September has been sewing indie month – to encourage people to discover and buy from independent sewing pattern designers. But which pattern companies are indie and what’s the difference between them and ‘The Big 4’?
The Big 4 – comprises Simplicity (including New Look and Burda), plus Vogue, Butterick and McCalls, all of whom are part of the same group along with Kwik-Sew. So maybe they should really be called The Big 7? Or 2?
In the other camp are the independents (i.e. all the rest) – you’ll find a pretty comprehensive list on Sew Independent.
I’ve used several patterns from Simplicity*, New Look*, McCalls*, Vogue and Kwik-Sew* in the past. This month, I’ve tackled a pattern from Sewaholic. And I’ve previously used patterns by Megan Nielsen*, Colette and Oliver & S.
So what’s the difference?
Buying the pattern
Big 4 patterns are sold by high street retailers and by online retailers like Jaycotts. Indie patterns are available direct from the designer’s website, and many are sold through smaller sewing retailers like Guthrie & Ghani or Backstitch. Most indie patterns are available as .pdfs but some are also available on paper. Most Big 4 patterns are only sold on paper.
Price-wise, the retail price for a Big 4 pattern is usually a bit less, at least in the UK, and when they’re on sale the discounts are bigger.
What are the patterns like to work with?
Indie patterns tend to come with more stylish packaging and more inspiring illustrations – some of the Big 4 photography can be really dated with frumpy photos.
Some indie patterns are printed on tissue, and some on more substantial pattern paper.
Sizing varies, too. While Big 4 Misses patterns all use very similar body measurements on the envelope (although it’s widely thought that Simplicity patterns include a heck of a lot of wearing ease – a sneaky form of vanity sizing, perhaps?), each indie pattern company has its own system. A small selection of Big 4 and indie patterns also come in different cup sizes (usually A, B, C and D like my 50s sundress). The Big 4 all have specific ‘plus size ranges’; some indies cater for larger sizes and some don’t.
I’d say that the Big 4 patterns I’ve used have been marked up more thoroughly to help with fitting than the indies. They’re more likely than indies to include markings such as lengthen/shorten lines, hiplines and bust points, and to indicate the measurements like the distance from the hip to the natural waistline. This makes them easier to alter to fit you without a toile, I think.
I’ve found that the level of detail and clarity of the pictures in the instructions can be hit and miss with all the companies I’ve tried so far, which brings me onto far and away the best thing about indie pattern companies – the sewalongs!
What’s a sewalong?
Exactly what it sounds like. The pattern company provides a step-by-step, online guide to sewing the pattern to supplement the instructions. Although they’re usually prepared before the pattern is released, they’re published in bite-sized chunks after its release so you can ‘sew along’ with them. Sewalongs usually give extra tips on choosing fabric, making the garment and includes photos to supplement the line drawings in the pattern instructions. Some indie companies, like Tilly and the Buttons, have taken this one step further, creating an online class you can buy to help you make their garments.
Sewalongs are rare for Big 4 patterns, although an honourable mention must go to the McCalls peacoat #1467sewalong, hosted by House of Pinheiro.
I’m not sure I’d have ended up with a pair of (almost) finished Thurlow shorts without the extra help given in the sewalong from Lladybird. Most sewalongs are brilliant, with extra details, photos and advice, plus you can ask the pattern company questions as you go in the blog comments. But there are one or two that simply repeat the same text as in the pattern instructions or where the designer has sewed the garment in a fabric that makes it hard to follow.
So… Big 4 or indie?
I’m on the fence here. Indie patterns have a lot going for them, and I love the sewalongs. But I wouldn’t write off the Big 4 because there’s so much choice and I do find them easier to fit.
Which do you prefer? And can you recommend a great indie pattern I haven’t tried yet, or a hidden gem among the latest Big 4 collections?
*I tried these patterns before I started this blog, so you won’t find these among my makes on the site.