The grammar of garment cutting

rosenfeld Alternative title: My silly report of vintage pattern books I downloaded from the Library of Congress.

I spent entirely too much time going over the smorgasbord of vintage pattern (tailoring) books over at the Library of Congress. I know some of you did too. For those who didn’t, here is the first part of a quasi summary of findings.

First, just because something is old and digitized for consumption doesn’t mean it’s any good. Some of it is bad. Very bad. So bad you can’t tear your eyes from it because you just have to see how bad it can get. You know, a digital train wreck.

The author of this work (Isador Rosenfeld) I’m reviewing for your pleasure today is shown at right. A handsome fellow, no? His book is called The Practical Designer, for Women’s, Misses’, Juniors’ & Children’s Cloaks & Suits, Shirt Waist Suits and Dresses, with Grading and Special Measurements, According to the Most Approved & Up-to-Date Method; Specially Designed for Self Instruction (1911). For reals, that is the title. That’s the other funny thing about old books -long titles.

I can’t speak for you but until I read portions of this book, I had no idea there was a “grammar” of garment cutting, much less that it is defined by numbers rather than words. You learn something new every day. Enough of my blather, here is a word for word sample transcription from this train wreck book:

The grammar of garment cutting is adapted by the first 10 numbers which are producing the height and width proportions of the woman’s body. These numbers are called grammar numbers and they are as follows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

These numbers shall be divided into two classes: They are called odd and even. These numbers are originators of the height and width proportions.

In order to begin to produce the regular proportions for the female form, we write out the 10 numbers as follows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and connect the odd and even numbers as shown [was not shown]. Now connect the odd numbers. 1 to 3 and 5 to 7. Now add these numbers, as from 1 and 3 are 4; 5 and 7 are 12. Now connect the even numbers, 2 and 4 are 6; 6 and 8 are 14. Now add all ready numbers, which are 4, 12, 6 and 14, which amount to 36 inches which is the size of garment and the beginning  number of the width proportions.

In order to get the other width proportions, add the beginning number of 36, which is the number 3, to the total amount of 36 which will make it 39 inches for the standard bust measurement. In order to get the waist measurement, take 1/3 of 36 and 1 inch less which is 11; now take these 11 inches from 36 which leaves 25 inches for the waist measurement.

In order to get the hip measurement, take 1/2 of 36 and add to the waist measurement which is 25 inches and this will make 43 inches for the standard hip measurement which is 43 inches for the standard hip measurement. In order to get the height proportions the grammar numbers are again used as beginning 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, connect the beginning and ending number between 1 and 10 as follows:
1 and 10 are 11
2 and 9 are 11
3 and 8 are 11
4 and 7 are 11
5 and 6 are 11

Now use again the first numbers, as 1 and 10 are 11. Now add these numbers which make 6 x 11 which will amount to 66 inches, which is the total height of the body.

I love the standard measurements (39-25-43). He goes on for some pages explaining how his system based on his perseveration with the number 11 mirrors the natural anthropometry of the American female. Can you say “confirmation bias”? Maybe it’s ideal among the corset wearing populace but that’s a far cry from natural human anatomy. Mr Fashion-Incubator suggests that had corset wearing not been in vogue, this author may have perseverated on the number 9 which can also be used for some nifty math tricks.

When scanning these books, you’re missing half the fun if you don’t read the front matter. They are hilarious. You will read all manner of feuds, wild claims and character assassinations of competing authors as you’d ever imagine. I’d mentioned as much before but oddly, I feel compelled to save you a click:

One author (Otis Madison) is noteworthy because he states he’s never made a mistake in the three books of his I’ve seen and after he died, there was a big to-do because someone suggested he had in fact made an error but somebody (a sycophant but I prefer my word, psychofan) wrote an editorial stating that Otis Madison (so described as the Wampen of his day but you won’t know who that is so we’ll use the edu-lite comparative of Sandra Betzina and you’ll get my drift) had never made an error and made quite a big deal of it to such extent Seligman reprinted portions of the protest in his bibliography (Cutting for All). Thus, browsing the Library of Congress, and judging from the readily accessible proofs, it seems incontrovertible that Jesus Christ didn’t die until the 1870’s and additionally by all accounts, was a finely skilled, superlative and most excellent pattern maker and not a carpenter at all. Realistically, the summary of the record would conclude that obstinacy has been an occupational hazard for the last 500 years or so.

Returning to our number 11 obsessed author, this is what he had to say in his introduction:

This is certainly a new work which I hope that, in time, will be properly recognized and given attention. It is, I think, the greatest work of the twentieth century.

I swear I couldn’t make this stuff up. Who says old stuff is always good stuff?

As usual, I’m starting later than I’d intended but I will finish up tomorrow. I’m posting another entry following this one today that you don’t want to miss.

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  1. Christine says:

    Oh my goodness, I don’t think a blog post has made me snort before. I live a few blocks from the Library of Congress, perhaps I will stop by to view the greatest work of the 20th century in person tomorrow afternoon.

    I’m less surprised that the book was written than that it was published. Perhaps the author was as charming as he was handsome. :-) I also wonder if he wrote it some years before but waited to publish it in 1911.


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