Tips to Sew 1940s Vintage-Style Retro Clothing

Posted by on Dec 16, 2017

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In the 1940s, Great Britain’s clothing design was greatly influenced by World War II rationing and official restrictions placed on manufacturing. Materials were produced in smaller quantities and most civilians had less money for clothing, explains Sarah Magill, author of the new book “Making Vintage 1940s Clothes for Women.”

Given the Government restrictions, several decorations were no longer possible, so designers focused on cut and construction. The results were buttoned-up slacks with wide waistbands, fitted blouses with French seams and evening dresses with sweetheart necklines. We asked Sarah about the skills and knowhow to make 1940s-style clothing, such as the patterns featured in her book. If you want to get a sense of the patterns, we featured a skirt pattern from “Making Vintage 1940s Clothes for Women” on CraftFoxes.

1940s skirt pattern
Given WWII rationing, a lot of sewists were working hard to make due. What are some of the most interesting approaches?
Women of all social classes had the opportunity to learn how to sew during the war, through classes, magazine articles and sewing patterns. Women would often re-purpose bed sheets and blankets to make dresses and coats. Jumpers would be unraveled to knit into something new. Worn parts of garments could be replaced with a contrast fabric. Parachute silk was often made into wedding dresses and lingerie.

Are there any interesting sewing techniques rarely utilized today that are required to make 1940s clothing?
Many of the sewing techniques used in the 1940s are still in use today, but mostly in the bespoke/costume industry rather than in mass production. Zips were banned by the government, so placket fastenings with press studs were very common on dresses and buttons replaced zips on skirts and trousers.

Manufacturing methods were prescribed to make clothes last longer, so seam allowances were often double-stitched, overlocked or taped with seam binding. Homemade lingerie was beautifully finished with shell-tucked hems and hand worked lace applique and embroidery.

Which pieces of 1940s clothing are the most challenging to make and why?
The tailored garments are probably the most challenging, as they require the use of methods not commonly used in dressmaking and uncommon foundation materials, such as canvas, linen tape and felt. Aside from tailored garments, crepe tea dresses can be tricky, as the fabric is very slippery and skirts can be cut on the bias, which is also challenging for a beginner sewist.

Where do you find fabric that works well for your patterns?
I try to use natural fiber fabrics — these are more authentic for the period. If you can get hold of vintage rayon crepes, they are ideal for tea dresses, but yardage can be an issue. Modern linens and wools work well for skirts and trousers, but stick to classic colors.

Liberty Fabrics printed tana lawn cottons in archival prints for blouses and dresses and reproduction-print quilting cottons also work well.

What would you tell someone who's interested in sewing 1940s-style clothing but is afraid it will be too complicated? Any techniques they should practice or learn before starting?
Start with something simple in a fabric that's forgiving. The skirt and slacks patterns in my book are a good starting point, as they can be made in denim, cotton drill, wool or linen.

The instructions are very detailed and supported with lots of photographs to make them accessible to a wide audience, from beginner to advanced. I think precision is the key, from pattern cutting to tacking, machining to pressing. Taking time to tack everything together and pressing at every stage really improves the quality of the finished garment. Finishings, including fastenings, hems and any hand-stitching to neaten edges should be done with care.



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