Sew Unique


It started decades ago with an old pattern for a skirt worn by an actress in the University of Rhode Island production Anne of Green Gables. Joy Spanabel Emery was starstruck.

One pattern led to two, and now Emery, a professor emerita of theatre and former adjunct professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design at URI, has the largest collection of sewing patterns in the world—50,000 on paper and 61,000 in an electronic database.

Joy Spanabel Emery
Joy Spanabel

Over the years, she’s received many honors for her devotion to clothing patterns, and now a national organization that promotes theatre design is recognizing her. Emery, of West Kingston, R.I., won the 2016 Distinguished Achievement Award in Costume Design and Technology from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

“I was stunned,’’ says Emery. “The award has been given to so many people I respect enormously. I was very pleased to have my work recognized.’’

The collection dates back to 1847 and represents nearly 100 different companies. Besides dressmaking patterns, the collection includes men’s tailoring journals, fashion periodicals, pattern catalogs and historical sewing manuals from the 16th century to the present.

A costume designer, Emery says her collection is a labor of love—and a wonderful way for costume designers to research what clothing actors should wear during performances. The collection includes everything from 1870s smoking jackets for men and 1950s cocktail party aprons to bodices and Zoot suits—oversized jackets and baggy pants worn in the 1940s.

Details about the patterns can be found in Emery’s book, The History of the Paper Pattern Industry: the Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution.

Photos: Courtesy Joy Spanabel Emery; Flikr user GlitterandFrills, Creative Commons 2.0