McCall Pattern Co. still thrives, producing 700 patterns each year
NEW YORK — The internet did little to disrupt it. Globalization could not shut it down. But while McCall Pattern Co., 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."
Cafaro's brief is to oversee the creation of some 700 patterns each year for the four lines that fall under the McCall Pattern Co. 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," McDonald wrote in an email.
But if there is a sense in the broader culture that McCall Pattern Co. 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.
"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," Hirsch said.
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 Brooklyn Stitchery teach newbies, and a four-day sewing retreat called Camp Workroom Social is held each year in the Catskill Mountains. 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," Comey said. "Sewing is a great craft. It's exciting and confidence building. I wanted to support it."
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.
Part of the goal of posting the archive images, said 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.
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."
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," Cafaro said. The pattern is still available in the Butterick catalog, reissued for a new generation.
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.
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, 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, 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, Kansas, where they would be printed on tissue paper.
By now the McCall Pattern Co. 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 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.
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