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Commercial Sewing Patterns: What does the future hold?

There has been much speculation about the future of the sewing pattern industry since the ‘big four’ - McCalls, Simplicity, Vogue and Butterick were purchased by CSS and then on January 20, 2020, CSS was purchased by a British Company known as IG Design Group. The sewing pattern brands were added to their crafts division. 

Change like this is to be expected but Design Group primary interest is in amassing brands. When a company’s website leads with words like “investors” and share prices” it’s plain to see what business they are in. Below is a picture of their website landing page and you can explore their site in more detail at:   IG Design Group 

To be fair, many of their brands are very successful, especially in paper products such as wrapping paper and cards, but unlike the sewing pattern industry, these products never really change. What do wrapping paper and sewing patterns have in common? Paper. 

Like most things, the commercial sewing pattern industry is changing and the recent purchase by the Design Group is a continuation of that. Take a look at Wikipedia to see a history of the sewing pattern industry.  But what is the significance of this major purchase?  Abby Glassenberg does an excellent job of explaining this in her article for the Craft Industry Alliance entitled, “CSS Industries, Including Big 4 Pattern Companies, Acquired by Design Group”.  

Even prior to the Design Group purchasing these pattern companies, they were showing signs of trouble. Customers are not happy and they have been raised online in blog posts. Complaints include patterns are lackluster and boring, instructions are lacking or difficult to understand, and there is poor delineation between brands.  Is Design Group the company that will shake the cobwebs out of commercial pattern business and position them to thrive in the future? Maybe yes, but most likely probably no.

The reason for the lack of faith in the Design Group is when you study their portfolio of products, there is nothing that is particularly innovative; I’ll bet it hasn’t changed much in over 50 years.  If the sewing pattern business wants to survive and thrive, they need to innovate and embrace technology. They need to completely rethink their way of doing business and realize the future is all about “on-demand” printing.  Other manufacturers have already figured this out. Those that are thriving have hired incredibly innovative people to lead the way.

But is this possible in the commercial pattern industry? The answer is yes; they need to look no further than the printing company, Spoonflower Spoonflower started out printing custom designs on fabric sold by the yard. They started with a couple of fabrics and now they can print on at least 20. They didn’t stop at fabrics; now you can have your own designs printed on wallpaper, bed linens and more.

Spoonflower has figured out how to bring state-of-the-art technology to the consumer in a fun, innovative and inspiring way. Even if you are not a talented designer you can choose from a huge library of designs created by others. Spoonflower thrives on innovation.  It’s not difficult to imagine how the Spoonflower model could be applied to the commercial pattern industry, but it will require a huge mindset shift. At the forefront needs to be streamlining, innovation, creativity, design-thinking, vision and a serious investment in technology.

This sounds like a tall order, but in my opinion it’s relatively simple if you know what you are doing.  First, understand the inventory. Review the five brands inventory and eliminate redundancy. Keep only the best. Second, move to an on-demand printing model. A customer orders a pattern, the pattern company prints it and ships it to them. Still printed on tissue and folded in an envelope but also available digitally. As printers, faxes, and other office equipment has become part of the home office, so might wide-format printing.  Third, give customers more design options. Provide customers a catalog of patterns or let them design their own. The pattern company would store each customer’s measurements (bust, waist and hips) but also includes height, arm and leg length and neck size - much the way a fine seamstress or tailor would. The customer designs a dress for example, by choosing the silhouette, length, sleeve style, neck style, closure, pockets and finishings. The pattern is sent, in their preferred language, complete with instructions. Specialized documentation could also be provided to customers showing how to lay out the pattern, set a sleeve, install a zipper, add a lining, etc. Customer satisfaction and trust levels would go through the roof because they would get exactly what they want.   

For Indie designers, this could be a godsend. They could remain independent, yet could have their patterns printed, packed and shipped by a major pattern company. Successful Indie designers could strengthen their own brands, which could offer many other opportunities. Now to be fair, McCall's will print independent designer's patterns in lots of 1000, but that also comes with a price tag most small designers can't afford.

As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest disatisfiers with the Big-4 patterns among home sewers is poorly written pattern instructions. So many people have posted about this it is difficult to ignore. Commercial pattern companies need to figure out how to return to basics and do what they used to do quite well. Many sewers still remember those days! The advantage today is that many sewers are happy to learn via video instruction and online documentation. 

There is a lot of work to do to innovate the commercial pattern industry and there are plenty of signs that the big four may not be up to the task. It will take someone with vision, experience, financial backing, and commitment to make this happen. 

Copyright March 2021 Small Batch Design Company