Earlier this week, Jen of Grainline Studio released her latest pattern, the Lark Tee. It's a basic tee with four different necklines (v-neck, scoop, crew and boat-neck) and four different sleeve variations (cap, short, 3/4 and long) for a total of 16 possible different looks. The second I saw it on my Instagram feed, I hopped right over to Jen's website and purchased it for $12. (Some people are surprised to know I purchase most of my sewing patterns - but it's true!) Later that night, I noticed that not everyone was as excited as I was about the new pattern.
"Boooooring!" "But we have so many tee patterns already." "Are these indie designers just out of things to design?"
Many people felt the same way I did, of course, but overall reception was mixed. It got me thinking - can we really have too much of a certain kind of pattern? Too many indie designers? In the last week alone, I've gotten emails from two Pattern Workshop students lamenting the saturation of the indie pattern market and wondering if I was concerned at all that the competition was getting too stiff for them to survive as full-time designers.
In short, my answer is a resounding no. I do not think we can have too many t-shirt patterns. I do not think we can have too many designers. (And no, that is not just because of my affiliation with Pattern Workshop.)
Let me explain.
Features vs. Benefits
First, consumer behavior 101 tells us that people buy benefits, not features. Features are things that can be listed in factual bullet points like the following:
- Designed for knits
- Designed for pear-shaped figures
- High-cut neckline
Sure, we might look for patterns based on features, but features don't sell. BENEFITS are what sell. Like these:
- Look more toned (because of the perfectly designed sleeve length)
- Appear healthier and more vibrant (because of the flattering color)
- Be comfortable (because of the stretchy fabric)
- Appear more attractive (because the pattern is designed for your body type)
- Worry less about exposing yourself (because of the high-cut neckline)
Those are very basic examples, so let's go a little deeper. Why do you think some people pay $250+ for a pair of designer jeans? Is there really anything that makes them better than a pair of $50 jeans? Okay, maybe. Perhaps the denim is higher quality. Perhaps the topstitching is nicer, and the fit is better. Perhaps they were made in the USA instead of imported. But what about a pair of $250+ jeans is better than a pair of, say, a $130 pair of jeans? I'd venture to say nothing.
In this case, the price is part of the branding, and the branding for designs in this price range usually has to do with a very specific benefit. It goes something like this: Wear these jeans and look/feel like a wealthy celebrity/jet setter. It's not about the spandex content of the denim or the color-fastness of the dye. It's not about whether they are bootcut or straight or if the rise is high or low. This is why designer clothing/perfume/jewelry/cosmetics ads usually features high-fashion images of celebrities doing fabulous things. It's also why lower-end product advertising usually lists features. The manufacturer of $30 jeans is appealing to a totally different sense than the manufacturer of $250+ ones or even $100 ones.
This same principle applies to sewing patterns. Some designers can charge upwards of $15 for patterns, and their loyal customers don't blink an eye. It's because their customers are purchasing for the perceived benefit of owning, sewing and wearing those patterns. Theoretically, PDF patterns in particular have no tangible value because they are not a tangible good. But in practice, they are worth whatever people are willing to pay for them. So if a designer is having success marketing a pattern for $16, that is its value. The customers are purchasing the experience, not a product.
Which brings me to my next point...
Buying for the Experience
Just as I've heard people complaining about the proliferation of PDF sewing patterns and the rising prices, I've heard complaints about sewing camps, retreats and workshops. One popular sewing blogger does a lingerie-sewing workshop that costs several hundreds of dollars (plus plane tickets and hotel if the attendee isn't local). I've seen tirades about how "ridiculous" her pricing is and, despite the fact that she probably has more expertise on the topic than 99.5% of us, how she has no right to call herself an expert.
But you know what? Her customers don't care about the price of her workshop. They aren't buying her expertise (however much she might have). They are buying the experience.
Attending one of her workshops means learning in a beautiful space, sewing on high-end machines, experiencing rare and delicate fabrics, rubbing elbows with well-known sewing bloggers and enjoying beautifully catered meals. Attendees leave the workshop with not just a new garment - but lots of memories, gorgeous photographs, life-long friendships and even business connections. No lingerie-making book or online class could deliver that same experience.
Similarly, women don't fork out hundreds of dollars to go to camp to learn how to sew. They go to camp to get away from the responsibility of raising a family or working at a demanding job. They go to hang out with other sewists who are as passionate about fabric as they are. They go to have FUN (and probably to drink wine).
It's all about experience.
As far as patterns go, the experience includes everything from the presentation of the booklet/pattern (if it's a paper pattern) to the quality of drafting to the fit of the finished garment. But what you might not realize is that it also includes the camaraderie on social media and the thrill of being associated with a certain pattern brand. When a designer has a good understanding of communicating benefits and creating an experience for her customers, she has the foundation to become a wildly successful businessperson, too. And when a designer consistently delivers that experience, she develops a following of "fangirls."
Fangirls are people (women, in this case) who will purchase pretty much anything from the person/business of which they are a fan. They will tell all their friends about it, blog about it, post it on social media and pretty much declare it to be the best thing since bacon. I can fully admit that I am a fangirl of Grainline Studio patterns. I own almost all of Jen's patterns and can almost guarantee that I will purchase new releases as soon as they go public.
There are several reasons for this. First, they are well-drafted, illustrated and explained. Second, they are practical designs that work with my lifestyle and taste. Third, they fit my body type. And finally - this is the most elusive and least-tangible one - they help me feel more stylish and like I am part of an elite group of sewists who use them.
Furthermore, fangirls are forgiving. If their beloved company/brand/designer/etc. makes a mistake or releases a lackluster product, the fangirl will remain loyal (to an extent). If you are a designer, THESE ARE THE PEOPLE THAT YOU SHOULD TRY TO ATTRACT BY THE THOUSANDS. They have the ability to maintain your business and turn your hobby into a career. They are your most loyal followers and customers.
Think about it. No woman takes a photo of a sloppily dressed, unhealthy, unattractive person to her hairstylist and asks for that cut and color. Instead, she asks her stylist to copy the style of the latest and greatest celebrity - oftentimes regardless of whether celebrity has a similar hair type, face shape or features to her own. This is because we buy into ideas and possibilities, not things. We purchase for the intangible aspects of products/services, and that's how fangirls are created. As one myself, I can attest that I buy based on how products will make me feel and how others perceive me for owning them. That might sound extremely shallow, but I think it's a common (albeit subconscious) behavior in all people (at least in our culture).
I own lots of t-shirt sewing patterns.
I own lots of t-shirts, both handmade and ready-to-wear.
(I will probably buy more of both because of fashion trends, body shape and lifestyle changes. I also just enjoy trying out new patterns just like I enjoy trying out new clothes at a store.)
I'd venture to say there are thousands of t-shirts available to me as a consumer. There are $12 Old Navy ones, $40 J.Crew ones and $100 James Perse ones (and everything in-between and below and beyond). There are boxy fit ones, slim fit ones, v-neck ones and scoop neck ones. You can buy them cropped or buy them long. There are thousands of different t-shirts because there are millions of consumers all looking for different things.
Our market can sustain lots and lots of t-shirt companies just as the sewing pattern market can sustain lots and lots of pattern designs and designers. Remember, too, that the the market for sewing patterns is not static; new people are entering it every day. So just because there's already a design for a t-shirt or a pair of jeans or what-have-you doesn't at all mean there's not room for more. It could just be that new sewists entering the market are looking for EXACTLY that "new" (but same) design. Or it could just be that they like the experience of one (new) brand over another.
(Also, some people are just pattern hoarders. Ahem, like me.) :)