Textiles & Costume

A 1920s dress kit

A 1920s dress kit thedreamstress.com

Last week Mr D & I went down to Nelson to celebrate Thanksgiving with his parents (who have adopted it  since I moved to NZ, to help me feel at home, because it’s my favourite holiday, and because they are lovely).

It’s always wonderful to go down to Nelson, but it was particularly good to get away after the upset in Wellington after the earthquakes.  Ironically, we were going closer to the epicenter, but Nelson has had much less damage than Wellington (they say 11% of the city centre is shut down).  Being there felt like escaping, and just helped reset my equilibrium.

My wonderful mother-in-law helped with the escape feel by taking my antique shopping – where I promptly found the most exciting thing I’ve ever found at an op-shop.

I was digging through a chest of fabric (nothing interesting) when I noticed something that  looked a bit like a fashion plate in a cabinet next to me.

A 1920s dress kit thedreamstress.com

Curious, I pulled it out.  It was a pretty 1920s dress, with some odd notes.  And then I realised there was a stack of pattern papers next to it.

A 1920s dress kit thedreamstress.com

Could it be…!?!

A quick check of the pattern tissues suggested they did indeed belong to the dress.  How fabulous!  I mean, it was for a teenager, but 1920s patterns are hard to come by in NZ.

And then I noticed something far, far more fabulous than a 1920s pattern – as exciting as that is. Fabric.  1920s fabric.  And…it looked just like the fabric in the design sketch!

A 1920s dress kit thedreamstress.com

Could it be…!?!


A 1920s dress kit thedreamstress.com

It’s a full 1920s dress kit – the sewing pattern, fabric, and trimmings to make a complete  frock!

Dress kits were quite  popular in the teens and ’20s.  They were more economical than a ready-made or seamstress-made dress, but allowed the home dressmaker to have the look of a designer dress, with matching notions and embellished fabric, with features (like the embroidered hem) that would be nearly impossible to replicate at home.

I’ve read about them in period sources, but have never seen one before.  Most were, of course, made up, and other were broken into their individual parts.

Find one is SO exciting!  It’s a fabulous piece of fashion and sewing  history, and of social history.

A 1920s dress kit thedreamstress.com

The fabric is a very lightweight cotton, with a slightly open weave.  It’s not nearly as soft as a voile, but might soften with washing.

The embroidery and ribbon are almost certainly rayon (viscose).  The embroidery in machine done.

A 1920s dress kit thedreamstress.com

I haven’t managed to find out a great deal about the kit, but I have ascertained that it was made by the Swiss embroidery firm Sonderegger & Co (this guy’s family’s business), which published a notification that it would be doing business in Auckland, NZ, in August 1926, though it had been taking pre-sales  since at least January.

This exactly matches the kit, which I would date to 26-28.  Sonderegger & Co also utilised travelling saleswomen, but  cease selling in NZ in 1933, probably due to the global economic downturn after 1929.  The kit may also have been  purchased overseas and brought back to NZ, immediately, or at a later date.

A 1920s dress kit thedreamstress.com

So, the obvious question is, am I going to make it up?

Probably not the fabric, but I definitely intend to make up the pattern in a modern fabric, to see what it looks like!  That way I can see what the dress would look like, while keeping the kit intact.

A 1920s dress kit thedreamstress.com


  1. Sue Miller says

    What a wonderful find. Stumbling across something like that must be so exciting!
    Are you going to put it together?

  2. MayravB says

    That is SO cool. I love the idea of it as cooler-than-having-your-mom-make-everything but not-as-cool-as-FASHION middle-ground. Am I right in thinking that that’s where it would have sat, cost-wise? Was there wide-spread buying of ready-made clothes at that point, for middle-ish class girls? Or was it more along the line of that thing where you buy custom-printed fabric with pattern lines printed on it (i.e. DIY, as a hobby, not to save money)?

    • Elise says

      I know that middle class girls during 20s and 30s in the Texas panhandle (albeit at the cross of two very important rail lines) would have gone to a seamstress. I don’t know about kits, only the patterns…then again I never asked where they got the fabric. Too late, now, unfortunately.

  3. Deanna says

    This is wonderful! So amazing to find the entire kit intact after 90 years! The embroidered fabric is lovely and the frock is charming. I’m curious if that smocking at the waist?

  4. What a fascinating historical find!

    The color is lovely, as is the embroidery. I don’t care for the capelet, but otherwise I would have loved this dress, when I was a teenager.

  5. Yes, this really is exiting and very very interesting! For instance, I would have never gone for this (or any as brightly coloured) colour scheme. I didn’t know there were completely unmade dresses for sale, either, only dresses half made up. Well, I guess that’s because something like this would fit more into the sewing supplies section than in the clothing compartement, which is more likely to be represented in today’s reproductions of mail order catalogues. All the more reason to be delighted at this post of yours! Thank you!
    (And by the way: There won’t be a Historical Sew Monthly 2017, will there? What a pity …)

  6. Claire Payne says

    I share your excitement! Gosh, you do find some great things in op shops. I don’t have nearly half as much luck as you do. How I love that feeling of unearthing ‘treasure, ‘ that connection to the past. Better still, knowing that something like this is in safe hands and will be treasured for many more years to come. I will look forward to seeing how your frock turns out so we can imagine the kit brought to life.

  7. Juliana says

    What a beautiful, exciting find! Since I’m from eastern Switzerland myself, I was aware of the textile industry in that area, but to my knowledge it had mostly collapsed by that time, so I don’t think I’ve ever seen any Swiss products from that era. Herisau, where Sonderegger was from, is a small town near St. Gallen, which used to be the centre of the Swiss textile industry.

  8. Oh my word, this is the most amazing find! I think there would be a lot of squealing and dancing around if I spotted something like this. The fabric is stunning, but I’d definitely be like you and want to keep it all intact. Can’t wait to see your made up version!

  9. Cindy S. says

    What a wonderful find! I’d probably frame the pattern and display it. The fabric is just gorgeous! I wouldn’t use it, I think I’d just look at it every. single. day. Good for you!!

  10. Gillian Stapleton says

    That’s a great find – I could feel the excitement myself!

  11. I love the embroidery. What a cool way for a customer to get a beautifully embroidered dress without having to pay too much or spend forever doing the embroidery.

  12. I love this. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of dress kits before. This one is lovely – I love the hemline. Can’t wait to see what it looks like after you make it up. It is lovely fabric and the embroidery is gorgeous

  13. What a great find, so many of the 1920s dresses are slowly disintegrating, yet the kit you found looks pristine! I had no idea there were sewing kits then, likely as they’re rare these days and not on pinterest. lol

  14. Amazing treasure to find! This is why I keep hunting, because the satisfaction of finding something amazing is so worth it. This is truly a beautiful piece of history!

  15. Alexandra Tidswell says

    So glad you had such a brilliant find in sunny Nelson! The antique shops here are real treasure troves. Loved the little packet of ribbon too 🙂

  16. What an amazing find! I was thoroughly excited to find a turn of the century-ish corset at one of my local antique spots a few weeks ago, but it’s in MUCH worse shape. Great luck, and I can’t wait to see the version you make up!

  17. Lauren says

    Thank you for sharing this with us! I’m curious about the information sheet that says the dress is available in red and in blue, when the fabric looks pink.

    • I’m wondering about that too, and I’ve done a bit of research but can’t find anything conclusive, or other examples where a coral shade was described as pink. I really doubt the fabric has faded, as there are two separate pieces, the ribbon matches perfectly, and the colour is very consistent, and a very popular shade for teens in the 1920s. I suspect the other pink (mentioned as the embroidery on blue) was a very pale, blush pink. My best guess is that calling this coral tone red is a translation issue.

      • Helen says

        Pink as a word is peculiar to the English language/s, being of course derived from the colour of the little flowers with the “pinked” edges. Garden pinks (Dianthus spp) became fashionable in the 18th century, before that we simply called pink “red”. Hence many of the wild flowers with common name “Red”, when they’re plainly pink.
        This change doesn’t seem to exist in many other European languages. I’ve just looked up the German translation for pink, and it’s “Rosa.” More specifically to your oddly described fabric colour, I have several books of Danish embroidery designs, in which the pink colours are called “Light red.” Depending on the dialect of the Swiss manufacturer, this is most likely the source of the translation discrepancy.

  18. Lizzy says

    Wow! That is such an amazing find!!! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  19. Susan Robinson says

    I’m with Jomama – Wow! Just wow!

    On a completely different note, I have found washboards for sale
    at a place called Capital Iron here in Victoria, BC, Canada. The
    actual board is made of what I take to be galvanized metal rather
    than glass, and it is only about 10 inches wide. Want one?

  20. Della says

    There are no coincidences! You were MEANT to find this gorgeous item. And now it belongs to its rightful owner! I am thrilled for you.

    I can’t wait to see what you create with the pattern and only hope you someday create the dress out of the kit – that is what its destiny should be and you are the one to do it.

    Merry Christmas!

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