Making History Come Alive Through Vintage Sewing

 Posted by on Aug 20, 2014 at 7:03 AM
Aug 202014
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~ Making History Come Alive Through Vintage Sewing ~

by Tam Francis

I recently had the honor of playing opposite my daughter in a charming period play called Chicago Gypsies, set in the early 1930s. Sometimes I wonder if they cast me because I know how to sew, but I was cast and given instructions on my costumes. Now, being a swing dancer, I hoped to make dresses that I could wear out dancing. I especially like to wear 1930s style to Balboa-Swing!

Sometimes our attempts are successful, sometimes they’re failures. I’ve shared what I feel were my triumphs and failures in this venture, and what I’ve learned from both.

The Success

The first task I was set was to recreate an outfit my character would have worn on stage for her vaudeville act in a little number called Turn on the Heat.

I had bought a pair of fur-trimmed boots which had a distinct 1930s 1940s footwear feel and we went with those as a basis for color and fur trim. I spent hours going through stacks of ultra-suede and velour, driving across city to find the right color and texture, at the right price.

I forgot to mention I had to change out of a kimono and into the Turn on the Heat Costume, on stage, behind a screen in a matter of about six lines of dialogue. So my costume wouldn’t be exactly like the one in the video, but I think I captured the feel of it. I  used a late 1940s early 1950s vintage sewing robe pattern which had the flared skirt and tie-belt that I thought would be easy on.

vintage sewing pattern for Turn on the heat During the process of making this costume, I learned some valuable tips:

Vintage Sewing Tips

  • Iron the pattern (use low heat)
  • Do not use steam or squirt bottle
  • Measure your bicep before cutting sleeve
  • Place your finger on pin in pattern when removing pins from vintage sewing pattern piece to keep from tearing the delicate paper
  • Use chalk line for trim position to eliminate pinning
  • Boa feathers are impossible to sweep–cut outside
  • Use zigzag stitch to sew boa onto chalked line

It was also mid-July and do you know how hard it is to find fur in the middle of July?In Texas? Almost impossible as it turns out. I did manage to find some furry feather boas that matched the fluff and color tones of the fur trimmed boots. I had originally wanted a big fur border like the gal in the movie, but alas it wasn’t to be.

I do think the solution turned out clever enough though, and had the art deco feel. I did two rows of the fur boa trim at the skirt bottom and sleeve ends.

1930s turn on the heat vintage costumeI also knew I wouldn’t have time to mess with a hood and redo my hair before the next scene, so I opted for making a fur headband. I hoped it added a touch of humor and silliness to the already outrageous outfit.

As you can see I did away with the lapels and added a tie at the top which gathered the fabric in a nice 30s style!

You can’t see the V detail on the front, but that’s okay. I knew it was there and added a little flare to the skirt, which is also hard to see in the photo.

I had planned on leaving it with the theater. What would I do with a furry 30s outfit? I’m now thinking it might make a darling Halloween costume, or many swing dance events have costumes nights. After all the hard work, with needles breaking and the tension on my machine going batty with the feathers, it might need to stay with me. I’m very proud of  how the Turn on the Heat costume turned out.

The Failure

Next up was the blue dress. The director had this idea for a sapphire blue dress that would look amazing when I came back out for my last scene after suffering a trauma, (I won’t tell you what befell the character in case you see the play some day). I loved the color and thought it would be amazing to wear out swing dancing. I had so few 1930s pieces, I thrilled at the chance to make something that would not only shine in the play, but could transfer to the dance floor.

I showed the director the beautiful 1930s pattern I wanted to make. She liked it, but wanted three-quarter sleeves and a v-neck. Now tell me, in the dead of winter in Fort Dodge, Iowa, is anyone going to be wearing a light rayon gown with short sleeves and a v-neck? I didn’t think so either, but she’s the director and you NEVER argue with the director. I attempted to combine these to patterns in hopes of appeasing both of us:

1930s vintage sewing pattern gathered neckline

1940s vintage sewing pattern v-neck












It sounded good in theory. And the vintage sewing patterns were so similar, I thought I could pull it off and I almost did, almost. Here are some things I learned from what I consider an epic fail.

More Vintage Sewing Tips

  • Use patterns of same size when combining patterns
  • Changing necklines doesn’t always work
  • Don’t let someone else buy your fabric
  • Don’t buy fabric from a website unless you get a sample first
  • Buy heavier rayon
  • Use stitch witchery for gluing in zipper before sewing
  • Use lots of pins for top-stitched V and when fabric is thin
  • Have dedicated FABRIC scissors (especially if you have crafty kids and hubby)

vintage sewing top stitchvintage sewing zippersMy director was so fixated on a particular color she decided to order from an online store that dyes fabric and claims to have rayons. It sounded great, it’s hard to find real rayons that aren’t polyester or microfiber in the real world.

When we got the fabric, the color was beautiful, but the weight and weave of the fabric was terrible.  The dye was also slightly uneven and had odd pinprick spots throughout. Not bad for the stage, but terrible for real life.

It felt a bit like rayon, but must have been a blend because the fabric we got looked and felt like cotton voile. It was so thin, I had to buy a special needle for my sewing machine and again the tension gave me trouble. You can see my ironing board cover through the fabric. I even had to buy a new pair of scissors to cut the thin fabric. Not to mention, if you breathed on the fabric it would wrinkle. Mom and daughter in vintage sewing outfits 1930s

Because the patterns were different sizes, I cut both bigger. This turned out to be a mixed blessing. The skirt fit my hips, but the back and bodice were wide. The bust turned out super saggy. If I had stuck with the original pattern line this sagginess would have been taken up in the gathered neckline.

As you can see by the picture the bust is extremely baggy and matronly. I took it up several times to relieve some of the droop, but with the weight of the fabric, the mixing of patterns, and the style, it wasn’t an outfit I would EVER wear on the dance floor.

The best fix was to to gather and clip the neckline creating a sweetheart line, but of course anyone who knows their vintage knows that’s a very 1940s look, not a bit 1930s. The director loved it. So hurray for that.

Overall this vintage sewing project felt like an epic fail in the finished creation. I’m thrilled at how much I learned and the opportunity to learn it. I hope to try the pattern again with real rayon and the gathered neckline. Who knows, maybe you’ll see me on the dance floor with feet flying in Lindy or dancing Balboa steps sporting a new 1930s frock, perfectly sewn.


Have you had any sewing disasters? What did you learn from your mistakes? What’s your favorite part of vintage sewing? Want more blogs about vintage sewing: HalloweenCostumes and Historical SewingVintage Sewing Pattern ThoughtsFree Patterns and Crafts

Tam Francis, authorTam Francis is writer, blogger, swing dance teacher, avid vintage collector, and seamstress. She  shares her love of this genre through her novels, blog, and short stories. She enjoys hearing from you, sharing ideas, forging friendships, and exchanging guest blogs. For all the Girl in the Jitterbug Dress news, give-aways, events, and excitement, make sure to join her list and like her FB page! Join my list ~ Facebook page





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  4 Responses to “Making History Come Alive Through Vintage Sewing”

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  1. Funny how fabulous the dress looks in the photo. I’ve seen it up close, as you know, and I concur with your disappointment.

    Great article.

    • Robyn,

      Thanks. I thought the same thing. Pictures a deceiving. The fabric has so little give that even if I wanted to wear it dancing I would bust seams in a hot minute. Thanks for taking the time to stop by the blog and comment! Welcome!


  2. Really interesting article, and I don’t even sew!

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