Today I’m chatting with Taylor McVay, the designer behind the sewing pattern company Blueprints for Sewing. Taylor describes her patterns as being “simple, flattering, comfortable and classic with an artistic edge”. Functionality, simplicity, thoughtful embellishments and an aim to help sewists of all skill levels learn skills they can take away with them to other projects are all part of the Blueprints for Sewing brand. What I find most exciting and unique (and fun!) about the company is the fact that each of Taylor’s designs is inspired by a different architectural style.
I’m delighted to have Taylor with me today to share her story!
ab: Hi, Taylor. On the Blueprints for Sewing website you state that you have been making clothing since you were very small. Can you share a bit about how you learned to sew? Was there a parent or family member in your life who taught you to sew? What memories do you have of your early clothing making experiences?
tm: I learned the first little steps from my mom: threading a needle, sewing pieces together, etc. At first, I made a lot of doll clothes and small objects. Around 12, I decided I would make myself a dress to wear to a party, all sewn by hand. My dad was very impressed and I got a sewing machine for my next birthday.
|Taylor: the dress I made when I was 12, all from scarves I picked up at the thrift store|
That began a long love affair with my sewing machine (I had that same machine until I was about 22) and sparked a lifelong process of teaching myself and learning by experimentation.
I started making my own handbags from recycled materials. I was pretty proud of them, but for some reason I got teased for this at school. (Tween girls are still a mystery to me). Luckily, it only strengthened my desire to create and design. Throughout high school and college I made or altered most of my own clothing.
ab: During our email correspondence you mentioned that your background is that of an artist. What sort of art training did you have before embarking on sewing pattern design? How has your art training helped with designing patterns? What other art do you still create today?
tm: Art has always been a major part of my life. As a child I was always making something. I ended up going to an art magnet high school which was fantastic. The obvious progression was to go to college for art and I found myself at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Though I hear it’s changed quite a bit, at the time I attended they were very interdisciplinary. There were no majors or requirements to stay in a specific medium. Conceptual art was encouraged. I experimented with a lot of media (painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance) and naturally gravitated towards using recycled materials, often textile based.
During college, I was also totally obsessed with sewing & altering my own clothing and curating outfits, which I realize now was a form of art in itself though it rarely made it into my critiques.
After school, the prospects of making a living as an artist seemed pretty bleak, so I fell back on my other skill sets: retail and sewing. I had worked retail to make money during college, mostly doing window displays, and felt pretty comfortable in that environment. After working for some big clothing companies, I got a job working for a small vintage boutique, repairing old clothes and doing alterations. I learned a tremendous amount about clothing construction from working with those vintage garments. At this shop, we also had a whole line of re-fashioned garments. I spent a lot of time recycling old pieces into new things and I think this was one of the first times that I really combined my love of art and sewing for work.
Afterwards, I ended up starting a custom clothing and patternmaking business, where I did everything from making bridesmaid dresses to creating wearable works of art for other artists. The latter was particularly rewarding, since it so directly combined my art interests with my technical skill set.
|Taylor: some work in progress from my old custom clothing business|
I think my art education did one very important thing to inform my patternmaking process: it helped me develop a strong ability to problem solve. Creative thinking is really just that. I also think it allows me to think about clothing design from a place of art, rather than commerce. I take my inspiration from buildings, books, nature, history, etc rather than from runways & trends. I also like to feature different artists for the cover illustrations on my paper patterns. I feel like this brings a bit more of the art in, unlike your traditional sewing pattern which reads more like a catalog image.
Though my patternmaking and teaching life has definitely taken over, I still create work as an artist and I hope to carve out more time for my art as the pattern business takes off. Now that Blueprints has legs, I’ve been trying to infuse a bit more of my art into it. This has recently been taking the form of zines, but I hope to expand from there.
Outside of Blueprints, I’ve mostly been working with an activist fiber art collective called New Craft Artists in Action and have had the opportunity to show work and create art installations in a variety of awesome venues.
The art I create on my own is hard to define. Sometimes it takes the form of a lecture or a workshop, other times it’s objects or drawings or paintings. Sometimes it’s a whole experience, something interactive. But generally, I keep the lines between art, work and life pretty blurry. And I usually like it that way.
ab: What is your design process like? Do you start with a garment in mind or with the architectural style? How do you take that first spark of an idea and create a garment and a viable sewing pattern from it?
tm: My design process is pretty organic and maybe a tiny bit chaotic. Some patterns start with a garment, others start with a building, others are truly a combination of both. The more patterns I design, the more frequently the design and inspiration evolve together.
At any given time, I have many ideas for designs, from full fledged patterns, to objects or small projects like zines. Since time is a scare resource around here, these ideas (mostly) get cataloged in the form of physical notes, phone notes, sketches, post its, and sometimes just lingering thoughts. I often fuss about what to do next and tend to juggle things, but ultimately projects come to full fruition when they’re supposed to. Some ideas happen and others fade into obscurity.
Typically, the pattern idea that feels seasonally appropriate or most developed takes center stage. Then, I make a series of prototypes (muslins). I adjust fit, experiment with construction techniques, consider fabrics. Some designs hit a wall at this point and get tabled for later - such is the nature of atypical designs. Geodesic went this route multiple times before its final release.
If I’m able to get the prototype where I want it, I bring it to trusted friends and colleagues to discuss and get feedback. Often, I’ll also have made some versions for myself to wear around town. If I get complements or questions, that’s a good sign! If it passes this round, then it’s on to all the busy work: digitizing the pattern, grading, writing instructions, sending out to pattern testers, etc.
ab: Now that I’ve become so fascinated by sketchbooks and other artists’ sketchbook practices, I have to ask: do you keep a sketchbook? If so, can you share a bit about how you use it? If you don’t, why do you think that is?
tm: I have kept sketchbooks for a lot of my life, but I’m really bad at it. I’m guilty of half filling notebooks, writing things down and never looking at them again. I’ve already had one failed Blueprints sketchbook and am currently on number two. I feel like I have to channel the right energy to use a sketchbook properly and I’m working on this. Round 2 is pretty promising so far, but I’m sure is not very exciting from an outside perspective.
I feel like my sketchbook is more successful as a notebook, because to be quite honest, my sketches are very utilitarian. For somebody who went to art school, my fashion sketches are pretty boring verging on bad. BUT they’re perfectly serviceable as technical diagrams and as notes. I’m actually pretty good at ‘drawing’, like rendering, but I’ve never been good at ‘sketching’. My casual drawings have no style. Does that make sense?
Either way, I’ve been pushing myself to draw more for fun (and I’ve been enjoying it tons!) and it seems to have a positive effect on my notebook sketches.
ab: Your life as you describe it on your website seems joyful, fulfilling and cozy. You, your partner and your animal friends live in a rural area. You are a self-described homebody and you enjoy knitting & crocheting, cooking, gardening, watching movies, drinking beer… But we all have off days. When you’re feeling down, uninspired or stuck, what do you do to get out of your funk and find your way back to joy?
tm: My life is definitely very joyful and fulfilling. However, I have also struggled with pretty serious depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, as I’m sure a lot of other folks - especially creative types - do.
There are many, many days where I feel all of the things you mentioned above and more. A lot of times, it’s pretty hard to dig myself out of that place. I’ve done a lot of work on creating healthy mental patterns and self care practices, but it’s always a work in progress.
In these moments, the little things help keep me grounded. I started running in 2014 as a sort of meditation practice, and I find that this helps a lot to clear my head and stay healthy. I also find that gardening helps when my head gets fogged up with self doubt and worry. I’m not particularly good at it, but I can pull out a weed and water a plant and sometimes that can feel like a big accomplishment when everywhere else feels stuck. Nature is a pretty excellent balm for the soul…
Depression aside, I also tend to get pretty bogged down by the amount of administrative work that goes into running a creative business and that can be pretty disheartening, especially for somebody without a business or accounting background. I find it’s best to push through it, even if you really don’t want to. And never be afraid to ask for help. Last year, myself and a few other creative business ladies organized a sort of support group and we meet monthly. They often help me work through a lot of the stuck-ness.
My personal challenges aside, I feel very fortunate that I am never at a lack of inspiration. In fact, a lot of my anxiety comes from having TOO many ideas and not being able to execute them the way I see fit or keep them in order.
I’ve also taken up quilting. It can be really hard to take time off and relax when your hobby is also your work. Quilting allows me to sew for fun, it uses up my scraps, and it’s another way to combine my art with my textile practice.
ab: You began teaching people how to sew long before you began Blueprints for Sewing and today as an extension of your company you continue to teach, lecture and run workshops. Combining the two seems like such a perfect fit. And writing patterns with an aim to help people learn is a brilliant idea, especially for a self-taught sewist like me who has been frustrated and confused by the lack of instruction in mainstream sewing patterns. What’s the most important thing you want to convey to people who are learning to sew, thinking about learning to sew or even just wanting to expand their sewing skills? Or if that’s maybe too broad an audience, what are you most passionate about passing on to others through teaching and through your patterns?
tm: I love teaching, especially teaching sewing because making things yourself, especially something so tied to our perception of self worth, is a very empowering experience.
My goal is to make sewing accessible for everyone. Not everybody will go on to create full wardrobes, but at the very least they’ll know how to mend their clothing and have a sense of what goes into making the t-shirt that they choose to buy.
In my classes as well as my patterns, I hope to encourage people to experiment and have fun, to make friends and feel proud of their accomplishments. I myself am a self-taught sewist and I know that a lot of folks in the same boat often doubt their skills or get frustrated.
I am also a reformed perfectionist and a try to cultivate an accepting and relaxed atmosphere in my classes. I always share what I call the ‘Three Foot Rule’, which means that mistakes you can’t see from at three feet away don’t count. I try to communicate to students that sewing is not hard or scary and that things don’t have to be perfect. Using a sewing machine is a technical skill that anybody can learn. Everything else is just a matter of practice and patience.
ab: What would you say is the most challenging part of running your own business in general and a sewing pattern design business specifically? And conversely, what is the most rewarding part of your business?
tm: I would say there are two parts of running this business that are particularly challenging for me.
The first is my lack of formal business training. I’ve had to learn a lot of this by trial and error and there are definitely parts of running this business that have a big learning curve. However, I think having the opportunity to teach myself how to do these things has been very rewarding. While I’m not a great accountant, I’m really proud that I’ve managed to create a functional accounting workflow and even start analyzing some of my sales data!
The other big challenge is marketing, since self promotion doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s hard navigating the world of social media and marketing as somebody who, until recently, didn’t even like having my picture taken by relatives! This has also been an awesome learning experience, though not without personal challenges. I’m happy to say that I’m definitely getting the hang of it and loosening up a bit about being a front woman.
In a weird way, one of the most rewarding things about having my own business is learning to deal with these challenges. I don’t think I would have done any of it, had I not had the business.
By far the biggest reward of the whole project is getting to see what people make using the patterns and having the opportunity to teach people how to sew! Every time I see an instagram pop up with a smiling face in a new handmade item or get an email from somebody who finally feels great in a pencil skirt, it makes it all worth it. My goal for this project is to create as many empowered, creatively fulfilled, confident, and happy sewists as possible!
ab: What’s next on the horizon for you and your business?
tm: This spring and summer I’ve had a few opportunities to teach outside of the area where I live and I hope to do more of this. I’m also hoping to expand my teaching repertoire into classes that combine sewing with my other intellectual interests, which has been a long term goal of mine.
Of course, there will be more patterns, but I also have dreams of expanding into other sewing related items like fabric and tools or possibly creating a book.
I would also like to pursue a bit more of my own art, whether it’s through Blueprints or on the side.
Thank you, Taylor, for chatting here with me today.
Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed meeting Taylor and hearing her story. To learn more visit the Blueprints for Sewing website. Looking to find a Blueprints for Sewing pattern? Find a list of stockists here. And if you're on Instagram, go say hi to Taylor over there.
You can also catch up with the other Artist Interviews here.
*Photos in this post © Taylor McVay. Used with permission.