Dressmaking and Tailoring class 1937

Inside this old loose-leaf cover is my Grandma’s workbook from the tailoring and dressmaking college she attended in Kansas City in 1937, after graduating high school.

Tailoring class notebook a w RSR

There are some large, printed base patterns and instructions.  Here is one complete unfolded sheet:

Pattern full sheet

And now some close-up details:

We’ve got the name of the college.

Label a w RSR

And a statement about the badassery of women in dressmaking, tailoring and pattern making.

Dressmaking pattern quote RSR

Clear instructions and diagrams for taking measurements.  Lots of measurements.

Measuring points diagram 2 RSR

Instructions for Taking Measures a RSR

After the students took their own detailed measurements and recorded them in the notebook, they made their own base pattern.

The big sheets spell it all out in diagrams and lists.   Here is the tight-waist blouse base pattern:

Side bodice

Sweeping lines diagram

The list of measurements in this piece:

IMG_20180826_141850821 a RSR

Then the step-by-step drafting instructions:

Bodice pattern instructions RSR

After mastering the pattern drafting, the class turned to incorporating different styles into the basic pattern.

They made miniature to-scale paper patterns of different skirt, blouse and sleeve styles.  There are pages and pages of examples of clothing styles, drafted into miniature paper patterns.  They started with simple skirt styles, and then got more complicated.

Two Skirts RSR

Flared skirt with v waist panel RSR

Skirt with 4 inch flares RSR

Then they moved on to bodices.

Pintuck bodice RSRSlash and gather waist RSR

This one below, with the curved inset is my current fave and the one I want to try for myself.  I’m not sure there is enough muslin in this city for all of the mistakes I’ll make, but I’ve got to try it.

Curved waist inset RSR

How do you draw all of these to-scale patterns?  With a miniature to-scale ruler and curve, of course.

Ruler and French Curve a RSR

Fast-forward 20 years, during which my Grandma got married, had two daughters, worked as a ‘Rosie’ at Pratt & Whitney while awaiting her husband’s return from WWII, had two sons, and in 1958,…she got her dream machine, the Slant-O-Matic 401A.

Fast forward another 20 years, when as a teen, I spent many hours at this machine learning techniques from her that still serve me to this day.

Fast forward another 40 years, and the machine is in my care now.  That is her balsa wood pin cushion in the picture foreground.  It’s an awesome pin cushion.  Those are her Wiss shears, too.  She taught me that there is no substitute for a big pair of precisely-made, expertly-sharpened metal shears.  She’s still right.

Grandma's Slant-o-Matic RSR



26 thoughts on “Dressmaking and Tailoring class 1937

  1. This is amazing! That you have it all still, and use the machine (which is of course indestructible and will outlive us all). I wonder which system your grandma’s college used? It all looks extremely similar to the classes I took in early 1990s in The Netherlands. The same steps. The same measurements. Very similar looking base patterns, but somewhat different detailing on final garments. 😉 Our college used the Müller system which is now the most widely used system in professional pattern construction. It was introduced in 1895, so it was already very well known by 1937! I’ve got some more details in this post: https://vintagesewingmachinesblog.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/sewing-without-fitting-ramblings-with-pictures/
    Unfortunately I didn’t keep my workbooks but the exercises were exactly the same, only with different styles! 😀


    1. Thanks for the link to your post. I love your wire dress form! The dressmaking system you used does look remarkably similar. I’m so envious that you took the course in The NL, which is one of my most favorite places in the world. The course my grandma took has a late 1800s and a 1914 copyright notation. I’ve done some internet searches, and can’t find any mention of that company anywhere. I wonder if back then the dressmaking schools adopted techniques learned from each other’s publications. It’s amazing that even in the 1990s, basically a century later, you learned the same steps and measurements. I’ve now tried making a shell from the pattern in my post, and it does work. I was amazed when I put it on and it fit like a glove.

      Yes, the beautiful 401A will outlive us all! It’s such a precious possession.


      1. I think it is very possible that the people from your grandma’s college learned this system from someone else – it was becoming popular very quickly, and with good reason. Consider the styles of clothes that it was used to draft over the last 120 years – everything from Victorian frocks through 20s flapper dresses, 40s shoulders, 60s A-line minis, etc. and into present day. It’s genious because the base pattern doesn’t change – it’s only a shell, all the detailing is done over it. Although our teachers did say that the modern shell is simplified compared to the original. I think yours is closer fitting than what we learned! But it is easy enough to add close fitting detail even to the modern “streamlined” shell.
        (I used to live in NL – for 18 years.)


      2. I agree, my grandma’s college may have merely been the school (or one of the schools) to bring the system to the Midwest, under their own name. I think NL would be a lovely place to live. Lucky you!

        The shell I made from the basic form, in some ways resembles the ‘monobosom’ shape that was popular in the early 1900s, so I wonder if that shape was later adapted or simplified as your teachers alluded. The shoulder seams on the shell are set farther back than today’s shoulder seams too, which kept throwing me off.


      3. Shoulder seams: true! Step one is always to shift the shoulder seam 1cm towards the front. 🙂 Also the armscye is very high, although still comfortable. But step two is usually to lower it by the magical 1cm. 🙂

        NL: grass is always greener… 😉 Things don’t appear the same to different people, and also living in a place is very different from visiting it. I prefer the UK. 🙂


      4. I need to try the 1cm shifts next time. Thanks for that tip.

        Your view of NL is interesting. My few visits there have been short and sweet. I think you are saying that’s the way to experience it. 😉 I love the UK too.


  2. I know nothing about it but those instructions look so complicated…Love the look of the sewing machine.
    Thanks for the Carlene Carter song. I haven’t heard her in a while.


    1. I finally saw Carlene when she toured with Mellencamp a couple of years ago. I think she made a whole bunch of new fans on that tour. She did the opening set, and then during John’s set, she came out and did a duet with him that knocked my socks off. She has her own storied career, full of cool connections and tragedy. I’ve been a fan for so long, I’m thrilled she is enjoying yet another resurgence in popularity.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I first heard of her when she worked with Howie Epstein before he started to go down.
        She is very talented of course from a very talented family.


      2. The time with Howie was her most phenomenal music, imo. Then it all turned out to be so terribly heartbreaking. She has put out two nice CDs in recent years, too–Stronger and Carter Girl. Both are more mature and poignant. They both have some nice tracks. But wow, her 1990s run was amazing.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes it was a great run in the 90s… She handled her name really well. That has to be some pressure to have people with expectations just because of the name.
        I’m happy for her.
        The Howie ordeal was just terrible.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great piece of history you have in that workbook (and lovely machine)! Thank you so much for sharing! I’ve seen similar sets of instructions; I have something similar from 1942, but I don’t know what system it is and it’s only in book from. All those little details with the cutout examples are almost like a pop-up book. What a treasure!


    1. Thank you, and my pleasure! I’ve had her notebook for several years, but only recently started trying to decipher it with the intent of using it. It is a fascinating system. Have you tried to use your 1942 version?


      1. I’ve made from scratch bodice slopers from 60s (?) instructions that turned out decently. I’ve mostly used the 40s book too learn about period stylelines, shifting control, sleeve options, etc. It’s been very useful for all those things. I love all the interesting seam options from the 30s and 40s. That sloped seam on the bodice front you pointed out is particularly nice.


      2. Looks like you have a good detailed knowledge source, which is great. Of course it’s going to teach you things with a late 30s slant. I happen to think those differences can be pretty interesting. It’s good to learn some of the old methods anyway. New ones aren’t always better. Same goes for tools. I usually sew on a mid 60s Kenmore. When I got it it didn’t have the #1 cam, so I couldn’t zigzag stitch. I couldn’t find the cam so I ended up buying a button hole attachment that does the zigging (which is sorta weird, it moves a lot). Now I have the #1 cam, but I love that button hole attachment. It makes beautiful button holes compared to my 2000s Huskvarna.


      3. I’m envious that you have a buttonhole attachment. That has been on my wish list forever. I have a 1980s Bernina, that has the step by step buttonhole settings, but I agree with you about the attachment making the best ones.


      4. My huskvarna had the auto button holer, which is perfectly serviceable for things like shirts, but the Griest attachment for the Kenny (Singer, etc) does the ones that are rounded at the end. Sometime the old machines are the best. I can largey take the Kenny apart (even the whole tension assembly), clean it and put it back together.

        Liked by 2 people

      5. I agree – the simplicity of design of older machines not only makes them easier to maintain (clean, etc.) but also makes them more durable – fewer fiddly parts to break or get lost. As for the buttonholer, I’ve got one of those (Singer, but I believe it is exactly the same as Greist), and it makes fantastic adjustable buttonholes, much better than most automatic ones. I find that the distance between the zigzagged edges is too small to safely cut in most cases.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I aside from getting fancy computerized features I don’t understand why anyone would want a modern machine. Unless you need one right now, as a starter machine or as a light travel machine? Or if it’s what you can afford. I don’t mean to sound elitist. My first machine was inexpensive. Consequently I broke it, though I was like 9 or 11 and trying to see leather. Some of them are so cheap that they are literally disposable. More cost effective to replace than repair. And I don’t like to buy that way. I’d rather have quality.

        Singer and Griest are interchangable. General feet too. All the vintage feet I have for my modern huskvarna, 60s Kenmore, 60s Singer and 60s Singer featherlight are except for one or two very specialized ones. I agree about the distance between the zigzaged sides of the modern button holes.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. I agree completely re modern machines. I don’t understand the attraction to them. I don’t care about having a built-in needle threader or a push button that makes my needle stop in the up or down position. As for the electronic panels, I say that takes away from the machine’s value, rather than adding value. It’s a guarantee that when something breaks (and something will), I won’t be able to fix it, and won’t be able to use my machine until I’ve paid someone to repair it. Vintage machines can be found at very inexpensive prices; there are scads of Youtube videos to show how to use them, and to answer every conceivable question or solve any problem with them.

        Btw, this conversation the other day made wonder why I’d never ordered myself a buttonholer…so I did it. I got a Singer and a Griest, and they were delivered today, yay! Tonight I try them out. 🙂


      8. Exactly. You can’t even get into a modern machine to LOOK at the bits. And if you do, it can be almost impossible to put it back. That said, I would love an embroidery machine. But I don’t need a new-yet-related hobby.

        Good for you on the buttonholer! You can take that apart and fix it too =) Does it have cams? Let us know how it goes!

        They even made attachments that are similar to a buttonholer that do a variety of zigzag and edgings (10-12) for straight stitch machines. I went that route when I couldn’t find the #1 cam for the Kenny. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that there are at least two models. One fits Singer and similar and the other fits the White/Elnas. I bought the wrong one. Perhaps I’ll do a post about it and try to sell it.


      9. I got six cams, but I think two are essentially duplicates. I’m happy. That will be an interesting post on the zigzag attachments. I don’t know that I’ll ever look for one of those for myself, since I have machines with zigzag stitch capability.

        I occasionally wish I could add an embroidery motif to something, but it’s not often enough to even consider investing in a machine with those capabilities. They make some lovely motifs, though.


  4. fantastic! Really wonderful. The links through time, the personal connection, the technical things we recognize (really, how different are those instructions from what we learn at pattern drafting now?) And that armhole, that is so functional. Close to the body, rotated towards the front. It has taken me three years to get to an armhole like that.


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