Book Reviews: A History of the Paper Pattern Industry and The Steal Like an Artist Audio Trilogy

For whatever reason the start of fall always brings out the academic in me, and this year I seem to be fulfilling those impulses by binging on a bunch of sewing-related non-fiction books. I find myself having the urge to pair down my “currently reading” list by actually finishing a bunch of books I started pre- or mid- pandemic. I feel like I have so many of these abandoned pre-pandemic books laying about; so much so that the idea of actually finishing a book seems like such a strange concept. Anyway, in my current book-binging mode I recently finished reading A History of the Paper Pattern Industry which is definitely a book related to home sewing, and The Steal Like an Artist Audio Trilogy, which is largely not a book directly related to sewing, but might actually be more useful to the home sewist in the need of a little mid-pandemic pick-me-up.

A History of the Paper Pattern Industry

For those unfamiliar with A History of the Paper Pattern Industry, it is a dissertation that was turned into a widely-available published book.

This book looks at this history of the paper pattern industry from the earliest available paper patterns up to the (almost) present-day. I would say that the focus is definitely on British and American designers, with a few mentions of French and German (mainly Burda) patterns, but it doesn’t really focus on the global patterns as much. It briefly discusses the history of each era that it examines, and looks at how the wider historical events impacted the paper pattern industry, both in terms of designer and style trends, as well as the business aspects of keeping these companies functioning.

I think that A History of the Paper Pattern Industry is the kind of book that would appeal to some, but probably not all, sewing people. If you are a dress historian, this could be helpful resource in terms of having a great overview of the paper pattern industry’s history, with many listed references in the back of the book. Or if you just really, really love looking at vintage patterns and want to know more about the history of these sorts of vintage patterns, then this book could be of interest. However, If you are looking for a book that is going to be an engaging read, or provide valuable practical knowledge to your personal library, this is not that book. The information is presented in a very factual, well researched way, but it is not the sort of book to tell engaging stories or dramatize events at all. It’s not exactly an engaging read, though the dry text is definitely offset by many of the wonderful figures throughout the book. The images showcase many important paper patterns, design trends, or styles dating all the way back to the early days of the commercial paper pattern. The back of the book also contains some gridded pattern designs, which may be of interest to people who enjoy scaling up or drafting their own patterns from historical patterns.

I did find this history of the industry as well as the context for the different brands to be very insightful in terms of being able to roughly date various vintage patterns. I also think that having the context for the many brand mergers and changes of ownership puts what is happening today with the Big4 into very interesting historical context. However, I also feel that while the book ends with eluding to the pattern industry renaissance that happened in the late 2010s, it doesn’t quite cover it because the book only covers up through 2010 as a time period. I definitely think that what has happened from 2010-2020 would warrant its own chapter if this book were to receive an update in the future, because the commercial pattern landscape has certainly changed quite a bit in the last 10 years.

Overall I have to say that this is probably not one of my top sewing books in my library, though I am glad I read it. If you are curious about it, it might be one to see if you can check out from a local library (or through inter-library loans) to see how much you might actually enjoy having this book as a reference. It wasn’t exactly what I would call an enjoyable read, but it was informative and is definitely worth checking out if you have it through a library or other access.

The Steal Like an Artist Audio Trilogy

The Steal Like and Artist Audio Trillogy is the audio book format of three print books – Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work, and Keep Going, all of which are written and read by Austin Kleon. Based on the introduction, I believe the original books are very visual, and so might be a very different experience, but I personally found the audio book format very engaging and a great method for reading these books. I’ve been in a bit of a sewing slump and I’d heard Ali Abdaal (YouTube productivity guru) raving about them in several videos, and so I thought I’d give them a read.

While these books aren’t exactly written for the hobby sewist, they aren’t exactly not written for the hobby sewist either. Most of the specific examples in the books relate more directly to writing or painting, but I think that the concepts are broad enough that they really can be applied to anyone who does any sort of creative work, especially when it’s not a primary source of income.

The first book in the collection, Steal Like an Artist, discusses the importance of artists being able to steal ideas intelligently from the outside world. It’s about being inspired by what came before, and learning from it, but also learning how to use inspiration thoughtfully. For sewists, I think this is probably not too hard to do – we can be inspired by a pattern, a fabric, an existing garment, or anything else that can help us make our own unique design and bring it to life. Although the author really is trying to discuss where good art comes from and how to combine ideas in novel ways to make something new, the same principles can definitely apply to anyone trying to make an interesting garment, and would be even more applicable to cosplayers, quilters, or textile artists. While I felt that there was good advice here, I honestly don’t think there was too much here that I wasn’t already aware of. Probably the most important bit of advice for me was about curating your inspirations – if you just collect everything you can’t be focused enough to really find the important inspirations in all of that stuff. I think with the internet especially, it’s been easy to get overwhelmed with inspiration, and ideas, and distractions. But being a thoughtful curator of ideas really leads to a more refined selection of inspirations and can help focus the work.

The second book in the collection, Show Your Work, is about, well, the importance of showing your work. The author talks about the importance of having a place to continually showcase your work, build up an audience, and how to utilize this to grow your “career” as an artist. Again, I think that there was a lot of this book that felt like common sense, but I did appreciate the insistence on having a personal website or blog. As the author pointed out, having a social media presence is good, but the concern with social media platforms is that you don’t control the space. It wasn’t really meant this way, but it kind of felt like a shout out to the OG sewing bloggers who are still going and using their own platforms to show their work. The author also offers practical advice about how much to showcase, and how to keep working even when the work you showcase isn’t received as well as you intended. In some ways it felt very appropriate to sewing – how many times have people raved about a simple dress because the fabric was stunning, but paid no mind to a blazer that took months of work because it looked super basic in a photo? This book addresses that reality of showing your work, and it offers some practical advice for people who may just be starting on their creative journey.

The final book, Keep Going, is about ways to keep going when you get stuck in your work. It’s a handy book to read when the sewjo is low, I think. Again, I don’t think there was any earth-shattering revelations here; a lot of this is advice I’d heard elsewhere, but I did appreciate the idea of having either a regular time or a regular place to do your work, or both, if you can manage. I think a lot of people have difficulty either finding the time or the space to do creative work, especially things like sewing, since it takes up both a lot of time and a lot of space. I think the idea of having either a designated time or a designated space is great – it gives you the flexibility to find what works for your life situation, but carve out some dedicated way to make sure you can enjoy your creative work. I’m luck to have a designated space, but I’m thinking that I really need to create more designated times. Another bit of advice that I found really interesting is about the tidiness of the workspace. The author was quoting someone else, but basically said to keep your tools organized and your materials messy. While perhaps not entirely practical to have a giant fabric mountain in the corner, I realized I do tend to work this way – I’ve found homes for most of my tools, and they are usually where I need them to be, but my fabrics tend to be all over my workspace while I’m planning or working on projects. The author also argues against using the Konmarie method with your artistic tools (though not necessarily against using it for other aspects of your life). I would say I have to agree with this only to an extent. It sort of goes back to the point in the first book about curating… if your materials become so overwhelming you can’t really access or use them, it’s not really helpful to the creative process I think. Perhaps this isn’t as much of a concern with someone who does other artistic endeavors, but fabric can fill up a space fast… But it did sort of feel like validation that creators need stuff to create, which I feel like people who don’t do this sort of work really don’t understand. And I definitely agree that a certain amount of creative chaos is needed to come up with new ideas or inspirations, so that was nice to hear too.

Overall, I’m not sure that there is a lot of advice in these books I hadn’t heard before, but I do think that reading all of them together in the audio book format was a great way to get all of this information in a collected, concise format. I also think these books would be a perfect gift for a younger creator. Honestly, rather than giving every high school senior 20 million copies of Oh, the Places You’ll Go, it would probably be so much better to give them a copy of this book collection. It has a lot of practical advice and a realistic look at the life of a creative individual who needs to balance creative work with life things and, yes, also has to have a day job. The collection also addresses the major issues with creative work – how to get ideas, how to share your work, and how to keep going when you get stuck. These are all things that every long-term sewing blogger writes about, and seem to be pretty universal across all creative fields. It was also an enjoyable and relatable read, and relatively inspirational, especially the advice in Keep Going. It’s a quick read and full of great advice, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s interested in hearing more about tips and advice related to creative work.

7 thoughts on “Book Reviews: A History of the Paper Pattern Industry and The Steal Like an Artist Audio Trilogy

  1. I’ve read all of these. The paper pattern book I read a long time ago and agree – much has happened in the last decade. I have a soft spot for envelope art, so enjoyed the book.
    Of Kleon’s books, I like Show Your Work the most. It felt like the antidote to every well-meaning person who irritatingly says “You’ve just got to get your work out there”.
    Thanks for the review 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to disagree with you a little. Just a little :). I loved A History of A History of the Paper Pattern Industry. I have re-read it several times (at least).

    The thing you didn’t mention, or perhaps you didn’t know about, is the Commercial Pattern Archive, It is affiliated with the writer of the book somehow. The website is a bit clunky, you have to email them to gain access to the website, but oh my, it is so worth it. Be prepared to lose some hours going down the rabbit hole once you’re in.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the review on the pattern history. I will follow your suggestions to get it via interlibrary loan first. I agree that in the last 10 years much has changed in the pattern industry. I would particularly be interested in the python coding and altering of patterns.

    Liked by 1 person

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