Vintage custodian? Or weakness?

I’ve been sewing quite a lot lately. I’ve got at least three projects waiting in the wings.

Opportunities for taking photos has been limited and, to be honest, I’m tired. I hate photos when I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. So I’m resting (ok, being lazy) and quietly sewing – I’ll be back shortly.

I’m in Tamworth at the moment with my girls. I’m typing this post on my iPhone as I feel compelled to write tonight.

Today we hit my favourite vintage/op shop – and it was a treasure trove.

I found some beautiful silk, 5 metres for just $6. I feel a decadent kimono or some loungewear coming on… 


The real joy for me was finding a collection of vintage sewing patterns.









and this beauty, a damaged but magnificent Vogue Courtier 208.   

I believe that most, if not all, came from the stash of a lady called Mrs Williams. The collection was considerable, predominantly women’s dresses with a bust size of 34-36 inches.

It’s silly but I love knowing who vintage patterns belonged to. It makes me feel very attached to them. I’ve been gifted many patterns, including a number from Busy Lizzie , Suzy Bee Sews and a work friend who gave me her mother’s patterns from the 1940-50s. I treasure them all.

I grew up surrounded by lovely furniture that came from mainly my mother & grandmother’s home. I studied at my grandmother’s desk, I slept in a cedar bed made for my mother, I sat on a settee from my grandmother’s home. 

Now I sit in my great grandfather’s chair every morning as I drink my coffee.

My mum & dad often told stories about our furniture and other pieces in the house. I loved that these things that belonged to my family and the people that came before me. I felt connected. I grew up with a sense that everything was imbued with people’s lives and their stories.

I know it’s completely corny but there is part of me that feels a strong sense of sadness when I stumble across someone’s sewing collection tucked away in a corner of an op shop.

It’s not the possible monetary value that motivates me to take them home. It’s not huge and I’ve never been able to make myself to sell any I’ve purchased at op shops and garage sales. I have gifted a few of my finds to other passionate sewing friends. I’ve never parted with a vintage pattern that’s been gifted to me. I feel like a custodian. I know. Silly but that’s just how I feel about them. Perhaps I’m a curator at heart.

I gather them up and take them home for other, perhaps irrational, reasons. It’s that someone didn’t see that these weren’t just patterns. They didn’t see or understand their real value. These were very much part of who Mrs Williams was and her life. As much as her jewellery or favourite chair might have been. Perhaps I’m wrong but the extent of this collection and the nature of it spoke volumes to me.

Sewing was clearly a passionate hobby, something that filled her life with joy, creativity and satisfaction.

And that’s something beyond measure. Something to be celebrated and treasured.

So Mrs Williams, wherever you are, your hobby lives on.

Do you collect vintage sewing notions? And if so, what motivates you?

36 thoughts on “Vintage custodian? Or weakness?

  1. I am a collector too! I find them at second hard shops and online. I have even sewn up a few. πŸ™‚ I particularly love the cut and used vintage patterns. I like the thought that someone use and loved the pattern before me. I really wish they came with completely project photos so I could see the fabric choices the prior owners made.

  2. Yes. I like to think that I rescue them from becoming fire starters or box packing material. It makes me happy to see renewed love for the Style patterns of the 1970’s, they’re my most frequent find and I love them all πŸ˜‰

  3. I think Mrs Williams would have been thrilled to know that you found her patterns, it was meant to be! Vintage patterns and their envelopes make my heart flutter too. You’re right, their history is very special and we are right to treasure them! X

  4. What lovely patterns! I agree, it’s so wonderful being able to use something well loved! I have a few vintage patterns that my mother made for herself that I want to recreate just for the memories they bring back. Lovely post πŸ™‚

  5. I’m definitely a collector, of too many things. I started collected vintage sewing patterns before I started sewing, because I was drawn to the styles and illustrations. Now I know I’ll probably never use them, so I’m trying to pass some on. I’d love to earn a bit of money (for more fabric, of course) from them, but have so far been unsuccessful. Still, I picked up many many boxes at an auction last weekend, because I knew that they would’ve been burned otherwise, and I just couldn’t bear that thought! Now to sort through them and figure out which ones I can’t live without and which ones would find better homes elsewhere.

  6. I agree, I especially love to see annotations and names on vintage patterns. I have one in it’s original mailing envelope, and another with ‘Xmas 1953’ and little notes on yardage and fabric in several people’s handwriting on the cover. It’s nice to see who’s loved something before you!

  7. I love the stories behind old patterns, today I made some tracksuit bottoms from a 80s pattern I found in a charity shop here in the UK, but the pattern has a South African price on. Made me wonder about the journey it had been on and how it ended up here.

  8. I’ve picked up fabric at estate sales and antique stores, patterns too. I always feel as though I’m connecting with someone’s personal history and share your sense of respect for their sewing past. The fabric you found is gorgeous. How nice that it fell into your hands, since you recognize how special it is! I can’t wait to see what you do with those cool patterns…

  9. I love the term vintage custodian! Your sentiment is admirable. I’m usually pretty ruthless with hand-me-downs and family heirlooms (ie, they all go to the op shop) but I do have a soft spot for vintage patterns and notions. This is mainly because I feel like I’m the only one who will appreciate their true value!

  10. Lizzy, this was wonderful! I just started sewing a few years ago and am in love with vintage patterns, however, where I live, in Portland, OR, finding them is a little bit harder than I expected (I’m in a corner of America where ‘vintage’ = 90s). My parents are immigrants, so we don’t have any family heirlooms like you talk about, but I love hearing stories from friends about inheriting beautiful treasures.

  11. I can totally relate! I love to have things that came from family members, so some of my most treasured belongings are a quilt made by my great-grandma and one made by my husband’s grandma. As an apartment dweller who lives 1000 miles from my parents, I don’t really have family furniture, but I wish I did. πŸ™‚ I have a few vintage patterns that I know I will never sew, but I just love them so much that I have to keep them. They’re so fun to pull out and have a look at, and like you, I especially like ones that have someone’s name or notes on them. I have three patterns that my mom found in my grandma’s house after she passed, all addressed to my grandma’s sister, and one of them had a little pocket piece in a blue floral lawn tucked in the envelope. Such a fun discovery!

  12. This is such a beautiful post Lizzy. I feel exactly the same and don’t wish to part with anything, anyone has given me. I inherited an almost truck load of fabric and haberdashery from my husbands great aunt as I was the only one who would use it. I thank Aunt Dot every single time I make something and I hope that she is watching over me and helping me choose some buttons or trims that will complete my latest make. Aunt Dot is my ‘sewing guardian angel’ along with my two grandmothers.

  13. These are wonderful patterns. Glad they were able to go to someone who appreciates them. I have a really large collection of 1970’s vintage from my grandmother (she must have had earlier ones but I don’t know what happened to them) A lot aren’t exactly my style, but I’ll never get rid of them, as it still gives me a connection to my grandma

  14. lovely post. I too collect vintage patterns, mainly knitting ones but do have a few sewing ones as well and I get very excited if there is a notation of any sorts on them. I wonder what the other person made up, what colour did they end up using etc. A little connection to the past.

  15. Those are all beautiful patterns! I do sometimes collect vintage patterns – in fact, I recently went through them to discover I had 108 of them. My husband and I move overseas often, and having large amounts of anything isn’t practical, so I went through them and picked out the ones I was actually likely to make, and close to my size, and I’m giving the rest away to other seamstresses. I love having them, but sometimes practicality has to take over…

  16. Some of those patterns are just beautiful! I have some vintage patterns too with the previous sewers name written across the top and I love to ponder what she made with them. I also have a few sewing heirlooms, I never met my grandmother but I have her old treadle singer sewing machine and a timber sewing box of hers along with various bits and pieces. I have used old buttons of hers on things I’ve made for the girls. The sewing box is now filled with my sewing bits and pieces and I never fail to think of her whenever I change a needle or cotton or fish around for a zip. I love the term vintage custodian, these things that have been loved by someone else have so much meaning.

  17. Yes, I also love old furniture and vintage patterns. I would like to think that they teach me about a time when the art of living was so much different. I inherited a good few patterns from my mother, bought some from a charity shop and was given some by friends, although I would not call myself a collector by any means. Sewing up a vintage coat for my little girl, I didn’t use my overlocker once and spent hours handstitching – something I generally avoid. I was surprized at how lovely that was – even if I had to research some of the stitches before I knew what they were talking about!

  18. I feel like a custodian of vintage things too. My vintage pattern collection is quite small but I have a growing collection of vintage buttons which I cheerfully use on my knitted and sewn things because I hate to see ‘special’ things tucked away in boxes and never admired. I also rescue crocheted doilies from op shops because as a lace crocheter I know how much time goes into lace crochet and I treasure the things the women in my family have made, and I hate seeing other women’s (and probably a few men’s) work sitting unloved and unwanted.

  19. A lovely post Lizzy. I too collect patterns and I tell myself I’ll sell them but so far I can’t part with them. I take them out and look at them and wonder about the outfit made. I recently went away and got a lovely YSL pattern and the person who had it had an article from a Women’s Weekly showcasing the exact couture outfit and the pattern was cut so I presume it was made up. I love that people think of me and my special habit/hobby/passion/obsession when they see sewing things or give me things. I hope that whoever gets my stash/patterns/machines will treasure them too. I was just thinking last night how wonderful it is to have a hobby like this and now with modern technology sewing friends from afar.

  20. What a beautiful story, Lizzy! Reading this made me smile. It’s amazing how two different people can feel so differently about an object based on their past experiences, ideas, and values. A vintage sewing pattern may be a just a crumpled piece of paper to one person and a treasure to the next. It’s all about perspective. Glad you found so many gems from Mrs. Williams’ collection. I’m sure she would be happy knowing they found a good home. πŸ™‚

  21. This is such a lovely post. A while ago I bought a wooden sewing table from a second hand shop, complete with contents at a bargain price, all I could find out was that it was part of a house clearance and as I examined the contents I wondered what had become of the lady who owned it. I kept some of the contents and donated the rest to a local heritage museum so others could enjoy. It made me feel sad to think there were nobody in her family who wanted something that to me seemed so precious and it made me think of all my sewing things which neither of my daughters would have any interest in keeping :(.

  22. I loved reading this story. The patterns are fabulous and Mrs Williams would be so pleased that you have them in your care now. Vintage custodian sounds so much better than “collector”. I too value all the treasures that once belonged to my family. I can’t leave patterns or vintage fabrics behind in the Op shops either!

  23. Wow and good on country op shops still providing.. and yes thanks to Mrs Williams and her relatives for passing these on to you…

    When we packed up to move to Shanghai, I decided to donate a lot of my stash.. mostly vintage patterns… it just felt like the ‘goes around comes around’ kinda thing to do… I had so many great sewing moments with my vintage patterns, and at a bargain price.. so I just passed them on… to friends, to op shops… to the theatre company locally.. But, try to stop me from picking up and rescuing them in the future!

    Shanghai doesn’t seem to do sewing patterns, or vintage for that matter…

  24. This is a beautiful post. I purchased a sewing pattern last year from an op shop for 10cents and when I opened it up there were some pages from a newspaper from 1974 which had been used as pattern pieces and then was a piece of paper with “Mrs Cavanagh’s” measurements on it…I thought it was lovely and was imagining who these ladies might have been and whether Mrs Cavanagh loved her dress. I also love old furniture and have many items from both my grandparents homes in my house.

    • Yes. Australians called them op shops (opportunity shops). The English seem to call them charity shops. At the end if the day, unwanted or donated items that are generally sold for charitable purposes.

  25. Lovely fabric ! Hope to find some on our travels in a months time. Not that I need any more! M y mother and all her sisters sewed and I’ve ended up with lengths of fabric going back to the 60’s.Its a good connection with family making up their fabric to wear yourself.

  26. Oh my, what memories one of Mrs Williams’ patterns brought back – the Butterick Junior Teen full skirted dress with frills at the bottom of the sleeve. I am sure it is the exact same dress I made in sewing class at school in the early 60’s (in England) and I was so proud of it when I wore it with my first pair of heels! Probably the garment which inspired my life long love of sewing. It was in a brown/turquoise/white print (I still wear lots of brown 50+ years on!) and I used broderie anglais for the sleeve frills.

    I love to see all the vintage patterns around at the moment – but in the wise words of someone I cannot remember, if you wore it first time round it probably isn’t your best choice now!

    It’s great to see all the wonderfully talented young people on sewing blogs like yours. A real tonic in these days of obsessive consumerism and ‘throwaway’ fashion. I do hope the dozens of patterns I have let go over the years have ended up with someone like you!


  27. I found a huge box of fifties and forties patterns in the Tarcutta op shop one day a few years ago. I only bought a couple, though tempted to get the lot (only 50c each), but wanted to leave most of them for other vintage-loving sewists to discover…for all I know they are still there! Nicely written post, I too am surrounded by things from my Nana. She died 20 years ago but I think of her every day when I see all her things!

  28. Mrs Williams would be delighted those beautiful patterns have gone to such a good home:-) Love the post too. How do you find the time to write such wonderful stories along with everything else you do??!! I am a vintage nut too, but exercise self-discipline in the pattern-buying department. Not so much on the fabric purchasing front:-/ That red silk is GORGEOUS! I just bought some (new) red, gold & blue African (Dutch!) wax cotton from one of my favourite local fabric shops last week (Holloway, North London). I don’t wear red often but this is a lovely warm tone and am excited about the possibilities….

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