Friday, February 20, 2015

History of Sewing - De-Mystifying Unprinted Patterns

Sewing with unprinted patterns sounds intimidating to many sewists, especially those new to vintage sewing. So to help de-mystify these vintage patterns that have no ink on them, I thought it might be helpful to clarify what is meant by "unprinted" pattern pieces.

First, unprinted does NOT mean completely blank! What unprinted means is that instead of ink, all sewing indicators are marked on each pattern piece with perforations. It is as simple as that! (relatively speaking ;)

Also, unprinted pattern pieces are universally precut. That means there is nothing to cut away (as you do in modern patterns).

Perforations Instead of Printed Indicators

So the key thing to understand when working with unprinted patterns is the meaning of the perforations. The  information that you find on a typical printed pattern indicates:
  • Notches for matching pieces together
  • Placement of a piece on the fold of the fabric 
  • Placement on the straight of grain of the fabric
  • Folds for darts, pleats, tucks, and hemline and position of natural waistline
  • Seam allowance
Now just take each of those printed elements and re-imagine them through the use of perforations on the unprinted pattern piece.


Notches are the equivalent of diamonds on modern patterns. Match up single notches with single notches and double notches with double notches.

Single notch

Matching Notches

Placement on the Fold of the Fabric

Three circles forming a triangle indicate that this side is to be placed on the fold of the fabric.

However, some pattern makers chose not to use the 3-circle-triangle to indicate placement on the fold. Instead, three (or even two) circles in a row (rather than in a triangle) represents the side to place on the fold of the fabric.

The instructions will clarify which perforations indicate placement on the fold.

I have used red arrows in this image to point out notches and what they match to. Blue lines circle the three circles that form a triangle and indicate to place that side on the fold of the fabric.

Two circles here represent the placement on the fabric fold (blue circles):

Placement on the Straight of Grain

Pairs of one, two or three circles  (usually large circles, but not always) in a row along the center length of the piece indicate the straight of grain (or straight of goods) for the piece. The placement on the straight of grain is always defined in the instructions.

Another example of single circles in a row that indicate the straight of grain:

To indicate the straight of grain, this pattern uses three sets of three small circles in a row for pieces 3 and 6, while two sets of three small circles suffice for pieces 4 and 1. Pieces 2, 5, and 7 don't need the straight of grain indicated because they are placed on the fold, as indicated by the triangle of circles on one side

You'll notice in these examples that patterns vary in how detailed they explain the meanings of the perforations in the illustrated list of pattern pieces. In all cases, though, the sewing instructions are very clear.

Darts, Pleats, Tucks and More

These various perforations are used to indicate different things, depending on the manufacturer. They are typically explained in the pattern's instructions.

  • Folds for darts
  • Folds for pleats or tucks
  • Natural waistline
  • Placement of buttonholes
Perforations for a dart form a triangle that looks like a dart and is placed where you expect it.

Folds for pleats or tucks are parallel rows of circles, sometimes the same size, sometimes alternating rows of large and small circles. To form the pleat or tuck, you fold the fabric so that one row of circles aligns with the next row.

The natural waistline is often indicated in dresses or blouses that extend below the waistline. This allows you to adjust the pattern as needed so that it fits properly for your waistline.

Placement of buttonholes are also indicated with perforations, usually pairs of small circles.


Sometimes hemlines are "allowed" for in the pattern pieces, but sometimes they are not! Especially with wartime unprinted patterns (in the 1940s when paper was at a premium), it was not unusual for the pattern pieces to omit an hemline allowance altogether. So be sure to read the instructions to determine whether the pattern pieces do or do not include a hem allowance. If they do not, you will have to extend the pattern at the hemline end for the length of hem that you would like.

Seam Allowance

Most pattern companies are content with simply stating the seam allowance on the instruction sheet. Occasionally (I have only seen this with unprinted Vogue and Hollywood patterns) a series of small circles around the outer edge of each pattern piece represents the seam allowance. And unless the pattern states otherwise, the seam allowance is designed into each pattern piece. This means you do not have to add any seam allowance when cutting each pattern piece.

Especially in unprinted, precut patterns, the seam allowance is not standardized. Sometimes the pattern instructions will state that all seam allowances are 1/2 inch. Or that the seam allowance is 3/4 inch at underarms and 1/2 inch on all other edges. So always be sure to check the instruction sheet thoroughly for the seam allowance.

Here is what the pattern piece would look like with perforations for seam allowance.

Here is how it would appear for the entire pattern:

Another example:

Well, that's it for now! I am sure that no matter how long I have labored with this post (off and on for a very long time), as soon as I post it, I will think of things I forgot to mention, Well, that will be material for a follow-up post!

Hopefully you now feel armed to sew with vintage unprinted patterns, whether or not you have previously sewn with modern patterns. Just be sure to read the instructions thoroughly before you begin! And I am happy to answer questions. :)


  1. FABULOUS overview; I will be tweeting it!
    Now that I've used unprinted patterns a lot, I actually prefer them! No cutting, easy to mark the fabric through the punched holes, etc. I like them better now.

    1. Thank you, Emileigh! Those are excellent points about the ease of use with unprinted patterns.

  2. a very comprehensive post - i am going to print it off as I have a hollywood pattern to work on soon .................. thank you very much

    1. I am so pleased to have been of some help, Eimear!

  3. This is fantastic, thanks so much for sharing! I've pinned it to the #vintagepledge Pinterest board and have shared on Twitter too

    1. Squeee! Thank you, Marie, for pinning and tweeting this post. I am so happy to see that folks are finding it useful. :D

  4. Very helpful, these patterns can be intimidating but this really helps to show that you just need to learn the code :-)

  5. Very interesting! All of the shapes and combinations are like decoding a secret wartime message! I will keep this post nearby in case I need to decipher.


    1. No need for Bletchley Park secret machines! :D I am so glad that this is helpful at decoding unprinted patterns for you.