Why Perception and Professionalism Matter – my thoughts on the ‘pattern testing debate’

Like a lot of other people who read sewing blogs, I found myself spending a lot of time reading about the so-called ‘paid pattern-tester debate’. I say so-called, because – at the heart of it – it was never ever about paying pattern testers. It was, when you boil it all down, a lot more simple. It was about how readers perceive sewing blogs and how those bloggers (including designers) respond to their perceptions.

While I’m not going to rehash all the arguments, I wanted to give my thoughts on all this. I spent a lot of time tweeting while I read the debates, and realised I have a lot of opinions. In some ways, I feel like it’s ‘not my place’ to give my opinion, but since I think there are silencing and power issues that go hand and hand with this whole episode, I’m reminding myself that I have every right to speak out.

I’ve been avidly following a wide range of blogs since I took up sewing for myself (and not just my child) and finally signed up for bloglovin’ at the beginning of the year. Reading blogs in a reader, rather than whenever Facebook deigns to provide updates, means that you’re seeing a lot of bloggers in a short period of time, and inevitably you find things you like and dislike about different ‘types’ of blogs.

There are a lot of things to like about sewing blogs. People do some amazing things with their sewing and – like a lot of people – I really enjoy seeing what people make. (I also loved Me-Made May – it was great seeing sewn items ‘in the wild’!) But, as a whole, there are also some less than likeable things about sewing blogs as a whole. Endlessly seeing the same pattern made over and over again – especially when you know the bloggers have been given the pattern for free. Seeing endless photos of a finished item and absolutely no writing about it (not even whether you like wearing it, or that you wore it to the pub and someone smiled at you). Sponsored posts which have absolutely nothing to do with sewing. Tutorials which feel less like they’re adding knowledge and more like they’re written to fill in space.

I’ve been blogging in one way or another for a very, very long time (anyone remember Diary Land? I was there). Blogs build a relationship between the blogger and the reader, one that is almost always about trusting the blogger. You trust that they are who they say they are, that their intentions are what they say they are, that they bring a certain level of honesty to the relationship. Another thing I’ve learned about blogs (and online communities in general – message boards and email groups were similar in the olden days) is that it doesn’t take long before you start seeing the same names over and over – the Big Name Fans as we used to call them in fandom communities. They’re the ones who are seen to be ‘in the know’, and often they’re the ones who have the most trust invested in them by other members of the community. And there are certain benefits to being in that position.

Where the current sewing community differs from the West Wing fandom of 2003 or the reading teachers community of 2009, is that there is the element of financial gain. Blogs are monetised in a way we would have only dreamed about when blogging first took off. Advertising appears on blogs, affiliate links are embedded, businesses offer free products in return for reviews or endorsement. In the sewing blogging community this is added to by fabric store networks and a growing number of bloggers becoming pattern designers and using their blogs (and other sewing blogs) to promote and sell their patterns. Suddenly you have a group of people who are benefiting financially (either actually getting money or getting free goods) from blogging and the trust which their readers have in them.

One thing which I’ve really noticed in the sewing community is that there’s a culture of niceness. On the surface, this is great – people are supportive and say nice things about you, what’s not to like. But when it comes to patterns and reviews, this is not quite as helpful. When you’re actually paying for patterns (regardless of the cost) you want to know whether it’s going to be a worthwhile purchase or not. You want to know whether you’re going to be able to actually sew a good looking item. So when lots of big bloggers – who are trusted by a lot of readers – rave about a pattern, the inclination is to believe them and to purchase the pattern/s yourself. After a while though, you start to wonder why the big name bloggers are always so enthusiastic about the latest independent pattern release. And why they never seem to have any other blog posts. And if they’re getting patterns for free with the expectation that they’ll review them (as in a blog tour) – are you really getting a genuine opinion?

Suddenly, the readers trust the bloggers less. And they trust the products and reviews less. They become more critical of the bloggers and less enthused by independent designers as a whole.

To make it worse, when people have dared to speak out and say that they’re tired of endless positivity and no real reviews, when they express concern about blog tours and being stung by pattern designers who have bought publicity with free patterns, they have been met by unprofessionalism, nasty comments and silencing by designers and big names in the blogging world – those who have power through the trust they hold.

When you start designing and selling patterns, your relationship with blog readers changes. If you use your designing name to belittle other commenters on someone elses blog post, you are damaging your professional name. If you write a blog post which comes across as dismissive of the people who pay for your patterns while protecting those who get the free patterns, you are damaging your professional name. If you are a blogger who is invited to participate in a lot of blog tours and get a lot of free patterns and fabric, then you are nasty about people who question the way blog tours are conducted – you are damaging not only your blog ‘brand’ but the professional name of every designer who works with you.

After the reading I have done since last week, I will not ever purchase patterns from two independent designers. I am also seriously regretting a purchase I recently made, and am reconsidering my future support for a project – because of comments made on a blog tour. And I bet I’m not the only one making my purchase decisions based on the behaviour and professionalism of designers and bloggers over this last week.

The stupid thing about that is that I’m close to the ideal customer. I’m newish to sewing, but have enough skill and nerve to tackle harder patterns, so you can market beginners and intermediate patterns to me. I don’t have a huge pattern stash to draw from so I want to buy patterns. Buying from real life retailers can be expensive in Australia and I have a toddler, so buying from online independent designers (especially in PDF form) appeals to me. I have disposable income, and I sew for myself, my son and am looking to sew for my husband. And I don’t receive any freebies – so I am actually looking to spend my money on your designs. But the impression I get from a lot of designers is that they’re there for the people who get their patterns for free before they are there for the people who actually buy them.

In the end it’s about the impression you make.

What would I do if I was in the position of being a designer or someone who is often asked for reviews/blog tours/other promotions? I’d look at my professionalism – the way I conduct myself on social media and in blogs – especially in response to criticism. If you’re running a design business, act like a business. When customers have concerns or criticisms, then treat them with respect. If you can help a customer with something, they’re more likely to come back in the future. Disclaim things (whether you got the pattern for free, any difficulties with it, your relationship with the designer) without being snarky about your disclaimer (again, professionalism).

And stop shutting down conversation. Too often these concerns come from people like me (who are, by the way, the people buying the patterns) and people with bigger followings silence them by telling them that they’re being ‘mean’ or ‘causing problems’ or making them ‘feel so sad’. The person who expressed the concerns in the first place is left with a bitter taste about the whole thing and other people with real, valid concern (or real valid reviews of patterns) are left feeling like they’re not allowed to say anything, that they are not allowed to have a voice in this community.

And it’s a community we all deserve to have a voice in.

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4 thoughts on “Why Perception and Professionalism Matter – my thoughts on the ‘pattern testing debate’

  1. Really interesting read. I”m not sure what/where/who this is all about (nor do I think I want to know), but when I was a high school teacher, I didn’t like the few “bad” teachers dragging down the profession. As both a blogger and a designer now, I strive to be transparent and upfront (after all, disclosure is required by U.S. law) and it’s unfortunate but I have again come across other designers that don’t do quality work or aren’t professional, and it bothers me when that starts to drag all of us down.

    • It’s definitely a rabbit-hole of reading – I honestly spent a whole day reading every single comment on multiple blog posts!

      When I was reading and while I was writing, I was thinking of the example that you (and some of my other favourite designers) set – you’re always professional in your blog posts and in social media, and you present a very customer focused business.

      I learned about the disclosure law when I was involved with the reading teachers blogging community and I was a bit surprised that disclosures don’t seem as noticeable in US based sewing blogs (or they are sometimes written like a disclosure is unreasonable) as they are in book review or ‘mummy/mommy blogger’ blogs.

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