Good morning kittens!
Yep, I’m caffeinatin’ and ruminatin’, so bear with me. I also heard tell that it annoys the hell out of one person when I use the word “kittens” so here it is. Kittens kittens kittens! Oh, I am so evil. Bad Ann. But I’m in a mischievous mood today, and really, there is no harm in an affectionate moniker for readers, and it is affectionate. So there you go.
On to the matter at hand. I’ve been having a lively and fun email discussion with some sewing friends about pattern instructions. We’ve all been frustrated recently by instructions that have left something to be desired. So I got thinking; why is it so hard to write good pattern instructions? It’s not any one company, either. It seems to be an area of pain for everyone, large or small. I recently made a dress from a Big Four pattern company whose instructions were so frustrating that, after finishing the dress, I tore them to shreds and stuffed them into the trash. On a public forum, one pattern company took such a thorough drubbing about their instructions that the whole thread had to be shut down. In another garment I made recently, I took one look at the instructions, started to go slightly cross eyed, then tossed them aside and made it my own way.
Anyone who has experience as a technical writer will tell you that writing instructions is not easy, and it takes a completely different skill set to write instructions than it does to design and create a pattern. I used to work for a company called Information Mapping that sold a whole lot of consulting and books on how to document things and write instructions. They made a lot of money teaching engineers how to document their work and transfer their knowledge.
Part, but not all, of the problem is that some of the pattern companies act more like printing companies. I once asked the head of development for a very large pattern company why their patterns didn’t have more tips for users in them. I was comparing their patterns which had “tips for sewing success” to another pattern line, which I consider the gold standard for in-depth instructions. The answer was, “Our pattern instruction sheets are 4 pages. Period. They will never be more than that.” The gold standard had something like 12 pages of instructions.
Another problem is that sewing is very visual. Traditional patterns have line drawings which are helpful to an extent, but in some cases are useless or even unintentionally misleading. Certain things that require three dimensional construction and visualization can’t be drawn clearly in two dimensions.
One proposed solution in my email group was for pattern companies to just eliminate instructions altogether. Of course, the problem with that is two-fold: first, it would discourage many beginning sewists. Second, instructions are an integral selling point to patterns. I know of one company that doesn’t print any instructions, and they are a niche player because of it. Their patterns are among the highest fashion and best drafted out there. But the lack of instructions is an immediate turn-off to some sewists.
So what’s the solution? It could be any number of things. I think pattern manufacturing needs to evolve from prior-century printed material to a multi-media approach. YouTube, blogs and the internet have been a boon that sewing companies can exploit. Color photography of individual steps is very helpful and an improvement over line drawings. And you can put color photos on the web at minimal cost compared with printing. Online video is another great tool. There are lots of great videos out there that show how-tos. And the beauty of videos is that they demonstrate the process, not just individual images of individual steps. Can pattern companies do this for every pattern? Probably not immediately, but eventually perhaps.
Before I close out, I just want to make one point (and please don’t think I’m scolding – I’m not). Notice that I haven’t used any names. Please don’t use this post as a place to air dissatisfaction with any particular companies. I won’t publish comments that do.
So how do you think pattern companies could improve their instructions?
Okay, I’ll name one name. The gold standard to me is Claire Shaeffer’s patterns for Vogue patterns. I may not always go for her styles, but her instructions are absolutely the best out there, and I buy all her patterns just so I can study them. They are a class in an envelope.