Usability of sewing patterns

My first post of the new year is about sewing patterns, but don’t let that put you off, if that’s not your thing.  It’s actually a case study in usability in the real world…

The story

I guess lots of you will have heard of Cath Kidston, the sewing and home-style legend – well I recently had a look at her book ‘Sew!’ .  The book looks great and the photos are brilliant, but I found it virtually impossible to follow the instructions to make the stuff.  When it comes to sewing, CK is right up there; she is the guru – so why was her book such a textiles nightmare?

In contrast, I got another book for Christmas from the little known Rob Merrett with the poetic title ‘Sew it, Stuff it!’.  One of the few male authors I could find in this field, I was very happy to try out some of the stuffed toy projects with total success and joy! (See photos of the stuff I made).  These projects were no less complex than Cath Kidston, involving lots of layers (that’s ‘applique’ in sewing speak), seam allowances and all sorts of sewing fun – so what was the reason for such a great user experience here and not with Cath K’s book?


Babuska Basket (from Rob Merrett's book, page 48)

Boo! (from Rob Merrett's book page 46)

The lessons in usability from my sewing pattern books

1. Don’t use jargon.  I found that CK assumed that the reader understands complex sewing-related vocabulary.  For example, “Press a 2.5cm turning at each end of the bias tape, then press it half lengthways with the turnings on the inside“/ “slip stitch“/ “tape channel“- huh?.  RM’s book on the other hand avoided the use of specific sewing terms, or if he did , he qualified them in brackets afterwards.  For example “with right sides together and aligning the raw edges, pin baste (tack), and machine stitch…”  Baste is the proper word, I guess, but it’s easier to guess what ‘tacking’ means.

2. Separate the instructions for a task into bite-size chunks.  CK’s patterns were admittedly split into numbered points, but somehow they were still hard to follow.  The text was fairly small and loads of complicated sewing stuff was encoded in a tiny pieces of text; I guess that’s what techie jargon allows you to do – say something complicated in very few words.  RM’s pattens took up more space on the pages, which meant you could see if something was going to be more involved because there were lots of points to follow.  It seems a bit like expectations were set more appropriately by RM, and the use of white space to make it visually appealing was good too.


3. Use diagrams and pictures to illustrate concepts.  CK did not include any ‘in progress’ pictures in her recipes (that’s probably not the official term for these things, but hey it’s like a recipe!).  It showed the finished photo only.  Frustrating – because you could see the end goal, and how nice it was, but no easy way to get there!  There was no way to check visually I was on the right track.  Ok, both CK and RM had information on techniques in a separate section of the book – but this didn’t really help much (for example, I couldn’t get the French Knot right in RM’s book at all!)  What I needed was a set of step-by-step pictures to lead me through the journey.  RM’s book did this perfectly – see some examples below.


'How to' diagrams from Rob Merrett's book (Babuska Basket recipe)











'How to' diagrams from Rob Merrett's book (Boo! recipe)













4. Make it simple and as few steps as possible.  CK’s pattern pull out was huge, unwieldy and complicated – with many overlapping letter and number coded squares.  RM’s patterns were in two separate more manageable pull-outs which were colour-coded and labelled by project name and letter.  The patterns were overlapping, but easy to distinguish.  When a large square was needed for a pattern in ‘Sew it stuff it’, RM just told you the dimensions (in both inches and cm), but when CK’s pattern needed a large square shape you need to find it in the huge pattern pull out.  CK’s recipes have skill levels indicated at the top using a list of thimbles (3 thimbles being harder than one, etc) – but I couldn’t follow just one thimble – so it made me feel rather inadequate!

What have I learnt?

So, I am still left wondering why this all happened.  How could CK let us down – when she has such great high street shops and loyal fan base?  Maybe it is because CK is a sewing pro – so she doesn’t even realise she is using technical descriptions in her ‘recipes’.  The book seems to be aimed at those who have had sewing training, which alienates  readers who may have taught themselves how to sew.  Me thinks she didn’t use design personas to guide her creation of the book!

Anyway this is not a rant or a book reviews post, I just thought it was fun to show you how user experience is everywhere – and can lead the user/customer either loving or hating your product – and only fairly minor tweaks separating the two.

Happy sewing!


Oskar the Owl (from Rob Merrett's book page 69)


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