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Sewing for the Instagram Generation

But the energetic Ms. Cafaro may be better suited to the more wide-ranging job of creative director. “I have the attention span of a gnat,” she said.

She started in the industry in the late 1970s, selling Vogue Patterns in Bloomingdale’s, and she remembers with fondness the luxe days, when she and her colleagues traveled to Europe to meet with designers. “We would take 10- to 12-day trips to Paris, London, Milan,” she said. “Life was good.”

Part of the goal of posting the archive images, said Ms. McDonald, is to spark curiosity among young people, many of whom were not taught sewing in school. To liven up its product, McCall has struck deals with popular sewing bloggers and turned them into designers.

Ms. Hirsch, who blogs under the name Gertie and dresses in a retro rockabilly way, has appeared on the cover of the Butterick catalog and releases “Patterns by Gertie.”

Another blogger turned designer, who works for the McCall’s line, is Nikki Brooks-Revis, 36. She began sewing only four years ago, she said, after amending her long-held view: “My thought was old people sew. Young, hip people did not sew.”

Ms. Brooks-Revis started a personal fashion blog and discovered sewing as a way to produce an ever-changing wardrobe on a budget. She loved the way she could alter a pattern and customize a garment.

Sewing patterns were, in a sense, the original fast fashion: a quick, affordable, stylish option before the advent of the $ 20 H & M dress. One of the company’s greatest hits is the Walkaway dress, a Butterick pattern from 1952.

“It was called the Walkaway dress because you could sit down at a sewing machine in the morning and walk away wearing it to lunch,” Ms. Cafaro said. The pattern is still available in the Butterick catalog, reissued for a new generation.


From left: Penny Payne, the fabric and notions editor; Carolyne Cafaro, the creative director; Doree Epstein, a designer; and Leslie Sondy, the director of design and merchandising, go over swatches. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

A Family Atmosphere

Many McCall employees exhibit the same constancy as the patterns: They have been with the company for decades. There’s a family atmosphere among the staff and an awareness that they occupy a unique place in the industry, far from the hype of Times Square billboards and runways teeming with pouty fashion bots.

Behnaz Livian, an Iranian immigrant and director of the patternmaking department, has worked at McCall for 26 years. Gwenn Wright, a dressmaker, has been there 33 years. Frank Rizzo, the chief executive, used to work with Ms. Cafaro at Simplicity patterns, a rival company. After all these years he can’t operate a sewing machine. “Don’t bring it up,” he said. “They threatened to make me learn to sew.”

Penny Payne, who oversees the fabric library, went to work for Vogue-Butterick in 1987 after a modeling career. One recent afternoon, wearing a blue Donna Karan dress, a Vogue Patterns design she picked up at the office sample sale, Ms. Payne sat at a work table.

A bright space filled with large flip boards affixed with the latest swatches, buttons, zippers and other notions, the library is the hub of the McCall office, a crucial resource for the designers, fashion editors and patternmakers, who must know what’s available on the market for home sewers.

The pattern business is a dynamic crossroads of several industries, Ms. Payne said. “The timing and the schedules feel like publishing,” she said. “It’s trend and fashion, so it’s like a magazine. But we actually produce something.”

Behind her were color-trend boards from a presentation she gave the day before to representatives from the crafts chain Hobby Lobby. “My skill set has so many different layers, and all of it would not be used at another company,” Ms. Payne said. “I feel blessed to be a part of it.”

The four staff designers expressed a similar satisfaction, despite the workload: At any time they may be focused on 20 to 30 pattern styles, each with three or four variations.

Jacqueline Polikoff, who designs for the McCall’s brand, joined the company five years ago after working for a junior contemporary line in mass manufacturing. Although she no longer sees her designs in stores, she said it was surprisingly rewarding to see how home sewers interpret her patterns.

“At the end of the day, they’re the designer,” said Ms. Polikoff, who notices when sewers post their outfits to social media.

Carlos Correa, who has been at the company 25 years and now designs for the Vogue Patterns line, once worked at Elie Tahari and as Geoffrey Beene’s assistant. But he became disillusioned. “The things the magazines would go crazy about would end up living in the archives,” he said. “Nobody actually bought them.”

Mr. Correa still deals with Seventh Avenue; about half the styles for Vogue Patterns are licensed from well-known companies like Badgley Mischka, Tracy Reese and Rachel Comey. But, he said: “You get to see people making these things and wearing them in real life. And creatively, it’s very fulfilling.”

For Keeps

The pattern industry isn’t wholly immune to modern realities. McCall and its competitors have introduced downloadable patterns as a nod to changing times.

They have also faced business challenges due to changes in how people shop. Last February, the chain Hancock Fabrics filed for bankruptcy, closing 185 stores. The cause, in part, was the consumers’ shift to buying online.

Smaller independent fabric stores have also closed, leaving McCall ever more reliant on the big craft chains like Jo-Ann and Hobby Lobby. Budget and staff cuts have caused its employees to take on more roles. The trips to the fashion capitals of Europe are a thing of the past.

Five months after the Hancock bankruptcy, McCall employees were still digesting the fact that one of their largest retail partners was kaput. Nevertheless, they had to get on with the work of turning out those 700 patterns.

Ms. Cafaro met in her office with a merchandising manager, Leslie Sondy, and a veteran designer, Doree Epstein, to choose the spring 2017 patterns for the Butterick line, which, Ms. Cafaro noted, is “retro” in style.

Pinned to a large board were printouts of some 35 looks, from prom gown to athleisure top. Except for the cut of the clothes and a computer program that aids in patternmaking, little about the process was different from the days when the Walkaway was first produced.

When the final 25 styles were selected, Ms. Cafaro and her team would work with the patternmaking and dressmaking departments to produce sample garments. Then the patterns would be sent to the McCall facility in Manhattan, Kan., where they would be printed on tissue paper.

By now the McCall Pattern Company has outlasted the mainstream women’s magazine that it spawned in 1873 (and which was finally shuttered, after changes in ownership, in 2002). Never has Ms. Cafaro thought her industry would be made obsolete.

Whatever changes may come, she has no plans to look for other work. “Once you’re in this for this many years, you’re in this to stay,” she said.

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