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Largest collection of clothes patterns now available on CD

The University of Rhode Island maintains the largest collection of clothing patterns in the world. Many of the patterns cannot be found anywhere else. Until now, that is.

After more than a decade of recording and categorizing 20,000 patterns and scanning the front and back of each package into an electronic database, Joy Emery, professor emerita of URI’s Theatre Department and former adjunct professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design, and her cadre of volunteers have created a two-volume CD set containing patterns from 1868 to 1956.

“There is such a wealth of history here. All of these patterns are expressions of their time period and reflect the society that they were made in,” said Emery, noting that theatrical designers, clothing manufacturers, social historians, and museum curators can use the information to recreate a time and place or to date clothing in collections.

It is not unusual for a pattern company to contact Emery, since companies routinely destroyed their “outdated” patterns.

URI’s CD contains patterns from the Betty Williams Pattern Collection, which is housed in the URI Library. Williams was a New York costumer and a pioneer in dressmaker pattern research. All patterns in the collection were donated to the University, the largest gift—12,000 patterns—came from the Williams estate.

The patterns, which have been designated a project of Save America’s Treasures by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, represent 60 different pattern companies and include such high style couturiers as Dior and Vionnet. Women’s dresses, bathing suits, silk bloomers, men’s suits, and children’s sailor suits are among the many entries.

The oldest dressmaker pattern in the archive is a Demorest pattern published in Frank Leslie’s Ladies Gazette of Fashion in 1854. The early patterns had no printed markings or directions as it was assumed that women knew the skill of sewing. Although clothes were sewn by hand, the availability of sewing machines created a demand for more patterns.

Emery, the collections’ curator, has donated her own vast collection of patterns to the URI collection, including those donated to her by friends and acquaintances who found them at yard sales, flea markets, in theirs or their relatives attics and cellars.

Emery’s work is not done. The curator is busily categorizing patterns from the 1960s.

By Jan Wenzel

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