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Mildred: A life in 40 patterns

Realizing my readership is mostly male, I hesitate to post the following. But don’t tune out on me, guys. Or at least not instantly. Don’t assume from the topic that this post is too girly for your macho selves. Think of this like finding a box of old gun or car parts or fishing tackle, all from one guy’s garage.


Behind one of the local thrift stores are boxes of freebies — loaded up every morning, then tossed out at the end of every day. These are newly donated items that are almost trash, but Chris the manager hopes might be of use to somebody so the store won’t have to pay landfill fees on them.

I rarely find anything worthwhile there. But Monday morning, there was a box of sewing patterns. With pattern prices having gone insanely high — I mean high enough to make a century of inflation look like a hiccup by percentages of increase — I’ll take what I can scrounge.

I delved into the box hoping I might find a pattern or two worth altering to suit me. Instead, I found history — and the tale of a woman’s life. I carried the entire box — 40 patterns and a couple of related books — home to keep.


Her name was Mildred. She began sewing her own clothes (or at least started saving her sewing patterns) during World War II:

There are no dates, but military styling (note — shoulder pads!) + knee-length skirts = WWII.

She was Mildred Boyle* then and lived in Seattle. I know this from notes on the patterns or from envelopes that contain patterns she ordered from a newspaper column. Some of the patterns have the newspaper item stapled to them.

Was Boyle a maiden or married name? I don’t know. Maybe Mildred was the young daughter of a Boeing worker, maybe the young wife of a sailor. The name Mildred sounds old even for the war years. Anyhow, during the war, she made lots of her own clothes.

Then the war ended:

That was the only pattern on which I spotted a copyright date. But I didn’t need it. In 1947, the year of this pattern, Christian Dior decreed the “New Look.” The global fashion world rushed to obey. Lines softened. Skirts widened voluptuously. Hemlines, released from wartime austerity and fabric shortages, plunged. Seemingly within minutes, nobody, but nobody, wore those short skirts any more.

Mildred continued sewing into the 1950s:

Somewhere along in there, she became Mildred Canning — or in more formal circumstances (as when sending for mail-order patterns), Mrs. Edwin Canning, Jr. If Boyle had been her maiden name, she married. If Boyle was a married name, she lost her husband in the war or (scandalously) divorced and hitched up with a new guy.

She didn’t sew a lot through the 50s. Maybe too busy as a wife and mother. But she picked back up again with verve in the “swingin’ sixties”:

Mildred’s early patterns were size 16, but that meant something different then than it does now. Those WWII 16s were roughly equivalent to today’s 12** — making the young Mildred either tall and well-proportioned or shorter and unfashionably stocky. But by the 1960s, she was using real modern size 16s — four inches bigger around. She’d expanded in 20 years. Several of the later patterns are hopefully labeled “slimline” or “pounds off” fashion. There was an occasional pattern in a slightly smaller size; a teenage daughter, maybe?

Eventually, Mildred left Seattle and moved to a non-fancy resort and retirement community on the coast. Her last patterns, with her handwritten notation of 1970, were from that town.

And from there … 49 years later … they ended up behind the local thrift store, in danger of being tossed into a dumpster at the end of the very day I discovered them.

What happened to Mildred between 1970, when she penciled the date on her last envelope, and 2019, when I carried her box of patterns home? No idea. I assume she’s dead now, or at the very least in a nursing home. Maybe someday I’ll read her obituary and learn a little more.

The patterns? Some will actually be useful; classic enough that I can adapt them for my needs. Others are just curios. But what wonderful curios they are, sketching a small part of 20th-century history and the small story of a life.


* Her name really was Mildred, but I’m changing the last names for the privacy of whatever family members still might be around.

** Though women must have been proportioned differently back then. The early patterns assume small busts, wide hips, compared with modern patterns built for more balanced bodies.


  1. Jorge
    Jorge May 15, 2019 3:36 am

    Very cool. The bit of history, both personal and of fashion, that this collection holds could be a gold mine for an anthropologist. I hope you find use for some of the patterns.

  2. Pat
    Pat May 15, 2019 4:40 am

    A fascinating bit of history from an unlikely source. I followed the years with interest through remembering my own past clothing.

    “** Though women must have been proportioned differently back then. The early patterns assume small busts, wide hips, compared with modern patterns built for more balanced bodies.”

    Actually that’s closer to the way we were built – when women ‘came naturally'”.

    Several decades of carb-laden food and drink have added to our top part, while decades of medically-aided or exercise-laden activity have altered our concept of how we are “supposed” to look – perfect, like Barbie.

    In spite of feminists attempting to take sex out of our lives – either as “objectified” or as trangendered – we are still sexually “molded” by culture. Think of all the volumptuous ladies painted in art that are presumed to be the way men liked women at that time. Then think of Twiggy, the stick-figured model of the 60s, who began to change the way models looked.

    During WWII we didn’t have time to worry about looks so much; men were fighting, and women were working and/or keeping house and raising kids. A look at film during that time shows that many actresses were broader in the hip and thighs proportionately that they are today, and were considered “perfect”.

  3. david
    david May 15, 2019 5:08 am

    I wouldn’t have taken them home, Claire, but I can see the great value in your find. Literary (a life’s story told in clothing) and historical. Also financial value too, if you like to dress ‘retro’. I sometimes buy clothing worn by somebody’s Grandpa in the 50’s (or earlier if I can find it) just because I like the styles and can’t buy them new anywhere.

  4. free.and.true
    free.and.true May 15, 2019 6:18 am

    Way to mine that little everyday treasure chest, Claire. Lovely read.

  5. Owl
    Owl May 15, 2019 6:27 am

    That is a wonderful story, Claire. It brings back memories of my Mom, who also had a box of patterns collected over the decades, and of my aunt Mildred – we called her Millie – who passed away a couple months ago. The lives of ordinary folks of the past fascinates me for some reason, even when there are no personal connections. Thanks.

  6. Val E. Forge
    Val E. Forge May 15, 2019 8:02 am

    I’m sorry Claire that you felt many of us men might automatically dismiss your story because of the subject matter. We are not as stereotypical as you might think. Nonetheless, good read and I’m with Owl – “The lives of ordinary folks of the past fascinates me for some reason, even when there are no personal connections. Thanks.”

  7. Claire
    Claire May 15, 2019 10:13 am

    You’re right, Val E. Forge. I should never underestimate my readers.

    I share everyone’s fascination with the lives of everyday people of the past. And Pat, thanks for the lesson in the physical “geography” of women. 🙂

  8. Joel
    Joel May 15, 2019 10:24 am

    That is some wonderful stuff right there. I take guilty pleasure whenever I can fall down another life’s rabbit hole like that. It happens very rarely.

    I remember very old graveyards in Michigan, where a family plot would have markers for one old man, 3 or 4 women most of whom didn’t die very young, and as many as eight small children – they didn’t bother marking the graves of infants. I would stand there and wonder what those peoples’ lives must have been like…

  9. Thomas Knapp
    Thomas Knapp May 15, 2019 12:41 pm

    The search engines might be helpful in finding out more about your mysterious seamstress.

    Some while back I was building a cigar box guitar and ordered a World War Two ration card as part of the art I wanted to put on it. The information on the card was sufficient for me to track down the little girl whose card it was (unfortunately, part of what I tracked down was her obituary; she seems to have grown up, married, raised a family, and died in a single Ohio county).

  10. WolfSong
    WolfSong May 15, 2019 1:23 pm

    I love old patterns!
    I’ve dreamed for many years of a sewing room with old patterns used as wall paper, just because I think they’re so interesting…not to mention fun to work with.
    You have some real gems there.
    Hope you’ll share photos of anything you decide to make from them. 🙂

  11. maDDtraPPer
    maDDtraPPer May 15, 2019 1:24 pm


  12. Claire
    Claire May 15, 2019 2:35 pm

    WolfSong — Papering a sewing room with old patterns! Very cool idea. And yep, there are some gems. I looked more closely at them this afternoon and discovered that the earliest copyright date was 1944; but the Advance brand patterns (the ones with the black and pale blue fashion drawings) have no dates on them and some could be a couple years older than that.

    Thomas Knapp — I’m sorry you didn’t find her still alive and well, but isn’t it funny how a life lived in a single county (which must have been boring) becomes a story when seen from afar? As to search engines — Mildred doesn’t show up on a casual search. I’m sure if I looked more deeply — into the genealogy sites and such — I’d find her. But so far, nothing. Not even an obituary.

    And I’d love to see that cigar box guitar. Got a link?

  13. larryarnold
    larryarnold May 15, 2019 2:56 pm

    I invented an Excel spreadsheet for my wife’s patterns, which my eldest daughter cloned for hers. Most of my wife’s new patterns run to kid-size clothes, now that we have seven-year-old grandkids.

    I noticed the prices in the last photo, patterns for a dime or a quarter, but of course back then the dimes and quarters were silver, and even the dollar bills were worth lots more.

    I also find myself nostalgic remembering what ladies and gentlemen looked like back when they dressed to go out. Don’t get me started on women in cuttoff tops, ragged shorts and flip-flops at the grocery store. That’s selfish, I suppose, as I was always thankful few of my working days required wearing a tie.

    I bet if you wrote something about your treasure, you could get it published.

  14. coloradohermit
    coloradohermit May 15, 2019 3:01 pm

    What a fun trip down memory lane. During high school, back in the 1960s I made most of my own clothes. While the cool girls were wearing Villager outfits, I loved being different. I haven’t done any sewing for many years, so it’ll be especially fun to see what you might bring to life for yourself. Thanks for salvaging Mildred’s history!

  15. Claire
    Claire May 15, 2019 3:13 pm

    “I noticed the prices in the last photo, patterns for a dime or a quarter, but of course back then the dimes and quarters were silver, and even the dollar bills were worth lots more.”

    Very true. (And spreadsheeting your wife’s and daughter’s patterns … now that’s love.) But pattern prices really have accelerated wildly beyond inflation. Mildred’s least expensive pattern cost $0.15 and her most expensive, 20-some years later, $1.25. Now? Major manufacturers’ list prices for patterns are — hold onto your hat — between $15.95 and $21.95, with a typical price being $19.95!

    Of course they’re nearly always discounted, but in 1944 Mildred paid less than 1% of those prices, and in 1965 less than 10% of those prices. That’s something other than ordinary inflation. On top of that, patterns aren’t printed in single sizes, as they were through Mildred’s day, which was probably a costly way to go. Today, you might get sizes 10-16 or 18-22 on a single pattern, with cut lines indicated for each size, so there’s less printing and packaging needed, and probably fewer unsold patterns, as well.

    I don’t know why the outsized cost increases, but the new prices sure make old patterns more desirable, at least for anybody with the skill to “hack” them.

  16. larryarnold
    larryarnold May 15, 2019 3:14 pm

    a life lived in a single county (which must have been boring) becomes a story

    Every now and then, one of my “Hill Country Characters” turns out to have lived all his or her life in the county. I’ve yet to find a story that was boring. Of course, it isn’t a representative sample. But in my experience boring people are boring whether they move around or stay put.

    When I was back in college, working on my graduate degree, there was a story in the campus newspaper about a new organization for “students older than average” (a fairly new thing back then) because there was nothing for SOTAs to do, on the campus of a major university in a diverse city. Meanwhile I was participating in probably two too many organizations, and had a waiting list I didn’t have time for.

    I passed.

  17. Claire
    Claire May 15, 2019 3:16 pm

    “Thanks for salvaging Mildred’s history!”

    Oh, it was totally my pleasure. I still feel breathless, thinking how close those treasures came to being tossed in the Dumpster.

    Salutes to my fellow high school seamstress — and rebel soul. 🙂

  18. Claire
    Claire May 15, 2019 3:18 pm

    “Meanwhile I was participating in probably two too many organizations, and had a waiting list I didn’t have time for.”

    LOL — Somehow I am NOT surprised, given all the things you’ve been up to as long as I’ve known you from afar.

  19. larryarnold
    larryarnold May 15, 2019 3:20 pm

    And spreadsheeting your wife’s and daughter’s patterns … now that’s love.
    I can’t take too much credit. I just designed the spreadsheet; they did all the data entry.

  20. Scott
    Scott May 15, 2019 3:35 pm

    Patterns are likely so expensive because they’re selling in such small volumes. Mass produced Asian clothing is so cheap not many people are making their own. The sewing biz is mostly sustained by quilters, or by cosplayers like my kids.

  21. Val E. Forge
    Val E. Forge May 16, 2019 10:04 am


    No offense taken.

    BTW – Men’s physical geography seems to have changed as well. After serving in the USMC during WWII my father played in The Eastern 150-pound Football League in the late 1940’s when he was in college. There were that many college aged men at that time who weighed 150 pounds or less.

    The league still exists. It is now called The Collegiate Sprint Football League, but I don’t think its as big of a deal as it was in the 1930’s -1940’s.

  22. Desertrat 1
    Desertrat 1 May 16, 2019 2:50 pm

    I entered the University of Texas in 1951. One of the largest football players on the team, lineman Bud McFadin, weighed 245 pounds. A few years earlier, basketball star Slater Martin was 5′-10″; after UT he played for the LA Lakers.

    Yeah, changes on the masculine side, as well.

  23. brew
    brew May 16, 2019 3:11 pm

    Interesting anthropological observation you made… it never would have occurred to me that shorter skirts/dresses during WWII was an adaptation to conserving cloth. Fashion follows function….

    Nice story!

  24. Claire
    Claire May 17, 2019 11:12 am

    Yep, brew. Those short skirts were just another form of rationing.

    And Scott, I’m sure you’re right. Quilters, cosplayers, and crafters are keeping the sewing industry alive and it wouldn’t surprise me if clothing patterns were 1/10th the market they were a generation ago. Damn shame about the extreme prices, though; that just deepens the problem of homemade clothes being uncompetitively expensive.

  25. Pat
    Pat May 17, 2019 1:10 pm

    We learn something new every day. I had not heard the term “cosplay(ers)” before. I knew it existed, but the term itself is new to me, so I looked it up. Thanks for mentioning it.

  26. Ho hum Human
    Ho hum Human May 19, 2019 8:19 am

    I am psychologically unable to pass by a pile of stuff without looking through it, and often find myself at least glancing into garbage cans and dumpsters. I should have become an anthropologist.

  27. M
    M May 20, 2019 10:56 am

    I probably would have skimmed quickly except for that my wife has recently started doing a lot more sewing for herself. While clothing has gotten cheaper (and more poorly made), it’s also gotten to the point where an woman with a body shape approaching that of the WWII-era models isn’t able to find well-fitted clothing short of having it modified or made. That leaves me keeping an eye out for patterns.

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