How To… Draft a Shirt Waist (a vintage guide)

Hi, guys!  I have something fun to share with you today (if “fun” for you means learning about old-timey pattern-drafting techniques… and I think it might…)!  I mentioned a while ago that Man Friend’s great-great-aunt Cecilia was a seamstress who trained in Chicago in the early 20th century, and my mother-in-law passed along some of her notions to me.  In the collection, I found this little manual with instructions for drafting shirtwaists.  I thought I’d scan it in case anyone was interested!

I love the illustrations of the ladies in fine dresses measuring each other.  I ALWAYS wear my fanciest dresses at home when I sew.

Also, a 27″ waist with a 39″ bust?!  Holy cow!  Work it, girl!  (Also– I really like that she wrote down 25″ originally as her waist measurement, then crossed it out and wrote 27″… too many holiday treats?  Finally able to face the facts and report measurements honestly?)

I found this little guide pretty interesting.  I had never really thought about the fact that women drafted their own patterns to sew from– I guess I’ve always thought of pattern drafting as a more recent technique.  I did a little online research, but I couldn’t find any information about Miss A.V. Laird or her drafting system.  Anyone know anything about seamstress training at the turn of the century?

Hope your weeks are going swimmingly!  I have the day off tomorrow, so I’m planning to dig into the Burda dress fitting a bit more and see if I can’t come up with a solution for the weird fit.  What are you up to?  Any fun projects?

36 responses

  1. Ah, I think stuff like this is so cool! I love the little drawings so much :3 Those measurements are insane – sounds like the lady had quite a va va voom bod 🙂 The crossed out 25 made me laugh too.

    I’m really interested in how people handled sewing ‘back in the day before patterns. I do recall (and here’s the dork in me coming out to say hi) in a Little House on the Prairie book, they describe how Ma would draw up the sewing patterns using a little chart that she kept in her sewing basket. I guess there were mini pattern pieces drawn up & you enlarged them directly on the fabric based on your measurements. Crazy stuff! Also, while we are on the subject of Little House on the Prairie, it’s really interesting to go back & re-read the books as a sewing adult, because the later books do touch down quite a bit on the sewing methods & describing the clothes (fabric details! button details! fitting details!) that everyone is wearing. Looove it haha


      • Calico… I went through a “Little House” stage and all I wanted was calico dresses and sun bonnets. Needless to say, Chloe Sevigny was my manic pixie dream girl for a spell


    • Right? My mother-in-law and her mom are both total Joans– the va-va-voom figure must run in the family! I’m totally jealous of their fab figures!

      I’ll have to go back and re-read the Little House books! I haven’t read them since I was about 7, so I don’t really remember them sewing. That’s so cool!


    • Little House and calico go together like wine and cheese! I can’t think of one without the other, and now you’ve really got me wanting to reread them as an adult 🙂

      I’ve been geeking out at the American Textile History Museum lately, and should really share some of that on le blog.


    • Thanks so much for access to this wonderful system for pattern-drafting! I have a number of older handsewing books, but have been looking for a way to “custom” a blouse for quite some time– I’m definitely a “retro girl”, and am delighted to learn that I can design and make a shirtwaist which will fit properly.

      By the way, I’d loved living in New Orleans years ago–sometimes I only knew that a woman was in period clothing for a movie role if she were carrying her shoes (the highbuttons for the remake of Hobson’s Choice, or those twenties pumps for Miller’s Crossing, were probably not all that comfortable for streetwear). Otherwise city-fashion took in everything from Parisian lace to Edwardian to Chainsaw Punk. What a great place!

      …and books are always a great idea for those of us who love to sew. I’d agonized once over whether I should spend 4P on a used volume on the history of sewing and fashion (my stay in London was short, and there was much to buy in the fleamarkets!), but I’ve ended up referring to this book nearly every month since I’ve owned it. And handsewing skills are now such a fossil item, I could use all the help I can get. Access to information is wonderful, so thanks again for adding to the wealth!

      Sincerely, Beverly


      • I’m so glad you found this helpful! It’s so cool that people are interested in sewing the way women did 100 years ago! Amazing!

        Also, I’m jealous that you lived in New Orleans! I’ve always wanted to and have hoped many times to get on a movie crew there, but it hasn’t worked out yet. It seems like such a magical place!


  2. Ooh, I do love this kind of thing! Especially when there are notes in there from years and years ago when another seamstress used it. So cool!
    It’s a little peek into the past. 🙂


  3. I love this old book and the pictures of the ladies in their high necked blouses and bustle skirts are wonderful! Is the date on the book 1903 or 1913? Funny to think of these ladies doing what we do now.


  4. Oooh, thank you so much for posting this! I’m too far into my project for the Titanic tea next weekend to make this up, but I definitely will give this a go!

    Also, I’ve never seen “knife” listed as a sewing tool before! Our foremothers were definitely way more hardcore in their sewing. 😉


    • Oh wow, I can’t wait to see you make this! Let me know if you’d like me to email you the original scans (I scaled them down a bit for the blog).

      I can’t believe how patient our foremothers were! You have to write in for the prices of the items?! Then presumably wait for a response, send money, and wait for, I don’t know, the Pony Express to bring you your notions! Phew…


  5. Ginger, this is awesome! It’s funny how after so many years, the same fundamentals still stay the same. I love the words “care and exactness” that is used on the first page. I had a reader email me and write that she was having difficulty with my pattern drafting. After numerous emails back and forth, we realized that her measurements were off, not her method. I cannot express how important the accuracy is of your measurements when drafting. When making my first block, my manager and I spent 2 hours measuring myself!


    • Wow, that’s such a long time for measurements! But you’re right– there isn’t really a point to making a block if it doesn’t fit you correctly, so you should probably make sure that your measurements are really precise! 🙂


  6. I love old timey patterns and instruction booklets, especially if there are hand-written notes! (I have a pattern somewhere that has a note written on the front that says something to the effect of “When I die don’t give this pattern to such-and-such.” LOL!)

    I hope to get to a point where I can make my own patterns this way. Anywho, thanks for sharing!


  7. This is so cool, Ginger! You say your lady trained as a seamstress in Chicago . . . do you know if she worked here too? This was so timely, because I was walking down State Street the other day and happened to look up at the side of a brick building; I saw a very faded and almost illegible old advertisement: . . . .ssard Corsets. I was really curious about it so did a little googling when I got home. Turns out there were a few big corset-making companies in Chicago around that time: Chicago Corset Company (a.k.a. Ball’s) and Gossard, which I believe is the ad I saw. And is seems that there was a fairly large clothing manufacture industry as well in Chicago and surrounding towns like Aurora and Elgin. Fascinating!

    And I also want to say: Thank goodness for printed patterns! This seems extremely tedious to me! On the other hand, each woman would only have had a few dresses, and they would have worn them much longer than we’re used to keeping any item of clothing.


    • I’ll have to ask my mother-in-law. That’s so cool– I didn’t realize that there was much in the way of garment-making in Chicago! I can’t imagine making corsets, and how difficult that must have been.

      And you aren’t kidding– this seems insanely tedious! Ugh! I can’t imagine how much work it must’ve been to make one dress– you’d have to keep it forever!


  8. Thanks for sharing this – I especially liked seeing the handwritten measurements. Wonder what she made?
    plans this weekend? Childrens’ club in an art gallery on saturday, I hope to do a bit of sewing on a dress I am making if my machine behaves. It keeps jamming, I cleaned and oiled it today so fingers crossed…


    • That’s a good point– I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s correct, especially since there was probably a pretty decent difference in waist measurements depending on whether or not you were wearing a corset (holy cow, I sure am glad that we don’t wear those anymore! I can’t even deal with control top pantyhose!).


  9. thanks for sharing this knowledge,will appreciate if you’d also share how to take men’s measurement for shirt and how to cut the fabric with the given measurement.


  10. Hi! I know you posted this a long time ago, but I was thinking of giving A.V. Laird’s instructions a go and having a try at making my own shirtwaist using these instructions, for a Youtube video. I know you scanned in these images – would you mind if I used them as a reference in the video? I’m happy to credit you for sharing them!
    Thank you!


  11. Thank you so much for posting this!!! I know it’s an older post, but I just found a lovely lightweight black cotton on sale, and simply HAD to make a black shirtwaist! I’m so excited to use this resource, you’re an absolute gem!


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