Sunday, March 9, 2014

McCalls Focus Group at the American Sewing Expo Recap

Hi everyone! Thanks for your comments on my McCalls red gingham pj top.  It makes me smile!  My mom emailed me to say it makes her want angel hair pasta.  Ha!

Sooooo...Shams's multi-day, multi-post write up of her very recent day trip to Puyallup to meet with the McCalls folks based on her Open Letter to Vogue post has inspired me to write a recap of my not-as-recent experience as a participant in one of the McCalls Focus Groups at the American Sewing Expo in Novi, MI at the end of last September.

Friday: with Haberman fake fur
Me at the ASE in 2013, hugging Haberman fabric while wearing a McCalls 6078 top and J Stern Design jeans.

It was my 4th year at the ASE and the first time I'd seen McCalls at the expo.  Simplicity was there my first two years and then stopped going.  I have to say that out of the Big 4 I prefer New Look for the best fit (and that all pattern sizes are in one envelope), and was sad when Simplicity stopped going to the Expo (Simplicity owns New Look), though maybe their staff was happy not to have me lingering at their booth every day!    McCalls owns Butterick, Vogue and Quik Sew.  I haven't sewn all that many McCalls or Butterick patterns, and have only sewn one Quik Sew, but I have sewn several Vogues now and my favorite dress I made last year is Vogue 1351.  Lately I've been sewing more independents (and buying more McCalls/Vogues) but more on that later.

Saturday:  me in Vogue at the McCall's booth with Gertie's dress
Me wearing my favorite dress of 2013, Vogue 1351, next to Gertie's dress in the McCalls booth at the ASE 2013.

I also want to say that Puyallup sounds even more exciting than the ASE based on Shams's description of it.  :)   The recap of my 2013 ASE experience is here.  I agree with Shams, when you return from one of these events you want to hit the sewing machine ASAP.

The ASE had a Survey Monkey poll during the last week of August (I remember because it was my vacation), seeking volunteers to be in one of the three McCalls focus groups.  I had a pretty packed class schedule but there was one time slot that would work, so I volunteered for that time slot.  The questions were basic:  how long have you sewn for, where do you live, what do you sew, how old are you, how much do you make, and I think most if not all questions were answered with radio buttons, not free text.

Somehow I was chosen and my three sewing friends who also volunteered were not, leading to much envy and jealousy on their part (I am not making this up, they were quite jealous!).  We were all from out of state (and in one case out of the country!) but as far as distance I traveled the longest (from NJ) and thought maybe that's why I was chosen, but who knows!

I arrived not having eaten lunch and was pleasantly surprised to see that lunch was provided.  Everyone else was finishing up and I ravenously ate my sandwich and potato salad.   A written survey was provided and we all filled it out.  It was the same survey they had in their expo booth, that any visitor to their booth could fill out.

Keep in mind this was a little over 5 months ago, so some details may not be as clear.  There were about 10-15 of us in my session, the chosen ones.   We sat around a long, conference room style table.  Kathy Wiktor (as seen on Shams's post) was leading the session with support from one of her coworkers.  Various other coworkers (several of whom I recognize in Shams's post) came in and out of the room.  Several chosen ones arrived late due to traffic (I could see the traffic backed up the interstate from my hotel room window).

I only recognized one other chosen one, because she is a past Passion for Fashion winner.  I didn't know anyone else.

We were fairly representative bunch, of all shapes, sizes, and ages, and judging by their answers, of varying sewing experience too, from only sewing for a year to sewing for decades.  Not all were garment sewers.  Some were crafters.  What was also interesting to me was most in my group do not read sewing blogs and as far as I could tell, I was the only one who writes a sewing blog.

I'm not sure that anyone else was wearing clothes that they made themselves.  I wore my ruffled McCalls 6518 that I had made last March, the one where I learned how to use the narrow hem foot on my sewing machine on a curve.  

McCall's 6518 DONE
The narrow rolled hem foot
McCall's 6518 in progress

Here were some of the questions asked.  This isn't the order of the questions, but rather in order of what I thought was most interesting....and the number one most interesting question was:

Q.  Pretend there are no more pattern sales.  What is the maximum price you would pay for a McCalls pattern?  We know that indies are charging upwards of $20, and that you are buying them.  (Kathy noted that the pattern sales are NOT going away.  Just pretend they were.)

A.  $5 and $10 was the most common answer.  Someone said it depended on what the pattern was, they would pay less for a basic pj pattern and more for something more elaborate.

I did not respond but...if I really like a pattern, I will pay for it (and yes, I am paying $20 and more for indie patterns).

Q.  Do you like having the finished garment measurements on the envelope?
A.  OMG *my* answer was a resounding YES.  This is one of my two pattern pet peeves I wanted to voice, and I got to speak my mind.  The back of a Vogue pattern envelope has acres of space, but often it says to see the pattern inside to find out the finished garment measurements.  I'm sure Joann's employees don't want us rifling through pattern pieces to find finished garment measurements.

I said that the measurements should be on the back and that they should include bust, waist AND hip as sometimes only bust is included and if it's a dress, I want to know all 3.  I also said I do not care about the back length measurement, though others said they did care.  I said I usually go to their website to find the finished garment information (but after the expo I have been finding cases where the finished measurements are not even on the web site!)

 As Shams said in her post, the McCalls folks told her they will be adding the finished pattern measurements to the back of the envelope.    Hurrah!!!

Vogue envelope
I think it was in 2008 when ATP told me about selecting a size based on the finished garment measurements, and that started to turn things around for me wrt fit.

Vogue envelope closeup

Here's a McCalls envelope, which is smaller but still, plenty of space for finished measurements.

McCalls envelope

Q.  How do you feel about the size ranges in the pattern envelopes?
A.  This is my second pet peeve.  Usually I am either a 12 or a 14 based on finished garment measurements, OR if it's a dress sometimes I'm a 12 grading to 14.  but sometimes the 12 is in one envelope and the 14 is in the other envelope, i.e. there is no overlap between the ranges..  I said that sometimes, if it's a Joann's 99 cent sale, I'll buy both size ranges just to be sure.  

I tried to find examples of this in my pattern stash to photograph, but they were all simplicity examples.  There are McCalls examples, I just don't have any of their patterns where I bought both size ranges.

Others said they liked when three sizes used to be in an envelope, like the 8-10-12.

Q.  What is your impression of Vogue patterns, McCalls, Butterick and Quik Sew?
A.  I said that Vogue is designer, better fitting, and more fashionable.  Others generally agreed..  Some said Vogues are the most difficult of the bunch.

There is no distinction in my mind between McCalls and Butterick, but others definitely had opinions (and negative at that).

I have no opinion of QS either, but basic and dependable were the general consensus.

Q.  Do you feel the size ranges represent your size?
A.  I thought this may have been  a question in response to several blog posts by indies and sewists alike talking about the dirth of cute clothing for plus sizes, but there weren't a lot of takers on this one in my group.

I think the big 4 could find a niche with the plus size community if they improved their pattern sizing and had better clothing options. Many indies are, by their own admission from the posts I've read, not equipped to have 2 size blocks for their clothing, though others are, like Lolita Patterns.

Q.  What independent pattern companies have you purchased from?
A.  I have sewn:  Jalie, Jennifer Stern Designs, Angela Wolf, Sewaholic, Style Arc.  After the conference I also sewed UHandbag.  The only one I could think of to say at the time was Sewaholic (most likely because of that week long Sewaholic Thurlow bender I was on with my self imposed ASE deadline).  (btw, my next post is going to be about a Jalie I finished up last weekend, and I'm planning on sewing a StyleArc today.)

Others mentioned independents like Cake, Colette, and By Hand London, and some I had never heard of.

After the focus group, I learned from another one of their employees that McCalls actually prints the Sewaholic patterns (she said she knows Tasia and that she's so sweet).  In fact, at the ASE McCalls had designated time in the social media lounge if you wanted to talk to them about having your own pattern line printed by them, and had at least 2 employees from their Manhattan, KS plant there to chat.

Q.  Should there be more craft patterns?  More costumes?  More steampunk?
A.  Well, my answer was hell no, but others were enthusiastically saying yes yes yes, especially more steampunk.  I don't craft that much, I make a few bags, I make a costume once in a blue moon, I'm not into steampunk.

Q.  If we offered kits that included the pattern, fabric, and all notions (thread, buttons, zipper) to make a garment, would you buy it?
A.  It is funny, at the time I said no, but I just bought Gertie's slip kit to make the slip from her newest Butterick pattern.  But I think that's mainly because the slip requires things that are not easy to locally source (like the rings, lingerie elastic, etc).  

I remember someone saying that she wouldn't need the notions because she has a notions stash and there seemed to be much head shaking agreement on that point.

Q.  What do you think of the pattern envelope?  Do you prefer pictures to sketches?
A..  I said YES!  Pictures are better than sketches, by a lot!!  And this is where I threw in that usually it's not the pattern envelope that inspires me, it's seeing the garment others have sewn up and model on their blogs and on
Pictures please!

I never would have bought that vogue on the left based off that line drawing.  I bought it after seeing what Deepika did with it on patternreview.

Q.  If we had youtube videos that offered sewing help, like how to insert a zipper, would you watch them?
A.  Yes! The group was definitely interested.  I think this is where I threw in that I also learn tips about sewing up patterns and workarounds for any difficulties through reading sewing blogs.

Q.  Social media.  Are you on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest?
A.  Well, most seemed to be on Facebook and Pinterest, some on Instagram and I think I was the only tweeter.  (I'm not on the others!)  I asked if they (McCalls) have a twitter acct and they do not.  I said that it is fun to tweet a garment back to the pattern company and have them comment on it.

Q. What sewing blogs do you read?
A.  Me and one other lady were mentioning sewing blogs but everyone else was silent.  One woman said, rather incredulously, "you have time to read sewing blogs????" and that's when I said that I write one.  No one else said they write one.

One of the blogs I mentioned is Male Pattern Boldness and Kathy said "Oooh, that's a good one!"

I was wondering if they had read Shams's Open Letter to Vogue, or KID MD's "Big 4 Experiment" but I didn't say anything.

Q.  Do you use the body type ratings system on the Vogue patterns?
A.  Most said yes, but I don't use this feature.

Q.  Do you use the ratings system on the patterns (like very easy, easy, advanced)?
A.  The past PFF winner said she looks for advanced patterns because she likes the challenge of them.

Q.  When you're at the fabric store, how do you approach the catalog?  Do you like to have the yardage and measurements in the pattern catalog?  (we actually started the hour by being told to pretend we're at Joann's and start looking through the catalogs on the table in front of us).
A.  Well, I generally look at the front of the catalog because that is where the new patters are, but, I don't really look through the book anymore. I know the patterns I want to buy because I've seen them on blogs or saw them on the pattern website.  It's rare for me to sit in Joann's.  Typically I want to get out of there as fast as possible, and I don't have that much free time for retail shopping generally.  I think the last time I was at Joann's was Dec 31.

Those are all the questions I can remember.

The little brochures/being inspired by YOU
I don't think we talked about it, the booth I told them that I *love* the little brochures of their new pattern releases that are included in the patterns when you buy off their web site.   I bought my favorite vogue of all time, V1351, off their website (after being inspired by Sunny Gal Studio) and it came with a little brochure of their recent pattern releases.

BMV brochures

Since then, I've been going to Joann's less and buying from the BMV site during their sales (or if BMV is not on sale, sometimes I buy from etsy or ebay).  I *love* these brochures.

BMV brochures
But mainly I am inspired by YOU, by dear readers, and what YOU do with the patterns you buy. I have bought these in the past 6 months or so because of you recognize any of your makes?
inspired by YOU

Overall impression
My general impression is that they are scared.  I think they see the indies pushing their way through the pattern market and hearing the buzz they are generating, especially among the younger sewers who are the future of sewing.   The fact that they are printing indie patterns is another sign....they are printing their competition's patterns!  Or maybe they see the market as big enough or indies as different enough for everyone, but...they definitely want to listen to what you have to say.  Tell them!!!

We each received a McCalls goodie bag and a $50 AmEx gift card (and the free lunch) in exchange for our one hour of time.   I decided that my $50 went toward this sewing machine necklace:
Christmas presents to myself
I bought it from this seller on etsy.

Phew!  Congrats if you made it to the end of this post.  Thank you Shams for inspiring me to finally recap the experience.  And thank you to McCalls for reaching out and letting our voices be heard!  Here is what I found on the Vogue site, as a way to contact them.  

And, as always, Down with Daylight Savings Time!  Let's pick a time and stick with it.

Be well!


  1. this was really interesting to read, especially to get a small view into what the big pattern companies are thinking of.
    I don't know that I've ever gotten one of the vogue brochures, but thinking about it I think that I buy their patterns off of amazon more than the BMV site.

    1. The little brochures are fun---it's like a mini-version of their catalog, right at home!, and in print (not on the web)

  2. Thank-you for this very informative post.

    I find the major pattern companies (except McCalls) offer me a more reliable fit. I know what changes I need to make and they usually work out great. But, it sounds like I am in the minority.

    I am definitely in the minority b/c I make a SBA while everyone else seems to be doing FBAs. And, my waist size is smaller than my hip size. Before kids, they differed by 2 sizes. After kids, only 1/2 or 1 size.

    1. I'm in the "no FBA" camp as well, but I only need to do SBAs if it's something like a crossover dress.

  3. We WERE jealous that you did the focus group! I remember we were all grilling you about what was asked and what you and the others said! Great recap my friend.

    1. I was so surprised about all the jealousy!

  4. Kyle this was GREAT to read! Especially for me as all of my answers to the questions are exactly the same as yours!!! :)

    I am a newer sewer (I always like saying newer sewer lol!) and am not at all tired of the big 4. I get frustrated by individual patterns as much as the next person but have no real need to venture completely away from the big 4.

    The only independent patterns that I own; and that aren't free patterns are the Thurlow, Jalie jeans and the Grainline PJs. I think my upper limit on BMV patterns would be around $10. I'm just not into spending a ton of money on patterns -- yet :)

    1. Aww that we have the same answers to the questions!

      Hee for "newer sewer". :)

  5. Oh, Loved the review of your experience with the focus group. I am just now beginning to 're-think' how/when I buy patterns. I'm trying to cut back on the J's sales and just pick up what I want to sew at the moment (if I don't already have it). I do have quite a collection of Independents including Louise Cutting, Jalie, Style Arc, etc. I'll pay $20 for indy pattern if I REALLY want it; on the other hand, I'm thinking $15 might be my top limit for a Big 4 if sales went away. Strange, huh?

    1. It is interesting when we think about these things, but big companies are run by people, just like small independents. That is something I forgot to mention, that it was great to meet the peeps behind McCalls, to see that there are real people and not just a bunch of corporate robots.

  6. I was still processing what went on at SewExpo (Puyallup) when I read Sham's posts (She's fast!).
    In fact, I don't know that I could boil it down, clarity wise, to the posts that you just wrote (how do you even remember September?) and the ones Sham's wrote.
    When I go to SewExpo is when I give myself permission to spend $20 for a new pattern. In my everyday life, I'm too frugal. I also want to copy RTW finishes which I can only get by buying clothing retail and then copying the details. Those details are gleaned from YouTube, Sewing Blogs, and my own sewing experience. They aren't on a McCall's pattern.
    I need to start my taxes today but I may write a few things on my blog about these issues.
    No one in your focus group reads sewing blogs???Really?

    1. I'm eager to read what you have to write about this issue!
      I too was surprised that just one other person in the group seemed to read sewing blogs.

  7. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Thank you for a very interesting, and thorough focus group experience!
    As for indie patterns, I have NOT purchased any at all. I stay within the big 4 (I really like Vogue and New Look) and LOVE Burda!! Also, I am cheap!! I like to stay on the low end when I buy patterns.

    I second the finished garment measurements on patterns!

    1. That's another reason I like New Look-they are a low price all the time--so I can buy them anytime

  9. Kyle, thanks so much for writing up your experience! I read it avidly. Very interesting! I did know about the focus groups at Novi, but not the specifics. Thanks again!

    1. Thank YOU shams for prompting me to write this post!

  10. That is very interesting, I would agree with your assessment. The indies are making them nervous and BMV hasn't had to change forever and change is hard.

    1. Change *is* hard, but I think they see they have to change to survive.

  11. Great re-cap! Thank you for sharing!

  12. This was great! I love knowing what questions they've got in their minds already. I def think they're asking the right questions.

  13. I'm glad you were chosen to give your feedback. You've done a great job relaying what's on the horizon. I'm impressed with the level of work the big 4 are doing to reconnect with us all.

    1. Thanks Maria! I'm impressed too, especially with the way they reached out to shams.

  14. Fascinating post! When I first started buying Kwiksew patterns they WERE an indie company. You're not old enough to be interested in Park Bench Patterns, possibly, or the Ericson's pattern line, or costume interested enough for Folkwear. I share your frustration at the size groupings of patterns, but truly the printers have to start somewhere. When I grew up, you had only one size in each envelope. Some women had to buy three patterns to get something that came close to fitting. I bless the day that multi-size patterns became widely available. I bless the day even more when I learned to draft my own patterns -- lots of trouble but it helps take away the fear of slashing and spreading to alter for oneself.

    1. Shows you how much I know about QuikSew--I didn't even spell it properly!!

  15. I enjoyed this article. I completely agree that there is serious lack of information on pattern envelopes. Now I'm off to read Sham's article, too.

    1. Thanks Mary! You're going to love shams's posting too!

  16. That was very interesting! I'm really glad the Big Four are talking to their customers and finding out what they really want. Although I confess I love Vogue and don't want the styles or the fit to change . Most of the indie lines do nothing for me style wise. But finished garment measurements on the envelope and overlapping size ranges: yes! Here's hoping.

  17. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and informative post. What an experience! I think your overall impression is correct. I only rarely buy a big 4 pattern now, mainly because of a bad fit experience I had in the past. I think there are a lot of different sewists out there and potential opportunities for Vogue to find a niche -- whether it is their ability to offer designer patterns (those are the only ones I look at); offer expanded sizing ranges; offer better fitting patterns because of all of the expertise and resources they have (which indies don't); etc.

    I love the photo of you and the faux fur -- too cute!

  18. I just bought a Vogue pattern yesterday, my first in years, and I'm going to sew it up for PR Austin weekend. And it doesn't have the finished garment measurements on the back, but I'm buying it on faith. And we'll see how it goes. Thanks for the thorough info -- you mentioned much of it last time I saw you, but I needed the refresher!


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