Starting a home sewing pattern company

This is a bit off topic but when has that ever stopped me? Seriously, I don’t know of any resources on the web that provide both comprehensive and legitimate information. I’ve gotten several questions on this, here’s the latest:

Kathleen, maybe I’m off my rocker for wanting to do this but I am interested in starting a small independent pattern company. My search for someone to develop the patterns for the home sewer has come up empty. I find lots of information for people and companies like yourself.

I don’t think you’re off your rocker, this a great business option. While not without its challenges, there’s still room in the market depending on your product quality, USP, styling, demography and marketing.

The point of not being able to find “someone to develop the patterns for the home sewer” is probably the one thing that gets me going. There’s no reason you can’t use industry services too. Having reviewed the range of products from more independent home sewing companies than I can count, quality can be a problem and among those who provide services to them, fees are exorbitant. Most “home drafters” don’t know accepted standards of practice and will think they’re entitled to royalties. I don’t see why you have to find and hire a “home drafter”. I have to give you points though, most people who start these companies feel they must be their own pattern maker and that’s silly. If you started a restaurant, would you be the only cook? You’d never sleep. The writer continues:

I don’t have a problem with garment industry construction techniques because I know it is more efficient, but the pattern drafter would have to be able to give instructions for someone who is not going to necessarily have a serger available.

There are several things going on here. First, it doesn’t necessarily hold that the pattern maker is the one who writes instructions. I wouldn’t say none do, just that most don’t. It’s not our job. Not to say we can’t but you’ll most likely have to contract for that in addition to the job. In the usual course of affairs, we’re making patterns for customers who already know how to sew. Any instructions -at best- amount to a list of seam specifications for a given seam. I wouldn’t let this stop you though. If you hired the right service that was using the right software, instruction making is dramatically simplified. You could also do it yourself. How comfortable are you with software? Patternworks Inc is softly launching Style File that will perform these functions. If this isn’t your speed or within your budget, you can hire an illustrator. It’s best to hire one who sews and can make patterns. I recommend Danielle. Your last option is to take photos as you make one (you will have to test those patterns no matter who makes them) and put it out on CD. Create a pdf and let users print it out if they want. I don’t know why nobody’s doing that. That’s what I’d do.

Second, the matter of not having a serger is a red herring. Just as your sizing cannot be all things to all people, neither can your pattern nor design of construction. One problem with the big four pattern companies is that they’re too broadly-based. Independents are successful for targeting niches. A case in point is Kwik Sew. Lack of sergers doesn’t seem to be hurting them any. Why must your patterns be designed to cover every possible contingency? I think that’s what’s wrong with the big four. I understand the tendency of people to want to attempt to garner the largest possible share of the market by covering as many bases as possible but you can’t, so why try? If DEs are most successful if they’re highly targeting their market, why would home pattern companies be any different?

Third, industrial pattern makers are accustomed to designing patterns specific to equipment. Just as a designer must provide information about the equipment being used to sew, so must you. You have two choices. One is to specify the standard allowance of 5/8″ or you consider one aspect of USP (below) and vary them.

Fourth -regarding the issue of USP– is specificity because prolepsis is an exercise in futility. While there’s dunces in any crowd, home sewers aren’t stupid. Those who don’t have sergers and who are likely to buy independent patterns, have already figured the work arounds for serger dearth. If they haven’t, or they don’t have sergers, they’re not likely to be a customer you want based on your product description (later). You know, you could do something different and have production quality patterns. A unique proposition is that your styles would sew up better and faster. Of course you’d have to learn how to do what you didn’t know but what’s the harm in that? It’d give you a leg up over so many others. Our methods aren’t harder, they’re easier. And like I said, based on your product type, you should shoot for a better class of sewer.

With respect to targeting your customer demography, in my book, I make designers fill out a worksheet on customer demography and needs. I suggest you do the same. What kind of equipment does your customer have? What are their fitting needs? What are their sizing needs? How much money do they have? These are all things to consider when marketing your patterns.

I’m just now getting back into sewing and found the lack of glamorous evening wear (i.e. nightgowns, peignoirs, robes, etc.) disappointing. What has happened to it.? As a married forty something I would love to have beautiful things to wear at home and have that 1940’s sophistication.

Personally, I like your product idea. I think your customer should be more sophisticated in both skills and tastes. Done well -meaning you get a reputation for quality- you’ll be fine. You won’t have a problem getting someone to try them out (that doesn’t mean giving them away, I recommend you don’t). The ladies on Pattern Review jockey amongst themselves to be the first discoverers of anything new pattern-wise and they’ll race each other to sew something of yours up before anyone else, all in the name of friendly competition. I wouldn’t even worry that a bad review would hurt you (unless it’s valid and goes uncorrected) because an unnamed party says she got slews of bad reviews and everybody had to buy them just to see why there were so bad. Not that I recommend crap of course.

In sum, while it’s not common, there’s no reason you can’t hire an apparel industry pattern maker. There’s many advantages to it. I don’t know how much money you have, how many you plan to print or how you plan to print them. I recommend using someone with CAD. The print out is very clean and neat. Figuring out allocation is practically mindless. No one will expect royalties because it’s assumed you want to use it for commercial purposes. Why else would you hire us?

If it were me, I’d produce very exclusive and complex designs for a sophisticated customer with well above average income. I would charge at least two or three times as much as existing patterns. I would stay far away from the customer who sews to save money because my customer’s primary aspiration would be to acquire better skills. Most patterns for enthusiasts aren’t that great, they are perceived as a commodity and you can buy them for a dollar on sale at Wal-Mart. Coffee is a commodity too but consumer perception of its commodity status has changed. Coffee can be pricey (Starbucks) or inexpensive (Denny’s). As with coffee, I think there’s room in the market for a premium pattern line. I imagine a lot of consumers would squeal over pricing but I would limit my liability by not committing to a large print run without any sales (guidelines for patterns and clothes are no different; see my book). Considering the price I’d be charging, I wouldn’t have a lot of orders at the outset so I could print them on my plotter to order. Having these plotted isn’t very expensive. While I can do it less expensively myself, I have a friend who will plot for $1 a linear yard. I don’t know how much capital you have to put into it, but this could be an option for you too.

I can also tell you I wouldn’t spend anything on envelope art, or even marketing at the outset beyond a website. Since I’d only be selling over the web, customers would buy based on the illustration or photos on the website. At most I’d provide a black and white technical sketch for the pattern. My plan probably wouldn’t work for you but I’m sure you can find some middle ground between the two extremes.

Starting a home sewing pattern company pt.2
Using CAD to produce home sewing patterns
Why pattern makers don’t want to grade patterns
Sending patterns off for correction
Sending patterns off for digitizing

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  1. Anita says:

    Thank you!! This is so timely for me, as I’m also contemplating a similar venture. I’m still feeling my way around things and this post really helped clarify some things for me. Thanks for once again sharing your industry expertise.

    Do you have any recommendations on the best way to approach people (or the best people to approach, for that matter)to test out patterns? I’m planning to try out a few patterns myself, but if I turn out to be no good at it, at least I know what kind of people to look for to do it right ;-)

  2. Natasha Estrada says:

    I think most serious home sewers nowadays have sergers. I’ve see sergers go for as little as $200 (can’t say if they are good or not but I digress) so I don’t think its necessary to have instructions based on no serger. If fact thats a turnoff for me. I have a serger and seperate coverstitch and by god I want to use them

  3. Marilynn says:

    Here’s my 2 cents. There is a book, “Publish Your patterns!” by Nancy Restuccia (2001) and it’s available on Amazon. I have it and it’s very thorough, but was written for craft items. It’s a very good resource, listing pattern printers and publishers. For the woman wanting more sophisticated retro styles, check out http://www.evadress. and http://www.decadesofstyle; both have re-sized vintage patterns to contemporary sizes and have lots of great patterns. I would not worry at all about serging. A homesewer will use it when and where she chooses. If you want to separate yourself from commercial, mark 3/8″ or 1/2″ seam allowances (on the pattern like vintage patterns so it makes them easier to see where to modify) and she’ll love you — maybe you could illustrate how to modify your darts, too. And, the most sophisticated seamstress is a more mature woman, who probably is more than a B cup and a slightly thicker waist. Check out Connie Crawford’s patterns for Butterick — she’s done her homework well. Her patternmaking book’s are excellent too. Promise you won’t make another baggy jacket, please! Join American Sewing Guild go check out what they’re buying and sewing — there’s always a homesewing trend of some kind. Kits seem to be in — pattern, plus fabric plus notions so you don’t have to think really hard!!! Lotsa luck!

  4. Kate W says:

    I don’t agree with Natasha about serious home sewers all having sergers. I have a good friend who is a very serious home sewer (she makes all of her own clothes, including professional-looking suits) and has just a regular zig-zag machine. I think some people just don’t care about “gadgets.”

    For that matter, I know another woman who has been supporting herself very nicely for over thirty years making custom wedding gowns and evening dresses. She doesn’t have a serger in her shop– but she does have a blindstitch machine.

    But I do agree with Kathleen that such folks have serger workarounds.

  5. Nancy says:

    Hi Anita,

    I have done pattern testing and the best way to find willing participants is to post either here on the boards, the Threads forum (Gatherings) or Pattern Review.

    One caveat, however. A lot of people will offer to sew them up for you to test, but then won’t give you the feedback that you want/need. The last pattern I tested the designer was a bit….um….annoyed with me when I came back with some suggestions on the pattern. How dare I suggest that something be *gasp* altered to fit a fuller figure! Or *gasp*, suggest in the directions an easier way to ease in the sleeves!

    LOL…. I sew all my own *test* patterns and make my friends wear and wash them to let me know what I need to do or change….and I like doing it that way cos everyone wears/washes differently, and I’ve got heaps of feedback on fabric care and fitting issues.

    Good luck!

  6. Kathleen says:

    Kate, funny you mention some people not liking gadgets. My MIL has been sewing since she was a newlywed, over 40 years? She bought a serger and never really used it. She gave it to me because I always find people who are financially needy, who need stuff like that. MIL is just quilting these days but never got comfy with the babylock.

  7. Lisa Bloodgood in Portland says:

    I have a home serger, a Janome, one of the cheaper models. It’s not as nice and speedy as the industrial ones, but it does ok for sewing something but its “rolled hem” feature doesn’t look very good, maybe cuz I wasn’t using wooly nylon in it. Fortunately my sewing machine has a special skinny zigzag for sewing knits.

    My serger also has the 5/8″ seam allowances marked for both needles, so a person can opt to use the serger or just the sewing machine.

    I’ve used lots of commercial patterns and have sewn so long that I don’t always need the instructions. I do look at them, though, and compare what they say to how I’ve been doing it (which is usually better, faster, and easier). Sometimes their instructions are bad, sometimes decent. This doesn’t even cover how good or bad the pattern itself is. I’ve found that Kwik Sew, the independent ones I’ve used, and Vogue are better than the others.

  8. /anne... says:

    A few more tips for would-be pattern companies:

    – Read Patternreview, particularly the forums. Start a thread asking what people like (and don’t like) about patterns. You’ll be swamped with information.

    – Write your seam allowance on every pattern piece, AND at the front of your instruction sheet. I hate rummaging around to find where a small pattern company has hidden it!

    – List the fabric requirements on your website, not just on the pattern. Unlike manufacturers, home sewers often buy fabric first, then look for a pattern. I’m more likely to buy a pattern if I know that it will work with the fabric I have.

    – Tell us where we can get the fabric if it’s not common – lots of us order online now. You could even put a small fabric sample in the envelope if appropriate.

    – Lots of us are visual learners. Drawings beat written instructions, and done well, you may not need much in the way of words – and non-English speakers may also be able to follow the instructions, thus increasing your market :-) Think Ikea!

    – Use your website – drawings are fine, but after a few decades, we sewers get rather cynical ;-). A few photos of sewn garments – maybe some from satisfied customers – can show us if that skirt really is as full as the drawing, the neckline that wide, the sleeve that slim.

    – Lastly, make your pattern envelope an appropriate size so you can easily send them overseas. Some pattern companies use very large envelopes, which can increase overseas postage costs. OTOH, you could have an agent with a plotter and a printer who could fulfill local orders for you. Postage can be a deal-breaker.

    Good luck, and tell us when you launch your company!

  9. I’m sure you know about IPCA (Independent Pattern Company Alliance).

    Look around their site, and why not contact the members and see if they’ll help a newbie. I know Barb Alexander, and she’s super friendly–she’s the fabric supplier I’m going to Bali with in the fall. She’s in Canada, but she probably could offer some good tips to someone starting out. You can tell her I suggested you contact her.

    You might also market your patterns to women who want what your patterns offer, but will take them to be custom made for them. In other words, they don’t sew, but they have the income to have something like this made for them.

    I got hooked reading about these pattern makers in the IPCA site (I should be working instead), and here’s one member of IPCA doing what Kathleen suggested:

    From her bio: All of Janet’s patterns include industrial sewing techniques that do not require pins or basting.

    And from her pattern descriptions:

    Islander Sewing Systems has unique products and sewing methods that cut your sewing time in half while creating a more professional looking garment. These sewing methods are available on DVDs and books that allow you to see the techniques just as if you were looking over Margaret’s shoulder (with one added benefit, you can view them over and over again). The patterns in the Islander Sewing Systems line are timeless, classic and designed for easy fit.

    In fact, I’ve been wanting to learn industrial techniques, and this makes me want to rush out and buy her DVDs.

  10. Great tips and pointers as always, Kathleen! I think I can say I’m a pretty advanced home sewer, and I’d rather have a very chic pattern with no instructions than something less chic with flawless instructions. I can figure out how to sew pretty much anything, and 75% of the time I don’t look at a pattern’s instructions beyond the seam allowances.

  11. Nanette says:

    I have started making children’s patterns that are made into pdf documents that are ready to print on standard paper. I sell through Etsy and You Can Make This. The target customers seem to be those who are mainly beginners but also appeals to seasoned sewers. What’s great is there are actual pictures to go along with every step making it easier to understand. Using the pdf format prevents the printing costs and is emailed or downloaded upon payment preventing shipping costs also.

  12. Claire-Marie Costanza says:

    A professional technical writer can write your instructions for you, or, if you prefer, review and edit the instructions you write. Many tech writers are contractors, that is, they contract by the hour. Contact the local chapter of the STC (Society of Technical Communicators) or the National Writers Union to find a tech writer. You might prefer a tech writer with sewing experience, but a good tech writer with NO sewing experience can provide a completely fresh view of your instructions, because the tech writer will assume NOTHING when reviewing the instructions. People who do a task well often don’t realize how much basic background information they just “assume” when they approach a task.

    I’ve been a professional tech writer for more than 20 years and a home sewer for much longer than that. I’m at the point in my sewing where I only refer to pattern instructions to see how they did the “tricky bits” — and I may still choose to do it differently. Most of the Big 4 pattern instructions are written by Demented Sadists, in my not-so-humble opinion. Writing good instructions is harder than it looks at first glace. Really. I’ve purchased craft patterns that include instructions that are more like “notes to myself so I remember how I did it last time” than real instructions. Frankly, I feel ripped off when that happens.

    Including instructions for a standard home sewing machine and instructions for serger sewing would make your pattern a better value to me, even if I decided not to follow your instructions. A lot of new sewers jump right in, purchase a pattern for a garment design that appeals to them, and they teach themselves sewing by following the instructions.

    One of my tech writer colleagues was approached with a contract to produce instructions for installing a satellite dish using only pictures and diagrams. “No writing instructions” fascinate me; I’ve seen a few examples. I’ve been thinking about this recently in terms of sewing pattern instructions. I’m sure sewing pattern instructions could be done this way. Ironically, it would actually take more time and effort to do it that way (but it would be so much fun to do!).

    The best approach is double-pronged: enough illustrations so that a sewer can follow along using only the illustrations, AND written instructions for the verbal learners. The illustrations and text should be more or less duplicates of the same information for best results.

    Home Sewer, Tech Writer, Nerd

  13. Since getting the Vionnet and Pattern Magic 1 & 2 books in Japanese, I am a complete convert to the “no written instructions” approach. So far I think the only translation I need is to find out what/how much seam allowance is included in the drafts, and if there is seam allowance in the draft then how am I to interpret a dart?

  14. Carrie says:

    How do you go about pricing patterns? Do you need to “go with the flow” and price in the range of your competetors or should it be based of level of difficulty for the user etc?

  15. Liana says:

    For the example given, sophisticated lingerie/lounge-wear, finding quality fabrics is more of a challenge than for most garment projects. Most local sources just don’t have anything for this kind of project, let alone a quality selection of color-matched fabrics and trims. This might be a good chance to offer patterns alone or with everything needed to construct the garment, including laces, notions, etc. in a range of colors.

    Most sophisticated homesewers are used to adding seam allowances if necessary (Burda WOF, Marfy) so that might be another option.

  16. Barb says:

    This is great info thanks – I’m also in the stages of doing a similar thing. re pricing, I think it depends what the product quality is. Look at Marfy – fantastic, fashion forward designs, but no instructions, you have to draft your own facings, linings etc. and they’re very pricey but beautifully designed and drafted.

  17. kaaren hoback says:

    My suggestions are to limit the size of the bite you can chew to start with.

    Define your demographic and stick to it for your first few collections and only expand as time and resources permit. Research a niche market and see how it is filled. Select one that has a need. Be realistic in terms of expectations and resources. BUY advice and services where you lack the specific skills. Even brain surgeons hire accountants, and plumbers!

    Define the body type as to size range and if possible determine a needy niche market for example:
    Women with a Size A cup, women or junior market
    Women of a size C or D cup young and perky or mature and fluffy
    Women of greater than D cups
    Petite/Tall/Slender/Average or Plus sizes

    Also define the garment class or group of styles you wish to offer such as:
    Active wear
    High-end lingerie
    Retro/Vintage styles
    Day or evening dress

    Define the complexity of you patterns: Are these to be “easy/quick” beginners welcome or advanced –requiring advanced skills and equipment.

    Define your delivery process:
    Internet sales with downloadable patterns that can be printed on home printers or at Kinko’s or Printed-paper patterns you intend to ship which has its own inherent expenses.

    Define what else will be included:
    How many views of each garment will be available such as alternate necklines, sleeve lengths, garment lengths and fit levels.
    Pattern Instructions: complete with fully detailed instructions or just an outline synopsis of construction order.
    Suggested Fabric types/stretch percentages for knits

    Define where you will market: Popular Sewing magazines such as Threads, or Sew News. Internet sewing forums and BBS’s and blogs, or Independent fabric shops who have very strongly worded contracts from the BIG 4 limiting competition.


  18. Sandra B says:

    Wow, this seems to be a trend. I’m also getting a line of patterns underway. My sewing school is starting to really take off, but I want a business not just a job, so I need to value-add. I figured really hip patterns for beginners would work for me, (because if I see another a-line skirt I’ll scream!) and I can test them on my own students first. I was going to sell them as downloadable PDFs. I’m going to eventually do seasonal ranges, with my own signature, much as I would if I were producing the finished garments. It will be “the fashion label you sew yourself.” They will be made using industrial techniques, and I will offer the option of buying a kit so the finished garment is the same as the sample, (with labels and care tags, etc) I find it to be such an obstacle for home sewers that they assume “proper” sewing is difficult. I taught my daughter to sew a cushion and she did a fabulous job. She’d turned 5 three days before. No preconceptions, so no internal roadblocks.

  19. Michelle W. says:

    “Create a pdf and let users print it out if they want. I don’t know why nobody’s doing that.”

    I recently started making pdf patterns. It is a lot of work to design, sew, photograph and write the instructions but I’m enjoying it. I’ve sewn for many years and have a writing background so putting these skills together wasn’t a stretch.

    The PDF format imposes size limitations, though I guess you could ask the customer to enlarge it. Personally I make my patterns actual size because asking the customer to run down to the copy shop to enlarge something 633% completely takes away from the convenience factor of the pdf format and adds an extra expense for the customer.

  20. Rebecca says:

    I am also at the beginning stage of starting a small pattern design company and I am wondering if you could talk about the process of getting the patterns professionally printed and packaged. I would love any advise about this process including any printing companies that offer competitive prices for smaller scale printing jobs. Thanks in advance!

  21. Kathleen says:

    Rebecca: I suggest following links posted to this entry. Specifically, the one that appears directly above yours discusses printing. Likewise, that entry contains other links to useful information.

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