The other day, I posted about the Greater Bay Area Costumers Guild's Great Pattern Review. While I was writing, something came to mind: many of the patterns they list are out of print.
Patterns go out of print often. There's a high turnover, particularly among the large mainstream commercial companies like Simplicity and McCall's. Because those companies are trend-driven, they try to produce and carry patterns that somehow tie in with recent popular costume movies (this year, it's all about pirates, but I bet you'll be hard-pressed to find a good pirate pattern in your local craft store three years from now). Sometimes, they discontinue patterns that don't sell well, but it seems like they occasionally replace other patterns, the "classics" like poodle skirts and witch costumes, with newer, better models of the same thing. This is also true of their non-costume patterns.
When you try to locate an out-of-print pattern, there are a few things to remember, things that are relevant to people interested in sewing with patterns of any kind. Everything you need to know to find the right older pattern for you is waiting after the break!
Out-of-print patterns are commonly found on eBay (where there's been a thriving trade for years; Patterns from the Past has some suggestions for effective eBay searches) and sometimes on Etsy. Recently out-of-print patterns may even be found on the associated company's catalog website: here is Simplicity's out-of-print pattern category, for example. Some sites, like Lanetz Living and Grandma's House, specialize in out-of-print patterns.
Sewing.about.com's article, Locating a Discontinued Sewing Pattern, has contact details for all of the pattern companies, along with the somewhat alarming information that most companies recyle their out-of-print patterns after one year to make new pattern paper.
There are a few pitfalls. If you try to purchase an out-of-print pattern, remember that pattern companies re-use their model numbers: make sure that the pattern description matches what you're looking for. It would be a nasty surprise to think you've purchased a medieval dress pattern for your Maid Marian costume, then find that you actually have a 1970s pattern for a men's sport coat. Many re-sellers will list both the model number and the pattern description (i.e.: Simplicity 4387: Boxing Robes & Shorts). Obviously, a photo will help you confirm that the listing is the pattern you're looking for.
Also, be sure to check the size measurements, so you'll get your correct size. They aren't the same as normal off-the-rack clothes; an American misses' 14 or XL at the store is around a 20 or so in Simplicity patterns, and not all pattern companies have the same size range. Some also have the reputation for running large or small, so you can always look up the pattern on Google (i.e., "simplicity 4387" pattern as a search term) to see if anyone has reported an experience with it.
The fact that a pattern was put out by a given company, though, doesn't mean that it goes by that company's current measurement/size charts. Vintage patterns may have been made at a time when a company was using an older size chart. In the case of older patterns, you'll need to see, or ask about, the measurements from the specific pattern envelope.
Of course, to shop for patterns at all, you need to know the correct measurements of the person for whom the garment is intended, which means that you have to be able to take correct measurements. Most pattern companies have measuring instructions on their websites and in their catalogs.