If you'd like to use the site and help me test it, you can join here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sleeveless et al. on Threadle - Talking About the Absence of Something in a Searchable, Semantic Database

There are some things for which we find it relevant to mention their absence in certain contexts. One such example is when we say "sleeveless dress". What we mean is that, even though a dress commonly has sleeves, this particular one has none.

Building a fine-grained search, we face the challenge that data, at a given point in time, may be incomplete. Given the pattern entry of a dress that is missing information on its sleeves, does that mean it is sleeveless? Clearly not. It could just be that who entered the data did not think of adding information on the sleeves.

"absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"?

When you search for a "sleeveless" dress, you don't want to be bombarded with entries that have no information on sleeves recorded. There should be evidence that the dress does not have sleeves.

When there is no evidence regarding the absence of sleeves on a pattern entry, the search function should simply not list the pattern as a result when you search for something "sleeveless".

There are different ways we can provide this evidence to a system that handles object descriptions.

A Formal Language to Describe Sewn Objects

First, let's look at how the new object description system is going to work: We'll write object descriptions in a style that is quite close to the object descriptions found on pattern envelopes.

Example: A, C: loose-fitting pullover top has cross-grain collar with tie ends, extra-long draped pleated sleeves, back neck slit. B: semi-fitted trousers have wide legs, wide front pockets, back welt pockets, fly zipper closure.

The cool part is that these descriptions will be searchable in a fine-grained way. E.g., you could search for "something with wide legs" and that would find you any pattern that mentions in its description that is has wide legs. You'd see culottes, trousers, etc. You could even search for some more crazy things like "trousers with wide legs with front welt pocket" (I don't think you'd find anything for this one), or "something with top-stitched princess seams and sweetheart neckline" (this seems more likely to exist), or "cocktail dress with natural-waist-height waistline with large side front pleat".

The catch is that we must use a very strict vocabulary that Threadle understands. We define the vocabulary in terms of three different parts: item types that say what kind of item we're describing (e.g. cocktail dress, dress, trousers, top, and many more), parts that are used to talk about particular aspects/parts of the item (like bodice, slit, legs, collar, pleat, sweetheart neckline, waistline), and adjectives that provide detail-information on an item type or object part (like loose-fitting, cross-grain, draped, extra-long, side, front, etc.)

How will the absence of things fit in?

For anything where it is noteworthy to mention absence, we create an adjective. E.g. we have adjectives "sleeveless" (used with anything that usually has sleeves), "legless" (usable with pants).

When you search for "sleeveless dress", the system searches for something where the item type is "dress" and that has the adjective "sleeveless".

When you search for "dress with elbow-length sleeves", the system finds you all patterns that are described as item type "dress" and that have a part "sleeves" which in turn comes with the adjective "elbow-length".

If you're curious about all this, you can have a look at the tentative interactive tutorial for writing item descriptions. It's not finished or anything, but I think now would be a good time to get feedback on whether you think this could work or not (and why).

Sunday, July 19, 2015

We are threadle! Results from a Website-Naming Survey

We as a community voted on a name for the site and the result couldn't have been clearer: We are threadle! With more than 50% positive votes for this name, it's official.

Now that this is out of the way, let's look at the results.

I actually waited to read all the comments until today. And now that I did, it totally cracked me up and it made the decision very easy. I just plain love the comments. I'm pretty sure they will make you smile, and sometimes laugh, if you read them. I love how people are so honest and I'm actually surprised how many took the time to write something. Thank you. It helps so much by taking the guesswork out of things.

Some of the comments are matter-of-fact, like
"I'm not joining the edge" - for the name joining edge
some evoke strong visuals,
"Really boring, makes it sound like a place that'll just be mums posting nappy covers." - patchpocket
 some bring up a good point,
"Naw some of us came to sewing after aaages, this implies we've been doing it in the womb!" - stitchborn
some note practical implications,
"SWS will never catch on; it's a tongue-twister to say out loud." - seams we sew / SWS
 some point out associations that aren't quite that favorable,
"Too much like "whatever" which is used when you don't really care about something." - sew ever
some are brilliant and hilarious in the connections they make,
"Sounds like the midstream urine sample you give when you're pregnant ;-)" - midseam
some make me smile when placed next to each other,
"I feel like dropping the 'e' is old, like flickr" vs. "where's the other e? It's just too trendy for me. " - seamstr
some, are very considerate
"It probably has sentimental value to you; it's what you started with... " - kaava
some are particularly accurate in their assessment,
"Not an attractive image. Does not bespeak creativity, has a hard, metallic sound." - seam engine
"one of the better ones, but I think it will be lost on people not in the community" - seamingly
And this comment, I feel, sums it all up nicely,
"The best of the suggestions to make it to the final list. Short and catchy, covers everything we do. Invokes 'treadle', which means something to those of us of a particular age ;)" - threadle

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Why the Sewing Community Loves Instagram

I'm feeling a bit stupid for not making an Instagram account earlier. Now that I have one, I realize something that is probably obvious to almost all of you: The way you share on Instagram is pretty awesome!

So why is it that great? I can think of the following reasons:
  1. Sharing is very quick and easy. It's really a mobile-first experience.
  2. You share pictures of your work in progress. That results in totally lovely sewing feeds where you can see how something comes together.
  3. There is so much less spam than on Twitter. Bots just can't shoot great photos yet. People are active and comment a lot.
  4. There's no overly restrictive limit on comment size, so people use hashtags on their photos to refer to pattern codes.

What are the weak points of sharing your sewing on Instagram?
  1. Pattern linking isn't done at large scale. People use different ways to write the hashtags for the same pattern.
  2. It's hard to build a community around a particular sewing niche and it can be hard for newcomers to find their way in, just like on Twitter. Building a tighter-knit community requires an active, continuous effort - someone needs to step up and claim a hashtag for everyone to post under. A good example of this is how Joost built the sewcialists.
Getting on Instagram gave me some fresh ideas and some direction. I have to thank Abby Glassenberg for giving me that final push to check it out.

Monday, May 18, 2015

My "How-to-turn-from-Wantrepreneur-to-Entrepreneur" List

I've been pretty quiet lately (not that I ever was particularly non-quiet) and it's not because I've given up. In fact, I haven't - while the initial enthusiasm has faded away a while ago, I'm still determined to make things work in a way that is useful for you.

Over the course of the last year, I learned a lot of things... both regarding web development, what people are actually looking for, and how to change my own behavior so I can make things work.

There's a few bits of advice that keep reoccuring everywhere and that I find to be particularly helpful:
  1. Making a habit to work on something every day goes a long way.
  2. It takes conscious effort to work on the right thing. It's easy to get side-tracked by old habits - the attraction of an old habit is proportional to often you used to do it.
  3. Any craft takes 10.000 hours to master. Only hours where you work on something you feel is difficult seem to count. (No I'm not there yet by any means.)
  4. Good solutions are always simple.
  5. Design matters. A lot.
  6. It's far far easier to point out others' mistakes than to make something better yourself. 
  7. Wantrepreneurs believe that "passion" is the main ingredient to make things work - but it's not: working consistently on something and constantly challenging your assumptions (or delusions) is.
  8. Detaching your own self-worth from the things you make or do is the key to being able to gracefully accept and benefit from constructive criticism.
  9. When you dread something that must be done you need to transform your attitude towards it - instead of trying to avoid doing it.
Can you relate to some of these points? What kind of advice would you give someone like me?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Refactoring is Ripping the Seams of Code

So... have you ever ended up in a situation where you felt you need to redo things to fix them up properly? I do (and it's not only with that curtain where I sewed the ruffle tape on wrong way).

I started a bunch of months ago to frantically build something I know people will be interested in using, but I didn't have all the skills or tools I needed. Now that I come to think of it, I think I'm a bit like these people who suddenly show up and want to start their sewing career by doing a full-fashioned extravagant wedding dress. Just that my extravagant wedding dress happens to be a website.

So I made things and built them the way they came to my mind - often experimenting wildly since I didn't know how to do things the right way. I ended up with a good deal of possible solutions and little gadgets. Now I'm cleaning up things. I'm undoing the things that I learned how to do better and I'm redoing them in a consistent, simpler, better fashion.

One reason why I ended up where I am is that I listened to people saying "don't reinvent the wheel" - which means to use existing solutions instead of making your own. That's not bad advice, actually - if I had done everything I have working now from scratch, things would probably look much worse because I wouldn't have taken the opportunity to learn from the existing solutions. My problem with this was I couldn't really tell a good wheel from a bad wheel reliably initially. So I ended up using some really great freely available solutions and some not so good ones. Now I'm moving away from the bad ones, one at a time.

With some of these solutions, I used very little of the functionality they offer. And that is a huge problem when you want to make a site that works nicely on mobile devices: Things that are loaded but never used are wasteful. On a fast internet connection, you hardly notice any difference, but on a slow internet connection waiting for things to load quickly gets very annoying. That's why I'm working on reducing the number of libraries - usually by writing my own code that replicates just the functionality that I actually need for the site.

With a few weeks of using CSS (and learning things with the help of some great free tutorials) and redoing the front-end part of the site from scratch, I can't call myself a designer yet. Still, I think that the new design is going to be a great improvement over how things were. At least I now have something that I fully understand since I made it from scratch - previously I was using an existing CSS framework. I feel that knowing something in detail makes it much much easier to change and adapt.

I know that this is a healthy process. There's a part of me that wants to see quick results, but I think ripping and redoing things is more helpful in the long run.

What do you think: Is it more important to ask questions and do as your elders say or to experiment and discover your own way of doing things?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Okay, I took courage and asked...

I've started to ask the big pattern companies for permission to use their official product images on the site on the database pages and on people's stash pages.

While I haven't heard about anyone getting into trouble for using official pattern images on their blogs, I do think that the database I'm building provides some functionality that an individual blog doesn't. Asking them before using their copyrighted images is really the most respectful and safe way to go for this project.

On the one hand side it's a bit scary to ask, but then again it will be good for the site to know how they feel and stand towards the issue.

It's not like a "no" to the use of the official images will be an unsurmountable problem. There are alternatives, they just aren't as simple and convenient for us as a community. :)

A "yes", or a "yes, under the following conditions..." would be very kind and helpful, though. It would mean that my sister can go all out tagging and categorizing patterns to make them easily searchable instead of having to take down images that are obviously in violation of a copyright as she witnesses them. It would also help us in the sense that being able to show these pretty images for stashed patterns, magazines and books will make things look a good bit more inviting.

Technically, the site leaves it up to people adding patterns to make individual decisions on their own accord whether to upload a particular image for a particular pattern. We will not encourage people to upload images to which they have no rights - on the contrary, people will be required to check that they have the rights needed to use the images. We do not have the resources to research every single image for a potential copyright violation. I as a site owner will do my best to comply with the DMCA as well as international and EU regulations and processes regarding copyright infringement by users of the site. So, if you see an image on the site that is in violation of your copyright, I will ask you kindly to let me know so we can resolve the issue in a quick and painless way.

In the end it's up to the copyright holders to decide what can be done with their images. And we'll have to respect the choice they make. :)

Friday, January 9, 2015

On Using Images From Pattern Companies - Pattern Companies: Be Part of the Awesome!

First off, what I write now is not about the copyright situation on actual sewing patterns. It's about the copyright situation regarding images that illustrate the object(s) made from the pattern.

One big question regarding proper use the site has been the following:

"Can we use the images from the pattern companies' websites?"

This seems to be, in some jurisdictions, a legal gray area. In others (including the German one), the answer is a plain "No, unless you get permission". German "Urheberrecht" is the closest equivalent to US Copyright law, but it differs in some fundamental aspects.

In German Urheberrecht, there seem to be two major relevant aspects:

1. The photographer of a photo always has "Urheberrecht" of a photo. So, if you were to take someone's photo of a pattern envelope from eBay or Etsy and uploaded that to the site, the person who took the photo would have, according to German law, good chances to win a case on "Urheberrechtsverletzung" against us. (Jan 10, 2015: minor clarifications)

2. The images and design of the envelope itself may have copyright protection and might also qualify for "Urheberrecht" as "works of art". However, it is disputable whether the envelopes have a sufficient "threshold of originality" to be actually protected. In essence, the envelopes are product packaging - the actual part of value are the written and illustrated instructions and pattern pieces. Then again,  the "threshold of originality" applied in Germany seems to be low, as well. (Jan 10, 2015: minor clarifications)
Further, the situation seems to be as following:

When I as a site owner let you upload an image to the site that violates someone else's intellectual property under German jurisdiction, I am liable from the point on that I learn about the existence of the infringing item. For my liability, it does not matter if uploading, sharing or displaying it is legal under your jurisdiction (unless you're in Germany).
added Jan 10, 2015: Sharing photos on the Internet is still a very much dark gray and dangerous legal area in Germany. The situation in the US seems to be somewhat better due to the requirement to actually attempt to register a copyright for the claimed-to-be-infringing items before going to court.

What are the potential consequences? If someone (e.g. a pattern company) who does not like what we're doing on the site sees their images displayed on the site they can sue us and it is in principle possible that they might win the case. However,  they risk that this could come with a good deal of negative publicity for them.

On the other hand, search engines are allowed to use excerpts of content as well as preview-images without that being a copyright violation or "Urheberrechtsverletzung". Not excluding web crawlers by means of a "robots.txt" file on the web pages has been interpreted in court as implied consent to the display of thumbnail-size preview images in the context of search services. Personally, I see what we are building here as the ultimate search directory for sewing patterns. Whether official authorities would agree with that is an open question.

So, the answer is really that - while there are points we could make that our use of pattern envelope images is fine - we should ask for permission from the pattern owners to be legally on the perfectly safe side. Incidentally, asking for permission and respecting the other's choice is the most respectful way of dealing with things.

  1. making it much easier for them to non-intrusively collect and aggregate feedback from their customers than the existing social media platforms,
  2. making their entire pattern collections searchable in a really powerful way, in the long run, and 
  3. building a place that respects the effort put into the patterns. We are not copying and sharing patterns or condoning pattern piracy in any other way.
In my eyes, we're actually doing the pattern companies a favor by making it easier to interact with the people who buy their patterns online, by helping people find the right pattern among the huge selection, and by cultivating a spirit of respect towards the pattern creators. Apart from that, making their pattern entries look better with their own gorgeous images is essentially free advertising for their patterns as they show up in our search results. :)

There's really no reason a pattern company shouldn't agree. The alternative is really just that the entries about their patterns will look very sad - without images - if they don't grant permission. In that case, we'd have to use project images of people who agree - just like Ravelry does for patterns where permission isn't given or cannot be obtained.

Any case, I would bet that many will agree that a pattern company that gives permission to use the images will look a whole lot more friendly, confident and awesome than one that doesn't

So, the next step is to reach out to the pattern companies to get permission for the specific use case of their images that we need for the site. It starts with figuring out who exactly I need to contact. Pattern companies: be part of the awesome!

I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice. It's just some ramblings from a person running an emerging community website.