It’s Sunday afternoon and you’ve got a few hours to yourself. You decide to finally tackle that handbag pattern you bought a few months ago. The fabric has been stacked up in a corner, waiting for you to get to it and today is the day.
An hour or so in, though, you get tripped up by the wording in step 8. You read it three times, but still don’t understand what you’re supposed to do. “This must be wrong,” you think.
If you’ve followed a few patterns over the years I’m sure this scenario sounds familiar to you. Sometimes patterns are wrong. Pattern instructions often have many, many steps and within each step are dozens of details. It's very easy for designers to unknowingly make an error. It’s never intentional, but it’s always possible. And most PDF patterns are self-published which means there’s no editor to catch mistakes.
Sewing patterns, like recipes, benefit from being tested. One of the many wonderful things about being a part of an online sewing community is the ease with which designers can now find people who are willing to test patterns for them, and the ease with which we can get feedback and incorporate changes. Still setting up and managing the pattern testing process can be daunting.
Sara Lawson, modeling one of her bag designs that will be in her new book, Big-City Bags, now available for pre-order.
Sara Lawson is the designer behind Sew Sweetness, a line of sewing patterns for bags. Sara creates patterns for totes, purses, lunchboxes, and wallets. I’m always impressed when she launches a new pattern on her blog not only because her bags are beautiful, but because she invariably shows us 20 versions sewn by 20 different testers!
If you can recall what it was like getting edits on a school paper and having to revise, you know that incorporating just one person’s edits is a lot of work, but 20 is truly incredible. How does she do it?
A big thank you to Sara for sharing with me, and with you, how she goes about recruiting and managing her pattern testers and incorporating their feedback, and why she decided to use so many.
Getting Started with Pattern Testers
"Earlier this year, when I was preparing to start producing PDF sewing patterns for sale I put up a post on my blog that said I was looking for pattern testers. The post was up for less than 24 hours, and I had received about 300 replies. Needless to say, I took that blog post down immediately!"
"I added their e-mail addresses to a database, which I keep stored on MailChimp, and when I have a new pattern ready for testing, I send a mass e-mail out to my group, with information about the pattern and due dates. Those who would like to test it reply to that e-mail, and I randomly choose testers out of those who replied."
"Because I work with such a large pool of testers for each pattern, I feel confident that the sewing ability range is varied; there are always at least a couple newer bag sewists in the group."
"I do not pay my pattern testers; they do receive a copy of the finalized pattern after it has gone through the testing process. I wish I could pay them, but I am happy to do all that I can if they ever need help with anything."
I want to interject here because I spoke with Cindy Guch, one of Sara’s regular testers, to get a sense of why people decide to become pattern testers. Cindy told me,
“I love doing it because I love sewing and I love sewing handbags even more! As for what I get out of it, it's time I get to sew and learn new techniques. I learn approaches to pattern design and construction I may not be familiar with. In the end, I think it helps me be a better sewist.”
Testing a sewing pattern requires thinking carefully about how patterns are made and how they can be improved. It sounds like Cindy really benefits from testing Sara’s patterns.
Okay, back to Sara now.
What to Send
"I send my pattern testers copies of the pattern in Word and also a PDF copy. I ask that they take notes while they are working on the pattern. Some of them write directly on the pattern and scan in their notes and some make formal notes as a Word document."
"Occasionally I ask them specific questions about the pattern (for example, this step was tricky for me to complete with the thick interfacing. Do you agree and do you think I should change to this interfacing instead?)."
"I ask them for at least one well-lit photo of their sewn item, which I include in a blog post when I release the pattern. They have three weeks to submit their work to me."
A sampling of Sara's bags. Find all of her patterns in her shop right here.
What If They Don't Finish?
"There are testers that aren't able to follow through sometimes, usually due to personal reasons. Usually that person e-mails me all in a panic, and not wanting me to be upset. I am never upset when someone is not able to test a pattern because a family member got sick, something came up unexpectedly, etc. I'm not a task master."
"I want this to be a fun and educational process, and if I were mean or rude, why would someone want to continue testing for me? I am flattered to say that many of my pattern testers have tested for me on at least 6 bags!"
How Many Do You Need?
"I had a friend chastise me and say that I should only take 5 testers each time, and I partly agree with her. But on the other hand, I get regular comments by people that appreciate that I show such a variety of tester bags each time I release a new pattern. Someone might not like the Echino fabric that I used, but they might love that Moda floral bag that someone else made for their tester version, and that other bag might prompt them to purchase my pattern."
"It has occurred to me that I might be cutting into my customer base by giving out so many tester patterns, but I'm stubborn and I don't care! I love seeing people sew, and I love how happy they usually are when they finish a pattern. They are still using their bags in real life, and perhaps they are going to their local quilt shop and telling the shop owners about their bag. Who knows?"
"I think it is very important that a pattern designer work with pattern testers, especially in patterns like mine, where I average between 50-60 steps per pattern. I want everything to be as perfect as possible, but we're all human, and everyone makes mistakes."
Take a look at Sara’s post about her newest bag pattern, the Aragon Bag, and scroll down to see all of the different versions her testers made.
What effect does it have on you as a potential customer to see all of these versions made up?
If you’re a designer, how do you recruit and manage your pattern testers? And if you’re a sewist, how would you approach testing a pattern?
And please feel free to ask Sara follow-up questions, too!