The accidental freelance fashion designer

I had notes on this I’d been writing all along but can’t find them. I hope I get the gist of this clear.

I’ve had the pleasure of making the ecquaintance of Patricia Keay, a freelance sewing illustrator. Officially an enthusiast, she’s come up with some ideas that could be marketable. Here’s a sample

She wrote me last week saying her design had become quite popular. She wrote an extensive review of her process and it garnered a lot of attention. I think she won a contest with this design. She first came to my attention with this second place entry (our friend Birgitte took first place in that contest). Anyway, interest in the depicted design seemed to warrant the possibility of profit, perhaps commercially and she wanted to know what I thought. What I thought might be viable and an idea that may also apply to you, comes down a little later so don’t go away until after we’ve dispensed the suggestions others proposed to her first.

The suggestions from enthusiasts were:

  • Patricia should sell single order copies of the pattern to other sewers
  • Sell the pattern to a pattern company
  • Arrange to make the pattern a free download from Burda
  • Arrange to make the pattern a free download from an unnamed site (proposed by the owner of that site).


Patricia knows what she’s willing to do and that doesn’t include becoming a pattern order filling business so selling the pattern herself (and possibly future ones) isn’t something she wants to do. Good on her for knowing. That left the last three options (as she saw it then).

I don’t know about selling to a pattern company (pt.1, pt.2); I do think she had an eye towards licensing it (her name be attached to it) However, she didn’t want to have to fiddle with royalties and just wanted a flat rate payment. They’d probably prefer that since she’s not a known personality in home sewing but they’d most likely only be interested in marketing it with her name if she had several other designs, similar to this one. Also, I don’t know what they’d pay and whether it’d be worth it to her. She didn’t mention a figure and I didn’t ask.

She didn’t like the free pattern download from Burda idea but I explained that just because it was free, didn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t buy it from her. In the end though, she decided she just didn’t want it to be free which also eliminated the possibility of free download on the other unnamed web site.

Now, my idea was that she consider selling it to a manufacturer. Just how she might do that is another story but bear with me for a moment. Manufacturers buy sketches all the time. It’s kind of dicey though because you never know how well the concept will translate into fabric so it could be a wash. Then, there’s the value, how do you determine that? In Patricia’s case, it’s less risky. She has a sketch, she has a pattern and she has a prototype. Furthermore, a good part of the value is quantifiable. Say a designer’s sketch is $500, well, where does the value of $500 come into it? However, Patricia could put a price on her package and the price would be based on the cost of the pattern, design, the sewing, materials etc. All of these things cost a manufacturer so this represents more value to them. If they liked the design, this could be a good deal for them. They have a prototype so they can fit it. They have the pattern so they could easily digitize it and make corrections. They’re a lot closer to the sampling stage, plus they know the idea translates well into fabric.

I’ve never been to one of those big trend shows like Première Vision but I’m going to the next one in September. My friend Sally says that at those shows, a lot of people are selling vintage garments for the purposes of copying; it’s cash and carry and for a lot of money too. The manufacturer buys the garment and makes a product similar to it for their lines. Sally has been telling me that we should get together and come up with some designs, make the pattern for them, produce a sample and have a booth at one of these shows because nobody else is doing that. She thinks the package design concept would go over well and she’d know better than I would (she worked in NY for 30 years). It goes without saying that these would obviously be exclusives, another benefit being they’d get the pattern on disk so they wouldn’t even have to digitize them. Anyway, I don’t know why more designers don’t sell their designs like this. I asked Zoe about this and she was kind enough to write an article about it (Working as a freelance fashion designer) but she says this isn’t something she does. She said

I have never offered a full package service. If I were to offer one today, I would cost it out like any other garment: figure out cost of materials minus what the client offers (“I’m going to provide the fabric because this is what we’re working with for Spring 07”), the cost of the spec package for future production, the cost for time and maybe services you wouldn’t do yourself (perhaps a sample maker), overhead (transportation, use of equipment) and add your markup….I know it can sound stupidly obvious, but I’d like to point out that you should never market yourself and promise anyone that you can offer services you’re not ready for. If they want a full package, you have to ask yourself “Do I know how to draft patterns? Make a sample? Do I know people who will do one for me? Do I even want to do that?” And remember that good pattern makers are always paid more than a designer. Garbage collectors are probably paid better than designers.

[OT: After she wrote that, I always wondered if garbage collectors did make more than designers who typically earn about $40,000 per year. By no means scientific, this site says garbage men do. Ack! It’s actually a dangerous job with a high rate of injury, definitely young man’s work.]

The point being, there’s nothing to keep a designer from developing packages. If you can’t make patterns or can make a rough one that needs cleaning up, there’s no reason you couldn’t hire it out. Hire someone to sew the sample. I’m really curious to see how packaging design services would pan out. I would also think that providing sourcing services (fabrics, trims, labor) could be another add-on value if the client needed it. I think I probably could have had a lot more sway with this guy if I’d had designs, patterns and samples lined up. What he was offering to pay was ridiculous.

Anyway, what do you think? Obviously if you have all these skills, you have lower costs in doing it all yourself. But then, how would you go about selling them? I would imagine that you could put them up on a website. Sure, someone could steal your ideas but the thing is, your package represents value. They’ll need to pay to have a pattern and a sample made and that takes time; buying the package from you that’s ready to go (for all intents and purposes) represents a lot more value than a design idea or sketch.

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6 comments

  1. Trish says:

    I have a number of friends who sell patterns online (however, they are very “small” patterns – they are all for fashion dolls.) Many of these website owners buy patterns from other designers.

    One friend works it this way. You make the pattern and the first prototype. You write the sewing directions. If the pattern needs a little clean up he will do that… then either you or he photograph the prototype for the picture that will accompany the pattern. Then he reproduces and packages the picture, the pattern and the directions. He (Denis Bastien) also maintains the website where the patterns are for sale. And he also drives business to his website in a number of ways, including attending conventions and getting a sales table to show his products.

    The “pay structure” is that you and Denis split the sales. He gets half and you get half. He was looking for patterns from some of my students who had created gorgeous garments for a competition we used to do for seven years. None of my students wanted to write the sewing directions so they never followed this opportunity. Later, Denis told me that in four months, one designer had received $1000 for her share of pattern sales. Wow, how about that… I mean after the pattern was created, the directions written, the prototype created… you are done and money can keep coming in for years.

    Kathleen, how does it make that paltry $150 a pattern sound now???

    Here is a link to Denis’ business… if anyone wants to take a peek. Remember these patterns are for various dolls.

    http://www.affordabledesigns.ca/ad07/ad07.html

    I posted all this because I thought that Denis’ marketing plan would work perfectly if someone wanted to start up such a business with people sized patterns.

    Kathleen, school is back in the “thick” and I hope to see you soon!!!!

  2. Natasha says:

    CNA’s are paid more than fashion designers. Sure you have to wipe butts and give bed baths but considering it’s a 6 week training course its not bad money.

    For the amount of money people spend on clothing and accessories fashion for most people doesn’t pay compared to effort put in.

  3. Tandelayo says:

    Fashion is an art, and if you have the passion to create beautiful clothing and come of with hot, sophisticated or any new stlye to add to the history of fashion line, then go for it. Yeah it is time consuming to create and deliver cloths. But a true designer really’s knows the reward in working on a creation from ground up and presenting it to the world. That is a personal achievement that can not be taken away from YOU. I highly doubt that any one loves to wipe butt for a living, so I would rather turn my pennies into nickles, dimes to hundreds and hundreds to thousand rather than be doing something I don’t love just for the money. And for the record cna’s make the same as some one at Mcdonald’s, so if you think 8.00 an hour is more than an fashion designer then it’s time to go back to school and redo your math!!

  4. elijah cane says:

    interesting info…what i would like to know is how to contact these manufacturers that purchase fashion design sketches. any and all info will be greatly appreciated.
    elijah cane

  5. Ellen Sheets says:

    I love this idea; I can design, make patterns, sew samples and source; but I never thought to make a package of it before! But this is exactly what I would like to do. I researched Premier Vision; are there any other shows you would recommend for marketing this kind of package? Thanks so much!

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