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Creating the Perfect Pattern


From the very beginning of the Revolutionary War, supply problems plagued the Continental Army. It was especially difficult to keep the army clothed and shod. Goods, including fabric, became scarcer, and costs skyrocketed due to demand and inflation. Colonists generally did not make their own fabric, and cloth was the single largest import in the eighteenth century.

Persons employed in the various trades found themselves looking for work as the colonial economy was severely affected by the virtual elimination of trade with England. Many chose to take up arms and join the Continental Army and soon were applying their skills in the pursuit of American independence. Soldiers who had tailoring skills were quickly put to work making the various pieces that made up the uniform including waistcoats, regiment coats, breeches, and linen shirts (linen cloth was by far cheaper than cotton). They were challenged to make the most out of what little they had to work with, leaving little waste behind. While the word "tailoring" meant "the art of cutting," tailors needed mathematical skills to measure people and fabric and make patterns from geometric shapes. They also used math to manage money and record orders.


In this lesson, students:

  • Use geometry, measurement and problem solving to produce a pattern for a basic colonial shirt.
  • Analyze a visual resource to measure and create a pattern.
  • Calculate and record the cost of a shirt using a tailor's ledger.


    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Creating the Perfect Pattern
  • Student Resource: Basic Shirt
  • The Tailor's Ledger
  • 1 sheet of brown (or other color) butcher/craft paper to cut out shirt pieces — 1 per group
  • 1 sheet of white butcher/craft paper 10 ft. long — 1 per group (representing linen fabric)
  • 1 yardstick/ruler per group
  • scissors


  1. Explain to students that in this activity, they will act as military tailors in the Continental Army and will be using their tailoring skills to design a pattern for making shirts for the soldiers.
  2. Distribute "Creating the Perfect Pattern." Allow students time to read over the directions then review the directions with the class.
  3. Pair up students.
  4. Distribute materials:
    • "Student Resource: Basic Shirt"
    • 1 sheet of brown butcher/craft paper (to cut out shirt pieces)
    • Yardstick/ruler
    • Scissors
  5. Students should request the white piece of butcher/craft paper (representing the fabric) after completing step 2 of the handout.
  6. Allow students time to complete the activity and share their results.

Lesson Extensions

  1. Tell students that you are the quartermaster (the person in charge of the army's supplies). You will determine whose pattern has made the most efficient use of the fabric, and that pattern will then be used to make the shirts for the entire regiment.
  2. Distribute "The Tailor's Ledger."
  3. Allow groups time to read over the directions then review the directions with the class (projecting a version of them on a screen if possible).
  4. After allowing student groups adequate time to complete the activity, have each group present the quartermaster with their ledger for inspection.
  5. Ascertain which groups have correctly accounted for all the pieces needed in their calculations (a group may only have calculated for one sleeve or one cuff). You may wish to record each group's findings on the board or screen or a chart as a means of comparison.
  6. If any of the results seem too great or too small, ask the class to suggest possible reasons for the discrepancies.
  7. When all the findings have been submitted, announce those tailors whose patterns have been accepted for use by the Continental Army.
  8. Discuss with students the process they used and the problems they encountered. Ask students: why was it important to be frugal with the material? What would happen if there weren't enough shirts for the troops?

This lesson was written by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Master Teachers F. Margret Atkinson, Baton Rouge, LA, and Susan Hamblin, Madison, WI.