Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Five Reasons the Big Four Should be Very Nervous About Indie Pattern Designers

So, you know about Sewing Indie Month, right? If not, the soundbite is: 21 independent sewing pattern designers joining forces to showcase and celebrate their growing numbers and reach.


You can get the whole scoop--including links to the participating indie designers, sew-alongs, contests and prizes--over at Rhonda's Creative Life (among other places), which is where I heard about the event on May 1.

Seeing these companies, who are after all competitors, banding together to build excitement about their niche got me thinking about all the things the indies are doing right--and what that is likely to mean for the future of home sewing.

If I worked at one of the Big Four pattern design houses (Vogue, McCall's Patterns, Butterick and Simplicity) or their subsidiaries (for example, New Look and Kwik Sew), I would be viewing the emergence of so many new options for sewers with growing alarm. Here's why:

Reason #1: Collaboration

As Sewing Indie Month and Perfect Pattern Parcel show, the indies have come up with a clever strategy for leveraging their individually tiny companies against the big guys: by collaborating and supporting one another, they will be able to grow their collective audience exponentially. Rather than going it alone, they are working together to present indie patterns as a new and appealing alternative to traditional sewing pattern options.

Sewing Indie Month even has a contest focused on creating looks from two or more indie companies! If that's not a sign of embracing collaboration, I don't know what is. Wanett of Sown Brooklyn is heading up this contest, so check out her site for more information and inspiration.

Closet Case Files Nettie Bodysuit with By Hand London's Flora Skirt

Reason #2: Community

Just today, the McCall's Pattern Company excitedly posted on Facebook: "We've gone social! Find us on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and, of course, Facebook. We'll talk patterns, sewing, sales, tips and more!" Good timing--if this were 2011. Indies have embraced social media and have built communities of supporters and fans by reaching out to bloggers, establishing active presences across multiple social media sites and encouraging interaction with their brands. From the outside looking in, it seems as though the leadership at the major pattern companies is just now recognizing that using social media effectively is going to take more commitment than assigning Facebook duty to a junior employee in his or her spare time.

Before launching her pattern line, Melissa of FehrTrade was an extremely active member of the online sewing community since 2005


Reason #3: Identity

Indie pattern companies have done a great job creating distinctive identities for their companies. Every aspect of their presentation, from their logos to their websites to the language they use in their blog posts, communicates important information about the personality of the brand and its customers. Understandably, the major pattern companies don't have the luxury of defining themselves so precisely. They use conventional models and well-established graphic customs to present their designs. Their customer must translate that information to get an idea of how a pattern might look on her, rather than on a tall, slender model or in a fashion illustration. Most indies make it easy to see exactly how real people are interpreting and wearing the designs, helping the sewer to quickly understand whether she is their target market.

Colette Patterns has had a strong graphic identity and a distinctive voice from its early days

Reason #4: Support

Indies are really winning in this category, with amazingly detailed, helpful and thorough step-by-step tutorials and sew-alongs. There are so many that it is difficult to single out a few to mention, but these jump immediately to my mind:
The amazing thing about these information resources is how valuable they are as general information. I learned so much from the Carme blouse sew-along, though I'm sure I'll never purchase the pattern (not really my style and out of my budget--but it's lovely!). 


Reason #5: Freebies

With their $1 pattern sales, I ought to feel like the major pattern companies are practically giving away their wares (because that's true), but nothing gives a warm, fuzzy feeling like a free pattern. It's a low-risk way to give a new company a try, and independent pattern companies have created a plethora of versatile, useful free patterns in many different categories. It's clear from my sewing blog feed that these patterns aren't just out there, they are incredibly popular, with enthusiastic reviews of free patterns appearing every day.



Don't get me wrong--both major pattern companies and independents are well-represented in my pattern cabinet, and I admire many aspects of the major pattern companies' offerings, business model and role in the history of home sewing. But I think they need to take a very serious look at the smart ways independents are using the advantages of their small size and direct connection to the active online sewing community to grow and to flourish. It's an exciting time to be a passionate seamstress, and I for one am looking forward to trying out some new indie designers I've discovered as a result of Sewing Indie Month.

17 comments:

  1. I love indie companies so much. The designs and drafting are superior, I love being able to communicate directly with the designers, and the community is simply wonderful. Between Me-Made-May, helping create the Curvy Sewing Collective, and fundraising for a new sewing machine, I'm really feeling that sense of community right now. It's inspiring. The Big 4 by comparison are too out-of-touch with trends, too distant, and too narrow minded. Indies are really interested in creating patterns that fit a wide range of body types, while the Big 4 continue to create shapeless clich├ęd shit for women above a 42 inch bust. Indie love forever. <3

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    1. Love your enthusiasm for the indies, Mary! You totally make them work for you. My idea is that we don't even have to talk or think about design, fit or sizing (pretty important characteristics in sewing patterns for clothing!) to see how the indies are competing effectively with the major companies. You are a fabulous example of a supportive and supported member of the online sewing community!

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  2. I grew up with the Big 4, but as time goes on and their instructions give inferior results and the patterns have inconsistent ease; I am looking at and using more independent patterns. I am just tired of inconsistent results from the Big 4. I do buy and use them, but am always wary and actually anxious when starting a new project with the patterns.

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    1. That is so interesting, Annette, that inconsistency is the bugaboo for you with the Big 4. They should be able to win that battle for sure, since they are working with very established fit standards and instructions. Not saying that they do, however! I don't have enough experience with any one independent company or with the indies as a whole to comment on whether the sewing experience with them gives more or less predictable results. Are there specific indies that you have found very consistent? Would love to know!

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  3. The long list of indie pattern companies cited above does not even include all the many indies that design for children. You can't forget Oliver & S or Made or Made-by-Rae, just to name a couple off the top of my head. Their patterns are trendy yet timeless and each have a wonderful web presence with sew-alongs and tutorials. Plus the garments fit! Just as they do for adults, the Big 4 sizes are ridiculous for kids too. Any young person beginning his or her sewing journey would be wise to start with an indie and learn from their tutorials and sew-alongs. Then perhaps they could handle a Big 4 pattern without undue frustration.

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    1. If only I had some cute little ones to sew for, I'd definitely be trying those patterns! When my son was younger I found Burda envelope patterns quite reliable and nice to sew for him. I have some pajama patterns from the Big 4 for boys, and the sizing on those was definitely all over the map. Great to hear that the indies are providing exciting options and a good sewing experience for kids clothing. Wouldn't it have been great to be able to access all the support and hand-holding the indies are providing to new sewers when we were getting started?

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  4. Excellent post! I agree with your points entirely, by the way. Not only do you create lovely garments, you write very well.

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    1. Gosh, thank you so much! The indies are really impressing me with their business strategy as well as with their actual products!

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  5. You know, this is really interesting. As a novice, I have to trust to the pattern, and it didn't really occur to me that there might be problems with structure, fit and instructions, as mentioned by commenters above. I know all about having to look at the illustrations on the cover with a keen and critical eye to see whether they will work on an actual human body, as opposed to an excessively willowy freak with the legs of a giraffe!
    Since I am just getting started, I am only now becoming aware of how much of a sewing community there is out there, and how much the indie pattern companies contribute to it. My patterns are all vintage and secondhand, but you have inspired me to consider an indie pattern tied in with a sewalong, I think that would really improve my skills. Like a sewing class at home! xxx

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    1. You are great at visualizing the possibilities...and the possible pitfalls! That is obvious already in your sewing.

      Not only are patterns generally quite inconsistent in terms of the quality of their instructions and procedures (meaning, some are really good and some are terrible, and how are you to know without the pain of experiencing the terrible?), but vintage patterns tend to assume a lot of basic knowledge. For example, they might say, "Work buttonholes and attach buttons" with no indications of how far from the garment edge to place the buttonholes or how many to use, or whether the buttonhole should be vertical or horizontal. In this case you would have to know the general rules for buttonhole positioning and placement or at least know to look it up in a reference book!

      But if you are contrary like me (and I suspect that's a possibility!), the challenge of figuring it out on your own is a bit of a thrill!

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  6. I totally agree. I've been sewing for 2 years and I could probably count on my fingers the number of big 4 patterns I have sewn in that time (and most of those are the retro or vintage reprints). The indie pattern companies are real sewists not just business people and understand much better the sort of aesthetic, sizing, ease and instructions a lot of sewists are looking for. Cake patterns are also outstanding on social media with week long sewalongs for new patterns where they give help everyday and lots of tips for knit sewing.

    However credit to the big 4 - they might be late to the social media bandwagon but they are trying. I assume you saw shams at communing with fabric posts about her meetings with vogue? Simplicity in the uk are engaging with bloggers with pattern giveaways and altho mccalls are only just on twitter, they have dived in and got involved with the discussions! So maybe things are changing!

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    1. It will really be interesting to watch to see how the Big 4 respond to the challenge thrown down by the indies! I hope they succeed...and that indies succeed, too...because more options is the best of all worlds for us as sewers. But of course there will be winners and losers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!

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  7. yes, but indies are way, way, way too expensive. The Big Four are not for me but Burda magazine is my greatest beloved. The indies can never catch up with Burda.

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    1. Totally agree that the cost of the indies can be prohibitive. And if I search through my patterns, I can often find a pattern that is exactly the same idea as the latest and greatest indie pattern. I don't get the up-to-date fit and styling of the indie, and I don't get to blog about the shiny new thing everyone else is sewing, but it's hard to justify the expense of the indie pattern when I have virtually the same pattern already.

      Huge counter-example of this idea: the Lady Skater Dress. I hesitated to buy this one for at least a year because I thought, "This is just a t-shirt with a full skirt attached--I have bunches of patterns that could be adapted to this design." But my results didn't bear this out. Bought the pattern and found that it was 100% worth the price, for some magical reason. Truly good drafting is worth the price, but it's hard to know in advance if that's what's being sold.

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  8. I really appreciate it when indies offer a .pdf freebie because I can see how well they tackle economy of layout, registration for ease of assembling in addition to the general sewing instructions. When I do buy indie, I buy digital download if they're cheaper and to avoid postage. My price for any indie stops at around $15, which is where most .pdfs land.
    I also tried the pattern parcel, a great idea to help others and introduce themselves to those of us who had been hesitant.

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    1. Easily, I love how rationally you approach this! Looking back, I'd say $15 is my upper limit, too. The By Hand London designs, and some of the French companies, are more in the $25 range. Not happening. In no way do I think that is not a fair price, or that there is a way to charge less, it's just not in my personal budget.

      Lots of promise in the PDF format as people become more comfortable with it, and another area the Big 4 haven't really exhibited leadership in. Btw, I bought one Lekala PDF pattern and was impressed by it.

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  9. One of the things that I love about indies is that they'll address how to do a fba and other fitting adjustments for a specific pattern. Granted the big 4 produce any more patterns but I feel like they often don't address fitting issues. New sewers are lead to believe that it should just fit out of the envelope.

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