A friend forwarded a post from Marianne of The Quilting Edge this weekend, in which she invites discussion on the topic of poorly written patterns. Give it a look, and check out the lively discourse in the comments!
As a pattern designer, I’d like to address a few of the points from this side of the aisle!
First up: this is part of my internal “mission statement” when I design a pattern. I can’t speak for every other designer, but I do know that my closest designer pals are like me, all striving to do a conscientious job:
- Mind the fabric. The fabric “generosity” in the materials list is a tricky tightrope to walk. I round up to the nearest 1/4 yard, or add an 1/8 yard if I’m on the 1/4 line. This only changes if the fabric is being used for cuts larger than an 1/8 (say an 8” cut) in which case I give you one extra large cut in case of an oops. C&T’s rule for my upcoming book was add 1/4 yard to my calculations. I do work hard at writing patterns that use up most of their parts… in several of my jelly-strip based ones you can use the strip scraps to make a binding (I happen to love the puzzle of using it all up!)
- Be honest about my assumptions. At the beginning of every pattern, I tell you what the pattern assumes you already know: how to sew a 1/4” inch, how to rotary cut, how to layer/quilt/bind, etc. In my paper-pieced patterns, I give you links to several tutorials that I think will help you as my assumption on paper-piecing is that you will learn it from a book or video, not the pattern. And it just isn’t cost effective to put all that extra tutorial into the pattern – the paper cost goes up, and most of the time how you do it is not how I do it so it’s wasted.
- The pattern should be the key to the kingdom on the cover. For me, this means I give you accurate steps to make the exact thing in the picture (exceptions noted above), and maybe a couple of other sizes. If it’s a special technique, then you get ALL the steps. I once bought a pattern that said the equivalent of figure out how big you want to make it, then figure our how many of these blocks fit into that, and have at it. I don’t consider that a pattern.
- Be honest about the skills required. On the back cover of every pattern, I call out the skills needed. I don’t just say Beginner or Intermediate because I don’t think that’s enough information at all. I list the skills you will actually employ. As I write mostly for the Confident Beginner Peeps, I call out specifically if you need an accurate 1/4” seam, or just a mostly consistent one. If there are templates or paper-piecing involved, I say so. If you will be dealing with bias edges, I say so. I want you to know what you’re getting into, and I especially don’t want you unsuspectingly biting off more than you want to chew.
- Draw as much as possible. Every one learns differently – some people need all the words, some people need the drawings. I attempt to add computer drawn illustration to as many of the steps as I can. It bulks up the paper, but I think my readers are worth it.
- Make it MAKE-ABLE. I dream up a lot of things that, in the end, would be horrid to have to make or worse, explain. So I don’t turn those into patterns. Frankly, if my reader could make such a convoluted thing, she is probably figuring it out her own way, and isn’t buying a pattern to do it! Instead, I figure out how to break things down so you don’t sweat through them. I learned a little of this from a composer friend, whose superpower is writing music for each instrument that the musician could play easily (not writing it at the edges of the instrument’s range or sitting on its octave breaks). I fundamentally believe that quilting should be fun, so I try hard to write things that are fun, too.
- Get it tested. I have a bunch of people on board to check my work. One friend is the master of sorting out my grammar. Another sorts out the flow of steps (“no, Sam, put this before that.”). Another catches the instances where the parts on her design wall don’t look a thing like my drawings. One hates to read the words, so she sees if the pattern can be navigated by the pictures. Another does the opposite, making sure my words actually describe what’s going on. Others spend their precious time and fabric stash actually making the pattern. It really does take a village – and most of them do it FOR FREE.
- ‘Fess up when you blow it. While all of the above should catch everything, sometimes it doesn’t. When that happens, I fix the pattern, update the print masters and PDF files, and publish the oops on the Patterns/Errata page. And I’m eternally grateful to the person that told me about the problem.
- Be open to feedback. Critique is necessary to making a better product, even if it stings. I do my best to listen openly to suggestions for improvement, with the understanding that I just won’t be able to please everyone.
And now, my answers to some of the comments on the Quilting Edge:
The shop that sold the pattern is responsible for the quality of the pattern. NO – the buck stops with the author. AND such gatekeeping just isn’t possible for most shop owners. Like you, they buy a pattern based on the appeal of the cover, and sometimes have it made into a sample if they think they can sell fabric or a class for it, but they cannot read the fine print of everything they carry. I would imagine if you let them know a pattern is a mess, they probably won’t buy more of them (or others from the same designer). It’s certainly how we did it in the last store I worked in. But like Target can’t be responsible for the content every crappy DVD it sells, neither can your LQS read and test every single thing. If you want to buy a pattern in a store, you can always ask to open it and give it a once over before paying (every store I’ve been in has been cool with this). I don’t think the LQS should foot a return because they have no way of ensuring the buyer didn’t pirate a copy before returning it – I know this screws over a scrupulous buyer, but unfortunately, there are more folks who wouldn’t think twice about copying and returning a pattern, thinking copyright law is merely a suggestion.
The pattern designer is trying to make a quick buck. If only! There are precious few quick bucks in the pattern business. If the designer does half the steps I listed above, they still worked on that pattern for DAYS. And bought a bunch of fabric too. Let me break this down for you… on a $10 pattern in your local quilt store – $5 goes to the store, $5 to me if I sold it directly to the store. My expenses to make the pattern (paper, printing, bags, assembly) come out of my cut. If one of my distributors sold it to the store, the store still gets $5, the distributor gets $1.50, and I get $3.50. And I still need to cover my expenses in that $3.50. So I get maybe $2.50 of that $10. Yes, I get most of the $$ on a download (minus hosting fees and banking charges) but still. Trust me when I say the buck is not quick.
The free patterns aren’t written well. Part of this is you get what you pay for – truly. Part of it is that a lot of the free patterns are paired with lines of fabric, and they often get written at the 11th hour before the fabric debuts at Quilt Market (and the designers get offered little or no payment). I have been approached by more than one fabric company to produce a fully tested pattern with a 2 week deadline before market for no payment (“we’ll show people your pattern!”) other than an offer of the fabric to make the quilt (not the batting). I certainly don’t do my best work in those circumstances, so I imagine other designers don’t either. It would also help if people stop expecting to always get it for free. If you expect a free download, then you should also expect that the designer or fabric company probably didn’t PAY a team of editors and testers to make sure it’s right. Yes – everyone should make the best product possible regardless (I certainly strive to – my reputation matters to me) – but as I said you often get what you pay for when FREE is involved.
The patterns aren’t well written – part 2. One comment was from a person who released a pattern that she said she had tested, but she also admitted that she doesn’t read other people’s patterns. I would hope that people who take pattern designing seriously take the time to learn their craft and research their competition. That said, you’re still likely to come across something that looks as cute as heck, but is perhaps written by someone who doesn’t have a depth of experience to construct things more easily, or even use commonly understood vocabulary (FWIF, I voraciously read other patterns to see how they are written and illustrated so that I can constantly improve my game – I do it to invest in my business). I wish some of our newest pattern designers would take some time to hone their craft, and learn from their fore-mothers (I’m a HUGE proponent of learning the rules before you go about breaking them). But I also accept that there’s nothing new about the new kids on the block wanting to blaze the trails a new way, and sometimes we get new and exciting techniques from it – yay for innovation! The other side of the coin is that we sometimes get caught when that new fangled stuff doesn’t work out so well. With the ease and speed of pushing content out to the internet, we are going to get a lot of amateur work out there, jumbled in with the good (just look at YouTube). I think you just have to accept that you will occasionally get rick-rolled.
The patterns aren’t written well – part 3. Just like in other industries, there is good and bad, and unfortunately, it’s up to us to determine which is which. One comment said we need a pattern review site – and yes, that would be wonderful. But would you pay to belong to it? Someone has to foot the bill to provide that service to you, and they should be able to profit from their labor, no? Also… would you take the time to write when things are good? I have sold a bunch of patterns in places that allow a review, and no one has written to say if they’re good. I’ve had more emails about my errors than I have had thanking me for making a pattern that was easy to follow. So unless you are willing to review the good, the data will be radically skewed. Another comment said that they felt no responsibility to write to a pattern author – but may I stick my neck out and say I’d rather hear WHY you think my pattern is lacking (in technical terms) than just sit here an wonder why the sales are slack?
In conclusion, the pattern making business is just like any other area of commerce. While, like you, I would love to never buy a bad pattern again, the reality is that there will always be good, and there will always be bad. It doesn’t excuse bad writing in any way, and it is the unfortunate burden of we buyers to sort through that. Hopefully the laws of business will take effect such that the cream rises and the people who write poorly cease to thrive and quit doing it. But I would also offer this… yes, it’s a bummer to pay good money for a pattern that doesn’t live up to your expectations. But I know you’ve also paid for disappointing movies or meals. It happens occasionally. NO ONE CAN PLEASE EVERYONE ALL THE TIME. If it happens to you, please take the time to write the designer to let them know what disappointed you, so that they can improve. The good ones will take this critique and up their game. As for the designers that choose to ignore it, you need not shop them again. And if you DO like it, please, please, please drop us a quick note. It might be the note that stops us from throwing in the towel on the design business. It might just inspire us to make more good things for YOU!
Couldn’t have written it better, although I have said this more times than I recall.
Thank you, thank you for such a wonderful post. I love the discussion as well….you bring up such good points.
Thanks. I appreciate this discussion as I begin to develop a class. A good pattern is a well-thought lesson plan and should describe a logical progression of steps to achieve the project. Quilters have a broad range of skills. It sounds as if you begin with that assumption and go from there.
I haven’t bought individual patterns because I learned early on that I didn’t follow directions well. Is that because they were poorly written? Perhaps. I excel at figuring out construction from photos or other design pix. (And thanks to the authors of some great books I bought early, which taught basic construction techniques!) That, ultimately, has been to my benefit, because I can make “your” design any size I want, and I can change the format, layout, and other characteristics. I can do the math to figure out yardage for new purchases. When shopping from stash, I can choose substitutions when I (oh too frequently!) run out of one fabric and need to switch something else in.
Thanks for your efforts, both at design and at pattern writing. Those are two different skills. The best pattern makers care about both.
I have tested a few patterns for designers and had fun in the process…found a few errors, but most of the designers have done a good job on their patterns. My biggest complaint is when pattern designers don’t have you cut the largest pieces of fabric first and you end up either piecing the larger chunks or having to purchase more material. I know that there is one really well known pattern designer who has written many books – I have a few – that has all the pieces done as templates in the back of the book…I hate that! Just give me measurements on most of the pieces and if there is a weird one, then use a template, just not all the time. There is so much room for error when using a template that I am copying from the back of a book – I trace them because I do not have a copier here at home – and then the blocks are a pain to get together. Love her designs, hate the way she writes patterns, so I don’t make them. I don’t mind having extra fabric after making a quilt – I’ll use it for the backing, binding or in a scrap quilt. Because I have run into some patterns that eek out every mm of fabric, I usually buy 1/2 yard extra because I have been known to make cutting errors!! Now I shop my stash to make my quilts so I always make sure that I have lots of extra fabric. Thanks for educating all of us on the process of getting a pattern into out hot little hands!
Thanks for being such a straight shooter, good educator, and inspiring business woman. Enjoyed your presentation a couple of months ago at the Camarillo Quilters Association.
Interesting discussion on both sides of the issue – I work in a quilt shop, and I know we can’t possibly test every pattern we stock, but we do make samples of as many as we can. As a pattern designer I know how hard it is to explain things in a simple way that most people can understand – I have bought patterns that when I started reading them had my head spinning! But most of the time if I follow the directions step by step it becomes clear, so I know how it feels to be frustrated by instructions and really try to make it easy.
And YES! Let us know if the pattern is good! I hear right away if someone has an issue, but very rarely does anyone contact me to say they loved the pattern and could make the project easily. It would be nice to know 🙂
I’m one of the people who things a pattern reviewing site is a great idea. You brought up some things I hadn’t thought of though. Just because I’m shouting from the rooftops and writing the designer’s name down in my list of buy-from-her-again doesn’t mean that’s the norm. When I worked in a restaurant, I heard waaaaay more negative feedback than positive, and that’s just from a half-hour experience with someone bringing you food you didn’t have to cook.
I appreciate that you take every opportunity to make the pattern as user-friendly as possible, Sam. You don’t have a pattern tester, but a team. Patterns aren’t for the wordy people or the picture learners but for both. Plus when I buy your patterns I know I can go off the fabric measurements listed on the back. On unknown designers, I always add yardage.
You make many interesting comments, which I entirely agree with. I am however astonished that you don’t pay the people who test and edit your patterns. I am a technical editor in the hand-knitting world, and if this is a vital step in ensuring that you create a quality product, then those people need to be treated as professionals as well. As you point out with free patterns, you get what you pay for! People need to stop expecting the editing stages of publishing patterns to be carried out for free as well. 🙂
So true! My team is currently made up of deeply experienced friends who just won’t take money from me. When I started this game they got on board to cheer me on and still volunteer to help all the time. When people want to love you, sometimes you need to let them do so… Lucky me! You are so right about hiring the technical editors and paying them well… the technical editor that C&T assigned to me for my book is utter gold, and truly has made the book so much better. I wish I could say that I was rolling in the kind of dough that would allow me to hire her all the time, but the reality is that my profit is not yet there (although she’s first on my list when it is). So the village persists. I do pay people with patterns, fabric and other products, so I suppose “free” is not entirely correct. I also have tested patterns for other new designers for free, so I consider that part of paying it forward. Ideal? Not in the least. Trust me, as the WASWI girl, I want to be paying everyone fairly. But I told the truth on this as part of full disclosure. Why the disclosure? Two things… I get asked a lot about pattern writing, and when I started I asked a lot too, so I’m hoping to be of service. I also hope that by talking about what it takes, it might actually weed out a few of the faint of heart. If my outing my process makes a few people step up, and keeps some dabblers from releasing their doodles on us, then I consider it a win!
This makes perfect sense. I, too, write patterns and test and test and test them and have others act as my guinea pigs. There are lots of patterns in today’s market that are very poorly written without an inkling of talent or know how. It’s unfortunate but when we find one of those, I never buy another from that designer. Most do not respond to any type of constructive criticism as “they know it all”. Cuteness doesn’t cut it any more. I also appreciate a good and well written pattern.
I appreciate what you have written, and totally agree with it all. I’m a pattern designer and my husband, and I, work very hard to write up good pattern instructions and coordinating pictures. We love what we do. I do offer “free” block of the month patterns on my blog, and they are just as well written as the patterns I create for sale. It’s important to me because that’s my business I’m putting on the table every time somebody clicks for a download.
I couldn’t agree more! ~Sam
Yes! We must always do our best!! ~ Sam
Great information and well said. Thank you
My pleasure! ~ Sam
Thank you so much for saying it like it is! I just about choked when someone commented about “a quick buck” — it takes a lot of pattern sales with the designer getting maybe $2 each to pay for all the time, fabric and overhead involved in designing that one quilt. I also cannot pay pattern testers, but I do give them all the fabric and batting, even thread, to test with. I want to make sure the pattern is tested with quality materials. That too comes out of that great big profit margin!
I know – I’m still steaming a bit about the “quick buck”! I just spent the better part of two days making something 9 times to refine it. Quick indeed! ~ Sam
A very well written and informative post and I agree with all you have said. Dare I say it, but I think that if this is a little discussed problem then perhaps as much of the blame here lies with the pattern buyers as it does with those who release poor patterns. If buyers are not willing to stand up and complain, to let both shops and designers know when the patterns are sub-standard then this problem will simply continue to exist on the large scale that it does.
I couldn’t agree more! especially about the profit margin section. I write and sell patterns in my shop and people sometimes are loath to pay £5 for a pattern saying “it is only x number of pages – paper doesn’t cost that much!” They dont appreciate the time taken to create the design, make it (possibly twice or more depending on the photo requirements), write it up, test it, rewrite, retest and produce. Then the costs of the materials, threads, wadding, electric to run your sewing machine etc. And tgry get it all for £5! Bargain!
I know we strive to make it look easy, but surely it doesn’t look THAT easy! ~ Sam
As one of Sam’s pattern testers, I can tell you with all honesty that I would NOT take money from Sam to test her patterns. She rewards me in other ways, mostly by sharing her experience. My experience is not as deep as some others, so I often take the “novice” focus to a pattern. I LOVE helping Sam test patterns and I have understood SO MUCH MORE about why I “loved” a pattern only to be very frustrated to actually make it by having a chance to ask questions and get and give feedback. Great discussion!
Getting right for my “newbies” is so important to me (and ZGirl – i<3 you!) ~ Sam
AMEN, AMEN, AMEN, SISTER…REPRESENT! I’m a recovering quilt shop owner who sometimes designed patterns. I couldn’t believe how many patterns were designed, just as you said, by people who would just say “figure it out” and some of those designers are still designing. When other employees would write patterns, I always went through them (if I couldn’t test them) for grammar, continuity, calculation of yardage, etc.
“It’s just a few pages…” What always killed me was when a customer would either open up a book or pattern, take out their little notepad, and draw the quilt and write down the yardage requirements, smile at us and walk out the door. Then there were the customers who would come to me saying, “I only like one of the patterns in this book; is it okay if I pay you a dollar and you make a copy of the one pattern for me?” I would tell them that my day job was with the Department of Justice (no lie) and that our Department prosecutes against copyright infringement. They’d buy the book or walk out the door.
You are doing everything right. Keep up the great work!
Thank you for the encouragement! ~ Sam
Well said, Sam. It’s very frustrating when people want what you do for nothing. I think we all agree that if money were no object, it’d be easy to give it away, but facts is facts. You’ve got to eat (as well as pay for all the fabric, batting, thread, etc.).
I’m sad to be seeing more and more people who are of the opinion that if it’s on the internet, it should be free. I have asked those same folks why a gallon of milk in the grocery store isn’t free. It’s just sitting there, after all. Yes, that might be a little harsh, but usually helps them understand why what they’re asking is absurd.
I rarely buy patterns anymore but will still comment to pattern writers when I like what they do. I’m a firm believer that the world can be tough and that the more we do to support each other, the better.
Lori – bravo and YES! I actually got fan mail about a pattern this week – can’t tell you how much it matters to hear a good word!
Your theme doesn’t seem to be set up with replies directly to comments. Instead they fall in place corresponding to when you wrote them. The original commenter won’t know you are responding to them that way. Or at least, if you responded to me, I don’t have a way to tell that.
If the theme can’t be changed, you can always respond to people by going to comments in the dashboard instead. Underneath each person’s comment are several options, including “reply.”
And if I have this all wrong, and you know where and how to do that, I apologize in advance.
I recently bought a pattern for a large bag that called for 44″ wide fabric on the ingredients on the back. Foolishly I assumed any standard width cotton would be ok. No, it really used every inch of that 44″ and would not work any other way. I wrote the (well known) designer that virtually no cotton fabric is 44″ usable anymore, most are about 40-41″ at best. She told me I should have used batiks and that her testers, most of whom are “engineers” had no problem laying out the pieces on their 44″ wide fabrics.
Her arrogance was astonishing.
Oh my! That’s so sad! My rule of thumb is to write for 40” width, also the rule that C&T asked me to write the book for. By the time you take off the selvedges (and especially if you trim them a little larger to be able to use them for something) 44 just isn’t possible.
You totally hooked me on this subject! I interpreted the original “quick buck” comment as the commenter saying patterns put out with unclear, abbreviated, confusing or inaccurate instructions were done by someone wanting to make a quick buck. I imagine that commenter would agree that working with testers and selling a pattern with clear and accurate instructions is a different thing altogether. I have enjoyed reading about your process.
I don’t even know the way I ended up here, however I believed this post was great.
I don’t understand who you might be but definitely you are going to a famous blogger should
you are not already. Cheers!
great column! thanks for the insight. As a designer of patterns, I appreciate your ideas and advice. Glad I am not the only one who reads other people’s patterns, I think it is a great way to glean ways of describing things, what to include, etc.
I love a well written pattern. With. Instructions precise and clearly written, it makes my job of teaching senior citizens much easier. I always make a sample of any quilt I teach. I have to fully understand the directions myself in order to help them. I once took a workshop where purchasing the pattern was a requirement of the class, only to find that all measurements in it were wrong. From the amount of fabric to buy to the size of the finished project. When asked, the teacher(author) admitted she had not made the quilt or had it tested in any way. After that experience, I no longer allow my quilters to buy a pattern until I have checked it out first.