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Nov 21, 2013

My Interview with Sarai Mitnick of Colette Patterns!

Readers, last week's post about Colette's pattern branding got me wondering more about what it's like to be an independent pattern maker.

Fortunately, Sarai Mitnick, Colette's founder and creative director, was kind enough to agree to an interview and answer a few questions I had about her process.

Here we go!

Peter: Sarai, where do you look to find inspiration for new patterns? 

Sarai: I like to see how people mix things together: the old with the new, the masculine with the feminine, etc.

So a lot of it comes from the people around me, both friends and the people in my city.  I love vintage styles, but more than that I like seeing the way women mix them into their wardrobes.  Here in Portland, we're blessed with a lot of great vintage shops, so those older classic styles work their way into a lot of closets.  And that's true for both men and women.

The little details are what make vintage clothing really interesting to me, and I think to other home sewists.  So much of it can be recreated without the use of the sort of specialized equipment you'd find in a factory today, so that's very appealing.

Peter: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to developing men's patterns?   Is the market mainly women sewing for the men in their lives?

Sarai: I thought a lot about this when we embarked on this [men's patterns] project.  I think it's certainly true that most of the people buying these patterns are women, but that doesn't mean we ought to be ignoring the needs of men.  In product design, I've found that it's a good idea to distinguish between the customer and the end user. Sometimes they're the same person, but not always.  You can't ignore one for the sake of the other, they're both important.

Having a nice presentation is obviously a big part of that.  An experienced sewist might be able to look at a photo and, even if the styling isn't to her taste, she can imagine how it would look in her own hands.  But showing it to the son, friend, brother she wants to make it for... he might not have the experience to really envision it on himself, especially if he doesn't sew.

Of course, we've also heard from men who do sew. I've noticed that they tend to be guys with a very specific idea about what they want in their clothing, which is probably what led them to sewing. For them, I think versatility is important.

Colette's Negroni shirt

Peter: Do you have a particular style muse that informs your patterns, like, say, Audrey Hepburn or Zooey Deschanel?

Sarai: I don't have one muse that inspires me consistently, but I do try to keep specific real-life women in mind, usually women I know.  Again, I think this is a universal thing in design, not just for clothing or patterns, but it's always a good idea to think about people with as much specificity as you can.  Vague ideas and broad categories aren't that useful to me.

But as for style icons, it changes with the seasons, it seems.  Sometimes it's Audrey Horne from Twin Peaks, sometimes it's Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, sometimes it's Anna Karina.

Peter: What's the best thing about being an independent pattern maker?  What's the hardest thing about it?  What do you think a small pattern company can offer that a large corporate pattern maker cannot?

Sarai: This will sound corny, but there's really no way around it: the best part is hearing from our customers and readers.  It's especially lovely to hear from people who are new to sewing and feeling that initial rush of creativity and satisfaction.  It feels good to contribute to that in some small way.

I think that sort of relationship with our customers is the main thing that independent lines offer.  There's a sense of community, because the designer and business owner is actually present and cares about what they're producing for you.  It manifests in different ways for different companies, but I think that's what we have in common and why it's created a community.

The hardest thing is just keeping it all in balance.  I'm sure every person running a business is in exactly the same boat, or has been at some point.  Balancing your desire to see your business flourish with your desire not to give yourself an ulcer is a constant challenge for me.  And not letting your ego get too wrapped up in things.  When you run a small business, it becomes your life, and you start to define yourself by it.  It's hard to keep that in check.

The Colette sewing studio

Peter: What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about a launching their own pattern(s) or pattern line?

Sarai: Expect the inevitable. You will make mistakes. You will struggle. Things will spin out of control occasionally.

It's not because you suck (probably).  But you're a small business.  You probably don't have tons of experience in every aspect of running that business, and you likely have limited resources and not enough time.  Listen to the feedback and use it to do better, not for self-flagellation or self-aggrandizement.  Just keep trying.  As you build resources, you'll find people that can help.

I think it all comes back to keeping your intentions in mind.  Most people who start businesses want to solve a problem.  It's easy to lose sight of that in the face of everything else that comes into play: schedules, money, ego, competition, survival.  But if you focus on that core mission instead of on yourself, things get a little easier.

Be kind to yourself and other people, and put your effort into what matters to you. It's not a guaranteed recipe for success, but it does keep you sane!


Friends, I hope you've enjoyed my interview with Sarai Mitnick.  BTW, Sarai recently blogged about creating Walden, her new men's duffle coat pattern, here.

Anything you'd like to ask Sarai?  Ever think of creating your own pattern line?

Have a great day, everybody!


  1. Yay, first! Hehe. Good interview with Colette. It sounds like it was exciting. Anyway, to answer your question, I don't think about making my own pattern line but I would like to have a small clothing line for men and women. I can imagine having a company is a lot of work but hopefully it grows.

  2. Interesting. I don't know who she is but enjoyed you sharing your interview. I create mainly patterns for home crafts, they are easy and I just get the ideas from originals so I am not creative at all. I can't even imagine trying to create clothing patters.

  3. As a small business owner in a different yet similar vein I understand where she's coming from. That her greatest satisfaction comes from the response of her customers is something I truly understand. It's exhilarating to be at an event and see people reacting positively to your creations, just as it's so deflating when they don't. You have to work very hard at keeping it all in perspective.

    Thank you for this Peter!

  4. I love sewing but don't think I have what it takes to create a pattern from scratch. I love combining patterns to create a new look but that's as far as I go. Interesting article and I was a huge Myrna Loy fan as a kid (I watched a lot of old movies with my grandma growing up).

  5. While nearly all of my theater/costuming was done by creating patterns taken from measurements or duct-taped t-shirts; I never considered turning any of them into patterns to sell, though I used to give free workshops to friends to teach them how to do it themselves. Sarai is super-smart to come up with this business, and with handsome guys like that pattern model around to wear the clothes, the patterns should sell well.

  6. Thanks for sharing! Loved the photos of her studio. Oh what I wouldn't give for that well lit space.


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