URI professor emerita wins national award for largest sewing pattern collection in world

KINGSTON, R.I., Dec. 19, 2016 —It started decades ago with an old pattern for a skirt worn by an actress in the University of Rhode Island production “Anne of Green Gables.’’ Joy Spanabel Emery was starstruck.

One pattern led to two, and now Emery, a professor emerita of theater and former adjunct professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design at URI, has the largest collection of sewing patterns in the world—50,000 on paper and 61,000 in an electronic database.

Over the years, she’s received many honors for her devotion to clothing patterns, and now a national organization that promotes theater design is recognizing her.

Emery, of West Kingston, has won the 2016 Distinguished Achievement Award in Costume Design and Technology from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

“I was stunned,’’ says Emery. “The award has been given to so many people I respect enormously. I was very pleased to have my work recognized. It’s a remarkable acknowledgement of my work. I’m thrilled.’’

Founded in 1960, the organization promotes dialogue, research and learning among people involved in theater design and technology. The achievement award is given annually to a person who has excelled in design or technology in the performing arts or entertainment industry.

Emery retired from teaching in 2000 and is curator of URI’s Commercial Pattern Archive at the Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons. The collection dates back to 1847 and represents nearly 100 different companies. Besides dressmaking patterns, the collection includes men’s tailoring journals, fashion periodicals, pattern catalogs and historical sewing manuals from the 16th century to the present.

A costume designer, Emery says her collection is a labor of love—and a wonderful way for costume designers to research what clothing actors should wear during performances. The collection includes everything from 1870 smoking jackets for men and 1950s cocktail party aprons to bodices and Zoot suits—over-sized jackets and baggy pants worn in the 1940s.

Details about the patterns can be found in Emery’s book, The History of the Paper Pattern Industry: the Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution. For more information about the book and collection, call Emery at 401-874-2713.

“Patterns give insight into everyday wear,’’ says Emery. “They’re a wonderful resource for costume designers.’’