Indie Pattern Companies or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Big 4, Part II

Welcome back. In Part I, I discussed drafting errors, grafts and crotches in indie patterns. In Part II, I finally utilise my psyc degree for completely useless purposes and share sordid stories of brand loyalty. For those with visual difficulties, there is a GIF at the end of the post.

Indie pattern company lovers: I get the hype, I really do. Being a member of several online communities that have an inclination to cult-like behaviour, I have seen and participated in many trends which were little more than clever marketing campaigns. I have seen knitting lovers fight for the right to purchase $100+ skeins of yarn. On buy swap sell groups, brand lovers will line up to purchase a stained $200 dress, or bid each other upwards of $1000 for a jacket that cost $300 retail. I’ve even sold crotch-stained tights to a diehard Gorman lover.* I’VE SEEN SOME SHIT GUYS.**

Gorman puffer jacket. Height of fashion, or some shit a farmer would wear in the rain?

I first discovered Asian beauty through its subreddit, and quickly became enamoured with its cutesy packaging, bizarre ingredients, and promises of smooth skin. Sheet masks, bee venom, cosmetically elegant sunscreen – I loved it all. One of the most revered products in AB is Benton’s snail bee essence (and associated products). Adherents claim miraculous results such as the elimination of acne and wrinkles, smoother, and brighter skin.

Inspired by tales of marble-smooth skin, I bought my snail bee essence from eBay, and happily slathered it on my face for a few days. Until one day, when I awoke with a huge rash on my face, with my skin the texture of a kitchen sponge (*voms*). Some panicked Googling led me to discover that I was far from alone. What’s worse, is that the AB community was well aware of the issue, but chose to sweep it under the carpet, so as not to disrupt their worship of the Mighty Sneezus, their snail god. (I’m not joking.)

You can see what my skin looked like here, but I really didn’t want to share it with you guys. So here’s a picture of another sponge.

What really happened: Benton sent out contaminated product, which contained insufficient preservative to prevent bacterial growth. Unsuspecting customers slathered it on their faces, leading to mild dermatitis in the least affected, and full-blown skin infections in others. I was incredibly lucky that my skin cleared up in a few weeks, though the feeling of touching the deformed skin on my face will be difficult to forget. Others had infections lasting months, with permanent damage caused to their skin.

Benton was made aware of these reactions immediately, and chose to do nothing. One popular reviewer was doxxed due to her criticism. Eventually, they agreed to a refund, but remain on the defensive regarding their other products.

monorail-full
An artist’s impression of Benton’s business plan. Much in common with BHL.

The danger of hyping small companies with a cult-like fervour is clearly far more than just a few wasted dollars. If companies are not committed to creating a safe product, and their customers do not demand one, then anyone who purchases their product is at risk.

 

When I studied psychology at uni, my favourite subject was social psychology. In particular, I was fascinated by groupthink. If you put a group of people who hold similar views in a room for a few hours, they will come out with their views reinforced, and far more extreme than they were previously. The classic case is the poor decision-making process that went on in George Bush’s war cabinet and led to the invasion of Iraq. An example closer to home is the Cronulla riots.

In 2005, tensions were growing between young Lebanese and white Sydney-siders. A fight between surf-lifesavers and youths of Middle-Eastern descent sparked a flame. Conservative commentator and professional scumbag Alan Jones read a text on air: “Come to Cronulla this weekend to take revenge… get down to North Cronulla to support the Leb and wog bashing day,” and encouraged his listeners to attend (he was later convicted of inciting hatred and racial violence).

Shirtless, aggressive looking young men prepare for a fight.
Courtesy of The Australian. I can’t picture a more dudebro-esque image.

You can see where this is going. Approximately 5,000 white douchebags convened near the North Cronulla beach and spent the morning drinking and chanting “Fuck off wogs,” before assaulting individual passer-bys who looked vaguely Middle Eastern.

What these rioters did was horrendous, and there is no excuse for their behaviour. But it also seems unlikely that the violent acts committed (which including attacking police officers) would have occurred were the offenders not in a huge crowd of people who shared their beliefs. When discussing the issue in class, I was shocked to hear my fellow class mate state he had received the text, and planned on attending the riots but pulled out at the last minute. How could this student, who seemed like your garden-variety, weight pumping dudebro, consider travelling 6 hours to Sydney to “bash wogs”?

 

You might think that selling dodgy sewing patterns is a world away from committing terrible acts of violence, or even knowingly giving someone a skin infection. And you’d be right. But the same psychological force is behind all of these examples – groupthink, the force which, driven by the desire to conform, will make any belief extreme.

Groupthink makes fangirls of us all. I have received a private message on Instagram, informing me that my muslin was so fugly, Heidi Klum herself couldn’t make it look good. After buttering me up, the messenger recommended Christine Hayne’s patterns to me, as she was Our Lady of Perpetual Sewing Success. Patterns for Pirates (not a typo) is another brand which seems to have legions of astroturfers, paid or otherwise. Their recommendations for P4P’s PegLeg Pattern which is so ! Good! guys you have to try THEM!!!!!! are found on every sewing forum.

Two sewing patterns by Christine Haynes. Both look like pillowcase dresses.
Some of the sewing patterns which were “recommended” to me. Yes, really.

It is highly likely that when you see a blogger raving about how the fit from indie patterns is far superior to that from any “big” company, they believe it. The fact that many consumers are willing to pay $20-30 for a pattern which could be purchased from another company for a few dollars is testament to that belief. And the mental gymnastics which accompany that belief are evident when sewists excoriate themselves for fit issues which are the fault of their pattern, not themselves.

I’m not suggesting you ditch all indie patterns and only sew McCall’s – far from it. I am fully aware that many love sewing with indie patterns (myself included), and that is great! If you are happy with your sewing experience and the finished garment, that is all that matters.

What I wish was that patterns were rated on their merits, not their brand. That unscrupulous companies would stop selling rubbish to unsuspecting newbies which only makes them feel bad about their abilities. And that we as a sewing community felt comfortable discussing criticism of patterns, without being hounded as non-believers or afraid of being “too critical.”

Shun the non believer....shunnnnnn

As for me, I’ll stick to my mostly Euro-pattern appetite, with a healthy dose of the Big 4, and some carefully selected indie patterns. I hope that every sewist finds a mix of patterns which is equally as satisfying, doesn’t cost the earth, and most importantly, makes them feel good about their sewing.

A gif of Patrick Star dancing in fishnets
Do you really think I could mention Spongebob without including this gif?

 

*Don’t ask. It wasn’t a weird sex thing, I promise (as far as I know).

**I actually unfollowed a lot of BSS groups as I found the privilege so upsetting. Watching a bunch of women, entirely without self-awareness, scramble over an “essential” garment which costs more than I earn in a month is fucking depressing.

Author: Siobhan S

20 something, living in country Australia. Spoonie profile: ME/CFS, dysautonomia, anxiety. All about sewing, knitting and food. Unapologetic feminist and disability advocate.

22 thoughts on “Indie Pattern Companies or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Big 4, Part II”

  1. So sewing is not something I naturally enjoy but learned well enough to make the odd school dress which back then was cheaper than buying completed garment in a shop. Having read this blog though I now understand a little more about my slight discomfort in most “group” type activities although I’m not exactly a loner either. I’m enjoying your blog Siobhan.

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  2. Once again, another great post Siobhan. To be honest, besides me thinking that you are reading my mind about these ‘indie’ pattern companies, I thought I was becoming a grumpy old lady!! Like the ‘ not happy Jan’ lady.
    Cult following is a part of our being which given time and maturity we can rise above and finally make up our own minds. I have weakened to trends, products etc like everyone else and spent money unwisely and believed BS from our politicians. Fortunately, none of this has harmed me in any way and thes days I am far too cynical and careful. These past mistakes have all been character building and I have learnt a lot from it and as far as pattern companies are concerned, Burda rules!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m actually really glad to have had such a positive response to these posts! I thought I’d be chased with pitchforks. Sometimes it is fun to follow trends and spend a bit of money, but it doesn’t hurt to be cynical about things. I’ve realised a lot of fashion trends look truly dreadful on me and I should just go my own way on things – I used to be made fun of for having such white skin but now I embrace it and wear sunscreen every day. At least I won’t have as many wrinkles as those who made fun of me!

      Agreed, I love Burda! On trend and well drafted.

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  3. I’ve really loved these two posts. I’ve been wondering about people’s sewing abilities, are they aiming for too complicated makes or what? Some might be that, but I think the main reason might just be poor drafting. I’ve bought some indie patterns, and what I love about them is the paper quality and packaging. It’s fun to get something different. I have a BHL Anna dress pattern I’ve yet to sew, so I’ll will be interesting to see if I meet drafting issues when I do. If I do – I bought it mainly because I fell in love with the whole thing, the packaging is beautiful.
    I’m not one to worship just because everybody else does, I don’t understand why people willingly give up their ability to think just to fit in? I guess growing up as an outsider (who back then was desperate to fit in, but was never accepted) has been a good thing in this regard. I don’t mind plotting my own route and am rather weary of all cult like tendencies.

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    1. I think the problem can be the opposite – indie patterns tend to dumb down instead of challenge. But if a pattern is badly drafted, it’s a struggle for anyone to fit it correctly. It’s nice to realise how futile trying to fit in is – it can be so freeing to do things just for yourself!

      I hope the BHL Anna works out for you, you must share it if you make it up.

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      1. That might be it. While there are quite a few who make a lot of brilliant stuff, some leave me seriously unimpressed. And it’s not necessarily the sewist’s fault. Like you say, badly drafted patterns are a struggle to fit.

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  4. I found your blog recently and loved these last two posts. I’m glad to see someone writing critically (but fairly) about indie patterns. I am a self-taught sewist, so it took me a little while to realize that some of the fitting issues I’d been having weren’t actually because I have some kind of weird-shaped body. (What is up with that crazy square Collette crotch curve?? Who is that supposed to fit??? I spent way too much time trying to fix that – my first pair of pants- before I tried a Style Arc pattern and had no fitting issues. I also made the mistake of buying the Tilly Bettine dress, and it needed a lot of changes. Because, you know, my front and back are not the same shape!)
    I also find it disappointing that there just isn’t much innovation among the indies. Everyone is trying to make their own version of the basics. It’s the same old thing over and over… Thank goodness for Style Arc and Bootstrap/Lekala. They’re my best bet for copying the high fashion I can’t afford!

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    1. This is my biggest issue with poorly drafted patterns – they can put beginners off because they can’t yet discern if the fit issue is down to them or the pattern. And really, it is just laziness to release a pattern which is same front and back, especially at such a high price point.

      I agree, Style Arc and Bootstrap/Lekala have some really interesting designs.

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  5. I’ve loved these last two posts! I’ve been sewing for as long as I can remember – back way before there were Indies and everyone went to Cloth World for their patterns and fabric. I’ve definitely felt discouraged by the Big 4 over the years – not knowing until recently they drafted with excess ease and not knowing much about how to fix fit issues (or even how to judge the size by the final garment measurements) – let’s not even get into hold old fashioned and Becky Homecky a lot of their patterns are (but I think they’re getting better!). Indies and sewing blogs have revived my interest in sewing and I definitely buy many more Indie patterns than any from the Big 4. Sometimes that’s because the Indies are more fashion forward, but often just because I SEE more of the Indies made up on Instagram. I can pre-judge a pattern just by seeing it on 100 different bodies and reading 100 different comments. I decide what to sew based on what I like on Instagram – and these days it’s typically Indies. Good or bad. Or Burda – which I can’t fit into. But I think my experience as a sewer is advantageous because I know when to disregard the dubious instructions of an Indie pattern (clip the seams to 1/4″ to reduce bulk? That’s a recipe for a seam blow-out. How about teaching how to grade and clip seams instead?) I guess what it all boils down to is that I’m glad SOMETHING is getting people sewing but I agree that Indies should probably do a better job.

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    1. I know what you mean about seeing patterns made up. I’m not creative at all so it is sometimes hard to envisage how garments will look on my body, and you are right it is so helpful to see lots of other people’s creations to gauge how something will look. And yes it is fantastic that people are getting back into sewing! My concern is that they may be discouraged by failures that aren’t necessarily their fault.

      I don’t know what you mean about clipping to 1/4″ – I sew 1/4″ seams all the time (mostly enclosed) and find it more precise and a great time saver.

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  6. Great follow-up post! In regards to my last comment on your previous post about this, agreed. Yes, there are some Indies that have won my heart. The Sewaholic Hollyburn has been a staple in my sewing room. I’ve tried other Sewaholic patterns with much success as well. I do love Style Arc and have made the Kate wrap a few times and love it. There are other indies that have worked as well. And then I’ve tried indies with little to no success. Yes, if it’s a good pattern then great. But if it’s a bad pattern, feels like we should all sweep it under the rug unless it’s a Big 4!

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    1. Agreed! It should be about judging patterns on their merits, not their branding. A lovely friend recently gave me some silk velvet *swoons* and I’m umming and ahhing about what to do with it – I reckon a Hollyburn might be on the cards.

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  7. So pleased to have found your blog (via a comment on Meg’s Sencha blouse review actually) and I am loving your posts. I agree 100%.

    Personally, I find Big4 patterns consistently better in every way. Some indie patterns I love (Sewaholic is one – consistently good drafting, although I’m not getting my hopes up about the new owners) others just horrify me. I see way more “Becky Homeecky” in indie than I do with the Big4. I never had a problem with excess ease as I always choose my size based on my preferred finished measurements for the finished style, which means I can be anything from a size 6 to a size 12, most often a 10. I measure usually a size 12/14.

    When I first got back into sewing any technique I wasn’t sure of I just googled or watched a you tube video – it’s pretty easy to work out which ones are showing correct technique and which ones are the blind leading the blind by the quality of the finished sample.

    I recently joined a Facebook group and experienced the whole P4p groupthink phenomenon. It was rather bizzare and I had to Google to find out what it was.

    Loving your insightful perspective, it’s always so refreshing.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts! When I started sewing I just used my old friend Google and a copy of Vogue Sewing to figure out techniques. It’s not hard to do, and I really don’t find Big 4 patterns as lacking in instructions as people make out. Honestly when I first bought an indie pattern (Colette Ginger) I was really surprised to find the instructions much the same as any Big 4 pattern, albeit in a nicer package. And sometimes veering too much towards hand-holding can be a bit confusing, if the instructions try to bombard you with information.

      P4P is utterly perplexing to me. Their tech drawings look like lines made in Paint – nothing to do with the style or fit of the garment. And their shills! This is one of the reasons I left the Curvy Sewing Collective on Facebook, you couldn’t read a comment thread without seeing some poor fool pimping their peglegs or whatever.

      Actually I’m glad you commented as I realised I followed your blog but obviously haven’t kept up when you moved, as the posts in my reader are very, very old. Glad to rediscover you!

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  8. I stumbled on your blog recently and I really enjoyed your fair, thorough critique of the indie phenomenon. I’m a relatively new sewer (less than a year) and have amassed a small collection of patterns that’s both indie and Big4. Using both has been great because I’ve not really fallen into either camp – I’ve had more success with a couple of indie brands (Cashmerette, and SBCC, which is run by a professional pattern grader, I love her patterns) but that’s because I’ve just sewn more of them so far. The Big 4’s instructions are fine for me, along with google and a 1970s version of the Simplicity Sewing Book that my mother gave me (some of the fashions are amazingly awful, but the guidance is solid). Thanks for writing, looking forward to reading more of your blog.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed my pieces! It’s nice to have a wide selection of patterns, especially as you start out, as it means you can best assess each source and see what suits your body and style the best. I’ve not heard much about SBCC – it’s interesting that the founder is a professional pattern grader. I think that would make for some very precisely drafted patterns!

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  9. Hi Siobhan! Hopefully this time my computer won’t crash and the comment will save. Anyway, I really enjoyed these two posts. As you know, I’m a relatively new sewer/sewist/seamstress/tailor/whateverthelatestwordis of just over a year. So I suppose I’m precisely the kind of person you’re talking about who might be put off by crappy drafting, thinking it’s them that is at fault. So I can tell you right off, that’s exactly why I very much appreciate this kind of blog post. I have no way sewn enough to have an informed personal opinion on whether the Big 4 or Burda or various indie patterns are better/worse than each other. What I have gathered so far is that different companies draft for different body shapes (some very specifically) and so it can take a bit of trial and error to find one that fits you as closely as possible “out of the packet”. I see a lot of posts about this kind of thing and I think it makes sense, broadly speaking. But you are of course talking mostly about bad drafting, as opposed to just an incompatible body shape, and that you don’t see many posts about. I’ve read allusions to certain patterns being tricky or companies not being good drafters, but it is nice and refreshing to see it laid out here in black and white. “Ahaaa!” I thought to myself as I read your articles. “THAT’S what they were going on about”.

    I can feel this turning into a rambling comment, so just a couple of additional notes from my perspective as a still-newcomer. Firstly, I know very little about fit. I went to a couple of classes where the tutor spent a lot of time showing us the fit of the pattern on different students (body types). EVERY time, I thought “Oh, that looks pretty good!”. Then she would fit it and we’d all be like “OOOoooOOO” like she’d opened the door to an arcane secret of the universe. While I (hope I) can spot camel toe at a hundred paces and can just about tell if my circulation is being slowly cut off by a misjudged waistband, I honestly can’t tell if an armscye is a little off by looking at a pattern, or even at a model version. Obviously I hope to be able to do this as I gain experience, but the truth of the matter is, I often look at indie patterns and think they look nice. Before someone more experienced points out the lop-sided collar, the dodgy dart placement or whatever. And then I make it anyway. 🙂 My point is, I suppose, (yes, there is one) that perhaps this is one reason (or at least one of my reasons) why so many newcomers seem to not be put off too much by the drafting issues – we can’t always see them, even after they’ve been pointed out. So it’s a great education for me to read forums like the Rue one you mentioned in one of your posts.

    One other small addition to this debate is that while I agree with you that the instructions in an indie pattern are not always so much more helpful than a Big 4, I find the associated blogs/websites/etc. much friendlier and more accessible for a novice. I actually tried sewing when I was 14. I used the Usborne Book of Sewing and made a bolero jacket and gathered skirt (it was the late 80s, okay?). Now I know that I was batshit crazy to attempt that as a total novice, but the experience unfortunately made me feel like a dunce and so I gave up sewing. Nowadays I really do think I would have been encouraged into making more sensible choices as a youngster and would have relished all the videos and sewalongs freely available on those kind of sites. The Burda site is a great example of a helpful site as well, but I didn’t discover it for some time, so not sure if that is a typical path or not. Wow, that was long. The patterns that have worked for me best so far have probably been from Liesl & Co., and I have only made one Big 4 outfit (which fit me fine), so I can’t really weigh in any more than that.

    As for the “cult” aspect and popular vote: I’ve definitely noticed it, but I reckon that’s just human nature to be honest. Maybe I’ll be singing a different tune in another year or two, haha. Anyway, keep up the excellent stuff and I look forward to reading more.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! I agree, the online aspect of indie patterns can be a great resource, especially for the beginner sewist. We don’t have any sewing classes around here and it can be very helpful to see how things are done, even if it is just pictures online.

      It can take some trial and error to find what patterns or pattern companies work best for your body – mine is Burda but I know they don’t suit everyone. I really like Liesl + Co patterns and admire Liesl’s business sense and technical skill. Have you tried her range for Simplicity and Butterick, Lisette? They have some really lovely styles.

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  10. I have been thinking about joining Seamwork, so I’ve been doing some research, getting varied opinions & reviews, and stumbled onto this two-part post. I really appreciate your opinions and the way you put it across. As someone who is both plus-size and on a tight budget, Indie patterns are always so out of reach. It sometimes makes me feel down, about my weight, my finances…about a lot of things, really. So it’s nice to see someone putting a good word in for the Big Four. Most of my pattern collection consists of Big Four patterns (bought only when there are ridiculously good sales on.) I also appreciate that info about By Hand London. They always rubbed me wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. But knowing what I know now, I will definitely continue to avoid them. People like that do not need my money.
    As far as the groupthink and mob mentality goes, you are so spot on. There is so much misguided and unworthy brand loyalty out there. I hate seeing people waste their money and time on companies that don’t actually care about them, put out subpar products, harass customers or dissenters, cause people to question themselves, or compromise their morals to stay “in” with a clique. But when that company is “indie”, when we expected better or different from them, it feels even more like a betrayl.

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    1. I’m glad my posts were of some use to you. Indie patterns really aren’t great at catering to a plus size market, unless if they are specifically targeted that way eg Cashmerette. There are definitely criticisms to be made of Big 4 patterns but they are far more inclusive, size-wise, style range, and financially than many smaller companies. Is there a way to purchase just one Seamwork pattern to give them a try before you buy?

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      1. I suppose I could subscribe, pick my patterns, and then unsubscribe. Or even wait until they have the sporadic “2 Patterns for $3” sale (as it is usually $6). I’ve decided to turn my quandry into a challenge. As a way of “stash busting”, I have chosen 8 or so Big Four patterns that I am excited about but have yet to sew up. If I can complete them within the month (currently unemployeed, so I have a lot of free time.) then I will give Seamwork a shot the following month.

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