Warning: this is a long post, as I coalesce thoughts that I’ve had for a long time into words. I’m sharing this in two parts, as it ended up much longer than I expected. Bear with me – or not!
Indie sewing patterns: you either love them or you….love them. In the online sewing community, there seems to be little choice: the narrative is one of the Nasty Big 4 Corporations (McCall’s, Simplicity, Vogue and Butterick, alternately known as McVoguerick) wielding their industrial might to crush the little guy, indie pattern companies. They are the hero of this story, the hard-working small business owners come good. For a long while now, I’ve suspected that the success of indie pattern companies is built more on hype than good drafting, and the release of Colette Pattern’s Rue dress has brought these thoughts to a head.
But first, independent pattern companies. They are generally defined as anyone selling patterns bar the big names. Recent examples are Christine Haynes, Grainline Studio, Sewaholic Patterns, Oliver + S, By Hand London and the aforementioned Colette Patterns. Lines blur when independent companies become big enough to compete with the big guns, in some cases lasting for decades, such as Jalie, Hot Patterns, and Kwik Sew. On the other side of the spectrum lie Facebook and Etsy start-ups. There are too many to name, and as they are mainly popular with SAHM FB groups, I am not entirely familiar with them. But they have a cult following among their customers (some with upwards of 20,000 Facebook fans).
Indie sewing patterns share characteristics common to other cult products (more on that below): good marketing, a strong brand, a higher price point which customers are willing to pay because they believe the product is tangibly better than alternatives, and a brand awareness that stops at the borders of online communities (if I was to mention Grainline Studio in my local Spotlight, I would be met with blank stares).
What is problematic is the lack of drafting knowledge or professional testing that is evident in some indie companies. Much has been written about the dubious practice of blog-tour style pattern testing, which is more akin to a promotion tour than a rigorous assessment of the technicalities of the pattern draft. There is some question as to whether a review that is done as a favour can ever be ethical* or a true critical test. It is also apparent that some indie patterns undergo little to no professional pattern testing.
Back to Rue. Colette made much of their new release, harking it as a “return to vintage.” I had high hopes that their brand, which had in the past been diluted by their Seamwork offerings, would be restored. At first blush, this seems to be the case: Rue is a unique dress pattern, with the kind of design details that shine in vintage dresses, and that Colette was known for. A closer inspection of the samples sewn so far proves less promising.
In the past, Colette had come under criticism for their too-wide necklines, and short, ill-fitting bodices. Obviously no sewing pattern will fit everyone straight out of the packet, but if a company is repeatedly receiving criticism for the same problem, then the problem most likely lies with the draft itself. Rue, unfortunately, repeats this issue with a neckline that is so wide, it is basically an off the shoulder design. The bodice seaming, which would make sense if used below the bust as a shaping feature, is visually jarring hitting so near the apex. And the sleeves seem incredibly constrictive, probably due to a bizarrely-shaped armhole.
Sarai, Colette’s founder, is short-waisted and wears a wide neckline well. It takes no great leap of logic to realise that Colette patterns are drafted to fit her body. And, true to form, her plaid Rue is the only one I have seen so far that comes close to fitting its wearer. It is so dramatically different to the other Rues, including the Colette samples, that I suspect the pattern has been significantly altered to look good on Sarai. Her claim that the good fit was due to the fabric stretching, with only a minor FBA made, doesn’t quite wash.
There is nothing wrong with an accomplished seamstress altering a pattern to fit her body. But it seems disingenuous to promote a pattern using a sewn sample which is not representative of what would be created using the pattern as-is.
This is not the first time I’ve taken issue with Colette Patterns. My Clover pants were a disaster, mainly due to the strange drafting. As you can see above, compared to other pants, the Clovers have a dramatic hip curve and unusual crotch – straight at the front, janky at the back. As Fashion Incubator illustrates, a straight crotch curve is a one-way ticket to camel toe.
Below is an illustration of how the wild hip curve works on someone who doesn’t have much weight in that area. Mum and I are about the same size, but different shapes: I carry my weight in my hip (high and low) and she carries hers in her waist. (Note that I altered the pattern slightly in the crotch and added an elastic waist.)
And just to prove we are the same size, and a well-drafted garment can fit us equally as well:
I had to turn the light way up to see any detail, and the quality is truly potato, but you get the picture.
I don’t mean to single out Colette in this post, and I do truly admire Sarai, both as a businesswoman and designer. Crotch issues are a recurring meme in the world of indie designers. The muslin I made of Striped Swallow Design’s Coachella Shorts was one safety pin away from a nappy. The near-symmetrical crotch curve caused bubbling in the front, and a wedgie in the back. (See 7 Pine Design’s review for how to fix this issue.)
What is truly sad about poorly-drafted patterns is that they can zap the confidence of beginner sewists by making them think they are at fault, rather than the pattern. The number of blog posts I have seen where the writer bemoans their inability to fit their clothes while using a pattern that was clearly not drafted for a human body is depressing. Reading pattern testers for Rue blame their lack of skill for the fact that they can’t move their arms in the dress, or fit their boobs in the bodice, is disheartening. The number of sewists who couldn’t make Tilly & The Buttons Bettine Dress fit was less due to their sewing, and more due to the fact that the front and back pieces of the dress were exactly the same.
Even I have been put off by a fight with a bad pattern – Megan Nielsen’s Brumby Skirt managed to body shame me (by making the XL far, far smaller than my Aus size 12 waist); make me feel crazy because I couldn’t fit the pattern pieces on my fabric, which was a good 1.2m longer than the requirements; and to top it off, the metal zip which was mandated in the instructions fell open due to its weight on the also-specified lightweight fashion fabric.
Imagine how a beginner sewist feels when they sew something from a pattern that all their peers have promised is the Best Pattern Ever, only to find it looks like shit warmed up on them. It would be extremely discouraging, and I hate to think of how many potential sewists have been turned off sewing forever by a badly drafted pattern.
Ultimately, sewing patterns have to be body-shaped to fit well. This isn’t an easy task – pattern makers study for years to develop the skills of drafting a well-fitted pattern. I have the utmost respect for pattern makers and the hard work they put in to create something which looks effortlessly simple. Not coincidentally, it is pattern companies that are founded by those trained in the fashion industry which have reliable reputations: Jen of Grainline Studio studied fashion design and worked as a patternmaker for clothing labels, including her own. Style Arc patterns have a philosophy based on industry pattern design, as does Pattern Fantastique, and before she left Sewaholic Patterns, Tasia had worked in fashion production. Others, such as Jenny Rushmore’s Cashmerette, are run by blogging stars but hire professional pattern makers to realise their designs.
So don’t read this as a polemic against all indie pattern companies. I’ve sewn, and loved, plenty of indie patterns. Many sewists craft their dream wardrobes entirely from them. There are many, many badly drafted patterns out there – some indie, some not. I just feel some patterns more than others have been spared analysis by a critical eye.
The most egregious case of brand loyalty gone too far is By Hand London. They built up their company selling vintage-style party dress patterns before deciding to branch out into custom fabric printing. Despite only being in operation for 2 years, they opened a Kickstarter to raise the £35,000 needed for their project. They raised just over their goal, at £37,033, by promising custom prints and a curated gallery of ready-made designs. Their fabric range launched November 2014, and by April next year, BHL announced the printing business was not viable, and they were unable to fulfil all Kickstarter rewards. It seems truly bizarre that a company that had only just started to earn enough to pay salaries and rent, and still found themselves running losses, thought they were in a financial position to start a new enterprise like fabric printing. I guess that was the point: they weren’t in a financial position to do so, hence the Kickstarter. Their fans could pay their business expenses instead of them.
If I was a Kickstarter backer for BHL, I would feel cheated – especially those poor chumps who pledged over £100 (32, according to Kickstarter). Yes, the nature of Kickstart campaigns is intrinsically uncertain, but I feel the team at BHL played on the goodwill of their customers with this campaign. The admission that they basically had no idea what they were doing, then realised they didn’t even have enough capital to print paper patterns, suggests that the campaign should never have been started. I can’t see Simplicity patterns frittering away nearly £30,000 of their fan’s money.
And as for the dreaded Big 4 patterns? I understand some criticism, such as producing out-of-date designs, including excessive ease, and not having easily accessible PDF patterns. There is a fair argument to be made that they do not adequately cater for plus size sewists, as after a certain size range, the grading gets really funky (such as armholes down to the wearer’s waist). But as for their behemoth reputation, McCall’s only employs 80 people – not many when you consider they publish over 700 patterns each year. They are also collaborating more and more with big names in blogging, blurring the line further between independent designs and big name companies.
Wait for Part II, where I finally put my psyc degree into practice.
UPDATE: Part II is published!
*There is whole other argument to be made about the systemic devaluing of what is traditionally considered “women’s work,” but that’s a topic for another post.