HELP! 18th Century Patterns

By Karen Sorkness

Sewing 18th-century garments can be a real challenge. Since I started in reenacting I've sewn a few items for both myself and Mark, and managed to work my way through the process ­ often with some help from others. Not having sewn much, I thought it was because of my lack of experience that I found the instructions of the patterns I had been using hard to understand.

Then I was faced with the largest sewing challenge I had ever undertaken. Mark was directing an 18th-century play at Baraboo High School and I was given the task of sewing all of the costumes. Of course no two girls could look alike, so several different patterns and styles had to be chosen and tried. The fellow's costumes were a little easier, as the cuts were all basically the same and only the fabric and detailing was different.

This was truly a learning experience for me. I had the opportunity to try a wide variety of different patterns from different manufacturers and I learned from each one. I felt it might be of value to the NWTA membership to have a review of the various patterns from the perspective of a novice sewer, so I offer the following observations.

First of all, not one of the patterns had similar directions. Each brand of pattern had it's own method of construction ­ one would think that clothes would all go together in one logical step-by-step process, but no-o-ooooo!

After reviewing all of the patterns I had chosen, I started out with the ones that offered the best directions and illustrations. My first pattern was the Woman's Shift from Kannik's Korner. A good step-by-step list of instructions including advice on types of fabric to use, preparation of fabric, cutting and even alteration guidelines were included. Several illustrations followed along with the instructions ­ this is a good beginners pattern.

Feeling more confident I went on to the Polonaise & Petticoat from Period Impressions. Although the sewing instructions were good, no directions were given on types of fabrics to use, kinds of stitches and how to use them or any help on fitting or alterations. In my opinion this pattern does require some prior basic knowledge on how to sew.

Janice P. Ryan's 18th Century Caraco was my next project. Step by step instructions were very clear, fabric suggestions were offered, and even some history of the Caraco was included. However, some knowledge of sewing terms and construction would be helpful, because this particular pattern is very fitted and requires some skill in sewing.

By far the most difficult pattern I used was the Rocking Horse Farm, 1740-1780 Jackets. To start with there wasn't any front view of either of the completed jackets ­ one could only guess what they were to look like. Illustrations were not provided and the instructions really never told you what order you were following and why. Pattern pieces were poorly marked as to which jacket they went with, and to further complicate matters the two back views of the jackets on the pattern envelope were not labeled as to which one was which! I had to read between the lines to interpret the instructions and I never did figure out how or why the lining was made different from the jackets! The instructions never offered this information. Definitely not a fun pattern for any level of sewer.

The men's Military or Civilian Coat Pattern by Pegee of Williamsburg started off to be very frustrating. Several views on the pattern cover were not identified in any way, however, all of the views are represented in the pattern pieces. You have to figure out which collar, which cuff, which lapel, which pocket etc. goes with the view you are trying to match on the pattern cover. The actual sewing instructions were short but could be followed. Again some sewing skills and knowledge were required to follow this pattern.

Finally, of all the various patterns I have tried, I found the Woman's Bodice Pattern by Eagle's View really was "easy to use" as the pattern stated on its instructions. In my opinion the Eagle's View line are good patterns for.beginners.

I know a lot of our NWTA members are experienced sewers, so they can cope with the more difficult patterns. They are able to read between the lines and actually complete a project without much trouble. However, for those of us who are just learning to sew, the patterns can be quite frustrating. I find every time I sew something I pick up a little more knowledge that I can apply to the blank spots in other patterns. Of course, you can always ask for some advice from the many excellent seamstress we have in our organization!

So, if you're having trouble with your sewing ­ don't give up! Take it one step at a time and soon you'll find you will be writing down what those patterns failed to tell you and even passing on your notes to someone in need.

Now if only our families survive the sewing season!!

Please note: Some patterns may not be appropriate for your impression. You should always review your documentation before buying a pattern.

Check with the NWTA patternmaster to make sure your pattern is an approved 18th- century documented pattern.