Digital downloads are one of those things that seem to divide people: you have folks who are used to using paper patterns and swear by them, then you have others who seem to only use PDF patterns. This isn’t by any means specific to sewing, there’s the same dilemma with knitting and crochet too. As someone who started with paper sewing patterns and is gradually moving towards buying and using more PDF patterns (mostly fuelled by the ease of downloading PDF crochet patterns, or reading a crochet pattern from a blog), I thought I’d have a look into what the benefits actually are for digital downloads over paper patterns.
The most obvious benefit of a digital download is that it’s instant; even if you choose to have a copyshop print your sewing patterns on A0, you’re able to read the instructions and work out how to assemble the item while you wait for the copyshop. This is even more beneficial for crochet and knitting patterns, since there isn’t anything that you actually need to have printed out – plus if you do choose to print, say, a pattern chart out for reference, you can do it quickly from home. It’s therefore really easy to buy a pattern and start working on it immediately (assuming you already have the yarn, hooks or needles and anything else it requires of course).
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Costs of PDF vs paper
Printed paper patterns are far more expensive for designers to produce than PDFs – you’ll commonly find therefore that smaller, independant designers tend to produce digital patterns only for quite some time until they can afford to produce printed patterns. This can sometimes mean that paper patterns are more expensive than their digital counterparts – this isn’t always the case, but it can be depending on the designer.
PDF sewing patterns typically have two main options for you to print – either you can print it at home on A4 paper and stick it all together, or you can have a copyshop print an A0 page for you, making it the same size as a “traditional” paper pattern. If you choose to have a copyshop print the pattern for you, then it would be reasonable to say that any difference in monetary cost is negligable, since you’re paying someone to print and post the pattern to you.
However, cost doesn’t always refer to money: if you have a pattern which is 40+ A4 pages, it can take a lot of time to print all those pages (depending of course on your printer) and even longer to match them all up to where they should be and stick them together. Sometimes paying someone else to do something for you is worth saving yourself the time and effort. If you place your order with the copyshop when you buy the pattern, you’ll only have to wait a couple of days for it to arrive – which you may well have to wait anyway if you’re buying your fabric and notions after buying the pattern. Of course with paper patterns, you don’t have this issue, but you will still have to wait for it to be posted if you’re buying online (as we all have to do at present).
Cost can also come down to the source of the pattern. If the pattern is in a magazine, you’re often getting multiple patterns for a similar price to what you’d pay for one – and this is true of both physical magazines and their digital counterparts. However, it may well be the case that the individual pattern you’re interested in is far cheaper to purchase by itself after the magazine has been published – in the case of knitting and crochet patterns, many are free or only cost £2-5. Sewing patterns typically cost between £10-15 even for PDF patterns though, so it may still be cheaper to get the magazine.
The first practical consideration is storage. Paper patterns take up physical space, which can be difficult if you’ve only got a small area to craft in. PDF patterns only take up physical space when they’re printed out and it’s of no real consequence to recycle them when you’re done with them, since you can just print them out when you want to make them again. However, it’s worth pointing out that you should always have a back up of your PDF patterns somewhere, preferably in cloud storage. Should anything happen to your computer, you know that your patterns are safe and can be accessed again easily. Google Drive is a popular option for this, as you get 15GB of storage for free (which should be more than enough for the average crafter), or you could use iCloud, Dropbox or any other cloud storage you may have access to.
Cloud storage is preferable to a USB drive or other hard drive for a few reasons. Firstly, there’s multiple drives which serve cloud storage and so duplicates are made across them – if any individual drive fails, there’s always at least one (often more) that has the same data on it. Secondly, it’s not physically at your home, so should anything terrible happen, your data is still safe. USB drives are easy to lose or misplace and no one expects a burst water pipe, but they can happen.
It is always worth saying though, for anything which requires a password, particularly online, use a strong, unique password. I use a password manager called Nordpass – it’s free (though there is a paid version with more features) and it can generate secure passwords, it’ll store all your passwords together and there’s several browser extensions and mobile phone apps which integrate with it easily. It will also tell you if it finds any passwords stored which are duplicated, so you can be sure each password is unique. This isn’t by any means the only password manager out there, but using one is a good idea – then you only need to remember the password for your password manager!
Aside from storage considerations, paper sewing patterns show all the cutting lines for every size, which can sometimes be quite difficult to follow when they all meet and cross over each other. Additionally, once you cut into a paper pattern, you can’t reclaim the other sizes, meaning many people end up either buying the pattern again at a later date or tracing it out to avoid cutting into the pattern. With PDF patterns, it’s quite common for the different sizes to be layers within the file, meaning you can select the size you want and print it out, making it far easier to see exactly where your cutting lines are. If you want to make the pattern again in a different size, you just print it out again. Of course, unless you specify which size layer to print, a copyshop will normally print all the sizes of a PDF pattern anyway.
Designing your own patterns
Many people learn how to design their own patterns either through formal means (courses) or simply through trial and error. I was given How To Design Your Own Dress Patterns by Adele P Margolis for Christmas and it’s quite thorough in teaching you the fundamentals of pattern design and cutting. While it’s quite normal to draft patterns on paper still – and this is a technique that I don’t see dying out as it’s so useful, particularly in the learning process – it’s easy and cheap enough to design and release patterns using software alone.
For sewing patterns, Affinity Designer is an excellent, low cost piece of design software which rivals Adobe Illustrator – if you choose to use Designer, check out my guide to setting it up for drafting and cutting sewing patterns. Alternatively, there’s also a free, open source piece of software designed specifically for creating sewing patterns called Seamly 2d, though it isn’t quite as intuitive as Affinity to learn or set up. I’ll be doing a blog post and video about this another time.
While learning to design patterns, PDFs can be particularly helpful as you can easily adjust the size of pattern pieces and just print them out again. It is worth pointing out though that if you want to design patterns for clothes, you will need to grade them properly, rather than simply enlarging or decreasing the size of the pattern pieces (this is the case for Adobe Illustrator and any other design software too, not just Affinity Designer).
For knitting and crochet patterns, there are now several apps which can help you create your own patterns – and even help you sell them online if you choose. Bellish is one such app which is designed to help you modify patterns to fit your body shape. It’s an important step on the way to designing your own patterns, as you really ought to learn how to do this before embarking on designing a pattern for the first time. Patternum is perhaps a more comprehensive app however, which is designed for both knitters and crocheters (unlike Bellish, which currently only supports knitting patterns).
While Bellish only currently supports modifying patterns to your own size and shape, Patternum is intended to be used for creating patterns from scratch. It has areas to include things like your needle or hook size, tension gauge, stitch types and preferred yarns – plus if your pattern requires a stitch or colour chart, you can create it in the app too. It’ll take everything you put into it (including photos) and generate a PDF file which can be downloaded and put on Ravelry, Etsy or any other shop front – plus users can import the pattern into the companion Row Counter app, which provides much more functionality than just as a row counter. If you include charts in your pattern, they can be made interactive, so users can highlight just the row they’re working on or even double check the chart key to see which stitches need to be made. I haven’t yet used Bellish or Patternum; though it is worth pointing out that Bellish is currently only available on iOS, while Patternum and its companion Row Counter app are both available on Android and iOS.
Choose what's most appropriate for you
Personally, paper patterns will hold a place in my heart simply because it’s how I’ve learned to sew clothes, though I think PDF just makes far more sense for me. In the future, I can see me buying PDF versions of patterns I already have in paper, just so I have the future proofing option of being able to make them in different sizes should I ever need to. I’m not one to trace patterns, I cut them out as they are, so this makes the most sense for me. I’m also very interested in designing and making my own patterns (both sewing and crochet), so it makes far more sense for me to make PDF patterns rather than paper ones as eventually I’ll be able to sell these patterns much more easily than by trying to have paper ones printed. My sewing room is both my personal and my business space, so my stock and packaging already takes up a lot of that space and I probably wouldn’t be able to fit boxes of paper patterns in amongst everything else!
Ultimately, the PDF vs paper debate isn’t going to go away any time soon, simply because both options have their pros and cons depending on what works best for you. If you get migraines, it might be easier on your eyes (and your brain) to have paper instructions, as screens can cause them or make them worse. However, if you have only a limited amount of space you can give over to your crafting, it might make more sense to have a PDF collection and only print them out when you need them. Choose what’s right for you – and don’t let anyone else tell you that their way is better (because it’s only better for them). Just bear in mind that what’s right for you now might not be right for you in the future, so it’s always worth being open to change.