DIY clothing: the download on PDF patterns

With the number of people making their own clothes soaring, the hobby is getting a technical and design-conscious transformation that's being fueled by social media and digital pattern kits.
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Sew-your-own clothing kits have long been a feature of craft shops, as have an array of buttons, fabrics, trims, threads and sewing tools. But the patterns in the kits are often outdated and not very cool, resembling costumes more than everyday clothing. 

On top of that, makers of sewing kits typically assume that users have a certain level of skill – not great for those new to garment making. So, with a wave of new people looking to learn this skill, makers of sewing kits and patterns have had to step up their game. 

DIY clothing was one of the many crafty trends that gathered momentum during lockdowns, when people had more time and a willingness to slow down, use their hands and learn new skills. During that period, Brother, a legacy manufacturer of sewing machines, says one in five Brits took up sewing or embroidery, and British retailer John Lewis reported a 258% increase in sales of sewing machines. Liberty, a London department store, said that when lockdown began in March 2020, sales of sewing accessories rose by 380% compared with the same period in 2019.  

Since then, the sewing boom has been sustained by a continued interest in alternatives to fast fashion. And is there a more environmentally and ethically sustainable alternative than making your own clothes? This, and the desire to learn how to make small repairs to clothing, has resulted in more people turning to sewing tools, kits, patterns and opportunities to build their skills.

‘It's a satisfying feeling to do something yourself,’ says Callum Pidgeon, who runs fashion brand Prototypes from Zürich, Switzerland. Its primary collection is made entirely from unsold fabric. Callum says it was a natural progression to offer customers the chance to sew new clothes from unused textiles, leading to the launch of Proto Packs. 

‘These packs equip those with the will and desire to make something themselves, with the manuals and sewing patterns to do so,’ Callum explains. ‘The threshold to create fashion that's truly your own is lower than you'd think: old garments from your wardrobe can be a valuable source. Three ties on their own might not be too exciting, but sew them together the right way and suddenly you get a miniskirt.’ 

Proto Packs come in various difficulty levels ‘and there's really no need for fashion design training to simply sew together two pairs of sweatpants into a hoodie’, adds Callum.

PDF Patterns

Beginner sewers are also turning to digital tools to make their clothes, such as online tutorials and PDF patterns. As a result, those selling clothing patterns have had to make their products more beginner-friendly and tech-enabled. 

Former pattern-cutter Tara Viggo worked with fashion brands for 15 years, but found herself feeling gradually put off by unethical labor practices. Using her skill set, she started to make and sell digital patterns for use at home. Tara sold 1,000 patterns in the first month after launching her brand, Paper Theory. 

The patterns she sells are largely for staple wardrobe items such as shirts and midi skirts, plus a tie-around jumpsuit. ‘The margins on digital products are pretty good,’ she says. ‘But I've just moved into selling physical patterns and I'm horrified at the cost.’ 

With a digital pattern, she can eliminate the cost of materials, packaging and shipping. Tara sells physical patterns through 70 retailers worldwide, which she sees as a good way to market the digital patterns and also engage an older audience. 

Making your own clothes is about feeling connected to what you wear, so it helps that digital patterns are customizable. This is a big benefit, says Simon Johnson, who, with Shruti Grover, runs Pattern Project – a London-based manufacturer selling ready-to-wear clothing and sewing patterns. The pair launched their P2 top at the end of 2021; its customization options are huge. 

‘The pattern allows people to choose the design of the sleeve, how the hem is cut and whether it has pockets,’ says Simon. ‘There are close to 1,000 combinations. And that's why people start sewing in the first place – because they can't find the clothes they want on the mainstream market.’

Sustaining demand 

There isn't exactly a playbook on how much a PDF pattern should cost. Some are a couple of dollars, while others cost the same as the finished garment. The challenge for many digital-pattern makers is encouraging customers to keep coming back for new patterns and maintaining a consistent source of revenue beyond single sales. 

Chelsea Gurnoe, the founder of Friday Pattern Company in Santa Cruz, California, uses a bundling strategy. She packages groups of three patterns into mini collections, which allows customers to try several products at the same time – and makes them more likely to come back. 

‘My patterns tend to be modular and simple enough that they can be sewn several different ways,’ she says. ‘It was fun creating the bundles, because you really can create a little capsule wardrobe with all the mixing and matching possibilities.’ 

Another route followed by many pattern-making businesses is membership. For a monthly fee, customers access new sewing patterns and a community of novice and experienced sewers – something many DIY clothing makers fall back on to ask questions and share tips. 

Membership of Seamwork, an online platform with more than 200 sewing patterns, has risen by 50% since 2020. In The Folds, a pattern company based in Sydney, Australia, that's run by Emily Hundt, shifted naturally to the membership model given the number of questions its customers were asking and how much support people needed. A community simply made sense. Emily also offers tiered membership, allowing customers to decide how involved they want to be. 

‘I questioned whether people would pay for the content, given that if you were to Google “sewing tutorials” there's a massive amount of stuff that comes up on blogs and YouTube,’ she says. ‘Instead of building a community around just asking questions, we focus on skill-building.’

Having a member base has forced Emily into monthly accountability, she says, and it has become the feedback loop she craved. ‘When you have a digital business, you throw something out there and often don't even know whether people are using or enjoying your patterns,’ she says. ‘This approach has helped me understand how and why people download my patterns, too.’

Culture changes 

Making your own clothes can seem quite niche, but it's gathering steam. Having 300 regular subscribers allowed Emily to quit her full-time job and replace that salary with income from In The Folds. ‘It's impossible to predict growth, but I know that if I'm able to have 100 more subscribers, I can either give myself a pay rise or I can get myself an assistant.’ 

Emily also says it's important to recognize that pattern-makers, and the trend of making your own clothes, couldn't exist without input from different types of business. ‘There are a lot of associated and periphery organizations, like fabric-makers and printers, fabric shops and those selling tools for makers.’ 

For many digital pattern-makers, this has signaled an opportunity to grow beyond just selling PDFs, to providing a one-stop shop where clothing makers get all they need. Common Stitch, in Brisbane, Australia, primarily sells sewing kits and patterns. The company regularly adds related items to its online shop, including linen fabrics, Australian-grown cotton, fabric remnants, elastic and zips. That way, customers can buy everything they need to make a single item of clothing. 

Ultimately, brands and makers are thinking about how they can best improve the user experience of sewing and making, which has historically been so fragmented. For Simon and Shruti at Pattern Project, this has meant thinking about how sewing can translate into retail spaces. ‘We envision a micro-factory sitting on the high street, where you can pick your garment design and fabric, and have it cut on demand in the store,’ says Simon. ‘There should be options for sewing it yourself or having it sewn by a seamstress.’ 

The pair have trialed the micro factory concept in a limited-weekend pop-up, and raised funds to open a store for six to eight weeks in the summer. ‘We're on the cusp of something here,’ says Simon. ‘A lot of people are searching for a new relationship with their clothing, and fast fashion is not offering it to them.’ 

Pattern-makers to watch 

Here's a handful of brands making money by selling PDF patterns.

• Vancouver-based Thread Theory sells a mixture of PDF and printed sewing patterns for men and women. Its online shop sells small tools for at-home clothing makers, such as hand-sewing needles and pin holders.

• Founded by Lydia Higginson in 2016, Made My Wardrobe allows customers to use its PDF patterns to make garments including swimwear and underwear – and even a backpack.

• Henrietta Adams founded women's clothing brand Henri London and recently launched a PDF pattern business called The Modern Sewing Co. Beginners can buy a pre-recorded workshop to follow along with a PDF pattern. 

Working Cloth was founded in 2016 by Lauren MacDonald, who accidentally fell into making quilts. Today, her patterns still focus on quilts, as well as a complex smock with a honeycomb cuff sleeve. 

Digital Pattern Library is an online resource hub that includes not only PDF patterns and workshops, but more specific tutorials on tasks such as sewing pockets, creating collars and embedding zips.

This article was first published in Courier issue 48, August/September 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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