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History of the Sewing Pattern - The Sewing Pattern: Beginnings

Ellen Curtis Demorest's African-American maid had an idea - cutting a dress pattern from cheap brown paper. Her mistress was a milliner and dressmaker who was trying to develop a method of cutting a dress that would fit a woman's body smoothly and comfortably. Ellen and her sister Kate wanted an alternative to the "pin-to-form" method that required draping and pinning cheap fabric or paper to a client's body, basting it together, then refitting the model to the client before cutting the dress fabric.

It was a few years before the American Civil War that Ellen met and married widower William Jennings Demorest. Initially she left her business for the life of a wife and mother to her children and step-children. She later decided to re-enter the fashion world by opening a dressmaking and millinery shop called Madame Demorest's Emporium of Fashion on Broadway in Manhattan, New York, near elite stores to attract wealthy customers.

Meanwhile, her husband William began to manufacture and distribute dress patterns made of thin tissue paper, which was found by Ellen to be a better material. The maid's idea for paper patterns was the seed of a lucrative business for the Demorests. In 1860, William formulated the idea of a quarterly fashion magazine which he named "Mme. Demorest's Mirror of Fashions" to promote the new patterns. One of Ellen's patterns would be stapled into a magazine with illustrations of the latest fashions with instructions for ordering more. Ellen also added her sewing tips and fitting instructions to the magazine. This marketing innovation was copied by various later pattern makers including Vogue.

Home sewing had just begun to proliferate with the introduction of the sewing machine in the mid-1800's. The sewing pattern was invented at just the right time to keep the Demorests' business prospering even through the Civil War. William ran the pattern factory, magazine, and finances, while Ellen concentrated on fashion and expanding their market. She soon had men's and children's pattern lines, with scouts in London and Paris to keep her informed of the latest fashions.






By 1865, their magazine, renamed and now a monthly, had a circulation of 100,000 subscribers, and they had a network of 300 shops which carried Demorests' paper patterns. Ellen and Kate's Manhattan shop was very successful, attracting wealthy society ladies who would order everything from dresses to entire wedding trousseaus. Later the magazine began to be published in London. The mid-1870's marked the peak of their business efforts. 1500 women worked as Demorest sales agents throughout the United States. Three million patterns were distributed in 1876 alone. The Demorests won top awards at national and international expositions and had distribution ofiices in Europe, Canada and Cuba.

The most interesting thing about the Demorests aside from their innovations in the pattern business was their social consciousness. Both Ellen and William were abolitionists and concerned with temperance and other reforms. During the American crisis over slavery, they hired African-American women for their factory, treating them as equals to their white workers. All workers sat without segregation in the workroom, received the same pay, and were invited to the same social events. If rich customers objected, they were told to do their business elsewhere.

In 1860, Jennie June Croly became the chief writer for the "Illustrated Monthy", championing reforms for women in the areas of health, hygiene, education and outside occupations. Jennie June and Ellen formed a New York women's club, and Ellen was involved in training women in homeopathic medicine and shelters for women and children. Ellen formed the Women's Tea Company in 1872 to provide widows and single women with a respectable means of making a living selling tea. Though not as successful as the pattern business, it was able to pay for its own clipper ship and attract wealthy businesses to buy its tea.

The tragedy of the Demorests is that William never patented the Demorest paper pattern. In the 1880's, Ebenezer Butterick obtained the patents for his patterns and soon became the leading competitor. With pressure from Butterick, McCall and other emerging pattern companies, the Demorests sold their pattern business in 1887, setting the stage for a new generation of pattern makers.

Thanks to RustyZipper.Com contributors Don & Michele Myers for this article