Evolution of Sewing Instructions, what’s the future holds?

When I look at the evolution of sewing instructions, it does look like a cyclical occurrence. Started with only detachable printed patterns on fashion magazines, with few “to do” overall instructions, them came what we now call vintage patterns, the ones that used to teach home sewist the ropes on how to sew. *Do note there are many vintage patterns without instructions or notches:God bless your mama and grandma on those days. I do love to find ones that includes some fashion advice.

With the creation of mass publishing and clothes production we find mainstream sewing patterns as many of us know still these days: Outdated instructions and bad/lack of illustrations. 
Coming to the modern sewist rescue, indie designers started to appear and dazzled us with beautiful illustrations, clear step by step instructions that holds our hand at every step of the way. With a strong support of blogs, online classes and tutorials as a side aid to us all. 

Recently I have notice that even indie designers are resorting to only providing basic printed explanations and offering us links to the details via online tutorials. That’s not only new designers but our trusted ones that enchanted us a few years ago.

Does the future of patterns printed instructions would be to return it back to basics, with only the bare bones ” to do” and online tutorials will take it’s place on providing in depth details we grown to love. It’s what it’s seens to me. 

What do you think? 
  • That is interesting how instructions are going back to being very minimal. When I was sewing from patterns from 1912 the instructions were so incredibly minimal. I wonder if it’s because women were expected to know how to sew somewhat and were taught from earlier generations. Great thought piece.

  • You make an interesting point and I’m not sure of the answer (maybe there isn’t one). The first thing that comes to my mind is that it’s just a natural progress of a growing business. When the big pattern companies were making patterns way back when, they were still in the beginning stages of their business and had time to devote to more thorough instructions/illustrations. As time went on and they grew, they had to devote more time to other things in order to keep their business growing. As the indie pattern companies grow, they’re going through the same cycle. It’s not that their intentionally doing it, they’re just trying to make do.

  • I agree with your description of the trend… And definitely will continue buying patterns which “hold my hand”. I do love the commodity of online instructions, but indie designers should keep in mind that not all home sewists have a limitless internet access, so depend on written and drawn instructions.

  • oh man I sure hope not! The last two patterns I worked with involved one page instructions with no illustrations. Luckily I knew what I was doing for the most part but for the times I didn’t I spent most of my time googling for help.

  • Rachel, what an excellent post. I totally agree. I love the indie patterns that are or rather was step by step instructions , as in a manual.[Even Our new sewing machines, are doing it.. the manuals are so skimpy with instructions, and you have to go on line to get info].
    I never minded paying the higher prices for the indie patterns, because of the instructions.
    I guess it is just what our world’s technology is changing too.
    Wonder will our children, even be able to buy a pattern without getting it on line???

  • Really interesting question, Rachel! For a basic pattern, I often go my own way. Why insert a zipper or line a dress the way the instructions say when I have a method that works well for me? That said, I love really complicated patterns – how would you sew something like V1342 (one of the crazy Donna Karan patterns) with minimal instructions? It would be near impossible to make sense of.

    So, I think there will always be patterns that demand good instructions. But for the basics, I think on line is great since it allows sewists of all levels to choose the technique that matches their skill level.

  • Since I am fairly new to sewing in general, I have not worked with very many sewing company patterns and they are all contemporary. Even between indie companies and The Big 4, I do notice a difference! Sometimes they are both lacking, and sometimes they do overshare the details. Either way, I’m happy as long as I get a garment out of it!

  • I’ve noticed this myself – the bonus with modern indie patterns is that even if your instructions are hard to understand you can go online and usually find the answer, be it through an unrelated tutorial or (even better) a sewalong – we don’t have that advantage for vintage patterns! I always go online first if I get stuck, and very often I find the answer, much to my relief! It’s interesting to think about how we, as the users, use the instructions and our preferences.

  • Such an interesting question! Personally I’m surprised at how little sewing patterns have changed over the decades considering all the social and technological changes that have happened. If you think about how much other products have changed, it’s kinda crazy how similar the format of sewing patterns is to the original concept.

    When I started sharing my own sewing patterns, I wanted to bring the format up to date for the digital age. At the moment I have two versions of the instructions – a text-based print out (with tick boxes!) for people who know what they’re doing or like Clio said have their own way of doing things; and detailed digital instructions for people who need more help than text or a technical illustration can offer, with lots of photos and detailed explanation, so it’s all there from the outset and the maker doesn’t need to waste time googling for a particular technique. That was my thinking in any case, but it’s great to hear what other people think and like!

    I wonder what patterns will be like in another ten year’s time? If sewing is going to continue to grow in popularity, I imagine (and hope!) they’ll move with the times…

  • The instructions in Burdastyle magazine are so minimal – that you really need another resource to help you if you get stuck – especially if you’re more a visual person. Text instructions alone can be difficult to understand if someone has for example, dyslexia. Having worked in an academic library in the past – the media in which information is produced /stored can be lost if technology changes too. (Remember floppy disks?) Web-based information is transient in the long term. I’m old fashioned – I’m in favour of print. There are books hundreds of years old that we can still access because we can just open it and read it. There is also nothing more valuable than someone actually physically showing you how to do something.

  • I’ve seen all sorts of very involved instructions in Indie patterns, and up until recently, I’ve disagree with the return to very basic instructions. And then I ordered Grainline’s Archer pattern. It still has decent instructions, but it doesn’t spell it out very well, and I find myself following along the sewalong for tough sections like the button bands and collars. I’m wondering if I’ve just gotten used to detailed instructions, or if it’s just been way too long since I’ve done a more complex pattern.

  • I think the various companies and eras have ebbed and flow based on what they perceived their market to be at the time of release. The big pattern makers seemed to have more instruction in eras when home sewing fell away and/or there were more local options were available. So you have the 20’s and 30’s where people didn’t have much money or didn’t live near a local store, which gave way to the 40’s where there were options to purchase but things were rationed/limited combined with new innovations in sewing, such as zippers and rayon, not to mention style and fit differences. But then you move into the 50’s and 60’s where department stores are booming, even in small towns and most people are buying off the rack. So that era didn’t grow up sewing and needs more guidance to buy the product aka patterns.

    Now with indies, I’m noticing a similar trend. They started out catering to a market that didn’t sew so they produced patterns that were a primer. They established a customer base as well as growing an internet based sewing company and now many of their customers don’t need that or they assume a new customer will start with the beginning patterns.

    To be honest, idk if I know how I feel about it. I think it’s an interesting progression and sort of a neutral thing as I think the pendulum will swing back. But to say something not so popular, my current frustration is I feel like the last few major releases by established indie patterns have been well, I wouldn’t say boring but simplistic. I don’t want to call anyone out by name but it is irksome to see a pattern released for $15-25 dollars and find that not only are the instructions underwhelming, but the design is something that could be accomplished with either a tutorial for drafting the pattern or a tutorial explaining how to make slight changes to fairly middle of the road design every pattern company indie or Big 4 has trod before.

    So if there’s anything indie companies should be careful of, it’s that. I want to support indie pattern makers and I think the majority of the sewing community does as well. However, they will have to at least attempt to justify the higher price point. Over all, most indie companies do, they just need to continue to recall that. The braver budding sewists get, the more they will be willing to tackle the fit issues in Big 4 patterns and the indie companies will need to keep that in mind.

  • I love sewing patterns that have pictorial instructions and for me the best are one of the biggies. Back in the early part of the 20th c every woman could sew and even when I was a school sewing was part of the school week. Like HMH I have found a few of the patterns from indies very simplistic and I have tried out quite a few – still rate Butterick and Vogue as my favorites. Really do not like having to view on line tutorials to see how the pattern works, if I buy a pattern and it required explanation it really should be in the packet.

  • i’m glad they are stopping to overexplain everything.. i liked old ways more, back then people were supposed to use their heads and common sense when working on something.. now everybody wants everything served.. instead of thinking it trough a little bit, peeps are more likely to ask someone, no matter how stupid the question may be, i just don’t get that.. i guess that’s why i like burda, and their instructions are so confusing, that i don’t even bother reading them, i just sew (and yes, i’ve made a lots of mistakes with that method of mine, but mistakes are a great thing, we learn from them more than we learn from someone else’s answers

    • I say this everyday at work… People need to use their heads more! Not always rely on trainings to do anything 😉

  • I love patterns that give a simple set of instructions with maybe a few illustrations, but online support for in-depth, more detailed instruction. That way, if you’re experienced you can whiz through the construction, but if you need a little help, you know just where to go!

  • As you know I am passionate about this subject! Vintage patterns actually included fairly minimal instruction as they assumed women learned how to sew thoroughly at school.

    I believe sewing patterns should be a learning tool. As many of us learn through making, a sewing pattern should assume no prior knowledge of sewing and clearly illustrate/explain every step of the process. If it doesn’t, it is likely to become an unused product, and people buy them to use them of course!

    All our educations are very different these days and sewing patterns can open themselves up to a wide audience by being ecplanatory. This encourages people to sew and enjoy making clotbes – people who have never sewn before, not just those that have been
    inducted into the world of sewing at some previous stage of life.

  • Sometimes I find the detailed instructions too much. There is too much to wade through to find the basic steps if you don’t need the hand holding. I think that basic instructions with the pattern with obvious information of where to find the supplemental information online is great.

  • I love detailed instructions – but I am more of a picture person so a SAL or tutorial on line works for me – I can see that it may be hard to put loads of pictures in a tiny envelope. I have some vintage patterns but I have been afraid of starting them yet, Burda patterns are quite minimal and confuse me, but I do like trying out things and use my common sense or build on experience. It is really rewarding too. It is a fine balance between too much and not enough. I really like Sewalholic patterns, I think she has achieved a good balance for me.

  • I’ve always thought that the vintage pattern instructions were minimal because so many women back then were fairly expert seamstresses. It was very common that they sewed all their clothes so they didn’t need detailed instructions. I do like detailed instructions with images. You can always skip over the stuff that you don’t need. That said, I also like using online references too – videos and photos are great.

    When I made a vintage Vogue pattern from the 1950s, I had to think a lot about how to put the neckline together. All the instructions were just on one page whereas today’s Vogue pattern typically has maybe three printed pages. It was a good learning experience that I wouldn’t have had if everything hadn’t been spelled out for me. So that’s a benefit of minimal instructions as well. 😉

  • I like having detailed instructions especially on indie patterns. Sometimes you discover things you never knew before. I understand you may not need it sometime on simple projects but then again it’s hard to cater for each skill level. I also think that there should be extra features on indie patterns given the premium price. Whether they are online or not it doesn’t matter much to me. I like drawings a lot as they are easier to understand than fully written text.