When you start sewing more you hear a lot about the “big four”. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out what that meant.
To be fair, as a kid my sewing education was a bit limited. My Mom isn’t bad at sewing, actually, she can be quite good. But, she was a bit out of practice. I also took quilting lessons and was super excited to take textiles in high school. Unfortunately, the teacher was super old fashioned and not always the nicest or most helpful. When I enrolled in a fashion program for post-secondary the sewing classes I had been promised never came. I focused mostly on refashioning old clothes and didn’t know anything other than the patterns for sale at the fabric shop existed.
Just for clarity that it took me far too long to find: The big four is really the big two. It encompasses Simplicity Creative Group– which includes Simplicity, New Look, and Burda; and McCall’s- a.k.a McCall’s Group: Butterick, Vogue, and Kwik Sew. I think the big four moniker comes from McCall’s, Butterick, Vogue, and Simplicity.
I can’t speak too much about independent patterns. I just don’t have that much experience sewing with them. However; I can safely say there are more than a few things to look out for when it comes to our big supergroup friends.
First things first, you can’t sew a pattern you don’t have. McCall’s and Simplicity are dabbling in digital downloads but otherwise, these are physical patterns you go to a store and buy, or order the tangible product online. I believe in the States most stores stock one or both groups. Simplicity seems to have pulled out of Canada a few years back. I could only find Burda patterns at Dressew, but it’s been a while so I can’t say if that’s still the case. Simplicity eluded me a bit as the patterns tended to be expensive and shipping to Canada was, as always, a nightmare.
McCall’s was a bit easier. I could always find them in the nicer fabric shops. They also tend to go on sale very often and did bulk shipping to Canada- $25 for 20 patterns. Even with the exchange rate, it was still pretty okay price wise.
I haven’t been able to find out what the standard is in Ireland, but the Simplicity EU link leads me to literally all the patterns together.
Basically, if you like big four patterns don’t move internationally.
It’ll do your head in.
One of the benefits of the big four is that they have a reputation for being cheaper than independent patterns. I’m not sure that’s always the case, the listed prices run high, however; I’ve never met a single person who paid the price on the envelope. The benefit of the big four is that if you’re patient a sale will come. It might take a minute, but it will be there. Whether it’s through their direct site or one of their stockists. Shop around for the best deal.
You’ll get an envelope, instructions, and the pattern on thin tissue paper. Once you unfold the paper you will need an origami genius to get it back in there. I usually just place all the parts in a freezer bag.
The tissue rips super easily so I trace all my patterns onto other paper both for sturdiness and so I can keep the graded nest. Also, if I want to lengthen, shorten, or full-on change anything it’s ten times easier on real paper.
There’s just as much love as there is hate for big four instructions. These companies have huge research teams. These patterns are theoretically tested multiple times. There’s literally no excuse for a mistake in these patterns. But… there sometimes is. Sometimes things are just explained in ways that are overcomplicated or just plain strange. The good thing about the big four being so prominent is that there is most likely a plethora of people who have sewn the pattern before. A lot of patterns even have youtube sew-a-long’s. If there’s a problem with a big four pattern give it six months and not only will you know what it is, but you’ll also have multiple examples of how to fix it.
Ease gets it own special mention because it’s such a prolific big four problem. For some odd, unknown reason big four patterns have just… a ridiculous amount of ease. This is great for when you want to feel a little bit thin, but bad for when you spend hours sewing something that you want to wear and look good in. I usually buy fabric and notions for the size the envelope says I am, but then measure the actual pattern pieces when deciding a size. If you’re using really nice fabric I’d definitely suggest a mock-up. I like to use a nice, but not as nice as the final fabric and make a muslin I can wear.
There’s definitely a mass market appeal when it comes to the big four. Sometimes they even try to be downright trendy, and they’re definitely better than they were fifteen years ago. As you browse through patterns you may start to notice something, well, truly baffling. I understand not everybody has the same personal style and my style is not right, and someone else’s is not wrong. I’m not trying to yuck anyone’s yum here. That said, I will never understand some of the fabric choices these companies make.
Sometimes it’s simply me thinking it’s an ugly fabric, but a lot of the time it’s also a fabric choice that doesn’t showcase the nice design details. For example, if there’s a lot of ruffle details, maybe a print isn’t the best choice? Sometimes you look at colour choices and feel a bit off kilter. I feel like a lot of the time they work against pattern features instead of with them.
The biggest thing you can do to make clothes you really like with big four patterns- and any pattern really- is learning how to read line drawings. I got formal training in doing it, but comparing sewn garments to a pattern envelope will get you so very far.
I mean, sewing is really one of those annoying things in life where you just have to practice, and big four patterns are a great place to get it.