Did you see Lara’s excellent article yesterday?  Hopefully her thoughtful and thorough information has you well on your way to becoming a successful pattern user.   Today I have a few more thoughts on why patterns can be so difficult to use and suggest some tricks to get you past the frustrating parts.

Because of what I do for a living, people often tell me about their sewing experiences. I sometimes hear, “I have a machine, but I can’t figure it out.” Or, “My mom tried to teach me to sew, but I didn’t really get it.” Similarly, many people share with me their frustration at trying to sew with a pattern. Expert quilters will say, “I couldn’t sew a dress to save my life!” There are so many sad tales of failed sewing attempts.

Of course whenever I hear these stories, the educator in me wants to rise to the challenge! “I could teach you!” I want to say (but then the reality of my busy life sets in…). Still, I think about the process of learning to sew all the time. Most sewists probably learned a few skills from someone else, but for the most part we are self-taught. We check out books, visit blogs, stumble through tutorials and make things up as we go along. We are determined and adventurous! Except maybe when it comes to clothing patterns…This is where our self-confidence deserts us.

Patterns can be daunting. You might not think of it this way, but every time you work with a pattern you are teaching yourself something new. For this reason, it can be very helpful to think about the ways you learn best–what educators refer to as “preferred learning styles.” Of course we all learn in a variety of ways, but most of us prefer one style over the others. Conversely, we might also find certain types of information very difficult to process. It helps to identify these weak spots as well, so we can develop ways to compensate.

Below I’ve listed four different learning styles. (Some theorists use only three styles, while others use up to eight.) I’ve described how the style is relevant to working with sewing patterns and I’ve suggested some tips to use if that is your preferred learning style. I’ve also identified some ways to compensate if you struggle with information that is presented in certain ways. Of course these are only a few ideas that might help you overcome some of the stumbling blocks associated with reading patterns. I know there are many educators who visit us regularly, and many more self-taught sewists. We welcome all your suggestions. Hopefully we’ll all learn some new tricks to help us work with patterns and come away with some sewing success stories! 

Auditory Learners

  • Have been heard saying, “Can’t someone just tell me what to do?!”
  • Learn best by hearing. If you did well in classes that were delivered mainly by lecture, then this may be your preferred learning style. In general you should seek out sewing classes in your area, or explore the many sewing videos online.
  • If this is your preferred learning style: You might have a hard time with patterns, as they don’t usually have an auditory component (unless, of course, Bitter Betty has put together a demonstration!) Luckily, there are a few easy tricks that can help. First, read the instructions aloud, pehaps even recording yourself. If that doesn’t work, have someone else read the instructions to you. Close your eyes to give the words your full attention. Finally, read the instructions to another sewist and have them restate the task in their own way. A small variation in the way something is worded can make a huge difference. (I almost always call my mom when I get stuck.)
  • The good news is that people who prefer this style are also sometimes referred to as “auditory-sequential” learners. They are typically very good at following sequenced, step-by-step instructions, which is the way sewing patterns are usually presented.
  • If this is your weak spot: You’ll still probably do fine with most patterns. If you’re having a hard time with a new procedure, remove yourself from all auditory distractions and focus on the print and images.

Print-Oriented Learners

  • Have been heard saying, “Just hand me those instructions!”
  • Learn best by reading. Some theorists think these people should be grouped with auditory learners because when you read, you hear yourself say the words in your head. Other educators believe reading is more of a visual task.
  • If this is your preferred learning style: You will probably do well working with patterns, as they tend to be mainly written instruction. It might help you to read through the pattern and take notes, or make a sequential list of steps in your own words.
  • If this is your weak spot: Check out the tips for the other learning styles.

Visual-Spatial Learners

  • Have been heard saying, “Will you draw me a picture?”
  • Learn best by looking at images, models, diagrams or samples. Can also learn by creating their own visual interpretation of information.
  • If this is your preferred learning style: The diagrams in most patterns will probably be helpful, but they might not be enough. Do whatever you can to make the instructions more visual. Get out your highlighters and color code the information in a way that makes sense to you. Read the printed instructions and draw your own pictures. Cut out small swatches of your fabric and tape them to your instruction sheet.
  • Another important point is that some educators believe that visual-spatial learners have a hard time with procedures. That is, they don’t really think about things in a step-by-step way. Obviously, patterns are written like this, so it is a good idea for you to thoroughly read through the instructions and try to grasp the whole process before you jump in.
  • If this is your weak spot: Sewing garments can be a real challenge, no matter how great the pattern. Because you’re trying to construct something 3-dimensional, you have to have decent spatial skills. For example, imagine lining a jacket. You must be able visualize how you’re going to sew the sleeve to the body and then get the lining in correct place. This is no small task for someone who can’t figure out which way to load the paper in the printer or read a map (me, me, me!). Pinning can help you test how you think the pieces should be oriented. Pin the pieces where you believe stitches will go, then try to turn everything right side out. If it’s upside down and backwards, pull out the pins and try again.

Tactile-Kinesthetic Learners

  • Have been heard saying, “Let me try it.”
  • Learn best by doing. Often very physical people. Usually the type of learners who struggle the most in traditional classroom settings.
  • If this is your preferred learning style: You’ll probably do best by just jumping in and sewing something. I highly recommend that you make a muslin when trying a new pattern. This is like a trial run and you don’t end up wasting good fabric. (More about muslins on May 14.) Otherwise, just go for it and keep your seam ripper close at hand.
  • If this is your weak spot: You need to fully understand what you need to do before you do it. Make sure your comprehension of the task is solid before you start working or it will can be an exercise in frustration.