Why Indies Matter

Don't support small businesses because you think you should. Do it for yourself.
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How is a sewing pattern like a comic book?

Back in the 90s, the comic book industry faced huge problems.

Large publishers had gotten increasingly commercial, and changes in the industry had led to the near-collapse of distribution channels. By the mid-90s, there was only one main distributor left, and every comic shop in the US was tied to them.

This is the scene that artist and independent publisher C. Spike Trotman relayed in a talk I attended this weekend.

Spike runs what’s currently the largest independent comic publisher in Chicago, Iron Circus Comics. But she created her press against what she calls the constant dull roar of voices telling her, “this is not how it’s done.”

Back in the 90s, with only one distributor left, comic book stores all sold the same stuff: men in spandex. There was little incentive for the large distributor to carry anything else. It wasn’t worth the trouble.

For readers, the result was a comic book monoculture.

People like Spike were dissatisfied. They wanted interesting stories and different genres. They wanted to see women and people of color and LGBT characters and… characters that looked like them.

So what changed? It was the web.

The internet completely changed the ways comics could be distributed and lowered the barriers to entry, first by introducing the concept of web comics (which were derided by the existing industry), and later by new ways of funding like kickstarter.

spike-trotman

(image of Spike via Rachel Lovinger from the talk I attended)

Spike created her company by bypassing the existing distribution channels and appealing directly to her customers. She found that there were many, many people like her who wanted something new and completely different. They’ve formed a community and proven a market (which of course the large publishers are now courting). The web made this possible.

The evolution of a community

Something similar has happened with sewing. In the last 10 years, we have seen an explosion in options for sewists, and a community that has taken root and thrived.

Yes, there were definitely trailblazers before this, just like there were tons of extraordinary independent comics before. But the web allowed this small niche to expand in unexpected ways.

The web is what made this possible. Not because of digital patterns or crowdfunding (though those have been helpful to some), but because the web allows small businesses to have direct relationships with people, to actually create community in a grassroots way. You don’t need a lot of money, but you do need to really care. Caring is our currency.

And when I say “we,” I don’t just mean independent pattern companies. I also mean the network of small local and online fabric stores that support us. And I also mean the small fabric companies and the designers who are pushing for more garment fabric options. And then there are the bloggers who support small businesses and spread sewing with their infectious enthusiasm. All of these people work together, creating an ecosystem that welcomes new ideas and includes a wider variety of customers than before.

harts-fabric-satin-04

(Image: Hart’s Fabric in Santa Cruz)

At the heart of this is a diverse group of people who genuinely care about the community they’re serving.

But I don’t think you should support small companies just because it gives you warm fuzzies, or because you like the intention. I think you should do it for yourself.

Why you should care

Here’s why I think you should actually care:

  1. Small businesses create diversity. Just like the story of the comics industry, without small players you get a monoculture focused only on the biggest and most established market. There’s not much interest in change or fresh ideas or serving smaller groups or interests.
  2. Small businesses listen. Our businesses are built on this. We feel a part of the community and are invested in what people have to say. That doesn’t mean we always get things right, but we want to.
  3. Small businesses shake things up. It often takes a small business to prove that people really want something different. Now we’re seeing large fabric companies (finally!) starting to recognize that garment sewists exist.

I want to be clear. I don’t think all small businesses are fantastic and all big ones are evil. I’ve worked at large companies with people who care deeply about what they’re doing. But on the whole, it is small businesses that have the agility and heart to make something new, and it’s often the little guys who inspire the big ones.

modern-domestic-02

(image: Modern Domestic here in Portland)

This is why you should support your local fabric store, those small fabric companies, indie designers, and anyone else working to build something new and different. Don’t do it out of the kindness of your heart (though that’s cool too). Do it because you want to see more diversity, because you like new ideas, and because you want to see a community flourish.

Sarai Mitnick   —   Founder

Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.

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Comments 29

Abby Glassenberg whileshenaps.com

I feel so fortunate to be part of the sewing community at this moment in time for exactly the reasons you describe. I’m able to write a blog that reports on the home sewing industry and the online culture of craft without needing those stories to be approved by a huge publishing house and without waiting months for them to be distributed. There is enough of an interested and engaged community online, and I can reach those people directly, that I’ve been able to become my own tiny media company. It’s wonderful!

Shannon Wignard diyordie.club

Well said! Great post! I love being part of and building a community online

Dinara outonitsown.wordpress.com

Great post. Small businesses like yours also help to stop consumer mentality, which is a big problem of our time in my opinion. Starting to make clothes myself, I now think more of real price of that 1$ T-shirt from China.

Becky

Thank you for this.

I few years ago, I decided to teach myself to sew because I wanted to make unique clothing for myself and learn a new creative skill. My grandmother was an extremely talented quilt maker and seamstress, and my mother and her sisters made a lot of their own clothing as teenagers and young women.

However, by the time these traditions were to be passed to me, clothing patterns from the Big Four were pretty nerdy, learning to fit was an esoteric skill, and I simply wasn’t a good student of sewing as a preteen. When I realized in my early thirties that I could learn to fit my body and modify patterns to my taste, I went all in.

Once I started, I discovered the great designs available from indie companies, as well as a wonderfully supportive online community, along the willingness to help and give great advice and thoughtful reflections of sewing experiences. It’s thrilling to me that I actually enjoy wearing what I have made – and even feel like I could someday have an entirely me-made wardrobe. So exciting! Without the indie pattern companies, I honestly don’t feel like I would enjoy the experience half as much as I do.

Stephani fearlesssewing.wordpress.com

Very well said, Sarai. It’s the community that I value the most, I think, although the more interesting selection of patterns and patterns created for niche audiences are also a draw. I’m lucky enough to have a group of sewing friends/colleagues where I now live and work, but for years I was the only person I knew besides my mother and grandmother who sewed. And I can definitely say that it was because of the online sewing community that my interest in sewing was reinvigorated. There’s so much inspiration in the community that even if your only sewing friends exist online and not down the street–and even if they don’t know you’re there–it serves as an incentive and makes you feel like you’re not quite alone. Where would the sewing industry be today if not for sewing bloggers and indie companies? I’m guessing, pretty much where it was 20 years ago.

janeray1940

Oh, I love this. I began getting serious about sewing earlier this summer through private lessons at the indie Sew L.A. – only to find out that the shop has hit some challenging times and will be closing at the end of next month. My heart is completely broken, but on the bright side, it’s forced me to discover some great smaller online retailers such as Hart’s (which I’m dreaming of visiting in person someday!) as well as a small local shop that I had never heard of before.

I’ve made a personal commitment to only buy patterns from indie makers, and to buy them directly from the maker whenever possible. I love that there are companies like Colette and others and want to do my part to keep them going!

Catherine Coll rickracknroll.wordpress.com

Like a lot of women My interest in sewing has grown rapidly in the past two years. I have aways sewn but career & children pushed it out. I avoided patterns as my frame of reference was school sewing & bridesmaid dresses. I found the instructions onerous and the illustrations uninspiring.

I continued to make my own patterns when I started sewing again. Social media and the Internet gave me access to try free download patterns.

My opinion of sewing patterns has completely changed. Now I love every aspect of patterns, independent companies all use different symbols, instructions, pattern piecing etc. I find this as interesting as sewing the designs.

My sewing is more thought out as I often binge buy patterns, this makes me consider fabric purchases rather than impulse buys.

The Colette Sewing Handbook patterns completely changed my view of patterns and motivated me to try more. It also provided me with a refresher on sewing techniques I had forgot.

The global reach of independent sewing patterns allows me to have patterns from other countries instantly. I am currently working my way through the SIM bundle patterns, I am not getting very far as the ones I have made are so fantastic I keep making more of them.

Jess wardrobeecology.wordpress.com

I love the analogy of the indie sewing community as an ecosystem. This post was spot on and terrific, and thought provoking: I shop indie as much as I can, mostly because I’m just drawn to the specialty fabrics they carry, and the sewalongs and multiple variations that pattern designers incorporate. But I hadn’t thought about how it comes back around to support my needs/wants, so thank you!

Holly

I do everything I can in my life to support local business but that does not mean I will buy something I have absolutely no interest in just because it’s local, ie: I do not have a baby, thus I will not buy locally made baby clothes just because they are made locally. I will also not buy something that is terribly made just because it is made locally, I will then go look for a properly made local alternative.

This also applies to my pattern buying habits. I buy the indie patterns I want from small local businesses that carry them as I am lucky to have them and I want to support them. But I will not buy a pattern I have no interest in or need for just because it is “Indie” or sold in a small business, this would be a pointless waste of money, just like I don’t buy food I will never eat just because it is grown locally, I buy locally grown food I will actually eat, otherwise I am wasting food.

This rash of blog posts about “buying indie” should realistically be addressing the be fact that people want something different, something unique, and Indie patterns lately seem to be becoming more and more basic. No I will not buy a basic t-shirt pattern that I already have 3 other versions of from other companies “just because it is Indie”.

Sarai colettehq.com

Sure, of course that makes sense. In fact, I’m saying to buy out of self-interest.

I think a lot of people buy even the most basic patterns from indie companies because of the many other features they offer: detailed instructions, multiple variations, sewalongs, extra support, the fun of making it with others in the community. So those are all reasons for someone to make a self-interested decision to buy a basic t-shirt pattern from a small company.

Elizabeth

My general impression of the indie patterns is that there has been a general “dumbing down” of offerings over the past couple of years and it makes me sad. I’d love to see more innovative patterns. I really have my need for basics met at this point. I’ve been sewing for years so when I want a new basic pattern, I won’t be willing to pay a premium for a pattern because there is a sewalong and it is an indie.
I do purchase patterns with interesting and beautiful construction and details, that are drafted well and consistently to others in the same line. I love to buy these from any pattern company. I’ll pay more for an indie if it is better than the alternative.

Beth adventuresofbethy.blogspot.com

I heartily agree! I am very lucky to live in an area where local shops don’t just carry but actually feature independent designers and make up shop samples of the patterns. It truly rocks and is such a step up in quality and desirability from the mainstream. Shop local and shop independent because it is cool!!

eimear rudai-deanta.blogspot.ie

When I was growing up in Ireland, we would have read the UK comics, which was a strong industry also, and in turn moved from Judy and Misty comics to the teenage Jackie magazine and photostory!. As someone who always sewed, I think sewing is making a bit of a ‘come back’ and cannot believe what a great resource the web is, I am currently researching a new embroidery machine and as I live in a small town in the west of Ireland, being able to watch the youtube videos of features and read on-line reviews – the process is so much easier. and also as I dont know many ‘sewers’ these days, seeing other makes online is so so so inspiring.

Rebecca pattydoo.de

I absolutely agree – I think the internet is a fabulous way for people to meet like minds and suddenly we realise that our ‘niche’ interests actually aren’t so ‘niche’ :) It really lets communities come together in a way they never could before.

Michelle thesewingphoenix.com

Great article! For me, the sew-alongs have been one of the most helpful offerings of Indie companies. Step-by-step instructions with pictures have helped me get through many projects that I couldn’t do on my own. I am happy to pay a higher price for Indie patterns because I know that money allows those companies to provide services (sew-alongs, tutorials, more detailed instructions) that I don’t get from the larger companies with cheaper patterns.

nothy aftagley.blogspot.com

I support Indie patterns because I have better luck making them. The sizes are real and the instructions are phenomenal. I credit Colette Patterns and MimiG with teaching how to sew and teaching me to love sewing.

Elana sweetpotatoseamstressing.com

Yes, yes yes to this entire post. I so appreciate your take on things and your willingness to talk about diversity, even as it relates to independent sewing and pattern companies. It makes me want to support your business even more, because I feel like you’re into creating community around people myself. We need more willingness in the small creative business community to openly discuss issues that pertain to women, LGBTQ people, and people of color, and I feel like Colette does a pretty good job of bridging some of those gaps. So thank you!!

Anastasia diva3407.wix.com

I love this article!!! I am very new to sewing but I love support local and indie because it does offer a variety and I find that the instructions are much better. I recently made the Astoria and Bristol pattern– you can see it on my Instagram: alegatos35 and I hashtagged #colettepatterns and I learned soo much!!! Thank you :)

Gail Nelson

Well said! And well done! I have been sewing for many years and have just recently helped a young colleague learn to sew and am amazed by all the online resources and companies available and wish I was 30 years younger and just learning to sew! I try to support indie companies because it is exciting to purchase patterns that are unique and know that my sewing creations will be very unique.

Emerald Erin emeralderin.blogspot.ca

What a wonderful article. This is exactly what inspired me to be part of the online sewing community and now to invest my future in it and start my own business. It really is the currency of caring :) Thanks for this article!

Jennifer Miller letthesewingbegin.wordpress.com

Great article! I’m a returning sewist and what a new world it is! The abundance of online tutorials is staggering, and the online sewing community itself is a phenomenal resource. I’ve only created four projects to date, 2 versions of the same “big four” pattern, one indie pattern, and one self-drafted pattern (my sewing machine cover). That must part of the good feeling I have….without strict intentions (although not unaware), I am supporting this smaller, more human aspect of the sewing industry.

Francesca wouldiwearitinparis

The reason I sew is to have great clothing for a lot cheaper than it would cost to buy clothing of the same quality. I have found that the indie pattern companies are largely the same.sihouettes and garments–cute dresses with fitted bodices and full-ish skirts and a vintage feel. When I want a pattern that offers a challenge to my skills (I have been sewing for 40 years) and some sophistication, I go to Lekala, Burda or one of the Big 4, in that order. I do like Collette’s pants patterns that I’ve tried as well as Hot Patterns, Waffle, and Tasia’s work. But for the most part, I don’t find the indie sewing patterns very interesting or suitable. And far too expensive for what they are.

Robin

Well put. Hart’s is my hometown fabric store, and by far my favorite place to buy sewing supplies. I remember going there with my mom and walking through feeling all the fabrics, flipping through pattern books. I took a beginning sewing class for kids at Hart’s back in the 80’s, when I was in 5th or 6th grade.

Beth rockpaperscissorsnj.com

Thank you for this thoughtful post. I love your view of things as much as we love your patterns.

As an indie shop owner, we struggle daily against many hurdles, from the big box stores to wholesale pricing on places like Massdrop, to simply paying the rent and payroll. But, we LOVE our community and nurture the growth in all forms of sewing. I am so very grateful to have a job where I am surrounded by amazingly creative people on a daily basis. Thanks for this reminder as to why we do this every day. And keep doing what you are doing, Saria. The indie company you have grown is beautiful and so full of quality and integrity, it makes my heart sing.

Ewka

Hi Sarai, fantastic post as usual. Like many people above I also love the global creative sewing community that for the main part, is so supportive of new sewists as well as those who have been around for a while. I also wholly support the small business enterprises. Although I don’t always purchase their items exclusively, I would prefer to spend my money with them rather than with a monolithic, impersonal goliath that may be mainly interested in maximizing their profits at the expense of good products and good service – I’m mainly referring to fabric stores here. As far as indie pattern makers go, I appreciate that they all provide a service that is pitched at different levels of expertise. So for me (I have been making my own clothes for many years), simple t-shirt patterns are not interesting at all but for my friend, who has just started sewing, those sort of simple patterns are brilliant and she would be intimidated by anything a bit more advanced. What I really love about this community is the variety and diversity of needs, styles and points of view! I really wished I had that when I started out.

Anna Rodriguez

Great post, and good timing. I am contemplating opening up a independent fabric retail shop in conjuction with an online shop in my small town. I’m still in the R&D phase. Your point about the ability of small business to bring diversity really struck a chord. I have learned the most from independent pattern designers and small fabric retail shops, who can connect with what sewers really want. There is such joy in helping give people the tools to create. If you have any advice about e-commerce please send it my way.

Sharon Robinson

I do it because I love the product. Even buying a pdf pattern is worth all the hassle that goes with getting the final piece. It just fits together better the instructions don’t leave you wondering and well I do like to support small business.

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