The Origin of Patterns

When a tailor in 13th century France devised a pattern made of thin wood, the Master Tailor's Guild was terrified. If patterns were to fall into the hands of dressmakers and seamstresses, who would pay for the services of master tailors? For nearly a hundred years thereafter the tailor's guild wisely discouraged patternmaking. But it finally gave in, and patterns became an important tool of their trade.

Full-scale paper patterns finally reached the hands of women in the 19th century, but were utterly baffling. The Germans originated the idea, and some American magazines copied it. They printed as many as 15 different patterns on a single fold-out page, each with its own outline. The result was a discouraging maze of dots, dashes and wavy lines. They came in one size, 36, and no instructions were included.

Ellen Butterick, for one, found it very tiresome. She wished fervently that she had a single pattern for a single garment, and said so to her husband. Ebenezer Butterick, a skilled tailor, immediately saw both the justice and future of the idea. He devised a paper pattern for a man's shirt, and it was widely used in 1863 in their little town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

Encouraged by his success, Butterick created patterns for boy's suits, and eventually, with women clamoring for like attention, he added dresses to his designs. Folded into envelopes with an instruction sheet, Butterick patterns were the first on the market that were sized and did not have to be cut out of magazines. Within eight years, the Butterick family was selling 6 million patterns a year.

America in the 19th century was hardly a classless society. Only wealthy women could afford to look wealthy, and the rest -- well, one could tell at a glance who was not a lady. Ordinary women labored endlessly just to keep a family clothed and clothes mended. Butterick patterns and the sewing machine brought fashion to middle-class families for the first time. By 1900 lads in urban Brooklyn and rural Maine could be outfitted in a Butterick sailor suit similar to the one worn by little Prince Edward of England.

Today, computers have taken patternmaking a step further, eliminating those maddening adjustments necessary to adapt a standard-size pattern to the individual figure. A woman can feed her measurements into the computer and get back a printed, custom-tailored pattern as exquisitely designed for her form as anything the Master Tailor's Guild ever created.

(from Reader's Digest)