Envelope from Laura Wheeler pattern (Etsy)
Thanks for your comments on the first part of the interview with Helene, as posted here. Today I have the second part for you, picking up with Helene talking about making patterns...
Helene, what was the process of creating a pattern?
The first step was I got an assignment from my boss, who had a sketch done of how she wanted the end product to look. Let’s say it was a stuffed animal, such as a Panda. I’d have to look in the archives of old patterns for a pattern that fit the general shape of the panda – a bear, of course, would be most logical shape (yes, I know a Panda is in the Raccoon family), and there were many bear stuffed animals in the archives. I would pull the old bear pattern, cut it from cotton muslin, sew it together to look as close as I could to the sketch of the Panda that I was given. If I did any alterations on the original basic body shape, I’d have to modify the original paper pattern pieces accordingly. Then I’d have to fit the paper pattern pieces on a flat surface as close as I could get them while still keeping the grain of the fabric in mind, to determine how much yardage of each color fabric was needed, and if anything else was needed like cotton floss or ribbon or buttons for eyes.
I did a lot of hand sewing of the craft pattern details because I felt that I could control the tiny pieces and parts more easily than I could with a machine, and for me, hand sewing was actually faster than machine sewing.
By the way, since I am the daughter of a nursery school teacher, my mother often reminded me that buttons can be a choking hazard for children, so I began re-writing the old pattern instructions saying that those who intended the toy for young children should not use buttons for eyes or for clothes on dolls and toys -- and to use just floss to do embroidered eyes and to avoid buttons on clothed dolls.
1970s Laura Wheeler jointed doll (Image from Etsy)
Once the fabric toy or object was approved by my boss, I’d write the instructions up by typing them (on an IBM Selectric typewriter - with no spell check) and submit them to be proofed. Once she approved the pattern instructions, I’d cut the typed paper apart, and begin pasting up and tracing / drawing the pattern on a standard pattern sheet. It normally took me a day or two to write and draw a pattern. My tools were a set of plastic curves, and a set of Rapidograph pens, and ink. I wasn’t supposed to freehand the writing on the pattern edges, but once I started doing it, and received no warning not to do so, I continued. Often I’d have to stop drawing to trial-sew an ear or a tail to make sure I got the pieces right and that they’d work out for sewing. I was living on a very tight budget in those days, so the idea of a 5/8 inch seam allowance on a little tiny pattern piece bothered me. I’d lower the seam allowance to much less on small pieces out of concern for keeping the cost of 'my customer’s' fabric as low as possible.
Drawing the patterns was also a bit of a puzzle-solving endeavor, because the patterns I wrote usually had to be ‘complete in one sheet’ which meant that I had to fit all the pieces on one side of only one page. Sometimes I had to layer pattern pieces on the page, like put a bear’s ear inside a bear’s body piece, which doesn’t make for a very nice pattern – because then I had to instruct the user to get some tracing paper and make a copy of the layered piece. I’m sure most customers found that really annoying. We did have some tricks to compensate for limited space on the pattern sheet besides layering. Users of dress patterns know these well – I could make symmetrical pieces, like an animal’s ear, ‘place on fold of fabric’ and save half the size of the pattern piece. Or I could create a doll’s clothing piece that was an actual square or rectangle, and then I didn’t have to give a pattern piece for this at all – to me this seemed a bit like one was making the customer do the work, so I tried to avoid it.
Another portion of my job was answering letters and helping customers with problems. Much had to do with transferring the iron-ons to fabric. Ladies would send their mis-transferred fabric and ask for help. I'd be sent to wash the fabric by hand in the ladies room sink, and re-stamp the fabric for them. If they used polyester, the transfers wouldn't wash out and I would be sent out to take a walk uptown 10 blocks to around 26th-27th Street to hunt for a piece of comparable fabric to send them with a transfer all done on it and a nice note. Those days, a half yard of fabric in the fabric row of New York was very cheap, around 30 cents. The accolades we got from adoring customers were always rewarding, even if Ada put them up on the wall in her office, not allowing me to have them for more than a quick look.
I have to tell you a bit about the other ladies who worked in my office, the ones who did the knit and crochet patterns. They were really amazing in their skills (and a hoot to work with too). Their jobs worked similarly to mine, but when they were given a sketch of a finished item, they had to knit or crochet the item completely, and simultaneously keep a record of the stitches they did in longhand, so it could become instructions. When the garment or item was complete and approved, then they traded their written instructions with one another, and if the ‘checker’ could complete the garment or item to look the same way based on the written instructions, then the instructions were considered checked, and they could be typed up for the printer. Once typed, they were again checked for accuracy – two women sat and one read off the instructions and the other moved along the garment, checking the row counts, increases, decreases, etc.
By the way, garments were completed – and even stretched and blocked, and then fitted on younger women in the office. Then they were totally unraveled, the yarn re-wound into balls, and the whole process started all over again on the next item they were assigned. Yarn eventually became ‘tired’ - it no longer was deemed stretchy enough to knit or crochet with, and then they would hand it over to me to use as hair or fur on a doll or toy.
Did you get to see much of the other areas of the company?
I know mostly of what went on in the knitting, crochet, and crafts sewing room. The dress pattern side was run by only two people, the 'designer' and her young assistant designer. The art department consisted of one gay guy, a rather spiffy dresser, who worked alone in a tiny, dark, back office. He was assisted, now and then, by another young woman (Cordelia) who joined the company on a part time basis and since there was no room in the art office, she sat behind me. She was a Yugoslavian refugee and I became friends with her as her English improved. She was extremely talented at fashion drawing so she did a lot of the dress pattern cover illustrations and newspaper long ads.
What was really odd to me back then and even now, and I’m sure others have thought this too, but the illustrations in the newspapers, and the illustrations on the front of the Reader Mail patterns always had a really old-fashioned look to them, even when they were supposed to be a pattern of the latest look. And, because the patterns were never marked with a date, every once and a while I see one of my patterns on eBay listed as circa 1950s, even though I know it was done 1978-1983. The illustrations all seem to have a 1940s-50s look to them, even into the 1980s. It wasn’t Cornelia’s fault though, she could do a modern fashion illustration, but that just wasn’t the Reader Mail way.
Examples of dress pattern illustrations from the 1970s/80s showing the 'house style'
1950s dress pattern illustration
We were never encouraged to put our personalities into the patterns. However, Cornelia and I conspired to add our secret signatures to our work - Ada and Mr D. did not allow us to sign our work if they noticed it, but in the manner of the caricaturist, Al Hirshfeld, we sometimes secretly wove our initials into some of the more detailed illustrations we drew - and they made it past detection. I still see some of my patterns sold on eBay now and then, some with my hidden initials visible, which is kind of neat.
Because I was the young one there, I had to do all the running things to other departments. So I got to see the other parts of the company and how things were done. It was very low tech then. I don't know if you've ever seen how patterns were prepared for printing, but since I was young (and cute), the printers took kindly to me and let me take a tour of their shop and I saw the basics.
Boy, was the printing area some kind of old, industrial, steampunk kind of operation - big dark iron machines, clanking and clattering. You couldn't go into that area without coming out blackened from ink. Every surface was darkened with a thick sticky layer of ink, even the windows. Very Dickens-esque. And rather scary when you consider what these guy's lungs probably looked like.
What did you do after working at Reader Mail, and did you ever miss it?
I left Reader Mail to take New York University’s concentrated certificate program in Computer Programming. My boss took it as a personal insult, and told me I was going to regret leaving. But, I figured that as long as I was writing instructions for patterns, I could write instructions for computers - and make more money. And I did. After I finished the NYU program, I got a job at a famous Wall Street clearing house as a programmer, and did really well there, earning much more there and moving up fairly quickly. I even managed to inject a little creative process into my programs. That was before HTML, and most screen programs were little more than green type at the top of a grey screen. I ‘designed’ my program screens a little more than the usual – making the entry areas centred and more aesthetically pleasing.
Did I miss Reader Mail? Not really. For a long time I was really retroactively angry that I was so underpaid for the great job I did for them. That is probably the feeling of many with regard to their first job out of college.
I did miss my friends, but visited only once. In my Wall Street ‘dress for success’ attire. I was worlds away from them by then, Reader Mail was moving out to the Midwest, and I lost that day-to-day involvement with the ladies there, and I think they saw me as a traitor and a member of a modern world that they did not know – so we went our separate ways.
What did you take away from your time at Reader Mail – any lessons learned/helpful skills developed?
Oh my gosh! I learned so many skills there –Ability to think logically, to adapt a crafts sewing pattern quickly; to know how to quickly calculate/visualize how much fabric I needed for a project and use the least amount of fabric; how to sew a quilt quickly (string together squares, sew first, clip apart later), how to touch-type pretty well, how to be a good customer service person; how to get along with a diverse group of people in tight quarters, and to respect the knowledge and astounding skills and abilities of my elders – the women who made up the vast majority of the Reader Mail staff.
Old Chelsea Station Post Office on West 18th Street - The postal address used by Reader Mail. (Image source here)
I hope you all enjoyed this interview as much as I did! I was amazed by the vivid image Helene painted of Reader Mail as a bit of a time warp, and thought it was particularly fascinating to hear how patterns were made, and that nothing was ever really new. I would love to follow it up with an interview with someone currently working in a large pattern company to see what the current process is. And can you imagine having access to an archive of patterns?!
I'd like to thank Helene for taking the time to answer my questions, and for providing such a fascinating glimpse into her time working at Reader Mail. I know she would be happy to answer any questions, so please do put them in the comments section. I will be on holiday for a week and probably won't be checking the blog, but will follow up on any questions when I get back.