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A Guide to Vintage Pattern Sizes

fleish29

Figuring out sizing in vintage patterns can be a challenge.  Industry Standards have changed over the years, with US Standard Clothing Sizes determined in the 1940s and 1950s based on statistical data.  Early patterns (19th and first half of the 20th century) often gave instructions for only one size, and schematics or measurements were rarely given.  If a stitch gauge is given, you can usually figure out the bust/chest measurement and adjust the pattern as necessary.

Patterns in the early 20th century were usually presented in a single size and seldom included measurements or gauge.  It was suggested that the knitter "knit a strip of plain garter stitches, and as you learn new stitches, add them on to it.  In this way...you always have a scale of stitch measurements...you will always be able to determine how many stitches you knit to an inch" (from "My Knitting Book" by Minerva Yarns).  Standard bust size in this era was generally 34-36". 

Here's a typical ladies' sweater from the 'teens:

minkb


1920's garments generally featured a "boyish" silhouette in keeping with the popular flapper look. Fit was usually close, with long, lean lines. Chanel's sportswear influenced knitting patterns in this decade, with a desire for garments that could be worn for tennis, riding, skiing and other outdoor activities.  
Patterns generally gave a gauge measurement, but only one size was given, without schematics or measurements.

These 1929 "Sports Sweaters for the Active Miss" were knit in fingering weight yarn, with a gauge of 11 sts = 2".  Based on the number of stitches to cast on for the garment's front and back sections, the sweater would measure 36" at the bust.  A 1928 sewing pattern for a "Woman's Dance Frock" is also sized for a 36" bust. 
Fleisher's Knitting & Crochet Manual


The 1930s saw a return to a more rounded look, with the waistline and bust showing off a curvy silhouette.  Again, the standard size is given as 36" bust in many patterns of the decade, with a gauge given. 

Monarch 1930s pattern

The 1940s are the "Sweater Girl" years, with many patterns for form-fitting sweaters.  Short sleeves and waist length garments helped conserve yarn during the war years.  Pattern books still offered one size only for most patterns, but generally provided a gauge measurement and back width, shoulder width, length from hem to underarm and sleeve length/width.

mimi

This cute sweater is a "Size 16", with back underarm width given as 16 1/4" (33" bust)

The 1950s and Dior's New Look translated into elegant, form-fitting fashions to knit and crochet.  Foundation garments were vital to obtaining a smooth line in knitwear.  Patterns were sometimes given in several sizes, and gauge measurements were provided.

vogue knitting 1956

Here's a Chart of Women's and Misses' Body Measurements (in inches) from a 1956 issue of Vogue Knitting:

SIZE:
10
12
14
16
18
20
BUST:
28
30
32
34
36
38
WAIST:
24
25
26.5
28
30
32
HIP:
31
33
35
37
39
41
ARM LENGTH:
16.25
16.5
17
17.5
18
18

Compare it to a current Misses' Size Chart:
average bust, average back
Dimension/Size 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 018 20
Bust 32-34 34 34 35 36 37½ 39 40½ 42 44
Waist 22-24½ 25½ 26½ 27½ 28½ 30 31½ 33 34½ 36½
Hip 33-35½ 36½ 37½ 38½ 39½ 41 42½ 44 45½ 47½
Back-waist length 14½ 14¾ 15½ 15¾ 16 16¼ 16½ 16¾ 17 17¼

1956's size 14 is equivalent (bust-wise) to today's size 2!

Best advice when knitting or crocheting a vintage pattern?  Swatch, swatch swatch!  Know your key body measurements and be ready to make adjustments in the number of stitches and rows when you are creating a garment to fit.

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Updated March 2011

© 2011 by Laurie Kynaston.  This list is for personal use only, and may not be reproduced without permission of the author.  Not to be republished or sold.