The other day I started telling you about my journey to becoming a clothing and pattern designer—about how I decided to leave my job and return to school to learn how to make sewing patterns. I also mentioned that I would tell you more about the method I have found for teaching the patternmaking skills I use when I develop sewing patterns. Today I’m going to do that.
What we’re doing when we customize a pattern on the blog is essentially part of what professionally trained patternmakers do. All established apparel companies have a series of block patterns—patterns that fit well and that have been successful for that company. It takes a lot of time and expertise to develop and grade patterns into their different sizes. But once a pattern is completed, it can become a block pattern and be altered in many different ways.
A block pattern allows the patternmaker to develop new styles without having to start from scratch each time. After all, if you have something that fits well already, why not use it to develop other styles that also fit well? This helps to create a consistent fit for a brand.
When they are working from block patterns, patternmakers are really just using their skills at customizing a pattern—their block pattern. Once they have a block developed, they do riff after riff on that base style. Knowing how to customize all the major elements of a block pattern gives patternmakers the ability to develop almost any style they can imagine. Start with the block dress pattern but add a Peter Pan collar and pleats to the skirt. Voila! A new style is born. Does that make sense?
So here’s what I realized. If I created a really good, high-quality block pattern for you, I could show you how to customize every aspect of it—piece by piece, step by step. And if I did this in a really thorough way that included detailed sewing instructions as well, working through all the possible elements of the block and showing you how to customize each in multiple ways, you would be able to do what I had wanted to do when I first moved to New York, before I went to school to learn patternmaking. You could design your own garment, develop the pattern for it using that block pattern as the starting point, and then sew the finished style.
So with this block pattern and set of customizing instructions, you would be able to design and make patterns of your very own—in the same way that professional designers and patternmakers do—without requiring years of study and experience. And without starting from scratch each time.
Sound complicated? It’s not really. I know you can do it because that’s what we’re doing all the time on the blog with our customizing tutorials.
Since I really wanted to teach you these skills, and I could see from your responses to our tutorials and from the questions that you’ve been asking over the years, it made sense to put it all together into one big package. And the best package for it would be a book.
But let’s stop for a minute and talk about craft books. Have you noticed that a lot of people write one and never write another? I’ll tell you why. Today, writing a craft book doesn’t make financial sense for the author. Most people write a book to help make their name or brand more visible. It’s sort of a calling card; if you’ve written a book you have a certain amount of cachet. People are impressed by book authors. You can do book signings and hold events and people will take you seriously. But in truth, authors make very little money from a craft book.
It took about two years to write my first book, from the time I started actually writing and drafting the patterns to the point where the book was finally finished and went to the printer. That doesn’t include the time I spent conceptualizing the projects or marketing the book when it was released. The final book included 20 complete sewing patterns with detailed instructions for each. That’s about five years of new Oliver + S patterns for us.
Most books sold today are purchased on Amazon at a price well below the publisher’s suggested retail price. And that discounting works its way all the way back to the author’s wallet. Do you want to guess how much I make when a copy of Oliver + S Little Things to Sew (suggested retail price of $27.50) is sold on Amazon? I’ll give you a minute to think about it. Close your eyes and come up with your best guess. Go ahead. I’ll be here when you come back.
OK, I’m still here. What’s your guess? Ten dollars? Five? Three? Nope. For each copy of my book that’s sold on Amazon, I earn 55 cents. That’s it. And that’s not because Todd negotiated a lousy deal for me when we contracted with the publisher! Those are the standard economics of the book industry today. They still work out pretty well if you’re J.K. Rowling. But not if you’re writing a craft book.
My first book sold relatively well, according to our publisher. At last report, we’ve sold about 20,000 copies. So if you do the math, like we did, you can see that there’s no way I could afford to write another book. Even if we had sold twice as many books the economics just don’t work. And as much as our publisher encouraged me over the years to write another book for them, Todd and I just couldn’t justify it. If it took two years to write the book, that would mean that I wouldn’t have the time to design many sewing patterns during that two-year period, but I would be working just as hard, if not harder. We can’t feed our family on what we could make from sales of a book. (And we don’t eat all that much, even including the ice cream.)
But I really wanted to write this book. In fact, I obsessed over it for a long, long time. So finally we decided to go ahead and do it. Ourselves. Because that was the only way we could possibly make this project work.
So for this new book we did everything: from writing and illustrating to photography, design, printing, and distribution. Just like we do for our sewing patterns. It was an exciting challenge for us to do it this way, but it also enabled us to justify writing another book because we are the publisher and we are able to earn that much more for each copy sold.
But I’ll be honest. It’s scary to know that I’ve invested a couple years into this project and that we have committed to printing thousands of copies of this book before we’ve sold any of them. To a certain extent, we’re putting the company on the line with this project. It’s been two years of our time, and we’ve invested a good deal of the company’s finances in this project. But we love a good challenge, and we don’t shy away from risks that we’ve been able to evaluate intelligently.
We felt so strongly about this concept, and about giving you the tools to become a designer yourself, that we decided it was worth it. And we’re hoping that you agree.
The result of all this work is a unique guide that will take you through every aspect of designing a dress, to altering the pattern, to sewing it. And it won’t require you to quit your job and devote a year of study to be able to do it.
I’ll show you how it all came together and what the final book looks like on Thursday. I can’t wait! Can you?