Jun 21, 2013

Patterns, pattern writing----my thoughts

Some background:
My friend Norma and I often chat on the weekends via instant messenger, her being way up there in BC and me down here in Alabama.   We surf, we share links of patterns, blogs, tutorials of things we might be interested in making--been doing this since 2006.  We have more ideas than time but it is fun to look and comment.  Sometimes Cher, Pat and Pam join in but primarily it is Norma and I who really get revved up about this project or that, filing it away in that "someday" file.  We tease each other about who is the instigator, which of us in the bad influence over the other.

Sometimes we actually settle on a pattern, pick out our fabric, set up a time and sew "together" over the miles, again with the help of IM and  "check your email".   Other times we work individually sewing during the week and send progress reports.  This recent purse pattern was one that she suggested, that she already owned.  She wanted to make it and I thought it was cute, a bit intriguing with the snap closure.  Who can't use another purse in your own choice of fabrics??  I got the pattern too, figuring she would join in at some point. 

Well, this time it evolved differently.  She wanted me ( or Pam) to go first as she was not understanding the pattern.  We both thought Pam should be the "guinea pig" as she makes a lot of purses and has a lot of general sewing background.  In the end I was the "test pilot" for this pattern.  I have a background in garment sewing, learning from my mom but when quilting came along, clothing, purses, craft projects, more or less, fell by the wayside.  Who has time for that when a pile of quilts await?? 

I am between blog hops and had a few days I could spare and decided to try out the pattern.  I found most of the fabric on my shelf, added a tad more of one since I only had a fat quarter and got started earlier in the week.  It did not take long to see why Norma wanted someone else (Pam or I) to try it first and give suggestions. What would you change or do differently??  There were a few things that had us both going " HUH?  I don't follow"--- her in the reading and me, in the follow through. This is all documented in recent posts.

Norma in reading my post commented---
"I really think pattern designers should be doing more testing before putting their patterns out on the market. In fact, there should be a "this pattern was tested on real live quilters" designation that pattern designers could earn if their patterns were indeed tested on people like us. This would definitely help in the decision on whether or not to buy the pattern. Are any pattern designers out there listening? Obvious things like how to treat directional fabric should be included in patterns-- I know when I was in home-ec in high school the patterns we were using to make clothing definitely included comments on how to deal with directional prints. I am thrilled you are my test pilot on this bag!"

Thought provoking, I thought.  Something like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval then?  Some emails flew back and forth.  Some points I am going to include here, actually.

Later she told me via chat---

"when we used to have horses, there was a saying that it cost the same to keep an ugly horse as it did to keep a pretty horse - and who wants an ugly head hanging over that barn door!  
Well something similar can be said for quilt patterns.  It costs the same to buy a well written quilt pattern as it does a poorly written pattern so why waste your money on a poorly written pattern!  The cost of fabric and other materials can not be dismissed these days.  If I am going to spend the money on the supplies to make a quilt, I as the quilter, want some assurances that the pattern is written to a certain standard.  Perhaps we need to start the FAB stamp of approval.  Atkinson getting 5 stars and others....."

Good points, my friend.  Honestly, I am not really picking on this particular set of designers.  Neither is Norma.  It is not the first time, or the last, that something is going to have me confused. No one wants to waste their time or their money on a "bad" product.   As I said, I am a quilter.  I understand quilting.  I am a student of quilting, not home dec and purse making.  I can do a passable job, I understand construction and what something should look like in the end.  It is a process, like a recipe, that depends on your doing the preceding steps correctly before you continue on to the next. 

For the sake of discussion and taking into account my sewing past experiences, what makes for a good pattern and why are some "bad" or seemingly incomplete? Is it just me having problems comprehending or it is them??  Probably a combination of both?

My theory:

1) Some design but cannot sew in a practical manner.   They are artists, not sewists, perhaps lacking the basic sewing skills that some of us learned at our mama's knee, in 4-H or high school home ec.  Some, I know, farm the actual making whatever it is out to someone else to do the grunt work. (Look at the magazine credits sometime or on the downloadable patterns---it is enlightening)   Then that person brings their own sewing skills into the process and makes it work.  They have a picture for the pattern jacket or the magazine article.

2)  Now we know that we are going to get a good pattern with Atkinson Designs. She would most deservedly get the Quilter Seal of Approval. We know that these were actually tested by real, live quilters.  We see them sewing on her blog.  Any pitfall has been addressed down to which direction to press the seams.  Thorough,well thought through and it shows.  I may not agree with how she does long sashing rows, but that is about the only thing I ever change. 

3) Some people are not pattern writers, technical writers.   I'm not but sometimes I have to try to write a hand out for the Belles.  It is far easier to DO something step by step than write down those steps.  You have to think out every blessed step, like a recipe. Leave out one sentence or assume that they know more than they do and you will have someone going "HUH? I don't follow".

Recently I walked Bev through the process of making a needle roll like mine, giving the girls a handout I had written. One of the girls was taking pictures and scribbling notes in the margins. Was it bad directions or her pictures will supplement the reading?  Don't know but she must have felt it was needed to cement the steps in her mind.  This leads into my next point. 

4) Lack of clear diagrams or graphics.  Which is the right or the wrong side of the fabric in that picture, for example.  A lot of it has to do with how I learn, how our brains are wired.  I daresay many of us are visual learners. Read, yes but pictures help--- what should it look like at this point.  Does it match what I am holding in my hands?  If it doesn't, then where did I go wrong?

5)  Looking at this a little further, where do we go when we need help, when we don't understand?

  • A local friend/quilter who we feel knows more than we do?  Uh, I am usually the person someone asks, not answers, LOL. The "go- to" gal. Of course, I don't know everything and it is possible that they might have the answer.   I miss having my mom close by and my dear friend Joy who left us a few years back.  These two are and were, respectively, MY go-to gals.
  • Reference books in my quilting library---I love you Quilter's Complete Guide. 
  • Maybe a magazine article on the subject if I can lay hands on it 
  • Oh yeah, the internet! Google any topic and you find PDF files.  You tube videos.   Sewing/quilting forums.  Feedback in blog comments.  In our case it was "every pilot needs a co-pilot" and she came up with some links to bail me out for that final step.
  • Mostly though, think about how spoiled we are by quilting tutorials!  Less head scratching. BUT how do traditionally written paper patterns that fold into those plastic envelopes compete with that and NOT end up being a book instead??  Bless those who share and are only a click away.
  • email the designer--most have a website and a "contact us" means or an email listed on the pattern.

I guess what it all boils down to, it is not WHAT you know or share but how well you can communicate it.   It may make perfect sense in your brain but will it be understandable to someone else?  As a pattern user, we each bring our own skill set to any task we undertake.  We each have a certain level of confidence or discomfiture in undertaking new things.  In that case there is bound to be a little stumble along the way, some frustrations and "I am not following this".  Perception becomes one's version of reality and it colors our execution of the task at hand.

OR that is what I think and to quote my friend, a lefthanded quilter "But then again, it’s probably just me."   See if anyone reads this or agrees with my theories.   


  1. I agree that patterns should be tested - I don't write patterns yet, but when I write directions, I try to write them as I am making something, and taking photos along the way. Even with that, I think it is best to take the pattern and follow it exactly, to see if you missed an important step, and even better, have someone else follow the pattern, since they will not have my knowledge set that I am assuming everyone else has. I think the best thing to do when a pattern is confusing is to ask the designer. That way, the designer knows there is an issue, (so they can fix it in subsequent printings and subsequent patterns) and you get the right help to make that exact item.

    1. I had said email the designer, meaning for clarification, but I did not think about the reason you mentioned. It WOULD allow them to make the modifications to that pattern/printing and ones that follow. Good point, Shasta!! If you and others indicated that it was a sticking point, then it would demonstrate the need to followup. This demonstrates what we both were saying----a different viewpoint, skill set applied to the same situation.

      How many books have you seen from the same author that have the same basic, school house, technique pages in each of their publications? Like the whole first chapter is repeated, book by book. so the book will stand alone in some cases.

      I might still decide that I like another way I did things on something else because I have enough experience to know it might work with the change. Other times it is best to follow to the letter before tinkering with the "recipe"

      THX for the visit and the comment. I am replying here as you came to my email as a no reply blogger and I don't use google plus. I hope you don't think I ignored your very valid points.

  2. GREAT TIMING, Linda!! - ;))

    BOB has a toast/post scheduled for Tuesday on this very topic - pattern writers - but a different issue - "Finished Size". In addition to that - I have trouble with -

    Patterns with MATH ERRORS. If you can't get the correct number of HST from THAT number of squares - you will come up short if you follow the instructions. They probably wrote the pattern for one size and changed it to another size somewhere along the line but didn't bother to recalculate the number(s) needed for the new size - sloppy if you ask me - ;))

    Posts that have been corrected/edited since the original post - with no mention of the correction/edit and no follow-through to the original "printer friendly" PDF file. If you print the PDF - you get the original WRONG information. And if you comment - it is taken as criticism - or you get the most popular response - "Things happen." But by posting the pattern they get FREE proofreaders/pattern testers/quilters who are willing to point out errors or problems with the pattern. Maybe they should be grateful for the FREE help - but some are not.

    AND my all-time favorite -
    Patterns that say -
    That's why my LHQ posts are written in Leftish -
    I get to say -
    "If you are Right-handed - just reverse it" -
    And it's not as easy as it sounds - ;))

    It just seems to me that pattern writers should pay more attention to the basics - make the pattern CLEAR and CONCISE and CORRECT - might even sell more that way - ;))

    But then again, it's probably just me - ;))

    1. Just so happens that I have a project today that I would have been a great help to know the finished size as I want to draw it up in EQ so I can audition colors before I do the cutting. Would it kill them to say it should finish around, blah, blah, blah as a target range when piecing??

      I thought the math was wrong as well until I pulled out my diagonal measurement table. BUT now I don't trust them and pulled out some scraps to make a test block NOT with the real fabrics.

  3. Coming from another lefthanded quilter (and knitter) - sometimes I simply end up doing things the other way around.

    But seriously, why not test patterns? I mean, I knit a fair amount, and on the forums I'm a member of, the designers always ask for testknitters (atleast two or three, or more). Perhaps a read-through would be enough, in some cases.

    I hate patterns that get me stuck.. I've got one already, bugging my brain due to lack of instructions on something that -perhaps - is very obvious to others, but to me, you might as well have written the instructions in chinese.

  4. I have written one pattern and I was so obsessive about it being workable even for a novice that it took a LONG time to write. It was several pages... and it is a fairly easy pattern.
    I had testers. However, it was too time consuming for me to think about writing another at this point in my life.

  5. I always have to restrain myself about ranting over many poorly written patterns, even though I know some of them have been tested - they still can confuse the heck out of me! Or recently I was blog hopping/linking and found a very well known quilter/dyer who had a great photo of a quilt she had made and was offering the pattern for sale-limited amounts available. It featured triangles and this year I want to conquer my fear of sewing triangles- so I took the plunge and bought the pattern online thru her shop. It was a huge disappointment to me, though it was in color, it turned out to be a "free" handout from some well known fabric company-with bare bones instructions. I felt misled and, I will certainly never buy from this person again. There are simply hundreds of bloggers with etsy shops that sell quilts, or patterns, or sewists related items.
    I am not sure I will feel able to trust buying from any of them without a better way of feedback from other customers.

    I do however, trust your feedback and directions Linda! we speak the same language :-)


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