The Stretch & Sew Empire

Make it Fun and Easy, Fall/Winter 1980

Make it Fun and Easy, Fall/Winter 1980

Ann Person of Stretch & Sew was a brilliant business woman. Her franchises were a self-contained sewing empire, offering patterns, fabric, notions, and classes. On the women’s pages of local newspapers, she gained notoriety as a hugely successful entrepreneur. One 1975 article from Toledo, Ohio noted that she traveled on privately chartered jets and had her own chauffeured limousine.

Person was a pioneer in nested multi-sized patterns, all on a single sheet. Like dresses in the early twentieth century, women’s patterns were offered by bust size, usually in a range from 28 to 44 inches.  They were designed to be traced, not cut, so sewers could easily make changes if hips or bust sizes varied from standard proportions. The company offered its own tracing paper, called “Do-Sew,” along with its own elastic and fusible interfacing.

Stretch & Sew 1044, 1980

Another essential element of Stretch & Sew’s success was to make a wide range of knit fabrics available to the home sewer. The stores offered everything needed to complete the patterns, from basic knits with matching ribbing to heavier, textured types for coats and jackets.

Not all ideas succeeded. The company developed its own brand of sewing machine “designed especially for knits and crafted in Italy.” It quickly disappeared from advertising. There was Stretch & Sew magazine, called Make it Fun and Easy, modeled after magazines like Vogue Patterns. Since I only uncovered one issue from 1980, I doubt that it lasted very long. And in the era of celebrity perfumes, Person even offered her own, “Love Ann,” sold only at Stretch & Sew franchises. Plans to expand into other cosmetics never materialized.

By the 1980s, Stretch & Sew began to face financial challenges. Other pattern companies developed their own lines for knits. Changes in fashion, which favored more structured apparel and natural fibers, also undermined the company’s mission. During that decade, franchises were phased out and replaced by independent stores which were no longer restricted to the selling the brand.

When she was approaching eighty in 2004, Ann Person was inducted into the American Sewing Guild’s Hall of Fame. It was the swan song for her company, which stopped producing patterns that same year. However, you can still find them at flea markets, thrift stores, and online vendors. I recently bought pattern 1044 from 1980 on ebay that I’m planning to make this summer from a vintage knit that might well have come from a Stretch & Sew store. I’ll keep you posted.

This entry was posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990, 2000s, General and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Stretch & Sew Empire

  1. Becky says:

    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Rhoda K says:

    I like that pattern and look forward to your review. I’ve sewn with S&S patterns in the past.

  3. Joy Elbert says:

    I have many Stretch and Sew patterns from the 70’s and use them routinely in my sewing business. They are still great basics for knit garments. The stores were a whole new wave of sewing. fabrics and pattern making. It was a big part of my sewing education and experience. Thanks for the history and info.

  4. Carol in Denver says:

    I was tickled to see stamped on the illustration at the top of this article the Littleton address of the Stretch & Sew store where I took my lessons! One thing taught there was to duplicate a favorite clothing article by smoothing/rubbing aluminum foil over the garment while it is lying flat. Works very well.

  5. M-C says:

    Interesting bit of history, thanks! I like the jacket pattern and I think it’d look great, please show us the results :-).
    I’d like to point out that I still sew swimsuits derived from vintage S&S – by far the best fit I’ve ever found, even through the kind of size changes you’d expect over 30-40 years. Only Jalie has ever come closeto such good fit.

    • Charlotte Trayer says:

      I still have my old S&S patterns (including swimsuits), and use them frequently to sew for myself as well as my grandkids (I am still using the children’s t-shirt patterns, purchased for my son–who is now 40–to sew for his boys. I have sure gotten a lot of value out of those $2 patterns!! LOL)

  6. Karla says:

    Excellent description of how Ann Person changed sewing for all of us. About 10 years ago, I set out to collect as many S&S patterns as I could find, avoiding the puff sleeve/huge shoulder pad designs when possible. I have that jacket pattern, and in a shocking act that goes against my procrastinator tendencies, I ACTUALLY MADE IT! Like all the S&Ss I’ve tried, it is perfectly drafted and produced a comfortable knit jacket that I still wear, even though it’s beginning to look a little too loved.

    Thank you for showcasing S&S and reminding me that I have a lot more patterns to try.

    • Charlotte Trayer says:

      I have a two-drawer filing cabinet, packed full–of Mostly S&S patterns–and I still don’t have them all!! Of course, there are certain ones I use much more often than others, but it’s nice to have a choice!!

  7. Raewyn Simpson says:

    Interesting reading this article. We had a lady (here in Australia) named Vera Randall who developed the Knitwit range. This was probably over 40 years ago. She had a fantastic range of patterns, fabric etc just for stretch fabric. I still use her patterns and was lucky enough to be trained and work as a Knitwit teacher.

  8. Charlotte Trayer says:

    I probably took my first S&S class (in the Everett, WA, store) in about 1969 or 70, and fell in love with sewing on knits!! Then in 1980 or 81, I became a certified S&S instructor, one of the original staff hired when Jeff and Nancy Cornwell (yes, she of the polar fleece sewing books in later years) opened their S&S store in Lynnwood, WA. When a shipment came from the S&S warehouse, it was like Christmas–8-12 cartons Filled with gorgeous knit fabrics–cotton interlocks, dyed-to-match ribbing, t-shirt prints and stripes, sweater fabrics, bottom weights (for pants, jackets, etc.) even swim wear and lingerie fabrics, plus the necessary notions. And everything matched!! However, during the three years I worked there, Ann closed her warehouse and fabrics had to be ordered from other sources. It was lovely while it lasted, though!

    Oh, and Ann Person came to our store one time–that was really a special treat!!

    To this day, my favorite sewing is on knits–I make t-shirts for myself and our grandkids, as well as my own lingerie and (when needed) swimwear. LOVE sewing on knits!

  9. Jen O says:

    S&S took the fear out of sewing knits at a time when it seemed almost magical to make up your own. For 30 years I used S&S techniques to teach knitwear in my fashion department, with the addition of sergers that made for professional results, even though a domestic machine alone can produce great results. I think there is still a place for S&S technologies, with so many knits and stretch textiles available that need to be tamed. I still love to ‘whip out’ a knit top or two (cut once, sew twice). Maybe Ann Persons time has come again.

  10. Fabrickated says:

    What an interesting post.

    This brand is also occasionally found in the UK.

  11. Marilyn Gatz says:

    I began my sewing career in 1976 teaching at our local Stretch & Sew store. It was a wonderful learning experience. Our store in Western Springs, IL was very fashion forward and we were encouraged to copy designer creations using S & S patterns and pattern variations. I still have most of the patterns and when the company no longer had the franchise business I used the patterns as a base ‘ shopping’ high end stores and copying designs which I then taught at several venues representing AnnPerson. I still use them today.

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