Dolly Henry is a sewing and design blog for the creative wanderer, where style meets play and making is a lifestyle.

Hi, I'm Megan - owner, designer and writer at Dolly Henry! Join me here as I explore the ins and outs of creativity, dabble in dollmaking and raise my voice on issues facing creative entrepreneurs.

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PDF Patterns Are Not Pop Songs

As a designer, I am always having conversations with fellow creatives about the issues we face, and recently I have read a couple of blog posts about the cost of creating PDF or digital files.

I usually relate to these posts quite well, as it's somewhere I have been and something I continue to struggle with at times. I appreciate other's raising the subject, as it is something that I feel needs discussing, alongside educating customers about paying designers an adequate fee for their skills and time.

So with the topic fresh on my mind this week, after a bit of a flurry in the knitting/crochet circles about designers being paid for their patterns, I thought I might share my point of view - in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say!

The common misconception with passive income streams, such as digital patterns, is that once the work has been done, you have no further costs in distributing that pattern. I laughed when I heard this, before I had ever even made or sold a PDF pattern.

Previously, I designed and made children's clothing, selling it online internationally and also from a short-stint brick and mortar shop. The clothing didn't just sell itself, I had to get online every single day and let people know my products and brand existed. If I didn't keep at the marketing, the sales would slow. I was a very small business of one, without a large advertising budget so the buck stopped with me.

When a friend was creating her first digital product (an e-book), I urged her to increase the price on the item as she naturally assumed that once her work was done, the book cost her nothing. I reminded her that the book would continue to cost her time, even if the difficult work had been done. She would need to continually promote the book to continue to receive sales on a regular basis, assist people with download issues, and I knew she'd offer extensive email support should a customer encounter an issue with making a recipe.

All of these things take time and need to be taken into consideration when pricing a digital product.

The heavy lifting of the creating is done, however, unless you completely abandon the product once you have created it, your digital item is no different to a tangible product - you need to market that baby and you need to provide customer support services too.

Unless you have won the lottery and have disposable time and resources to spend on these things without being compensated, then you have to take this into account when you create a product.

That being said, it is incredibly difficult to 'regain' the costs of a PDF pattern or ebook in the short term. The number of hours alone it takes to create a new design and write the instructions means you often need to sell hundreds upon hundreds of copies before you break even. If you do a good job, most people will not need assistance with creating your pattern, so you don't need to worry about adding $100 on top of each sale to cover the time you'll spend helping them!

However, if 1 in 20 customers need a bit of help, then the little bit extra you have gained from each sale will help cover a little bit of that time. That's a good theory anyway, quite often there is no little bit 'extra.'

When you think about it logically, how is someone selling a $10 pattern several times a week (or even a day if you were really lucky!) going to make an income? Even if you can donate your time for free, there are still running costs for the distribution of the pattern - all website platforms have transaction fees, listing fees or an overall monthly fee. This is a cost to the designer - it's like shop rent and each of those costs has to come out of the patterns they sell.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

It really is impossible! When I was creating my first pattern, I asked a few people about how much they'd expect to pay for a pattern. I found the answers a little dismal, with one lady even telling me that if the pattern template pieces weren't digitally drawn, then she wouldn't spend more than $10 on the pattern. (I personally have purchased some excellent patterns with hand drawn templates, and I have also purchased some TERRIBLE patterns with digitally drawn templates.)

In short, the general expectation was that more than $10 was a little bit expensive for a digital pattern. I don't entirely disagree, there are some designs that warrant smaller price tags depending on the size of the pattern and item in question. However my patterns have extensive instructions, are photographed step-by-step and even though I originally offered my initial design with hand-drawn templates, they all now contain digitally drawn templates - several pages of them.

I wanted to create designs that looked amazing but were relatively simple to sew and so that the resulting item looked the same as my original work. There is nothing more disheartening than setting out to create something only to discover the process is incredibly complicated and your finished project doesn't even vaguely resemble the pattern picture. I hoped to make a pattern where even a beginner could feel proud of their finished item - even if their skills needed perfecting.

Doing this takes a lot of time and energy, and years of carefully honed skills. These skills aren't simply the ability to draw and sew a doll. To create a pattern to the standard I wanted I needed to know how to take good photographs, grasp editing software, feel confident in graphic design and learn to master Adobe Illustrator and digitize my pieces - to scale so that they print out properly and all match correctly.

That is a lot of work so that my customer can confidently purchase a pattern and download it in one afternoon, start sewing and (hopefully) produce something that looks really good too. The simpler something looks and the easier the process is, the more work it takes to make it that way.

On top of all that time, I also have running costs - such as the Adobe suite which enables me to edit and create graphics, pattern pieces, and edit photos. If I didn't do all this myself, I would have to pay a graphic designer for these things and factor the costs into the pattern. I do it myself, which allows me to do it faster and on demand, but I deserve to be paid for these skills as much as a graphic designer would so the costs need to go into the pattern.

Given all of the above, $10 feels like an obscene price to charge for a pattern. It should be much, much higher. After all, my customer only has to purchase my pattern once and they can make as many items as they like from my design and also learn new skills along the way. It's much more than a pattern, it's a little sewing workshop too.

Sometimes I hear people say they can't afford to pay more for a pattern, and I won't disagree with this statement as I have no idea what kind of budget someone else is running. I only know that as a designer, and owner of a small creative business, I'm not exactly rolling in it myself so when I can't afford something, I simply don't buy it, or I save for it. What I don't do is ask someone else to take an income cut so that I can have something for less $$.

If I can't change the price of flour, something I have to buy every week as a household essential, then I sure as hell am not asking a creative to charge less for their time on a pattern I only need to buy once and have forever. I've spent more on a cheap lunch than what a lot of us pay for patterns, and it's digested by the end of the day!

I have a friend who was recently faced with having to cull people off her newsletter list or start paying for the plan that allowed her to keep all 2000 members. The fee was above what she could sensibly afford at that point in time, so she culled hard. We did a little exercise for the fun of it, of what her subscribers would have to pay to stay on the newsletter list. It turns out that for $3 A YEAR each, she could cover the cost of the newsletter list and everyone could stay subscribed. Of course she didn't even offer this as an option, but it made us both think how little you have to spend to support a small creative business!

PDF patterns are not pop songs, you won't top the charts and sell 2 million+ copies for $2.99 a piece...

Selling PDF patterns for $10 or less would only generate serious income if you had a large customer base who were happy to buy a pattern every year or so. Just one pattern each. However you would need over ten thousand customers for that to happen, and because there are a lot of patterns out there for all sorts of different things, that scenario is incredibly unlikely.

My own patterns are in a small niche. And within that niche, my style will not be for everyone. This means that the patterns need to be more expensive so that I do not have to sell to 15,000 people. But this also means that the industry needs to really change its perspective on paying designers. Not all patterns are created equal, as has been my own personal experience, however you can't price your work based on someone else's.

I also take issue with the fact people question that a designer would 'dare' to charge 'x' amount for HER creative work, when in other creative circles you can earn a lot more money 'designing'... In my opinion, the sewing/knitting/crochet/quilting industry is vastly undercutting itself and it's not doing a lot of good!

In order to continue to create new designs and patterns, we need to be paid for what we do. The pay rise I'm asking for is not even extreme - paying $18 to $20 (AUD) for a well-written 10 pages + pattern, with instructions and photographs is not going to break the bank. But it might mean I can scrape together a small living.

In comparison to the patterns of yesteryear, which were black and white text instructions, with no photographs, no technique instructions or help at your fingertips or even pattern templates - today's patterns are like mini-workshops!

The notion that a digital pattern should cost less than a paper pattern is also misguided. The printing cost is only tiny percentage compared to the creation of the design - if a printed pattern was vastly superior and costly, then everyone printing off PDF patterns at home would find it very expensive, but as we know, it is relatively cost-effective.

When you purchase a paper pattern vs a PDF pattern, even if they both had identical pricing, the customer already saves money on their PDF by not paying postage and has the convenience of receiving their file instantly. There is no real need to significantly discount digital files in the face of their paper counterparts.

I think we are taking all this wonderful automation and instant learning for granted. We think because it comes quickly and easily to our computer that is should, therefore, be extremely cheap. The washing machine and dishwasher were created to simplify our lives and make things easier, however, those time-saving devices cost quite a lot.

I'm not suggesting we start charging $1000 for a pattern (though a girl can dream!) but I do think we need to perhaps have a bit of a mental shift going forward into this new era - for both independent designers and their customers.

Megan x

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  1. People always want something cheap!

    I think downloading digital patterns is super handy. It saves me petrol, time and money looking for something comparable at the shops.

    I think your paying for someones time, effort and talent and much like a hand made item that costs money. Its not mass produced and often makers advertise on a small scale, meaning turn over is less. Which is the delightful when you have an item not everybody else has made!


    1. It's so handy and so instant! I greatly value the time someone else has taken too so that I can just get in and enjoy making something without having to always work it out myself.


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