The first in our Women in Sewing History series, is the pioneer of paper patterns Ellen Demorest.
Ellen was a milliner and dressmaker in New York during the 1850’s. She had her own Millinery shop, which her father (who was a hat factory owner) helped her open. While on a break from city living with her husband, she conceived the idea of mass-produced paper patterns for home dressmakers (inspiration is the perfect excuse for a get away!).
During the 1860’s, she served as an icon for her husbands store – ‘Madame Demorest’s Emporium of Fashions’ in New York, and as a couple published a quarterly magazine alongside their empire. Ellen did not actually open this shop with her husband, he had opened it prior to marriage, but she embraced the title of Madame Demorest, and this helped the business grow. The magazine (Madame Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions) included a paper pattern stapled inside each issue, which Ellen had designed. The patterns were also sold separately and sold over 3 million units in 1876 alone.
Ellen also developed a mail order catalogue for sewing aides, and worked to create cheap hoop skirts and corsets along with this, both a staple in dressing during this era. She claimed to have invented a variety of innovative products, including comfortable corsetry, Imperial Dress Elevators (loop fastenings to raise skirts), a sewing machine that could backstitch and the Excelsior Dress Model drafting system, for making patterns.
The couple employed large numbers of women, of a variation of ethnicities, ages and backgrounds, proving to be a leader in the betterment of opportunities for women.
Early patterns were unsized, and sold for 25 to 50 cents. Ellen began creating children’s garments, then to women’s clothing, and sold pattern pieces for separate garments, that could be used in combinations with others. Her repertoire included bodices, sleeves, mantles and basques.
During the 1880s business began to decline as the Demorest’s had not patented their idea for distributable paper patterns, and competition inevitably surfaced. Notably, their production was in competition with Ebenezer Butterick, who has since often been credited with the development of mass produced paper patterns. Butterick was, however, the first to include a range of sizes in a pattern, which the Demorests did not do until almost a decade later.
One of Ellen’s most unusual dressmaking commissions was made by Miss Lavinia Warren, wife to be to ‘Tom Thumb’, Mr Charles Stratton. The Strattons had dwarfism and toured with P.T. Barnum’s circus, and the bride wore a number of different gowns made by Ellen on the wedding day, where she attended several functions. This was a highly publicised event at the time!
Ellen Demorest was definitely a pioneer for opportunities for women and home dressmakers during the 1800s.
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