Collaboration – The Way Forward?


Whilst making the St Clements Cambie dress, my mind was buzzing – not only with thoughts about the process and tips to share, but musings about pattern production in 2012 and moving forwards.

The sewing online community is fabulously healthy, supportive and engaged. It’s a power to be reckoned with. At the same time, new, independent pattern makers (often bloggers themselves – certainly no coincidence) seem to be thriving and are enthusiastically supported by Creatives eager for fresh material to engage with.

One of the first things bloggers do after working from a new pattern is share FREE information. In the blink of an eye a pattern gains word-of-mouth traction, we know its pros and cons, see myriad variations in real life makes (no unrealistic line drawings or staged photo shoots here) and enjoy the privilege of gratis tips, tutorials, short cuts and warnings. Except we don’t see this as our privilege any more – we expect it.

At some point the line between producer and consumer became really blurred.

So, here’s my question. If you were to produce a line of sewing patterns, would you factor the online community into your business plan? (This isn’t a loaded question – hell freezes over before I go down that particular path.) But as someone with a career in publishing, I’m absolutely intrigued by this wind of change.

I’ve seen some bloggers comment on the brevity of Sewaholic‘s printed pattern instructions. For myself, I’ve never had a problem with the printed material and I am certainly in awe of Tasia’s exhaustive sewalongs to date. (I know she’s stepping back from that particular rich vein of workaholism, and I don’t blame her!) But if you were faced with the harsh overheads of producing paper patterns, would you keep your printed instructions brief, knowing that bloggers would undoubtedly fill in the gaps – and then some? Or that you could produce supplementary material yourself in a blog post for free? If 50 extra printed words could explode a business model, should the canny pattern producer leave those words out and work collaboratively with her readership and blogger fan base? If that was my money and my future and I had faith in my fan base? Hell, yeah!

Of course, you need said fan base in the first place to pursue this strategy, and it’s a potentially risky one – if the word on the online street becomes that your pattern is unreliable, there’s no reprint that can erase that! But I think all of this throws up some really interesting questions about publishing, production, collaboration and engagement. The faceless corporation and the meekly-led shopper don’t seem to be the picture any more – the old way is being replaced by something much more exciting.

I don’t know. Muddled thoughts. What do you think?

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30 Responses to Collaboration – The Way Forward?

  1. Leah says:

    I like what Oliver+S do; their instructions are detailed and one of the things that people rave about with the patterns, but at the same time they have a forum with sub-forums for the discussion of each pattern so that sewists can seek advice/share experience. Also I like that they actively look out for sewists who have remixed their patterns in some way and invite them in to blog about it. As you said, it’s about collaboration and engagement.

  2. Joanne says:

    Great food for thought. It very much reminds me of the revolution in social media and web content a couple of years ago. Suddenly comments, forums, blogs etc became ‘content’ in their own right and journalists and traditional content providers simply had to acknowledge and encourage this at the risk of falling behind. The independent and innovative pattern designers like Colette and Sewaholic are leading the way with really proactive campaigns behind each pattern release, but the big 4? Well I guess they just let us get on with it… which is maybe why you’re less likely to see their patterns buzzing round the blogosphere with such affection. Absolutely agree that collaboration and engagement is the only way forward.

  3. I had to create a business plan for my MBA and guess what kind of business I wrote about? pattern making… During the market survey what came higher was quality. In that the design pattern must be of high quality and easy to sew even if its not a beginners item. Instructions are very important for most sewers so I wouldn’t sacrifice that. 2 of the big four have a separate publishing company and their cost are extremely competitive the only issue is that would work well for the US mkt but the importation costs would turn the cost uncompetitive. I also research publishing companies in the UK and very feel would print with competitive rates, making the digital form the most effective. I personally don’t like digital but if the was is made right Im sure I would be try it. I feel that as any consumer product there are a smaller percentage of ‘innovators’ that would engage faster specially because the sewing community is so supportive but to make business sense the product need to meet market demands.

  4. Tracy says:

    I think perhaps we are in danger of only preaching to the converted – those of us who comment on blogs, post on the forums and even, when they can arsed, write their own blogs – we already know about that great community out there. What about that 13 year old who pops into a sewing shop for the first time and picks up a pattern and wants to create something special. I was sewing for about a year (only a couple of years ago) before I found that community out there – cutting back on those instructions would have made life difficult for me.

    That said (a fence sitter I will always be!) – I can understand the sheer expense of creating those detailed instructions must mean they become a tempting overhead for a small business to cut out. I’ve always wondered why nobody has gone down the route of including a DVD instead of an instruction booklet – surely burning a DVD is cheaper than a print run these days? Have printable pdf files of the basic instructions and film a series of YouTube length videos. It would work for me.

  5. Roobeedoo says:

    Maybe I have a rosy view, but I would be surprised if many people start sewing with a pattern from a small independent designer, because they can be quite tricky to track down. So they have probably cut their sewing teeth on the Big 4 or with a sewing book of some sort. And I definitely feel the Big Firms are the ones who should be improving their instructions, because it really IS their business to do so! I highly recommend Pattern Runway instructions for the balance between clarity / brevity / online support and contemporary feel – simple A4 print-it-yourself sheets is the way to go, I reckon!

  6. Kerry says:

    I think Colette Pattern have it pretty well sussed. By providing some free patterns and lots of free inspiration /tutorials on how to alter and customise their patterns they give their range a longevity that none of the major pattern companies manage. Plus Colette (and other similar companies) who encourage sewers to share their makes online then use the ‘consumer’ to provide inspiration to others. I know I have purchased patterns after seeing great makes by fellow bloggers, after not being impressed by the initial styling of the pattern by the company.

  7. Food for thought, indeed. I confess to rarely (no, not never) buying new patterns. I tend to use and reuse and re-reuse the few I already have, adjusting and adapting where/when I see necessary. They were all commercial patterns at the outset but by now they’ve become mine. You’ve made me think about whether or not any of their instructions have been confusing and I don’t remember if they were. It helps, I suppose, that I have had sewing instructions (back in the days when we still had treadle machines at home and school, as well as a stretch sewing course about 18 years ago, which seems quite recent!) and the patterns I use either draw on existing know-how or use techniques that were clearly explained during a lesson.

    I’m not an adventurous sewist and my few forays into newer patterns have quite scared me off becoming so, because some of my biggest sewing disasters have been with patterns that everyone else seems to love. Ergo, the problem is obviously mine but so long as I can wrangle what I have to get results that are near enough to what I want, then clearly I wouldn’t be looking at the quality of instruction on patterns I’m unlikely to buy/use. Online is a great way to find tips that help with adjusting existing patterns (or so I find).

    My biggest pattern needs are not knowing how to put things together – what I sew is generally easy enough to put together, or I can figure it out from the instructions – but knowing how to make adjustments so that the finished article fits (this is probably why I’m a committed stretch-fabric user). That, I think, is not so much the province of patterns as other sorts of instruction fora.

  8. I have been sewing seriously (ie. obsessively!) for about a year and I credit Tasia’s amazing tutorials for teaching me how to sew. Thanks to her detailed online instructions I can sew up most patterns, including those by the big 4 that often have heinous instructions, because I have learnt so many techniques from Sewaholic patterns. She has her website listed on the pattern envelope, so it is not very difficult to track her tutorials down. I also love Colette patterns because their instructions are great. I don’t think it matters if the instructions on the paper pattern are thin if they are supported with a detailed online tutorial – there’s no way I would have made a really great Minoru without Tasia’s online assistance!

  9. Roisin says:

    This is really interesting, Karen. I’m surprised that some people think that Tasia’s instructions are brief – to me, they seem really clear and no nonsense. I like Colette’s method of providing a glossary at the back of the pattern so that you can refer to it, rather than the instructions being exhaustive in the detail. As Roo says, I think the Big 4 could work on their instructions – not because they aren’t detailed enough, but because they’re not as clear and to follow as they could be. For example, my recent make of Simplicity 2444 was a bit irritating – not because the pattern had lots of new techniques, but because the instructions were ALL OVER THE PLACE. It was really annoying!

    Kerry makes a really good point as well about the sustainability of the model – I don’t like the styling on the cover of 2444 and I probably would have passed over the pattern if I hadn’t seen it on other bloggers. Colette Patterns are so clever about working with the consumer to build a community, making their patterns both desirable and accessible.

    So, no new thoughts to add, sorry – but an interesting conversation to take part in anyway 🙂

  10. Sophia says:

    This is a really interesting topic and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately since starting classes at my local college’s fashion design school.

    The subject is not black and white, that’s for sure. There’s still the need for a “physical” presence in stores and with pattern instructions to account for those who just don’t know about the online sewing community or don’t have access to a computer or internet to learn about the online sewing community. Also, sometimes having a store “tell” you which patterns are available is easier than searching online. Just because the content is there, doesn’t mean it’s easy to find. However, having an online presence is crucial now just to “seem” professional in this new era. Also, any savvy business person will take advantage of the free buzz that comes with comments, shares, tweets, etc.

    Although the Big 4 are starting to create an online presence, it’s obviously not their top priority. But why should it be? They have the money and the man power to produce tons of new patterns each season and get them advertised and displayed in big box stores everywhere. The independent sewing companies don’t have this luxury and thus have to utilize free online services and create an online persona to make their business viable. The pro to this is, in the end, people love the independent sewing companies because you get to “know” them, you can interact with them, you can email the CEO directly if you choose. This creates a lasting loyalty that the Big 4 probably will never attain.

  11. piakdy says:

    We of the internet generation take free resources for granted and now expect everyone to provide the same level of interactivity. For free no less.

    I work in the web industry and lots of clients are from the pre-internet age. They have difficulty understanding how best to harness the power of online community. And web agencies that they rely on do not come cheap. Nor do they have the web expertise to hire and manage individuals or volunteers.

    When you factor in the cost to the Big 4 for their current pattern development process (at least $40,000 per design), and the fact that a lot of us don’t buy their patterns at the full price, I’m not surprise that even the Big 4 don’t have the money to develop a better online presence and relationship with the sewing community.

    Independents that started out as bloggers are better able to exploit online. But I’d expect their resources to be limited. So online collaboration is definitely the way to go. Share the burden, share the reward.

    Also, many patterns seem like variation of the same thing. Do you really need detailed sewing instruction for every single one? Wouldn’t it be better instead to just get a few good sewing books (or online tutorials for the internet generation)? I look to pattern instructions for tips about anything out of the ordinary. I wouldn’t want to wade through volumes of the same basic steps. And some of us have preferred ways of dealing with the same steps. Instructions can’t cater for that.

    Of course some patterns are weird enough that I would need assembly instruction & tips. Like all those weird Donna Karan Vogue patterns. One wrong move and you might be stuck with ugly unfinished seams! }:-)

    In short, be thankful for those who share online, and publishers who aren’t over-zealous about their copyright (unlike much of the music & movie industry). These are acts of charity not to be taken for granted.

  12. LinB says:

    Well, I went online for expanded explanations of how to replace the electronic switch on my hot water heater — the printed instructions that came with the replacement were nearly incomprehensible to me, and the drawings were fuzzy. Most appliance manuals list a website for consumers to access additional information. Why not print brief, cogent instructions in a sewing pattern, and also offer the opportunity for customers to go to your website/blog space for more detail? Marketing has changed, and is still rapidly evolving, since the advent of affordable personal computers in the late 1970s-early1980s. Why should not your marketing strategy change to meet current practice?

  13. mblow says:

    I was at a knitting guild meeting a few months ago, and during “Show ‘n Tell” a member held up a beautiful shawl and exclaimed, “I actually PAID for this pattern!” I worry about the cost of collaboration for independent designers. The web is full of wonderful, detailed information about sewing techniques and patterns that how does anyone find a way to justify a fee for their work? How does an independent designer make a living? This has been bothering me for a while, as I left my corporate job and want to work as a sewing teacher, seamstress, and even a (small production) designer. And then I see all of the free resources available online and wonder how I can possibly make a contribution and make a living? I’m not knocking this bounty of riches – I use them all the time. But it is a dilemma. Like the other commenters here, I am so glad you introduced the topic.
    PS. I think the Big 4 have such a problem with clear instructions because they aren’t sewing up the designs properly. A lot of the construction techniques they use, or try to explain, aren’t good sewing practice.

  14. I’m noticing one negative thing about all the online help that is available – some people just want more and more hand-holding. A completely fictious example – Person A posts a photo of a badly fitting dress muslin on a forum and asks what’s wrong (good use of forum). Person B replies that it looks as though the dress may need a sway back adjustment. Does person A (1) now go to the forum search or google and type in “sway back adjustment” and find loads of information for themselves or (2) ask in the same thread exactly how to do a sway back adjustment?

    I’m noticing more and more of option (2). If person A was asking to be pointed to good resources for the adjustment, then great – but they often tend to ask for full instructions. I’m not saying that it’s bad to ask questions – if questions weren’t asked then the answers wouldn’t already be out there for other people to find – but at least see whether or not the question has been asked and answered a bajillion times before asking it again.

  15. This is probably a ridiculous thought, but it is the first to come into my mind. I know some small pattern makers are now offering a downloadable version. For some, this is not the best choice and so like a printed pattern. I am one of those. I realize that sometimes the instructions are brief. I especially see this when I am helping a novice complete one of these patterns. It is a problem. So, my solution. For those who like a paper printed pattern, make available on line for download, a complete set of instructions. I don’t mind printing instructions, I just can’t be bothered printing the pattern and taping together and worrying that I printed it at the right size. This way, costs are cut for the producer and the consumer will have complete instructions.

  16. Andrea says:

    Yes, it seems it would be impossible to be successful as a small independent pattern company if you didn’t have much of an online presence or an intentional collaboration with bloggers. Can you be successful as ANY start-up business right now without those things? But especially sewing patterns, it’s such a unique product that caters to a relatively small niche of people who must possess certain skills and equipment to make use of it. Where else can you reach these people if you can’t jump and down outside of fabric stores waving your arms?

    It’s clear that our beloved pattern companies have taken the approach of blogger-collaboration and it works. Just today, Colette Patterns announced that Casey (you know, blogger Casey) will be contributing to their blog on a weekly basis. Get those bloggers on your side! It’s actually a pretty fascinating marketing tool, because bloggers practically gobble up opportunities to pattern test and promote your product if it means more exposure for their own sites. What’s interesting, though, is that Amy Butler designs are ALL FREAKIN’ OVER the blogosphere and are wildly popular, but Amy herself doesn’t run her own blog. Maybe because she began as a bag company and established a wide following for her business before there was even such thing as a sewing blogger community.

    I’m not sure that it’s Tasia’s intention to skimp on instructions just so she can add content to her blog later for free. And with Colette and Megan Nielsen’s patterns, the instructions come in sturdy little booklets with 20 pages of big drawings — that can’t be cheap!!

    The “Big 4” (they’re not 4 anymore, are they?) may be a little late to the online party, so they should just thank their lucky stars for But even they have been approaching bloggers lately — remember when Tilly, Sunni and some others all recently blogged about a new vintage-style Simplicity dress pattern they were asked to make? Someone out there in commercial patternland must be keeping watch of the sewing blog community if they’re aware of who has the widest readership. Perhaps we’ll be seeing more of that in the near future.

  17. I’ll admit I’ve only made Renfrew, not exactly the most complicated Sewaholic pattern, but I found the directions were enough. To me, pictures are worth more than the words because it’s easier for my brain to grasp what they mean with a visual reference. If she can keep a picture and leave out an extra 20 words, I’d take the picture every time.

    If I was an independent pattern maker, on line would have to be part of the plan, I’d say the back bone of getting it started. For Colette or Sewaholic, why not leverage the audience you have? The ripple effect from them is powerful. Getting distributions through fabric stores must be an uphill battle. All those sewalongs really help the newer sewers who need the hand holding. As mentioned by someone else, the real challenge is for people to find independents.

    Consider Lekala, where the patterns are cheap to download but the directions are brutal. Even the ones that have been translated from Russian to English are hard to comprehend. Still, the few patterns I’ve made from Lekala went together well and I’ve made more than once. I just knew going in that I was going to have to do a little more thinking on construction becasuse they weren’t doing the thinking for me.

  18. Lauren says:

    I never thought Tasia’s instructions were skimpy. I think she has a really great way of explaining herself through her drawings & diagrams, so extra words aren’t really necessary with her instructions. Of course, I’m not a beginner sewer by any means so I don’t really need the instructions much to begin with.

    The thing that bothered me the most about her sewalongs was when some of the comments on her blog got a bit pissy when she announced she wasn’t going to be hosting them as much. I mean, really?! Get a damn sewing book & figure it out for yourself – Tasia is NOT obligated to hold your hand during the entire duration of sewing an (admittedly quite simple) pattern. Ohhh that made me so mad on her behalf.

    • I think one of the real challenges of engaging with your audience is what I’d politely call ‘managing expectations’!

    • Cat says:

      But then you, Lauren, posted some amazing tips on your own blog and suddenly we got to learn from someone else, too! I loved that you did that. Thank you.

  19. I *love* the online sewing community… like you said, it’s so interactive and supportive. I think that the online community element of companies like Colette really make the patterns… I am much, much more inclined to buy from them because I feel a connection with them through the blog and website, and they seem so very accessible if you have a problem or a question. And, I know that any thing I make from one of their patterns will have a huge wealth of information to back it. It’s very reassuring, and I usually don’t need any instructions with a pattern to make it. I can imagine if I was a new sewer, it would be like going into something with an already established group to back you up. I think that taking the online community into account would be a very smart move. It promotes togetherness.

  20. Meris says:

    When I started sewing, the wordy instructions (and illustrations) in Simplicity patterns still confused me and I went straight to Youtube, Google search, and my sewing book to figure out what it meant from time to time.
    It could be interesting to have bloggers/independent pattern designers create a forum page for each pattern that is full of tips submitted by users and other bloggers. I am thinking this could be particularly useful for those who are new to the blog and online community.

  21. Maddie says:

    What a great question! I know it’s sad to say or admit but the future is online. Just look at newspapers and magazines. Yes, if I were an independent patternmaker, I would factor printed patterns into my business plan but I would focus more on the online/printadable/downloadable patterns.

  22. rosyragpatch says:

    I have just ordered Minoru (I am so looking forward to it arriving). I had seen it on your blog and a few others and admired the results. Finally, I was persuaded to get it by Me-Made-May participants who recommended it. I think anyone producing a pattern line should factor in the power of the blogs – detailed instructions aren’t so important when makers have seen other versions, how-tos etc. Most beginners probably don’t start with independent pattern lines so the instructions shouldn’t be too much of a worry.

  23. MrsC says:

    Being able to read pattern reviews online is SUCH a big bonus! It allowed me recently to troubleshoot an emergency make I only had three hours for, for example. And we send our beginners sewing class online to read reviews before purchasing their first pattern. Such a rich resource.
    It occurs to me that there are two very simple compromises here (they may even happen already!) – to ensure the url/s and instruction/suggestions to go there is on the pattern envelope, so a noob will know where to go to find out more stuff, and maybe have a downloadable pdf supplementary set of instructions. I reckon that a designer making patterns probably has their favourite/preferred way to do stuff like finish seams and set in zips, and a set of A4 dls about such techniques would really cut down on the printing.
    This is absolutely a technical writer’s biggest issue in terms of useability, how much user knowledge can or should you assume? The classic example is a manual for a brain surgeon. Say the hospital issues an ops manual for their neurosurgeons. It wouldn’t say stuff like “Make sure your scalpel is nice and sharp. Now cut into the bit just above the patient’s nose” etc. It would say stuff like, ” XYZ hospital uses ICD10 protocols and you can find supplies on Level 3 room 5, fill in the 345x form” kind of thing. Because you can assume they know how to operate and all that, but need to know about the way they work in this particular hospital. So where does the pattern maker draw the line? I am in awe of how well the pattern makers do in this regard already, but then I am not a noob. But having tried to write instructions for patterns, it is a mind bender all right!
    The downside to relying on online, user supplementary info is that you have no control over its quality. I’ve read some mind bogglingly bad online user advice about patterns, stuff that would have the follower of it binning their project, or looking like Beck Homecky. This happens with software too! Except usually it means crashing a PC that can be rebooted. That’s the trouble with sewing, real fabric is harmed in the following of the advice! So I would be ensuring there is enough real, source of origin ratified advice and material available online if it were me. 🙂

  24. Sarah says:

    Part of the problem is less to do with the pattern instructions, but the way people actually learn. It’s difficult to cater to all different learning styles easily. What has made the online sewing community so strong is there is such a variety of resources for people to access. If you learn best from videos, someone will have made one. If written instructions work brilliantly for you then you may not ever venture onto tutorials. For those who need an interactive class environment Craftsy is a brilliant place to learn. What might seem obvious to anyone here can be baffling to a learner.

    I nearly quit when learning to sew as my machine was awful (or so I thought), but I never realised that my sewing skills and machine weren’t awful…I’d never changed the needle. Such a simple thing makes a huge difference to your sewing but obviously wasn’t in my pattern instructions.

    This is where many indie pattern designers get it right. The pattern is just that, a pattern. If you need extra info or direction or inspiration, it’s there if you need it. And most likely someone else will have translated that into your learning style. We just need to encourage new people to the online community to be able to find it. Ready thread Sew made a good point about helping new people. If someone asks for help, why not direct them to an established answer or how to find it, and encourage them to be able to teach themselves?

  25. Sewing Princess says:

    Interesting question! I believe that at some point as a pattern designer you have to draw the line. You need to get an idea of the target user and cater your instructions to that. Certainly I would factor in the possibility of expanding information online…in many countries the reach of independent patterns is too low compared to the big four so people will probably know you just because of the online. May I say that perhaps the level of instructions you expect also depends on the country/culture you are from? I also think that at some point as a seamstress you need to know how to assemble a pattern so instructions are not as necessary anymore. Recently I have been working on an instruction-less pattern and though for some steps I would have appreciated some tips…full-blown instructions were really not necessary…maybe the instruction detail could change depending on the difficulty. And…sometimes all you need are tips and best sewing order.

  26. Lydia says:

    What always bothered me about ‘big 4’ patterns is there is no statement of intention lurking behind the instructions. What I mean my this is that they do not explain why there are using one method over another (same shape of skirt, fabric, order, but completely different instruction). I realize a technique can alter a look or vary in a diferent fabric, but in many cases the ‘final product’ reads the same. II ask myself, why did I bother to do this, when it made little or no difference to the drape, look, construction? Why not offer a flow chart system — for example, after an instruction and or image for joining lining to garment — link the ways you can do this, rather than select one — this would increase sewing skills, but take into account different makes (for lace,this method A) may work, for silks, try method B) link for C) if you want to finish faster…). This way, instructions, knowledge base, and new learning can take place together. (On a sidenote — sometimes I have torn my hair out over instructions I could not fathom, and my husband who has a science background can figure them out. I suppose we all learn and ‘see’ things differently!)

    What I think is that over time, sewists develop their own ‘order of operations’ for assembling a pattern. and maybe we should just trust ourselves to assemble something in a way that works best. In many ways sewing a garment is much like an engineer designing a machine — there are many ways to make the parts work together, some may be more efficient than others, but still yeild the same resutls.

  27. Elisabeth says:

    If I were to start a similar business, I think I’d make the online community part of my business plan in two ways. The first would be marketing. Having people make up your patterns and blog about it is a lot of free advertising. Also, seeing patterns made up and modeled on people with my body type encourages me to buy the pattern. Finally, yes, the myriad sewalongs also encourage me to buy the pattern, especially since I am something of a newbie. I have more confidence about taking on something challenging if I know there’s a sewalong archived on someone’s blog.

    I would also count on being able to put up supplementary information on the internet. I’m not sure I would necessarily count on other people to provide it, though, unless I was confident of their abilities (don’t want someone getting turned off by someone else’s bad instructions). In cell/molecular bio scientific journals, it is practically a given that online supplementary information will accompany the print version of your article (movies, data on controls, and more detailed methods), and I would expect that a lot of the nonfiction printing industry is moving toward this model.

    Finally, I think the discussion about online “free” content is an important one, exactly because people tend to *expect* free tutorials, patterns, and the like and that content is not at all free to the producer because at the minimum, it takes time to produce such things. Frankly, I think it’s beyond rude to expect such things, particularly from people who depend upon it for their livelihood. I’m terribly grateful that there is free content available, but I certainly don’t *expect* it from anyone.

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