The House of Tatterdemalion

Unfashionable, unskilled, inexpensive--but still sewing.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Patterns and Fit: Practice

Note: This is the second post in a two-post series. "Patterns and Fit: Theory", was the first in the series, and this post refrences back to it frequently. Please scroll down and read the "Theory" post first. It'll make this one make more sense. Honest.

"The times, they are a-changin'. . ."

"Okay, class, after a conglomerate streamlines, simplifies, and stagnates, what comes next?

Yes, that's correct. They usually die a long, lingering death. In the meantime, new companies appear. Smaller, more nimble and agile, these companies set out to solve the problems that the complacent Hutts were content to let the populace suffer with. They rapidly out-strip the old monopolies, and a fierce competion between these companies keeps progress moving forward. Gradually, these smaller companies begin to battle for dominance. One, or several, move to the top, and squash the rest of the competition, turning themselves into conglomerate monopolies. And so goes the wonderful cycle of life. Remember, you can always see past conglomerates looking down at us from the stars. . ."

It has begun.

The Big Four (abbreviated as The Big$, representing the Butterick-McCall-Vogue conglomerate and Simplicity) are struggling. The products are being held in derision by more and more people. Small, independent companies are rising to the challenge. And, of course, they are not using the same methods as the Big$.

Now here is the part in contraversy. Why are they dying? What are the new challengers doing that is most importantly different? Very simply, it's very complicated. No single thing can be picked out as most important, or a most driving force. For this (one-sided, unless someone dares to comment) discussion, we will be looking solely a the aspect of fit. (This means that we will be brutally ignoring Simplicity, whom many people claim is in the process of an in-house shake-down to get back in the game instead of decaying like a prehistoric animal. As far as I know, that shake-down does not include an over-haul of fit, so it is sadly not relevant to this post.)

In fact, although there are many independent pattern companies, only a very few seem to be addressing fit. (Some one say this is proof that fit is not a key component to a pattern companies success. But I would say the proof is in the pudding; let's see which ones last.) The two that I will focusing on are the two that have most caught my attention. HotPatterns, and Modern Sewing (an affiliate of Vilar Soft).

First we shall look at HP--which, in the sewing world, most certainly does not stand for Hewlett-Packard. Nearly everyone in the sewing world knows it stand for HotPatterns, and also knows of HP's mind-boggling take off. To quote the owners:

"We had an initial inventory of 3000 pieces-we were expecting to sell about 500 pieces a month to begin with, given that we are a new company with a new product."
"First of all, we have received an absolute torrent of orders-literally more than 10 times what we expected-which has meant, despite starting with what we thought was a reasonable stock of patterns, we have had to re- print our patterns again & again. We are currently setting up the 5th print run. . ."
Not only was there a huge, unexpected demand, but they were also stabbed in the back by their cruddy fulfillment company. (It's quite a soap opera to watch, really, as long as you're not one of the ones with money involved.)

Now, HP does not use fit as a selling point. Their selling point is highly fashionable sewing patterns, followed by the fact they don't use flimsy tissue paper, and good instructions. Nearly everyone in the world (except for un-fashionable people, but who on earth is un-fashionable?!) agrees they are very "hot". Everybody likes the non-tissue paper, but that is considered standard for a non Big$ company. So that is their theory.

But in practice? They are stellar at selling their own products. They could probably sell their patterns even without fashion sketches. Say you're selling a "Pirate Queen Swagger Coat", and anyone who ever wanted to look like a Pirate Queen swaggering about rushes to buy your coat. Incidentally, there's a LOT of women who want to look like a Pirate Queen swaggering about. But when people get the pattern, what are the two things they rave the most about? Good drafting--the pattern pieces fit together beautifully. And Fit.

You see, though HP has barely mentioned it in their PR efforts, they have totally revamped the measurement and sizing charts. Now, pre-HP, this was considered much too impossible for the Big$. Too much time, too much money, too hard, too impossible, too confusing. At the same time, "plus sized" women complained that the Big$ designed their plus sizes beyond stupidly. When you gain weight, regardless of where you gain it, your bone structure doesn't gain weight. Your shoulders stay as narrow, your neck the same size. But the Big$ simply scales up a regular pattern, meaning as the bust and waist and hip grow, so to does the shoulder width and the neck circumference.

HP has essentially drafted patterns for three different body types. With their usual brilliant descriptions, they have called the three sizes "Slinky Girl", "Glamour Girl", and "Curvy Girl". Now, in previous Big$ lingo, the closest equivalent would be Petite, Misses, and Women's. But "Petites" just meant they had "shorten lines" on the pattern, Misses just meant regular, and Women's just meant they scaled up a few sizes.

For HP, "Slinky Girl" means that they are drafted for AA/A/B cup lady. Slinky girl sizes range from 6 to 14. "Glamour Girl" means they are drafted for B/C/D cups, and comes in the sizes 12 through 20. The "Curvy Girl" is for D/DD cups and has a size range from 18 to 26. This, if we remember what the nay-sayers were saying before HP, is impossible. HP is not advertising a better fit. But nearly everyone who has put together one of these patterns has less altering, and in some cases--no altering! Are people considering this a small, un-important feature? No. Most certainly not.

Yes, right now you will mostly hear about "beautiful drafting" or "So stylish".

But even the hot HP has a Plain and Simply category. If someone has the choice between a princess seam blouse that fits nearly or completely perfectly from the envelope, or a princess seam blouse that needs to be altered 6 ways from next Sunday, which will they choose? Which will someone recommend to a beginner who is just learning to sew?

Obviously the female shape has changed since the last set of blocks was made (if for no other reason of different under-garments or lack thereof). But even more obviously, not all women are the same "typical" shape, no matter what statisticians want to tell you. HP may not fit everyone straight of the envelope, but they're much closer to it than the Big$. HP fit is getting rave reviews.

Our second case study is Modern Sewing, which for the sake of my poor fingers I'll refer to as MS, even thought that abbreviation also has computer overtones. MS, despite it's name, doesn't market it's styles. It markets their supposed ability to draft patterns to your "exact" size. They can then either print them out and send them to you, or you can print them out on your home printer (it requires taping together a lot of sheets of paper after it's printed).

Now here is the curious thing. While HP is having such trouble trying to get things printed and shipped out, people are saying how they wish they could print HP out themselves--just download and print. Not only has MS made this possible with their patterns, they have gone one step further, saying they can give a perfect fit for any person.

Instead of embracing this concept and making MS explode with the same shocking results as HP, people are wary, suspicious, doubting, unwilling to even try. Why?

Is it because, like me, they no longer believe that a simple bust, waist and hip measurement will be sufficient for a perfect fit?

No. To the best of my understanding, it all comes down to public relations and good advertising. HotPatterns has it, Modern Sewing doesn't.

You see, as soon as you promise something perfect, people are determined to prove you wrong. If MS instead played-up their vast number of patterns, their style, and the ability to print your own patterns, they would get a much warmer welcome. As an after thought, MS could mention "your ability" to "customize" patterns. This accomplishes two things. For starters, it's promising less than you intend to give--you intend to give perfectly fitting patterns--but you don't say so. Then, when your patterns fit perfectly, you have exceed expectations, and gone above and beyond the call. But if you promise perfectly fitting garments, then you get a lot of bad press when something goes slightly awry.

The second thing that this accomplishes is that it places the blame, if something goes wrong, on the consumer instead of the manufacture. If you say, "I will make a pattern that fits you perfectly," ---it's your fault if it doesn't. You must have drafted improperly. If you say, "You can make a pattern that fits you perfectly!"--it's the consumers fault. They must have measured incorrectly.

I think MS has one of the coolest ideas going, but it's being so poorly executed it may never get off the ground. What if, instead, they worked quite hard with you to make sure that it was a perfect fit--if the first three measurements didn't make it quite right, they would have you take more measurements and draft it again--for free--because once you have someone who knows that every garment will fit perfectly, you have them for good. You can sell the patterns--the styles, the fashions--, and not the service of fitting, because once they know it fits, they will always come back, again and again and again. People are odd in that they don't want to pay for the service of fit, but once they have it, they can't live without it.

Would the fact that the patterns fit--perfectly!--be a small factor for the consumer? For the beginner? For anyone who sews? Wouldn't they be more inclined to buy your pattern--the perfectly fitting pattern? Wouldn't they be more inclined to sew if the clothes they sewed fit even better than Ready-to-Wear clothing? But of course!

People think fit issues have nothing to do with sewing patterns for the simple reason that they believe it to be impossible. We're back to thinking that the heroine is really hero. Because you don't know, does that mean it isn't? Because it has not been done, does it mean it cannot? Because you cannot remember it, does it mean it hasn't happened?

And this last question is a very good question. My elderly neighbor was telling me of some time she had spent years ago in Europe--I think France, specifically--and they had custom pattern shops, similar to tailor shops. You could go to these shops, and show them a picture, or describe what you wanted, and they would take your measurements and then draft a pattern to your specifications. You bought this service; the pattern was yours to do whatever you wanted. Make it out of whatever fabric you wanted, as often as you wanted. You could even make copies and sell the pattern, something that no pattern company now adays would allow. But then, I suppose, it was common knowledge that to get a pattern that fit--no small importance--you couldn't just take someone else's pattern. It would be a much inferior product, and it wouldn't put them out of business.

Supposing if these things were taken to heart now. If a company made a line of patterns like HP, allowed it to be customized as MS, and also had the feature to allow you to submit your own designs---what could happen?

Sewing could take off again. Fabric stores would again spring up. Sewing could become more fashionable than shopping. RTW could been seen as ill-fitted and shoddy. People could have more of a reason to even begin sewing. People could get it their design drafted by a pattern drafting company, and then they could bring it to a professional seamstress to sew, for completely unique clothes without any sewing on their part.

Another interesting question is--what will happen? In the short term, I think that many more independent pattern companies will be springing up. HotPattern's sizing, or something very similar, will become standard. The Big$ will play a much smaller, more specialized role, or a completely different role, or else go out of business. Some independents will allow you to print your own patterns at home, but the idea of drafting to your exact measurements will take much longer to catch on. Its success depends on whose hands it falls into--it must be someone who is willing to do the work, will put its customers at ease, and will aggressively and brilliantly market it. People are too untrusting to accept something that seems so foreign. Although they may consider me to have been naive, in thinking that a pattern out of the envelope could fit (even though my measurements matched!), they still agree with my former self that the professional pattern drafters know much more than they ever could. They are overly intimidated by pattern drafting, and so it scares them away from it--even done on a personal basis by someone else.

At any rate, we're in the midst of some very interesting changes. Keep your eyes open!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your computer to the sewing gods ears!!!! I be a customer for life.

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've tried Hot Patterns and the styles are great but the pattern drafting was horrible. Has something chan
ged in the last couple years?

9:42 PM  

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