You Should Write Patterns!

I’ve written before about selling quilts, and the value vs. price problem. I choose not to sell my quilts (at this time,) because I reasonably believe that I value them far more than someone else would pay. In other words, the value to me is higher than the price I could charge. Consider a bed-sized quilt. If it takes 80 to 100 hours of my time, plus about $200 of direct material cost, plus overhead and marketing costs, plus profit, that quilt has a value (to me) of well over $2000. Will you pay me that much? If not, I’d rather give them away. (See end notes for links to my posts on this issue.)

Besides selling your quilts, another way to earn income in the quilting world is to create patterns. Thousands of quilters offer patterns, both for free and for payment. Some sell their designs through magazines or other publishers. Others market their patterns themselves.

A design, not a pattern. No yardage, no technical directions. Free here: https://catbirdquilts.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/free-medallion-quilt-design-1/

If you are interested in writing patterns, I strongly encourage you to read a couple of posts on the subject. First, from Jennifer at See How We Sew, some advice on creating well-written patterns. Second, from Sam Hunter at Hunter’s Design Studio, a discussion on writing patterns, and what might have happened when a pattern isn’t well done.

One aspect Sam mentions is how well pattern-writing pays. Or not. If you want to make income from your patterns, this is a key piece of data.

Whether you write one pattern for pay, or write them full-time, it IS a business. Several months ago I had a frustrating experience when I decided to buy two patterns from a designer’s website. The process didn’t go well. Multiple attempts to contact her — by email and phone — went unanswered for many days. Her eventual emails to me blamed me, rather than taking responsibility for a glitch in her website. Finally she whined that sending out the problem pattern by mail (which I had not demanded) would cost her another $5. I told her that if that was all it cost her to learn a good lesson in customer service, it was a cheap lesson. She is talented at design but her business skills were lacking.

Another aspect of designing and pattern-writing to consider is copyright law on patterns. It can be very hard to protect your work, and the law isn’t clear on where the lines are drawn. If you’ve ever looked at a quilt and thought, “I don’t need to buy the pattern for that. I can draw that up myself,” you know what I mean. (If this concerns you, I’ll leave it to you to investigate for yourself. Copyright law is not my area of expertise.)

Now and then I’m asked to provide a pattern for one of my quilts. It’s a tremendous compliment and I take it seriously. But while I love to design, I’m not interested in writing patterns. The reasons are partly due to my personality, and partly because of my quilts.

First, to create a pattern and be sure that it provides good instructions, a pattern should be tested. Because I design as I go, I would need to make two quilts of the same design, with the second one as a test of instructions written only after the first was finished. I don’t want to make duplicate quilts. I want to make original quilts. So recreating a design, even for pattern testing, is not very interesting to me.

Second, in general, my quilts are complex. Writing accurate instructions would be time-consuming and difficult, and would suck all the fun out of quilt creation for me. Instructions you would get would be lengthy and difficult, and might well suck all the fun out of creation for you, too. Both of us would lose.

Third, and most important, I don’t want to help you make my quilts. I want to help you make your quilts. Your fabrics are different from mine, your vision is different from mine, you might have a specific purpose for your quilt. If you want to make your best friend a quilt loaded with friendship stars, by all means you should! If you have a wonderful piece of embroidery, or a great big print you’d like to use as a center block (Kate…), you should.

I can help you with that. But I can’t help you make your quilt your way AND tell you how to make my quilt my way. It’s a choice.

We are more powerful when we create from our own vision. For many people, it is harder to do that than to use someone else’s design and instructions. But I know from personal experience, and from feedback from my students, that original creation is incredibly rewarding. It feeds confidence and seeds more ideas for future work. Those seeds sprout and grow in unexpected ways. Here as elsewhere we reap what we sew.

If you’d like to read my posts on quilting as a business, you can find them here:

Quilting for Pay — The Longarm
Conversations with Artists
Price vs. Value of a Quilt, Part 1
Price vs. Value of a Quilt, Part 2
You Should Write Patterns
“It Feels Weird Asking for Pay”
Pay for Quilters (And other Crafters and Artists)
You Should Sell Those: A Play in Three Short Scenes, With Commentary

Cotton — Where Does Your Fabric Come From?
Cotton — What Happens After Harvest?
Cotton — Weaving Fabric
Cotton — Batik Production
Cotton — Printing Designs

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22 thoughts on “You Should Write Patterns!

  1. Nann

    In junior high English class we had a unit on “writing directions.” As I recall our exercise was writing a recipe. I don’t remember what recipe I wrote, but the concept has remained with me. (Yikes, fifty years!) I think of it when I read directions for quilt patterns, some of which are more easily understood than others. I’ve been sewing and quiltmaking long enough that I look first at the illustrations to see the step and then I read the text….As for earning money making patterns: I understand not wanting to have to make a duplicate quilt. Also, because I look at the pictures first, I often puzzle out a design from a photo, so I don’t buy the pattern unless I know it is something that I will certain-for-sure make. In the past I have purchased many patterns (for fashion sewing, stitchery, and now quiltmaking) on speculation, and I have never made them.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      That sounds like an excellent unit! I’ve written software code and documentation. I taught and wrote assignments and exams. I have some experience writing that way. But it is hard to do well.

      As to buying patterns never made — no kidding! I rarely buy a “pattern,” but I’ve bought my share of books thinking I would make some of the quilts in them. I still have a few, but I hardly buy any anymore.

      Thanks for your comments.

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      1. Nann

        Sometimes there will be a closeout vendor at a big quilt show who sells discontinued/overstock patterns and books. One time I was shopping for such bargains and said aloud, “Better to pay $2 for a pattern I may never make than $10 for it.” The woman next to me agree wholeheartedly.

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  2. kathyfaust

    Thank your for articulating how I feel about selling my quilts, making duplicates, and the need for good pattern instrudtions. I also do not quilt to have my quilts judged in a show. They are for my pleasure… both in the process and product and worrying about making mistakes is not part of the pleasure equation. I am blessed to be able to give them away. I find it a bit awkward when someone asks me to make a quilt for them…. I won’t charge them, and I don’t want to work on a design or with fabrics I might dislike. So I do a lot of hedging. How do you handle this? Thanks again for sharing so much.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      If it’s really a quilt I don’t want to make, (t-shirt quilts) I simply say I don’t make those. If it is immediate (and I mean IMMEDIATE) family I will make a quilt in the colors they want, with an understanding of what they have in mind, but I’ll make it my way. (They’re fine with that, as they know I would do it better (knowledge, experience, ability to visualize). For pretty much everyone else, I tell them that the fabrics would be about $x, and the time involved would make it about $YYY. Would they like to go ahead with that? And the answer is always “no.” I might still choose to make something for them, but in truth, I’m more likely to make for someone who doesn’t ask than someone who does. 🙂

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  3. katechiconi

    Listening…. (nodding agreement, the big prints are calling my name), and I totally agree about the chore of writing a pattern that works and gives people the information they actually need. For example, I’ve always hated the phrase ‘quilt as desired’. NO! Tell me how to do the quilting on your design. It’s part of it and should be included in the instructions. And as you know, I don’t make quilts to sell and don’t really want people duplicating mine. If I’m asked by family or friends to make a quilt, I’ll accept the cost of the fabric, etc, I’ll use the colours they want, but I get to choose the design and layout.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I can see both sides — it is flattering that someone would like to make a quilt like one of mine, and a pattern-writer has the opportunity to enjoy that compliment and some cash with it. But I really want my quilts to be my quilts. It might be immature to be so possessive … I dunno … will have to think about that…

      I am willing to share the — what I call the “template,” or how big the center is and how wide the borders are. (I plan to do that with my current project.) If it’s important to someone, I guess they can then copy all my block placements, too. (Just don’t then claim it’s your own design!) But I think they would have more fun deciding for themselves what blocks to use, and what value placement, and what colors. I sure would.

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  4. farmquilter

    I have made 2 applique wall hangings that I created out of my head and they are my favorites of all the quilts I have made. There is just something special that comes from creating a design in your head and seeing it become something tangible that just makes them so much better!!!

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  5. VickiT

    Great post! I’m not anywhere near capable of writing any patterns, but your comment about how it sucks the fun out of it for you is very true.
    I took many classes to learn to decorate cakes years ago and it came very easily to me for some reason. My teacher actually contacted her supervisor and in turn my name was given to Wilton so they could contact me to be one of their teachers. They did and I was going to do that as I felt that would be fun, but then a very surprising and scary health problem was found in my 15 yr old son about that same time and I had to decline teaching. But so many friends said I should sell cakes and advertise but like you, I felt doing that would suck the fun out of it for me as well. Sometimes no matter how much you love doing something, turning it into a business means you are now on a time schedule which also can mean it takes time away from your ‘life’ with friends and family and in time, you may not even want to do it for fun anymore because it became frustrating. For me, teaching would have been fun since it was an easy schedule and I wasn’t required to do more than I wanted to do.

    For pattern writing though, as a consumer who is not at any point in which I could write a pattern, you are so correct to say if it’s what you want to do, then make sure you do it well. I have purchased some patterns, and even gotten some free patterns in the past that gave me nothing but frustration. I figure if a free pattern is written so poorly that it frustrates me the way some of those have, there is no way I would ever buy a pattern from them. And those which I’ve purchased before that did the same thing meant it was the last pattern I was ever going to buy from that person as well.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Do you still make beautiful cakes? THAT is NOT a skill I could develop! I’m great in 2D, but try to make things 3D and problems start…

      I’ve read a lot of comments about bad patterns. I’ve only ever purchased 3, outside of books and magazines. I mentioned 2 in the post above. They were well-designed AND well-written. But of course the service stunk. And the other was a very good design but the instructions were pretty bad. Fortunately what I purchased it for was the design, as I didn’t want to simply rip him off and copy it. It was exactly what I wanted for a friend’s quilt. And I could figure out the rest. BUT my track record hasn’t been good enough to make me want to buy a bunch more!

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  6. KerryCan

    Neat post, Melanie! I am surprised at what a big business quilt patterns seem to be. I’ve never used one since the fun of quilt making, for me, is largely in the choosing of the components and colors and everything. Once again, isn’t it nice that you don’t feel you MUST make money out of your love of quilting?

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  7. snarkyquilter

    Oh my, quilt patterns. I have bought only one, but have been given a few others. The one I bought (required for a class) consisted of an 11 by 17 inch sheet of paper, folded in half with printing on all four sides. That cost $10. I find it’s more cost effective to buy a book or magazine with several patterns that I like. Like another commenter, I can usually figure out how to make a quilt from a picture, so I see no need to buy the pattern especially when I plan to make modifications. Paper piecing and applique patterns are another story, as you are getting templates that someone else has done the work of drafting. I’m told Judy Niemeyer patterns are great, but they are expensive.

    I can see the pattern makers point of view as well. An acquaintance developed a cute machine appliqued snow people pattern, had it printed up, and then sold it herself to quilt shops. She also sold it online (in paper form) but found the merchant took a big chunk of the sales. I think she may have recouped her printing investment, but it certainly didn’t make much money. To add insult to injury, someone who had seen a picture of her finished quilt expected her to answer questions about the pattern but wouldn’t buy a copy.

    As far as writing patterns, that is not in my gift. I don’t think a quilter would be happy to read, “if the seams don’t match, make one seam allowance smaller.” However, I do like to draft patterns the old fashioned way.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I like the advice “make one seam allowance smaller.” Often that’s what it takes! I haven’t done drafting, aside from the Garden Maze crossover block I made early this year. I’ll admit I was quite pleased with how easy it was and how well it turned out.

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  8. jeanswenson

    Coming late to this party, which I regret! So many great comments and thoughts on the subject of the value of quilts and patterns. I too am fortunate that my life circumstances enable me to make the choice of not selling my quilts.* The majority of the quilts I make I donate to foster kids which I find to be so rewarding! Even though I don’t know the child that my quilt eventually makes its way to, I believe in my heart that each quilt will be the perfect fit for the child that receives it.
    *I want to recognize and acknowledge that my quilts are not traditional quilts. I back mine with fleece, and call them quankets. While I still spend a lot of hours conceptualizing, designing, piecing and making a quanket, it is no where near the hours and dedication spent by those making traditional quilts, whose value far exceeds what I am making. As a crafter and a professional marketer, I understand the conundrum of trying to sell a hand-crafted item at a price that properly reflects the amount of time and cost of materials that went into making it.

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