Well, I seem to have set the cat amongst the pigeons a little with my previous post reviewing Vogue 9251. In it I mentioned how I chose this particular pattern over a Sew Over It one. I didn’t say anything detrimental about their Eve dress, I simply chose the Vogue one.
When I posted on Instagram about the new blog I simply commented, “don’t dismiss ‘big 4’ patterns because Vogue have some fantastic designs which fit well and are often fashion-forward”. What I didn’t expect was the number and variety of responses which that provoked. I’d like to try and explore a little more some of those comments here.
When I first learned to dress-make at secondary school the only patterns generally available to me were the big brands, Butterick, Vogue, Simplicity etc. Burda were there too but they were much more challenging because very often you had to trace them off (I’ve never been a tracer, always a cutter-outer) and remember to add your seam allowances. They were frequently more fashion-forward but I think because they are a German brand their styles were ‘a bit weird’ and it wasn’t often to my taste at the time. Their printed patterns now include seam allowance but the magazine still has large sheets which you trace and add the SA to. The designs have improved somewhat too. Vogue patterns were always very much the ‘Rolls Royce’ of the pattern brands and it was always a big deal for me to spend so much money on one (even now I try to buy them when they are on a half price offer) They were often where innovative designs first appeared and then an adapted version would appear later on in Butterick or Simplicity instead. Now a Vogue pattern almost seems cheap compared to indies!
Another source of patterns were free ones provided by post by women’s magazines and newspapers, you’d save up printed vouchers which you posted off and they would then post the pattern back to you. A slow process but actually it didn’t matter much because we weren’t all about instant gratification back then, we were happy to wait because we were getting something for nothing! Some of these patterns were OK, some not so much.
In the early 80’s Prima magazine started giving free patterns included with the magazine. They were the template type we still get today which came on two-sided sheets that you had to trace off and, as a result, they were quite simple designs but they were popular. I was attempting my own pattern cutting by this time before I went to college so these patterns were a springboard to getting me started.
Then dressmaking seemed to fall out of favour and the curriculum all seemed to change at school. There were always a few of us who kept it up, it was how I earned a modest living while my children were small but it became harder and harder to buy nice fabrics at reasonable prices, or haberdashery, and nobody seemed to think it was a worthwhile pastime.
Then, in 2013, the Great British Sewing Bee happened and everything changed. There was always the core of us that had carried on sewing but now a new group were being introduced to it as a hobby and as a means to make the sorts of clothes they wanted to wear. The big pattern companies were still there but for the women who hadn’t been taught dressmaking they were a bit daunting and also a little dull. [I know there are men who sew but, let’s face it, they are the tiny minority] The packaging looked a bit dated and the layout of the instruction sheets inside hasn’t changed in decades. This isn’t a bad thing for those of us who know what we’re doing but to the unfamiliar they can be very confusing and a bit scary. They generally always assume a good level of sewing knowledge before you start so beyond telling you the order of making they don’t always tell you the exact technique or method. The pattern books don’t help themselves because they can look uninspiring with strange fabric choices and not many up-to-date or trend-led styles, or by making it difficult to spot them amongst the dull ones!
I’m not aware there was any such thing as an ‘independent pattern maker’ before about 5 years ago, and if there was then they were well below the radar, but people like Tilly Walnes, who appeared on the first GBSB series and is Tilly & the Buttons, and Lisa Comfort of Sew Over It both started developing their own patterns and began marketing them. Tilly created wearable, simple modern shapes which were beautifully presented and the instructions came in the form of photographs rather than with illustrations. Sew Over It’s aesthetic is vintage-inspired with tea dresses and floaty skirts being more prevalent. Lisa seems to have diversified into a whole lifestyle-thing which I’m quite glad I’m no longer a young mum trying to emulate.
Fast-forward to today and we have masses of new ‘indie’ patterns flooding the market all the time. It seems that everyone who fancies themselves as a designer can have a go at it and create new patterns and clearly some will be considerably better than others. Initially I didn’t go down the indie route because they were usually in the region of £12-£15 or more for a printed pattern, and besides I have a monstrous collection of paper patterns which I’ve acquired over about 40 years! I wasn’t attracted to the new patterns because they were either too simplistic and I could make my own quite frankly, or they were vintage-style which I’m not that into.
I’ve noticed too since making a few indie brand patterns that with some of them if you don’t fit into a certain age or body type then you never get a ‘like’ or a mention if you tag the company in your IG feed. Frankly, if I, my makes and my photos don’t suit your design ideal or aesthetic then I won’t be bothering to tag in future, you need the customers more than they need you and no one likes to feel ignored.
So, where does that leave us today?
The big companies have carried on very largely unchanged for decades and you can usually be sure of a well-drafted product with good instructions (although if you are able to follow them is sometimes an entirely separate issue) The fit of some of these styles isn’t always so good but there’s always going to be some variation according to the style and I’m not saying they are always wrong or right. Let’s face it, we’re dealing with the human body here with all it’s quirks and variations as well as personal taste and style.
I wonder if the fact that, almost without exception, indie pattern styles have names rather than numbers which instantly makes them more memorable? Also, having now succumbed and bought a number of indie patterns I see there’s a wide variety in the form they take and their packaging is definitely part of the appeal. They come in nice packages and they might feature lovely sketches on the cover or fashion shoot-style photos, many come printed on heavy, quality paper and others are on ‘greaseproof’ type paper or even brown wrapping paper, each is trying be unique in what is becoming a crowded market. If you can get yourself in with The Fold Line and an attractive young blogger who will sing your praises then so much the better, guaranteed advertising.
I think that the single biggest difference that the indies have is the availability of downloadable PDFs. We’ve arrived at that very modern phenomenon ‘instant gratification’. You can purchase, download, print, cut, stick, cut out and sew all in one evening if that is what works for you. The PDF is generally a little cheaper [there are free ones too] so you can buy direct from a pattern maker who may live on the other side of the planet if you want to. It’s possible to get them printed at the local print shop too, or by online printers but I’m wondering if that doesn’t defeat the object of not buying a printed version if there is one in the first place? Indies often have a wealth of online tutorials and support which was never possible before. That said, never dismiss a good old text book-the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing (first published in 1978 I think) is an absolute goldmine of information.
In the 4 years or so that I’ve been part of the ‘online’ sewing community I’ve noticed a trend amongst some dressmakers who only appear to use indie patterns and to sing their praises. Is this an inverted form of snobbery? I don’t know but that’s just fine if they are the styles you want make, of course it is, we’re a free country, but a lot of the new styles from some brands are starting to look incredibly ’samey’ and are bringing nothing new to the design table. If you want truly original new styles it seems to me that the Europeans are doing it better, such as Named, Deer and Doe or The Assembly Line.
Some indie patterns are so overly simplistic in the designs they offer that I do wonder why dressmakers are shelling out so much cash for the pattern when they don’t have to. Do they genuinely not realise that there are other, cheaper alternatives?
Don’t get me wrong, there are brands which produce well-drafted, original designs with clear instructions and the designer has worked very hard to put out an excellent quality product but none of the printed versions of these patterns are terribly cheap, many are £20 a pop now (and I’m not saying they shouldn’t be because of course there is a lot of time and effort involved) but, as I return to my original point, don’t dismiss the big companies out of hand because they do still have something to offer, relative cheapness for basics being one of them.
I was particularly saddened, and annoyed, to hear Heather-Lou of Closet Case Patterns say on the Stitchers Brew podcast recently that she thought “you don’t need to take a pattern cutting class” because there are “very few things in life you need to go to school for”. Well thanks a bunch!! I’m so glad that myself and thousands like me took the time to go college to follow our dream and learn how to be pattern cutters because it was obviously a big old waste of time as anyone can do it! In the next breath she says that she now has a professional do her pattern drafting because “she (the pattern cutter) went to school and trained to do it” WTF! I’d enjoyed listening to what she had to say up until that point but that’s plain insensitive and insulting. I know there are some brands, like Maven patterns and The Maker’s Atelier, which have been created by women with years of experience and expertise in the fashion industry but there are other’s who don’t have that.
I could wang on for ages about the benefits and downsides of both types of pattern and in all honesty they will coexist side by side from now on. The big companies have certainly got to stay on their toes and possibly find new and engaging ways to present themselves to be appealing to the burgeoning younger market, but I hate to see newer dressmakers parting with lots of cash for some patterns which are really just a new version of the wheel, the spokes or the tyre may be different but it’s still a wheel none the less.
Part of what we all love about dressmaking is making original, creative clothes that fit and supporting one another in our endeavours, long may that continue. It’s just that we are the customer and always have a choice where we spend our hard-earned money.
All views expressed are my own of course and I dare say many of you won’t agree with me but I know from comments on my IG post that I’m echoing thoughts of others too. I’m not sponsored by any of the brands I’ve mentioned either! I’d be really interested to know what you think about the whole subject too so do please leave a comment.