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.