Tracing an Unprinted Vintage Pattern

This is a first for me – tracing off a vintage pattern. Usually, I cut right into the pattern. (Sorry to all of the vintage-pattern lovers that just choked on their coffee!) I make my alterations directly onto the tissue, even if I slash and spread the pattern.

But for some reason I just can’t do that with Vogue 8769. It was a present, and it feels special. I shouldn’t hack up history like that. Plus, because of the slightly more fitted skirt, I’m going to have to alter the hips. And I usually add to the bodice length, too!

So today, I’m tracing it off to preserve the original pattern. Why? It feels like the right thing to do. I’m becoming a fan of trusting my instincts and when it feels right, then I know it’s right. Especially because it’s an unprinted pattern, so any alterations I make will be really confusing.

Here’s what an unprinted pattern looks like – all perforations, no printing!

So let’s trace! This way we can write all over our own pattern pieces, make alterations to them, and handle them however we like without destroying the original pattern.

You’ll need:

  • vintage pattern: tissue, envelope, instruction sheet
  • pencil (perhaps an eraser, too!)
  • ruler (curved ruler too, if you have one)
  • paper scissors
  • heavy things to hold down the pattern pieces
  • a large sheet of paper to trace onto.

On the heavy things and the large sheet of paper:

For heavy things, you can use proper pattern weights. Or, you can use just about anything that’s clean and slightly heavy! I use soup cans, my sewing scissors, my magnetic pincushion, my camera or cell phone, whatever I can reach and find easily. It does the same thing!

I have a huge roll leftover from school that I use. I’ve seen people use sew-in interfacing, swedish tracing paper (not sure exactly what that is or where to find it though!) or lots of pieces of white paper taped together. Sarah from Grey’s Fabrics mentioned using coloured wrapping paper. Whatever works for you, or whatever’s on hand! The main goal is to preserve and protect the original pattern.

Let’s start!

First, iron your original tissue pieces, using a cool dry iron. I put my iron on the highest setting I can before the steam kicks in, which is around the cotton blends or wool setting. (I mention this because at Spool of Thread, their irons are set by fibre content. You dial it up to cotton or dial it down to polyester. It reminded me we all have different-looking equipment we’re working with!) Unfold the pieces very gently, and smooth them out with your hands, then press them carefully with the iron.

Flatten them all out, and then take them back to your rolled-out piece of large paper. Start with one piece at a time. Lay out your first piece on the paper and weigh it down with weights.

Now, take a pencil and start tracing gently around the edges. Draw lightly, as we’ll fix the lines after the tissue’s removed.

Sketch in the notches, which are usually ‘V’ shaped cut outs along the pattern edge.

Trace any perforated markings as well. Circles, triangles, squares – copy the shape of the perforation.

Once you’re sure you’ve marked everything, and traced the entire piece, lift off the tissue. Do a quick check to make sure your tracing looks just like the original.

Now, let’s fix up our traced lines. Take a ruler, and straighten out all of the straight lines. Refer to the original tissue to see if the lines are meant to be straight or curved.

Label your traced pattern piece with the brand, the pattern number, the name of the piece and how many to cut.

Take a look at the instruction sheet for clues. With unprinted patterns, there’s often a little illustration showing what all the markings are for.

Label your pattern piece according to the diagram. Most importantly, find the two dots for the grainline and connect the dots.

Label anything else you might need. I labelled centre front, just in case. Sometimes vintage patterns are a bit confusing! With this one, the belt and tab detail looks complicated. I’ll label as much as I need, to make everything just a little easier to construct!

Cut out the pattern along the outside line.

As an afterthought, I traced the outline of each dart. Just in case I need to make any alterations, the dart lines will be helpful. All you need to do is connect the dots!

And you’re done! You’ve traced your first pattern piece.

Fold up the original tissue and put it back in the pattern envelope.

Repeat with the rest of the pattern pieces. One thing to suggest, is to lay out all of your pieces loosely on the tracing paper, to make sure you get the best layout and waste the least amount of paper. I did the first piece for the demo, but then laid out the rest of my pieces at once, shuffling them around to save paper.

Another good tip is to leave enough room on your white paper for alterations. If there certain places you always need to add to, such as the hip width in my case, then leave extra space around that area.

How do you store your traced vintage patterns? The tracings definitely won’t fit back into the original envelope, that’s for sure. I used a manila envelope to store the pattern pieces and instruction sheets. To make it easy to store and find, I photocopied the envelope front and back and taped it to the outside.

I’m definitely leaning towards the long sleeve version. It’s more dramatic!

Any tips, things to add to this demo, or ideas on how to store patterns? Leave a comment below!

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30 Responses to Tracing an Unprinted Vintage Pattern

  1. Dora March 8, 2011 at 6:14 am #

    I’ve started to use clear plastic envelope folders with snap fastening, like this one:
    The thinner kind, with punched sides, are sturdy enough to keep a pattern safe, and they can be filed in a ring binder.

  2. gina March 8, 2011 at 6:31 am #

    Good Girl!! So happy that you are tracing. I know, time is limited and sometimes you just want to get to it. With kids, I find these little things hard to do, but I do trace my patterns that I need to make adjustments to, I do not trace patterns that are good to go. They do take up more room but if I want to use them over and over again I know they will last and also serve as a guide for my size with other patterns I am considering. I like your instruction. Nice job!

  3. Clari Colon March 8, 2011 at 6:56 am #

    Great tutorial! When tracing I work on a cardboard mat and prefer to use a couple of long pins and stick them through pattern and paper to hold everything in place. The white paper doctors use for examining tables is great for tracing patterns. I buy it at the medical supplies store by the roll. It is cheap, sturdier than tissue and easy to store. I use it for drafting my own patterns too.

  4. What-I-found March 8, 2011 at 7:05 am #

    I’m saving this…it’s clear and well done!
    I like the idea of storing your traced pieces away from the original.
    Tracing may be a pain, but you’re preserving a bit of history.

  5. Ginnie March 8, 2011 at 7:14 am #

    I use just plain old tissue paper. I’m always saving the stuff (along with gift bags) after birthdays and Christmas and never seem to use it up. So, when I needed pattern paper in a pinch, I pulled it out of the closet. It was absolutely perfect. It’s almost exactly the same weight/ thickness as an actual pattern and WAY cheaper than special paper. (And free with Christmas gifts!) The bulk white variety is far cheaper than the colors, but if you have some of that lying around, it works just as well. Just opaque enough to see everything you need right thought it.

  6. daiyami March 8, 2011 at 7:17 am #

    I trace all my patterns, but mostly because I find the thicker paper (Pellon EasyPattern from Joann’s with a coupon) much easier to work with than the very thin tissue. When I am self-drafting (only simple stuff), I try patterns out on rolls of Christmas paper that I no longer need because now I wrap in fabric, and so don’t care if I waste yards on a weak pattern.

  7. Rhia March 8, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    Nice tutorial. I didn’t even realize before that there were patterns that only had perforation.

    I store all my patterns (copied patterns and my own patterns) in lever arch files with clear plastic pockets. That way they don’t take much space, can be stored in a book shelf and are easy to browse. Usually I either photocopy or draw a picture of the garment to go with the pattern. Quite often I also make some notes and attache fabric samples I used, and also put a date on it. Date also might help me to remember later how the pattern fitted me, if I need to do any alterations for measurements (incase of weightgain or loss).

  8. Andrea K March 8, 2011 at 7:53 am #

    You can usually buy some form of pattern tracing paper at your local fabric store. I bought some because it is almost like soft sturdy thin interfacing. It doesn’t rip very easily. It is probably worth the extra dollars if you think you will reuse the pattern pieces over and over again. They will hold up much better than willowy tissue paper. Love the tutorial!

  9. Jenny March 8, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    I’ve never even heard of unprinted patterns. And I would have been totally intimidated to see one come out of a pattern envelope. Thanks for making it seem so much less scary!

  10. ellen March 8, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    I do a lot of tracing, and I use the white (or it also comes in yellow) tracing paper that comes in a roll and is found at art supply stores. It also comes in a variety of widths. Mine is 24″ wide. Not sure how much is on a roll, but quite a bit, and it is fairly inexpensive as I recall.

  11. Sara March 8, 2011 at 8:32 am #

    Excellent tutorial, and good for you for taking the extra step of tracing. I often feel bad about altering/cutting even NEW patterns, but it’s such a hassle to trace! :)

    As for Swedish tracing paper, it is great stuff, not that pricey, and doesn’t tear anywhere near as easily as tissue. And it’s sewable so if you wanted to do a quick test fit on a simple bodice, you could sew the actual pattern pieces and then just rip out the stitches and re-iron your pattern. I try to do all my bodice adjustments using Swedish tracing paper and the pieces really hold up. You can buy it online, and I’ve found it at one of my local fabric stores, Beverly’s, but not sure if you have those where you are.

  12. Corinne March 8, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    As usual, great information! I rarely trace patterns. If it will be a basic that I use over and over or if it is a multi-sized pattern that I need to use for more than one person, I trace. Several years ago a fabric shop was closing and had lots of interfacing, different weights, mostly the kind I don’t use in garments and I purchased that to use for patterns. Still using it up. I can write on it and cut it easily, works for me. I use the clear plastic page protectors for storing all patterns. It keeps them contained and easy to see. I used to keep them in large 3 ring binders but that outgrew my space. Now they are stored in Ikea chests of drawers and only the ones in plan or in progress stay in the binders. Keeps my work area neat, but still easy to retrieve. I am somewhat reticent to admit that about 100 patterns are left after a significant Purge!

  13. Cat March 8, 2011 at 9:36 am #

    This is a dumb question Tasia,

    But how do I use this curved ruler? I never need exactly the curve that it has. Do you just pivot it while tracing and then go over the ‘new curve’ free hand?

    LOVE the new skirt pattern, by the way. Can’t wait to get it and participate in the sew along.


  14. Lizzy March 8, 2011 at 9:44 am #

    Hi! You explained perfectly, I have an unprinted patter and I tryed to use it but I found it very confuising, normally I copy most of my patterns in other paper and I never cut the originals (just if they are printable version ones)

    And yes, normally I never fold them exactly the same as they came folded, and with vintage patterns the envelopes get riped, I store some patterns in manila enevlopes too and write the number and description of it and the numer or pieces.

  15. Tasia March 8, 2011 at 9:46 am #

    @Cat: Hi Cat! I realized I didn’t show any photos of my curved ruler. It looks like this:
    so there are different angles and curves on the ruler. Near the round end, it’s very curved, and near the small end it’s hardly angled at all! I slide the ruler down the curved line, until I find a part of the ruler that matches the curve of my pattern piece (as closely as possible.) So I can always find a part of the ruler that matches my pattern! If that doesn’t work for you, you can always free-hand the curve. As long as you’re capturing the curves of the pattern piece, even if the lines are a little rougher than perfect ruler lines, you’ll be fine. I hope this makes sense!

  16. alice March 8, 2011 at 9:51 am #

    i’ve been tracing my patterns since i started sewing a year ago – i think my first book said “always trace” and i followed that advice to the letter. my biggest challenge – precision while tracing.

    I’m with Clari on pinning to a surface – I just got myself some foamboard which is so pinnable and cheap at an art shop. I think mine – 40 x 30 were about $4.50 each – (i’m also in Vancouver BC). I’m using a big stack of newsprint i got at the art shop, though I do want to go back to the gridded burda paper. those grids so wonderfully help me with my biggest issue… grainlines! it’s expensive ($9 a pack here in BC, i think), but i usually grab it during notions sales.

    truth be told, i don’t enjoy tracing. it takes me a couple hours, and with big pattern pieces i’ve been prone to little errors (pinning to foamboard takes away that concern). and there are times when i regret tracing – such as when i realize i don’t like the pattern and will never use it again.

    but what i see as the pros –
    – i’ve been losing weight, am down about 15 lbs so far. i have 15 to go to ‘goal’. So glad i won’t have to re-purchase patterns i really like!
    – sometimes i don’t cut out the size i want, because i tend to prefer my clothes with less ease than the big 4 (i’m gradually getting it righter and righter, though what vogue considers close fitting, and what *i* consider close fitting are different birds).
    – sometimes i need to make unexpected alterations – like Mccall 6078, grading down a size on the shoulders (which are pleated and draped, and impossible to tell from the pattern pieces that they will slip right off).
    – or my colette negroni that i’ve altered… i think every single piece on. it’s my first time *really fitting* a garment – this one, a slimmer fitted shirt on a barrel chested lumberjack of a guy!
    – tnt patterns – i’m making vogue 1051 for the 3rd time, and my traced patterns are starting to show wear and tear from pinning to fabric (i prefer pinning to weights, as i find my fabric still shifts around with weights, esp on big pieces). sooooo glad i have that original!
    – and we canadians don’t have those regular cheap pattern sales that our american friends do. so it’s often worth it – esp with costly patterns – to trace.

  17. Annabelle March 8, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    This is great information and a much better method than I had. I don’t have any tips to offer, but I am thankful for the ones you gave out :)

  18. Megan March 8, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    Hi Tasia! Thanks for the primer on unprinted pattterns. I’ve been on the tracing bandwagon, but unprinted ones are uncharted territory for me. I’ve been eyeing a pattern on Etsy for a while now, but I’ve been scared off because 1. it’s $40 2. it’s unprinted and 3. It looks like it might be simple enough for me to study the pictures carefully and draft it myself. But that would really be uncharted territory! I’ll have to think really carefully about how much that $40 is worth.
    Thanks again for the great tutorial! I’m really loving your blog.
    Also, all you ladies with the crazy great organization systems, good for you! I’m still in manila envelope stage.

  19. Alexandra Mason March 8, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    I have started tracing all my patterns as i have to make so many changes to get them to fit. I use white catering parchment, its thicker than tracing paper and they sell it at a local discount store for about £1.40 and it lasts ages.

  20. Erika March 8, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    Being swedish I use what I guess you’d call Swedish tracing paper =) Although we have a lot of different qualities of tracingpaper… I was really chocked when finding out people cut into their original patterns. What if one discovers that one has cut one size too small? Or a friend who’s a couple of sizes larger likes the pattern and wants to borrow it? I come from a long tradition of home-sewing, and the idea that one could skip tracing has never been voiced in our home. A utterly strange concept to me!
    The practical reasons for tracing, in my view, is that I often need to make a lot of changes. So I tend to trace to a cheap paper, make alternations, make a toille, transfer fitting back to the paper. When it’s all said and done I copy the by now very sliced and taped together paper to a more expensive and lasting paper.
    Sounds crazy, I know. But I always need to make changes, and it’s so much bulk to store the greatly altered patterns. However, this might be one of the reasons why I don’t sew very fast =)

    Cudos to all the lovely ladies with advanced filing systmems! I hope to have time this summer to arrange my patterns (and copies and toilles…) a bit better than they now are stored.

  21. Ashley March 8, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    Wow, I too have yet to see the unprinted pattern! Scary, but i will for sure use this method to make things easier! Is there a certain era that you find these patterns in or a certain manufacturer? As of yet the only patterns i have made are all the new mccalls or simplicity. I am waiting to loose some baby weight before i dive into any of my vintage patterns i just picked up (baby is now 2weeks old!)…guess i should still get them out and take a look though! Thanks for all your great helps!! So glad I ran across your site on sewretro!

  22. A.J.A. March 8, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    Great post! Very informative step by step instructions.
    I trace, and I use something called soil separator paper that I read about on some sewing blogs and the Pattern Review forums. It is similar to Swedish tracing paper, but a little lighter weight. You can buy it in a huge roll at the hardware store here, and it is 4′ wide, so it makes tracing easier- just lay out your pieces and go.

  23. monkeysocks March 9, 2011 at 5:07 am #

    Brilliant post! It took me such a long time to work out how unprinted patterns work (which now seems a little. odd, I guess you just have to get your head round the concept!)

    I always trace, mainly as I never fit an exact size or even a straightforward combination of sizes, I always have to alter everything, sigh. I use sheets of white tissue paper I buy in bulk. My main tip for vintage (particularly unprinted patterns, is that every one I ever seem to try has about 5 different variations or garments you make using the same pieces, so you have to alter them in different ways before you start. Accordingly I therefore always do two tracings of tricky bits, one straight tracing that is just a more robust copy of the original pieces, with any (pattern instructed) variations marked clearly on it, so I dont have to get the original out again. And then trace off a second copy of just the stuff I need, which I can then hack about as much as I like, and if I need to retrace the sleeve seam again as I have lost it I dont have to go back to the original. I dont usually bother with the second step for full skirts or anything where it is unlikely to hugely wrong.

  24. holly March 9, 2011 at 6:58 am #

    hi tasia – when tracing patterns for preservation or onto a muslin i use large sheets of carbon paper (20X30) that are used by a variety of craftsman and architects. they can be found easily on-line (3 pieces for $4.00 plus shipping) and can be used repeatedly.

    i use a tracing wheel or just a smooth pointed object for vintage patterns and precise pattern marks transfer easily. for the muslin pieces i actually sew over the carbon lines or you can use a permanent marker.

    Sil Thread in NYC (or on-line store) sells large sheets of both waxed transfer paper and pattern tissue.

    thank you for all the helpful posts!

  25. Liz March 9, 2011 at 7:47 am #


    What a great idea!

  26. Ana March 9, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    I trace my patterns with medical exam paper. A doctor friend was nice enough to give me a roll from his office and it goes a long way. To trace my patterns, I cut around the pieces coarsely first, then affix them to a big window I have with tiny pieces of painter’s tape. Then I place the exam paper on top and affix it with painter’s tape, too. Then I trace. Works great for me!

  27. Lauren M March 9, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    A friend introduced me to parchment paper as tracing paper- it is extra wide, cheap, and works brilliantly. I found it much more resilient than tissue paper, which always seems to tear on me. The only tricky thing with parchment paper is its shiny texture- you cannot tape pieces together very easily. (But a stapler often does the job just fine!)

  28. Sewer March 11, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    Link for Swedish Tracing Paper. Pricey, but I like it.

    I use weights and/or pushpins. But I’ve never traced a vintage pattern.


    The curve is engineered so that some part will match up with a given part of the traced curve. A tutor said that sometimes the line would “smile,” other times it would “frown.” It takes a while to figure out how to smooth out the curve.

  29. Lorena O'Neal March 15, 2011 at 9:53 am #

    wow, i don’t know if i have enough patience for that sort of detailed work. great job!

  30. Lisa June 1, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

    If you are trying to save money on supplies you can Ger drawing paper from IKEA in the children’s dept – it is a great width and doesn’t tear when you handle it. I also got the largest galvanized washers I could find ( sorry, not sure of the size) at my local hardware store and I use these as weights. They are the perfect weight – sometimes pin cushions can be too heavy and they make the tissue rise around it.
    LOVE the idea of using foam board – I always have some laying around – I use it as a backdrop when taking pics and then need to replace as it gets scuffed – now I have a used for the scuffed pieces!
    AWESOME tutorial!!