The archive saving home sewing history from the trash - The Verge
The Commercial Pattern Archive at the University of Rhode Island houses nearly 60,000 sewing patterns dating back to the 1840s. An online database of patterns is available for the public.
Lara A. Greene keeps her antique sewing patterns in plastic tubs, stashed in the first-floor workshop of her old Victorian home so she can throw them out the window if her house goes up in flames. Greene has collected at least 10,000 patterns — possibly 20,000 — since the 1990s. And like other collectors, she is paranoid about losing them: to fire, flood, and mice or simply the indifference of people whose first instinct would be to toss them in the trash.
In 1994, Greene was a 24-year-old stitcher at the New York City Opera when she was brought along to visit Betty Williams, a costume designer and researcher with a large antique pattern collection. Old patterns are used as references by costume designers, especially when working on period pieces, and seeing Williams’ collection was formative for Greene. It began a decades-long hunt as she searched for the oldest possible examples to add to her personal archive.
“It didn’t occur to me that patterns themselves were that old. I didn’t even think about how people in the past made their garments, other than going to a tailor,” Greene says. “Once I knew for a fact that patterns that old existed, I just got lustful for them.”
The Consumer Pattern Archive housed in Carothers Library at the University of Rhode Island. The largest of it’s kind in the world, it contains over 60,000 patterns dating from 1847. Kingston, Rhode Island on April 21st 2022.
Sewing patterns provide a uniquely detailed look at the lives of working-class people throughout history that clothing collections held at museums or universities seldom offer. These patterns — flimsy packets of paper covered in shapes, numbers, and symbols — guide sewists through the process of making everything from sweatpants to wedding dresses. And through most of the 20th century, before manufacturers moved production to capitalize on cheap labor abroad, sewing at home was a way to have high-quality clothing for less money.
But scholarship around patterns and home sewing is still relatively underappreciated, often dismissed as women’s work or insignificant to fashion and art. The common pattern’s ubiquitousness only adds to its disposability — patterns were cheap to purchase and finicky to preserve and were never meant to last.