The Generation Gap in Sewing

Only two more days until our next theme month starts! We’ll pick up with the Who We Are series again after November’s #SewcialistsTNT month, but for now, let’s finish with one person’s perspective on age in sewing. I’m looking forward to lots of discussion and different perspectives in the comments! 

Sometimes, it seems like the generation gap in sewing is like a sleeve that just won’t set in the armscye. Is there too much sleeve? Too little? Is the cut on the armscye too wide or too narrow? Who knows? It just won’t ease in the way it should. As the sewist with this problem, you fear you made a mistake someplace. You also know you’ll get it to fit eventually, even if you have to fudge things a bit.

That’s the way today’s younger sewists and older sewists tend to regard one another. They sometimes don’t fit together that well, but for the sake of the art, we make it work.

Hi, I’m Diane from the blog Distaff. And I’d like to explore an example of how this divide plays out: Indie vs. Big 4. 

When many sewists such as myself started out in the 1970s and ’80s (OK, I’ll cop to it, I’m 47), about all you could get easily in the US and Canada was the Big 4. In Europe, you could also get Burda and a few regional players. To pick out a pattern, you had to sit at the pattern counter and thumb through the books. We knew very well about the Big 4’s fit and what to expect. We learned how to sew with these patterns, learned to decipher the diagrams and jargon. There were no home sergers, so we learned seam finishes such as Hong Kong, flat-fell and French. We had help from books, 4-H, grandmothers and from watching Sandra Betzina and Nancy Zieman on public TV (I still have VHS tapes in my basement of their shows).

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Part of my home sewing library. The freaky Simplicity Magazine is my cousin’s from 1972!

Still, sewing was mostly a lonely oddball old-lady hobby. When I was a teen, home sewing got its big moment in the spotlight when Molly Ringwald’s character made her own prom dress in the 1986 movie “Pretty in Pink.” The dress was hiddy, but hey, Molly made it cool (photo source: Paramount Pictures).

pretty in pink prom

A lot of younger sewists, conversely, grew up on Project Runway and The Great British Sewing Bee. They have a wealth of options and tend to favor the independent pattern designers. They have access to a wide range of patterns, from all over the world, often just a download and a .pdf print job away. They also have access to sergers and other newfangled equipment. The indies often offer younger and more current styles, plus cuts for specific body types or looks. Many indies feature diverse models by body type, age and race. They clearly write and photograph instructions, provide videos and online tutorials, and market themselves effectively on blogging platforms, Instagram and Twitter. The designers and their fans make you feel great about sewing your own clothes.

This is a generalization, of course, as many older sewists like indie designers and many younger sewists like the Big 4. But the divide is undeniably there. For example, a young woman recently asked on a sewing Facebook group if anyone could recommend an indie pattern for certain style of dress, to copy a runway look she liked. I replied that a Big 4 pattern had the very thing she wanted, and I could recommend it as I’d recently sewn it up. “Thanks, but I only sew indie designers,” she replied. “OK, good luck,” I thought.

In my experience, some indie designers are good and some are awful. The problem is, you don’t know which is which until you get in there and start sewing. I personally have wasted more fabric and time with indie designs than with Big 4, but at the same time, some my favorite me-made garments are indie designs. Neither is inherently better than the other; each offers some elements that the other lacks.

 

 

I can understand the appeal of the indies, but makes no sense to me to favor an indie designer because it’s not “corporate.” All designers are trying to make money off of what they do, and some indie patterns are very expensive for what you get.

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This Deer & Doe “Arun” dress pattern cost $15, on sale. For an unlined three-piece pullover dress with kimono sleeves. It includes no waistline or bustline marks – for a fitted dress.

Some may argue that at least the profit goes to the designer herself, instead of to “McVoguericity,” but just because a pattern company is privately held does not mean that it’s inherently “good.”  Besides, Big 4 designers went to fashion school, love home sewing, have jobs and are building off of 100-plus years of experience, keeping an industry alive in their own way. If you’d rather buy elsewhere, feel free, but they are not the enemy.

To be fair, I have sewn a Big 4 dog or two.

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This blouse from Simplicity 8137 is a hot mess.

Yes, the Big 4 styles tend to be less current. Some complain about excessive ease. And they definitely use blocks that fit no one. But they are remarkably consistent and high quality. You get finished measurements so you know how much ease is built in. Bust points and waistlines are marked. Grading is consistent. Notches line up. It drives me nuts that few indie designers get such basics right on their patterns.

With the Big 4, if you need a pattern adjustment, such as a full-bust or forward-shoulder adjustment, you always will need that adjustment. With an indie, maybe yes, maybe no. I get the impression that some indie designers’ blocks are simply their personal blocks, which they size up and down using software instead of using time-tested pattern-making methods. Also, Big 4 tissue patterns with seam allowances are a huge time-saver and more accurate than a .pdf. And the price is right – I can get a whole outfit in one envelope for the price of one garment from an indie designer, and often several patterns during sales. Also, truth be told, since I grew up with these patterns, I am simply used to them and know how to deal.

The Big 4 is trying to bridge the gap by offering “hacks” for its patterns, different bust sizes, and cuts for “straight,” “curvy” and “regular” or several bust sizes in one envelope. They’ve also reached out to some indie stars such as Mimi G and Gertie to widen their appeal and partner with the cosplay crowd.

 

 

I would like to see the Big 4 also offer more online tutorials and feature diverse models on their pattern envelopes. But I’d like them to resist the urge to chase the indie crowd too much, by offering too many retro looks, costumes and other impractical patterns. Finally, they could take a page from the indie playbook and market themselves better and make people feel great about their creations. On that, I think all sewing generations can agree.

What do you think? If you’re a committed Big 4 sewist, will you try an indie? If you’re a committed indie sewist, will you try a Big 4? And do you think age plays into why you like one or the other?