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Pattern Review: M4M “Isla”

If I had a dollar for every time over the past 4 years that I’ve been asked to copy the dress from this ultra-popular Pinterest photo….well let’s just say I’d be financially comfortable:


From barn weddings to beach weddings…..this has been the “It” dress for years. Trouble is, I don’t copy other designer’s work…I advise customers to  purchase the original “Chloe” dress from Tea Princess.

But then last spring (2016), Made for Mermaids published the Isla pattern for this exact design, line for fine, including the pleated lace detail on the shoulder-straps.  So this adds a twist: Now that anybody can make the Chloe, do I keep turning down orders for it?  After all, the original is still carried in the Tea Princess range. I decided to hold off for a year, still advising customers to buy the original.

Fast-forward to Spring 2017, Chloe is still being manufactured by Tea Princess, but now the Isla is everywhere so my resistance is worn down. My American clients who aren’t going to pay to have the original shipped from Australia, are just going to go to another dressmaker in the U.S..  Besides, I never make a design exactly as the original (for example I would never copy those Tea Princess signature pleated shoulder-straps). So today I printed out M4M “Isla”.

First impression of the paper pattern:  the bodice grading  is jumpy (the grade rule “jumps up and down” between sizes, is inconsistent throughout the range):


See the tiny grade of only 1/8″ (total chest circumference 1/2″) between sizes 2 and 3?  A garment manufacturer (except for bras) would never use a 1/8″ grade between sizes….1/8 is less than industry tolerance (the size specification amount over/under that is acceptable for manufacturing approval)….the finished garments in size 2 and 3 would be essentially identical in fit at the yoke. Why would a pdf pattern be graded to such a small amount?

Here’s how this happens: instead of establishing a consistent grade between sizes, the grades were point-plotted from the size chart (graded on an all-purpose computer program). So since the size chart has a 1 1/2″ jump from size 1 to size 2, but then only a half-inch jump from size 2 to size 3, that’s how the grade was plotted directly on a computer (a half-inch divided by 4 for left/right/front/back = 1/8″). I prefer the consistency of traditional industry grading so I adjust the size 2.

The strap length grading is even more jumpy:


The grades between strap lengths range from 1/4″ to 3/4″.  I adjusted the strap pattern piece with a smooth grade.

The skirt pattern is self-drafted from a cutting chart, and again the length grades jump up and down from 3/4″ to 2 1/4″.  This would make a strange rack of dresses. I checked the finished garment charts and they too are jumpy. I decided to grade my own skirt pattern piece.

Note: the reason that I care so strongly about correct grading is that I sew to sell.  Customers often purchase matching outfits for sisters, or a bridal party, and the garments must appear proportionate between sizes. For anyone sewing just for one client, or for a family member, the grading isn’t nearly as important.  Clearly this pattern is geared not towards the business dressmaker, but rather towards moms: there are multiple references to  “your child” and “your daughter”.

Onto the instructions. This was my first M4M pattern and there were some things I had to get accustomed to (and yes you can call me picky!):

  1. The directions are chatty, which is what many people love about pdfs….however the cute font is difficult to read (looks somewhat like Broken Typewriter…yes that is a real font). When I’m trying to concentrate on technical details, I prefer a sans serif font.
  2. The writing shifts pronouns between plural and singular (“We‘ll start at the right side of the slit you cut”) (“We are gathering the center of the front skirt you cut…”)
  3. The writing shifts tenses between future perfect progressive, and present (“We will be creating a bias casing…Open up your single fold bias tape”).  I much prefer directions all written in present tense.

It’s like a recipe book: it’s easier for me to follow cooking directions if the font is clean, and the steps are direct.  “Add this”, or “Bring to a boil”.  Not “now we are going to add” or “now we are going to bring to a boil”.

Construction: essentially this is simply a front yoke stitched to a gathered skirt, with elastic running across the back. Pretty straightforward, right?  And yet 2 things didn’t make sense to me:

  1. Sequence of stitching: the yoke is stitched to the yoke lining, turned inside out and edge-stitched  before the skirt is attached. This makes it impossible for the skirt to reach the ends of the yoke:


2. Attaching the skirt to the yoke: although the flat sketch shows a skirt shape curving up at the sides seams to meet the yoke:


…the pattern itself is cut straight across along the top edge without any curve. The curve shape is created by maneuvering the fabric:  the way to attach the skirt to yoke involves cutting a 1/2″ slit, threading elastic across the back top edge through a bias-tape casing:


and then shifting the ends of the elastic casing at a 90-degree angle when stitched into the yoke:


…creating a small fabric pleat:


To the designer’s credit, she does include a link to a YouTube video explaining how to manage this, however why not draft the skirt pattern with a curve as shown in the “flats” so that the corner is trued to the bodice?


Then it becomes simple to enclose the elastic across the back without any fabric slit:


…so that when the front top skirt edge is gathered:


…it’s easy to enclose into the yoke:


…without the pleat:


In the end, I made these revisions:

  • Regraded the yoke pattern and strap pattern
  • Re-graded the skirt pattern to industry-standard lengths
  • Trued the skirt top edge to create a natural curve going up to the front yoke
  • Revised the top-stitching sequence on the yoke
  • Eliminated the Tea Princess signature pleated trim (I enclosed gathered lace into straps)

Here is my first sample for this pattern:


I’m still torn about whether or not to make this for customers. On the plus side I love the design, always have. On the negative side, it’s an obvious copy. What would you do?


  • Caroline

    As the dress has been reproduced many times by others, I cannot see why you shouldn’t do the same. Your finished dress is sufficiently different to the original Chloe Dress (straps, back, dress overlay) and is gorgeous! I say “Go for it” !!

  • Marsha

    I agree with Caroline. At this point, I don’t think you’ll be depriving the original designer of sales. You’re now competing with people making the dress from the pattern. Go for it!

  • Stacey

    I was always taught that two wrongs don’t make a right, and just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t mean you should do it, too. My opinion is that if you’re questioning and struggling that much with whether or not you should offer to make it for your customers, then maybe the right answer for you is no.
    That being said, I personally feel your dress is not a copy of the original. They are similar but definitely not an exact copy, so I don’t see the harm in selling it.

  • Kerry (Kestrel Makes)

    Very interesting post, thanks. Poorly written instructions are such a bug bear of mine. All that inconsistency and unnecessary waffle is highly irritating for a start, but it’s a real skill to produce well written instructions.

  • JustGail

    M4M are the ones that copied the dress. You regraded and redrafted nearly their entire pattern (is there anything you didn’t rework?). I’d say you’ve done enough work that it’s no longer their pattern, and should not think twice about sewing your version up for sale. IIRC, companies have lost lawsuits against copiers who made fewer changes than you have to this pattern.

    Besides, if this dress has been popular for at least 4 years now, isn’t it about time for a new “must have” dress?

  • [email protected]

    Thanks Gail, that makes me feel better. You’re right, it’s not new anymore (although still popular!). Tea Princess has gone on to create many newer styles. We’ll see if customers still want it this wedding season!

  • [email protected]

    Writing instructions is difficult! I have a friend who is a technical writer for machinery businesses, and what she does is a true craft. For sewing, it does make life easier if the construction methods are finely tested and evaluated before writing up the instructions….a factory would not accept methods that involve so much maneuvering they require a video. There’s almost always an easier way to construct a garment, which results in clearer (and easier to write!)instructions. Thanks Kerry!

  • [email protected]

    Ah, you understand my struggle perfectly! The irony is that most likely this wedding season, this will no longer be the “It” dress, and I will have worried in vain. Thanks Stacey for your insight, I appreciate it, truly.

  • [email protected]

    Exactly, my competition is no longer Tea Princess but rather other home-dressmakers. Truth is, it’s also a totally different price-point: the original retails for $99, which is a fair price in my opinion, but shipping from Australia to US is $25…that is often the determining factor. While I’ve always steered anyone inquiring about the dress to shop from Tea Princess, I imagine maybe half did.

  • fat_lady

    I’ve seen a few patterns similar to this style in Burda magazine over the years, as well as on Lekala, so I think you’re good to go without any worries. I hope you do well with it, it’s a very pretty dress.u

  • Rosie Thornock

    whats that saying about nothing is ever truly new in fashion? I doubt that it was the “original” designer’s original idea. That being said… UGH! Your post his basically hits on EVERY. SINGLE. REASON. I really hate PDF patterns. So many are done by people who have no business teaching other people to sew, let alone posing themselves as an expert and selling patterns. The chatty instructions… gag me. The bad, hacked together techniques and “it works for me” order of construction. The amateur draft of patterns that exhibit a total lack of any technical pattern knowledge. I do know that there are good ones out there, but there are too many that are bad to even bother, in my opinion, especially in the realm of the mommy business. More power to you for powering through the mess to find what you want. Too much work for me. 🙂

  • [email protected]

    Yes I suppose that’s the nature of the fashion business….as soon as your design is out in public, it’s going to be copied. The internet just speeds up the cycle! It will be interesting to see if this style is still popular for Spring 2017!

  • [email protected]

    True that, fashion is an endless cycle, isn’t it? Sooooo many “new” patterns are direct copies of vintage designs….some that I wore as a little kid! The pdf pattern business is fascinating to me…it has allowed so many “mommy businesses” to get established, and I do like to support small business….but on the other hand there are very few “barriers to entry”. Anyone with a computer can start a pdf file biz. And who’s to know if the designer has any qualifications? Thanks for your feedback Rosie.

  • Bunny

    Great review, Janet. Your drafting knowledge is always priceless. If it were me I would have done that front yoke “burrito” style, the better to get a clean finish on the inside. I wondered if you do this and/or maybe had a specific reason not to. Just thinking out loud and thanks again for your knowledge, always appreciated.

  • Kate Moore

    Personally I’m not a fan of M4M. Suspect drafting and not particularly helpful designer when questioned.

  • rita

    I don’t think it’s true that “there are very few “barriers to entry”.” or that “Anyone with a computer can start a pdf file biz” especially as there is a need for layered pdf’s now that patterns must have such a range of sizes. As you’ve seen yourself, sizing and grading are important skills that many indie designers may lack. (Are most indie designers mommy-businesses actually? I feel the term mommy-business is a bit deprecating) And it’s my impression that many of these businesses have started after the baby has arrived. This is not a time when acquiring many new skills is even possible. Besides draping and grading, as a designer you often have to be willing to make a pattern many times before you find the best order of doing things or the best fabrics to use. The ability to do even that is a ‘barrier to entry’ for many people. The biggest order I’ve done was for 250 items. It took me years before I found doing more than 6 at a time wasn’t overbearing. Now I can do a couple dozen at a time before I find it mind-numbing. Don’t under-rate the size of the hill that becoming comfortable with Illustrator is, or the cost for that matter. My copy of it came from when you bought a licence for a particular version and that was the end of it. You didn’t need to spend more unless your version wouldn’t work with the newer operating systems or there was a feature you were missing that was included in the newest release. Now, you only rent the software per month as far as I understand. Possibly there are yearly contracts. This creates an urge to make the most of your time and could explain under-researched files being published. Illustrator isn’t the end of it. PhotoShop or some kind of photo-editing software is necessary to correct lighting and crop and size pictures. It is also not a trivial skill set. Instructions and their pictures have to be compiled into Word or another word processor. Another non-trivial skill although more people have at least some experience with this one. Once the instruction file is polished (not a quick or trivial act), the file must be condensed. You can’t assume everyone’s computer has virtually unlimited storage. Not forgetting the pattern, you have to create the pdf. Not only does this need post-processing by Acrobat or InDesign or something similar but here is another learning curve to be overcome. Although people are becoming more and more computer-savy, these are skills that take years to become comfortable with. Indie designers are being criticized for ‘pumping’ out patterns. Another urgency to publish may come from the insecurity of your technological setup. Your computer/mouse/writing tablet/printer/network/various software/security/internet may work right now but that doesn’t mean it will tomorrow without time and money being spent to get it back up and running. These are barriers to entry for a lot of people. My goodness, my neighbour came over yesterday asking if I knew where the nearest UPS depot was. He couldn’t find it in the yellow pages. Within 2 minutes google maps was up with all the teardrops, one was chosen, a screen capture with the map/address/phone number had been sent to the printer. While that was happening, we zoomed around in google street view to verify what it would look like when he got there. For some people the technological barrier is this low.

  • [email protected]

    All very valid points. I should have clarified that by barriers to entry I also meant that no other infrastructure is required: raw materials, production space, staff. My husband has started several businesses, and each one required several million dollars of venture capital to get going. In comparison, any software-based business, whether developing apps or pdf files, requires only basic computing equipment.

  • rita

    True, compared to businesses that need raw materials, building space and employees, and hence a healthy amount of seed money, the entry barriers to an ePattern business can seem very low. People can take that to underestimate what is actually required. I wanted everyone (I know your blog is pretty well-read) to have a better idea of what these low barriers actually were. As I was thinking about it, I figured explaining these barriers might also help clarify to you and others why ePattern publishers might be seen to be rushing out ‘not quite perfect’ product. I think indie designers are being judged a little harshly. I think sewers have been a little coddled. Sewers need to acquire some pattern modification skills because no pattern can possibly fit every person even if the measurements (bust/waist/hips) are perfect. Sewing is an art – it takes work to get good at it.

  • [email protected]

    Hi Rita, I didn’t mean to under-value the costs associated with developing an e-business. My daughter is in design school, and we certainly pay a small fortune for her hardware and software! She finds it endlessly annoying that in “the good old days” we could purchase Adobe products outright, whereas now we are force to buy the subscription (although she is, for now, eligible for a student discount). None of these skills, whether sewing, pattern drafting, or creating files, is quick to master, I agree. They all take dedication and effort, and should be applauded when done well.

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