(Quiz-time: what’s wrong with this picture? Answer at bottom)
PDF file sewing patterns are one of the very few remaining NON-RETURNABLE purchases in today’s society, the last bastion of caveat emptor (“buyer beware”). There are lemon laws for cars, you can send back a restaurant meal, people bring back empty disposable-aluminum pie tins to grocery stores to demand a full refund because their family doesn’t like Key Lime Pie ( even though they ate it…).
You can open a paper pattern envelope in a fabric store and see how it’s drafted before you decide to buy it. You can return a paper pattern bought on most websites (usually with a restocking fee). But somehow “a pdf file by it’s very nature is protected by law” as they say on every pattern listing. I have no idea what this law actually states, do you? I’ve spent hours searching for it, and can’t find a thing. Sometimes I wonder if it’s like the “laws” that say you cannot return intimate apparel. Turns out that you can indeed return them, the law only states that the retailer cannot re-SELL them. Big difference. Anyway, as it stands, you cannot “by law” return a pdf sewing pattern. Even if it’s terrible. (Although I did get my money back once…see end of blog for details)
Since you can’t see what you’re buying before you pay for it, and you can’t return it if it’s a lemon, how can you be an informed consumer? You are dependent upon 3 things:
- The photos and description given by the pattern designer
- The reputation of the designer (and your previous purchases: as they say in the restaurant business, “You’re only as good as the last meal you served”.
- Reviews by people who’ve tried the pattern
So pattern reviews are fairly important then, right? I appreciate the online Pattern Review sites and Facebook groups whose members voluntarily share their experiences with pdf sewing patterns. How else can sewers know what a pattern will actually sew up like, when it’s on a “real person”(not the model) and sewn by a “real person”(not the designer)? And yet, reviews aren’t as informative as I wish they were. Something’s missing.
(What’s wrong? Different shaped armscye between sizes)
Pattern reviews tend to be written on the ends of the spectrum:
SUBJECTIVE: feelings, opinions, personal taste (the Fashion Design aspect): usually describes the finished project outcome
OBJECTIVE: factual, measurable, provable, yes/no (the Pattern Engineering aspect): usually describes the sewing process
Subjective pattern reviews abound in personal sewing blogs, and are in large majority positive (nobody wants to be a Mean Girl), and report the outcome of the finished sewn project. They tend to report things like “I liked it, my child liked it, my husband liked it” or “Isn’t the fabric pretty? I love the color/print/texture”. The photos are useful, as they SHOW things the reporter doesn’t verbally SAY (and honestly may not realize), such as fit issues: tight or gaping armscyes/sleeves/necklines…. stress lines towards the armscye or crotch…. off-grain hanging. Generally you’ll get more “real life” information from amateur photos than from the ones on the pdf itself which “may” be staged (pinned in the back to fix hang problems) and might be professionally edited. Of course you as a consumer must take into account that everyone’s body is different, so every garment will fit differently…and the fabric choice makes an enormous difference. Still, the photos are useful, and probably MORE useful than a superficial “I like it!” review. So “thank you” to all the lovelies who share their photos, congratulations on finishing your project, and yes you DO look beautiful.
(On a side note: when pattern TESTERS write subjective reviews, that’s a bit tricky. Since testers are chosen by the indie patternmaker, what they report about their experience with that pattern, usually at or right before pattern launch, is a direct reflection of the patternmaker. I wonder if this puts the testers in a difficult position: given their relationship to the patternmaker, can they truly be “objective” (truthful) about the “subjective” (opinion)?
The biggest pattern review site is PatternReview. with over 300,000 members and 115,570 pattern reviews The reviews here are also not as useful as I’d like, because they also are overly subjective….and overwhelmingly positive. (I get it, who wants to show the not-so-successful projects? Believe me, we’ll all made them.) ) What do these comments say, that the pdf photo doesn’t already show?
“it’s functional, yet stylish!”…..“this pattern is breathtakingly beautiful/gorgeous ”
“fashionistas/trendsetters will love this”….“wear this on your next date night/brunch”.
“pair it with a strappy heel/cute clutch” …“my new uniform/fave/go-to”
Other reviews on this site go on and on about fabric choices; interesting but that’s very much personal taste and has not much to do with the pattern itself. Sometimes the reviews will say “the neckline was too wide” or “the sleeve length wasn’t right on me” but truthfully I can see that from the photo, plus that’s so unique to your body. But again, I honestly do appreciate the photos, and I love your enthusiasm!
(Problem? Length grading does not match measurement chart)
Objective reviews tend to report the nitty-gritty of how the pdf is set up, or how the instruction sheets are written; they refer more to the process than the outcome:
Are the pattern pieces marked with the name of the patternmaker/pattern?
Are the sizes layered? Are the size lines in color or B/W?
Are there spec illustrations of the variations? Is the download simple?
Are the instructions done with photos or line drawings?
Are there too many sheets to print and tape?
Are there measure charts for rectangular shapes, or pattern pieces?
If any of these are deal-breakers for you, this is highly relevant information. Other people may be more interested in the instructions, which is entire topic to itself. We are all at different levels of sewing, we all process information differently (visual learner/auditory learner/hands-on learner). This is why the explosion in pdf patterns is AWESOME. Especially for people who never had the pleasure of sewing from a Simplicity pattern n Home Economics class, and find the Big Four instruction sheets a nightmare, the new pdf patterns are a blessing, no doubt about it. There is something for everyone! Which is yet another reason that reviews are so important to the sewing community: we all kind of know what’s going to be inside that pattern envelope at JoJo’s. We really are “flying blind” when purchasing online. For a non-returnable product.
For me, those details listed above are no big deal. I might prefer one way or the other, but for me, they are superficial as compared to the Big Picture, which is the PATTERN PIECES. What I want to know in pattern reviews is this:
Are the pattern pieces walked? (Do the seam lengths line up in all sizes)
Are they trued? (Are the edges smooth after closing darts and connecting seams)
Are they graded correctly in length? (Do they match basic industry standards, critical in childrenswear)
Are they graded correctly in width? (Does the finished garment match the size chart in the pattern instructions)
Are the curves Frenched? (Do the armscye, neckline, crotch have a smooth shape?)
Are there grainlines? (Will you know how to place the pattern pieces on the fabric?)
Are there notches? (Where are the pieces supposed to be connected to each other?)
(Does this look right? Necklines have completely different proportions between sizes)
Why aren’t these things reviewed/reported?
Most likely because a new sewer won’t recognize that these things are missing. And how would she be expected to? If you started out by using rectangle-shape patterns, making twirls skirts and pillowcases dresses, you may never have seen notches, and you’ve never needed grainlines because as long as you cut the rectangles on the straight of fabric, you’re golden! And I am NOT disparaging simple garment patterns: my first “non-doll-clothes” project was a raglan-sleeve peasant-dress, and I was super-proud! Although I’m fairly sure my grandmother insisted that I mark those sleeve-notches…..
But also because many sewers don’t yet know that these things will help you. It breaks my heart to hear new sewers say they must not have sewn something right, or they may not be good at this, when 9 times out of 10 if there are issues, it’s because of the pattern, not the stitcher. Every garment factory manager will back me up on this. Trust.
So I’ve been pondering these things for a while, trying to figure out why I feel vaguely disappointed when reading pattern reviews, wanting more detailed information, when my friend Alesia said:
“A review is and should be a critique, not just a summarization of a pattern’s description, options and what the seamstress likes about the pattern. “
That’s exactly it! What’s missing is CRITIQUE. Let me explain:
The SUBJECTIVE reviews tell “what the seamstress likes about the pattern”.
The OBJECTIVE reviews tend to be “summarization of a pattern’s description”.
Neither of these is what we really need to know when “blindly” buying a pdf: what we need is a CRITIQUE: What would you change? What would have worked better? Were there kinks to work out? What was unclear about the pattern?
(The issue here? Hemline not trued at side-seam)
What’s the difference between Review and Critique?
“Review” is a casual personal opinion.
“Critique” is an analytical judgement.
I totally understand that many people are afraid of “critique”, for 2 reasons : it sounds mean-spirited, and it’s not so simple to do (unless it’s your job: restaurant critic, movie critic, etc….the rest of us aren’t trained to do this!)
“Critique sounds so negative!” It sounds like “criticism”, which most people interpret as “expressing disapproval”. Again, nobody wants to be a Mean Girl! But anybody who’s ever been to art or design school knows that critique does not equal criticism. Critique is a much more all-inclusive thoughtful evaluation of the qualities and merits of a design. Trust me, if the patternmaker has finished design school, she’s been through hundreds of classroom critiques! “Critique” means an entire class session, maybe 4 to 6 hours, devoted to evaluation of each others’ work. You learn how helpful and necessary it is, for anyone in a subjective area such as design, because otherwise you could not survive in that profession. Professors will tell you “If you don’t like Critique class, go major in math”. Critique is not about being “mean”. It’s about being honest, and helpful.
“But”, you say, “I never went to design school, I could never do that!”
I totally get that. It feels weird. But as you move forward with your own sewing, you will learn more about patterns, and you’ll learn to recognize which aspects of patterns are important TO YOU. That’s when you’ll see The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and you’ll want to let others know what you wish YOU’D known before you bought that pattern. Even better, you’ll be able to share the little tweaks you figured out, to move that pattern from “just okay” to “a keeper!”
(Problem? Chest measurements not graded enough to match size chart)
Critique is not simple, because it requires analysis, which takes much more effort than expressing a casual opinion.
How much easier is it to say “It’s cute and fast and easy” ….than to dig deep…and then have the guts to honestly express what you’ve found. Just saying “It’s cute” is useless if I can already SEE it’s cute. And saying “It’s fast” is fine, but exactly why is it fast? Does that mean there are few pattern pieces, or that the pieces are drafted so well that they line up perfectly and therefore go together without any fuss? Is it “easy” because the instructions use “down and dirty” techniques, or because the explanations and illustrations are written well, so that you can’t make mistakes and you don’t have to un-stitch and start all over?
A review can say “It fits well” but I can see that from the photo. A critique says “It fits exactly according to the measure chart given. There is 2” of ease in a size four.” A review might say “It was long” while a critique could explain “the size 2 that I made for my daughter was way below her knees yet the size 5 that I made for her cousin is above her knee, so there might be an issue with the length grading”.
(Smallest size has scoop-neck; largest size has squared neck)
What do you think? Should pattern REVIEWS include CRITIQUE?
Would you feel comfortable letting people know about problems you found in a pattern? Would it make you feel better knowing that you are helping people make informed shopping decisions?
Story of the pdf pattern I returned:
The first pdf pattern I ever bought was a total disappointment. It was Whimsy Couture’s “Marshmallow” circular puffy dog-bed, and the photo showed an intricate design of swirled fleece. I was so intrigued and wondered how the pattern was drafted! Turns out it was a plain old round pillow, and the photographer had done that napkin stack twist to make it look cute. They’ve since changed the photo now so it doesn’t show the fancy twist. The photo was fraudulent, and I think in cases of fraud, you should get your money back. Which I did. (PS: they still call it “reversible”, I thought that meant you could turn it inside out. Nope, they mean you can flip it over when the top gets dirty.)
Ready for the quiz answer?
Size 7 has a LONGER side-seam than size 8. Size 5 has a LONGER side-seam than size 6. Sizes 3 and 4 have the SAME side-seam length. Size 6-12 months has a side-seam so tiny that when you sew the bodice front-to-back, then attach to gathered skirt front-to-back, that’s 4 fabric layers, when you press it up it’s 8 layers, now you stitch bodice lining front-to-back, now stitch the bodice to lining at the armscye, fold down the facing, now you have 4 more layers there, so that’s 12 layers total, except the side-seam is only 1″ and you’ve lost 1/2′ with the armscye seam allowance plus 1/2″ from the skirt-to-bodice seam allowance, which leaves you zero sideseam and 12 layers that need to be squooshed in there. Which is of course impossible. And the armscyes all have different shapes between every size.