Ask Kat: How Difficult are Your Patterns?

 So…

Here’s a question we get asked on a regular basis, particularly at shows, and it goes something like this. People come into our booth because they want their chance to check out our bags in person. They open them up, see all the zippers and storage areas and in general how different they are from the majority of bag patterns available today and that’s when we hear this very common question…

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Are your patterns too hard for a beginner?

And you know what? I never really know how to answer this question. When folks ask us directly, we always tell them that we never claim to be making patterns for the outright beginner. I feel like that audience is WAY over-served anyway. What we say instead, is that if you have basic sewing knowledge… if you’ve made one or two craft type items already (as opposed to garments)… if you’re comfortable sewing along curved edges and in tight corners… AND perhaps most important, if you can follow instructions in the order in which they are presented, then you should have no problems with our patterns. But how in the world do we say this in a less verbose way so it fits on a pattern cover?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could come up with a simple labeling system so that customers could tell at a glance how difficult a particular pattern is? But there’s one REALLY big issue standing in the way of a system like that…because here’s the deal; in terms of sewing, what exactly IS a beginner?  Your idea quite likely looks totally different than mine or anyone else’s for that matter.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a beginner as a person who is beginning something or doing something for the first time. But since this describes almost no one who comes shopping with us, I decided to start doing a little informal polling of my  own while we were at the Road to California show in January, and again at AQS Quiltweek Paducah. I asked them the following two questions;

a) how many years have you been sewing? … and
b) what do you consider your skill level to be?

And here’s what I found out… Well over HALF the women I questioned classified themselves as either a beginner or an advanced beginner! Even women with 5-10 years of experience! Yet when I probed further about certain basic skills, such as could they: sew in a straight line, sew along a curve, follow pattern instructions & diagrams, ascertain the right side from the wrong side of fabric, choose appropriate fabric for projects, etc. etc … their answers without fail were… of course!

But that wasn’t the only mislabeling I found, because this categorizing issue held true for other skill levels as well because with very few exceptions the only women who ever seem to classify themselves as outright advanced or expert have been pursuing this hobby for 30 years or much longer… oh… except for those that call us to complain about one of patterns, at which time they are proud to declare that they’ve in fact achieved expert status and never in their long and storied career have they encountered anything as ____(fill in the blank)___ as my pattern (but that’s fodder for another post on another day). And here’s the deal…when it comes to assigning pattern difficulty ratings…

It turns out that skill level is not the only consideration!

Because here’s yet another variable to consider. There seems to be an almost automatic assumption today that easy (beginner) patterns equate to quick results, and conversely that projects requiring more time to complete MUST require advanced skills and are therefore… difficult. I don’t think this correlation is necessarily true, because more times than not when we’ve been given the opportunity to dig deeper with customers who have called a particular pattern “hard”, we’ve heard statements like:

* there were 4 (double-sided) pages of instructions
* there were WAY too many pattern pieces
* it took too long to complete and I couldn’t finish it in time for _____________.

I’m not sure when difficulty ratings started being equated with project completion time, and I’m not at all sure how to deal with that misunderstanding. Because the bottom line is… our bag designs are more detailed than many and this probably isn’t news to anyone. Its these very features and details that our regular customers like most about our patterns. But lets be straight, should it really be a surprise to anyone that all of those extra features & details might just add up to longer completion time? And therefore by extension, shouldn’t the following equation hold true?

Extra details/features = extra pattern pieces = more pages of instructions

So in conclusion…

Is it any wonder that all of these variables make it really hard if not impossible to assign a skill level to our patterns (or anyone else’s for that matter). Which might explain why to date we’ve pretty much just avoided skill labels of any kind.

So what’s the solution?

Here’s a few options we’ve kicked around a bit for future patterns:

  • List the skills required to complete the pattern—- the problem with this alternative is that with the detailed drawings we provide in the instructions and the free color pdf helps on the website, its our contention that we can TEACH customers these new skills in the course of making up the bag. Listing these skills in this way makes it sound like these skills are a prerequisite.
  • List what skills we expect our customer to learn in the course of making the bag. For example- they might learn how to install a zipper (which I’m glad to tell you is totally different and WAY easier than installing a zipper in a garment, although many customers refuse to believe that)
  • List the projected amount of time it will take to complete the project. This could address the time issue right up front, but you know what…. for many people, (myself included) it’s the PROCESS of completing the project that’s truly enjoyable… even if (or shall I say ESPECIALLY if it takes a whole weekend). I really don’t want the time factor to be seen as a negative which I’m afraid this does and besides, I think most anyone should be able to equate the extra details and features our project offer as taking additional time to create.

And now…. it’s YOUR turn!

Do YOU think that there is a consistent concept of what various skill levels mean? Or do the definitions vary as wildly as I think it does?

Do any of our possible solutions resonate with you? Or would they just make it more complicated to find the pattern that’s right for you?

Might you have another idea for us to consider? If so, I’m all ears!  🙂

And remember, we love reading your comments and answering your questions too, so please feel free to leave them in the space provided below.

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24 Comments So Far, You're Next!

  1. I agree, there are plenty of quick and easy patterns out there, and sometimes the results show it, yours are in the more difficult level, but to rank the time taken to make them is hard, when I make a purse, the time it takes to lay out the pattern so the material will look good at the end takes the longest. I think a rating of ‘challenging but do-able’ is your best bet. I do wish that on the pattern pieces you would list what it will be next to, example – pattern piece #3 and piece #4 will mirror each other or piece # 3 and #4 will be side by side, something along those lines so laying out the pieces on the material goes a little bit faster. Those who are searching for a quick and easy pattern cannot expect those to be in the same category as yours with all the details.
    So sorry for the tirade, but the same ones looking for a half hour pattern are those who will balk at paying a fair price for an intricate design.

    • Thanks for commenting Nancy Lee. Have you tried using the Bag Maps we provide on page 1 of the instructions? If you check those out I think you might find its pretty easy to tell which pieces are adjacent to each other, no? 🙂

      • The bag maps are awesome! I’ve never seen them on other patterns and it is so helpful. Your patterns are so well written that I don’t consider any of them ‘hard’. They can be time consuming but making anything beautiful always is! So worth the time it takes.

  2. This is a very interesting concept to me because it seems that one person’s definition of a “beginner” pattern is not the same for everyone! I have been sewing for over 30 year and have yet to meet anyone who agrees on the definition of “beginner”,” intermediate” and “advanced” as far as sewing skills are concerned. I think people are capable of teaching themselves almost any sewing technique but the question that they need to ask is are they willing to learn? This should be the question that potential pattern consumers should be contemplating, as well as how detailed the instructions are that come with the pattern. How do you measure a person’s willingness to incorporate new skills into their life?

  3. I would consider myself an intermediate to advanced sewer. This is because I can do most techniques used in sewing (includes dressmaking), although the only technique I haven’t mastered yet is shirt collars (I can do all collars and neck facings, etc., except for normal old shirt ones! 🙁 ).
    I’m willing to give any technique a go and am not put off by the number of pieces a pattern has.
    Your patterns are well planned and well written, so it’s easy to follow them (especially after having made a few).
    I would consider your patterns to be for the intermediate to advanced sewer as there are many techniques used in the construction.
    If it was up to me, I would list the ‘sewing skills covered’ in the pattern, not the ‘required skills’.

  4. I’m a pretty advanced seamstress and enjoy a challenge. Your patterns do have quite a bit of pieces but they all have a specific purpose to building a quality purse. You are very clear in the beginning to follow the directions in order. If-a person cuts out all the pieces carefully and follows the directions step by step, they will have a designer bag. I plan on a week to sew one of your patterns, only because I usually only sew in the evenings. I feel, in my humble opinion, that your patterns are easy to follow and with the extra on-line instructions anyone who has patience can be successful.

  5. I think your patterns require a “serious” sewist who is capable and willing to expand their skills with the clear instructions and video help you provide. Attitude is so very important. If you’re not willing to put in the time and enjoy the process, you’re less likely to get the desired result. But if you’re willing to follow the pattern, as it’s written, for however long it takes, you can produce a lovely bag using basic sewing skills and vocabulary. These patterns are not suitable for working to a deadline, at least the first time through the process.

    I think equipment matters too. If you don’t own at least one pair of scissors that have never touched paper 😉 or a machine with enough power to muscle through five or six layers of fabric, then it’s less likely to be a happy experience.

    The level of expertise also depends on what kind of sewing you do. I don’t make clothing anymore. I don’t enjoy it and I was seldom happy with the process or the outcome, I abhor hemming and I suck at alterations. I gladly pay others to shorten pants and skirts. I consider my clothing skills to be amateur, at best.

    But I do see myself as advanced when it comes to crafts, quilts and accessories. These are the projects I enjoy the most.

    Sewing is an art and most artists I know are notoriously bad at accurately assessing their level of talent. I don’t know what kind of disclaimer, or skill ranking, you could put on a pattern that would help with that.

    • You described the dilemma perfectly Diane! That’s why placing a skill level on a pattern might hurt more than it would ever help. Thanks for your input! 🙂

  6. Your patterns are long. Your directions are very detailed. I admit to be a bit taken aback at the many directions but quickly realized it usually took longer to describe the next step than it did to do it. Illustrations with directions were clear. Yes, it did take time but the end results were by far the best bag I had ever made. Looking forward to starting another!

  7. I believe that for every 100 persons who sew, there will be 100 definitions of skill levels.

    Personally, one of the bigger challenges of the patterns is sewing through multiple layers around curves while maintaining the correct sized seam allowance. I can do it if I take my time and pin a lot or even baste, but I don’t feel very expert at it. This lack of confidence has nothing to do with the pattern, it’s just my own definition of skill level in that particular area. However, I can do it with care, and I always end up with a purse that I can be proud of.

    If I had to choose one of your options, I’d prefer the second one which puts a positive spin on the pattern by listing skills that can be learned. If a customer read that they could learn to put in a zipper (for example) and they already knew how, they might feel that they were ahead in the game so to speak. If they didn’t know how, they could look forward to learning.

    I like the idea of “patience” being a required skill level. One who has patience is usually willing to follow the instructions exactly, work through the details without rushing, and actually enjoy the process even while looking forward to the end result. However, ‘patience’ is likely a word that would also have 100 different definitions among 100 different sewers. Therefore this is not really a helpful suggestion unless you can think of other words to describe the idea. “Willingness” might be another way to say it–willingness to follow the instructions exactly and in order, willingness to devote the necessary time, etc., but still not exactly right.

    Although I don’t have any particularly helpful suggestions, I do appreciate your consistent efforts to be responsive to your customers’ needs.

  8. Interesting topic, one I’m sure you wish you could find an answer to for your peace of mind and also to help your customers make an informed decision in regards to just how much sewing expertise is required to make one of your bags. One of my favorite children’s ‘softie’ designers, she makes quilts too, over @ http://www.shinyhappyworld.com, uses thimbles to denote the ‘skill’ level of her patterns, 1 thimble for easiest up to 3 for requiring more skills. I love the descriptions of the levels, they crack me up! For instance, for 1 thimble the designer put: “I just got my first sewing machine and I’m a little scared of it.”! This is hilarious but would fit an absolute beginner sewist IMHO. While I’m not suggesting this for your patterns I feel it goes along with all the above replies.. there is no one fits all descriptor for sewing levels!

  9. Dear Kat, I think listing the skills required for the pattern is an excellent idea. I have been teaching sewing for over 10 years and find that most of my students needed confidence in their own selves and their own skills than my guidance. If I acted as cheerleader, they were able to far exceed their own expectations. Keep up the good work.
    Hugs,
    Barbara L

  10. Laurinda Gillespie

    For ME, the word is ‘determination’. I have always liked a challenge in sewing. I have made many types of bags over the years, all presenting their own challenges. But your bags have a beauty to them when finished. I make them with a determination to finish them so they look great! And I don’t do it with a deadline! Patience and determination.

  11. 30 minute bags look like 30 minute bags…positive re enforcement is always good. – skills learned is good. I tend to agree with Veronica J in her term – skills covered- and the fact that the patterns are fully detailed is more of a help than a hindrance. I sew, have sewn for many years, and believe me, there is nothing more off-putting than a pattern that doesn-t explain enough! thanks for wonderfully detailed patterns.

    • I really like the term “skills covered” as well. We may try that out on our new pattern for Fall and see what the fallout is.
      🙂 Thanks for chiming in!

  12. I think the real difference between “easy” and “difficult” sewing patterns is the amount of concentration needed to complete the project successfully. It isn’t rocket science to make a welt pocket or install a zipper (especially when you have illustrated step-by-step instructions); you just have to focus on what you’re doing. Maybe patterns should be rated by how much concentration is needed: one star for “you can do this while watching TV” to four stars for “turn off everything except sewing machine and iron”.

  13. I say “If it was easy everyone would be doing it.” Hence the bag or garment would not be special and unique.

    Backup response “If you do not enjoy the journey, don’t take the trip.” All sewing projects are journeys in my book.