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I am a mother, a grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon



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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The future of the big paper pattern companies

If you have a collection of Big 4 paper patterns it might be a good thing to hold on to them.

Some of these patterns were very good. However right now it seems to me that the future of the brands we have all used for so long is wobbly at best. 

Now I am a big believer, not much choice, in change being the only constant. But it does make me sad to know that the future of the patterns I have sewed from my whole life appears to be insecure.

Now the Big 4 -Vogue, McCalls, Butterick and Simplicity- (the first three now owned by one outfi)t are no longer stand alone sewing pattern companies. Instead they seem to be the holdings of other entities whose business seems often to be what they used to be called "sundries." We, the sewists, are no longer who they really are about.

Maybe the idea of a big centralized pattern company has had its time. Maybe it's the turn of smaller, more nimble companies (some not so good, some excellent) to take over. Maybe this is all OK and part of the industry's reconfiguring itself naturally.

But I wonder where these companies will be the end of this coming year.

Simplicity/New Look/printed Burda

Now I can only speak to these patterns based on what I can see online. A number of years ago Simplicity and New Look decided not to sell in Canada anymore. For this I won't ever quite forgive them. We are next door and we sew a lot up here.

That said, despite a completely annoying and hard to sort through website, Simplicity and New Look seem to be doing a decent job of keeping up with current tastes in clothes. They don't offer a huge selection but they seem to be fairly competitive design wise to the Indies and I do love their persistent offering of vintage patterns. I can see they are making an effort to be relevant and I appreciate that.

I wonder though how long that will last given the gift store orientation of the other products their parent company owns.

Vogue/Butterick/McCalls/Kwik Sew

Wow just wow. 

It seems to me that corporate has more or less given up on Butterick and McCalls. Both those lines had slim Fall season offerings (10 and 9 new patterns respectively) but neither offered anything at all for Winter or Holiday!

Are you kidding me? 

There have always been winter, holiday, early spring by this time in the calendar. Have the staff all been laid off? Things on hold until they figure it out?

And this doesn't even discuss the fact that those fall patterns were about as recycled and ordinary as they could get. 

At this rate I wouldn't be surprised if these lines have faded away by summer. 

Kwik Sew, once a wonderful flagship brand for those who like to sew knits, seems to be rebranded as a sort of craft pattern company. Fine if you sew clothes for dogs and dolls, not so much if you want to sew for yourself - aprons excepted. There is not one garment pattern in the Spring or Winter/Holiday Kwik Sew catalogue.

Which leaves us with Vogue. 

Vogue used to be the home for those marvellous designer patterns we all used. Like it's sister companies Vogue offered little this season - only 12 new patterns in the winter/holiday combo and of course the designer patterns are totally gone.

To give them credit among this slim collection there were some real meaty patterns for real sewists - nice to see after the innumerable easy, similar tee shirts, and pullover dresses in so many Indie lines.

I really hope we can continue to see challenging patterns like these, something for a sewist to think about as well as make, available to us:

So from where I sit we might get to the new year with only Vogue and the Simplicity group producing patterns, with Kwik Sew continuing to go deeper into crafts.

It shouldn't be a surprise. Three pattern companies in one portfolio is a lot unless they are branded to be very different. That didn't happen.

There were some things however that the pattern companies could have done to help themselves. 

At the top of my list would have been:

1. Overhauling fit. What's with the completely dissimilar to RTW fit? Personally I have no patience left for making Big 4 patterns that turned out to be humungous and completely unlike the line art on the envelopes.

2. Better instructions. Instructions needed to be updated to contemporary techniques and machines. Why are for knits patterns still being issued without reference to sergers? What's with the double straight stitched seams instead? Enough with the cut and paste guide sheets apparently composed of instructions written originally years, if not decades, ago.

What do you think? 

Where do you think the big paper pattern companies are going and what, if anything could they do to turn it around? 

And should they?

I'm listening.


bbarna said...

The big 4 lost me a long time ago. After having 3 babies , I just couldn't justify the time and effort to do all the fit changes required to make it work. RTW wasn't much better, as there was not much in plus size in the 90's that worked for my corporate wardrobe. It was a tough decade. I still sewed for my kids during those days. The old Kwik Sew, Green Pepper patterns and Macphee patterns kept me going. In fact the MacPhee workshop had a franchise in Prince George and I bought patterns and took a few classes. They had some basic plus size things that fit. Next was Jalie. I love the fit and styles and I rarely make any major alterations for fit. Many of their patterns lend themselves to interesting hacks and I use them alot because of the multiple sizes in each pattern. I have loved the indie patterns, but now that I am retired I find it very expensive to have to buy the pdf and either have it printed somewhere or use expensive printer ink to diy it. I have plenty of variety now, so I have tapered off on my purchases of these. One thing I have been doing is browsing the thrift stores for old kwik sew patterns. The multi sized patterns on good quality paper have lots of basics for kids and adults. Thanks for the posts and may you have a wonderful New Year.
Barb from PG.

Marion said...

I have come to the opinion that the people managing both the “ Big Four” and the larger fabric stores don’t believe anyone sews anymore. As you say pattern companies had done little to address the needs of modern sewists. It seems like so many other pursuits the sewists of today are very serious about their craft. They are willing to spend dollars and time in equipment and supplies, pursuing better quality and fit than they can purchase. These people have banded together through social media and indie stores leaving the mainstream of society behind. I am amazed at what small fabric stores charge for very basic lessons along with the very pricey item that leaves with the student. This shows that there is desire to learn and money to be made. Kudos to these business people for realizing this and keeping the torch alive. In my day and your as inspiring sewist we could learn at school, at home, the singer store, from a relative or even a neighbor, not so universally so today. While some of the indie pattern companies are much, very much better than others three things they offer are support, niche markets and a sense that they care about you. If you have an issue you can message them direct or through their group like Jalie, if you want to sew for the man in your life or yourself as a male sewist go to Thread Theory or Jalie, if you are a specific shape try Sewaholic etc. When you need a specific or high end fabric/ finding etc you are unlikely to find it among all the home decor, housewares & bits cluttering your local national fabric store. With a littlie searching you will locate it/ them at a small indie shop where the owner is tuned into what today’s sewist want. These small designers are also great at promoting each other. Along with directly supporting each other’s products they promote through social media and podcasts etc. I feel unless both the Big Four and large national fabric stores start addressing what people want they will disappear because today’s sewist don’t want what these companies chose to offer them.

MizzSmartyPants said...

I think this has been a bad year for lots of reasons, but I saw this article about how there is only one company in the entire country that prints tissue paper patterns and they have been partially shut down since October due to computer issues. I imagine that might have been a factor for the reduced offerings this winter/holiday.

sasha said...

There was a problem at the printers.

Patricia said...

Thank you for summing up the situation so well for us. It has been disheartening for quite some years, even when there was a nice little collection of new styles each season. I now have to make a toile for every new pattern, as the big 4 have completely lost touch with reality here! Those massive items I have made from McCalls in recent times - Ugh... My go to patterns are now Style Arc, who have more up to date styles, and fairly reliable fit. The simple and popular designs of various indie companies had me interested for a while, but they never have the beautiful cut and instruction of a classic Vogue. How I miss the Vogue patterns I casually gave away in the past!

Jean said...

I am horrified to see what has been happening to the Big Four. It is like a slow motion car crash I can't look away from. Also, they have some kind of computer/software crash at their Kansas printing plant, so they can't print new patterns currently. This is also affecting independents-like Gertie/Charm Patterns- who can't get their patterns printed either. That's a business killer, for sure. Personally, I have been buying more PDF patterns. I love Jalie, Style Arc, Burda...and some independents from the UK and US. I hate to tape and trace, but if I want cute or useful garments, that is what I have to do.

Lynn said...

Simplicity, McCalls, Butterick, Vogue and the smaller brands Kwik Sew, New Look, and Burda Style are now all owned by the same parent company. They have thus far -- only acquiring Simplicity in January -- failed to screw up Simplicity's offerings but the others all have scanty releases and the clothes seem less detailed and special than before.

I don't know where they go from here, but something needs to change. I haven't bought any patterns from the Big 4 in a couple of years now.

Elle said...

The best of the indy pattern companies do a wonderful job with interesting designs for targeted audiences, good drafting, fit, and instructions. Why the older companies can't do it is a mystery to me. I started sewing in the 1960's from Vogue designer patterns. I knew nothing, and had no teacher, but managed fine thanks to the great instructions. And learned to love sewing, and having beautiful, affordable (that was then!) clothes that actually fit. I hope that with so many beginners sewing basic garments, that eventually there will be a market for more sophisticated, challenging designs. Btw, if you ever want patterns that are not available in Canada, I would be happy to have them sent to me, and then to send them on to you. It would be my pleasure--a very small thank you for all you contribute to the sewing world.

Sewcat said...

The collapse of the big 4 pattern companies started a long time ago. And I am not sure they will or should survive. The last big 4 pattern I used was a Vogue Rachael Comey pattern. I thought it was my taste changing and pointing me toward the indie makers but maybe that is not true.

I would be happy to see one company that made patterns that are wearable, designed well and have decent instructions. And then another company that produces what Vogue used to produce. Challenging sews with interesting details and unusual techniques. I suspect it won’t happen. If you know of an indi pattern company that have interesting designs, let me know.

I wrote a post on Reddit this morning about sewing machines. They are seeing the same stuff. SVP acquired Singer, Viking and Pfaff. There are dozens of posts on Reddit about Singer Heavy Duty machines breaking after 1 or 2 uses. Just like what is happening with the patterns.

Now that sewing is seeing a resurgence, it is a shame that the tools and resources are not quality an more.

Rory said...

I agree with your blogpost. I'm quite annoyed with the Big Four pattern companies and their lack of communication. I'm sure it's related, as you state, to them now being among the companies sundry offerings.

As someone who works in communications and marketing, I cannot wrap my head around the lack of communication these companies have had with their customers, some of whom have been buying from them for decades. To suddenly change a name and not let people know what they can expect is bad form, to say the least.

You may have seen this piece about issues with printing patterns:

I can understand how they may be struggling, like all of us are, during the pandemic. However, considering how simple communication is with social media, it makes me wonder if it's more about the philosophy of the companies and how they plan to run their business. It truly is sad to see.

Anne Frances said...

I've just been trying to check, and as far as I can ascertain Burda patterns (as well as the Burda Style magazine) is still owned by Burda Create!, which is one of the divisions of Hubert Burda media, and includes the publishing house Aenne Burda, which produces the magazine. Simplicity has a partnership through which it distributes the printed patterns, at least via its website, but it doesn't own or control the company. I know it perhaps doesn't count as one of the "big Four", but at least that large company - which has a very large base in East and West Europe - is continuing as before. The instructions in its envelope patterns are better than in the magazine and the fit usually pretty close to the sizing charts.

JulieJ said...

I read your post with interest as I have not bought a Big 4 pattern in a couple of years. Mainly it's a sizing issue as not many include a size 24 and that's where I am these days. I can grade up but why should I have to when I have already paid out for the pattern. But as well as size inclusivity I also appreciate the detailed assistance given by the indies and their willingness to acknowledge the existence of such a thing as an overlocker. I do love that red coat featured in your blog though. Can you tell me the pattern number as I can't find it on Sew Direct where I would have bought Big 4 patterns in the past. Thanks

Kizibell Atlanta said...

I would love to keep using the big pattern makers simply because they offer paper patterns rather than an online pdf file that I have to print and cobble together. But I have to agree that their fit is awful. They don't seem to have realised that the female figure has changed A LOT since the 1950/60s. That being said, I am still using patterns I bought from them 30 years ago, but with a lot of added paper pieces inserted and the shoulders narrowed as I age. I believe that during Covid lockdowns a lot of new people started to sew. I see a lot of them on Facebook in some sewing groups I belong to. So it would definitely be a good time for the big boys to amp up their act and give us some decent new styles, fit, instructions, etc.

Kansas Sky said...

I have several hundred Big Four patterns stored in my sewing area, so I look at those bins all the time. I realize there is almost nothing in there that I'm tempted to sew. The last garment I made from those patterns was a simple kimono robe for a friend undergoing a mastectomy, and I blithely cut it out and sewed it up only to realize that the armhole was cut so high/tight that she wasn't going to be able to get her postoperative arm in that sleeve. Heartsick, as it was a beautiful robe. Days later I saw a popular indie kimono pattern reviewed with great acclaim and noted how the roomy armscye was constructed. I realized that McCalls had used some CAD system to lay out a cut/pasted bodice, add some floppy sleeves, some length, and sell it to a fool like me as a functional garment. .... So I look at my collection with great distrust. .... I fully appreciate your comment about decades-old boilerplate instructions that don't utilize modern equipment. .... These days I'm taken with The Sewing Workshop patterns. Linda Lee writes exquisitely-detailed directions for her perfectly-drafted designs. They are trendy and very adaptable to design modifications. Some have complicated construction but don't prove difficult. The designs highlight great fabrics and that's a plus for me. ..... THANK YOU for all your hard work with your blog, your terrific book, your newsletter, flypaper column, and all your encouragement. I've been given TWO vintage machines this fall and have been sewing in a memory fog, delighted to recall how things used to be [until I have to take my seam to the serger or finish topstitching on my modern machines]. I think of what you've taught me and I'm so deeply grateful. THANK YOU for it all. You are superlative. You stand out with your wisdom and your skill. YOU ARE A BLESSING.

Deb Glosek said...

Thank you for bringing this up Barbara. This is something that's been on my mind for several years. Being in my late 60's I grew up with the Big 4, and loved them - they always fit right out of the envelope for me. Now, with the changes in body over time, I always need to make fitting adjustments. I find that the Big 4 requires me to make the most adjustments. I'm having better luck these days with Jalie, Closet Core and in some cases, Style Arc. However, I sometimes yearn for a beautiful Vogue Designer garment and then I suck it up and make as many muslins as required to get a good fit. I wouldn't like to see the Big 4 go down the tubes, but like you said, accepting change is a "no choice" thing these days. I've even gotten used to pdf patterns, which I hated with a vengeance at first. I guess you CAN teach an old dog new tricks! LOL

Anonymous said...

Find your post particularly relevant. Amazing that the KC print operations has completely shut down to a software legacy issue, not only impacting their own product. The article left an impression of no sense of urgency. However, I may be wrong. My impression is that there is such a massive installed base of quilters – that is where the money is being made. IMHO, this industry doesn’t value or respect the garment sewers time. Think about how much time is spent with fitting patterns. Suspect that pattern companies assume that the FB user community (includes You Tube) will “walk users’ through pattern glitches. Most sewers don’t have the time to fiddle with dress patterns and who wants to end up with a “wadder”. On occasion that I drop by to look at the newer sewing machines, the new “it’s a feature” are most often marketed to quilters. Must confess that I have a decade plus serger that still befuddles me threading. For once I would like to just thread up and serge up a garment. Thought about throwing in the towel - purchasing a new one. Seems to be no point – little has changed– just see posts about frustration threading up various sergers. Now I know why quilting is popular – you don’t have to put up with this nonsense. Finished my end of the year vent

JustGail said...

I did not know about the printer thing. But I agree with others that the Big 4 has been going downhill for a few years. Fewer and fewer patterns have appealed to me for several years. Part of that may be due to my huge stash, designers will have to work hard that I don't already have something very similar to already. And I don't need so much "out in the world" clothes since I retired. And the restricted size range doesn't help either.

In total honesty, the only reason I buy Big 4 patterns is I'm spoiled rotten by the Joann/Hancock (STILL miss them!) pattern sales. I far prefer some of the independent's offerings, but can't quite get myself to pay that much, because as I said - I'm price spoiled.

I totally agree with you on reworking their fit, and updating instructions. I'd add including offering more patterns in larger and tall sizes as well. Perhaps I should say expanded size ranges, to include smaller or petite sizes, as I imagine those sewers have the same but opposite problem as I have. Although, maybe the extended size ranges are best left to independents who can specialize in those?

Unknown said...

I have been a faithful purchaser of the Big 4 patterns for decades and now morn their apparent demise. I like your advice to hold on to your favorite patterns from them and develop TNTs to use over and over. Thank you, Barbara, for your thoughtful posts and a better 2021. Karen

Beth (SunnyGal Studio) said...

I hope the big 4 hang on as I might be one of the few that think their patterns are usually better than most of the indies. Discounting this weird year, they typically put out 30-40 designs per release and have a range of fantastic to clunkers within each release. An indie company usually releases one at a time and it can go either way. I also find the indies instructions to be no better than the others, and often have construction methods that might be easier but give a poor result. Probably since I am an experienced sewer the indies are for the most part too simple for my taste and very repetitive, especially for the cost.

Vintage patterns Sew Bee It said...

Hi there, this is so interesting. Thank you everybody for summing things up. The big 4 do have the monopoly but as you say the vintage timeless patterns are definitely my favourites. We are a small indie pattern company and we regrade and alter to fit the modern day women who want timeless style and exquisite lines of all decades if anybody would like to take a peek at our website and sport our hard work drudgery sweat and tears and of course joy and passion to enable our customers have access to these pieces of history. I hope you don’t mind me posting our website if it is allowed - I just felt compelled in writing this as the blog and comments are so very apt, especially during this difficult pandemic.

Sandy said...

I would hate to see the Big 4 disappear, but I have been unimpressed with their lines for several years. Vogue would never have put out a pants pattern with an elastic waistband. They were the company for sewists that we all aspire to be with their cutting edge patterns. If you compare what each of the 4 patterns have in their collections, you will see what I would call duplicates. Vogues sample garments pictured on the envelopes were always impecable. If you look at the winter line, there are a few that have threads hanging and the fit is not good. I hope they can survive and get back to the attention to detail.

Cathie said...

Great topic! being a plus lady nothing fits in RTW or patterns. In general. I have found the best solution is charity shopping for patterns, especially the shops with fabric sections. In days past there were also different sizes, like half-sizes, which work for me better. Then I morph away, and am very happy. In lockdowns I really miss my charity shopping, and the fun hunt for sewing treasures. Stay safe. A hug to kitten and doggies. Cathie!

Anonymous said...

I don't think they would have rebranded everything last spring if they were planning on phasing out. The more likely explanation is that they work 8 months in advance and so patterns released now were in development in late winter/early spring when New York was in full lockdown. Not surprising that they needed to scale back releases for this winter.

barkcloth said...

I completely agree with Beth (SunnyGal Studio): it would be very sad if Vogue patterns would disappear. I’m 60 years old, and I don’t have problems with their fit. On the contrary, the designer patterns have a far better fit than most of the Indie patterns, which are made with the usual five or six pattern pieces instead of the 18 or even more pieces of the Vogue designer patterns. Some of their recent designs have been awful, I agree, but every season there have been Vogue designs that appealed to me. The only reason why I seldom buy them, is that Vogue asks a ridiculous amount of money for the shipping to Europe.
I’m an experienced sewer too, and I like the complexity of the Vogue designs. Indie patterns, and also Burda Style patterns, are often too simple for my taste, although I’m a fan of the modern designs of Style Arc, which seem to be made for mature women who like to wear original, comfortable cloths you cannot find in a store.

Lisa Laree said...

The decline of the Big 4 has happened hand-in-hand with the decline of the brick-and-mortar fabric/ notions store. The sales model was to have the patterns, fabric, buttons, zippers, etc..anything needed to construct one location. Who remembers going to a fabric store, looking for inspiration in the pattern books, choosing a pattern, then wandering about the store selecting just the right fabric, buttons, matching thread, zippers, etc, and going home full of creative energy? (I just described the origin of the outfit I wore to school on the first day of 11th grade in 1975). It wasn't necessary to have a fabric stash because...there was fabric available. As the quality of fabric available declined with the closing of indy fabric sellers and then the chains (RIP Hancock's) the only fabric available in my town is cheap icky stuff at Joann's (ok, not cheap in price...)and Hobby Lobby and two half-aisles at Wal-Mart. You want buttons? Good luck. That used to be a whole wall; now it's half an aisle, with most of the shelf space being 'Craft buttons'...what the heck? The whole garment creation paradigm has shifted. And, at the root...the folks who are running the big corporations that own the sewing resource companies don't sew, don't appreciate sewing, don't understand people who sew, and will close it all down if it doesn't turn a fat profit. The bright spots are the folks who have small businesses who are passionate about sewing, fabric, patterns, etc...the indy pattern companies and the online fabric vendors. I think the only way to save the Big 4 would be if someone who was passionate about design and the home sewing craft would buy them. Say...someone with roots in the fashion industry. It needs vision and passion at the helm...which has been sadly missing for decades.

Peg Sullivan said...

I have given up the big 4 years ago in favor of some very fine (and well fitting Indies) The cost of those 4 were beyonf reason. If I needed a size it was in one envelope and the rest in another. I sew for many people and love the way the indies include all sizes . I do not mind printing and tiling these PDF's. I have had such luck with size and the price makes it well worth the efforts and time.
Recently read where the printing company for the 4 had suspende operation due to..... So the future for "4" seems dim. I will not miss.