Resources for Sewing Costumes

by Patty Teubner


( l color = hyperlink to outside websites)


          My first recommendation for those who sew their own or others’ costumes, is to go to the website of the Greater Bay Area Costume Guild,  This is a wonderful site!  They have articles and pictures from various time periods to help with research, as well as links to costume-makers, and other vendors of costume-related items.  Best of all, they have a site called “The Great Pattern Review”.  In it, they publish the reviews of people who have made garments from a variety of patterns, along with pictures of some of them.  I always go to this site before choosing a pattern from a specialty pattern producer.

          My second recommendation is, if possible, to use a commercial pattern.  They use modern, standardized sizes for their patterns, and, usually, have fairly detailed and complete instructions.  In the past, it was hard to find good historical patterns from the commercial companies because they were usually aimed at the general public for Halloween, and the patterns were very poorly designed and not very authentic.  However, all that has changed in the past several years.  Pattern companies have discovered that there are many people interested in costuming for a variety of reasons, from museum docents, to members of historical organizations like the Society for Creative Anachronism  (SCA) and Civil War groups, to amateur theater groups and many others.  As a result, they have finally started producing a range of patterns from less-accurate, but mostly authentic-looking costumes to highly researched, very historically accurate costume patterns. 

          The most authentic costume patterns from a commercial company are those labeled “The Fashion Historian” by Martha McCain. She has produced a very lovely Elizabethan woman’s gown pattern, and now specializes in Civil War era costumes for both women and men.  Her patterns are always excellent and create wonderful costumes, especially if the appropriate undergarment patterns are also used.  Next in accuracy appears to be a new line from Simplicity that is labeled “Victorian Bridal Museum”.  So far, there is only one that I’ve seen, for a late 1880’s bridal gown, but it is very impressive in its overall shape and level of trim detail. {Editor's note, there is also a "Historical Fashion Collection" available online.}

          Less authentic, but still excellent, are more Simplicity patterns labeled “Costumes for Adults” and “Historic Costumes” by Andrea Schewe.  Andrea aims more at the theater costumer, with good overall shape, but less-than-authentic things like zippers as closures, in order to facilitate ease of use.  However, with some slight modifications, and the right choice of fabrics and trim, her patterns will also produce good costumes.  Simplicity also has a line of patterns called “Retro Costume Collection” that vary in authentic appearance from excellent (their 1940’s women’s pattern) to fair (their women’s Regency patterns).

          Butterick Patterns has also started producing some good costume patterns.  They have a line labeled “Making History”, most of which look fairly historically authentic.  They also offer period undergarment patterns to add to the correct appearance of their costumes. An example of one of the patterns, the 18th century women’s gown, was worn at the Commedia del’Arte event at The Ruins last January.  Bobbie Kalben and I both used that pattern for our gowns - I modified mine to create an overdress over a petticoat, instead of the one-piece gown shown.

          McCall’s costume patterns are less authentic than those of Simplicity or Butterick, but still quite usable, especially with good choices in fabric and trims.  Those with experience and/or training could also modify the patterns for a more accurate appearance.  Vogue also has gotten into costuming by offering reprints of original patterns from their archives, labeled “Vintage Vogue”.  Some of these are very attractive, as well as historically accurate, being reprints from a given year.

          As an additional note, I learned at Costume College last year that most patterns produced by the commercial pattern companies have a limited production period.  As they are driven almost exclusively by sales, patterns that don’t sell stop being produced.  And, while customers may still be able to get them directly from the company by calling, writing or emailing them if the fabric stores no longer have a pattern, in general it is probably best to buy a pattern fairly soon after it appears in the pattern books if there is any possibility that it may be used.  If you wait too long to buy a pattern, it may no longer be available.

          Another company that makes patterns that are good for costumes is Folkwear.  While not all fabric stores offer their patterns, they are available at Pacific Fabrics, or by ordering at Hancock Fabrics.  The patterns are also offered from a variety of other vendors, many online.  Their patterns are easy to fit and use, and come with historical notes and, frequently, instructions for special techniques that may be used for a more authentic appearance.

          There are many specialty pattern –makers who offer historical patterns for sale, especially on the internet.  Of those, I have only had experience with two, J.P.Ryan and Sense & Sensibility.  While I haven’t completed a garment with the J.P.Ryan pattern, I’ve started one and found the pattern to be quite useful.  The directions are clear and specific, and it has a brief description of the entire process at the beginning of the pattern that is very helpful in visualizing what to do.  The Sense & Sensibility pattern I used, a Regency gown pattern, was very easy to fit.  Bobbie Kalben and I used it to fit most of the members of the sewing circle for the same gown.  The woman who creates the patterns has a wonderful website, with instructions and actual photographs of the garment in progress, as well as fitting tips, ideas for variations and other helpful information, including a site for researching period costumes.  I highly recommend the Sense & Sensibility patterns!


Updated April 10, 2009