If you are new to Sense & Sensibility Patterns, I think an introduction is in order. This isn’t a conventional pattern company, and there’s nothing conventional about the story of how I started it! I grew up as one of three siblings in a homeschooling family, traveling with my aviation historian and pilot father and my incredibly creative teacher mother. We visited almost all fifty states, Canada, Mexico, England, Germany, and South Africa before I was 16 years old. For me, it was normal to spend summers at vintage air shows, flying in “Warbirds” like the T-6 Texan and B-25 Mitchell bomber. My parents often dressed in authentic WW2 uniforms to match the planes Dad flew, and we children all fell in love with the history of the time. My glamorous grandmother also inspired me with her impeccable taste, and I spent hours flipping through her scrapbooks, agog at how beautifully she always dressed. It was inevitable that I’d eventually fall hard for 1940s and 1950s fashions! Because my mother made a lot of my clothes, I became interested in sewing at age five and first tried to stitch an outfit for a favorite doll on Mom’s machine while the material was wrapped around the poor thing’s torso.
Mom began to formally teach me to sew around age eight, but my perfectionist tendencies caused me no end of frustration and tears when things didn’t turn out just like the pattern cover. A few disastrous episodes of sleeves sewn into the wrong armholes and long sessions with my seam ripper caused me to throw in the towel for a few years. However, after watching the 1985 miniseries, “Anne of Green Gables” at age 13, I just had to have some Edwardian ensembles, and I begged Mom to make them for me. She pointed to the sewing machine with a smile, and I knew it was time to grit my teeth and get going. Mom was also making soft-sculpture dolls and selling them at craft fairs, and I decided to make mini dolls to go with the big ones. I ended up making hundreds over the next few years, including a few in historical dress (I was in love with the 1850s at that point!)
Over the next five years, Mom taught me to reproduce favorite outfits by tweaking existing patterns or drafting new ones. I got my own fit mannequin and learned to drape and cut and pin to create the looks I wanted. Mom and I also loved hunting for antique and vintage clothing and patterns at flea markets and garage sales, and I kept my eyes peeled for things I could repair and wear. It wasn’t unusual to see me walking into the grocery store with an Edwardian petticoat and blouse peeking out beneath a reproduction pinafore. Sometimes I got teased for my eccentric style, but I didn’t care and happily wore my “costumes” into my twenties, when I met my future husband. That’s us at right as newlyweds, attending a 1940s Swing dance at a vintage air show. I had made several 1940s-style dresses by then and loved twirling on the dance floor.
The mid-1990s were also banner years for Jane Austen film adaptations. I saw Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” in 1995 and the Gwyneth Paltrow “Emma” in 1996. “Persuasion” came out on VHS around the same time, and I just fell in love with the gowns and accessories. Empire-waist fashions were perfect for me while I was pregnant with my first baby, so I made a whole bunch of dresses inspired by films and historical fashion plates and wore them constantly. Ladies kept asking me where I found my outfits, then wondered if I’d make them to sell. It sounded like a good idea to me, so I stitched up a few sample outfits for models and had a friend take pictures for me. My husband told me he thought the designs were sensible and beautiful and said I should christen my sewing business “Sense & Sensibility Clothing.”
When I began sewing custom historical garments in 1996, I never dreamed I’d one day sell my patterns to women all over the world. That’s me on the left in the photo with a dear friend who created my first catalog (I was expecting at the time and didn’t know it!). I gave that catalog to friends, family members, and interested strangers and began sewing for women in my local area.
My brother convinced me to put up a website in 1997, and my tiny cottage industry quickly boomed. Before too long, I had to keep a waiting list and limit my orders so I could manage them. When my first two children were toddlers, I sewed during their nap times. I thoroughly enjoyed creating beautiful, feminine garments for my customers, but I knew the day would come when I’d need to retire from the sewing end of the business. I enjoyed studying and reproducing historical fashion, but the career I looked forward to most was that of being a mother like Lilian Gilbreth of Cheaper by the Dozen fame. I always loved children and wanted a big family, and I hoped I could do as much for my children as my parents had done for me. A dear friend once told me, “You only get one chance to give your kids a happy childhood!” So I scaled back the sewing and enjoyed the early years with my three little boys. But that wouldn’t be the end of my creativity!
Many customers had asked me to sell copies of the patterns I created to make their outfits. At first I wasn’t sure about drafting patterns for a wide range of “standard” sizes, but I finally took the plunge in 1998, publishing my Regency Gown Pattern. The immediate success of that pattern convinced me that there was a market for wearable, historical patterns that evoke the grace and charm of times past, and that’s when Sense & Sensibility Patterns was born.
I developed subsequent patterns slowly over the next 19 years, working in the time to design them around the birth of new babies, teaching my older children, and managing our lively household. The popularity of the patterns grew at a rate that astonished me, and I was happy in 2005 to hand over all the order fulfillment to the Shank family, which runs a home-based mailing business in my home state. Kim and her family fold, package, and ship all the patterns, as well as making trips to our printers and suppliers in Virginia. This business absolutely would not function without the Shanks, and Kim is the gal you’ll talk to if you have questions about an order, shipping, or opening a wholesale business account. 😊 Today I have more than two dozen patterns available, and, yep, I have a dozen children, just like my heroine!
I’ve enjoyed sharing the vintage patterns, graphics, and catalog art I have collected over the years in my Vintage Images section. I still love to study original garments and patterns for inspiration, and it has been fun to post them on the site so that others can enjoy what I’ve found. I also like to show off your work! By far, the most fulfilling part of this business has been seeing what my customers create. I feel like I have kindred spirits all over the world and am constantly amazed by their talent and eye for beauty. If you’ve used my patterns to create an outfit, please feel free to share your photographs for the Show and Tell section. Haven’t tried sewing historical clothing but would like to get your feet wet with some assistance? Check out my Online Sewing Classes! I’ve posted lots of Sewing Tips to show you how easy it is to alter patterns with a little imagination. I hope these online tools prove helpful as you use the patterns. And, as always, I am happy to answer questions about my patterns through the FAQs or over email.
As our family has grown, I’ve sometimes taken lengthy sabbaticals from pattern design to concentrate my efforts on my busy household. While this is still my primary focus, I now have more time than I did as a young mom, so I’ve published fun retro-1950s patterns for girls and ladies in recent years. Our family has lived in Africa since 2011 for my husband’s work with Persecution Project Foundation, so we’ve got lots of new adventures that keep us busy–but I still plan to create patterns as time permits. Inspiration often comes in bursts, and, when the season is right, I love being able to throw myself into a new design.
Feel free to post a note on Sense & Sensibility patterns’ Message Forum or Facebook page. We have a community of kindred spirits, all helping one another with sewing ideas and more!
All the best,
A lot of people ask me how they can study pattern design and get started in a similar business. My main recommendation is Rene Bergh’s book, Make Your Own Patterns, which is nearly identical to my method for pattern drafting. I’ve also gleaned countless techniques from my collection of vintage sewing books (eBay and AbeBooks.com are excellent sources for old books). I believe that the best way to learn this craft is by doing, and I can tell you that making mistakes often leads to brand new designs and ways of doing things! I’ve apprenticed over a dozen young women in sewing and pattern design in addition to teaching others through my online sewing classes. Many of these young ladies have gone on to start their own successful home sewing and design businesses–one even costuming a small feature film! The secret to success is perseverance and a willingness to study the ways our foremothers did things. I don’t use computer-aided design programs, finding them clumsy and difficult when it comes to getting a beautiful fit (if you can manage CAD, go for it!). Invest in a good dressmaking mannequin and play “dress-up” with her! You can drape outfits just like couture seamstresses have done for hundreds of years. No college degree required! If you’re serious about learning pattern drafting, feel free to contact me, and I’ll be glad to chat with you. I love to see new designers achieving excellence outside of the “system” and getting started at an early age. If you’ve got the desire, pursue it!