Joy Emery

When most people think of patterns, repeating shapes come to mind. For Professor Emerita Joy Emery, patterns mean Butterick, Simplicity or McCall’s.

Thanks to Emery, URI has the largest collection of paper sewing patterns in the world, with about 56,000 entries in an electronic database, including 46,000 on paper. She’s the curator of the archive—and  author of the first big study of the subject, “A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution.’’

To Emery, who taught for decades in the theater department and the department of textiles, fashion merchandising and design, patterns represented middle class dreams. Women (and men) from modest backgrounds could dress like Hollywood stars at a fraction of the price.

“Sharp-looking, handmade clothes became an option for everyone,’’ said Emery. “It was less expensive to make your own clothes. And patterns were ubiquitous, available in fabric shops or by mail order from Sears Roebuck.’’

Unfortunately, the great pattern manufacturers don’t have much interest today in preserving their feathery product. Emery is all too happy to accommodate. She’s never met a pattern she didn’t like, accepting donations from friends, colleagues, and even families cleaning out their attics.

The URI collection offers everything from mid-19th century bodices to Zoot suits, the duds favored by jazz musician Cab Callaway. “The suits are the early 1940s version of punk,’’ said Emery. “They’re over-sized jackets and huge baggy pants. It was a reaction to government restrictions on fabric, so there’s some rebellion.’’

That’s a snippet only Emery would know.