An Interview with Sarai Mitnick of Colette Patterns

The The Colette Sewing Handbook played a huge part in me learning how to sew. The first three garments I ever made were the first three patterns in the handbook, the Meringue skirt, Pastille dress and Truffle dress. Colette Patterns are some of my favorite to sew. They are everything I want in a pattern; vintage inspired, yet contemporary, stylish, cute and unique. They come in beginner, intermediate and advanced patterns. I have only attempted the beginner’s patterns so far, but I have found them all to have easy to understand directions. With each new project, and the handbook open to the chapter on fit, I have been getting better and better at altering the pattern, and getting a good fit. Needless to say, I am a huge fan of Colette Patterns. On the last day of my Portland Blogcademy weekend, I had the great fortune of being able to tour the Colette Patterns Headquarters and sit down and chat with designer/owner/author (she does wear a lot of hats), Sarai Mitnick!

Her studio is in a very cool industrial part of Southeast Portland and, of course, was very organized and tidy with beautiful daylight. We chatted for about a half an hour about everything from starting your own business, to body image, to the pros and cons of social media and more. I am pretty sure she was working on upcoming patterns, so I didn’t want to snoop too much, take up too much of her time or take too many photos, but I got a few of this gorgeous space.

Seriously, I could gush for days about why Colette Patterns is so great (did I mention that I love the packaging and the branding as well?), but what’s really cool is when the person behind a product you love, is just as awesome. Thank you Sarai, for taking time out of your busy schedule to have such a great conversation with me. You truly are an inspiration!

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Lilly: I always find it interesting what people’s backgrounds are. Is being a seamstress and pattern maker what you have always done or was it a career change? 

Sarai: It was definitely a career change. I started in the tech industry. Before this I did user  experience, design kind of stuff. I was working in the Bay area for Google doing that, and it was a really great job. I mean, that’s what my education was for, and there was a lot that I really liked about it. People there were awesome, but there’s something about working for a large company and especially a large tech company that didn’t really fit my personality. I had this desire to do something that was a little bit more creative. I just felt like I was spending a lot of time stuck in meetings and not really getting anything done. I really like to be able to actually produce things. I had this idea of starting a sewing pattern company because I’d been sewing for a long time.

It’s something I’m really passionate about and interested in and there weren’t a lot of great sewing patterns out there. I was sewing a lot from vintage patterns mostly, but those are a little bit hard to use, especially for beginners, and it just seemed like there was a real gap in the market as far as that stuff goes. I thought that would be kind of an interesting thing to do, so I wrote up a business plan and I spent about a year doing product development and that kind of thing before I left my job. We moved up here to Portland and we started the business all at the same time. It’s been about four years now. It’s been great. It’s been awesome.

Lilly: So are you professionally trained or self-taught? 

Sarai: As far as the pattern making and all the technical stuff involved in the design process, I am.

Lilly: You’ve gotten this good in four years?

Sarai: I’ve been sewing for much, much longer than that. I’ve been sewing since I was about 16 and I’m 32 now, so 16 years.

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Lilly: You’re close in age to me! I have a theory why people in our age group are drawn to making things themselves, but do you know why you do it or is it just something you’re interested in?

Sarai: Well for me I think it’s just a personality thing because I’ve always been into making things, since I was a little kid. I just think it’s something I was born with. Ever since I was little it’s what I’ve enjoyed doing with my free time. From crafts to making drawings, or whatever. I don’t know if it’s anything particular to my age. I think getting fed up with working for somebody else might have something to do with entering into my 30s.

That’s part of it definitely. I think a lot of people spend their 20s floundering around a little bit, trying to figure out what works and what they want to do and then when you hit your 30s, sometimes, you start to get a little bit more focused. At least that’s what happened for me.

Lilly: I’ve noticed a lot of people my age gravitating towards cooking, crafting, and making things with their hands and I wonder if it’s because we’re the generation that remembers life before the internet and so we’re trying to do something to get away from computers a little bit.

Sarai: I think that’s also true because I find myself constantly in this kind of push and pull between the online world and the real life world. It  goes in waves. I’ve spent a lot of time online because of my business and I just sometimes get really, really burnt out on it.  I don’t even want to look at my computer, so yeah, I definitely hear you there. I think that’s probably a big factor too.

I’ve seen a lot of discussions about that online too, I think.  A lot of people feel a sort of angst about the world of the internet and the constant self-presentation to other people. I think it is really, really tiring. I mean, you have to do that enough in your daily life, but it’s 9 to 5, but a hundred times when you have a blog, or anything, or any kind of online presence.

Lilly: Then again we need the internet because I’ve learned so much about sewing from the online sewing community, especially with your patterns and the following you have. If I’m going to make a pattern of yours, all I have to do is go online and I can see what everyone else has made and I can read about modifications they made or tips they have for how to do it. I usually research stuff before I make it and there’s so much info on there, so that’s been really helpful to me.

Sarai: Yeah, it’s great for that and there’s all kinds of positive things about it too; the community is amazing and it’s really nice to be able to connect to people that have your same little niche interests. I don’t have that many friends in real life that sew. Most of the people I know that sew are online. It’s cool that you can connect to people with those kinds of interests.There’s the positive stuff and the negative stuff for sure.

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Lilly: It’s interesting for sure. Well, back to you starting your own business. I was a freelance photographer for a very short time (and found not knowing when the next booking would come, very scary), so I opted for a staff job, but I’m so impressed with people that are able to be self-employed. There are definitely advantages and disadvantages to both. I’m sure you work very hard and maybe even longer hours than someone with a staff job, but I would imagine you are so proud of the business you have built. Do you have any advice for someone thinking of leaving a job and starting their own business?

Sarai: I have a lot of advice probably. I think you have to be really interested in what you want to do as your business. Unless you’re just planning to keep it very small the entire time, you have to really delve into the idea of actually running a business. I think that is where a lot of people can encounter problems later down the line, because you have to wear so many different hats. If you don’t relish doing all those jobs, then it’s going to be really hard, unless you have a partner.  That can help take care of some of it.

That was a big learning curve for me personally. It’s just that I love sewing, but I don’t really spend a lot of time sewing now. I spend a lot of time doing financial stuff and I spend a lot of time thinking about things like managing the business and hiring and growing and new product ideas and all kinds of stuff that is not always 100% related to what my business is about. I think that was my biggest thing.

Other than that I would say I think it is good to write a business plan. I know there are different ideas about that. It was super helpful for me even though all my ideas about where the business would go didn’t necessarily pan out exactly.  I mean, they never do. It’s a really good tool I think, for just thinking through all the details before you dive in, so I found that really helpful. Those would be my biggest hurdles; the planning, the multiple roles. I mean, there’s a lot to learn, especially if you’ve never run a business before.

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Lilly: That’s part of why I haven’t done it. I know what goes into it, so I admire people that have done it! You mentioned about having a partner being helpful to starting a business, was Kenn always a part of the business or did he get folded in later?

Sarai: I started it on my own and he got folded in later. Originally, it was a bit of a risk for us, but we figured we’d move to Portland, because it’s cheaper to live here. I had savings and he’s a web developer by trade, so he was going to continue doing that. I figured if the business didn’t do well, I could always go back to what I was doing before. It just sort of grew organically from there and as it began taking off, I needed more help. He slowly started helping more by working on my website and other features and then doing more of the logistics and the shipping and all that stuff.

Now he handles all the background stuff like that. He helps with customer service and handles our fulfillment in the warehouse that we use, as well as updates the website. He’s just about full-time now. He still has other side projects that he works on, but mostly he’s here with us.

Lilly: Was Kenn freelance before?

Sarai: Yeah. He’s been consulting for quite a while. Since before we moved here.

Lilly: There seems to be a trend with my favorite female bloggers, that  their husbands are web developers…

Sarai: Yeah, well it’s helpful when they have those skills. Also I think when you start to need help, it’s just natural to turn to the person that you can trust. It’s a big hurdle when you start bringing in somebody else to help you out.

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Lilly: Did you learn anything from starting your own business that you wish someone had shared with you when you were first starting out?

Sarai: Probably just the major stuff, but I think coming up with good systems for doing things has been really valuable to me. That’s something that I’ve had to learn over time. It’s not the kind of thing that somebody can just tell you. It’s just something you have to learn for yourself. A lot of it just comes through experience, guessing and testing out what works for you. A business is such a personal thing. It depends so much on your personality and your talents and what you like to do and there’s just a lot you have to learn hands-on.

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Lilly: I enjoyed reading your interview with Elizabeth Cline, author of the book, Overdressed. It really got me thinking! I like expressing myself through my style, but I definitely have some issues with the mainstream fashion industry. Sewing has made me realize that it’s not clothes I don’t like or style, it’s just …

Sarai: The way it’s presented to you? Or the industry that surrounds it?

Lilly: Yes! It’s been really nice to read positive things on your blog about body image. I feel like that is helping a lot of girls and women realize that some of the things we see in fashion ads are not realistic. I like that some of the business practices and cheaply made clothes are being addressed as well. 

Sarai: I think it’s something a lot of people don’t think about but I think people who sew do think about that stuff quite a bit. It seems to me just from the discussions that we’ve had that people are very much aware of where clothes come from and how much work goes into them, which I think that the population at large is not very cognizant of. It amazes me how little people understand about clothing and for example when people ask what I do and I tell them that I make clothing patterns, they just have no concept of how clothes are made, at all.

They are surprised there is such a thing as a clothing pattern. It’s shocking actually, but it seems like sewers are a lot more aware of these issues, the issues that you’re talking about, that go along with that and everything within the fashion industry.

I love talking about that stuff my blog.  It’s so much fun to have those discussions with other people who are interested in those issues because so much of what you see in the world today is so consumer and materialism focused. It’s nice to be able to be connect to people who question those things.

As for body image issues, it’s hard for us because one thing that we really like to do is have models of different sizes, shapes, and skin colors to present a diversity of women. It’s really quite difficult because there aren’t many women who model who are not a size two or a size zero. It’s actually really hard to find a professional model, who is just a normal-sized woman. That’s been a little bit surprising to me.

I have noticed where there is a little more diversity in body sizes, interestingly is the bridal fashion industry. It seems like a lot of bridal designers do use women who have a little bit fuller bust or a little bit closer to a normal size. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because when you’re trying to sell a wedding dress, a woman really wants to imagine herself in the dress or I don’t know why that is, but it’s interesting.

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Lilly: I like that you write about your travels and running on your blog. You seem like you have made conscious decisions about how much you share about your personal life on your blog. Why did you make that decision and how did you decide what to share and what not to?

Sarai: Well, I think it’s more engaging when you see the person behind the blog. I don’t read that many blogs, but the ones that I find most interesting are people write from a very personal point of view, so I like to incorporate some of that. I don’t want it to be just some sort of generic company blog because that’s not really, what I’m about. On that side there’s that. On the other side, I’m generally a sort of a private person (laughs). I don’t really like being in the limelight that much. I don’t want to ever write about things that are going to come across as unprofessional.

At the same time I don’t want to get too personal. It’s always been a really tricky balance for me. I’ve been blogging or writing online for probably 10 or 12 years, in some form or another and I think that’s always the balance that you have to strike between getting personal and maintaining either privacy or sense of professionalism. For me it’s a little bit of both.

Lilly: I think you strike a really good balance. I’d imagined it’s been good for your business, because your business is so interactive in a way. There’s so many ways to kind of communicate with you, get tips from you or share things that you’ve made, so that whole package is nice.

Sarai: That can get a little bit tricky too as we start to grow and have more customers, because like you say, there are so many ways to interact. I try to respond as much as possible. I try to be there as much as I can when people message me on Twitter, or Facebook, or email us, but that becomes more and more of my time spent doing that. That’s another thing that has to be balanced as the business grows. How much time I personally spend on that? How much can we have other helping out with that? What do we answer? What do we not answer? That kind of situation.

It’s tough for me personally, because I just want to answer everyone. Going back to learning about running a business, that’s another thing that most small business people say, you have to eventually learn not to do everything yourself.  I think for every person that has a small business, it’s always a really big hurdle, because you just get to be a control freak about everything and I have definitely encountered that in myself. It’s not because I’m naturally a control freak or I want to be that way, it’s just that I really care about this stuff. I want everything to be perfect.  So letting go of some of that has been very important for me. It’s hard for me though because I love the blog and I really like responding there and reading what people have to say even if I don’t respond to it, I always read every comment. I really like it!

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We talked a bit more after this. I told her a little bit about the Blogcademy. We chatted about making friends online (with other bloggers), our gardens etc., but this was the heart of it.

I want to say thanks again to Sarai for sitting down to talk with me. It was the perfect end to an amazing weekend!

4 thoughts on “An Interview with Sarai Mitnick of Colette Patterns

  1. “I’ve noticed a lot of people my age gravitating towards cooking, crafting, and making things with their hands and I wonder if it’s because we’re the generation that remembers life before the internet and so we’re trying to do something to get away from computers a little bit.” — so true! my mom made her own jam and made me dresses. i hope it’s not a lost art. speaking of sewing dresses! this is cool! One of my “30 before 30” goals is to sew something using a pattern. I havent done it since I was very young.

    1. Hi Lindsy! Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I make jam too and I gotta start making kids clothes for all my friends’ kids. I also have a nephew on the way 🙂 The only kids pattern I have ever sewn from was Sew Liberated, but I know there are tons of companies that make kid’s patterns, I just don’t know them.
      But if you are going to sew something for yourself, I’d say Colette Patterns would be a great way for you to get back to sewing with a pattern. Aren’t they cute? Let me know if you end up making something, I’d love to see it!

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