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

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Business Users and Identification - "Impressumspflicht" in Social Networks - German Law and Overall Ethics

In the context of building a sewing website, there are legal considerations that can and should not be taken lightly. In particular, when that website is run from Germany - which appears to have a comparatively strict jurisdiction and formal requirements.

After researching on legal requirements of doing business in Germany, I found that any website or social media profile run by a business must have an "Impressum" (site notice) that discloses who or what entity is running a site or social media profile. That goes for companies (or individual entrepreneurs) that offer services or goods to Germans as well as companies (or entrepreneurs) who reside in Germany.

As a German site owner who offers a platform where business owners can register and interact with non-business-owners, it is in my interest to make sure this is a safe place - for both involved groups (business and non-business). In order to encourage people who have to to obey the German law, I need to offer a place on your user profile where you can place an "Impressum".

An "Impressum" in the German legal sense contains, e.g., the VAT identification number, legal entity, CEO (if applicable), contact details, information about registration status at commercial registers.

Ok, so I added a funny field called "Business Identification" to people's profiles. It provides a space where you can fill in details about your business. What are the consequences? Actually, what the consequences are is something I'd like to discuss with you.

I'm currently working on figuring out what the terms of use of the site should say. I could set up terms of use in such a way that everyone who uses a profile to further their business needs to fill in the "business identification" field. Having this as a mandatory requirement in the terms of use would provide the greatest legal security for myself, since, any violation of "Impressumspflicht" (the legal obligation to have a site notice that complies with German jurisdiction) filed by a German competitor would involve a violation of the terms of use by the offending profile owner.

Legally, that means that if a German competitor would find a violation of "Impressumspflicht" by a profile on the site, they would need to take legal action against that profile and not against me as the person who just runs the site. But for that to work, I need to set up terms of use (and enforce them) in such a way that it is clear that I do not condone violations of "Impressumspflicht".

Personally, I do think that it is actually good to know who is running a business because it helps build trust. However, there are also disadvantages. I'm not sure I'm totally comfortable with sharing my business address (which is also my personal address) with all of the world - yet I'm doing it because I'm legally required to provide an address and because I'm too resourceful to see the point in renting an office. I'm all for letting people know that something is a business and giving them the relevant business details, though.

Business owners from other countries might not be legally required to share their address - and they might not be comfortable at all with doing so. Still, from what I understand different countries may have different requirements regarding the information that a business must disclose when it shows up on the Internet. As long as these non-German business owners do not target German customers, however, there seems to be no violation of "Impressumspflicht".

The actual probability for a non-German business to get sued by a German competitor for violating "Impressumspflicht" seems to be close to zero as long as you don't advertise and sell in German (i.e. you are not targeting German customers directly). If you, however, do target German customers, court rulings in Germany suggest that I as a site operator need to take measures to educate you regarding your responsibilities and risks - for the safety of both of us.

For legal reasons, I have to make expressly clear now that this is just a personal reflection on what I read on the internet. What I wrote is not to be taken as legal advice. I am not a lawyer.

What I need regarding this is your opinion.

  • Do you think it makes sense for business owners to be required to be upfront about their business details? 
  • If not, why?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Embedded Things are Everywhere

I've been looking at how we can easily embed images from Flickr/Photobucket/etc. But then I noticed... embedding videos isn't any bit more difficult and there's even more things that can be embedded. Here I list a bunch of ideas for embeddable widgets I could make at some point:

  1. Pattern/source page widget: A summary card that shows information about a pattern/source.
  2. Project page widget: A summary card for a project - only available when the owner of the project makes the project public and explicitly opts in.
  3. Sew-along widget: Shows projects that belong to a sew-along (opt-in).
  4. Upcoming events widget: We could make a big event calendar that could be filtered by groups / location - and a widget that displays the upcoming events (in your groups, or near you).
These would be for embedding on your blog or website - or on your social media profiles or wherever.

I'm wondering... what would you want to embed on a site? Currently, we have the ordinary things like.. videos and pictures. But... is there anything you can think of that should be embeddable on a sewing site? Is embedding even that interesting?

(To me, it's definitely interesting as a concept, but I'm not sure how much useful embeddable content there is apart from pictures and videos. Embedding just for the sake of embedding something is pretty pointless. To embed meaningfully, there needs to be content that actually makes things better by being embedded instead of a plain link.)

Friday, October 31, 2014

What Makes or Breaks a Sewing Pattern Database Entry

So... in my last post I mostly just said what is going on and that it's a massive task (building a huge database with information about sewing patterns). But I didn't really say how and why exactly we're doing it from a bird's-eye point of view. And I actually wanted to say something about how a good pattern entry looks like.


  1. Have you ever had difficulty finding a pattern for a project idea you had?
  2. Do you own a lot of sewing magazines and lose track of what patterns are in what magazine?
  3. Is your stash so large that you could use a site to help you organize it?
We're building a site where a lot of interesting sewing information comes together.

Patterns are linked to the sources (books, magazines) that contain them. Patterns are linked to their size charts so that you will be able to search for all patterns that use a certain size chart and are available in a certain size. We're indexing the data in such a way that you can really drill down into the search results to find exactly what you're looking for.

The center of the site are your stash your projects. But it doesn't end there. You can link fabrics and patterns (or even pattern views) - allowing you to move along these links to get to the related information. Add a magazine from the pattern sources database to your virtual stash and the site lets you browse all the patterns that are contained in your stashed magazines!

The magic lies in that the site understands dressmaking enough that it can give you this powerful search. A search that lets you actually find the things you're looking for - without having to click through a huge load of useless results (as found on Google when you're searching for patterns).

We're building something that you can truly make your own by setting up your own space for yourself and your friends within the site.


We're starting with a smallish set of tags (currently around 250) that can be attached to projects and patterns. These tags talk about sleeve length, neckline style, waistline style, and so on and so on. It's detailed enough to be able to do interesting pattern/project searches, e.g. for "ankle-length dresses with v-neckline and empire waist".

In addition to the tags recognized by the site, we can tag projects and patterns with any keywords we think suitable - and when we recognize a popular tag, we'll make sure to gather it (and all of its synonyms) into a site-wide category. The system is flexible enough to be able to handle that.

We're adding brands, publishers, magazines and books to the database and linking them up to the patterns. That lets us search for patterns by brand, by magazine, by book, by publisher. It's really quite simple.

So what does a pattern entry look like?

A pattern entry on the site currently consists of the following:
  1. A name. For commercial patterns sold in envelopes, there's often a pattern code - in this case, the name starts with the pattern code and proceeds with a short description of what the pattern is for, e.g. "2498 Dress".
  2. If applicable, the brand under which the pattern is published. The system automatically puts the brand name of the pattern in front of its name whenever the pattern gets shown.
  3. If applicable, the size chart of the pattern.
  4. If applicable, the designer(s) who designed the pattern.
  5. If applicable, the source(s) in which the actual pattern can be found (usually a magazine or book).
  6. If applicable, the fabric requirements of the pattern as specified on the pattern.
  7. The official URL of the pattern.
  8. A list of pattern properties. Pattern properties are things like whether it's a "paper pattern", a "print-and-tape PDF", or some "pattern drafting instructions", whether it's designed "for woven fabrics" or "for knit fabrics".
  9. A list of finished object attributes. These are the tags that describe the object that can be made from the pattern, i.e. here we have the tags mentioned in the previous section
  10. Optionally, a pattern can have several pattern views that each describe the different variants of the pattern specifically. While the finished object attributes recorded on the pattern apply to all the views, it's possible to add additional finished object attributes to the individual views. Having a system this flexible is particularly useful for patterns that have completely different views (e.g. pants and top).
  11. Optionally, a short description of the finished object(s).
  12. Optionally, additional notes about the pattern. Currently, we record fabric recommendations as well as notions requirements here.
At some point, we'll extend the system so it lets us record fabric recommendations and the list of notions needed in a searchable way.

What makes a good pattern/source entry?

A good entry...
  1.  has the relevant tags - so it can be found through the pattern search.
  2.  is named in such a way that it's easy to put it into your virtual stash. That is, it's named exactly like written on the envelope / magazine (wherever possible). When you enter something to your stash, you get a dropdown menu that lets you search through the names of the patterns.
  3. links to the specific brand that is displayed on the pattern envelope / magazine. I.e. when I'm adding a "Vogue Easy Options Custom Fit" pattern, I link it to the brand "Vogue Easy Options Custom Fit" - a sub-brand of Vogue Patterns.
  4. has projects attached. With your linked project, you're helping others to find out whether a given pattern is for them or not. You're also helping others with your notes on whether the pattern instructions are clear and whether there were any troubles with the pattern or not.
In short, a good pattern entry is useful. Anything that makes a pattern entry more useful makes it better. :)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Starting to Enter Patterns to the Pattern Database

The last weeks I have been busy figuring out how to make a halfway-decent faceted search. Making sure I can provide a real search for patterns was the most important thing for me - a database that isn't searchable won't realize its full potential. I've read up on a lot of technologies and libraries and found a setup that works. And I made a very simple pattern search.

Now that I know I can deliver the pattern search, the larger-than-life challenge begins: Filling the database with data. It's something I can't ever hope to achieve alone. There are some obvious reasons and some less obvious reasons why this task is so monumental.

There's no way I can record all the patterns

Let's start with a pretty straightforward point: When I look at Ravelry's pattern database today, I see almost 500,000 patterns. I think it is pretty safe to assume that the sewing world isn't much smaller than the knitting/crocheting world. Even if I spent only 5 minutes entering a pattern, I'd be busy for more than four years assuming that I'd need only 8 hours a day for sleeping/eating/showering and that I had all the patterns available to me.

There's no way I can hunt down every single pattern

Okay, so even assuming I somehow could enter things a lot faster the assumption that I have access to all these patterns is flawed: There are so many patterns that aren't even available anymore that I'd be hard-pressed to find them at all (my pattern stash is tiny). All these interesting patterns are out there. So let's look at what different types of patterns we have regarding availability:
  1. Patterns that are still available and can be found online.
  2. Patterns that are available but can't be found reliably online (they can still be ordered through a catalogue or bought at a store or obtained through eBay / Etsy / etc).
  3. Old patterns that are almost impossible to find (e.g. patterns for authentic historical garments).
There's really no way I can collect them all. :)

Even for the patterns that can be found online, data is lacking

So, case 1 (the pattern is available and can be found online) is a pretty good situation. Most pattern companies do have websites and you can find data about patterns on them. However, the quality of the (textual) data is often lacking. In an ideal world, I would find all the pattern data on the web page of the individual pattern in a way that I can simply import this and make it searchable. However, there are many official pattern pages that simply show images or have only very very little textual description of the pattern. Apparently, the pattern companies are lacking the resources to set up good web pages with all the information we'd want to see there (I'm sure they would make better web pages if they could - after all, they want us to find the (available) patterns.)

Okay, so what's the plan?


Regarding recording and finding patterns:

I suspect you know what I'm getting at here: No single person of us has a chance to record all the patterns - even just recording all those in your own stash can be a huge effort. But the more people come together and share, the less every single one of us needs to do.

Regarding the lacking quality of pattern data:

So.. what kind of data do we actually want for patterns? I think it would be awesome to browse for patterns and projects based on a common set of tags (and later also based on fabrics and fabric recommendations, as well as available size). For that, it helps a lot to
  1. record meaningful, standardized tags for each pattern.
We have a partially-complete set of such standardized tags on the site already - and we update this set as we discover new tags of common interest. Since every tag has a specific meaning, when you search through tags, you get very precise search results.

Why should I consider helping?

Have you ever helped someone who was searching for a pattern with specific properties for a project? This is similar: by recording patterns in a freely-accessible database, you're helping people find patterns in a highly scalable way - next year at the same time, when someone asks where to find a pattern you can point them to the database.

Do you have a huge pattern stash and need to get it organized? You have huge stacks of magazines and they pile up in your sewing space - yet at the same time, when you're looking for a pattern for your next project, you have trouble finding what you're looking for? On the site, you can record all your magazines, books and individual patterns into your "stash". In turn, the site gives you a search page that lets you search through all the patterns that are in your magazines and your books (as well as those you own individually).

Things are moving

We've just begun entering patterns. There is a lot to do in terms of building the functionality and the design of the site. There are a lot of great ideas what could be done.

Nowadays, (when I'm not blogging or making an account for someone) I'm constantly working on improving the pattern entering process and making things more usable. I'm very thankful for having people with me who can point exactly at the things that need to be improved.

Do you have a huge pattern stash? Are you a librarian in spirit? We could use your help if you can spare the time. :)

Monday, September 29, 2014

How Did You Learn to Distinguish the Myriads of Different Fabric Types?

I recently read an interesting blog post about fabrics at http://www.coletterie.com/fabric-haberdashery/choosing-fabric-weight-vs-drape. I'm pretty sure that what Sarai wrote in hat post is no big news to most of you. To me it was quite interesting - when you want to set up a site in such a way that we can classify fabric in a detailed enough way to get a useful search feature out of it, posts like this are very helpful.

Actually, when I read further through the comments on that post, I realized one more thing I had been struggling with: There is a myriad of different fabric types out there. While I can distinguish a few common ones, like batiste, crepe, organza, denim, I have trouble visualizing (and imagining the touch/drape/weight) the large majority of fabrics found in patterns' fabric recommendation sections.

That's when I started wondering... what if the site would aggregate information regarding these fabric types - what if you could look up what attributes the majority of fabrics of a given fabric type have? E.g. batiste is a fabric that commonly has the attributes "lightweight", "plain weave", "densely-woven" and it is often made out of cotton fiber?

How it would work... We note down the fabric type and all the attributes when we record fabrics in our virtual stash. At some point, there is enough data on the site, that a script can go through all the individual stashed fabric entries to extract information about what attributes fabrics of a given type have.

What do you think? How much time did you need to learn the ins and outs of fabric types?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What Was The Biggest Project You Ever Started (And Finished)?

It's time for some retrospection on projects, procrastination, perfectionism and the likes. So, let me start out with admitting that I used to have lots of trouble with procrastination. I'd always see the flaws and I had trouble being content with something I made. People expected a lot from me - and I was scared of disappointing them (and myself).

The biggest issue with procrastination and perfectionism seems to be the following:
  • to master any craft, you need to practice (often over years) - but when you don't dare to practice for fear of failure, you can't master the craft
Today I see the ability to see the flaws in something as an asset. And I learned - to a certain degree - to accept that what I make won't be perfect. I've also made it a habit to work on my craft every single day - even if it's just a little.

What about you? Have you ever had trouble with procrastination, putting off things to do them at a later time, or unwarranted perfectionism in general?

What was the biggest project you ever started (and finished)?

My biggest project I ever started isn't a sewing project. And I've come to terms with the fact that it will never be finished. Ravelry isn't finished - and likely won't be ever, either. Websites evolve. There's always a way to do things another iota better, there's always something useful that could be added. That's why I explicitly permit myself to let people see it before it is finished.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A "Ravelry for Sewing" Must Differ From the Original Ravelry

This post will appear incoherent and not make much sense unless you know the website Ravelry (here, I explain a bit about what it is and why it would be nice to have a similar site for sewing) and it's pretty much a follow-up post to this one.

Okay, so going forward with the project and asking for feedback was absolutely the right thing to do. I've met some really awesome people and there's a lot of discussion going on.

So, a very important observation is the following:
  1. You can't copy Ravelry 1:1 - it just won't work.
First off, I have to say that, despite just having said that you can't copy Ravelry as it exists, there exist parts of Ravelry that you can in fact copy 1:1 and they will work decently. Which parts do I mean? Let me list them:
  1. forums, groups and pages (they're intuitive to use, not too fancy and the traditional format simply works without stressing people out)
  2. projects (giving people the ability to upload pictures, write a bunch of notes and record data about their projects is pretty universal)
  3. profiles that let you link your blog feed
Okay, so there are parts you can copy, so why can't we just start with copying these and then build the rest and everything is great? Here's bunch of plain reasons:
  1. Implementing these is not the hard problem that needs to be solved in order to get a "Ravelry for sewing". 
  2. If you start this way, you'll be wasting a lot of time building all these things and then, after months of battle, you face the hard problem. So, now you're at a point where you poured all your heart and soul into building something and into reaching out for people to use the site - but it didn't take off yet because it's not much more than just another forums/groups/projects site. People simply aren't as impressed as you hoped them to be. You become disillusioned and the project fades away... It's a trap.
So.. what's the hard problem, actually? Let's face it: The hearth around which the Ravelry-community gathers is a comprehensive knitting/crocheting database that actively helps people organize their craft - the forums, groups and pages are just the inviting cushions around it where you meet and chat with others who are into the same crafts. In fact, only a part of Ravelry's userbase even uses the forums: there are people who come simply for its other features.
  1. The fact that people enter and share craft-related data freely and improve the entries in the database makes it possible to successfully search for things that would, otherwise, be nearly impossible to find. You can easily find "green yarns that are made of alpaca and polyester". You can easily get a huge list of patterns for "seamless, fingerless gloves", or, for that matter, lots of other much more involved queries.
  2. You can organize your stash and assign stashed yarns to your projects. This helps you keep track of what you're working on and what items are available to use for new projects.
  3. Through the database, Ravelry is able to give you smart suggestions about patterns others have used with a given yarn that you have stashed, or suggest yarns from your stash that could be used with the pattern you're looking at.
  4. And Ravelry does so much more on top of that.
So, between stash, projects and the yarn/patterns database, there is a huge synergy: People enter data into the database so they can link to that data from their stashes/projects. Through linking projects to database entries, the database entries themselves are enhanced: There's a tab that shows you all projects linked to a database entry.

Okay, so why I'm saying all this: I'm telling you what the hard problem is. It's building something that makes it possible to search successfully, that lets you keep track of what you're working on and what items are available to use for new projects. It's something that gives you smart suggestions.

And in this point, any "Ravelry for XY"-project will differ substantially from Ravelry. To enable smart suggestions, you need to build a system that understands the data by structuring it in the same way people think about the data. There's a word for that which is floating through the web since years: "Semantic Web".

And now comes the insight: People think about fabric in a completely different way than they think about yarn. So when you build a system that's supposed to give smart suggestions and answers, you engineer the database for that system with the questions in mind that people want answered:
  1. "What fabric from my stash can I use with this pattern?" (Here, the system must check which stashed fabrics have sufficient yardage to cover the fabric requirements of the pattern.) The converse "Which patterns from my stash can I use with this fabric?" works in a similar fashion.
  2. "What fabrics have others used when they made projects using this pattern?" "... and how happy were they with the result?"
  3. "Wow, I like this fabric, has this fabric recently been sold by a fabric store in my vicinity?"
  4. "Where is the location closest to me where I can take sewing lessons?"
  5. "Where can I shop a blue seersucker fabric that is 100% cotton?"
  6. There are countless more.
What's your question that you would like to have answered by the web?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

To Open-Source or Not To Open-Source...

When I posted on Reddit about that I'm building a Ravelry-inspired sewing database site, I got a bunch of very kind responses from developers that totally took me by surprise. It seems that there are people who would consider joining this project if it were open source.

Yet, I hesitate to open-source this project and I've been thinking about why I do.

The list of reasons I came up with is
  • I'm scared of people looking at my code and laughing. (Actually, I know that in the long run getting feedback on my code would help me improve my skills a lot. So this is more or less an irrational excuse.)
  • At the moment, I don't see my passion in coordinating a bunch of developers but rather in creating. I'm not sure I'd enjoy this journey as much as I do now if I'd be taking care of architecting a project with multiple contributors - whether I do would depend on how well I get along with the contributors I manage to rally.
  • I'm a bit of a control freak and definitely a strong introvert which might make it hard for people to deal with me.
  • I hate criticizing people. It makes me feel bad. I'm fine with receiving criticism, though.
  • I need to earn a modest income from the site at the latest in three years so I don't have to take on a regular day job that kills the project. Yet, I feel that me getting the "get-out-of-the-corporate-world-for-free-card" while everyone else gets nothing tangible wouldn't be fair to the open source contributors.
On the other hand, there's good reasons why going for a larger Open Source effort could be interesting:
  • With a bigger development team, we could completely transform the web for the sewing hobbyist scene - and also for pattern designers and small businesses. Both in much less time than I alone would need and on a larger scale.
  • I feel a lot better about being a part of an Open Source project than about raising funds from venture capitalists.
Still, there are more options than just "the big open source project" and "a closed-source one-developer-job":
  • I could do a Kickstarter to raise money to hire experts to code Open Source libraries for use on the site or to improve existing Open Source libraries I'd like to use if they had a certain feature. Though, I'm not a Kickstarter expert and I don't have good contacts into the Open Source scene.
  • More realistically, I could open-source potentially reusable parts of the site's code I'm struggling with and try to get collaborators/feedback for these parts.
What do you think?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Shopping With Your Stash in Your Smart Phone - Why don't People Use the Existing Stash Management Apps?

So... one thing that I've noticed is that people are really longing for something that helps in the following situation:

You're in the fabric store and can't remember what's in your stash.

So what happens in that case? There's a bunch of outcomes
  1. you buy a few cones of thread / patterns only to discover that you now have more than enough of them (while having excess thread in a given color might eventually be solved through using it up, having duplicate patterns means you just incurred something you'll eventually want to destash, i.e. give away or trade for something more useful)
  2. you remember a pattern for a project you want to make and buy fabric without knowing how much fabric exactly you need (this means either having excess fabric you didn't need or ending up short on fabric and cursing)
  3. you decide not to shop because you don't want to take the risk
People all seem to agree that the solution is to have an app on your smart phone that lets you keep track of your stash.

So, now you're 
  1. in the fabric store,
  2. get out your smart phone to check 
    • whether you can use the item,
    • how much fabric you need,
    • what colorways of a particular thread are depleted, and
  3. can shop or not shop with confidence.

Yet, while there seem to be several Android and iOS apps that claim they do let you do exactly that, very few people seem to use these apps.

So why aren't these existing apps welcomed with open arms, smiling faces and all that?

I have to admit that I haven't studied these applications in detail, I just browsed a few websites. And the impression I get is the following:
The applications are either
  • really basic, free and appear tedious to use, or
  • come with their own database that is maintained by the provider of the application and cost a good bit of money.

I believe that
  • the center piece of a good stash management application is a shared database of patterns, fabrics, notions, thread 
    • without such a database, entering all the data about your stash becomes a chore - and people would constantly repeat recording the same data in different ways
  • this database needs to be user-maintained
    • only when the database allows users to add and edit entries, there's a chance we can keep up with the influx of new items while keeping the stash management tool free to use for everyone

I'd be totally interested in hearing why you do or don't use existing stash management applications - and, in particular, which ones you've tried.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Community-Edited Databases - Libraries of the Internet?

So, first off, I have to say that - as a kid - I used to be the person who could be called a bookworm. I was reading all kinds of books all day long if you'd let me. Apparently, I even spent a large part of one of my birthday parties sitting under the table reading a book while the guests were out playing in the garden. Yes, I'm pretty weird. :)

So, I really like libraries - I spent a good deal of time reading their books. Then, the Internet came, and I was a child in a family of early-adopters - so I actually had access to the Internet. I was amazed and captivated.

Today I'm still amazed - and today I want to tell you about my take on community-edited databases. In some regard, they remind me of libraries: They categorize, they catalogue, they provide links, pointers and information. Similar to the monastery-dwelling scholars of old times, we now have people on the web who - on their own free accord - take up these important and useful tasks of bringing order into a mess of data. And I think that's amazing.

In http://mmitscotland.wordpress.com/2012/02/07/5-reasons-why-we-really-need-librarians-and-information-professionals-in-the-internet-age/, Louise Morrison argues why libaries/librarians are still needed, even with the Internet. I can't but agree with her.

Why is it that Wikipedia or Ravelry are such huge successes? It's because they fostered a culture of responsible editorship and it's because they made clear that they will always be free to use.

Why is it that many database sites fail? It's because
  1. they failed engaging the people who feel joy and purpose in categorizing and ordering data
  2. they failed in setting up the site in such a way that their volunteers can actually contribute easily
Am I making any sense?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I want a "Ravelry for sewing" - and the only way to get one seems to be to build it myself: Kaava - A New Sewing Stash Database Site

Aug 27th, 2014: It's been a while since my last post and that's due to me (+ family) moving from a small apartment into a bigger one. Since a few minutes, we have regular internet access again.

Nov 27th, 2014: I'm still here, things are moving forward and are starting to become useful. There's still a good deal of rough edges and unfinished parts, but things are definitely getting better - step by step. I'm fixing and improving what is brought up by people as important. I'm thankful I'm not alone in this. Thanks to the feedback it's easy to stay on course and do something useful every day. Basically, the plan at the moment is to add convenience features, improve the existing features and to tackle site design (which I'm a bit scared of because this is the first time I'm doing web design).

June 30th, 2015: In the beginning of 2015, I wrote terms of use and a privacy policy (not from scratch, but using some templates). Afterwards, the site went through its first redesign. Reason being that I was using too many third party libraries. I started from scratch, writing my own CSS/HTML instead of using heavyweight frameworks that were too big for me to handle. There's still a few third-party libraries I want to get rid off, but things are looking a lot easier and more maintainable. Now, in a lot of places where the site would lead you to a separate page with a form to edit your data, the editing can be done inline, right on the page. The design isn't particularly pretty, but at least it's consistent and easy to change. So much to do, but we'll get there, step by step.


Today I want to tell you that I think I'm crazy enough to join the crowd of people (yes, in the sewing world there already are a few sites) who build databases for patterns/fabrics/etc. Personally, I can't imagine living a "normal life" with a "regular job" and I'd so much love to see a sewing database that really, actually, works. And if, in a few years, I can use that site to learn how to make clothes that actually fit me that would be awesome.

Obviously, I can't be sure I'm the person that can make such a site work before I honestly try. Since April, I've been hacking away learning web development and figuring out a decent way to set up the database structure. In June I started talking to a bunch of really nice people from the "Sew Obsessed" group at Ravelry. They've provided so much useful input and dispelled a bunch of my false beliefs that I realized that there's no way I can build such a database while keeping all to myself until it's "done".

The reason I, as a non-knitter/-crocheter, found Ravelry was this blog post: http://sewaholic.net/a-cool-new-sewing-site-kollabora-plus-a-contest/. Well, actually it wasn't the blog post itself but the wonderful comments that people made. I'm really grateful I found this post when I searched for sewing sites.

So, I'm building a site. It's not done yet - actually, it's in a pretty unfinished state. I currently have rough sketches of
  1. a pattern database (with pattern sources and publishers)
  2. a designer fabric database (with brands)
  3. a thread database (with colorways)
  4. a local sewing store database
  5. projects that can be linked to patterns
  6. a basic stash management tool
  7. a basic measurements application
Sep 27th, 2014: I've found that the best way to get this to a point where it becomes useful quickly is to start out with the pattern database (patterns and pattern sources) + projects + stash (patterns, sources and fabrics) as core features. So, the fabric database and thread database are gone for the time being - to make a reappearance when the rest of the site works well enough. Since my focus is on dressmaking, there's no reason yet to compete with the existing fabric databases. I think it would be awesome to have a site that allows you to see what kinds of fabrics others used in their projects for a particular pattern - and that lets you browse for projects that use similar fabrics to those you have. So, fabric-project-linking turns out to be a top priority for the site to launch with.
The site is barely functioning and design is mostly missing. Many things need structuring, so it's really a construction site. There's a bunch of things but all of them are pretty unfinished. I think that understanding the proper structure for a sewing database is something that should be done early on, before people add a lot of data and we all suddenly discover that things don't work out well and deep changes need to be made in retrospect.

I'm gathering all my courage to show it to some people so they can comment and tell me about things that don't work or need to be changed to work better. If you feel you could be such a person, drop me a short eMail. I'll let you know how and where you can access the site with a test account.

The reason why it takes me so much courage to do this is that I'm not really an experienced web developer. I spent the last years of my life doing research on formal verification, hardware construction and other obscure computer science stuff. All I know about actually doing web development I learned since I started with this in April. I'm learning new things every week I keep working on the site. Yes, having a general computer science background does help learning all these things pretty quickly, but it's no substitute for actual experience. Basically, this means that, if you can precisely say how something should behave, I'll learn how to build it that way. Learning something new is always easier when you know the precise result you want to achieve.

Then, there's web hosting which I've never personally dealt with before either. That's the reason why there's just a test account right now. I can't let anyone make accounts with their own passwords before I haven't consulted with someone who knows more than I do about setting up secure web hosting and until I have learned enough about that topic.

(Edit Aug, 28th, 2014: Actually, the site is behind SSL with a self-signed certificate at https://kaava.net now and I can let you have an account with your own password. Still, make sure you don't use a password you use anywhere else. This goes for every web site in the world out there, btw. - I wrote most of this post in July before the move and some things have changed since then.)

Still, I have made something that I think might show a glimpse of how things could be - even if it's not yet in a really usable or final shape. If you join me in this effort, it means that I will listen to your ideas on how things should be. You can help shape the future of the site by warning me of things done badly (by me or by other sites) and by pointing out things worth copying (conceptually, not literally) from other sites. Since people do sometimes have contradicting opinions and interests, I can't promise I'll do everything you say - I'll listen to everyone and take your views into account when deciding how to develop the site in such a way that it works for most people who are into dressmaking.

When you look at my other posts, you'll find it's obvious that I'm seriously impressed by Ravelry. They chose a path where they truly put the users of the site first (and it shows in their advertising model). Obviously, for a new site any such path will be a different one because the situation is different - but the only way to find and follow that path is through the people who feel they could use the site.

Drop me a short note to take part in this journey. I'd be happy to have you on board to make sure we get a useful sewing site up.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

My Beautiful Stash - On Fabric, Pattern, and Notions Hoarding

One thing I've always found both puzzling and understandable at the same time has to do with stashes. I'm neither the first nor will be the last to observe that there seem to be a lot of people who have a large sewing stash. At least there's a good deal of wonderful testimonials from people who do, like "Fabric Stashing and Pattern Hoarding" from Sarah Liz , "Am I a Fabric Hoarder?" from Justine, "Stash or Fabric Hoarding?" from Kathy Mathews, or "Fabric Collector or Hoarder" from Kathleen Tracy.

Actually, I discovered that I have a budding stash myself. I'm one of these people who stand in the store, think "oh, what a wonderful fabric" and then feel I need to buy it. My stash is comparatively small, though. It merely fills two big drawers (or, for that matter, removal crates). I seriously have to be careful not to go fabric shopping too much, and rather use what I already have in a good way. Still, just having these fabrics and looking at them is nice.

So, when I noticed this, I investigated.. and I found that this phenomenon of "hoarding" things is really a pretty common human trait. People collect, organize and keep all kinds of things - and it's all good as long as it doesn't become too extreme or other issues come into play. There really seem to be different aspects that must be present to become what people commonly call an "obsessive compulsive hoarder":
  1. "persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to them" (as stated in the Independent article)
  2. to really grow a true "collection", there needs to be a constant influx of items
I personally can relate somewhat to the former, I really sometimes have trouble letting things go. Throwing away scraps of fabric can be hard sometimes (when I think I could still use them for something). Still, I do manage to throw away most of the things I don't need anymore. I also consider myself lucky in that I'm very careful with buying new things - if I were more lenient there and would keep buying things, I'd definitely be at risk of accumulating a huge "collection".

Still, with the term "hoarding" there seems to be all these negative associations, because apparently, because people say "hoarding" when they really mean "obsessive compulsive hoarding". I can see how hoarding can burden your life when it's done in an extreme fashion, however, collecting things of a particular kind in an orderly fashion is obviously considered a socially acceptable pass-time (e.g. consider coin collectors, stamp collectors, etc.).

Actually, I think the most beautiful stashes are created by people who have at most a mild case of 1) and who do 2): You keep acquiring beautiful new things regularly, but when you notice you have too much, you let the less beautiful things from you stash go (e.g. by giving something away, selling, or swapping generously). Since you manage to confine your stash to a restricted space (e.g. a few cabinets), it can't grow to a point where it starts affecting your life in a bad way.

Whether I find a stash beautiful does not depend on size at all: For me, it's about diversity and the beauty of individual items. When you buy a big bag of zippers wholesale, you get exactly that: a big bag of zippers which are all very much alike. Yet, I think that what makes life interesting is things and people being unique. In order to get a really diverse stash, you either need to be shopping lots of small packages, or you discover the awesome world of swapping: You give away something that is boring to you, and you get something exciting and unique back.

At some point, stashes can grow so big that you need a system to organize them. Even I with my small stash have had to rummage through it to find a particular fabric. Stash organization seems to consist of two main things: 1) Setting up cabinets, shelves and boxes in which fabrics, notions and patterns can be conveniently stored, and 2) strictly maintaining a particular order in which items are placed therein. In addition, some people seem to keep lists of all their inventory.

What do you do to keep your huge stash in reign? Do you even have a huge stash or are you able to resist the beckoning of fabrics to be bought or obtained? Do you keep a spreadsheet? Do you use Evernote? Or does keeping a strict order in the shelves suffice? Do you use one of the Ravelry-inspired sites (threadbias.com or mysewingcircle.com)?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Another New Kid on the Sewing Blog (Space) Says 'Hi'

Ummm... hi! I'd like to shout a friendly hello to all Sewcialists (from sewcialists.org) and everyone else who is into sewing. I'm just a new kid on the block (or blogosphere?), so I suppose it's best to tell you a bit about who I am and why I'm here.

I'm a woman in her early thirties. I'm a mother of one son. I consider myself on the path of becoming a decent developer (I'm a computer science graduate that doesn't have much real-world hands-on experience yet - apart from a few personal projects). So, you might wonder... "what is she doing here?", and rightfully so. Well, I've always wanted to get into sewing - I have a sewing machine, and I have made a few dresses. I enjoyed it a lot, but I'm really just a beginner - with all the ignorance and misconceptions that tends to come with just being a beginner. :)

There's really two reasons why I'm here:
  1. I would like to learn more about sewing and pattern making so I can some day make clothes for me that really fit (and tell others of my journey), and
  2. I want to build a great web site for people who sew.
So, on the one hand, I'm out here to learn from you, and to document my personal sewing journey. And on the other hand, I'm making an attempt at understanding the world of sewing on the Internet - I'd love to discuss my observations with you.

To say a bit more about myself... I'm a pretty strong introvert, I really have trouble interacting with people socially just for the sake of having a good time. I really prefer to observe, to think, and to create. I've always been like that.

If I want to make a dent into the Internet in a good way there's no way I can achieve that without talking to people - in particular when I want to make that dent in a space where I'm everything but an expert (enthusiasm can compensate for a lot, but a lack of experience is not one of the things it can compensate).

That's why I'm reaching out.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why is it so Hard to Find the Right Pattern?

One thing I have observed is that it seems to be pretty difficult to find the right sewing pattern, in particular, when you have a particular idea what you want to make. Here, I ponder why.

When you look around in sewing communities and forums, there is one thing you will invariably find: Threads (or even whole subforums) dedicated to finding the right pattern for a project. People seem to have pretty specific ideas of what they would like to make. Someone who isn't into sewing might wonder why these people don't just use search engines to find what they're looking for. I'll tell you why.

The reason is... it's nearly impossible to find these patterns using regular search engines. Search engines as of today are decent for finding one thing: The content of web pages. So, for the search engines of today to find a pattern, it needs to have a web page. But that alone is not enough: That web page must describe the pattern using the words of the person searching for the pattern -- and since natural language is a very flexible beast, two different people will search for the same pattern using completely different words.

So, we know that the pattern needs to have a web page with a lot of text (since the search engine only understands text) that describes the pattern using the words of people searching for it. Now is a good time to look at an average pattern web page. Here is a link to a Vogue pattern on McCall's site. The complete description of the pattern comes down to:
MISSES' DRESS: Lined, princess seamed, flared, floor length dress has underskirt (which is part of lining), fabric loops, buttons, invisible zipper closure and pleated ruffle with lace trim. Attached foundation has boning. Purchased petticoat.
 Amazingly, if we open Google to search for "princess floor length dress bridal pattern" the web page of this pattern even shows up on the first page of the search results. However, if we add the term "Carmen neckline" to our search, the pattern is gone from the first page of the search results, despite the pattern clearly having this neckline style. The search engine simply can't see what's on the picture -- and there is no text about a Carmen neckline on the page.

Another issue with using regular search engines to search for patterns is that when you search for a pattern, you'd ideally like to see images of finished objects made from the pattern. So, you type in something into the search engine, you get a long long list of websites and now what? If you're not discouraged yet, you start checking out the websites that look like they might contain information and pictures on the patterns.

So, if people actually can't use search engines to search for patterns effectively, what else do they do to find patterns? There seem to be the following options:
  1. look at pattern catalogues
  2. ask other people if they know a pattern that matches the description
  3. check out sewing websites where people post about their sewing projects
Looking at pattern catalogues in my book means on the one hand side looking at the pattern catalogues that are present in sewing stores and on the other hand to browse through the web sites of the individual pattern companies. Asking other people can, e.g., be done in person or by posting a thread in a sewing forum. Lastly, there seem to be several websites that allow people to post about their sewing projects and they sometimes tell you what pattern they used.

Maybe I'm just totally not getting how to search for a pattern properly, but maybe I'm right and this world is as crazy as it seems. It would be so much easier to search for patterns if there was a sewing pattern database with a proper search.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How I Would Use a "Sewing Ravelry"

In my very first blog post, I wrote about a few possible reasons for why I think there is no "Ravelry for sewing". This time, I want to tell you what I personally would use such a site for.

To put this into the right context, I first need to tell you more about myself. I'm really just a sewing beginner, I've sewn only a handful of garments and they are, on average, pretty simple and definitely not well-crafted - I simply lack the practice to get my seams straight and I think there's a good deal of sewing tricks or best practices that I simply haven't learned about yet. Sewing is for me a craft about which I keep thinking... "how awesome would it be to be able to make clothes for me that look good and fit".

Despite being just a beginner, I already have a small fabric and notions stash (it fits in two large drawers, so compared to some other stashes, it's really pretty small). It seems to me that it's pretty easy to fall in love with a fabric in the fabric store or at a fair. Ordering smallish packages of wholesale notions is also a lot of fun. Despite the really quite tiny size of my stash I already had trouble remembering where I placed a particular fabric - I had to rummage through both drawers to find it at the bottom. Sounds like I could maybe use a Ravelry-like stash to organize my stuff, at least if my stash keeps growing.

Actually, I like a lot how Ravelry lets independent designers sell patterns through the site. One thing I don't like about fashion in the real world is how someone else decides what I'm supposed to like. So, what I would love to have is a place where people can ask for patterns to be made - some kind of "Wanted Board" where people can post descriptions and drawings of garments they would love to wear. Independent designers could look at the Wanted Board to get inspiration for new patterns and they could be sure that there are people interested in buying what they're creating.

If I were looking for a "V-neck dress with a ruffled A-line ankle-length skirt", I could actually find it in the pattern database, by selecting a bunch of easy-to-use filters. This would be a huge improvement over the current way to search patterns - which seems to revolve around browsing a ton of pages, or asking the experienced crowd in forums for their pattern suggestions. To me, the ability to find the right pattern with much less hassle sounds like one of the biggest uses of a "Sewing Ravelry". I might be missing some clever way to find patterns online, though. Do I?

One particular thing that I like about Ravelry is how knowledgeable and genuinely nice the people on there are. It's really a place that breathes kindness, somehow. The whole site doesn't make me feel as if there is someone trying to sell me something I don't want or need right around the corner. Does this sound strange to you? It feels safe to post on the forums - and there's a lot of useful discussions on there. Also, a lot of people seem to have interesting blogs.

So, I think I could personally use such a site to
  1. organize my stash (maybe, I'm not 100% sure)
  2. get designers to make patterns for my dress ideas
  3. buy patterns directly from their designers
  4. find patterns more easily
  5. lurk in the forums and read blog posts to learn more about sewing
If you think you need a Ravelry-like site for sewing, what would you use it for?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Why is there no "Ravelry for Sewing"?

Ravelry is possibly the most loved web site on knitting and crocheting. It is a site that, since its inception in 2007, quickly grew to become the first stop on the web for information on knit and crochet patterns as well as yarns. However, it is much more than that: It is a social community that allows users to form their own groups. It is a place where people can keep track of their knit and crochet projects - as well as share experiences and pictures related to these projects. Built on its huge, user-contributed pattern/yarn database, the site offers a tool, called 'stash', that helps knitters and crocheters organize their yarns and patterns. Beyond that, Ravelry is a place where pattern designers can sell their patterns as PDF-files right through the site.

Unfortunately I personally only learned about them very recently - I missed the opportunity to watch them grow. Still, despite not being a knitter or crocheter at all, to me the site feels like a beacon of sanity in an insane world.

In the rest of this post, I share my observations on
  1. What I think are the main reasons that contribute to Ravelry's sucess, and
  2. I discuss some possible reasons why there is no "Ravelry for sewing" yet.
I already know that, in the first iterations of this post, I will likely not be able to provide a comprehensive list. However, if you have something to add, please comment. I'd be glad to incorporate your comments to compile such a list.

Things that Make Ravelry Great

  1. It is built on mutual respect, a small set of sane rules is enforced.
  2. It has a well-structured database with links between database entries,
  3. It has a powerful search interface, 
  4. It gives users the ability to edit the database (with very few restrictions),
  5. It generates so much value from its database that its members actually add and improve data,
  6. It gives designers useful tools for promoting and conducting their business in the appropriate setting,
  7. The ads displayed on it are tasteful and interesting,
  8. Its forums are simple to use and unobtrusive,
  9. It favors usability over design,
  10. It's a down-to-earth family-operated business.
(Sorry, some of these are pretty subjective.)

On the one side, Ravelry has rules against unsolicited advertising in the main forums and in database entries. On the other side, Ravelry requires that critique should be given to the owner of the discussed item first - and that it should be constructive. There are strict rules against libelous comments - posters must back up their claims with facts. (While there are laws against slandering others in many countries, when one looks at what's going on on many web sites, one can easily forget that these laws exist. It's refreshing to see that the founders of Ravelry have achieved the not-so-small feat of building a community that, at large, cares.)

Looking at Ravelry's yarn and pattern database, one sees that it does not only contain the yarns and patterns themselves. It also records publishers (of patterns), sources (of patterns, e.g. books, magazines, ...), yarn brands, pattern designers, local yarn stores, and several more. At first this might look overly complicated, but in reality it's not - it's simply modeling the situation we have in the world out there. Organizing and recording all this data is the prerequisite for linking things: Pattern sources contain one or more patterns. Patterns can be contained in sources. Yarn often has a brand, and people can link the local yarn store they bought their yarn from in their yarn's stash entry. Projects can be linked to patterns. What I'm preparing to get at here is that Ravelry is organized pretty much like a spider web. Nearly everything that can be linked is linked and you can traverse this web of information easily by following the links between items.

Since the database items are structured so well, you can easily search for yarns by their fiber content, color, brand, gauge, recommended hook/needle size, and many many more aspects. Despite offering so many ways to filter the search results, the user interface is pretty intuitive and has a clear and consistent layout.

When you find a record that is not quite perfect, Ravelry allows you to edit and improve it. In that sense, it's similar to Wikipedia - anyone can edit, and if someone makes a mistake not all is lost because the site remembers all earlier versions of a page. Changes can, if needed, be reverted. However, some database entries, namely those where there is a dedicated owner, cannot be edited freely.

Ravelry actually provides people a great incentive to add data to the site: When you want to record all the patterns you own to keep a complete inventory of what you have, it's quite natural to just add the patterns the site doesn't know yet to the database. The site lets you link any pattern in the database from your personal stash. By offering the stash tool for free, Ravelry encourages the users to contribute to the site's database - and the users actually gain something useful in return.

Independent designers can open their own sub-communities (called 'groups') to keep in touch with their customer base. For free. They get their own discussion board, wiki pages, etc. They can sell PDF patterns directly to Ravelry members through the Ravelry pattern store. They can pay for advertising on the site at affordable rates.

Ravelry's ads don't blink, don't automatically redirect, and, resultingly, don't cause epileptic seizures. The ads are not littered all over the place, they have their dedicated, unobtrusive spots. Best of all, the adds come mostly from small business owners in or adjacent to the knitting and crocheting space.

Similarly, forum posts don't blink, there is no armada of emoticons hopping all over the place, the forums remember up to which point you've read, and they're easy to use. While this may sound like a really weird thing to say, I think this strict banning of blinking stuff seems to attract a very friendly and, possibly, more mature and experienced crowd.

One pattern that becomes obvious when using the site for a while is that the focus lies foremost on usability - design comes secondary. Links are highlighted on mouseover, boldly enough to clearly communicate that this is something that could be clicked. Important buttons are placed prominently. Default settings, like the number of items displayed in search, or the style in which the search results are displayed make a lot of sense. Different aspects of a page, such as the comments or projects attached to patterns, are organized neatly in tabs. I'm pretty sure there are more aspects that I don't even realize consciously.

My last point on the list is that I personally like how Ravelry is a small, family-operated business - and that they intend to keep it that way. Looking at the size of Ravelry's user base and the amount of page views they have, it's pretty obvious they could cash in big on what they built in several ways: They probably get offers to sell the whole site, they could run (the annoying) ads from big ad networks that pay more, they could start charging for their free services... But they have decided to go their own way that feels right to them - as a small team with a generous and friendly mindset. And I think that, simply by doing that and by being who they are, they attract a similarly nice crowd.

Why There is no "Sewing Ravelry"

  1. "Ravelry is gigantic",
  2. "There are too many sewing communities already",
Ravelry as it is today is gigantic, both in terms of its user base and in terms of its technical complexity. While it has been built mostly by a single developer, it's obvious that he's both competent and that he spends time consistently improving and extending the site. Anyone who steps up to the challenge of making a Ravelry-like site for another craft has a hard time comparing favorably in several regards:
  • Starting a new site with a single dedicated full-time developer means it will take a long time to get the site to the point that it doesn't look completely bad compared to Ravelry. Starting a new site with several dedicated full-time developers means that there's more mouths to feed and, thus, the site needs to make more money - which usually means more aggressive ads, higher commissions on pattern sales, and all that comes with making the step from a "small family-operated business" to a "niche startup".
  • Ravelry's pattern+yarn database is huge. Building a similar database for sewing patterns and designer fabrics needs both time and people who are motivated enough to do it. Since there already exist several databases for sewing patterns, it's likely not totally easy to motivate people to enter information to a new database. While the existing databases all have shortcomings regarding their searchability, these shortcomings could be remedied by their operators by changing the database structure - still, adding the missing records and links will nonetheless require a huge community effort.
People who say that repeating what Ravelry did is impossible often say that "there are too many sewing communities already". Maybe they are right, I do not know. I don't know how the situation with knit and crochet communities was when Ravelry appeared. Were there really no significant knit and crochet communities?
It's definitely true that there is a bunch of sewing communities that are pretty large (but still small compared to Ravelry). And people get used to their communities - both in terms of getting used to the web site's layout as well as getting used to the people they encounter there. People who are already busy within their existing communities might just not be interested in joining another one that is, in the first years, not as polished as the existing ones.

Actually, the ultimate reason why there is nothing that compares to Ravelry for the sewing world is that no one made it. Several people tried, but the undertaking is so massive that it's very very hard not to get discouraged at some point on the way. The basic recipe seems to be:
  • to have a full-time developer available to work on the site
  • to keep managing the budding community
  • to understand how people think and feel about things, how they organize their stashes, how they search for patterns, etc. - to a large degree, inspiration can be taken from Ravelry, but there is a good amount of things that need to be pondered, analyzed and adapted to properly capture and link sewing-related information
Following this basic recipe is surprisingly hard. For a single developer, building something similar to Ravelry is a monumental task and requires someone who doesn't resist learning all of the different technologies that are needed to build such a site. Keeping a sufficiently capable developer available to work full-time on the site means that it's important to make sure the site quickly earns enough money to keep them from having to take on a regular day-job to feed their family.

Good community managers are hard to come by. It takes someone with a good judgement, a way with words and people, the ability to deal with drama and resolve conflicts, and an overall helpful and positive attitude. Not everyone can do it (at least I'm pretty sure I can't). As the community grows, the community manager also needs to recruits volunteer moderators from the user base.

Understanding how people think and feel can actually be quite difficult. Yet it's very important for everyone who creates a web site. It doesn't help if you have a site that can do anything, has the greatest features and all that, but somehow has a design or layout that irritates and confuses people. Likewise, you can have site that feels good to use, has great people on it, but the technical foundation just doesn't allow you to do what you need to do. Both these sites don't realize their potential.

I think that the reason why we don't have a "Ravelry for sewing" is that a lot of qualifications and dedication needs to come together in a very small team with a very specific set of moral standards. There definitely are people who tried, or are still trying.

Actually, there is a wonderful blog post on just this topic already. I just wanted to add my personal view.

What's your view on why there is no "Ravelry for sewing"?