Do-It-Yourself Fashion Thrives at the McCall Pattern Company


Credit: Instagram.com/gertie18 & instagram.com/mccallpatterncompany

Credit: Instagram.com/gertie18 & instagram.com/mccallpatterncompany

[By: Steven Kurutz] [NY Times] [Read More]

The head of patternmaking, Behnaz Livian, center, and Jacqueline Polikoff, a designer, discuss the cut of a dress. CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times

The head of patternmaking, Behnaz Livian, center, and Jacqueline Polikoff, a designer, discuss the cut of a dress. CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times

The internet did little to disrupt it. Globalization could not shut it down. But while the McCall Pattern Company, the home-sewing brand founded in 1863, may seem like a business that time forgot, it finds itself newly fashionable.

The company’s headquarters have the look of a corporate environment in the days before digital culture banished clutter. There on the 34th floor of the Equitable Building, a 1915 skyscraper in Manhattan’s financial district, you will find rooms filled with buttons and zippers, bolts of fabric on work tables and metal file drawers stuffed with paper pattern packets.

There is a patternmaking room, where muslin is fitted to dress forms; a dressmaking room, where women at sewing machines make sample garments; and a photo studio, where models pose for simple shoots that emphasize the clothes, rather than sex or sizzle.

For the 80 or so employees, home sewing is not so much a retro thing as it is a timeless pursuit.

“I’ve done this long enough to know that people have it in their hearts,” said Carolyne Cafaro, the creative director. “There could be one pattern company left in the world, but I do think people will always sew.”

Ms. Cafaro’s brief is to oversee the creation of some 700 patterns each year for the four lines that fall under the McCall Pattern Company banner. Each of the lines — McCall’s, Butterick, Kwik Sew and Vogue Patterns (its name licensed from Condé Nast) — has its own catalog, which sewing enthusiasts find at fabric shops.

Meg McDonald, who two years ago became the company’s first social media manager, said she was troubled recently when she came across a photo of one of McCall’s distinctively illustrated envelopes in a nostalgic “Do You Remember?” post on Facebook. There it was, a representation of the company she works for, alongside rotary phones and carousel slide projectors taken from the collective cultural attic.

“So here’s a perfect example of the ‘Huh, you guys are still in business?’ thing that happens to us all the time,” Ms. McDonald wrote in an email.

But if there is a sense in the broader culture that the McCall Pattern Company belongs to the Betty Draper past, the opposite view is held among 21st-century sewers. The patterns created here are blueprints, essential enablers for do-it-yourself-minded women and men who want to look stylish without plunking down thousands at a department store or the latest pop-up shop.

Gretchen Hirsch, a blogger, author and pattern designer who began sewing seriously 10 years ago when she was in her 20s, said the process of picking out a McCall pattern has not changed from when she visited fabric stores with her mother as a girl in the 1980s.

Carolyne Cafaro, the senior vice president and creative director of the McCall Pattern Company in Manhattan, looks through swatches in the fabric library.  CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times

Carolyne Cafaro, the senior vice president and creative director of the McCall Pattern Company in Manhattan, looks through swatches in the fabric library. 

CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times

“Going to a Jo-Ann’s and seeing those same old metal filing cabinets with the McCall’s and Butterick patterns inside — you know, the tissue, the instructions and the little envelope — I found it enormously comforting,” Ms. Hirsch said.

Considerable emotion is attached to the process of making a garment from scratch. In an essay published last year on Lena Dunham’s online newsletter, Lenny, Jenna Lyons, the creative director of J. Crew, wrote lovingly of a watermelon skirt she made in seventh grade using a Butterick pattern. It was a creative act that boosted her self-esteem, increased her social status among her classmates and set her on her career path, she wrote.

A new appreciation for artisanal crafts has led the Etsy generation to embrace sewing. Once done mainly out of economic necessity, making clothes at home is back in fashion, relatively speaking.

Places like  teach newbies, and a four-day sewing retreat called Camp Workroom Social is held each year in the Catskills. Vintage McCall patterns licensed from designers like Diane von Furstenberg or Dior command hundreds of dollars on eBay.

The New York designer Rachel Comey has licensed her patterns to McCall since 2010, where they appear under the Vogue Patterns brand. She didn’t do it for the money. “I just like the tradition of it,” Ms. Comey said. “Sewing is a great craft. It’s exciting and confidence building. I wanted to support it.”

Going Social

Lately, McCall has been mining its past to build a bridge to the future, posting images from its impressive archive to social media sites like Instagram and Pinterest. One of the publications showing its wares, Vogue Patterns, is a fashion treasure trove, and looking through old issues underscores the historical ties between the pattern companies, high fashion and Hollywood.

Famous faces jump out on almost every page. There’s Iman and Christie Brinkley modeling sportswear at the dawn of their careers in October 1977. There’s Alexander Liberman, the legendary Condé Nast art director, on the masthead in an issue in 1958. And isn’t that a baby-faced Marc Jacobs posed beside a girl wearing the striped jacket and pants he designed for Perry Ellis in 1990?

Vogue Patterns was always the high-fashion bible for the advanced sewer, and the work from the star designers that appeared in its pages, including Givenchy, Christian Dior and Valentino, dispelled the notion that homemade clothing was frumpy or for the members of religious cults.

For those who love the substance of fashion more than the hoopla that surrounds it, working for Vogue Patterns was — and is — the ultimate.

Vogue Patterns, which is both a monthly magazine and pattern catalogue published by the McCall Pattern Company, was always considered the high-fashion line for the advanced sewer, as it remains today. Oscar de La Renta poses on the cover of the June 1990 issue of the catalogue with a model wearing one of his licensed patterns. Credit: Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Vogue Patterns, which is both a monthly magazine and pattern catalogue published by the McCall Pattern Company, was always considered the high-fashion line for the advanced sewer, as it remains today. Oscar de La Renta poses on the cover of the June 1990 issue of the catalogue with a model wearing one of his licensed patterns.

Credit: Karsten Moran for The New York Times

“This is going to sound corny, but Vogue Patterns was my dream job,” Ms. Cafaro said. “My mother and grandmother sewed and taught me to sew when I was young. I really loved it.”

Ready for Prom! Page from a 1950s Butterick catalog. #tbt #butterick #fromthearchives #1950sfashion #prom #vintagepattern

A photo posted by McCall Pattern Co (@mccallpatterncompany) on

But the energetic Ms. Cafaro may be better suited to the more wide-ranging job of creative director. “I have the attention span of a gnat,” she said.

She started in the industry in the late 1970s, selling Vogue Patterns in Bloomingdale’s, and she remembers with fondness the luxe days, when she and her colleagues traveled to Europe to meet with designers. “We would take 10- to 12-day trips to Paris, London, Milan,” she said. “Life was good.”

Part of the goal of posting the archive images, said Ms. McDonald, is to spark curiosity among young people, many of whom were not taught sewing in school. To liven up its product, McCall has struck deals with popular sewing bloggers and turned them into designers.

Ms. Hirsch, who blogs under the name Gertie and dresses in a retro rockabilly way, has appeared on the cover of the Butterick catalog and releases “Patterns by Gertie.”

Another blogger turned designer, who works for the McCall’s line, is Nikki Brooks-Revis, 36. She began sewing only four years ago, she said, after amending her long-held view: “My thought was old people sew. Young, hip people did not sew.”

Ms. Brooks-Revis started a personal fashion blog and discovered sewing as a way to produce an ever-changing wardrobe on a budget. She loved the way she could alter a pattern and customize a garment.

Sewing patterns were, in a sense, the original fast fashion: a quick, affordable, stylish option before the advent of the $20 H & M dress. One of the company’s greatest hits is the Walkaway dress, a Butterick pattern from 1952.

“It was called the Walkaway dress because you could sit down at a sewing machine in the morning and walk away wearing it to lunch,” Ms. Cafaro said. The pattern is still available in the Butterick catalog, reissued for a new generation.

From left: Penny Payne, the fabric and notions editor; Carolyne Cafaro, the creative director; Doree Epstein, a designer; and Leslie Sondy, the director of design and merchandising, go over swatches.'Karsten Moran for The New York Times

From left: Penny Payne, the fabric and notions editor; Carolyne Cafaro, the creative director; Doree Epstein, a designer; and Leslie Sondy, the director of design and merchandising, go over swatches.'Karsten Moran for The New York Times

A Family Atmosphere

Many McCall employees exhibit the same constancy as the patterns: They have been with the company for decades. There’s a family atmosphere among the staff and an awareness that they occupy a unique place in the industry, far from the hype of Times Square billboards and runways teeming with pouty fashion bots.

Behnaz Livian, an Iranian immigrant and director of the patternmaking department, has worked at McCall for 26 years. Gwenn Wright, a dressmaker, has been there 33 years. Frank Rizzo, the chief executive, used to work with Ms. Cafaro at Simplicity patterns, a rival company. After all these years he can’t operate a sewing machine. “Don’t bring it up,” he said. “They threatened to make me learn to sew.”

Penny Payne, who oversees the fabric library, went to work for Vogue-Butterick in 1987 after a modeling career. One recent afternoon, wearing a blue Donna Karan dress, a Vogue Patterns design she picked up at the office sample sale, Ms. Payne sat at a work table.

A bright space filled with large flip boards affixed with the latest swatches, buttons, zippers and other notions, the library is the hub of the McCall office, a crucial resource for the designers, fashion editors and patternmakers, who must know what’s available on the market for home sewers.

The pattern business is a dynamic crossroads of several industries, Ms. Payne said. “The timing and the schedules feel like publishing,” she said. “It’s trend and fashion, so it’s like a magazine. But we actually produce something.”

Behind her were color-trend boards from a presentation she gave the day before to representatives from the crafts chain Hobby Lobby. “My skill set has so many different layers, and all of it would not be used at another company,” Ms. Payne said. “I feel blessed to be a part of it.”

The four staff designers expressed a similar satisfaction, despite the workload: At any time they may be focused on 20 to 30 pattern styles, each with three or four variations.

Jacqueline Polikoff, who designs for the McCall’s brand, joined the company five years ago after working for a junior contemporary line in mass manufacturing. Although she no longer sees her designs in stores, she said it was surprisingly rewarding to see how home sewers interpret her patterns.

“At the end of the day, they’re the designer,” said Ms. Polikoff, who notices when sewers post their outfits to social media.

Carlos Correa, who has been at the company 25 years and now designs for the Vogue Patterns line, once worked at Elie Tahari and as Geoffrey Beene’s assistant. But he became disillusioned. “The things the magazines would go crazy about would end up living in the archives,” he said. “Nobody actually bought them.”

Mr. Correa still deals with Seventh Avenue; about half the styles for Vogue Patterns are licensed from well-known companies like Badgley Mischka, Tracy Reese and Rachel Comey. But, he said: “You get to see people making these things and wearing them in real life. And creatively, it’s very fulfilling.”

For Keeps

The pattern industry isn’t wholly immune to modern realities. McCall and its competitors have introduced downloadable patterns as a nod to changing times.

They have also faced business challenges due to changes in how people shop. Last February, the chain Hancock Fabrics filed for bankruptcy, closing 185 stores. The cause, in part, was the consumers’ shift to buying online.

Smaller independent fabric stores have also closed, leaving McCall ever more reliant on the big craft chains like Jo-Ann and Hobby Lobby. Budget and staff cuts have caused its employees to take on more roles. The trips to the fashion capitals of Europe are a thing of the past.

Five months after the Hancock bankruptcy, McCall employees were still digesting the fact that one of their largest retail partners was kaput. Nevertheless, they had to get on with the work of turning out those 700 patterns.

Ms. Cafaro met in her office with a merchandising manager, Leslie Sondy, and a veteran designer, Doree Epstein, to choose the spring 2017 patterns for the Butterick line, which, Ms. Cafaro noted, is “retro” in style.

Pinned to a large board were printouts of some 35 looks, from prom gown to athleisure top. Except for the cut of the clothes and a computer program that aids in patternmaking, little about the process was different from the days when the Walkaway was first produced.

When the final 25 styles were selected, Ms. Cafaro and her team would work with the patternmaking and dressmaking departments to produce sample garments. Then the patterns would be sent to the McCall facility in Manhattan, Kan., where they would be printed on tissue paper.

By now the McCall Pattern Company has outlasted the mainstream women’s magazine that it spawned in 1873 (and which was finally shuttered, after changes in ownership, in 2002). Never has Ms. Cafaro thought her industry would be made obsolete.

Whatever changes may come, she has no plans to look for other work. “Once you’re in this for this many years, you’re in this to stay,” she said.

Comment