THE SEWING DIVAS sewing, design, fashion

April 30, 2009

Vionnet’s Legacy Lives On

The latest news from The Center for Pattern Design landed in my inbox recently. Located in beautiful St. Helena in northern California, the Center is a repository of all things related to pattern. Patterns and tools are available thru the website, and older sewing and pattern design texts are being republished thru the Center’s Antiquity Press.

Cutting Cloth, the newsletter from Sandra Ericson’s Center for Pattern Design, was chock full of interesting tidbits. Not only is there a CPD conference slated for October this year at the Art Institute in San Francisco, there is news of a Vionnet exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, running until January 2010. The museum is the recipient of 750 of Madeleine Vionnet’s toiles and all her papers. Sandra says this show is the first time since 1939, when Vionnet’s house closed, that her work has been shown.
Sandra has been studying the work of ground-breaking French couturier Madeleine Vionnet for years. Vionnet is considered the inventor of draping on the bias, and used a half scale dress mannequin to work out her ideas. She was one of the first early 20th century designers to set up a series of ateliers and industrialize her designs
This past January, Diva Emerita MaryBeth from The Stitchery and I were fortunate to be in Palm Springs at back-to-back Claire Shaeffer workshops. We did a 5 day workshop with Sandra Ericson on Vionnet style draping, followed by a Couture Tailoring Techniques in the style of Yves St. Laurent. The draping class was so much fun; Ms. Ericson packed a lot in to each day. In the mornings we were treated to a teaching presentation of Vionnet’s methods and work, then a daily ‘show and tell’ with garments as examples of the day’s topic. Each afternoon we worked on half size dolls (aka My Size Barbies pressed into service as mannequins) draping our own styles using Vionnet’s approaches.


Chronicle Books’ oversize book Madeleine Vionnet, with diagrams and photos is the go-to reference on Vionnet today. For those who are interested in looking at the historical context of her work, there is a lot about her place in the Cubist movement in the book Cubism and Fashion, by Richard Martin, that came out at the time of the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC in 1999.

Vionnet lives on, with many of today’s designers taking pages out of her book, sometimes quite literally.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to get to Paris before January 2010.



  1. wish i could attend that class.i’ve bought the book on vionnet by betty has some beautiful patterns -however i dont know what scale they have been reduced a result i cant find a suitable dress form to drape them on.can someone help?

    Comment by rito — April 30, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

  2. Hi, Rito, I hope you don’t mind me jumping in here…

    If I remember correctly Sandra said the question about scale is the exact problem with the Betty Kirke book. I believe Ms Ericson said that Ms Kirke had to guess at the pattern’s construction and she recommended the Japanese Vionnet books instead. (Kathleen Fasanella posted about this book here:

    Of course, this makes Ms Ericson’s work all the more important as she is constantly investigating and working through the Vionnet patterns. She has made up some lovely pieces that she delights in wearing (very sexy)

    Comment by Mary Beth — April 30, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    • thanks so much mary beth,
      will try and get the japanese version now.wish i had known about the other book before.kirke’s book is quite expensive and as a poor student it wasnt cheap for me!what a rip off.grr!

      Comment by rito — April 30, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

  3. I admire Sandra Ericson for her work to inform and educate others in pattern design,and looking forward to the 2 patterns from Julian Roberts I recently ordered.

    I have seen another Madeleine Vionnet exhibition back in 1999 in Den Haag NL and of course I have a few books . I hope to visit the exhibition in Paris later this year, should be worth the 10 hour train ride.
    You can read more about the exhibition in Paris if you can read French see

    The information in English:

    Les Arts Décoratifs is devoting a major exhibition to Madeleine Vionnet. In 1952, the couturière donated 22 dresses, 750 dress patterns and 75 photo albums to Les Arts Décoratifs. Selected from her major works between 1912 and 1939 and now restored with the aid of Natixis, this exceptional collection of avant-garde designs can at last be shown to the public. Madeleine Vionnet’s entire career was marked by her constant quest for freedom in extremely refined but unfettered designs close to antique drapery, which continue to fascinate couturiers such as Azzedine Alaia, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and John Galliano.

    Comment by Els — April 30, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  4. The Japanese book is advertised as a companion to the Kirke book – I have the Kirke book (gift of a generous friend, thanks Vicki!) but at some point will invest in the Japanese one as well.

    Alas, no hope of Paris and Vionnet… someone will have to report back with photos if possible.

    Comment by luckylibbet — April 30, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  5. I just love M. Vionnet and love reading about her….as I do about Mme. Chanel. They both had such a way of striking out on their own in a time that was so difficult for women to do. Thanks for keeping these memories of her beautiful work alive.

    Comment by ClaireOKC — May 3, 2009 @ 1:09 am

  6. What a wonderful and informative post, thank you!

    Comment by Tany — May 24, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

  7. I agree that what Vionnet accomplished with her lifetime of work was fabulous, but so is what Bette Kirke accomplished with her impressive study of Vionnet and her wonderful volume of work. Calling it a rip-off is incredibly unfair to the amount of her life given to create this impressive study of the designers life and work. It is a fabulous volume, and worth it even if you never re-create the dress. Just seeing the ideas represented in the patterns if unbelievable. It would take a lot of study and worktime to re-create these patterns, and The Association of Sewing and Design Professionals is doing just that this summer, under the direction of Sandra Ericson, by recreating all 38 patterns researched by Bette Kirke, on half-scale dress forms provided by Dress-rite forms. Kirke will be honered at the ASDP Educational Conference held in Chicago this October, where Kirke will receive the organizations Lifetime Achievement Award (Kahlje and Scheafer have both won the award in past years). That is a lot closer than Paris!

    Comment by Mary — June 7, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

  8. Thanks for your interesting blog post. I had no idea there was the Center for Pattern Design in St. Helena.
    Very exciting!!!!!
    By the way, I am in a writer’s critique group headed by author Karen Karbo who’s got a biography on Coco
    Chanel coming out this Fall. Can’t wait to read it. Saw the Poiret exhibit at the Met a few years ago and interesting
    to see what preceded the arrival of Chanel!
    Think positive thoughts about Paris!!!
    all best, Maura Conlon-McIvor

    Comment by maura conlon-mcivor — August 3, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

  9. Great article,
    but I’m very curious, are those miniature mannequins they used really “my size barbies?” because I’m trying to get a hold of a small mannequin like vionnets! Are the barbies actually proportional?

    Comment by Alan — September 20, 2009 @ 7:46 am

  10. The first few links to Sandra Ericson’s and the pattern ones?? Is Sandra related to Lois and Diane?

    Comment by Lorri — November 15, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

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