Over the last few months I've had several readers write and ask about how I design and produce my sewing patterns. I thought it might be interesting to see how a pattern is developed right from the early stages of first idea through to pattern development, testing and the production of the samples. So here goes – from conception to birth of a sewing pattern.
Stage 1 – inspiration and conception
How does a pattern design start? For me, it often comes from considering what I personally want to wear or make. A LOT of time and materials go into developing a pattern and if it wasn't something I was personally interested in, I would quickly loose interest.
Inspiration can come from several sources. Obviously for a lot of crafters, inspiration comes from Pinterest. That's why we collect all of our favorite pictures and links into such nice organised boards, so we can find them later. Like an online ideas and inspiration scrapbook. I also find myself looking at people differently when I'm out and about. “What are you staring at?” my husband will ask and typically my reply will be along the lines of “I love that dress. I wonder how easy it would be to sew?” or “I'd love to make a bag like that.”
I've taken to carrying around a note pad and pen wherever I go and when I see something I like, I'll draw a quick sketch and some notes. It was from one of my sketches that this Carry-All bag started its life.
I'll sit with a big roll of my pattern making paper and draw a rough sketch, and mark on a few initial ideas and measurements. It's pretty scrappy at this stage and I'm not exactly what you would call an artist!
But the basic idea is there and recorded. Time spent – about 45-60 minutes.
Stage 2 – first days
So I have an idea, but will it work? How would it come together and function in real life? Do I want to spend days making this bag/project/garment over and over again? If the answer is yes, I'll start to draw up a few scale drawings and see how the proportions look.
I'll often at this stage make up the pattern in paper and tape it all together to get an idea of how it might look. Then if something is glaringly off, its too tall, too short, to narrow etc, I should be able to pick it up in the first 3d paper format.
My scale drawing is altered at this stage, and further 3d models made up if needed until I'm happy with the design.
Then I think about fabric. Assuming this bag is going to be made from fabric 44 inches wide, do any of my pattern pieces exceed this? Or will the project use far too much fabric or require too many accessories to make it uneconomical or unattractive to sew?
I'll do a rough idea of how much fabric it's going to need to see how reasonable this might be. Assuming fabric is often bought by the yard, I'll try to get the pattern to fit roughly within a yard of fabric, or two for a dress. It's too early to tell for sure, but an early indication is a good idea.
Time spent – 4 – 5 hours
Stage 3 – concept testing with an ‘Ugly'
So my idea might seem to work out on paper, even in a 3d model, but what about fabric? Will it be easy to construct? Will I run across any problems I hadn't through of?
I draw the pattern straight onto some fabric following my scale drawings, then cut out with a wide seam allowance. I'll sew together my first ‘Ugly' version using what ever $1 fabric or remnants I have hanging around. I was lucky to get this bag out of a single piece. I often make my first test out of all mix and match scraps! Everything is basted in place so I can reclaim my zippers etc for use again.
Introducing Ugly !
So this gives me an idea of how the bag will look made up in fabric, how the construction works, how the proportions work out. I make a few rough notes as I sew, change a few dimensions. I don't usually have a complete disaster at this stage, thank goodness.
Time spent – depends on complexity of pattern – approx 4-5 hours
Stage 4 – drafting the pattern
Now it's time to start work on the first draft of the pattern diagram itself. For a pattern like a bag where there is only one size, I can draft straight onto the computer. But for a clothing pattern where it has to be graded, I'll go back to my big roll of pattern drafting paper and draw out the basic pattern. I always start with my own size and then I'll usually draft up and down from there, grading to the different sizes.
Once my pattern is drawn up on the drafting paper, then I need to cut it up into smaller pieces that will fit in my scanner, and scan each piece individually. Its a bit tedious. But next comes the puzzle. Once all the pattern pieces are scanned, I open them in my drafting software and have to put them all back together again to make the whole pattern. Getting everything just so, so that all the lines and exactly matching can be laborious and I certainly need my reading glasses and some coffee for staring at the screen so long.
Now that I have my hand-drawn pattern in the software, I redraw all of the pattern lines and sizes, add in markings, different colors and dotted lines for the different sizes.
If I'm making up a bag, like in this example, I'll draft straight into the software because there is just one size. Using my scale drawings from earlier, and the notes I made during the sewing of Ugly, I make my first pattern pieces. I add in some notes where I think I might want to make changes or double check. Version 1 is complete.
Time spent – depends on type and complexity of pattern. 4-6 hours, more for clothing with graded sizing, 8 hours or more.
A note about software. I use Serif Draw to draw up the patterns in digital form. I found it quick and easy to learn the basics, but I was already familiar with using Photoshop and it's not much different. It is however, much more suited to drawing line diagrams than Photoshop and any of the other software I tried, and ideally suited to making up patterns. It has the ability to export directly to PDF which is useful, and it doesn't come with the extortionate price that you would find for Adobe Illustrator for example. If you want to draft your own patterns, I recommend Serif Draw.
I also invested in a drawing tablet so that instead of trying to draw straight lines with my mouse, I can draw them more naturally with a pen-like tool on the digital tablet and it draws lines in the software. It's much easier to get curved lines accurately this way.
Stage 5 – checking the pattern
The pattern is printed for the first time. Did it print correctly? Are there any glaring mistakes, wrong lines or colors, lines that don't match up? Are all of the pieces there, did I forget anything? Did I remember to add in the seam allowances!
The printed pattern pieces are assembled and carefully checked against the scale drawings and notes made during the construction of Ugly for any revisions. Pattern seams that are intended to match each other are checked in length.
I make any notes on the pattern pieces for things to check during construction or alter in the next pattern revision. Any glaring errors are corrected now.
Time spent – 2 hours.
Stage 6 – the ‘wearable muslin'
The next stage of testing is the first real test of the pattern. The end result of this test if everything goes well will be a usable or wearable project, although probably not perfectly constructed for this first trial run.
I want to be very accurate so I use the exact materials the pattern is designed for rather than scraps and if it turns out well then it might be suitable for marketing photos, so I try it pick a semi-nice fabric for this first trial. I also make sure I cut perfectly accurately, perfectly on grain, and on the reverse of my fabric I mark the stitching lines on each piece to make sure that during construction I am sewing with the accurate seam allowances at all times.
During the sewing process I refine the order and method of construction and make notes n the order as I go along. Sometimes my seam ripper comes in very handy at this stage as I work out the best order of construction, or continue to make some more small changes to the pattern pieces.
Eventually my first trial piece is completed.
Time spent – for this bag, 8 hours.
Stage 7 – the ‘Instructions' bag
The pattern pieces are revised again if needed following the first ‘wearable muslin' test in Stage 6. Usually only minor changes are needed at this stage.
Then it's time to make another piece, using the revised pattern pieces. Each time, I print a new pattern and use it to cut the pattern pieces, just in case I've made a mistake with any of my revisions.
Using the order of construction notes and the latest pattern revision, another garment/project/bag is carefully sewn. This one is going to be the basis of the written and photographic instructions so again it has to be carefully and accurately sewn.
As I sew, I take several photos of each stage of the construction and I start to draft long-hand notes about the construction which will form the written instructions in the pattern later. I try to take a lot of photos just in case any of them are blurry later on. But photography still isn't one of my strengths for sure!
Everything should go together smoothly at this stage, my construction order should work out nicely, and the finish should look good. My stitching needs to look nice and neat for the working photos (although it often doesn't and I don't really mind, I'm just human). Over the course of making this pattern it went from early morning to late evening so getting consistent lighting and color on the photos can be difficult.
My seam ripper is still my friend but we shouldn't need to get together on this version.
Time spent – 8 hours
Stage 8 – the ‘video' bag
At this stage, this is usually at least the 4th time I will have sewn this bag so I should be pretty confident that its all going to work and that I can talk someone though the construction steps in the right order. I get out my video and tripod and get to work.
I try to pick an attractive fabric and one that is light enough to show up well during the video. I'll use a thread that isn't too close in color usually to the fabric so that if I need to, I can show some of the stitching. It takes a long time.
Of course it doesn't all go in one take. I often stumble, stutter, get tongue-tied or just find myself rambling on and on without getting to the point! Sometimes my cat likes to get in on the action by jumping up mid-shot as he thinks I am talking to him, and he lies all over the fabric. Or my husband will shout up to ask if I want a cup of coffee. In which case – I'll need a re-take. Sometimes several times.
Eventually the video is completed. My sewing is completed. I'll usually have sewn the same thing at least 4 times, sometimes more, specially for a clothing pattern where I want to get a good fit or perfect a particular styling.
Time spent – 8 hours (3 changes of video battery and a lot of coffee)
Stage 9 – the editing
Now it's time to move away from the sewing machine and on to the computer. I have a lot of photos and videos to edit!
I start by typing up all of the step by step instructions, including materials list, fabric recommendations, sizing details if needed, and any special notes needed for the construction. I try to include a few links back to my site for the tutorials page, or links to other sewing patterns to bring some traffic back from the patterns to my site where I can.
I set up fabric layouts in Serif and try to get the best possible use of fabric. The Carry All bag has layouts for the main fabric, the contrast and the lining. I should now be able to get an accurate idea of how much fabric is needed. Of course if the fabric only works in one direction or needs pattern matching, more will be needed so I can't tell you exactly what you might need.
It takes a while to type up all of the instructions and keep re-reading them to make sure it is both concise and makes sense. It's only too easy for me, I've sewn the pattern several times already, but I need to write in a way someone who has not sewn this type of project before can understand and not make a mistake.
If I haven't done already, I'll need to take the proper shots of the finished project to go into the blog post, and for use in marketing the pattern. Usually this is the most traumatic part of the whole process! I'm terribly camera shy and hate to have my photo taken so I've always got a strained expression on my face, and my husband gets all tense because I'm tense and we usually shout at each other. At least the bag can't shout back in this example. But getting a good setting can be difficult because the wind is always blowing strongly so my hair looks silly, or the skirt blows up or the bag blows away! But we get there in the end.
The written instructions are finished in their first draft form and ready for checking.
Then it's time to edit the video and cut out all the bloopers. I just use Windows Movie Maker that came on my computer. It's easy but it can be fiddly to try to make good transitions between the shots and the video editing takes longer than I would like. If I got it all right the first time, it would be much quicker!
The finished video for this bag came out at 40 minutes long so I split this into 6 smaller sections to correspond with sections within the written instructions, so a reader can only watch the parts they want to.
Videos are saved, uploaded into YouTube overnight, linked together annotated, descriptions and keywords added.
Time spent – 6 hours
Stage 10 – the pattern testing team
It's time to see what the team think! I'll send an email to the pattern testing team to let them know the latest pattern is available. I send some photos, usually just a few quick snapshots at this stage, give them details on materials and sizing. Not every pattern is everyone's cup of tea so not everyone wants to sew everything. But usually a good number will apply to put the design and instructions through their paces.
We chat back and forth during the construction process, I clarify any points, read through all their suggestions and I always really enjoy looking at the photos of the finished items. The team – all of you – you are amazing! Thank you all so much.
A deadline for completion is set and I'll review all the comments, review forms and feedback left during the review process, and save all of the photos submitted.
Time spent – varies. Approx 2 hours to upload files and set up and send emails
Stage 11 – final revisions
The feedback on the pattern is in. Hopefully it's good with no major issues found. Any minor adjustments suggested to the pattern are carried out. Instructions are revised to take into account the suggestions from the pattern testers. Revised files are saved and uploaded.
Time spent – about 6 hours
Stage 12 – uploads, launch and promotion – the pattern is born
It's time to bring the pattern into the world. It's been a long time in the making, usually around 6 weeks. I make the video lessons public on YouTube. I'll load the pattern and instructions onto Craftsy so that readers can easily add the pattern to their cart and download it from there.
The blog post is written including a selection of the pattern tester photos and feedback, and I design the graphics and photo collages to use in the blog post and for marketing the pattern. The post is scheduled to go live and I put a note in my diary.
On the day the post and pattern goes live on So Sew Easy, I spend some time promoting and listing details of the project and pattern across other sewing related sites to bring in more traffic to the launch, and hopefully even a sale or two!
Time spent – 3.5 hours
Stage 13 – start all over again with the next one!
I kept a record of time spent on this Carry-All bag pattern just to see how long it took from start to finish to develop and publish this pattern. I was amazed at how long it took:
- inspiration and conception – 1 hour
- first days – 4-5 hours
- concept testing and ugly – 5 hours
- drafting the pattern – 6 hours
- checking the pattern – 2 hours
- the wearable muslin – 8 hours
- the instructions bag – 8 hours
- the video bag – 8 hours
- the editing – 6 hours
- the pattern testing team – 2 hours
- final revisions – 6 hours
- upload, launch and promotion – 3.5 hours
Total time invested in developing this Carry-All Bag Pattern – 60.5 hours approximately. A full 6-7 days work.
When I look at it like this, including the time taken and all of the materials used in the process, it's a lot of hard work and expense to design a pattern. This is one of the reasons that prompted me to start offering some paid-for patterns as well as the free ones. That is a lot of hours work to put in to give away all the patterns for free!
Some are of course more popular than others, some get more sales, some take less time to develop than this Carry-All Bag. Do I enjoy it and is it worth it? Yes, I do enjoy it, and no I don't get enough sales on each pattern to make it ‘worth it', but I still love doing it anyway and I'll keep on doing it every month and hopefully get better and better too. Practice makes perfect.
Watch out later this month for the Carry All Bag release.
Amendment 17 April. I just came across this course online while I was looking to learn more about pattern drafting on the computer. I've looked at a few of the free videos the lady offers and they are very good, although she is using Adobe Illustrator, a different software to what I use. But it looks a lot easier in Illustrator than what I am working with and perhaps won't take anywhere near as long to design, draft, grade and publish a pattern with this course. If you are looking to design your own patterns, this course is certainly worth a look.
Authored by: Deby at So Sew Easy