Sewing skipped a generation in my family.
Growing up we didn’t have a sewing machine at home and I never saw my mother sew. The first time I sewed was in Home Economics class in 8th grade. I was terrible at it and got a C- on our final project due to wonky seams on the Bermuda shorts I’d made, but I could tell that sewing was amazing. I asked if I could use some money I received as a Bat Mitzvah gift that year to buy a sewing machine and my parents took me to G-Street Fabrics in Rockville, Maryland to pick one out. I got a Bernette 330, a very basic but well-made machine, and it was with me for 23 years.
For the first 20 of those years I was alone in my efforts to learn to sew. I would try to follow patterns or design something on my own, but without knowledgeable guidance I didn’t get very far. I didn’t even understand how to shop for fabric.
I’m 38 and I know that there are many women my age who have a similar story. Our mother’s didn’t sew because they didn’t have to. When mass-market clothing started being produced outside the United States causing clothing prices to drop dramatically it became more expensive to sew a dress than to buy a dress. My mom was a feminist and a writer. She did many things, but making clothes for me wasn’t one of them.
The sewing pattern business is dominated by two big pattern companies: McCalls (which owns Vogue, Butterick, and Kwik Sew) and Simplicity (which owns New Look). These companies have weathered the changes in garment manufacturing and sewing trends without changing their product much. Pick up a vintage pattern at a rummage sale and you’ll see what I mean. Sizing and style has shifted, but the contents of the envelope are very much the same: model on the front, charts on the back, tissue inside.
All those years I was struggling to learn to sew, standard patterns were a source of intense frustration for me because they assumed knowledge I didn’t have and had no way to access. I wanted to sew, but couldn’t because I didn’t speak the language and had no interpreter.
Sewing is seeing a significant resurgence now. Women (and men) today don’t have to sew, but want to. Sewing connects us with the objects in our lives. It’s practical and creative and, depending on how you swing it, it can still save you money. But most of all, today sewing is a luxury, a way to unwind and to make something that expresses who we are. The new wave of sewists is online, connected with one another, sharing information, and a big part of our connectivity is fueled by independent pattern designers.
A sewing pattern is an ideal thing to publish independently. Self-publishing is so nimble, designers can go from idea to salable product very quickly, staying on top of what's new and exciting. An independent designer doesn't have to appeal to everyone, the way a big pattern companies must, so she can focus on a niche population, giving them just what they desire and doing it terrifically well.
Indie patterns aren’t a new thing, per se (there were independently published patterns available in the 80’s and 90’s), but what is new is that regular customers are able to build relationships with the designers whose work we love.
Every pattern put out by one of major pattern companies is designed by a person, of course, but that person is very hard to access as a consumer. If you have a question, you could call the company’s customer service line, and from what I hear you’ll get a helpful response over the phone, but I can guarantee that the response won’t be from the designer herself. Email an indie designer with a question and you’re very likely to get a personal email back.
Breaking free from the standard pattern envelope, independent pattern designers are recreating the sewing pattern. The most successful indie patterns are much more than just templates and instructions. Many are in effect sewing lessons, chock full of photos, videos, and helpful tips. Instead of assuming you already know, they assume you could use some guidance and happily give it, not only in the pattern but online.
The experience of buying a pattern from an independent designer whose blog you read is similar to buying a piece of art directly from an artist in her studio. You know where the money’s going. You know what’s going on behind the scenes. You are part of the action and part of the community.
Sewing is a luxury now, not a necessity. The process of making something with your hands should feel luxurious. A quiet afternoon spent with beautiful fabrics and thread, and a pattern designed by a woman you feel connected to and guided by, enriches that process and makes it more meaningful. Indie pattern designers make sewing exciting and new again.