A conversation with Betsy of SBCC patterns

For Sewing Indie Month, I had the pleasure of speaking with Betsy of SBCC (Skinny Bitch Curvy Chick) Patterns.  I thought it would be fun to chat in real time, so this interview is a bit more like a conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this fantastic designer!


Taylor:
So, I suppose we'll start at the beginning. How/when did you first get into sewing and pattern design? A fairly cliche but obligatory question :)

Besty:
No, not cliche as everyone seems to have a different story.
I've been sewing since as long as I can remember. I had the full on plastic toy sewing machine and was really into my embroidery as a youngster. I continued to make things as I grew up (including my prom dress which was a Vogue pattern, I believe). I decided that after high school art school was the proper place for me, as I was interested in painting and fashion. But in the end, fashion won out.

I really liked the process of patternmaking and the technicalities that went into it. I was still in school when I started doing patterns for local designers in Chicago. It was a crazy time with lots of crazy projects, but fun.

After I graduated I left for NYC where I spent some time working in the lingerie category. Well, it wasn't really for me and I went back to pattern making and it was my full time job for awhile. Through my the years in the garment industry my role has evolved and I don't do so much hands on work anymore, so that's where SBCC patterns comes from. I liked making patterns for my petite self, but it was a lot of time and energy invested for a one time deal, so I figured why not sell my patterns so others can get some use out of them as well.

 The pattern for Betsy's self-made prom dress.

The pattern for Betsy's self-made prom dress.

T:
I also went to art school but in my case, art won out over fashion for higher education...Though I ended up going into fashion/sewing after college anyway. I suppose its a more practical skill and easier to find a job doing than being a painter.

What kinds of patternmaking projects did you take on during school when you were first getting your patternmaking chops? You mentioned working for designers...were you one of many faces in a sample sewing room, working for friends and fellow artists, or something in between? Were there any particular of projects you enjoyed a lot or felt influenced your direction as a technical designer?

B:
When I was in school I took on anything and everything. I remember advertising rock bottom rates on Craigslist and putting my name on the board at Fishmans Fabrics offering my services. These gigs were crazy! I remember I was making proto-samples and patterns for these elaborate cat tents- like something out of Arabian Nights I even re-upholstered boat cushions. Eventually I started to get more legit work through word-of-mouth. But honestly the projects that seem the craziest I have learned the most from because I definitely had to think outside the box and they remind me to throw out all the rules when applicable.

T:
That's awesome. I have done some crazy projects for artists and you definitely get a lot of serious problem solving skills! Like how to make a jacket have inflatable shoulders...But cat tents sounds pretty incredible!

B:
Inflatable shoulders! that sounds amazing and I'm not even joking. Too bad I didn't document the crazy projects I did. How awesome would be some crazy project sharing on Instagram be?

T:
Absolutely. I made so many weird things in college that I have no documentation of. Just memories. If you dig up any pictures of the cat tents, I'd love to see. (We didn't find cat tent pics, but you can use your imagination!)

B:
Ah, the cat tents. I am not sure. That was so long ago, but if I run across anything similar on line I will send it over. They were a sight!

T:
So, sometime after school, you made your way to NYC. What brought you there? A specific job, general interest, the fashion industry there? Did you have a goal in mind?

B:
I had an internship with Hanes brands. I knew it was not permanent, but it would allow me to get my foot in the door. It was a good time for the fashion industry where the jobs were plentiful and there were lots of options for someone to get started.

T:
You mentioned after doing lingerie for a while that you realized it wasn't quite for you. Was there anything in particular?

B:
Don't get me wrong, lingerie is cool in its own way. Its very specialized and the pattern making has its own special tools and techniques. The sample room was insane - there had to be about 20 sewers and 10 different mold stations - but for me it didn't offer the variety as sportswear did,  especially working for a big brand that has to appeal to the masses.  I love the idea of the smaller niche brands who are doing really creative and inspiring work, but sportswear is still where it's at for me.

T:
I totally get that. There's something a little soul draining (creatively speaking) about making things that have to appeal to a mass market and are fairly simple.

I feel like in a lot of ways lingerie is a whole different ballgame in terms of how it fits on the body and how it's structured. It seems like a very different process than creating clothing patterns.

B:
The fitting process for lingerie is fairly straightforward- should be flattering, close to the body and all about the proportions. The foam and cups, underwires, and fabrications are all very subtle changes in the fit, but they make a big difference. Fitting undergarments is a very methodical and thoughtful process. During my internship I was invited to fittings in this small cubicle with the fit model, head designer, merchandiser and this older lady who was the previous head designer, but after a bajillion years she was more of a consulting expert on a part time basis. Those kind of fittings taught me what it was all about. Everyone knew what they wanted. No messing around. It was very direct and straight to the point, with a laser sharp focus. 

T:
That sounds like a fantastic learning experience!

It's been really interesting to see lingerie gaining popularity with home sewers too.
And as a result of not having access to the same type of materials, people are making all types of cloth bras that you don't see as much in stores anymore, now that foam t-shirt bras are so popular.

B:
Bras are great to make because of the simple shapes and a great excuse to use a lot of fun trims.

Just a random pattern thought of lingerie vs sportwear:  I like to think of lingerie pattern making as working on a miniature locket size painting- everything is very painstakingly done. But with sportswear patterns I feel like I can be Jackson Pollock somedays- slashing, chopping, folding, and using many colored markers for messy iterations to create a large piece of work.

T:
I love that comparison. There's such a range of types of craftsmanship involved in sewing from crazy, freeform draping to super detailed handwork.

It's nice to see that your art background influences your sewing at least for metaphorical purposes. Do you feel like your interest in art has a big influence on the things you enjoy designing?

B:
Actually, I think my process is influenced more by being drawn to certain shapes and making clothing that is satisfying and useful. I have seen a lot of unusual styles and shapes come and go for high end fashion, but I want to make clothing that makes me feel good and will become a staple in my wardrobe, but with a twist.

 A few classic pieces by SBCC patterns designed for petites: the Tonic Tee and the Manhattan Trousers

A few classic pieces by SBCC patterns designed for petites: the Tonic Tee and the Manhattan Trousers

T:
That's an admirable goal. I think that's what most of us want from our clothing deep down. Though making crazy statement stuff is fun, it doesn't necessarily get worn.

With your pattern line SBCC, you also focus a lot on fit. I was fascinated reading about the history of petites on your blog as well as the fact that you can be petite in different areas of your body! (I hadn't ever thought about it that way). I don't quite fit into standard sizes and I know from working with students that proportions vary like this for most women.

What are your thoughts on RTW sizing, having worked in the industry, in comparison to the women who actually wear them?

B:
Fit is very subjective and vanity sizing has everyone confused. Also, traditional sewing pattern sizes are odd in their own way. There is no "right way". Of course it would be easy for the consumer to know they would be able to buy RTW in the same size for every brand, but that's not how it works. Sizing is based on who the customer is and their body shape and proportions.

T:
What is your general philosophy as a patternmaker in terms of sizes? Are most women petite in some way?

B:
SBCC follows a sizing closer to RTW because that is a vocabulary that everyone can understand (and I work better with). Sizing is something that evolves as you find out more about your customer and create a niche. But there is also that fine line where you have to know how to fit a style so it is still applicable to consumer slightly out of the fit range. I think most women are petite in some way because proportions can differ. Some studies have estimated that 70% of the female population would constitute as petite.
Fit is such a loaded topic.


T:
This is definitely a tricky one. To elaborate a bit on this loaded question: it seems clear there is no way to create a sizing system that is standard and fits everyone. There would have to be like 1000 sizes.  But you make a good point in that you have to start somewhere, and a smart designer creates things that can fit people outside of its range.

B:
There are ASTM standards and let's face it, we all have our loyalties to certain brands we swear got it right, but maybe not so much for the next woman. When starting out it's all about finding a good starting point and fine tune from there. In terms of the average sewer, because fit can vary so much, it is always best to review the measurements and make muslins, and most of all: be open minded about fitting and to try little tweaks to get the fit right for you. Fit has a lot to do with trial and error.

T:
Totally. Sewing is a great way to work with fit issues and learn more about your body and how to fit things. The good thing about 'standard sizing' in patterns is that to an extent, if you discover what your own personal alterations are, you can anticipate them when you go to sew other patterns or even alter RTW.

It seems like the 'petite' option could be a sort of antidote to not all but many of the fit 'problems' women experience with RTW, since it addresses height and proportion. Do you think that's the case?

B:
Petite is actually a growing trend for RTW as retailers start to realize that their customer is not a 6 ft tall model. A lot of style/appearance complaints can be directly related to height. I guess you can say I'm hopping on that trend of the petite category. But actually I am just selfish and want stuff  that fit's me, LOL!

T:
I'm glad to hear that. I've always been a bit baffled about using runway models as fit models for production when they don't particularity reflect the customer. The size part aside, proportions on somebody that height are totally different, even if they have the same bust/waist/hip measurements.

I'm definitely in the petite category, so I'm more than happy that there's a pattern designer out there focusing on that fit!

B:
Right! Yay for petites! Those adjustments can be a pain to do. I've learned a lot about fit from a lot of different designers perspectives throughout the years and they taught me how to have a keener eye for proportions. After realizing that I was "petite", all of those adjustments I was making - I needed to raise the necklines and waistline seams -  made sense. And then it made sense to change overall style proportions.

T:
When you create a pattern, what is your process? Do you have a set structure or does it come about more organically?

B:
I am a drafter. I come up with a couple of basic measurements that I want to start with and do my own pseudo-drafting method. Sometimes I work on dotted paper and then drape the paper on the form to check proportions, or sometimes I will get the basics jotted down for proportion then digitize for more in depth editing on the computer. My method is always the "quick and dirty" way.

T:
Do you sketch, or do you have it in your brain and go straight to the pattern paper?

B:
I usually have an idea in my head and sometimes it changes once I get to the actual making.

T:
I know one of my less favorite parts of the pattern making process is grading. I find it tedious but also for some strange reason, fascinating. You mentioned that you grade your patterns as well as work for others. What do you like about the process?

B:
Ooh, yes- grading. I love grading! It is creative in its own way, where I have to decide on the proportions of how the different sizes should look. But for me it is like a jigsaw puzzle; I do the actual grading but then go back to check that everything will sew together and make sense numerically. Once everything aligns perfectly and looks good it is like completing that jigsaw or Sudoku puzzle

It's a really satisfying process. A process that can have completion, as opposed to design

T:
That's a great way of thinking about it! It's always felt to me like a lot of math but also a bit of art. You can do it mathematically but you also have to finesse some of the lines to look right and flow as you move out from your base size.

B:
Well, the math part can be overwhelming to do fractions and such (really I know this is probably 4th grade math level), but it becomes rather abstract sometimes. For my styles, I also like to do some crazy stuff with the grading that most people won't notice, but for me I feel that it makes a difference with the fit.

T:
I'm definitely curious about that. Usually, there's a set amount that you grade between sizes at each measurement (I believe called a 'proportional grade' ) and that tends to be the standard. In theory, each size could have slight variations as they get bigger and smaller.

B:
Yes, there is a larger jump in measurements for larger sizes. For instance a size 8-10 will grade 1" but a 10-12 will grade 1 1/2".

T:
The example I always think of is how when you get into larger sizes, people carry weight at parts of their body differently, and possibly need more ease for clothing to be comfortable in certain areas. I don't want to give away your trade secrets, but is that sort of what you're getting at? ;)

B:
Trade secrets, ha ha! Sort of, but it's small things in the fit- like bigger sizes require deeper bust darts or I will increase the waist and hip circumference more for larger sizes. Nothing too fancy and each style has it's own considerations.

T:
That's totally what I was getting at. I'm glad to hear that there are pattern designers taking those nuances into consideration.

One of my questions was going to be, "Why the name Skinny Bitch Curvy Chick?" but I think we've sort of explained it in this last question as well as your petite offerings. But is there a story about how the name came about?

B:
Well, when I first started out, I was thinking I would take my petite patterns and make them for "regular size" and include plus sizes. So it was just a representation of the size range, but things evolved to be just for petites and now it is not as applicable, but I still like it. I know there is a lot of controversy about the name, but I enjoy that. I like to be cheeky - to me it makes sewing seem a little more down to earth and real.

Also, I tried to see if I can obtain the name rights to "Sew Petite" but my phone calls were not returned. So SBCC it is these days!

T:
I hear you on that. Sometimes a name sticks, even if your brand doesn't quite reflect the name in its current state. I can't think of an example but I totally know they exist.
I have to say that as an admitted feminist type, I'm not big on 'the B word', but I like the cheekiness of the name, especially knowing your intention behind it. You've sold me on it :)

B:
Glad I sold you on it. I actually don't curse a lot myself and find it to be a bit crude in some uses, But for me it's about the attitude, not the derogatory context.

T:
Now, for a couple of quick, fun questions. If you were a piece of clothing, what would you be? Like your spirit animal, but clothes.

B:
I would be a pair of jeans. I don't know why, but I think that represents me the best. Utilitarian and staple I guess.

T:
Dark wash or light wash? High, mid, or low rise? Or is that too specific? Hehe :)

B:
Ha ha- definitely dark wash skinny. I think I would question the person who would choose acid wash.

T:
Haha, it had its time and place!
What is your favorite sewing or drafting tool these days?

B:
I'm so basic. I think the tool that gets the most use these days are my thread snips. The world will come to an end if they are gone.

T:
I love thread snips. So essential. And finally, what is next for SBCC? Any new projects on the horizon? Any crazy future pipe dreams?

B:
I have so many projects. I've been promising a sleeve add on for my Tai Dress, so I am getting ready for a re-release with a different variation included. I am also working on a jacket project and taking my Moto Chic jacket and releasing as as PDF soon.

 The Moto Chic Jacket (left) and the Tai Dress (above)

The Moto Chic Jacket (left) and the Tai Dress (above)

T:
Very cool. Looking forward to the jacket! I feel like I still haven't found the perfect jacket pattern and haven't had time to draft one for myself. Maybe this winter.

B:
Yes- do it! I find the trick is to start early otherwise it will be cold sooner than we know

T:
What do you like best about Sewing Indie Month?

B:
I did it last year and it was great exposure and fun to connect with other designers. Mari does an awesome job of organizing all of the details.

T:
Yeah it's been super cool so far. And makes for a lot of nice camaraderie between designers. I don't have too many friends in my life who sew, and nobody who makes patterns, so I often feel like I'm working in a bubble.

Everyone has such different backgrounds and skillsets! I feel like if everyone combined their best sewing & pattern making skills, we could make the best patterns ever - like a patternmaking fantasy football team!

B:
I feel the same way. I don't get to connect with other sewers too often, but when I do it's always a blast. We could totally take the sewing world by storm!

T:
Betsy, thanks so much for talking with me about your story, patterns and process. It's been a lot of fun!

B:
Thanks so much for taking your Sunday afternoon to chat with me. It has been fun to go on about all of my nerdy endeavors.


Visit SBCC Patterns to check out a range of beautiful, super wearable patterns for petites, great tutorials, and find to out if you might be petite too!