The way people learn versus pattern instructions

As part of SewCrankys giveaway, I received some sewing patterns through the decades, and also a singer sewing reference guide, which has provided some interesting thoughts about pattern instructions.

Doing beginner sewing patterns such as Heidi and Finn and Oliver and S has been a revelation, as these are clearly designed for absolute beginners and teach you the skills while you are sewing the pattern.

The instructions for the 1963 suit are quite interesting as they have a similar brevity to modern commercial instructions, but also ask you to refer to your techniques guide.  Learning how to sew and interpreting a pattern were two separate and distinct skills.  The Singer book teaches you different ways to hem, insert zips and attach buttons, with a test at the end of each chapter.

Decades ago, girls were taught basic sewing and machine skills, and how to read and interpret a sewing pattern at school.  These days sadly it’s usually an elective (if offered at all) as it is perceived to be inherently sexist to teach girls domestic skills.  Personally I think it makes more sense to teach girls as we have harder bodies to dress but then again as a teenager I failed dismally at “Home economics”.

Newcomers to sewing nowadays often have no foundation skills for sewing, and thus struggle with even beginner sewing patterns.  Without understanding their sewing machines (and the need for different materials/threads/stitches for varying fabrics) the results can be discouraging.  Coupled with a generational shift toward wanting immediate gratification, more people are leaning toward learning the skills as they sew.

So what does this mean for patternmakers?  It’s really interesting to see how different patternmakers have approached this.

  • Comprehensive instructions that use detailed diagrams and explicit written directions
  • Traditional pattern with supplementary instruction via sew-a-longs/or blog posts
  • Online courses with set patterns to teach you the skills while sewing a garment

The additional difficulty is that unless you’re sewing with knits, you’re most likely going to encounter fitting issues, so learning to sew with woven fabrics, even if the garment comes out with a perfect finish, it could look terrible on.

The really interesting thing is the amazing community that shares knowledge across the internet.  If there is anything you want to know, someone will have done it and blogged it before you.  It’s fantastic, but it does have the normal internet perils.  Just like reading parenting information on the internet, just because it worked for one person doesn’t mean it will work for you, but keep looking and you eventually find the people with similar views/opinions/methods/fit issues.

So if you had your time again, how would you learn to sew?

On a side note : If you want to read about how the Japanese approach sewing patterns, check out 3 Hours Past who is about to launch her own pattern line, and check out the design features of her first pattern Tiramisu.    I can just tell I’m going to live in that dress come summer!


11 thoughts on “The way people learn versus pattern instructions

  1. Excellent post. I’ll never forget the first Oliver +S or Colette I sewed. Also picked up quite a few handy tidbits from Amy Butler.

    Thanks for the link!

    • I’ve never tried an Amy Butler, the prints always have overwhelmed me a little! The details are just so useful in Oliver + S in particular – I wish they just did more quick practical items in their range.

  2. Such a pertinent post! When I first started sewing, I muddled my way through a modern New Look pattern, but had to read the directions upwards of twenty times to make sense of it. Eventually I just ignored the printed instructions that came with commercial patterns and turned to the sewing community. About a year into sewing, I came across a vintage Simplicity sewing book and it was like my eyes were opened! I read the whole thing and wondered why such instructional books were no longer widely available. Now I have a whole collection that I refer to regularly. Honestly, though, I don’t know if I would choose to relearn sewing another way — I feel more ownership of my sewing *because* I had to cobble it together. When I learn something myself, I have the pleasure and pride of having to figure it out, and my brain does love a challenge!

    • Thanks for your comment! Yeah, I am starting to collect a whole range of technical books- but I’m borrowing them from my local library now to ‘trial’ them before I buy 🙂

      It’s like beginners making bags, you need so much haby they can be overwhelming for a ‘simple’ project!

  3. Learning to sew again? I’d be less stubborn.

    My mother is an awesome seamstress, but learning from her always resulted in ‘the clash of the titans’. If I had to take it from the start, I’d bite my tongue and hear what she had to say. I’d also start with simple projects, not velvet frock coats.

    Thanks for discussing pattern design in our digital age. I’ve started drafting patterns for other others, and your post summed up the information angle nicely.

  4. I’ve been pondering this post over the past few days, keeping it ‘unread’ in Google reader until I chivvied my thoughts into order. I was lucky in that my mother taught me to sew with love and attention to detail, as a teenager I read Threads magazines and worked with Vogue patterns mainly. I sewed for a living for a while and that sped me up and made me figure out producing repeated items quickly. All before the internet explosion we have today.

    Coming back to sewing as a regular thing I’m constantly stunned by the sewalongs and quality tutorials out there. I think if I was beginning sewer today I’d be looking for a face to face teacher so that they can show me immediately a way of approaching something. I think trying to learn purely online or from books would be so tricky for me. Quality pattern instructions like Sewaholic and Colette are fabulous. The online tutes such as Sherry’s at Pattern-Scissors-Cloth make it possible to grab a foreign language pattern magazine and ignore the instructions.

    • Using a teacher is probably the best method you’re right – the learning curve is huge. The concept of haberdashery is overwhelming, fabric, cutting out…how beginner ever make it to construction is a miracle really!

  5. I like the way I learned (am learning), more or less.
    I learned the very basics from my mom, whose knowledge of sewing is probably very basic, but thus probably also easier to pass on. I learned some other things from pattern instructions; but considering the widely available patterns here in the Czech Republic are Burda, renowned for their sparse instruction style, it was not much – I rather learned, by looking at the pattern layouts, how patterns went together in general.
    I learn most of the rest from the internet. And the internet community I learn from truly is amazing. My beginnings of true sewing hit somewhere around the time of BurdaStyle’s enthusiastic launch, so it was great. Mistakes were made, but that enthusiasm (now long dissolved in the giant that BurdaStyle has become, but going on in the blogosphere) still burns in me; it was what convinced me that sewing, honest-to-goodness sewing and not just overall craftiness, was something I could do myself. I just wish I had been more patient and more insistent on a good result rather than a special-occasion-thus-finished-in-a-hurry approach. But then, that’s why some of my crazy overwhelming ideas actually became reality – distorted in the process, but real nonetheless.

    So no, I don’t think I’d change much. My approach of reading up on many sorts of techniques and then applying the one that seems most intuitive to me would not be possible without the internet, or without the sparseness of Burda’s instructions. I would not want to be limited to one teacher’s or one book’s (or perhaps, in your case, one pattern company’s) method, because I like knowing not just “this is how it is done” but also “this is why this is done this way”. When I know the why, I can usually figure out the how myself, even if I forget the specific set of instructions. (This works for me with recipes as well, by the way.)
    This most probably does not work for everyone though. I’m not much of a tutorial-follower, and by extension, not much of a pattern-user either; I became interested in making my own patterns even before I actually started sewing for real…

    • It really does seem to depend on your learning style doesn’t it? There really isn’t anything more satisfying though than looking at something and then making it for yourself! For garments though, I love a good pattern but not always the big 4 pattern companies anymore

      • Yes, my long comment was pretty much a way to say: this is how I learn these things, so that’s why I’m different from some others in this respect. 😀 I love patterns for figuring out how things go together; the different ways things can go together. Which is why I avoid many of them now, because so many of them are just the same pattern over and over, only with seamlines moved and darts pivoted, different skirts attached, and all that based on a basic sloper that most probably does not fit my specifically unique body. But that’s not to say I do not fall in love with the styles!

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