Pattern Companies

This is an essay about my experience with pattern companies; it’s long, and, obviously personal. If you aren’t interested in my thoughts on the subject (which can be strong) I invite you to skip it.

I recently wrote a guest blog series over on SMFabric and Friends, which is hosted by our lovely local fabric maven, Roz. She and I received a lot of questions after that first post – and there are more posts to come!

One of the questions I got several times was which pattern companies I use; I was also asked why I don’t use certain Indie “Curvy” companies. The short answer is I use Big 4 patterns from the five (I know!) main companies: Vogue, McCall’s, Butterick, Kwik Sew and Simplicity.

I know this is a rather “hot” topic, and there is even some debate about using indies vs. big companies; who you are supporting, which business model is better, the social issues around body positivity and inclusion. And certainly, all of these things are important, and I am very happy to see so many companies offering extended sizing, for “curvy” people or not. But leaving all this aside, I use the Big 4 most of the time because they work best for me.

I am a size 20, when using the traditional method of measuring your upper bust (under the armpits and higher up on the chest) to determine your size. And all the patterns I have ever wanted (well, maybe one or two exceptions) have come in that size. Most of the patterns I buy go up to size 22 or 24, and some are even up to 24W, 32W and 44W. Yes, some Big 4 sizes go up that high. Granted, they are precious few and you could get very disheartened trying to make a very full and complete wardrobe from them, but one of those is a swimsuit so perhaps not all is lost. (Sizing and selecting your size is a whole other subject, and I may talk on it at another time.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I have tried many indie patterns over the years, and I am glad that they are there to serve people who are larger and otherwise not at all served by the Big 4. But I have had so many problems with them, I just gave up.

Peeve number one of mine: I hate PDF patterns. If the patterns were sold for $5 or so, it wouldn’t bother me to spend the time, money, paper and ink printing them, taping them, tracing them off. But if I’m paying $15 or $20 or more, I’m not going to print up 50, 80, over 100 pages just to get a pattern – no. Ten pages or less, ten dollars or less, that’s my personal PDF limit!

Alright, that’s very personal so perhaps not a legitimate mark against indie pattern companies. My next one is though: too many times the markings haven’t matched, or lined up, or been listed in the instructions. I’m experienced enough to get around this, but for someone new it might be a problem. And yes, I’ve reported the problems to that company, and while they’ve always been polite, the response is usually some version you must’ve done something wrong. Which I don’t appreciate. Of the dozens of Big 4 patterns I have made over the years, only one has had mis-matched markings, and it was simple pattern so it was easy to figure out.

Concurrent to that are poor instructions; and weird or wrong instructions. Again, I would report this, only to be told I probably did something wrong. Having to take a project apart to repair it is not fun, especially when you’ve been told it’s your fault.

Another problem I have with indie patterns is their lack of proportion. What I mean is, certain design elements are the same size for all sizes in their pattern, even when it goes from 0 to 28. For instance, I was doing a tee shirt once and the pocket was the same size for each pattern size. So what looked like an oversized pocket on their size 0 looked like a mini-pocket on size 28. Yes, I’m an adult and can create my own square for a pocket, but that’s not the point. Another person may not know to do those things, and may have been frustrated at the result.

Another instance of poor proportioning or grading; I tried a tank top once. The shoulder area, what would be the “strap” of the top, from the bottom of the armhole to the shoulder seam, was simply elongated for each size; it was about 4.5 inches for the smallest size (I think a 2) and was over 14 inches long for the largest size, on the front bodice. (Yet the width of the strap was not changed, so bad proportions again.) Well that’s far too long; yes since I’m sewing it I can change it, and maybe it was meant to be a low-cut armhole. But to me it shows they have no concept of sizing or grading (not that I’m an expert); sleeveless garments should have a fairly high-cut armhole to my mind. But I feel they aren’t thinking, and are making the same mistakes that clothing manufacturers do – just making it bigger all over for bigger sizes.

As I understand the principle, the shoulder, that “saddle” that is made up of the armscye and shoulder area, thus the use of an under-bust measurement for size selection, that area doesn’t change that much between sizes, so making widely different sizes for that area is not correct. I could be wrong, but since I almost always have to reduce the shoulder area in indie patterns, I may not be entirely wrong.

In contrast, with Big 4 patterns that have certain details (Simplicity 1460 comes to mind with its scalloped neckline) they are proportioned and graded for, if not each size, then for maybe only two sizes. So instead of a single pattern piece with say, all five sizes, you’ll have three, or even five different pieces.

Speaking of adjustments, I have always have a hard time making adjustments to indie patterns. With a Big 4 pattern, I almost don’t have to make a muslin, just do my FBA, adjust the back waist and I’m within a half inch of a good fit. With indie patterns, it was always a struggle. I would check to see what their cup size was, alter my FBA to accommodate it, and still have to do a further FBA; or shoulder adjustments; reduce the armhole; use a two-piece sleeve; add lots of darts at the waist; yeah, most people who sew have to make these kinds of adjustments anyway – no pattern is perfect! But even with all these adjustments, indie patterns still didn’t look well or fit right. I simply don’t have these struggles with Big 4 patterns.

Another thing about indie patterns – and this is a personal peeve so more salt – they are usually very simple. I mean very. Don’t misunderstand me, we all want a simple pattern sometimes; we need a quick make, or have a fabulous print to play up; or we’re just starting out, or it’s our first pattern of a particular type and too many details will add frustration. And I think for beginner pattern makers, simple is where they’re going to start. But very few seem to graduate to anything more complex. Maybe they’re catering to their market, maybe they don’t want to make more complex patterns; but at some point, I believe a sewer should move forward in their education, experience and ability. Or at least be able to if they want. And this point touches on two other peeves of mine – how we teach sewing and the lack of advanced sewing education – but again, another story for another time. For me, the Big 4 offer a range of styles and levels of complexity; if I want to tackle a challenging project to improve my skills, I can.

But there are good things about indie patterns, as advocates on Pattern Review and other spaces have noted. The first being the size range, and consideration for larger, curvier bodies. Second is PDF’s – they’re available to anyone with an internet connection (just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean they’re wrong.) And they have more and different (some call it better) instructions, as well as lots (lots) of social media support. I think calling indie instructions better than Big 4 is a misunderstanding (yet another story for another time!), but the person making the argument was a much more experienced sewer and teacher than I am, so I defer to their judgement on this one.

Well there we are, my thoughts on sewing patterns – that was long! And if you’re still with me, thank you for reading! Take care and see you at the next post….

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