In Defense of the “Big Four”…Maybe

 So I was reading this post from Zoe of So Zo… and was going to comment, but then I realized that what I was thinking about was actually more of a posting of its own, rather off-topic from her post, but I’ve got to give her credit for making me think. I started wondering about the indie pattern companies she mentioned, many of which seem to be fairly new companies. I know I have some older patterns from indie companies, what ever happened to them.

Let me tell you about my experiences as a much younger seamstress when I acquired my first indie patterns. When I was somewhere between12 and 15, which means sometime in the early- to mid-’90’s, I went with my mom to my first sewing expo. Lots of fun stuff to look at, and I had my allowance money ready to spend. Do you think I could get some customer service? Not at all. I was generally overlooked, or worse, given some patronizing looks and or words from those offering their wares, including some indie pattern designers. Yes, I realized I was young, and probably looked younger. I was an obvious nerd, very shy, and probably didn’t seem like I had any money to spend (I did, not a lot, but there was some). Thinking that it was my own fault for trying to step outside my sphere, I didn’t particularly hold it against them. Fast forward a few years, and I’m still the youngest person at the expos (ok, I didn’t take a poll, but the middle-aged definitely outnumbered those under 20) and I did buy some indie patterns. I even used them and they turned out just like they were supposed to. What’s more, I still have them. But the reason I bought the patterns had less to do with liking the company offering them, and more about them having patterns that I didn’t seem to be able to find in the big 4’s collections. and I still couldn’t avoid the feeling that I was being talked down to by many of those offering them. At that point, it was safer to buy a big 4 pattern. If they were impersonal, that was ok, at least they weren’t judging.

The indie pattern companies today, at least what appear to be the most popular ones to be blogged about, tend to be very welcoming to those in the sewing community, and also fairly young. (Is this just my perception being older now?) The other thing that the currently popular indie companies seem to have a good awareness of is that not everyone trying to use their patterns grew up having someone in their life to teach them the basics of sewing. I get the impression that this was not the situation 15+ years ago.

Electronic media and communications have changed a lot since the 1990’s. I looked at one of my indie patterns today after reading Zoe’s post and realized there is no website or e-mail listed on it. I guess it makes sense. E-mail was a relatively new innovation and not everyone had access. Consumers weren’t that comfortable with on-line shopping. Pages took forever to load. The ability to hear about what someone else’s experience had been with a particular indie company was pretty limited, so it could be a total gamble to buy from an unknown company.

The quality of the instructions/packaging has changed too. The indie patterns I was looking at today show certain signs of being a homemade product. They came in an unmarked thin plastic bag. There was a floral bordered paper as the front of the pattern with the pattern name printed on it, and the instructions inside are a combination of type-written words and what appear to be hand-drawn instructions. There are no photos, and the pages of instructions are stapled together at the top right corner. The pattern itself is printed on medium weight paper and designed to be traced off. All in all, its actually pretty good for its time. Being classic lingerie, the designs have stood the test of time. I just might have to make one up again. Being curious, I had to look up the company to see if it was still around. Here’s the site I found. It is definitely the same company with the same patterns as the three I bought years ago and for the record, as I recall, I think part of the reason I bought multiple patterns from this designer is that got the impression that she was more puzzled by my age than she was feeling a need to be grandmotherly. I will say that I didn’t try to order or e-mail from that site, so I have no idea if it is actually active or not.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that I am really inspired by the current independent pattern companies out there. Colette comes first to mind, since those are the most recent indie patterns I have bought. There are others that I have on a wish list, a Sewaholic Lonsdale would be fun to sew next summer, and I am really looking forward to Tiramisu by Cake Patterns. Also, that vest/cami pattern that Zoe offers would be the perfect way to make a couple of shirts I don’t wear but can’t get rid of into something I’ll reach for when getting dressed. There’s others, but for time’s sake, we won’t go there now.


I’m not going to decry the “big 4” either. Yes, they are corporations. Yes, it can be impersonal to use them. But in their defense, they supposedly have standard sizing (so one should be able to learn the usual alterations needed and not have to reinvent the wheel with each pattern, at least in theory), they try to keep their offerings fresh (though mostly mainstream), and have re-released several actual vintage patterns (with updates in sizing that may not always be successful, but still). No, they don’t always walk through each and every step in their instructions. They do have some serious gaps in their collections (especially mens/boys wear). No company is perfect. I can see the beginnings of the “big 4” reaching out to try to fill some of the gaps though. Gertie’s new collaboration with Butterick is one example of the larger company trying to make a connection. This Simplicity pattern I recently used is another; though it was a simple top, the instructions went on and on in great detail about what to do, when, and why.

In short: Indie pattern companies have come a long way in a short time and I’m happy to support them. Just don’t expect me to completely write off the comfortable “big 4” any time soon.

7 Comments

  1. Zoe

    Ah that's rubbish the way you were treated when you were younger. I have always found those sewing expos pretty clique-y. Glad it didn't put you off getting further into sewing clothing xx

    Reply
  2. punkmik

    I am glad to read another position on this as I have also posted a little brain storm on the subject. I feel that we are already moving away from mass market consumerism by making our own things. But then how far can you move away from it. only buy indie patterns, then what fabric do we choose? What are the guidelines there, and buttons and notions? It never ends. I just think we should be proud that we are making our own clothes and express ourselves whithin our own means.

    Reply
  3. Nothy Lane

    I think, at least recently, Simplicity is the most easy to use of the Big 4. I know what you mean about being talked down to by some of the smaller, independent designers. It is an awful experience to have and it is stupid for these young business people to do because it hurts their business. Yet I run into it more often than I care to admit. The most successful of the independent pattern designers don't do that. And it is important not to paint with too wide a brush and blame many or all for the faults of a few…

    Reply
  4. StephC

    I think the sewing "establishment" is trying very very very hard to gain a little more "cred" by slapping the names of indies (Lisette for Simplicity) or bloggers (gertie) on their pattern envelopes, but the problems they have is they don't serve their customers very well. It's deeper than a name change or a blogger endorsement. For example, I understand that the test sewing studios for the big 4 use industrial sewing machines of the type their customers would not normally have access to. That makes sense… :PI hear you about the condescension… I've been sewing since I was a very young girl, and have felt that "shut out" feeling of not being taken seriously for as long as I can remember. I generally put up with it with as good humor as I can muster, even when it's someone twice my age telling me how to do a technique the wrong way… I think to a certain extent older women kind of push younger women around as their right.. Not everyone, and maybe not consciously but I think that's just the way things are.Thanks for the shout-out! 🙂 I'm really wanting to make Lonsdale this summer, too… I'm already keeping an eye out for a nice crisp batik for it..

    Reply
  5. Carolyn

    I've been waiting for someone to point out that the big groups might just be using indie/blogger collaborations as a marketing opportunity. Not that I blame them…or the indies/bloggers who collaborate with them. You're right though, having those collaborations probably won't change very much (if anything) about their overall structure and operations.

    Reply
  6. Jen O

    You've got me laughing here: as an 'older' fashion sewist (not a quilter) I personally feel 'shut out' by the younger sewists! How is that? Well, I've noticed more than once a snarl of disdain when I enter an indie fabric, knitting or sewing shop. So, why don't we all agree to drop the agism, it's not serving anyone, and get down to sharing, talking and helping each other out with our projects. Be open to ANY one, male/female of any age. Invite them all to your meet-ups/gatherings/and store parties. We have alot to learn from each other (and maybe let's drop the 'its not your grandmother's sewing' phrase from the planet too). By our example we can show that it works.

    Reply
  7. Carolyn

    Hear! Hear! It was my grandmother (an amazing fashion seamstress who is also very much into a variety of craft projects) who got me interested in going to sewing expos by way of my mom (also quite the seamstress, but not so much into crafting). Don't even get me started on the inclusion of boys/men in sewing…I've got plans for an upcoming post on it.

    Reply

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