If you’re part of the online sewing community and you’re on Facebook you’ve likely seen this post shared at least a few times. The headline reads, “Wiki Has Released Over 83,500 Vintage Sewing Patterns Online for Download.” You’ve likely seen it because this post has been shared on Facebook more than 424,900 times. Frankly, the idea of a free pattern archive this large is pretty incredible, and sharable.
In fact, though, as you might have found if you’ve ever clicked through on one of those Facebook shares, this headline is too good to be true. There are no free patterns to be had. But there is something else. It’s a different kind of archive, founded back in 2008 as a collaborative sewing community project, and it’s valuable and worthwhile in its own right. It’s a project run by volunteer moderators who are continually attacked by irate visitors demanding free patterns that never existed.
The Vintage Pattern Wiki is Born
In early 2007 Erin McKean, the blogger behind DressADay, met Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, at a conference. McKean loved vintage sewing patterns and had been sewing with them almost exclusively for some time, but she’d run into a problem: they were hard to search for online. “If you want a vintage pattern that has a Peter Pan collar and some pockets, that’s difficult,” she told me. Finding a vintage pattern in your size added an additional challenge.
When she met Wales he was working Wikia, a site for online encyclopedias that would go deep on specific topics. “He asked, ‘Is there something that sewing people would like as a wiki? And I was like we should just list all the patterns in the world! And so he was like, ‘Okay sure. Let’s do it.’” So that year McKean worked with a staff member at Wikia to set things up and the vintage pattern wiki was born.
For McKean, it was important to allow sellers to link to their product listings within the wiki. “If you only have consumers it will dry up and blow away,” she says. “You have to make it economically worthwhile for the people who are doing the really hard work of sourcing the patterns, making them tidy, counting and marking the pattern pieces, taking good photographs, and writing good descriptions.”
The vintage pattern wiki is a true collaboration, and that’s what McKean intended. “In almost everything I do try to use the Stone Soup model,” she says, referring to the folktale in which a whole community contributes vegetables to make a shared meal. “I feel that if everybody puts in a little bit of time, or effort, or information, or just a little love into a project, then it becomes much better for everybody.”
The vintage pattern wiki went live on November 14, 2007, and all was well. Over time, McKean became less involved, and the daily moderation fell to two women, one living in France and the other in California, both volunteers. Wikia merged into a site called Fandom, but the wiki continued to grow and was enjoyed and well used by vintage pattern collectors and sellers alike.
Clickbait Sites Descend
Then, about a decade later, the vintage pattern wiki was discovered by a series of clickbait sites that used it for their own advantage. These websites generate ad revenue based on numbers of visits and will do almost anything to get them, including writing misleading headlines. It turns out that promising an archive of 83,500 vintage patterns to download for free is very effective at generating site visits, just ask ArtFido.com whose post has generated the 424,900 shares on Facebook.
I reached out to the owners of ArtFido.com on Saturday to ask if they would consider revising the headline of their article since it’s clearly inaccurate. I got the following response via email: “Thanks but no thanks.” When I wrote back to ask how much ad revenue the post has generated to date, they didn’t respond.
Tarna is one of the two moderators of the vintage pattern archive (she prefers that I don’t use her real name). She’s a former collector and seller of vintage patterns on eBay and Etsy and moderates the site because she enjoys it. She’s never been paid. “Fandom just sent me some swag,” she says, “But that was after ten years of being a moderator.”
When people visit the wiki demanding free patterns she feels frustrated, and over time, has become more exasperated. “I’m baffled. We aren’t profiting from this. We’re all volunteers. We have to sit there and defend ourselves for something we never claimed. It’s like somebody saying this car dealership is giving away a free pickup truck and they don’t.”
No Free Patterns, But That Doesn’t Mean There’s Nothing
Although the vintage pattern wiki doesn’t actually contain a massive archive of free downloads, that doesn’t mean it has no value. It is what McKean and Wales intended it to be – a free, collaborative archive of vintage sewing pattern information – and that in itself is tremendously valuable.
McKean points out that the University of Rhode Island also has a vintage sewing pattern archive, the Commercial Pattern Archive (CoPA). Although CoPA is more extensive and comprehensive (the patterns date back to 1847 and the entries include the pattern schematics, not just the cover images), for many years this archive required a paid membership. The vintage pattern wiki has always been free and includes links to purchase the patterns, a useful thing for those looking to build their collections or actually sew with the patterns.
“I do think it’s a shame that people think that they’re going to come there and be able to download a whole pattern,” says McKean. “I really wanted to support the whole community of people who love vintage patterns.”
What she wrote back in the when the wiki first launched still holds true. “I don’t own this wiki. It’s not mine, I don’t get any money from it nor will I. It’s something for the community of people who love vintage patterns to build, share, and have fun with. Everyone should feel encouraged to participate!”