Indie pattern companies v the Big 4

Six sewing patterns from different companies.
Big 4 on the left, indies on the right.

This 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 The Sewing Directory.

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. The Fold Line also now stocks indie and Big 4 patterns.

Many indie patterns are available as PDFs but some are also available in print. Most Big 4 patterns are only sold in print.

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?

You might have very strong feelings about PDF v printed patterns (!), but that’s a topic for another day. Here are some of the other differences.

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, or overly glammed up, photos.

Some indie patterns are printed on tissue, and others on more substantial pattern paper. This is often cited as a big advantage of indie patterns, but I’m not convinced. If you plan to trace the pattern, definitely. But if you want to cut straight into it, then you can only see your print placement or the grainline through tissue.

Sizing varies, too. While Big 4 Misses patterns all use very similar body measurements and proportions, each indie pattern company has developed its own block. A small selection of Big 4 and indie patterns also come in multiple cup sizes (like my 50s sundress). The Big 4 all have specific ‘plus size ranges’; many indies cater for larger sizes but some don’t.

Related to sizing is the idea of ease – the difference between your body measurements and the garment measurements. Big 4 patterns are often criticised for having too much ease, but I don’t fully agree with this. Ease is just a personal preference. Since the mid-1990s we’ve all got used to wearing knit fabrics and closer-fitting clothing so I’d argue it’s just that our expectations of ease have changed – and the Big 4 pattern companies have stayed the same. The solution – as ever – is to always make a toile.

I’d say that the Big 4 patterns are more likely 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 it easier to alter them to fit than a pattern that only includes notches.

I’ve found that the level of detail and the clarity of the pictures in the instructions can be hit and miss with all the different companies I’ve tried so far, which brings me onto far and away the best thing about indie pattern companies – 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 on release, or even years later. Sewalongs usually give extra tips on choosing fabric, making the garment and include 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.

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 out there that simply repeat the same text as in the pattern instructions or where the designer has sewed the garment in a hard-to-see-on-screen 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?

4 comments

  1. I have the BIGGEST love for indie patterns because it was companies like By Hand London and Colette that made me start sewing and made it an approachable hobby! However, as I’m advancing I’m giving the big 4 a chance because they have more causal, wearable patterns and so much variety.
    I think they are still both very separate and I wouldn’t choose a side. I like that the indie companies have made the big 4 rethink about how they interact with their customers.

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    • Agreed. I love that the Big 4 are finally realising that (at least among my friends) we get most of our patterns online today – so we want to talk about them and compare them online too.

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  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post. My beef with so many of the indie patterns is that they seem to lack any sophistication in terms of style, fit and details. There are a lot of bags out there that pass for clothing. I prefer my clothing to be well-fitted and quite tailored. With a few exceptions, I have found the styles not to my personal taste. That being said, even the big 4 are succumbing to the shapeless. Vogue not so much which is probably why most of my patterns that I didn’t design myself are Vogues. 🙂

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    • I think you’ve hit on a really good point here. Modern designers (indie and big 4) turn out a large proportion of designs that don’t need much fitting – probably because it means more people will get a garment that fits fine, and be happy with the results. For beginners and people who like those styles, that’s enough. But if (like me) you learnt to sew because you wanted to buy fitted clothing and RTW wasn’t working for you, then yet another shapeless tent dress pattern is close to useless. I’m told that vintage patterns are the way to go…I’m just a bit scared to try one!

      Liked by 1 person

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