How “indie” pattern companies, Instagram and the sewing blogosphere are stifling home sewing
Home sewing has come out of the doldrums in the last few years and a new generation is taking up the hobby. However, newcomers are being short changed and confused by a small but highly visible group of pattern designers, fabric retailers and Instagram friendly celebrities.
I learned to sew partly at school, in the now seriously unfashionably named “home economics” and at home, by my mother. At school I learned how not to cut my fingers off with the scissors, and with my mother I learned how to cut corners. When I took it up again in order to make costumes for my daughter, I firstly began by doing what my mother had done: buying small rectangular envelopes with paper patterns in them. The only real difference was that I bought these online, the vast majority of local haberdasheries having closed years ago (the term “haberdasher’s” in North London is now apparently only widely understood as the name of a rather expensive private school). Even the venerable John Lewis sells patterns and dressmaking fabric in only a few locations these days. Sewing is not taught much in school any more and even a simple task like replacing a lost button is either delegated to the local dry cleaner’s, or the garment itself is disposed of.
I was soon drawn into the modern milieu of sewing bloggers: overwhelmingly women, overwhelmingly young, slender, middle class and overwhelmingly white. Whilst I tick a lot of those boxes, I don’t tick them all. Nevertheless the lifestyle they offered was enticing and to my untrained eye it all looked wonderful. The fabrics they used were bright and exciting and the dresses made from their patterns were fun and swishy. I quickly spent more than I should on fabric that on reflection was probably a bad idea.
One pattern company stood out more than any other, about three or four years ago: Colette. They promise “patterns that teach” and felt immediately drawn to their retro aesthetic. I chose several patterns: Laurel, Violet and Dahlia. As you can see, in this world each garment has a cute name rather than the mainstream pattern companies, who use a workaday catalogue number.
These companies are known as “indies” because they are not connected with the larger designers, who are known as the “big four” — McCalls, Vogue (they licence the name from Vogue magazine), Simplicity/New Look and German giant, Burda. These companies churn out a large and regularly updated catalogue and it’s worth noting that most of their output retails at around half the price of the indies.
All three of these garments were a disaster. The Laurel, a very basic shift dress, was too loose in the neck so it sagged and gaped, and very short (even on me, and I’m 5’2”). The Violet was a blouse so enormous that it kept threatening to eat me alive, despite making it in the smallest size, and the Dahlia, well, three attempts and a lot of money wasted on trying to get it to fit later, I gave up entirely. It was both too big and too small and I looked absurd. I was both clearly incompetent, and my body was evidently unsatisfactory in some way because no matter how many adjustments I made, the dresses never came out right.
I also tried another company, By Hand London, who actually refunded me the cost of the pattern I’d bought because I mused on Twitter that the description of the pattern was very twee. Of that sort of behaviour by companies like these, more later.
The Anna dress took another heap of wasted fabric and a lot of attempts before I could get it to fit me. Again, I assumed that there was something wrong with me. After all, there was a panoply of women on Instagram sporting such dresses, duly hashtagged, and they looked OK.
..or did they?
I started to buy Big 4 patterns and they fitted, more or less out of the envelope. How odd. As my skills developed, mostly thanks to the repeated attempts to fit the old patterns, I began to understand something about fit, that rare quality that good garments have. Ever wondered why actors on TV and in movies look so hyper-real? Everything they wear is either made to measure or altered to fit them. Once I learned how to spot bad fit, I saw it everywhere. I saw it on the street, in clothing catalogues, in shops..
..and often in the very places I’d started. Those blogs and Instagram pictures.
With new eyes I saw that I’d been dazzled by interesting, often very expensive fabric (sometimes donated by a fabric store in return for a review) and an attractive person. Colette Patterns emailed me a new design, and I kept staring at it as if it were a Magic Eye picture and at some point it would come into focus and I could understand how great it was. Because to me, it looked like a hospital gown. The same group of bloggers was raving about these strange, badly fitting, boxy dresses. Could it be that the pattern designers were just.. not very good at their jobs?
Not only that, but Colette managed to bring out a pattern that was actually impossible to make up: the infamous Rue dress was shipped with an error in the armscye (arm hole) and for a long time Colette, rather than fix the error, deleted the critical comments and complained instead that women should be supporting each other.
As well as fit, I’d learned a lot about fabric too: about how a poor choice of fabric can spoil an otherwise decent garment. Choose something stiff when the pattern is flowy, or something drapey when it’s structured and the whole thing is ruined. A lot of novices get very excited by what’s known as “quilting cotton”, vivid, exciting prints on woven cotton mostly aimed at the hordes and hordes of quilters who make up the vast majority of sewers and who keep the few existing fabric shops in business. Quilting cotton can be the right choice of fabric for certain things but it is not really intended for garments, does not always survive regular washing and wearing, and some of the prints can look strange and overwhelming on a person. They are, after all, intended to be cut into smaller shapes and mixed in with plain and coordinating fabrics to make quilts.
Because they sell well and are popular, a lot of fabric shops sell them, both in bricks and mortar places, and online. It’s to these shops I now turn.
A beginner who wants to choose fabric usually has two or three choices: the extremely expensive, luxury places found mainly in Berwick Street (Soho), confusing higgledy piggledy “jobber” shops and market stalls in the dodgy part of town with crabby staff and idiosyncratic opening hours, or twee places stacked with friendly (if intimidatingly millennial) staff and lots of brightly coloured fabric in clear displays. Online the choice is fairly similar: it is mainly the twee brigade who have user friendly websites.
The twee contingent charge for fabric by the quarter metre, great for quilters but confusing for amateur dressmakers. This also has the benefit of obfuscating any attempt at price comparison. Their adorable shops usually also run classes, where you must purchase one of their patterns (often by the aforesaid Colette), fabric and spend £100 and a couple of afternoons learning to construct them. Their windows are decorated with dress forms clad in twee quilting cotton dresses, bows and furbelows and their Instagram (“link in profile!!!”) is full of over exposed, over filtered images of strange craft projects like felt door wreaths, zipped pouches and attempts at political needlepoint (“Smash the Patriarchy!”). To enter shops like these is to enter the weird between world of childhood — so many unicorns, on so many things — and adulthood, because none of this stuff is cheap. There is also a tacit pressure to replicate fast fashion with handmade, i.e. to make as many dresses as you like, ideally in a vintage style.
A word about “vintage”. I hate that word. With a few notable exceptions, “vintage” just means a dress with a fitted bodice and full skirt, possibly made in a fabric with cherries on it, or cupcakes. Wear a dress like that, go back to the 1950s, and everyone would think you were crazy. Not only that, but most women in the 1950s had maybe five or six dresses that they would wear until they disintegrated, whether they had bought them or made them.
It is this world that a new sewist must enter, and try to understand. As a beginner, he or she will find lots of hand holding, comradeship, adorable prints, women with purple hair, sailor tattoos and waist cinchers and expensive patterns that sell themselves as simple. If she is a little older, or maybe larger than average, she may feel immediately that she does not fit in, almost literally.
This dressmaking kindergarten may be initially welcoming but woe betide anyone who feels that something is not right: that after spending £13 on a pattern, you should be able to produce a wearable garment without endless fitting; that the pattern designer does not try to get you to pull a critical blog post; that negative or less than glowing comments or forum posts are deleted and that £15 a metre for ordinary printed cotton is not necessarily great value if the stall in Leeds Market sells the same stuff for £8.
It is easy to get disheartened if you spend over £50 on a dress and it looks like a dog’s breakfast, and when you ask the company that sold you the pattern, to be told that it’s your fault, not theirs, that the notches don’t line up or that the armhole is not the right shape. Even if you do master the basics, there is no graduating from the kindergarten: there’s no hand holding if you decide to try tailoring or tricky fabrics.
Sewing is a skill that we have too easily disparaged and devalued — look at the average hourly wage of a textile factory worker in Bangladesh — it’s only through learning about it that we can truly understand how screwed up our garment and fashion industry has become, churning out disposable garments and endless pollution and misery along with them.
There are of course some excellent sewing bloggers whose evident skill in constructing garments, enthusiasm and writing ability mean they are very useful for any beginner: Oonaballoona, Dolly Clackett, Lladybird and Did You Make That. Magazines like Burda have tutorials and patterns backed up with a huge resource in the form of Burda Online, a massive forum where just about any query can be answered. Pattern Review is a venerable forum full of useful pattern reviews, obviously, competitions and a wealth of knowledge ready to be tapped. The Curvy Sewing Collective is a group of plus sized bloggers who have plenty of expertise about altering patterns.