Starting a home sewing pattern company pt.2

[amended at close with printing information]

I was surprised at the interest in the first entry of this (now) series. I’ll try to answer some of the questions posed in comments. Let’s start with Anita who wrote:

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 ;-)

Well obviously, you need to test your own products first. I’ve run into enough pattern makers even in the garment industry that fail to even walk their patterns. I think they’d get better if they had to. In a work situation, one usually isn’t sewing up a muslin, sample or dummy from their own pattern. As a service provider, one usually does. Once you’ve nailed it yourself, then you need a tester or two. Nancy suggests:

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!

When I’ve used pattern testers, I’ve been dismayed at the minimal feedback I’ve gotten -and I paid mine! By the way, I think one should pay a tester and provide materials. Does it go without saying that the resulting garment should be returned to you for inspection? I would definitely want feedback on methods and processes but I don’t know that I’d want to solicit feedback on different sizing. I mean, it’d be okay if the tester was offering such because she thought the market appeal was broader than I thought it was; that’s useful information.

Marilyn mentions the book Publish Your Patterns which I’d meant to link to but couldn’t find at the time. I guess I wasn’t using the right keywords. It has a lot of good reviews but the caveat is it doesn’t cover garment patterns. I thought that was odd. It’s not pricey so it could be a value to anyone.

Marilyn also mentions that including pattern alterations (for waist dart etc) would be useful. I can see that but where would you draw the line at which alterations to include? I think the profile of consumer who buys independent patterns is more sophisticated than the big 4 pattern shopper. I think they’d be more accustomed to altering patterns to fit. Maybe I’m wrong?

She also says that marking your allowances (3/8″ or 1/2″) is good. /anne said to be sure you indicate seam allowance on all pieces. I don’t disagree with /anne but I wonder how that could be done if I were producing a pattern line. I wouldn’t produce beginner patterns so it may be a matter of your intended market. On mine, I’d indicate allowances within the instructions per seam because they’d vary according to seam.

Several people mentioned they don’t read instructions at all. Some said if they read them, it was a matter of comparing their usual way of doing things to the instruction provided. I do the same thing myself. That said, somebody darn well better read my instructions or they’d end up with an unhappy result.

/anne also mentioned

– 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.

This is good advice because again, I think buyers of independent patterns tend to be more progressive in general and will shop on the web. She also mentions the issue of depictions which I don’t think anyone else did. I’m not going to bother to try to find it right now but I believe that on Pattern Review, visitors were asked which they preferred -if they could only pick one-, technical drawings or fashion illustrations (or photos). Well over 75% (at that time) said they preferred technical illustrations. /anne said user submitted photos of their results were a plus. Lastly, she said to watch your pattern envelope sizing so these can be shipped cost effectively abroad. With the dollar waning as it is, international purchasing will continue to increase.

Marguerite mentioned the IPCA (Independent Pattern Company Alliance). The IPCA is a membership organization of independents and have agreed to adhere to certain standards. Actually, I spoke to Janet Prey before I published the first entry and asked her about their standards. She said to join, there’s certain criteria such as:

  1. The pattern must be professionally drafted. Unfortunately, “professional” is undefined.
  2. Your patterns must be professionally graded. Evidently, some pattern companies only put them out in one size.
  3. You must have written instructions.
  4. The packaging must be professional. Again, that’s undefined.
  5. The pattern must be accurate (correct, walked).
  6. To join, you have to submit three (different) patterns. You have to submit a garment made from one of them. The garment must be made according to the instructions you’ve provided, nothing added or altered.

Janet said there was no fee involved beyond the costs of shipping for the jurying process. As a member however, you’ll have to kick in for co-op advertising. Seems fair to me. The group meets at least once a year to compare notes and share resources. This seems like a good thing all around.

Regarding sales venues, Nanette said

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.

I thought You Can Make This was an interesting concept so I asked her for more information. She elaborated:

You submit an idea and once approved can submit the finished product following their guidelines. Once they get the pattern, they send it out to testers and give you feedback. You make the adjustments and send them the final pattern with some additional information like the price. They get 1/2 and you get 1/2 payable at the end of the month. I’ve gotten to meet (through email) people from all over the world. I’ve really enjoyed it.

I don’t know if this would work for everything, maybe small inexpensive patterns. Their 50% take seems a little steep. Maybe one could launch limited styles there to get the word out while building a presence otherwise. A prudent piece of advice would be having your seller’s name match an offsite url.

Claire Marie, who says “I’ve been a professional tech writer for more than 20 years and a home sewer for much longer than that.” offered a whole passle of advice on writing technical instructions. From the back end, I have access to her email address. If you think you might be interested in hiring her, I can see if she’s available. At this writing, I don’t have permission to publish her email address.

Alison is also a convert to the “no written instructions” approach, meaning all illustrations. I second that. I think that if the instructions were well executed, words would be unnecessary. This is also dandy if one’s users don’t speak the language the instructions would presumably be written in.

Carrie asked an interesting question:

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?

I’m guessing that as with RTW clothes, you’d have to price according to your competitors unless you’ve got some kind of a value proposition not available with competing products, otherwise you’re saturating the market. Personally, I think that if your instructions and pattern quality were extraordinarily good, you could charge more. For example, if I were to launch some, I’d select styles that would be considered typically difficult. However, through pattern quality and industrial sewing instruction, they’d sew faster resulting in a better result. Ideally, I’d want customers that would buy them as a learning tool, not necessarily for the end result.

Kaaren also had some useful advice. One thing she mentioned that I wasn’t aware of was that “Independent fabric shops [ ] have very strongly worded contracts from the BIG 4 limiting competition.”

Sandra B mentions she’s in the process of launching a pattern line and that she intends to include the “option of buying a kit so the finished garment is the same as the sample, (with labels and care tags, etc)”. Interesting. I wouldn’t have thought that would be a selling point. I know that Vogue patterns at one point, included a sew in label with purchase. Did anyone ever use those? Would that be a selling point? Inquiring minds want to know.

Lastly, I got email. Lisa says:

I’ve been selling sewing patterns that I have drafted myself over the internet for a while now and while I think I know my market and know how to market the site, pattern-making is not really my strong point. So, after reading your post and the bit about how you wouldn’t do all the cooking if you ran a restaurant I want to investigate more about how what it would cost to develop a set of blocks with you and then commission patterns. I would need to receive the patterns digitally in a CAD format.

Despite having done this for 3-4 years, I am fairly naive as to what you would need from me design-wise and it’s been a couple of years since I read your book…I’ll go grab it now and give myself a refresher. In the meantime if you could let me know how you think we could work together and give me some cost estimates I would greatly appreciate it.

Lisa’s email was obviously intended to be private but I think others have similar questions to these. First, if one is going to hire a professional, I do recommend buying my book. Otherwise, you can get scammed by someone who’s more adept at SEO and marketing than making patterns. Also, the process of creating the blueprints and proving the product is the same as for RTW apparel.

Second, read Sending patterns off for correction, a previous entry on this blog. To make this specific for pattern companies, I’d strongly recommend following all of these steps. Please use style numbers! It is beyond annoying to not have these (again, see the Entrepreneur’s Guide). I’ve taken to charging $25 to issue a style number for each style.

As far as having blocks made, if you’re already selling patterns (as Lisa is), your established styles (the best selling items) are blocks. You use these to develop new styles. If you’re not sure they’re good to go, you can have them checked and corrected if need be but you don’t need new blocks. If you do want new bodies or silhouettes, the pattern maker will want a range of styles from your existing line because your fit should be constant. In other words, your typical customer should be able to buy the same size in every pattern you offer per product category (meaning, they may not take the same size top as bottom but they should always be able to buy the same size top or bottom for every style).

As far as costs go, for service providers charging a flat rate per pattern, these prices are listed on pg. 70. Depending on location in the country, costs could be as much as 20% higher. Still, more and more pattern makers are charging hourly these days. That’s mostly because few clients today are as well prepared as they should be so the pattern maker is having to do a lot of education and consulting. Fees from legitimate providers range from $35 to $75 per hour. I charge $60 per hour for pattern work. People living in high rent districts charge more. It’s hard to know what a pattern will cost without a technical sketch.

There’s also the matter of minimums. Some things take very little time to make, say a basic pull on elastic waist pant. This shouldn’t take more than an hour. However, you can’t necessarily expect to pay that. If you’ve hired someone and the only work you’ve thrown them is this one pant, there’s work associated with setting you up as a client. When you go to the doctor for the first time, they charge more for your first visit. So, your basic pant may incur a minimum charge of $100. Now, if you’ve thrown them several styles, this is less likely to happen. The hours spent working on your products will be aggregated and as such, there isn’t a minimum charge.

Another matter of minimums…I have a friend who won’t take you unless you can put down a $500 deposit. That doesn’t mean your work will cost that much because she refunds the difference but a lot of people are known to waste our time. She says that if they’ll put down a deposit, she knows they’re serious. You don’t know how much work we’ve done that we’ve never been paid for. Of course we didn’t ship the work out but still, it’s wasted work. Another thing, if your item is really simple, you might have trouble getting someone to take the job. The reason is, in my case, I have a $100 minimum but if your job is something that would only take fifteen to thirty minutes and that’s the only work I have from you, I’m not going to take it. It’s not that I’m greedy and want well-paying projects, it’s that you’ll tell other people that I charged you $100 to make a pattern for a hankie (for example). $100 for a hankie is highway robbery. So, to avoid getting a bad reputation for a small job for which I have to get my minimum fee (to set you up as a client and chat), I’ll turn it down.

On pattern printing, I got some help from Connie Crawford. She says that when she started, she had them reproduced in LA on an ammonia copier (Econo copier) a machine that used to be used more frequently in the trade. Not so much anymore because of plotters but it’s the same paper. This way, she could print just one of each until she knew there was demand for it. She says she still uses this option sometimes but that it’s costly in terms of processing orders (patterns come on a roll, they have to be cut and folded). This option is good because it got her off the ground and she could discontinue a pattern immediately or redo it if there was a mistake. Once a pattern is tweaked, she runs it using McCall’s printing service.

McCall’s and Simplicity will print traditional tissue patterns for you. You’ll have to make a copy of it on velum paper and ship it to them. She says McCall’s has a larger printing plate than Simplicity and since they cost the same (about $1.25 each), McCall’s is the better value. Both can also print the envelope. The minimum is 1000 copies. I thought it was 500. oh well.

She says now that she’s established with her own label under Butterick, she has a different arrangement. They also sell her patterns but she can also buy them at a discount for her own sales. It costs more than $1.25 but they’ve added value. They do all the grading and marking too. She writes the instructions but they clean it up with artists on staff.

She says another option is to find a printing company that can print on 45″ wide paper but your patterns may not fit on these sheets (hers didn’t).

As I’d mentioned in the first entry, if your patterns are a CAD file, you can have them plotted on a wide format plotter. Econo copiers that Connie describes aren’t used much anymore. The cost is about $1 a linear yard. Most plotters range in width from 36″ to 72″. The average marking service uses a 72″ plotter so if your pattern fit in a one yard block, it’d be fairly low cost. Of course you’d have to cut them up and fold them. I can’t see a marking service doing that for you. Still, it’s a way to get a foot in the door to test a pattern to see if it has sufficient demand to warrant printing a thousand of them.

Starting a home sewing pattern company
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:

    More great info! Thanks again, Kathleen, for providing such a useful forum. I’ll be using part of my “economic incentive” to purchase your book :-) And thanks to all the other experts who take the time to answer questions from relative newbies to the industry (like me) and help keep us from doing anything too stupid. I’m new to the fashion/garment industry, coming to this world from a background in engineering, software development, and home sewing, so I appreciate hearing advice from people who really know what they’re talking about.

    I have studied with a pattern maker, but, like you’ve mentioned above, there’s a lot more involved than just making a pattern and posting it online. I’ll be following up on a lot of these suggestions as I proceed, and will hopefully have successes to report at some point. Thanks again to everyone!

  2. Amy Mello says:

    This entry came at the perfect time for me. I just started selling my clothing patterns online at yesterday. I’d like to thank everyone for their input and Kathleen for a hosting a terrific community forum. After reading this post and the comments I feel I am on the right track. Thanks!

  3. RE fabric kits being a value-add for patterns: I can think of a couple of companies that do something like this. Christine Jonson sells patterns designed for stretch fabrics and also sells the specific fabrics the patterns were designed for. Bra-makers Supply sells other people’s patterns, fabrics and notions to make bras, and kits.

    If the pattern requires a certain type of fabric to be successful, or if there are hard-to-find notions, then yes, a kit would definitely be a value-add. (Even without a kit, it might not be a bad idea for someone selling patterns for high-end lingerie to also carry things like a silk swatch book or books on sewing lingerie or delicate fabrics.)

  4. /anne... says:

    Whoops! When I said indicate the seam allowance, I meant write on each pattern piece what the seam allowance/s are – not necessarily draw it on the pattern (although with hems it can be helpful).

    I’m also a technical writer with 20+ years experience and a home sewer (also trained for a year in theatre costume – and yes, that’s how you spell theatre outside the US). I wonder how many of us escape our day jobs into something more concrete.

    Some of my suggestions were prompted by the fact that I live in Australia, and I can have difficulty buying the right fabric, or understanding what you mean – for example, I still don’t know what 4ply silk is. Not that I can’t get silk here – we get a lot of stuff from China and SE Asia – but we use different terminology.
    So small samples would REALLY help, and so would PayPal.

    I also buy patterns merely to see how they were drafted, or the construction techniques used. I improved my sewing skills by using complicated Vogue patterns, and now I spend too much on Amazon and Ebay. So while some of you don’t care about instructions, not all your market is at that point yet (don’t forget enthusiastic beginners), and some of us just like something to read in the train ;-)

    Good luck, and I’m sure I’ll be spending money with some of you!

  5. Shir says:

    I always enjoy reading your posts. My question would be if you plan to talk about customization?

    I know you had an article about My Label. I think this is the most suitable program for home sewers, don’t you think? will you have a part about such a program ?

    If I were to go for a customized pattern, I am sure to go to someone with a CAD software, an dnot doing manually.

  6. Ericaequites says:

    I’ve used Dress Shop and looked at My Label. Dress Shop has always been buggy, and has gotten worse with each release. My Label offers limited styles at a high price. If you want to review softwear to create customised clothes, I would suggest Wild Ginger or others. Also, if you have good software and good measurements, you can do anything at home.
    Kits are nice for specialised work, such as bras, where appropriate haberdashry is hard to find. Otherwise, I’d rather just lave a materials list online.

  7. cg says:

    What I was wondering as I have read both these articles, is one of my favorite pattern lines is for sale, I would consider buying it, (i have experience as a designer and pattern maker), where could I find detials on: when purcashing what I would hold the rights to, ie.. the patterns, instructions, art work, the name (under this persons name, and if i should change it), printing plates, whole sale accounts, etc…

    I would atcually need to phycially get her current inventory,(part of the sales deal) and would like to make changes and update some of the patterns (new artwork, new sizes, switch to CAD, and add new patterns).

    But I want to be sure I hold the rights to the plates, and any copyrights, and of course make sure I get the right sales price,

    if someone could point me in the right directins, that would be great!!!!!

  8. Kate says:

    CG: The issues you raise in considering buying a pattern line are all very good ones, and would ordinarily be addressed in your negotiations with the seller, and ultimately the contract between the seller and yourself. Have you asked him/her these questions?

  9. Lisa Bloodgood in Portland says:

    I have to say that I really don’t like that the big brands of patterns are printed on tissue paper. I use them sometimes when I don’t want to make one from scratch and I have several Vogue patterns I got for 50 or 75% off. I don’t have to alter very many of their patterns to fit me–I guess their fit model is a similar size.
    I do like that other patterns are printed on sturdier paper. Of course, everything on oak tag would be the nicest.
    I can be a pattern tester because I’ve sewn more than I’ve done other apparel industry related things. On every pattern I’ve seen, the suggested fabrics are listed, so I think it’s a good idea to send more than one fabric with the same pattern, like a slippery one and one that’s not or pile and not to see how they go together. That way, the pattern maker can compare the results and not suggest that fabric or suggest other ones.

  10. Nancy says:

    Hi Kathleen,

    I just wanted to clarify that the particular designer that I was testing for specifically sent the pattern to me for the “larger size”, so that the comments that I had made were, in fact, relevant. The original pattern was drafted in a size 8 and I was testing out the 14. The issues I brought up weren’t “opinion” but practical considerations for the fuller figure. I provided the designer with a point by point analysis of the issues, along with suggestions. That is what I would want from someone if they were testing for me. Cie La Vie I suppose :-)

  11. Elle says:

    I still have to finnish reading both of these articles, but I have some partially related questions..

    I am interrested in testing patterns, of all craft types (sewing, crochet, knit, paper crafts).

    I was wondering if you could help me find places to post my services, and people to contact.

    I think it is important to keep a pattern producer up to date on the progress of the test, and production, which can mean several emails/contact a day.

    Thank you very much for your help

    <3 Elle

  12. Theresa says:

    I know this is a late comment but I always wondered why you couldn’t 1) buy a pattern that is rolled instead of folded and was already plotted with the correct layout for fabric width (for instance a 44″ width and a 30″ width) so that you could just roll it on to the fabric and then cut it or 2) buy a pattern that was pre-cut (made using a dye cut machine instead of a printer).

    I can understand option 1 having too many possibilities for some minor wastage depending on size grading and option 2 having some cost limitations but I would be willing to pay the extra cost for either of these options just to make things more simple.

  13. Siv Aksdal says:

    Hi thanks for the great post. I just had one question. Do you have any contact info or a website for the McCall’s printing service. I’m not able to find any info on it online.

  14. Kathleen says:

    Siv: There’s a long thread in the forum about the process (using garment industry pattern software) of getting a pattern ready for printing by McCall’s. Included is a download of the technical details from McCalls in pdf format. I don’t have permission to post it in public. I would just call them.

    Theresa: To buy a pattern formatted to fabric width would involve a marking fee -which of course could be rolled into the cost of the pattern but it would be more expensive than what home sewers are used to paying.

    About cutting: Altho optimal, dye cutting a pattern would be very expensive. The cost of dyes would be excessive ($1,000 per piece?) to say nothing of the equipment to cut it -namely a 20 ton press. Alternatively, one could have a cut plotter (blade instead of a pen) but those machines run about $25K. I’ve looked into machines that cost less (in the neighborhood of $6K) that will cut lighter weight medium (plotter weight paper as opposed to oaktag) but the downside is that there couldn’t be any printing on it since the machine doesn’t do both. One last option is to cut the paper the way fabric lays are cut. Namely, spreading X layers of paper and using a marker to cut it out. The downside of that is the same as the previous in that there could be no printing with piece name much less marked seam allowances etc. This is how the earliest vintage patterns were made. Piece names were coded with a series of drill holes.

  15. Gigi Young says:

    What of such companies like Colette Patterns and Sewaholic? They are trendy and unique, and are doing quite well for themselves.

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