The Sewcialists Interview: Sarai Mitnick of Colette and Seamwork Patterns

I was lucky enough to get on Sarai Mitnick’s schedule for this edition of The Sewcialists Interview. Sarai started Colette Patterns 9 years ago, and launched Seamwork Magazine over 4 years ago. Colette has been on the forefront creating a more inclusive size range and finding pattern models to represent a broader segment of the population, so they were a natural fit for an interview here on the Sewcialists.

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Becky (B): Starting off a bit basic, how did the name “Colette” come to be?

Sarai (S): It was named after my cat, actually.

B: And was she named after the French actress/author?  

S: Yes. She (cat) passed away, but she lives on in the company!

B: Seamwork is a much more utilitarian-practical name, whereas I feel Colette is a lot more whimsical. Is that correct?

S: Well, Colette was started nine years ago, and the company had sort of a different vibe and a different feel back then; it was much more vintage inspired. We started Seamwork in 2014, so only about four years ago. We’re actually coming up our 50th issue and 100th pattern in January.

B: That’s really exciting. Now, that’s 100 under the Seamwork Patterns group, correct? That doesn’t include Colette or books, right? (I counted another 45 under Colette, still not including books.)

S: Right.

B: Do you regret ever making your sewing passion your job? Do you get burnout, or is there anything you would change… or maybe advise other people to do differently?

S: (Laughs) No, I’ve never regretted making it my job. I think that is because pretty early on, I had some help with the sewing part of it, and after… pretty early, I stopped sewing any of the samples, so I never really got burnt out on it. I still only sew for fun. But… I think because that is the first thing I got help with, I never got tired of sewing. I’d advise people, if you are going to start, get people to do the parts you don’t really want to do, and keep doing the parts you love.

B: How do you decide? It’s your new company, it’s your baby… it’s so hard to delegate because it must be done correctly.

S: That’s always part of it… How much do you let go, how much do you need to micromanage, hiring the right people that fit… That’s a never-ending struggle.

I think, starting out, I made every mistake in the book. If I was starting a new company now, it would be totally different. It’s changed so much in the last 10 years. The things I did then, I couldn’t do now to start a company. But I’ve made all the mistakes. I’ve hired too many people, I’ve hired not enough people, I’ve spent too much money on inventory or not enough, but I think the important thing is to learn from it. If you’re not learning or growing, then that’s when you’ve failed. Specific mistakes… well, there’s probably too many to count (laughs), but that’s part of it. That’s part of the game of building something. Hopefully, the real trick of it, is to learn, and listen to people. No matter how hard the feedback is to listen to, you have to let it influence you or you’re just going to make the same mistakes again.

Maybe, if I were to do something differently… I bootstrapped everything myself in the beginning, and I think today, I would try to gather more money first and invest in help sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have made as many mistakes… maybe. It’s hard to say. It would have made life a lot easier.

B: Speaking of, what was it, 2 ½ years ago… There was a mistake with a pattern, I don’t recall which one… the one before Dahlia?? I think the Rue? And you changed up a lot of the way things work. New people, new blocks, new work-systems… and you were REALLY transparent about the whole process. I was beyond impressed. Most companies won’t admit fault, let alone be transparent in the solutions. Tell me about that…

S: Since that time, we’ve restructured everything! We brought some people in to help with the process part of it, definitely. That was really great, we brought in some experts to help for a while. One was from NIKE, Sabrina, and she helped with process control and helped our team get on track, and also with actual pattern making because that’s her expertise. Claudia, she’s a free-lancer in town, she helped with some pattern drafting at that time.

B: Just for a while?

S: Yes, we had some experts on contract for a while. Now we have a senior pattern developer, Robin, on staff. She manages the whole team, the whole process, and a lot of our pattern drafting. She’s in charge of that very important part of the business.

Team Colette/Seamwork

Center Left: Wallis; Top L-R: Kenn, Kathleen, Hannah, Meg, Taylor; Bottom L-R: Chelsea, Sarai, Haley, Robin

B: And how many are there total now?

S: We are 10.

seamwork fit guide

Seamwork Fit Guide: Chart added in Seamwork Patterns to gauge ease in garments

B: The base-blocks for standard and curvy were redone around in there, too, correct? What are the cup sizes for those two blocks? Someone mentioned having a hard time finding those…

S: We have two blocks we design from, the Misses and the Curvy. The Misses, sizes 0-16, is a C-cup; and Curvy, sizes 18-26, is a D-cup. We’ve worked really hard to refine those over time. We listen to feedback, and continually learn and refine our patterns, and find the right fit model. We’ve done a lot of work on our fit process.

Wally's Wisdom: Seamwork excerpt

Wally’s Wisdom: The link above RE cup sizes is from a Seamwork post. We’ve copied just an excerpt, not the entire post, for those of you not Seamwork members.

B: I was wondering, some things are co-authored or co-branded, right? For example, the Colette Guide to Sewing Knits by Alyson Clair, and the Cooper Backpack co-designed by Laura Collins. We were curious, and this will tie in to other questions… but I wanted to know if those were 1-time-payment contracts, do you pay royalties to the other designers… how does that work? Are there more than just those two?

S: There was just those, and they were a while ago — both before Seamwork. The Cooper Backpack was a 1-time-contract, and the Colette Guide to Sewing Knits was self-published by us, both PDF and hard copy, and we pay Alyson both royalties on the books, both versions, and the knit patterns she co-designed.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that it’s all about one person. What we try to do is present ourselves more as a team than as a single human.

B: I had one contributor ask me if Colette/Seamwork can even call themselves “independent” anymore, stating she thought you were just too big, you now have a “customer support” position, and because you’re not the only person behind your brand. How do you reconcile scaling your business and maintaining a personal touch? Do you feel we are losing YOU in the picture?

S: Honestly, it has been a struggle for us and I think it’s a struggle for a lot of companies that start out as a one-person operation. To get to a point where either that doesn’t make sense anymore or the owner doesn’t want to be the only face of the company, I think that’s a pretty common struggle and it’s definitely something that I’ve gone through in the last few years. For me personally, my own take on it, is that I want this company to be about our larger purpose, what we’re trying to accomplish, which is bringing more creativity to people and giving people tools to live their own creative dreams.

Do I need to be the face of that? Do I need to be front and center or there are other ways that I can help tell that story to people? For me, I really feel like I don’t need to be the single face of the company. Really, it’s just not necessary with what we want to do. We have an amazing team of people putting their own talents into what we’re building, and I think they need to have a voice too. I know at this point, it would be disingenuous to pretend that it’s all about one person. What we try to do is present ourselves more as a team than as a single human.

What we’re trying to do is kind of bring each of the team’s personalities more into the forefront as well, and show people what’s actually going on in the studio. It’s a hard balance, you know. It’s difficult to know what to put out there and what isn’t of interest, but we’re figuring out as we go along.

B: Speaking of team talents, I want to talk about the podcast, Seamwork Radio. Everyone wants to know — like, this was the most popular question: Are you going to bring it back?

S: I would LOVE to. I loved doing the podcast. It was so fun, and I really loved having those conversations with people. It was really awesome. I really enjoyed the creative process of it. I love learning new things. It was a lot of fun for me, but it was also really, really time-consuming. Just looking at all the projects we had to work on, it had to be put on the back-burner. I would love to bring it back someday, but I don’t have an immediate answer for a date right now. I was doing all of the work myself, and that’s part of the problem.

B: That software and the equipment aren’t cheap either.

This is where I want to get into some financials, business plans, and paint a picture of some of the other costs of running Colette/Seamwork.

Let’s start with the website. The team does such an incredible job on the entire aesthetic; the photos are all so professional and beautiful. It might make it difficult for some people to remember the costs and overhead that go into this business. Scaling isn’t as easy as you make it look. You’re storing and hosting all of the patterns — for essentially two pattern companies. I was quite excited to see if I bought a paper pattern directly from you, I have access to the PDF file forever, which blows my mind. Not to mention the magazine part of Seamwork. There’s maintaining this huge, practically-database of a site…Plus you built a brand-new social platform to move the social aspect of Design Your Wardrobe & Seamwork from Facebook, the podcasts — the bandwidth and storage for some of this stuff must be getting really high, and there’s so much more production time behind each of these things than many people know.

How long do you plan on keeping all of these things available?

S: I feel very strongly when it comes to the patterns, when people buy it, they should be able to keep getting it. I don’t like only being able to download a pattern a few times; I don’t think it’s very fair. So, because we have ongoing members, we can continue to expand those kinds of things and keep letting people download their patterns. It’s important to me, the platform that we’re building, and all the stuff that we’re building on the web; it’s all part of the experience for people. I feel very strongly about providing this experience to our customers.

B: Then with Seamwork’s subscription model, people can continue to accrue patterns. A contributor wanted me to ask, because she said she’s got a few Seamwork credits built up, what is the average number of credits people have? Do you know?

S: I don’t know an average, but that is something we’re working on. Not everyone can sew every month, so there is a tendency to build up credits. We are trying to find ways we can offer things. That’s why we have the social platform, the wardrobe planner, and other benefits to members, and that is why we opened up the Colette patterns and the books for credits. We are trying to find ways we can offer things that are apart from the patterns.

B: MAYBE you can use the credits for people to download more podcasts!!! (totally biased comment here!)

S: (laughs) Maaaaybe….

B: I want to get into some of the “elephant in the room” questions, in regard to those opinions, perceptions, and, in some cases, pretty nasty insults out there.

Let’s start with the confusion about the cost of doing business versus what the media is reporting as independent pattern makers’ market share, and the assumptions made therein. For reference, Craft Industry Alliance post here and this NYTimes article — I’ve had this interpreted back to me by a contributor that indie pattern makers were each making the millions shown in the financial earnings drop reported by Big 4 owners CSS Industries.

What kind of margins is Seamwork/Colette running on? Correlation is not causation, and there seems to be some confusion. Are you willing to divulge Colette’s financial information? Meaning, there are people who really believe you’re filthy rich, from skimming these articles, and you must be a millionaire! You’re this big giant now; it’s your fault Big 4 are reporting losses! (I’d also like to point out here that McCalls & Co is an investment for the holding company. There’s been years of financial trouble, long before indie pattern companies started gaining ground. I don’t know the minds of CSS Ind., but they are beholden to the rules of a publicly-traded company. See fast fashion, ToysRUs, Tumblr/Oath for other examples of how this has historically played out when margins are narrowed and debt is increased.)

S: (laughs) I can’t really talk about our financial numbers; I’m not comfortable with that, but no, I’m not personally making millions of dollars!

B: Ok, and the trolls. I feel like Colette rivals the Big 4 when it comes to some of the unconstructive negativity, and insults that get thrown out. I’m not naming names, but there are some infamous examples out there. I generally think of people in sewing as super positive, genuinely nice, encouraging, helpful, and amazing — so when I come across a rude comment, it’s that much more of a shock to me. Perhaps it’s really just a loud-but-small minority, but how do you deal with the truly negative people?

S: Well… It IS the internet. (laughs) I think you have to remember that maybe some negative people take pleasure in outrageous conversations, and while they have a big emotional impact, they’re a small number of people compared to the huge number of amazing, positive, supportive, and joyful women in the sewing community. I think there’s a real tendency to focus on the negative because it does feel more impactful, but there is a lot more positivity as well.

It’s also important to know we can’t just write the negative stuff off, because sometimes they do have things to say that are important. We have to balance it with the bigger picture. I don’t really let it get to me personally anymore. It has in the past, I’ve had some very hard times where I felt personally attacked. But I think the sewing community in generally is a lot less like that. The sewing community in general has grown to be a lot more positive and supportive than it was maybe a few years ago. I think I’ve grown a lot too, and I’m less likely to take things personally.

I also think it’s really important to listen. Even if someone says something horrible, there might be some truth behind it. It’s a matter of separating out the truth from the drama.

B: In the new Seamwork forums, are there community guidelines? To prevent particularly bad behavior?

S: Yes, there are community guidelines. They’re more values-based right now. What we want to do is have the community create more concrete guidelines as time goes on. We want people to feel part of building their own community, and we’re here to help facilitate. We want to build that part of it together, and all the “norms” are things that are important to them, not just things we are trying to impose.

B: Ok, last commentary & question on this part. As a pattern company, if we were to strip it down at the end of the day, there are 10 of you that go to work at this company. Once a month, for all intents and purposes, you and your engineers present 2 schematic drawings for sale with instructions to build a 3-dimensional structure, which can be customized in size, shape, and aesthetics. You also present market information on materials, current popular choices in customization, historic choices, and information on some related markets.

If you were a man, and this was a house-building company with only 10 employees, because I could have just easily been describing such a company in the same paragraph, do you think people would be as judgmental and critical of your success? Do you think critics would be as rude about your success, and think you were a massive company on the market? Are some people more critical because you’re a woman?

S: Oh, well yes. Of course it’s because I’m a woman. (laughs)

B: Ok, I’m going to consider that whole can of worms closed and ready to move on to more constructive subjects.

On the other end of the spectrum, and much more pleasant to address, Colette and Seamwork have a lot of fans as well. We here at the Sewcialists would like to formally thank Colette/Seamwork for their work on representation and inclusion.

Outside of Big 4, I do believe Colette was the first, or one of the first, to release an expanded size range, Colette & Seamwork both use a variety of models including different sizes, ages, women of color… I have it on good authority that the Curvy Sewing Collective was founded in response to Colette’s expanded size range.

How did this come to be? How did you decide to expand your sizes? I know ASTM quit publishing plus-size human growth metrics in 2009, which would make this move even more difficult.

S: It’s definitely a challenge, because of that, because there isn’t a lot of information out there, and even hiring plus size models is a challenge for us. We’ve had conversations with the different modeling agencies, and they ask us what we need, and we tell them we need variety. We need models of different sizes. That has been a challenge. And finding the right fit model, that’s a challenge too. But all of that is part of our company’s values. That is what we think is really important. This is part of our mission to give a set of tools to all kinds of people. No matter age, or size, or what background you have, I think everyone should be able to experience this really awesome ability to sew.

B: Do you plan on continuing to expand on model representation? One contributor asked if you’re looking into differently-abled bodies? Or maybe gender-neutral models?

S: That would be awesome too!

B: I told her if I was a bettin’ gal, I’d guess the team has already discussed it, but it may have been tabled because they may be difficult to find.

S: Even when things are difficult, like getting a variety of models, we are always trying. It’s easy to fall back on, “Oh, it’s just too hard to find plus-sized women” or “this is just too hard,” whatever it may be. But if that is what people need, and people certainly need to see themselves represented, then I think you can make it happen. So, yeah, it’s definitely been on the table.

B: A personal thought process of mine… I see that the paper/physical assets from Colette patterns are being liquidated, and more emphasis is being put on the Seamwork part of the business, and just some other things happening…Please tell me you’re not looking to sell, or restructure for investment from a private holding company! I’m hoping this all means you’re just restructuring to streamline? I don’t know if you’re willing to talk about those things?

S: (laughs) Um, actually, yeah, I’m totally willing because we’re not planning anything like that! No, I love running a business, I’m not giving it up! We really just found that people are getting more comfortable with the digital patterns and it got to the point where the paper patterns were being subsidized by the digital patterns. It was a decision we had to make.

A big lesson in the last few years for me has been focusing. It’s hard for me because I have a million ideas; I’m always going in a million directions. So, it was hard, but we have to focus on the part of the business where the people are.

It was also a hard choice because I really believe in the ecosystem of independent fabric stores. Now that we don’t put paper patterns out for small stores to sell,  we’re always looking for ways that we can continue to work with small business owners. Many of those businesses were really foundational to us when we were starting out. We know they’re also working just as hard to keep their businesses going.

B: If someone were new to Colette or Seamwork, or maybe they haven’t tried anything since the block-changes, where do you suggest they start out? What are some good patterns to start with?

S: Wow. That would be hard. With the whole catalog, there’s just so many design choices, it would be hard to pick just one for everyone. I’d recommend they looked at the catalog and found what would best fit in their wardrobe. I think, for someone brand-new, we have the free sewing planner that can be downloaded, and that’s a great introduction to what Seamwork is all about. Seamwork is about being a lot more intentional about your wardrobe.

I think for a pattern, we have some that are very versatile in theme, which we’ve spent a lot of time on. Like the York pattern, which is a basic, simple top. I know that one was really popular, but it really depends on your style. We have such a breadth of patterns, plus all the hacks and everything, that you can really approach this in so many different ways. If you like a loose silhouette the Tacara dress, which is a knit pattern, I really like that dress.

B: What is the most popular pattern, by the way, ever, of all time?

S: Well that’s hard to say because the Colette patterns have been out a lot longer, but the Moneta is really popular. I think the Curvy Sewing Collective probably had a lot to do with that!

B: Was that the first in the expanded size range?

S: We came out with a few patterns at the same time with it, but yes, that was one of the first.

B: Is there anything I’m forgetting?

S: I just want to point I really do have a great team now, and I just appreciate them so much. They really do so much more of the hard work than I do. (laughs) They’re just amazing. They’re an amazing group of women. You were saying the sewing community is a really positive, supportive group of people, and that is really mirrored in our team. They’re fun, and sweet, and funny — it’s great to come to work every day and just be with people you really like. They’re really creative and give me good ideas. I always say I try to hire people who are better than me at things…and that’s been a good way to go! They’re amazing people.

Author Bio: Becky is a Sewcialist Editor, a Portland Frocktails organizer, a budding pattern designer, and a person of international interest…or ridiculous delusions of grandeur, you decide

All images owned by and courtesy of Colette Media.