Passed-Down Patterns

When we asked top Southern designers to reinvent patterns from issues past, something beautiful happened

Story by Ashley Riddle Williams

My grandmother bought her Singer sewing machine in 1959 on Battle Street in Talladega, Alabama, and made the half-hour drive there each week for a month to claim the sewing lessons that came with her purchase. In the years that followed, she made playclothes, Easter outfits, Halloween costumes, and too many bridesmaid dresses to count. Some were her own inventions; others came from patterns she'd ordered from the McCall's catalog or even off the pages of Southern Living, during the era when the magazine had a pattern department. And all were constructed with proper French seams.

Eventually, she passed down that beige hunk of steel to me. It was embedded in a table with yellowing white paint and two brass pulls on a faux-front drawer. She, too, threw in sewing lessons.

Like the designers featured here, who learned their craft from the women who came before them, I dreamed of turning my sewing savvy into a career. After college, I moved away from Alabama for the first time in my life to intern for a fashion designer in New York City. The one-bedroom apartment I shared with a roommate on the Upper East Side had no space for my massive mid-century machine. My parents bought me a compact, top-of-the-line digital version with 129 stitch functions and a backlit screen. The Singer went to their carport.

A year and a half later, the modern machine's arm came to a rumbling halt. I wrestled with the plastic bobbin, punched furiously at the beeping buttons, and realized that I missed the simplicity of that old Singer. Even more, I missed the simplicity of life in the South.

When I moved back to Alabama, my parents met me at my new rental with a trailer hitched to their SUV. Behind my wrought iron bedframe and rolled jute rug, there it was: my grandmother's sewing machine. I gave it a new peacock teal finish and a spot in my living room. That fall, I zoomed through 16 dresses—more than I had found time for during all that time in New York. And every single one had immaculate French seams.


Designer: Abbey Glass of Abbey Glass

Location: Atlanta

The Challenge
Glass' mission was to play up the fit-and-flare shape from this evening gown featured in the October 1966 issue of Southern Living and make it flattering for every woman.

The Inspiration
"There's a certain romance and femininity about the way Southern women dress, and it always seems to come back to lots of color and a ladylike fit. My grandmother taught me how to sew and made me practice stitching straight lines on remnants. I inherited her collection of beautiful suits and evening gowns, and I have even revamped a few to wear for formal events."

The Results
"This look strikes just the right chord between vintage and modern, and it's great for women of any age. I made small tweaks to the design, like extra flare in the skirt and more structure in the bodice to enhance fit. I also love this whimsical pattern and lustrous dark blush fabric because it's becoming on all skin tones."

Get the Look
The Magnolia Dress, $695; Commissioned by Southern Living


Designers: Jolie Bensen Hamilton and Sarah Elizabeth Dewey of Jolie and Elizabeth

Location: New Orleans

The Challenge
We asked Hamilton and Dewey to take an SL pattern from the August 1966 issue and turn it into something a modern woman would wear to brunch.

The Inspiration
"We constantly use vintage patterns as starting points for our designs, like our seersucker dresses," says Hamilton. "In fact, there's one pattern we've used so much that it's no longer intact! Southern women don't wear anything we wouldn't want our mamas to see, and Jolie and Elizabeth is built on that ideal. We have customers from ages 14 to 74, and we are always looking to create pieces that appeal to all of them."

The Results
"The A-line cut is free-flowing at the waist and hips, making it flattering on almost every body type," explains Dewey. "We tweaked the length and neckline, added darts for better fit, and chose a microfiber faille, which drapes like satin but is much more durable and also great for everyday wear. But our favorite design spin is that we made it reversible, so you get two dresses in one!"

Get the Look
Charlotte dress, $198; Commissioned by Southern Living


Designer: Lindsey Carter of Troubadour

Location: Charleston, South Carolina

The Challenge
Carter was tasked with revamping this dramatic day-to-night hourglass shape that appeared in our first issue into something a woman would want to wear to the office today.

The Inspiration
"My grandmother was a department store model and was always so well dressed. I remember seeing her in cashmere sweaters and beautiful brooches, even just around the house. I'd say a Troubadour girl is also really put together that way. If you go down King Street in Charleston on a Saturday night, you see dresses, heels, and fixed hair. That is what Southerners do—we dress up."

The Results
"I used a metallic jacquard fabric in blush and black because the gorgeous light-catching threads add a touch of sparkle. I wanted to make this functional for a modern woman, so I pulled the straps up to fit squarely on the shoulders and let the waist out a little bit. Women want to be comfortable as well as put together—they don't want to have to wear a corset to get into their dresses!"

Get the Look
Sadie Dress, $265; Commissioned by Southern Living