From a young age, women are taught to suppress their voices. Women who offer opinions in the public sphere or voice dissent risk being labelled “shrill”, “nagging”, or “bitchy”. It is disappointing, but not surprising, when men try to silence women with dated stereotypes. What is truly upsetting is when women join in, and become complicit in their own oppression. Yet I believe this is what is happening in some pockets of the online sewing community.
We have internalised misogynist stereotypes about women, to our downfall. Some women in the online sewing community feel unable to criticise or be honest about their experiences with patterns, lest they be perceived as damaging friendships or being “mean girls”. These stereotypes are perpetuated with faux feminist campaigns that are so anti-women they would make 70s Germaine Greer weep.*
I previously addressed some issues I had with attitudes towards indie pattern companies in the posts: Indie Pattern Companies or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Big 4, Part I & Part II. Now I wish to delve into the reasons I believe the online sewing community has, at large, been so fearful of criticism.
The online sewing community is largely dominated by women. I do not mean to say that men don’t exist in the SBC, or are unwelcome (I wish more men would take up sewing!), just that they are far and few between. This means that the overall tone of the sewing community is also dominated by women, and by society’s perception of women.
More often than not, this is a blessing. In Fight Like a Girl, Clementine Ford talks about her “girl gangs” who support her through thick and thin, and help her find pride in her womanhood. The girlfriends I have met through sewing have been some of the most amazing, clever and supportive people I have ever known, and I am grateful for their friendship.
However, this blessing can become a curse when internalised misogyny rears its ugly head. When our friendships become forced or perverted by those who would commodify our relationships. And when our criticism is silenced by those who would have us believe that friendships with other women (or “girls”) are mutually exclusive with honesty.
As I mentioned above, the friendships shared through the online sewing community are one of its greatest assets. But what happens when your friend creates a business from their blog? Are you free to criticise their work freely, as you migrate from friend to customer? Or are the lines now so blurred that you feel unable to offer an honest opinion of the product they are selling you?
This issue came to a head with the release of Colette Pattern’s Rue dress. A summary for those on the sidelines: Colette made a post about listening to customer complaints and going back to what they do best, that is, releasing interesting, vintage-style patterns. Their following pattern release, the Rue dress, was a clusterfuck. It was poorly drafted. It didn’t seem to fit anyone well except Colette’s founder and current owner Sarai, who claimed to make no adjustments to the pattern. Colette was tone-deaf to criticism until Pattern Review, possibly the world’s most influential sewing website, announced that all contestants in their 2016 Sewing Bee had to make a version of the Rue dress.
Shit hit the fan when the contestants, who are generally experienced sewists, reported an unworkable pattern. Those who succeeded in creating a workable finished garment either drafted Rue’s style lines onto their own block, or made up to six (SIX!) muslins.** Forced into a corner by public pressure, Colette announced a retreat, of sorts: anyone could download a revised bodice pattern, and those who purchased printed patterns from them would get a new pattern sent out.
However, there was no mention made of refunds and very little fault admitted. The apology which followed this announcement did nothing to quell my concern about the tone of Colette’s concessions.
To my eye, Sarai’s apology on the Colette blog was more about eliciting sympathy than offering genuine contrition. No matter how many times she used the words “mistake” and “regret,” the overall tone was one of someone who made a bit of a boo-boo and deserved a pat on the back for being #sobrave to come forward about it. No mention was made of the fact that it was external forces only which compelled Colette to do something about Rue, nor was an appropriate apology offered to those who had spent big bucks on what was essentially a fraudulent product, including those contestants on Pattern Review who were compelled to sew a copy to remain in the competition.
The comparison of charging a premium for a defective product to setting in a sleeve the wrong side round was insulting. Most of the post seemed lost in marketing babble. The crux of the apology, that Colette is now hiring both a professional pattern-maker and a plus size fit model, is welcome but raises more questions.
Who exactly was doing the pattern drafting for Colette before hiring this professional? When Sarai alludes to the fact that many cooks (ie, her six colleagues) spoil the broth, what role did each team member play in the pattern drafting process? This question becomes more important if you consider that potentially none of these team members may have experience in pattern drafting. And why was the plus size fit model not mentioned by name, despite several references to Hilary, their current fit model?
I put some of these questions to Sarai in the comments, and as yet, they remain unanswered. To be honest, I was surprised my comment was published at all, given Colette’s reputation for “moderating” even vaguely critical comments. So as much as I wish Colette has turned over a new leaf, I fear from the tone of Sarai’s post that they are continuing to do what they have done in the past: put on a slick marketing front and let substance fall to the sideline. The fact that they released a premium “sewing planner” in the midst of this debacle, which could be purchased for the low low cost of $28USD and up to $62.45AUD, only confirmed these suspicions.
What was even more concerning were the revelations coming from a prominent sewing blogger about Colette’s attitude towards pattern testers. Sunni of A Fashionable Stitch wrote on the Pattern Review and GOMI forums that she was an original pattern tester for Colette, and when she raised concerns that pattern testers’ feedback was not being incorporated into the final product, she received “an email from Colette that basically emotionally blackmailed into thinking that I was all over the top wrong”.
Sunni revealed more in an email to me:
The email I was sent from Colette changed the way I blogged. I didn’t feel confident to bring to light any indie pattern disaster I experienced because I would be called out as not being supportive or encouraging. After this whole Rue debacle + the planner + the photoshopped Wren and the pattern testing issue, I have lost all confidence in anything that Colette does. I will likely never purchase another product from them.
To treat someone who was not only a customer and friend, but a colleague this way is unprofessional, to say the least (Sunni ran an online sewing shop for a time, which briefly expanded into a bricks and mortar retail store). That Colette would suppress criticism and attack one of their pattern testers for offering an opinion hints at a nasty underbelly that lurks beneath their kinfolk, yoga-practicing, hipster image.
Colette’s problems are ultimately that of a business failure: not enough expertise, too many staff hired too quickly, with very little definition of roles, and a culture inured to honest appraisal. But their continued attempts to silence critical voices, often under the guise of promoting blogger “relationships”, is indicative of a wider issue within the sewing community. Sunni stated in her post, “this is so unsettling and very, very upsetting.” I agree.
As a beginner sewist, I devoured the insightful posts Gertie would share on her Blog for Better Sewing. Much of what I learnt from sewing came from her attempts to recreate vintage looks, and she often prompted interesting discussion amongst her readers on topics from feminism to vintage underwear. But her latest offering left a sour taste in my mouth.
On Instagram, Gertie recently spearheaded a #girlssupportgirls campaign. Over the course of a month, she featured a girl a day who inspires her. She introduced this campaign with a spiel about the apparently inherent nature of women:
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how normal it is for women to cut each other down, almost on reflex. This isn’t a newsflash, of course. Women have been characterized as catty and conniving centuries before Instagram was a thing. I think we’re somehow taught from a young age that belittling other girls is normal…It’s also, obviously, toxic to see the amount of “snark” women engage in on the internet.”
Girls supporting girls (or women, perchance)? Yes. Paying tribute to the women who inspire us? Hells yes! Having to justify your actions because women are somehow inherently catty, nasty and out to get each other? NOPE.
Is it normal for women to tear each other down by nature, or is Gertie merely repeating tired old sexist assumptions? Are women who are honest “catty”, or just doing something that no man would be criticised for? Are we so desperate for male approval that we must prove that we’re not like those other girls to earn a seat at the table? Trying to shut down other women’s voices with faux-feminism, or promoting businesses based on commodified friendships, is far more “toxic” than a woman who is not afraid to offer an opinion.
The online sewing community has so many positive attributes, but I believe it has the potential to be even better. If companies like Colette treated their customers with any modicum of respect, they would offer a frank apology, cull some staff, and get down to the business of redrafting their block. Meanwhile, it is vital that the average online sewist feels free to express their opinion, even if it is an unpopular one. I know I will never improve unless I receive constructive criticism of my sewing, and the online sewing community will stagnate unless there is open discourse, free from fear of retribution.
Let’s make it happen.
*Not today’s Germaine Greer, as she has apparently morphed into someone who will readily criticise another woman’s appearance on live television.
**One Pattern Review contestant posted a particularly pointed blog post, which concluded with the warning, “Friends don’t let friends buy the Rue dress.”