Clothing Patterns or Clothing Recipes?

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The food factory has loomed large in Britain’s cultural imagination, with the Industrial Revolution and the economics of imperialism making it an early and enthusiastic adopter of food processing.  The historic circumstances that propelled Marx to examine the “unlimited extension of the working day” in London’s round-the-clock bakeries are the same ones that inspired Dahl’s sweet-toothed dreams, and that also fuel Britain’s intimate relationship with processed foods today.

Sean Wyer, ‘Mechanical Reproduction in the Age of Gregg Wallace’, Vittles, season 5, 14th February 2022.

In this enjoyable and insightful essay, Sean Wyer discusses the magic, mystery and mystique of processed food.  How is it made?  What are Colonel Sanders’ eleven herbs and spices?  The prospect of visiting a real food or fictional chocolate factory conjures up a world of secrecy, trespassing, trade secrets and closely guarded recipes.

Making patterns your own

One thread that runs through my writing is the exploration of how personal and local spaces can be sources of emotional and physical nourishment.  Like our food, the clothes we wear and the spaces we inhabit support and root us.  This deep and complex interrelationship reaches its zenith when we are able to take active care and responsibility for what we put in, on and around our bodies.  We create our own recipes for health and wellbeing.

It’s interesting to note that, despite imperialism, capitalism and industrialisation, knitting, sewing and pattern cutting haven’t really fallen under the spell of factory magic.  It’s possible for us to learn or find out how clothes are made and what the techniques are; there are no secrets at all.  Instead, industrially produced clothing is set apart by highly specialised machinery, a consistent (not necessarily higher) quality of finish, and access to the designer’s ideas and styles.  The magic of industry-produced clothing doesn’t stem from technique, but from the realisation of a designer’s vision.

Customers need to want what the designer has created – and consumer psychologists and advertisers are only too willing to yank prospective buyers’ chains, selling a cascade of aspirational images and lifestyles attainable in exchange for a purchase.  Money is hopefully flushed away, and systemic barriers to these aspirations remain unexamined.  For clothing production, the magic of the factory is swapped for the magic of the design studio; the factory and farming of ideas.  The power is with the creators.

A small selection of my favourite recipe books.

The creative economy

With the advent of the creator’s economy (e.g., John Howkins, The Creative Economy and Invisible Work) and platforms designed to support idea generators (Ko-Fi, Patreon, Payhip, Substack, Gumroad) comes the realisation that anyone has the means to be a creator.  And whilst this is not an essay discussing what distinguishes professionals and non-professionals, it must be said that individual customisation of products designed for a collective audience will continue apace.  For mainstream shopping, this trend began with personal shoppers and in-store stylists.  They help people to create a look from an already curated selection, but ultimately the customer decides whether it is satisfactory.  Individuals have always had this choice, but they have not always understood the power and agency that accompanies a purchasing decision.  Conversely, people without this power and agency – that is, people poorly represented by industrial clothing – understand it only too well.

Etymologically, this signals a move away from patterns as models or guides – and related associations with patriarchy, patrons, and patrician restrictions.  It also means that we can reserve the word ‘pattern’ for surface design, where more positive associations of the word are invoked.  The word ‘recipe’ – literally, receive – is better at capturing the essence of what we do with so-called patterns.  We receive the information therein, and are free to adapt it as we like based on our understanding and intention. This fits in beautifully with our culinary use and context for recipes – and I’m also reminded of past meetings with non-native speakers of English.  ‘Recipe’ was usually their first choice of word when searching for the vocabulary to describe knitting and crochet patterns – which are already recipes, but by another name.  Shall we make it official?  What do you think?  Leave a comment below with your thoughts 😊

Clothing Patterns or Clothing Recipes?

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Natalie in Stitches

I design size inclusive knitting patterns for clothes makers who want their garments to fit well. Clothes should serve you, not the other way around. You alter clothes to fit you, not alter yourself to fit the clothes. I also teach people how to sew, how to design knitwear, and am currently creating a comprehensive, year-long knitwear design course, covering everything from illustration to pattern grading. If you're enjoying my content, you can get more by following me on Instagram or Pinterest @natalieinstitches, or signing up to my newsletter. Thank you for reading!

7 thoughts on “Clothing Patterns or Clothing Recipes?

  • July 13, 2022 at 2:22 pm

    This is quite an interesting thought…recipe or pattern. The more deeply I dive into my personal creative endeavours the more this concept catches my attention. I used to view patterns and/or recipes as something an expert created that I had to follow exactly to make the “correct” end product. This locked me into a non-creative mode that ignored my own shape/taste/preferences. I have learned to view both now as a “suggestion or guideline” giving me freedom to explore. Which is the better word? Perhaps recipe does offer more freedom as pattern has that other, separate meaning.

    • July 13, 2022 at 2:28 pm

      I definitely think so – as you might guess! It’s been on my mind for a while now, and definitely whilst I was designing the Alyssum sweater (out tomorrow). That has plenty of variation built in, never mind what knitters might do under their own steam. I will probably start using it for my newer patterns. At the moment I cop out and the title is ‘sweater’ or ‘cardigan’ or whatever the project is! xx

  • July 13, 2022 at 4:54 pm

    I like this idea a lot, but I do have a mild difficulty in mind about this: the term recipe is already in use in some of the English-speaking pattern world for a specific kind of more open-ended knitting pattern, and it might be hard to convey the change in meaning for people who already have the distinction in usage.

    The kind of patter/recipe I have in mind is the sort where there are equations offered to the knitter who then plugs in their own numbers to get the instructions for their own knitting. Often knitting recipes allow for a broader range of physical measurements as well as any thickness of yarn.

    • July 13, 2022 at 5:01 pm

      Oh that’s interesting! Thank you Naomi – I didn’t know that at all. I guess the closest experience I have with equation-type patterns is Knitstrips. There are formulas and key relationships to help knitters to arrive at their unique set of instructions, but I wouldn’t have thought of that as a recipe. Hmm! You’ve got me thinking…☺️

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