The Sewcialists Interview: Leila of Muna and Broad

Welcome back to our Sewcialists Interview series, where we talk to leaders in the sewing community! You can read all of our previous interviews here. Today I am talking to Leila, who runs the plus-size pattern company Muna and Broad along with business partner and fellow fabulous sewist, Jess. I was hoping to interview Leila in person at an upcoming Frocktails, but thanks to social distancing, we communicated by email instead!

Gillian: Tell us about yourself, and how you got started with sewing! 

Leila: I’m Leila and I grew up in Sydney, Australia but I now live in London, Ontario, Canada (the other London!)! I grew up seeing my mum sew things – not really as a hobby, but more as a skill for hemming, mending, making curtains, etc. When I was a kid, my grandmother made an entire wardrobe of custom clothes for a doll of mine and they were all hand embroidered and smocked and had sweet details like a velvet collar on the coat. I learned to sew at high school and immediately loved it. I took textiles as an elective and was very much into historical costuming and I was also bit of a goth so I made corsets and other (black!) clothing with historical details like pendant sleeves!

Leila poses in a bright raspberry boxy top with a boatneck and elbow-length sleeves
Leila says: “Muna and Broad Torrens Box top in fabric from A and R fabric in Australia. I love this colour!”

G: What’s your background in pattern drafting and the fashion industry?

L: My goal was to work in costume, so I went to college to study Fashion Production (patternmaking, grading, marking and cutting, and lots and lots of sewing). We did 8 hour days of sewing and patternmaking and learned many industrial sewing techniques. While I was studying, I worked at two fabric shops and this was also really valuable training. I got to touch all kinds of incredible fabrics and one place I worked at got a lot of gorgeous designer ends. I worked alongside some women who had experience sewing in very high-end fashion production so they gave me some amazing couture sewing tips when special fabrics passed through. I then worked as a freelance sewer for movies, theatre, as a sample maker, and at a small couture studio. During this time, I sewed many incredible gowns with corsetry and draped skirts as well as everyday clothes but now that I think about it, the common thread between these jobs was that all the garments were fitted to individuals (not production).

G: What about now? Do you do patternmaking full time?

L: Ultimately, I decided that working in costume just wasn’t for me and I was fairly burned out from sewing for work so I pretty much stopped sewing altogether. I went on to have a completely different career as a classical musician. Funnily enough, history repeated and after many years working as a musician I decided I wanted another career change and I got a PhD in Biomechanics (studying how the human body moves). I am now a biomechanics professor at a large college in Toronto, Canada. I started sewing casually for my kids when they were little and now I sew and patternmake in my spare time.

Leila wears a long-sleeved black top with a slouchy turtleneck, and a pair of pleated charcoal trousers in wool tweed. Her hand is in her pocket (we love patterns with pockets)!
Leila says: “Self drafted top in Merino jersey from the Fabroc Store and Muna and Broad Glebe pants in vintage wool tweed that was in my stash from when I worked at a fabric store 20 years ago!”

G: You just joined the online sewing community fairly recently, and now you have your own pattern company! Can you tell us how that came about?

L: Yes! I am very, very new to the online sewing community! For years I struggled to find ready to wear clothing that fit well. I don’t really know what prompted it (frustration probably) but one day in about May 2019 I stumbled upon the Curvy Sewing Collective blog and for the first time realized there were indie patternmakers making patterns for clothing that was my style! I was so excited! The first thing I made was the Flynn jacket by In the Folds. Soon after, I discovered the beautiful Instagram sewing community, realized the power of hashtags, and I was hooked.

Very soon though, I encountered the same frustrations as ready to wear – that many of the patterns I wanted to make didn’t come in my size so I began patternmaking for myself. I didn’t have any of my blocks from college (not that they would have helped me anyway since they were catwalk-model sized), so I developed my own blocks from scratch. After a while, it occurred to me that if I wanted to wear certain clothes and had trouble finding a good pattern, perhaps other fat folks felt the same.

Since I admired her style so much, I reached out to Jess (@fat.bobbin.girl) to see if she wanted to release a free pattern together. This pattern would have minimal instructions and just a few sizes. At the time I was just wanting to give back to this cool community. Almost as soon as we launched our free version of the Glebe pants pattern it because clear that people wanted more! So Muna and Broad was born! We now do fully illustrated, detailed instruction booklets and a large range of sizes.

Something I hadn’t anticipated when we launched this was how much our patterns would mean to people. They aren’t just pants (or a top, or undies)…it’s validation. We have had so many personal messages sent to us that have made us cry. People have told us that it makes them and their body feel seen. It’s amazing. My heart does a happy dance every time I see someone’s make and the smile on their face.

Leila shows off her Sculthorpe pants, which have a tapered leg and a gathered waist. She has a black top tucked into them to show the fit at the waist and hip.
Muna and Broad Sculthorpe pants in copper dead stock Linen

G: What makes Muna and Broad unique? What is your mission?

L: Our mission is to create modern, stylish, sewing patterns for larger bodies. We start our sizing where other brands begin to taper off their sizes. Our current standard size range begins at 46.5” and ends at a 71.5” hip measurement; however if someone requires a larger size, we will grade it up for them, effectively meaning we do not have an upper size limit on our sewing patterns. We believe body size should not constrain being able to sew a beautiful, handmade, stylish wardrobe.

G: What skills have you found useful in partnering with Jess to start a business?

L: Since I have training in both patternmaking and grading, and Jess has expertise in marketing, we do everything in house. Our patterns are created specifically for fat bodies and have space for tummies, bottoms, and arms. I have developed a non-linear grading system for us that effectively creates a new block every couple of sizes. This means our patterns fit very well for most people with few, if any alterations.

Leila wears a pale silver duster coat. It is shin length, but open at the front apart from a tie at the high waist.
Elbe textiles Somerfield coat in a Potter and Co silver linen

G: The plus size market is changing rapidly in the sewing community, but there are still struggles. What changes would you like to see next?

I’d love to see more quality, plus sized patterns! I really enjoy sewing other people’s patterns because I get to just enjoy the process rather than constantly noting down things I need to remember or improve! I generally reach for patterns that I know are created by trained patternmakers because I can trust that they are going to work. I especially love Elbe Textiles and In the Folds patterns.

I would like to see sizing going beyond even the “extended” sizing that companies are currently offering, although it’s a great start and we are moving in the right direction. Many companies state that it’s difficult to make patterns for larger bodies and they don’t have the resources to do so. I disagree that it is more difficult that straight sizes. Professional patternmakers and graders have developed and honed specific spatial skills over many years and should have the ability to look at a body or group of bodies and make flat patterns to fit them. If a company is committed to size inclusion, then they may need to hire a freelance patternmaker or grader with the necessary skills.  

G: Pattern testing is a hot topic at the moment. What are your views on it?

L: It certainly is! To be honest I was quite surprised to learn about it when I joined this community. At first, Muna and Broad went with the status quo and provided a finalized pattern as a thank you to our testers. However, we have you to thank for bringing it up as an important topic for discussion. After this, we provided a fabric stipend or bought quality fabric for our testers in addition to providing them with a finalized pattern. In our latest round that has just gone out (as of March 2020) we have provided a fabric stipend (enough to purchase the required fabric) or actual fabric, and a copy shop sized print if preferred. We will also pay people for other work they do such as creating a guest post for our blog. Our view is that this is just one of the costs associated with releasing a pattern for sale.

G: What skills do you think are essential for people interested in patternmaking?

L: Patternmaking is a professional skill that is learned over time and with experience. I think the best way to learn is by attending an in-person class with a professional patternmaking teacher with industry experience. I also think an excellent garment construction foundation is essential to ensure the order of assembly and patternmaking itself makes sense and is technically solid.

I would encourage anyone who is interested in patternmaking to contact their local college/community college/fashion institute. They often offer night classes or the ability to take a single class at a time.

Leila wears a bright red boilersuit with short sleeves, waist ties, and brass fastenings.
In a self drafted boilersuit made from red vintage rigid denim from Etsy

G: Could you recommend some accounts that people of all sizes should follow to better understand body-positively, size inclusion, and get general inspiration from fabulous fat sewists?

L: Oh wow. There are just so, so many amazing instagrammers. Number one for me is Jess @fat.bobbin.girl, of course! I was a fan of hers way before I plucked up the courage to reach out to her about releasing a pattern. Her style is amazing.

@sierraburrell is a maker of colour who has a fantastic sense of colour combinations. She often delights me with her fabulous outfits. (Sierra was an Editor here at Sewcialists!)

Meg @cookinandcraftin is another incredible maker. Her garments always look fantastic. She is a prolific sewer and she’s great at pressing her garments before taking pics and they always look so good. (Meg was also a Sewcialists editor!)

Megan, @thegreenviolet, is a prolific maker who is currently studying patternmaking at her local community college and she is super detail- and fit-oriented.

@emilybruzzini is an incredibly talented, art teacher, quilter, and sewist. She creates the most astonishing, colourful quilts and her feed is a joy.

I also really love the two Lydias – @whatlydiamade and @styleisstyle. Both are incredible advocates for size inclusivity and diversity. The first Lydia is an amazing textile artist and she made me a bra that is the best fitting bra I have ever owned. The second Lydia is a POC fat model with amazing style.

For general fat positivity I think we should all follow @shooglet for beautiful images of diverse fat folx and @yourfatfriend for a moral compass.

Thank you for talking to us, Leila! Sewcialists, I hope you enjoyed learning about Muna and Broad – I’m so impressed by the way that Leila and Jess have proven it is possible to release modern, trendy patterns that are designed specifically for plus-size bodies. They have created a handful of patterns in a short time, and all my plus-size friends report a great fit right away. Let’s keep dispelling those myths that plus-size bodies are “hard” or “too difficult” to draft for!

Gillian is co-founder of the Sewcialists and her middle name is also Leila! She teaches ESL in Canada and lives with her cats, husband and giant fabric collection.