Pattern instructions: PDF or paper?

A couple of weeks ago, I put up a poll on my Instagram Stories. Along with the new pattern releases that are in the pipeline, I have been considering whether and how to offer paper patterns alongside the PDFs. I wasn’t sure whether, when people opt for paper patterns, the printed instructions booklet is as important as the printed pattern pieces. I can see environmental benefits of providing printed pattern pieces with a link to a PDF instructions booklet, but I also know that some people feel very strongly about having the whole package of printed documents! So, I asked the lovely people who follow me on Instagram.

The response was HUGE! 485 people voted: 211 (44%) for printed pattern pieces only, with digital instructions. 274 (56%) voted for the printed pattern AND a printed booklet. And roughly 200 people sent me a direct message with their thoughts (I am not sure whether all of these people had also voted, either way). I rather naively said I’d do a roundup in my Stories the following day, before I realised quite how much feedback there was to sift through.

On reflection, I thought a blog post would be better, for two reasons. First, I think we sewists always learn a lot from each other and I guess that as a group we might find it as interesting as I did to see all the various opinions and reasons people shared with me. And second, for other pattern designers with similar questions, I hope this might be a useful window into feedback from the community. I for one found it really helpful to read resources shared by Cashmerette and Helen’s Closet on the results of their surveys on pattern sizing, so if in some small way it is helpful for another designer to read this blog post then I’ll have done a small thing to pay it forward.

The feedback sent via messages was more nuanced than was possible via the binary question I asked in my poll. There were a number of recurring themes in the messages:

Team PDF or Team Paper?

People on ‘Team PDF’ (who typically buy PDF patterns more often than paper patterns) are more used to reading instructions on screen. They may send off the pattern for copyshop printing but only one or two of the respondents would usually have the instructions printed as well. Many people mentioned that they would just print off instructions at home if desired.

Unlike the pattern pieces themselves, which require cutting and taping, people thought it was easy enough to print instructions at home if needed.

People on ‘Team Paper’ were split – some were quite happy with the idea of only having a digital instructions booklet, others wanted everything printed, and yet others would be happy with something in the middle.

Devices at home

Those with printers and/or laptops/tablets at home are generally more happy with the idea of viewing PDF instructions and/or printing a copy of the instructions themselves at home if desired. However, a number of people do not have printers at home and their comfort level therefore depends whether they have a tablet/computer or are otherwise trying to read instructions on a mobile phone. Some people do have larger devices, but not in the same place where they sew, or with poor signal or other reasons why they can’t access files easily on phones or within the same room where they sew.

Organisation

People mentioned a preference for PDF instructions because they tend to misplace paper instructions, there is one less thing to pack away and locate in between sewing sessions and because there is less paper to store when the pattern is not in use.

Screen time / working on screen

Some people either don’t enjoy working from a screen, or have eyesight issues or other reasons why paper is preferred. Their sewing room setup may not be geared towards working in that manner, or conversely some might just prefer to reserve their computer for other things whilst sewing such as watching TV in the background. A lot of people described their sewing time as their screen free time and would like to keep it that way, although some said they would think about this further from an environmental perspective.

People who would be looking at the instructions on their phone, in particular, mentioned the likelihood of being distracted – by Instagram or other things going on on their phone – and wasting their sewing time.

Enviromental impact

Many people are in favour of using less paper by having the instructions in digital form, either because they don’t print the instructions at all or because they print only the pages they need, and they may even be able to print booklet-style or double sided.

However, others noted that they would still use paper and resources to print the instructions at home. It was also noted that many indie pattern instruction booklets are too long and contain more than people need, particularly for experienced/advanced sewists who don’t need a glossary, all the various cutting layout diagrams etc.

It was suggested that designers remind people WHY the instructions are digital if they go down the route of supplying PDF-only instructions, as people appreciate being reminded to think more about what they consume.

Accessibility / ease of use

Some people prefer PDFs so that they can increase the text size when printing, for ease of reading. Another helpful feature of PDF instructions is the ability to zoom in on illustrations. Conversely, it was noted that reading instructions on a phone or device if you don’t have a home printer can be problematic for people’s eyesight.

Some people find that scrolling through instructions on a device makes it more likely that you might accidentally miss a step, as compared to a paper printout that can be ticked off as you go. People do find it easier to read something on paper than on a screen, particularly if it requires concentration.

Others mentioned that instructions in other formats (such as sewalongs, video tutorials etc) are more helpful than written booklets, for people with dyslexia. This was also raised in relation to people who are visual learners, or for whom the pattern language is not their first language.

Searchability / portability

Some people find it handy to have PDF instructions because they can read them from anywhere, usually on their phones on the go. They can also be searched electronically for specific terms, either within the PDF or if you’re just searching across all your PDF instructions for a particular technique. People might refer to instructions from one pattern whilst making a completely unrelated garment, if they happen to prefer that pattern’s particular method. Or they might want to read the instructions whilst ‘on the go’ (pre-Covid, presumably!) in advance of a sewing session. One person suggested that ideally paper patterns should also give you access to a PDF copy of the pattern, for this reason.

Essential contents

A number of people would be happy to just have the bare essentials printed, such as the inventory of pattern pieces to cut from each fabric type (a “cutters must”) and an order of construction / abbreviated instructions without (or without many) diagrams. These tended to be more experienced sewists who feel that the level of detail in the instructions should be tailored to the difficulty level with which it has been rated. But it has also been suggested that an abbreviated, diagram-free page of instructions would be good for when people make a pattern they’ve already made once before, when they don’t need so much handholding.

Note-taking

A number of people who expressed a preference for paper booklets said they like to annotate them as they sew. People like to take notes on things like sizing, fit adjustments, the order of construction, and tweaks they want to make, directly on the instructions for the next time they make it.

Others take their notes in a dedicated notebook, or some people are able to annotate the PDFs digitally.

Other comments

One person commented on the importance of thinking carefully about the layout of instructions in a PDF, to help with the readability of the instructions generally. This applies to the information available on pattern pieces too, such as including the seam allowance directly on the pattern pieces.

I hope this has been an interesting (and maybe helpful) read! I know it has been really useful for me to read through all the comments again and understand some of the perspectives people have so generously shared with me. I’m very grateful to everyone who took the time to vote on the poll or send me a comment. As ever, I loved the 1:1 conversations that resulted! Please feel free to continue the dialogue in the comments below. As for what this all means for my patterns, all will be revealed at a later date!

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