Portland Business Transforms the Sewing Pattern

Colette Patterns changes DIY sewing—for the better.

By Rachel Rasmussen March 22, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Dylan Harkavy

In 2009, Sarai Mitnick worked for Google, researching user interface—basically, how visitors navigate the search empire’s sites. One day, she found herself in a Silicon Valley conference room, discussing an upcoming meeting. For an hour. “I was literally in a meeting about meetings,” she says now. “My work wasn’t impacting the world in a way that satisfied me.”

In stark contrast to her high-tech day job, Mitnick nursed a passion for all things hand-crafted. As a home sewist, she had a lifelong fascination with sewing patterns—as well as a frustration with them. Major pattern companies, like Simplicity and Butterick, published confusing and intimidating instructions hobbled by awkward designs, in formats largely unchanged for decades. “They assume a lot of knowledge that people no longer have,” Mitnick says. 

Thus an idea: combining her love of craft with her expertise on how people engage with information.“I thought it would be a fun challenge to design a better sewing pattern,” Mitnick says, “one that’s more of a learning experience, with ideas and resources for more help.”

Within a year Mitnick produced her first vintage-inspired designs. Her new company, Colette Patterns, tapped into a resurgence of home sewing in Portland and beyond, a trend Mitnick ascribes to a backlash against conspicuous consumption. Colette could be seen as part of a local-oriented, quality-focused “slow fashion” movement.

In addition to sharp and inviting graphic design, each Colette pattern booklet contains a “Getting Started” checklist, a page to write notes, and web links to online tutorials like “How to Sew an Invisible Zipper.” Mitnick personally interacts with customers through a blog, a Twitter feed, and Facebook. 

After four years, Colette’s success suggests more people are sewing their own clothes than one might guess: stores in 15 countries stock Colette booklets, and its website draws 500,000 views a month. “People adore her patterns,” says Meredith Neal of Modern Domestic sewing studio on NE Alberta Street. “They provide detail traditional patterns lack.” 

This spring, Colette releases its latest: a “beginner” ’60s-style shift dress and an “intermediate” shirt dress. At 32, Mitnick feels like she’s making a bigger difference running a three-person sewing company than she did working for one of the most important corporations in the world. “Many of us don’t have mothers that can teach us sewing basics,” Mitnick explains. “If patterns don’t describe things well, then you’re on your own.” 

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