If you’ve been following our blog for any length of time, you know that customization is a big theme here. Sometimes people call it “pattern hacking,” but I’ve always preferred to use the term “customizing.” To me, customizing is a positive term that conveys the act of thoughtful crafting while hacking has negative connotations.
Whatever you call it, many of you have become quite good at altering sewing patterns to make them your own. During the eight years that our company has been in business, I’ve shared many customizing tutorials with you, and many of you have contributed customizing ideas and tutorials to the blog as well. For that we are grateful.
You’ve made some wonderful things using these tutorials, too! Customizing patterns is one of the ways in which the community has grown around our patterns and our small company. You ask questions (our discussion forums are a great place for them), share ideas, and post photos of the things you make. Sharing inspirational images and sewing ideas is a great way to find, learn, and develop new skills.
Customizing patterns has been on my mind a lot for the last couple of years (more than I have let on here), and I’m going to be talking a lot about it this fall. But, first, let me tell you a little story about me that may help you understand why I’m so passionate about the topic.
Twenty-five years ago when I first landed in New York to take an entry-level job with a book publisher, I regularly haunted the garment district and its many fabric stores after work. (This was long before Project Runway, which made this a more mainstream pastime.) New York was new to me, and the culture shock was real. I had grown up shopping at JoAnn Fabric stores, where you could find everything in one place: fabric, notions, books, tools, and cabinets full of sewing patterns. But the fabric stores in New York’s garment district served real-live fashion designers, and the fabric selection was like nothing I had ever seen before.
The trouble was, though, that while I could get amazing fabrics it was nearly impossible to find sewing patterns in Manhattan. I quickly realized why. Designers would envision a style and then make a pattern for it themselves. They didn’t need or want sewing patterns. So the fabric stores that served them didn’t carry patterns.
Oh, the possibilities that were open to you if you knew how to drape or draft flat patterns yourself! Once I realized this, I was determined to learn these skills. I stalked the bookstore at FIT until I found the school’s basic (and very expensive) patternmaking textbooks, which I purchased and brought home. My pattern-making education was about to begin!
Except that it wasn’t. The books were so technical and used so many terms that I didn’t understand, that I couldn’t even begin. If I was going to learn this skill, I needed to take classes. But Todd and I were scarcely able to pay our rent with my tiny publishing salary and his graduate student stipend, and we couldn’t possibly afford patternmaking classes. My dreams were dashed. For the time being.
Flash forward eight years. Todd was done with graduate school and had a job, and we had saved a little money. I had worked my way up the career ladder a bit, only to realize that I didn’t want to work in publishing or in finance anymore. I really wanted to work in fashion, but there was only one way to make that happen. I quit my Wall Street job and applied to a special degree program at New York’s famed Fashion Institute of Technology. This time I was going to learn patternmaking properly, once and for all. I was going to be come a clothing designer.
And I did! One year later, I walked out of FIT with a diploma, confidence in my skills, and an astonishing wealth of knowledge I couldn’t have assembled from books or from teaching myself. I had worked harder during that year than I thought possible. I had studied with professors who had decades of experience, and they shared their knowledge with us every day.
I took tailoring from an Italian gentleman who was as old as my grandparents and who taught us all the traditional techniques. I learned draping from a lovely elderly gentleman who was on a first-name basis with all the important fashion designers in New York. I spent hours learning to express my designs in fashion illustration classes. And I took extra courses in patternmaking because that was the skill that fascinated me more than all the others.
While the coursework was phenomenal, my learning wasn’t limited to the classroom. FIT ran a series of lectures and demonstrations where they brought in fashion greats to speak with us. I got to hear legends like Pauline Trigere, Diane von Furstenburg, and Isaac Mizrahi speak. And I got to meet fashion journalists, CEOs, industry lawyers, and manufacturers. During my program’s capstone course, Bob Mackie worked with us individually to put together a tailored collection. It was an incredible experience and worth every all-nighter I pulled that year.
Since ending my time at FIT, I’ve put that education to work for fashion houses large and small. I’ve worked in sample rooms, conducted hours of fittings, and learned more about the technical side of the business as well as the creative side. It’s all added to the knowledge and experience that I gained in school.
But it wasn’t until I started working with all of you that I began to realize that many home sewists have the same design gene and creative craving that I had. You demonstrate it every time you take a pattern and make interesting and fun customizations to it in order to make it unique and your own.
As I thought through your eagerness to go “off-label” with sewing patterns to realize your own creative vision, I had a thought. I began to wonder if I could teach you the pattern making skills I learned without requiring you to quit your job and go back to school. As I pondered the question, I began to realize that I could, indeed, do it. And I could do it in a new, innovative way that would give you the ability to do things you never thought possible! And so I undertook a new and different kind of project—with you in mind. I’ll tell you more about this project next Tuesday.
Like my first boss at Ralph Lauren used to say, “Come back later. It will be fun!”
But while you are waiting for Tuesday, tell me a little about your own sewing customizations. Do you have a favorite tutorial? Have you ever been really surprised that you were able to make something you thought would be much more difficult than it actually was?