Sunday, November 6, 2011
1970's Vintage Sewing Patterns & California Fashion Designers
Collecting and selling vintage sewing patterns has heightened my awareness of “designer” brands from past decades. I have often wondered about some of the late 1970’s patterns. Why were there so many pattern designers from Los Angeles then? Like “Made in California”, there seemed to be more interest in west coast fashion back then than today. I did some digging around and came up with part of the story:
By 1979, the home sewing business was around $3.4 billion per year. About 125 million patterns were sold annually. The four major pattern companies at that time were: Vogue, Butterick, McCall’s and Simplicity. About 35 to 40 million home sewers were located in Southern California, the largest regional group in the US. The huge demand for home sewing patterns in California prompted the home sewing industry to release designs by popular local fashion designers. It was also hoped that the allure of the west coast life style would spread a demand for these young, unique and less European fashion designs throughout the country.
At that time it cost $25,000 to produce and issue one original designer pattern for the home sewing market. Featuring a designer meant that companies expected a good sell out to support their investment. Seeking life style branding, along with a middle class interest in a fashion that was more accessible, the designer patterns where hoped to be top selling designs not only on the west coast, but nationally as well.
In that year, eleven fashion designers from Los Angeles and two from San Francisco had sewing patterns featuring their labels. Seven of these designers were published by McCall’s. By May, 1979 that company featured designer patterns by Bob Mackie, Norma Fink’s “Theodore” label, Carol Little’s “St. Tropez West” label, “Singer and Spicer” and the “Strauss” label by Bonnie Strauss. In June, 1979 the “Ma Chemise” label by Dennis Goldsmith and Nancy Heller’s “Tea Shirts” designs would be added to the roster of California design talent at McCall’s.
In 1978, Simplicity patterns, the largest pattern company at that time, sought out a strong California identity. Their west coast design roster featured Holly Harp, Harriet Selwyn’s label “Fragments” and “Gunne Sax” by Jessica McClintock. Jessica McClintock would prove to be a profitable pattern label that continues to be part of the Simplicity pattern company designer roster.
The Vogue pattern company had always featured well known American fashion designers and is credited with being first to feature California labels (that’s debatable). In 1976 they started including local talent with Edith Head’s designs. As a movie costumer who didn’t design or manufacture, she was a legend of Hollywood glamour.
Butterick’s first California designer label was for Jane Tise in 1975 under the “Young Designer” title for her label “Sweet Baby Jane”. If a count were made, she would probably be one of the top designers creating sewing patterns during that decade. The California free spirit and inspiration buyers sought after were featured in Jane Tise designs. Lesser known Nancy Stolkin’s simple to sew yet fashionable designs were added in April, 1979.
What seems like a spontaneous display of interest in California fashion designers was brought about by two occurrences: an alarming downturn in pattern sales that began in 1976, and the realization that most home sewers thought high fashion designer labels were too complicated and difficult to sew. The companies hoped that these new California labels would seem inspiring without being intimidating. They also hoped the new looks would bring back a customer who was wearing more pants, fewer dresses and sewing for herself less often. Like Jessica McClintock, a few designer labels would be long term sellers, keeping some of the departing sewing masses in the fold.
Most information for this article came from an April 16, 1979 news article “Pattern Makers Heading West for Designs for Middle America” written by west coast fashion journalist, Marylou Luther, who wrote for the “Los Angeles Times”.
Below is an incomplete inventory of the California designer patterns, starting in the 1970’s. Most are currently available for sale online. If you have more pattern numbers to add to the lists, please feel free to leave them in the comment’s section, thanks!
Norma Fink “Theodore”: McCall’s: 6770
Bob Mackie: McCall’s: 6840 (1979)
Nancy Heller: McCall’s:, 8783, 9040 (80s), 9055 (1984)
Singer and Spicer: McCalls: 6756
Carol Little “Saint-Tropez West”: McCall’s: 6725, 6726, 7983(1982), 8816 (1983)
Harriet Selwyn “Fragments”: Simplicity: 8648 (1978), 8905 (1979)
Dennis Goldsmith: Simplicity: 8589(1988), 9193 (1989), 9856 (1990), 9885 (1990, girl’s)
Holly’s Harp: Simplicity: 8645, 8646 (1978), 9177 (1979)
Nancy Heller: Simplicity: 8607
Jessica McClintock, “Gunne Sax”: Simplicity: 6270, 6271 (1983), 9350 (1979), 8907, 8947, 8223 (1987), 8224 (1987), 7563 (1991), 8985 (1989, girls), 8671, 9558, 9100, 6883, 6361 (1983)
Nancy Stolkin: Butterick: 6579, 6581
Jane Tise “Sweet Baby Jane”: Butterick: 4096, 4098, 4099, 4100, 4391, 4642, 5049, 5050, 5051, 5283, 5990, 5991, 5992, 5993, 6330, 6331, 6332, 6412, 6681, 6682, 6683, 6684
Edith Head: Vogue, American Designers: 1560, 1803, 1895, 1896, 2041, 2221, 2335, 2560, 2561, 2831, 2832, 2923