On the usability of pattern instructions…

The above note is lovely, but does not tell the whole story.  To truly know my frustration, spend an evening sewing with me.  Count the curse words, observe how many times I read and re-read and triple check and ask my friends questions about the pattern instructions.  They are thus far my number one complaint about sewing.

During my day job, I am a human factors engineer. I spend my time designing and evaluating technology systems and products with which people interact. Users of products are always blaming themselves when they make errors. Human factors engineers generally disagree with that notion – if enough people are continuously making the same errors with a system, it was not designed optimally.

I know pattern instructions aren’t exactly technology, being old school paper and all, but a large part of human factors is creating good instructions. I have conducted studies in the past where I watched users open a product right out of the box, as if they had just brought it home, and try to begin using it. Instructions are VERY easy to design POORLY. Not to mention the fact that people almost never RTFM. But assuming they do, they probably still struggle with at least part of the instructions.

Today’s post is about my mostly silly human factors dream to someday have sewing patterns that are easy to use. Maybe someone who can make a difference to the bigger pattern companies will get wind of it. I know I would be very loyal to a pattern brand that made good instructions.

What are some of the problems with pattern instructions?  If you have ever used one, surely you know.  I could write them all down, or just turn you to another blog I like.  I choose the lazy option today.

As a user of sewing patterns and a human actors professional, here are some improvements that I feel should be made:

1). Glossary of terms used in the pattern – Beginners want this, and advanced users can skip over it. Win win situation.  If you don’t want to waste the paper on it, give me a web address to go to where I can see this information.  It doesn’t all have to be paper.  I have encountered all kinds of crazy terms and have to turn to places other than my pattern to try to untangle their meaning.

2). Better pictures – I know cost goes up to use realistic photos, so I wouldn’t suggest that, even though it would be ideal. Test your instructions – even with just a handful of people to make sure your pictures are good. Potentially, provide more than one picture if a step is complicated or a picture is unclear.  Use arrows and other tools to point out specific parts of the diagrams that are important.  Below is one of my favorite pattern drawings.  Seriously – how useful is this picture?

3). Better organization – Don’t write me a paragraph for a single step. Break it down further, either into individual steps or sub steps. Use bullet points to make things easier to read.

4). Preview – on the pattern envelope, include some indication of the skills / pattern features required for the project, such as facing, French seams, invisible zippers, pockets, gathering, etc. A difficulty indicator is good, but listing specific skills allows people to select patterns in terms of things they know or things they want to learn.

5). Time indicators – I don’t feel like knowing I am on step 35 of 50 is enough of an indicator of progress. Each step should have an estimated time to complete. Steps 1 through 10 might be really quick and take me a total of an hour, versus the next three steps may be complicated and take an hour by themselves. Each person is going to be slightly different on this timing, but that is okay.

6). Tell me EVERY step – I know I am supposed to just magically know to overcast and finish seams. But since no pattern ever tells me that, I have to find it out by reading, word of mouth, or by what happens when I wash the first project I am proud of completing only to discover my fabric is a frayed mess at the seams. Furthermore, even if I do know, I could simply forget. Tell me every single thing I need to do; don’t assume I know any of it.

7). Include important notes – I think this section might be in some pattern instructions, but it contains the wrong information. It should contain things like “This pattern is built with a B cup size in mind. You will need to modify it if this is not your size.”

All of this being said, these days we all have “The Google” as a backup resource when we need to find answers or tutorials or definitions. But your pattern instructions would be better if I didn’t have to do that!  Do you have other ideas for how to make pattern instructions more clear?  If so, please tell me below.  Someday I may try my hand at “improving” a set of instructions…


4 comments for “On the usability of pattern instructions…

  1. March 5, 2012 at 8:55 am

    I love you for this post. I suppose this goes along with “better pictures,” but I think it would be awesome if pattern companies included more pictures of a completed garment. Most of the time, only the FRONT of the garment is pictured on the pattern. The back is important too! It might also be cool if they could list techniques on a pattern. They tell you what kind of fabric and notions you need, but there’s no mention of the fact that you WILL need to know how to do a slip stitch, french seam, etc.

    • jadesabre9
      March 5, 2012 at 9:19 am

      Exacty – the techniques is what I was trying to get at with the “Preview”. I like your word better hehe. Full picture at the end is a good idea too.

      • Kim
        March 15, 2012 at 5:14 pm

        This post is excellent Jen! You are absolutely correct. I haven’t sewn in years, but I do vividly recall my frustrations with the pattern instructions. As I was reading your post I thought of game walkthroughs. The pattern companies would do well to have the instructions online. This would allow for the “actual” pictures, even videos. I know that I would be much more inclined to buy patterns from a company that made it more of a pleasure, than a frustration to complete my project.

        Love the blog Jen!


        • jadesabre9
          March 15, 2012 at 8:30 pm

          True. It would be cheaper, save trees, and likely provide better detail. There are a lot of good tutorials and videos around, but it would be nice to have something sanctioned by the pattern companies. Thanks for reading and the thoughts! 🙂


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