and light that cause plastics to break down. When they do, you can tell – they get stiff and brittle, or sticky and soft. Quite often they will give off a particular smell. Incidentally, did you know that some plastics will give off fumes (off-gassing) that can cause other materials to corrode or tarnish? Yuck. Chemically stable plastics such as polyethylene have a much longer life than things like PVC (polyvinyl chloride), but nothing lasts forever. Since plastics have only been around for about 100 years, nobody knows how long they will last. Kind of sad for your CD collection too…. A good supplier of archival materials is University Products ( or Gaylord archival supplies ( Even if you don’t buy their products, they can give you an idea of what to look for at other retailers in order to safeguard your valuable collectibles. And Mom thought my Masters Degree in Museum Studies would never be useful!!
cousue said... (2/22/10 7:32 PM) Reply
I saw part of "It All Came True" on Turner Classic Movies a couple of months ago. Don't recall the dress, but the movie was amusing.
AMarie said... (2/22/10 7:31 PM) Reply
Thanks for the tips. I need to get some archival plastic sheets!
80something said... (2/22/10 5:22 PM) Reply
Very helpful. I use the Swedish tracing paper to copy all my patterns so I don't use the original. Makes it easy to make any changes I need. 80something
brocadegoddess said... (2/22/10 12:31 PM) Reply
Thanks for the tip about the comic book sleeves, I'd never thought of that before! Thank you also for reminding me that I need to make a project of properly storing all my vintage patterns. I worked with vintage patterns in a museum collection - I should know better! I'd just add one more tip: wash your hands and avoid moisturizer before handling the old tissue and instruction papers. The natural oils in your skin will accelerate degredation of the paper fibres, as will any organic compounds in moisturizers.
Karrol said... (2/22/10 11:35 AM) Reply
Great info! I'm a vintage collector also and glad to see others using these old beauties with love and care. Remember when you iron the pattern to use a dry iron - any steam or moisture will shrink the tissue and ruin it.
ejvc said... (2/22/10 11:02 AM) Reply
There are some commercial pattern libraries (at the Rhode Island School of Design, I think there is one, the National Museum of Art in the UK is another) -- so if you are done with your patterns, you might think about donating them.
Moxie Carol said... (5/14/09 11:58 AM) Reply
I was thrilled when my mom just gave me two vintage patterns for the Pendleton-style shirt-jackets that my grandmother always wore when I was a little girl. The patterns are not in great shape and your tips are really helpful. It didn't even occur to me to ask my comic book collector husband for tips on storing - I'm sure he has all the supplies I'll need except the archival markers. Thank you!
Athene said... (5/5/09 1:34 AM) Reply
Thank you for all the info.
Ariadne said... (4/29/09 6:59 PM) Reply
I don't know how safe thi is,acid- wise, but I use manila envelopes for all my patterns. For new patterns, I cut the envelop in half, and glue it to the envelop. for older patterns, or traced ones, I'll trace and note. Then I keep the patterns in a filing cabinet.
waltzqueen said... (4/29/09 5:20 PM) Reply
Not you should NEVER use zip lock bags as the hard edges of the closure tears patterns easily. The comic book store is also where I got acid free carcboard backers that fit the comic-book size plastic sleeves- perfect for patterns. I use archival notebook size plastic pages for the larger patterns
MagpieJen said... (4/25/09 11:48 AM) Reply
CharmedDiamonds - No worries! I use the plastic pieces exactly as you would use the tissue paper, including laying them out to cut on the fabric. Sometimes having transparent pieces is really helpful too, like when matching prints. They're re-useable so I don't tend to make copies from the plastic versions unless it's for a friend or something.
CharmedDiamonds said... (4/24/09 9:02 PM) Reply
so then do you use the plastic to cut new patterns, or create new tissue patterns from them? Sorry if the question seems a little obvious. Otherwise, wonderful advice I'll be taking, since I'm building up my collection of vintage and discontinued.
Laurie Lou said... (4/21/09 2:06 PM) Reply
Thank you so much. I know we all know the value of the vintage patterns and I know I should take better care of them like you recommend in this review. Thanks for a jumpstart in better care advice of the one I have collected
paloverde said... (4/21/09 1:03 PM) Reply
This is great. I seem to have amassed far too many vintage patterns and now I need to figure out how to take care of them. I like a lot of your advice. Thanks.
MagpieJen said... (4/21/09 10:10 AM) Reply
kellymailinglist - my cat is always super-interested in smelling my vintage patterns, so I bet there are some fascinating allergens in them :-) You can find comic book "bags" rather than "sleeves" which can be sealed on all sides, and I think the archival album might be a choice to look into as well. Also, some comic book collectors will fold their "poly" sleeves over and tape them (on the back), they don't seem to recommend doing this to mylar sleeves. I bet you could find some tape that's acid-free in a scrapbooking section of a craft store. Thank you all for the kind words!
Diane Slade Inc said... (4/21/09 9:43 AM) Reply
Thanks for taking the time to write this!
kellymailinglist said... (4/21/09 9:11 AM) Reply
Wow, thanks so much for all this valuable info! I've been getting into vintage patterns recently, so this is very timely for me. I'd add that those with severe allergies, such as myself, may find that vintage patterns really provoke reactions, so that's yet another reason to handle the originals as infrequently as possible. While the comic book protectors you mention are great for the paper, for me, I'd have to find something similar that seals. I'm still looking for an economical solution to that one!
kerrynw said... (4/21/09 8:41 AM) Reply
Very useful review, thanks.
kathi s said... (4/21/09 2:27 AM) Reply
Great information! Thanks for doing all the leg work so we don't have to!
seweibhlin said... (4/20/09 7:05 PM) Reply
Great tips, using the plastic sheeting for making copies, and using comic book sleeves for pattern saving - very clever- thanks for this review- I will utilize your suggestions with my own collection. Aren't vintage patterns fun!
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