what we learned from your feedback: part III, product development

Today I’m back to continue our series of posts (see part I and part II) on what we learned from your responses to our survey. Today’s topic: the products you would like to see us develop.

Let me start with a little behind-the-scenes information. Those of you who have been long-term followers of the blog might remember seeing a comment Liesl made a year or two ago about this. For others this may be news.

We do a lot of things here in the studio with a very lean team. We produce Oliver + S patterns, Liesl + Co. patterns, and Straight Stitch Society patterns. Liesl designs Lisette patterns and works with Butterick to develop them. She designs fabric collections under different brands for different markets, and she does instructional videos and teaches workshops. That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air for two people and a group of freelancers.

We do all of these things because we’ve found that no single product, brand, or activity produces enough income to allow us to have a sustainable business. Oliver + S patterns pay Liesl’s salary and mine and provide our health insurance. Patterns from our other brands cover overhead costs. Fabric collections pay for our freelance help. And so on.

The fact that no individual brand or product provides a majority of our revenue means that we need to choose where to focus our product development time so that it will provide the best return on our investment. If we invest too much time in product development for a brand or category that is stagnating, we will need to rob Peter to pay Paul when invoices come due each month.

This also means we need to be extremely careful about agreeing to take on new opportunities that come our way. We find that we have to say “no, thank you” to many opportunities that we are approached with because we don’t see that the market or revenue potential justifies the time we would need to invest. We also have to say “no” to ourselves a lot. There are projects we would like to work on that we don’t believe the market will support. As much as we would enjoy working on some of these things, we just can’t justify doing it if we want to maintain a fiscally sound business.

That’s why we’re taking very seriously the answers you gave us to the question, “If you could choose the types of patterns we were to develop over the next year, rank the following in order of your preference.” Here’s what you told us you want to see us develop, in order from most desired to least desired.

  • Girls to age 12
  • Women, sizes 0 to 20
  • Boys to age 12
  • Non-apparel projects
  • Men
  • Women, sizes 16-34

We weren’t surprised at the order of the top three items on the list. Our Oliver + S girls patterns always sell well (better than our boys patterns), and our Liesl + Co. patterns for women have been building a following since we started producing them. Your responses underscore what our sales tell us. This makes us feel confident that we’ve spent the last year developing the right mix of products.

We were somewhat surprised, though, by the order of the three items at the bottom of the list. We’ve been seeing market activity that was leading us to believe there was enough interest in plus-sized women’s apparel patterns to justify moving into that field. We had placed that on our plans for later this year and next.

But so many fewer of our customers were interested in that category than were interested in seeing us do men’s patterns or more patterns like our Straight Stitch Society brand that we have decided not to invest right now in expanding our Liesl + Co. sizing beyond size 20. We’re not writing off this idea completely. Maybe with future growth of the Liesl + Co. brand enough demand will develop that this will become more of an opportunity for us to pursue.

We also gave you the opportunity to write-in things that you would like to see us develop. Some of the more frequently mentioned suggestions we received included the following:

  • Patterns for girls over 12
  • More patterns for boys
  • More patterns for knits
  • More challenging patterns
  • A blazer pattern

Most of these things, unfortunately, fall into the category of “It’s a great idea, but we can’t justify doing it right now.” We don’t see that market demand for patterns for tween and early-teen girls is large enough to support us moving into creating patterns for it. The situation is similar for patterns for boys. We will continue to develop Oliver + S patterns for boys, but until our sales start to show us that more people are purchasing them, boys patterns will continue to be outnumbered by the volume of girls and unisex patterns we release.

We often hear from our most dedicated customers that they would love to see us release a four scissors pattern. We also hear from people pretty regularly who would like us to do a blazer pattern for boys. Again, these are good ideas, and we would love to be able to add both of these things to our line. The truth, however, is that we don’t see enough market demand for either to justify developing them. We wish that we had the ability to do items like this. They would add to the diversity of the line and provide new challenges for those of you who want them. But, again, unless we’re confident that an item will sell at a level that justifies the expense we have to undertake to develop it, we just can’t let ourselves move forward when we know we will see more success developing other items.

But we won’t say no to everything or say no to these ideas forever. Developing more knit patterns is an interesting idea. We follow the market for knit fabric. A few years ago, there was a rapid, significant increase in cotton costs. This caused fabric prices to rise across the board and forced manufacturers to pull back significantly on the amount of knit fabrics they were producing. Cotton prices have since fallen, and we’re seeing more knit lines appearing again. This allowed us to do the Parachute Polo shirt for our most recent release. If the selection of knit fabrics available continues to increase, we will be there to produce more patterns that make use of knits.

Deciding how we allocate our product development time is perhaps as much art as it is science. We have numbers and can get feedback (like your responses to our survey) to point us in one direction or another. But there are times when we decide we’re going to take a risk and try something new because people might like it when they see it. That’s what Liesl is doing right now. She’s in the midst of a big project that we will be releasing next fall. It’s not a typical sewing pattern, but we think you’ll be excited about it. It’s something she has really wanted to do for a long time now, and we’ve decided to go ahead with it even though we have no way of determining how strong demand will be for it. We’re really hoping it will be a hit….

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50 Comments

  1. Laura

    Really interesting to hear the process behind the scenes. Thanks for the informative post!

  2. Mindy

    Thank you so much for the look behind the scenes of why you produce what you do, and why you produce the mix of items you do. Don’t forget that patterns for girls over size 12 could also potentially be used by XXS women and not just young teens! I love a lot of the girls’ tops and if they came in slightly larger sizes, I would definitely buy some to make for myself.

  3. Emily

    This is all really interesting!
    I’m also surprised at the lack of interest in women’s plus size patterns. But then of course, the survey is of current customers, and current Liesl Co customers probably aren’t plus-sized, right? Although I suppose Oliver + S or Straight Stitch Society pattern customers could be any size…

    Again, thanks for sharing! (and sorry for my ramble).

  4. Kelley Vito

    Thank you so much for sharing these insights. I hear what you’re saying about boys patterns and because I only have one child (a boy!) I am both blessed and cursed to only need a few patterns to sew the majority of what he wears all the time. But keep up the great work – I love your patterns.

  5. Lisa

    This is a very interesting post! I’ve been buying O&S patterns from the very start and they are still my favorite to sew from, so it’s been exciting to watch your company grow.

    But speaking of growing…My kids keep growing and and it’s been challenging to find patterns of a similar caliber for my bigger kids. Until you’re ready to expand your line of children’s sizes, perhaps you could create a tutorial for scaling up existing patterns? The pants and shorts have been easy enough to scale up for my son (and he’s 12 but still loves an elastic waist 😉 And the skirts are easy enough to size up as well, but I’ve been struggling a bit as to how to scale up the dress patterns.

    Thanks, and best wishes for your continued success!

  6. Hi,

    thank you for the great blogpost series. Very interesting! I love the Idea of more pattern for knits. My Kids love to wear knits more than cotton blouses. I think most kids do. And I love to spend my time and money on things that my Kids really love to wear and wear all the time.

    What about doing pattern in foreign laguages? Many People here in Germany love your pattern but struggle with a instruction in a foreign language.

    Best Barbara

    1. Barbara, foreign language translation is something we have talked about for years now. It’s just never made it to the top of our priority list. Maybe it will one of these days….

  7. Thanks for this post! I understand it from a business perspective, but I agree with a prior commenter that if you don’t currently offer plus size patterns, you probably don’t have much of a “plus size pattern customer” base. But your customer base may grow if you start offering those sizes? Similarly, offering basic “staple” boy/unisex patterns that the market doesn’t currently offer a good option for (UNLINED HOODED SWEATSHIRT, a classic slim fitting jeans pattern, or a basic blazer) could reach a lot of moms of boys that currently have to buy those things (or use other patterns that may not be up to O+S standards). I’ve hacked my way into sewing a few hooded sweatshirts that I’d much rather sew based on an O+S pattern, and blazers too! I’d sew them for my boys and my girl!

    So that would be the tricky part…would your customer base grow if you offered more “staple” type unisex wardrobe pieces, even though you do a great job with and are known for your unique girl dress designs? Sorry for the novel…haha. I just want that darn hoodie!!

  8. I’m not terribly surprised the market for plus-size sewing patterns isn’t there to justify the labor involved in grading patterns up; but, as plus-sized myself I have been thrilled at recently finding several pattern designers on Etsy that have expanded sizes, including Cake and Colette Patterns in that as well, although Colette’s older patterns are not expanded. I personally love several designs in the liesl + co line (Bistro dress!! The Gallery Tunic!!) but even though I’ve drafted an A-line skirt for myself and know the basics of FBA and pattern-grading I’ve never done them before and so I’m not 100% comfortable buying a pattern for that much $$ that would require me to grade it up or do an FBA (even if a digital pattern means I don’t have to worry about ruining the original!!). I imagine that is probably true for a lot of plus-size sewists. What is also true, however, is that I am extremely loyal to brands that DO have expanded sizes in their patterns. It’s unfortunate that expanding a couple of existing patterns isn’t feasible, but then again, that would mean taking time away from something else, so I get it. Doesn’t mean I won’t keep my hopes up though!! 😀

    I really enjoy these behind-the-scenes posts! It’s awesome that you guys have done this series, and I’m excited to see what Liesl has up her sleeve! 🙂

  9. Yes, on plus sized patterns, I immediately had the same thought as some other commenters. Being a follower of many plus-sized sewing blogs, I don’t think that Liesl & Co. is currently “on their radar” for plus sizes. Hence I imagine your survey population might not be representative of that market. Persons filling out your survey (like me) are more likely to be moms, etc., who sew for their kids or folks who are already sewing and wearing your women’s designs in their current size range. It’s not likely to reflect the potential market for items you currently don’t sell …

    Okay, enough of that, but I do hope you’ll continue to explore plus sizes because although I fall in the lower-average size ranges, I really like to see body positive and inclusive sewing patterns that work for all sizes. My work colleague loves to sew and says she mostly relies on the big four because “Indies only make patterns for smaller sizes.” Ugh! That’s something that I think we need to work on! I realize that all pattern making entails costs and you have to be aware of the market, but I like the idea of expanding just a few styles to larger sizes and perhaps testing the market?

    Okay, off my soapbox. I am delighted with the Parachute pattern, being both boy and knit, which is what I asked for in the survey. The thing about boy patterns is that you just don’t need that many of them to outfit a boy for all occasions. But your unisex patterns (like the Afterschool and Sailboat) are some of my favorites, and I would definitely love to see more girl and boy friendly patterns. I will continue to be a sucker for girl patterns too. Frankly, I’m not all that interested in super advanced or super formal patterns for kids, my kids dress really casually so those would not really appeal to me as much.

    I appreciate these background posts!

    1. Inder, yes, we understand that limitation to surveying the audience we did. But we had assumed that this would be rated much higher by our existing audience. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t grow the size of a plus-sized audience, and we have talked about that. But with such a limited built-in customer base, we’re not quite ready to take on that challenge right now.

  10. Lamonia Kohler

    I am so disappointed on the tween size for girls. So hoping you would be getting into that….if not profitable for you of course I see your point. Good luck to you.

  11. Cheryl

    Thanks for sharing. I understand that, though you love what you’re doing, it has to pay the bills. Looking forward to your new releases!

  12. Does “next fall” mean fall of 2015 or 2016? Just curious:)

    1. Enbee, that’s fall of 2015.

  13. Tisha

    In response to Liesl’s future project, I would like to say that there is a good chance I will be on board for the following reasons:
    1. I like to support companies that reflect my personal tastes and also meet my needs, even if that means buying a pattern I’m not ready to make yet.
    2. I enjoy learning what Liesl’s and company knows about fashion and how I can recreate it myself.
    3. I love the upbeat attitudes you all take towards your own company as well as the large group of sewists. You continually keep it positive, which is HUGE.

    Thank you for this “behind-the-scenes” look at the business of pattern-making. It is always fascinating.

  14. Libby

    Sew along or class for a boy’s blazer using a pattern from a different company? Maybe on the craftsy or creativebug platform? Just a thought. 😉 Liesl’s instructions are always so clear and concise.

  15. Thank you again, Todd, for an interesting read. These posts feel like pieces of a case study, and I’m enjoying hearing more about your business and business decisions. It means a lot that you take so seriously the interests of your customers. Neither of the lists were surprising, and I can imagine how difficult it must be for Liesl and you to be selective in your choices for production, knowing that, at least for a while, you will have to let down many followers wanting something from your brand specifically. As always, I wish you all the very best and look forward to what’s coming next.

  16. Mary Ann Wilson

    I’ve been off line traveling so am just getting caught up with Oliver &s. Thanks for talking us through your business processes and how you use survey results. Keep Creative

  17. Sarvi

    Completely agree with Tisha, above. Once I figured out what sort of company this was I started buying patterns above my sewing level, figuring I’d get to them sooner or later, for my own family or for gifts. I’ve gotten so much use out of the layette even without a baby, and am about to buy more Liesl & Co for a friend who wants to learn to sew and recently bought her first machine. Love this series of posts so much. It’s so humanizing!

  18. This is so interesting to read. I am excited about the possibility of more patterns for knit fabrics in the future.

  19. Danae

    As always, I loved reading more about behind the scenes and appreciate the time that goes into these posts.

    I simply love the direction that Liesl & Co and Lisette are taking with wardrobe staples. I’m still a beginner sewist but my goal all along has been to craft items I will actually enjoy wearing and feel comfortable in. Liesl’s designs seem to strike a good balance between trendy and classic. I would love to attempt a women’s blazer at some point 🙂

  20. Heidi

    It’s funny, I’m probably one of the ones that own every boy pattern and tend buy a boy pattern as soon as it’s released 🙂 I get so much use from them for both the girls and boys!

  21. These posts are AMAZING {and, I’m sure, QUITE time-consuming}!!! Thank you for taking the time to explain your thought processes, decision making, etc. with us….no matter if it correlates with our views or not!! It makes us, the customers, understand why we can’t have our way…all the time :).

    Looking forward to what lies ahead for you. It seems you have “the Midas Touch”, so it’s sure to be epic!!!

  22. I wonder Todd, if your next big project shouldn’t be the History (to date) of Oliver + S: A Small Business Case Model.
    These posts are very readable and while it shouldn’t matter to me, a consumer, I am quietly delighted that you really seem to know what you’re doing with your business.
    Just make sure you give yourselves some time off!
    I genuinely have almost zero interest in business management but recently finished reading a very well written book about the near death and then subsequent resurrection of LEGO. There’s a lot of parallels in what you’ve written.
    I’m in the “you produce it, I’ll undoubtedly buy it” groupie camp, so no need to pander to my mad whimsies!

  23. Wow thesr posts are so insightful. Thanks so much. Its a shame that there isnt the same interest for 12+ ages…i would totally be on board for that!! Im really excited to see whats coming out in autumn!!! Cant wait 🙂

  24. OHHHH NOOOOOO! This is so sad. I completely understand that you need to focus your product development where there is a strong market, but I think you have asked the questions in the wrong way. By asking your existing customer base who buy from you because they fit into your designs you aren’t benefitting from the opportunity to grow your customer base from those who are currently excluded. I love your aesthetic but didn’t know about your survey because I have to ignore you because I can’t fit in your clothes and it makes me sad! If you had actually asked the question somewhere where curvy women would answer, you would have got a lot more support for increasing your size range. Curvy women have limited options and are VERY loyal to those brands who cater for them (i.e Colette) . I also think the way your phrased the question presented a false dichotomy and looks like you would not offer clothes for smaller sizes. If you had phrased it as 0-32 I think people would have voted for it. No-one is going to vote to exclude themselves.

    So I do understand why you have made this decision based on this survey, but I do think if you had approached the survey differently you would have got very different results and access to a very enthusiastic, loyal and grateful new market of curvier women.

    1. Rosie, take a look up in the comment stream a bit and you’ll see my response to this. I agree with you to a certain extent, but we need a built-in demand of a certain level to start and it doesn’t seem that it’s there right now.

  25. Pepija

    As someone who has just outfitted my son for his kindergarten graduation where boys are required to wear formal attire by using the art museum pattern, I am a bit sad to see that there is no blazer in the works.

    I totally get your argumentation for boys patterns not selling just as well… however, sewing his formal vest and trousers turned out to be the best option for me, both fit (the guy is skinny) and cost wise. I could not justify spending about 100 euro for poliester mix trousers and jacket (yes, it is graduation season in this country, and that was about the only option available in the shops), when good quality materials cost me about 35 euro (linen + silk mix summer suit fabric, thread, buttons). Once there is such a pattern out, a boy’s mother can reuse and reuse it until the size range runs out 🙂

    Last year he lived in the after school trousers. I am really looking forward to your coming unisex patterns, nevertheless!

  26. Lynn

    I agree with your survey results – they reflect what I would have answered. I like that the patterns are not too difficult and I’m an XS and tired of everything being too big for me or ‘too young’. Your Liesl and co patterns speak to me very much.

    On different note – I find it difficult to register/log on to your site successfully and the forum gave me grief yesterday: trying to get onto your forum I am very frustrated that my id and password are still not recognized.

    1. Lynn, I don’t see a username for the forums associated with your email address. Why don’t you try to create a new account to see if that does the trick.

  27. Lynn

    I did!

    I’ll do it again now…

  28. While I am sad that the blazer question has been answered now, I am glad that you all are following what is best for your company (and family!). I am 100% loyal to you and in the camp of I’ll likely buy it just to support you.

    Though selfishly I am a bit sad there isn’t more of a demand for boy patterns, and I secretly hoped you would be venturing in to the in between sizes now that S is older…

  29. Little boy’s blazer?!?! LOVE that idea. Oh, that would be so fun to have from Liesl. Here’s hoping!

  30. Since you’re not doing tween/teen sizes in the patterns, is there a way to do blog posts about modifying the adult patterns for teens? I imagine that my daughter, with how fast she’s growing, will be in an adult XS or S sooner rather than later – by the time she’s 12 for sure. She’s 9 now.

  31. I think the reason that people put plus sizes last is simply that your current followers fit your current pattern sizes and plus sizes will be new market share. However most of us have boyfriends or husbands who we would like to sew for. I teach sewing and I know my plus size ladies have no place to currently get plus size patterns of your quality and in pdf.

    Keep up the good work!

  32. I agree with other posters – I know you’ve acknowledged the bias inherent in your survey but I think it’s much more of a bias than you realise. You have two types of selection bias at play: one is that not all of your followers will even fill out a survey, and the bigger one that (probably) the only plus-sized women who filled out the survey are sewing for their children, and it’s possible not many of them sew for themselves.

    I understand that you need an inbuilt customer base to warrant the risk, but at the same time that’s the best way to grow your business: gain a bigger customer base. Why not try just creating your current patterns in a plus-sized block? I can see many of them appealing to plus-sized sewers, especially middle aged + who are already somewhat excluded from the market (from lots of indie patterns being “too young”).

    As someone else has said – it’s interesting that you had size 16-34 completely separate, as most plus sized women want to wear similar clothes to straight sized! So you don’t have to do full new designs other than maybe changing a few design elements to work better on a plus sized body.

    So, to summarise, while I understand your hesitation I don’t think you should base your decision on the results of this survey. Conduct another survey, perhaps with a large audience with more plus-sized women (such as Pattern Review, Curvy Sewing Collective etc) and see what the interest is like.

  33. In addition to the small sample size, I wonder if the results were skewed based on how the question/option was worded with regards to expanding your size range.

    I’m guessing that what you were really testing the waters for was to see the interest/market for patterns that were based on a plus-size block, probably listed as a separate size option (like the 18m-4T/5-12 size breaks currently offered for Oliver+S patterns) and perhaps drafted for a larger cup size.

    Of course, just about anyone who falls outside of that size range is going to rank that item as being “low interest.” You might have just as well asked survey respondents what size they wear based off of the Liesl & Co. size chart.

    I, too, wonder if you would have gotten a much different response by phrasing it as “expanding our size range beyond 0-20 to 0-24 or 0-26” or whatever.

  34. Andi

    Thank you for assuming the best of your customers and sharing these behind-the-scenes posts that could easily have been condescending or overly simplified. Also, being reminded of the realities of a small company reminds me that real humans are making the choices, and it reminds me to be kind.

    I’m still so happy you started carrying some of your women’s patterns in paper format in response to the survey results. I am always rooting for you.

  35. This was a very interesting read! Thanks for sharing. Has there ever been talk of making a women’s pajama pattern? My kids love Oliver and S pjs and I would love to make some for myself. A lot of the pajamas patterns on the market are unisex and they come out so puff/saggy!

  36. Helena

    I love all the business type postings. For me to keep sewing with increasing confidence I need you to stay in business! I watch many creative businesses fail as the fact that the business side needs to be as important as the creating gets lost. I wonder if you do any small creative business mentoring, you know, in that non-existent spare time you have!

    As oliver + s pay your wages and the notion that we are helping keep you fed, watered and clothed! I am going to be imagining a meal in your plate, or a strap off one of your shoes or something each time I buy a pattern! I

  37. Kay

    Thank you for these interesting posts about your business choices. I understand your decisions, however, I’m one of the women who would love to be a customer but with a bust size slightly larger than what is listed on your size charts, I’m excluded. As a new sewist, I don’t know how to make these patterns work. It’s so disappointing to see your lovely dress and top patterns but know I can’t buy them. I’m not sure I was on the email newsletter at the time of the survey but I will certainly fill out future ones and request you offer a few basic patterns with instructions for fuller bust adjustments.

    1. Kay, the Liesl + Co. patterns do come with detailed instructions on how to do a full bust adjustment that should walk you through the process.

  38. Kay, the Full Bust Adjustment included in the patterns are fantastic. I was nervous when I started to sew for myself but I started with the Liesl and Co patterns and they are fab!

    1. Thanks, Brittney! Glad you were able to follow them clearly. One of my goals in including the FBA in our patterns is to give full-busted women the tools to tackle other patterns as well. Once you have these skills you won’t feel limited in your sewing–you can take on almost any sewing pattern without fear. It’s the old analogy: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Or something like that…

  39. Cherie

    I really enjoy reading these types of posts. I think your company is wonderful and has excellent costumer service. However, I am still disappointed about not having patterns for tweens/teens. I have noticed that a lot of designers/bloggers, (not saying that Liesl is just a blogger, by the way) have younger kids and so just stick to designing patterns for young ones. But I often wonder what will happen when their children get older. Will they then realize what others of us already know? That there are not a whole lot of patterns for the older child? I guess that time will tell. So, meanwhile I am searching for other pattern companies for my tween. But honestly, I wish that I didn’t have to. That you would provide the patterns because I love your directions and styles. So, while I understand you may not think that there is a market for tweens/teens, I beg to differ. I think that in a way you may be losing business because those of us who have used O&S patterns for our younger children will have to go somewhere else as our children grow.
    Thank you again for sharing this information and allowing your customers to speak too.

    1. I hear you, Cherie! And S is now 10, so I feel your pain too. This is very much on my mind and I have some ideas for tackling it. I just can’t do it right now. Rest assured, however, that we WILL get to this eventually. It just hasn’t hit to top of the list yet, especially given the priorities we’ve been tasked with following the survey. Does that make sense?

  40. Kay

    Thanks for the information on FBA. I would love to try the new Maritime Tee!

  41. Jenny

    I admire your bravery in asking your customers, listening to them, and explaining yourself and listening some more.

    I think it is really hard to run a business and not just establish an identity, but to figure it out to begin with. What you sell, who your market/customer base is, your price point, your aesthetic, etc. All require very deliberate choice making. And that is challenging.

    I can tell you one thing, though. Since my first O+S pattern, I haven’t even sewn a single thing for either of my children using another pattern.

  42. Ginger

    I really enjoy these posts explaining the answers to your survey. I think it shows that you as a company really care.
    While reading this I thought of something. As a Mom of boys, I love your boys patterns. But let’s face it, boys don’t have the variety of garments like girls and women do. You could do a few blog posts using your current boys patterns and featuring current fabrics. I know you have done similar posts in the past.
    Looking forward to future patterns.

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