What Do You Think of Sewing Contests?

And – what do you know about them?  One of the more venerable sewing contests is the annual Make It With Wool.  Founded in 1947, it is still going strong and features winners in various categories/age groups.  Prizes for winners and runners’-up include scholarships, sewing machines and fabrics, and of course, national recognition in the field.  Pattern Review sponsors several sewing competitions throughout each year, in addition to a “sewing bee.”   Its followers are legion at this point, and it is always a coup to be a winner, selected by readers’ votes.

But what would you say if I told you that in 1956 the Singer Sewing Machine Company introduced a national sewing contest with prize money totaling $125,000?   The 1st Grand Prize carried the unbelievable reward of $25,000.  In current 2020 American dollars, that is almost $240,000!  Not only that, the 33 regional first prize winners also received a free trip to New York.  Take a look at the following two-page ad which appeared in the February/March 1957 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine, announcing the second year of the competition.










Vogue Pattern Book Magazine of August/September 1957 included this page “as we go to press…”

Vogue Pattern Company was rightly proud of their representation in this contest and in others.

And then here is the feature article on those winners in the following issue (October/November, 1957):










Judging was based on “fashion points of appearance, fit and selection of design, colour and fabric, plus construction points of quality and accuracy of cutting, sewing and finishing.”  Isn’t this what most of us strive to attain in our own sewing?

By the next year, 1958, the contest included a new category, called the Young Homemaker Division, for young women between the ages of 18 – 25.  $9,000 of prize money was awarded to the top four winners.  What beautiful dresses and ensembles they created!

I suspect these young women continued to sew throughout their lives.

Also that year, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs sponsored their own sewing contest.  The theme of the contest was “the ideal costume for a clubwoman’s wardrobe.”  Points of consideration in the judging were: “fashion-rightness,” “versatility and appropriateness for club occasions,” “becomingness to the wearer,” “over-all fashion effect,” and “workmanship.”  24 of the state finalists submitted entries consisting of a dress with its own jacket or coat.  That is still to this day a winning combination, classic and chic.

The prize money was certainly less impressive in this contest, at $250, $150 and $100 for the first-, second-, and third-place winners, but imagine the prestige of winning for “your” club, at a time when there were 1,485 clubs represented in the contest!

By 1963, Singer Sewing Company had started the Young Stylemaker Contest for girls aged 10 – 21.  The caption on the following article tells it all:

Included in the trip to Paris for the two winners was a tour of the famous Parisian couture houses.  Can you imagine having such an opportunity at that point in your life?

This contest had expanded its scope by 1965, ferrying fifteen finalists to Rome via a chartered jet for a 5-day stay before the final judging of the Stylemaker Contest.  Notes by the contestants included the charming observation “how very chic the Italian women are.”

By 1969, this contest had drawn more than 93,000 participants!  As part of their prize, the three winners each were given an all-expense paid, one-week trip for two to London, Paris or Rome.  The purpose of the Stylemaker Contest was to “encourage young and creative talents in Fashion sewing.”

By 1971, it appears that changes were in the air for the Stylemaker Contest.  Whittled down to two winning divisions, only the overall winner received a trip to London, Paris or Rome for two, although both final winners also received cash prizes of $800 and $600 respectively.  The “heyday” period of home fashion sewing was sadly beginning to draw to a close.

Needless to say, fashion sewing contests no longer command such notable and generous prize money or trips.  Those were heady times in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, likely never to be experienced again.  However, I would like to think a new sewing heyday is upon us – or perhaps we are it.  What place do contests have in our current global community of sewing?

I rarely enter sewing contests, not for any reason other than the fact that I have so many projects in my queue that the last thing I need to put my attention on is something that is not top priority for me.  But that doesn’t mean I will never enter a contest.  I actually think I probably should at some point. So – again, what do you think of them?   Sewing is creative, so obviously contests today still value and encourage creativity.  Surely emphasis is still placed on fashion appropriateness, workmanship, style, a flattering assessment, fabric and color selection. It is precisely these goals which make fashion sewing so exciting, at least for me, and I suspect for most of us.

Let’s learn a little from the past and make it new again.



Filed under Fashion history, Love of sewing, Mid-Century style, Sewing Contests, The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1970s

34 responses to “What Do You Think of Sewing Contests?

  1. Debbie Mills

    This is a great read. One of the most interesting blog reads I’ve ever seen, Thank you!

  2. Thank-you so much for this! I won a local Singer contest back in the late 60’s and often wondered what happened to them! Contests are no longer my thing but it was a great way to encourage young people to enjoy sewing. Thanks again.

    • I’m so glad to know you found this interesting. I agree, sewing contests are certainly a great way to encourage young people – and old – to add a new focus to their sewing.

  3. Whitney B Donnelly

    What an interesting post! I entered this sewing contest several times as a high school student in Ohio, and once I made it to the second level. This involved professional photographs, but I don’t think I won any cash (or anything else). Too long ago to remember those specifics. Definitely an experience to remember!

  4. Mery

    I’m going to enjoy thinking about this some more. Starting at the bottom, the honorable mention prize of $250 in 1956, even that was a big deal. In 1956 the average American man earned $3,800 per year. The average earnings for a woman who went out to work (and many didn’t) was $1,100 per year or $91 per month. So the least prize was almost 3 months wages. Of course, the higher prizes were spectacular. Winning at any level with that much competition is a big deal.

    I learned to sew in 4H to prepare us before home ec because the home ec teacher was so mean. We had to model our first makes. I didn’t know it was a contest, but when I won first place it gave me a sewing confidence boost from then on. If winning a little ribbon, at the rural county level, for an unlined collarless sleeveless shift did all that for me, then I can imagine winning a real competition gives a significant boost of pleasant feelings, a pleasant feeling about sewing that stays with one a good long while.

    I think I might enter a contest someday if it’s for something in my sewing queue anyway. It might help me be conscious of making it a bit better.

    I’m impressed not only with every one of the outfits in the Vogue winners pages but also that ladies wore those clothes and dressed like that regularly. Thank you for sharing this article.

    • It’s really remarkable the level of monetary reward at stake in these contests. I’d like to think it shows how much sewing was valued back in the day. I have to say it makes me a bit nostalgic, but then I think of all the opportunities and sources available to us today, and it makes me realize that each time has its silver lining.

  5. What an interesting article, and on the evening after I just submitted my entry in the Sewing Bee! I have enjoyed participating in the Sewing Bee. It has really challenged me to try new things I likely wouldn’t have explored on my own.

  6. I’m so impressed by this article. I had no idea there were contests like this back then. Sewing is almost a lost art in today’s world and it warms my heart to read about these past activities.

  7. So interesting, Mom! And you should enter…but you’re a winner in my book every day of the year. Love you!

  8. A really large purse would attract attention, especially if Taunton Press found some good sponsors. Threads magazine needs to hire better creatives (better writing and artwork) and raise the visibility of good design. Catchphrases like “sustainability” and “repurposing,” DIY, whatever marketing would attract a wide range of interest. Project Runway for the masses? You’d a be a winner for sure!

    • I would love to see a sewing contest with a really big purse. I think it would add tremendous excitement to the field of fashion sewing. But I’m not expecting that to happen! Thank you for commenting!

  9. Dear Fifty Dresses,
    Thank you for asking, as entering sewing contests is how I learned to sew.

    I entered the “Make It Yourself With Wool”, in 1970 after seeing an advertisement to win a trip to Europe! I had only high school sewing classes, but learned Tailoring from a library book and was named the National Junior Division Winner. What a wonderful experience to be able to travel throughout Europe for 21 days.

    The same year, I entered the Singer World Stylemaker contest and won a 1st class trip to London for the Finals, for myself and my Mother. A highlight was being judged by Edith Head and meeting International Contestants.

    Since I was on a winning streak…, the next year I entered the Spadea Sewing Contest and won a Scholarship, that allowed me to study in Europe for the entire summer, with Southern Illinois University.

    My winning continued by entering the Trevira (Polyester) sewing contest to win a 1st Class trip for two to New York City and a new car.

    Since then, I entered the Make It With Wool as an Adult in 2013 and again in 2019, after being inspired by Chanel and the gorgeous wool fabrics in the collection and was named the National Adult MIWW Ambassador. I love being inspired by gorgeous fabrics, especially the beauty & versatility of wool. I was encouraged by many on Social Media and was thrilled to be featured in Threads Magazine.

    Entering a sewing contest is both a creative and rewarding journey, especially if you are considering special project, and of course to Make It With Wool, naturally! Maybe that French Jacket you have been dreaming about…

    • Mery

      As much as I love the outfit you made (admired it on Pattern Review), your story of applying yourself so successfully, with no more help than a library book and the same basic high school training we all had, is even more inspiring. I’m so happy for your journey.

    • Hi Charlene, I knew you had won the Adult MIWW twice,but I had no idea you had been so successful as a younger woman. What incredible experiences for you. I’m thrilled to hear about your illustrious sewing career, and I thank you so much for sharing it all with us. You should write an article for Threads about your success with sewing contests! Again, thank you!

  10. Angela

    Wow, that was fascinating! Thank you.

  11. Mary Lynn

    That was such an amazing and interesting article! How did you amass all of those articles and pictures? I remember teaching myself to sew when i started teaching school and had to learn bound buttonholes because my mother’s old Singer didn’t make buttonholes! I think it was also so much easier because a size 12 fit me perfectly ( and I was a bit skinny) . I’m not sure i would have had any sense of how to fit if the pattern didn’t. I think that would have been the end of my sewing. Actually I struggle so much with fitting now that I don’t really finish much any more. Oh, for the “good old days” and bodies that were still young and nothing had “fallen!” thank you for a wonderful trip down memory lane.

    • Hi Mary Lynn, I have a collection of vintage Vogue Pattern Magazine, and that is where I was able to find these fascinating facts. It took a while to put it all together, but I think it is an important part of 20th century sewing history. About that fitting, well, we all struggle with that. Our bodies constantly change, which means we have to constantly re-fit patterns. I wish there were an easy solution, but I do not have one!

    • Heather Myers

      Hi, I’ve had fitting luck with Alexandra Morgan’s In House Patterns Studio fitting how to videos and a fitting class I took remotely last fall. I relate well to numbers, and her teaching is all about measuring the body, then the pattern to match, then adjusting toiles aided by photos. I recommend her!😊

  12. Dd51

    When I was in high school, late 60’ there was a Betty Crocker contest. We took a written exam on various home ec subjects and I won! Then I was eligible for the State contest in which you had to sew an outfit and make a dessert. I made a shirtwaist dress and an orange chiffon pie. I came in second because I used the “new” iron on tape for my hem instead of the traditional seam tape. And I never used it again! I continued to sew until I had 2 toddlers. Then I took a 15 year break, but picked it up when they went to college. I am still proud of that award and occasionally wear my award pin as a broach. Thank you for the good memories.

  13. Heather Myers

    I won a local Make It With Wool contest as an adult in the 90s in Minneapolis. I still have the challis wool, lined dress – and pattern. This may inspire me to enter again! That contest inspired me to take sewing classes – from the judge – introduced me to the sewing community, and launched my still continuing effort to become a better sewist. Thanks for this post!😊

  14. Sarah Troutman

    Do you have info and pictures of the children’s sewing contest in roswell new mexico in 1960

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