About a month ago, conversations on Instagram started popping up about why designers were so secretive about how to become a designer. My first thought was that it was a weird complaint because I picked up everything I knew from information shared by other designers, but then I realized that the useful blog and forum posts that I got so much information from probably are very challenging to find these days, thanks to search engine bias against older content.
And newer content isn’t being put out that much anymore. While there’s still a lot of excitement around the creative side of designing, it’s gone from the business side for many designers, myself included. For designers who have been around for years and seen how much work it is to keep up with trends and for little profit growth… Well, it’s a kind of bleak topic, and it’s hard to write about honestly without being a Debbie Downer.
Still, it’s not really fair to aspiring designers that this isn’t getting talked about very frequently, and the conversation on Instagram reminded me of a long series I had written and never published. I used to have a blog post request form for topics that knitters would like me to cover, and I used those to put together the FAQ blog posts that you can find in the Resources section, but I also got a surprising number of questions about knitting pattern design as a career. At the time, I mostly wrote this blog with the casual knitter in mind as my target audience, so writing about the nitty gritty of design business wasn’t appealing. I love talking about business, but this blog is aimed at people who like my patterns, not other designers, so that stuff feels out of place here. And then one day a couple years ago, in a fit of grumpiness after seeing an unsuccessful former designer selling expensive coaching to aspiring designers with unrealistic promises about how much money they’ll make, I banged out the first draft of this. When I was done, I decided I was being petty and a bit of a downer, so I sat on the series until now. Seeing the recent frustration at the lack of openness made me decide it was time to finally hit post.
Because I don’t want business chat to dominate this blog with a proper series of posts, I wrote one big long post that covers all of the questions I’ve received on the topic, everything that I think might get asked in the future, and the stuff that no one thinks to ask about. It’s going to be an extremely long post with very few pretty pictures and not a very cohesive structure, but here it goes!
Here’s a quick table of contents to help you navigate.
What skills does a designer need?
How do you get good at designing?
Consider why you want to be a designer.
How crappy is crappy pay?
You’re running a small business if you’re an indie pattern designer.
What does a good pattern submission look like?
What’s my pattern writing process?
How do I get yarn support?
How do you market patterns?
Get comfy on the internet.
There’s always room for new designers.
What skills does a designer need?
There are three key skills to being an independent designer who self-publishes.
1. Being able to design knitting projects well. You have to be able to make pretty things that fit real people, and it’s important to enjoy the creative process. A lot of people have this skill and love knitting without a pattern, and it’s the most basic skill among many that are needed to be an indie pattern designer. Loving knitting without a pattern and creating beautiful, original knits is not enough to be a designer, but on the other hand not having this skill/passion means you’re probably not going to be bringing unique enough patterns to make it as an indie pattern designer.
2. Writing well. Original, cool designs don’t matter if the pattern isn’t easy and enjoyable to follow. Writing is perhaps the most important skill for an independent pattern designer. Clear communication is essential, but what seems clear will vary from knitter to knitter, which is why when faced with almost identical patterns, knitters will choose to buy from their favorite designer over another but both designers’ patterns can sell well. Good, reliable writing is what builds a following.
3. Marketing your work and finding an audience. This is the hardest part of being an indie pattern designer, and it’s also the least talked about skill. For many creatives, “marketing” is an ugly word because it means admitting that you’re selling something and that artistic talent alone doesn’t measure success. For some, it can feel manipulative and “impure,” but it doesn’t have to be like that. Marketing is about connecting with the right people, and that can be both genuine and fun. The Outfit Along was a marketing idea because I noticed a lot of people who knit my patterns also sew, and I wanted to come up with a fun way to engage with them more intentionally. I love co-hosting it, and it’s been a great way to connect with people who have similar interests and style. You don’t have to be Don Draper to be an indie designer, but you do have to do more than design and write patterns and wait for people to find them.
If you don’t have these three skills or aren’t interested in developing them, being an independent designer who self-publishes is probably not the right path for you. You don’t have to be instantly good at any of these three things, but you do have to be interested in becoming good at all of them.
How do you get good at designing?
There are very few formal ways of learning how to design handknit sweaters. Undergraduate programs are typically aimed at fashion design for production or textiles as an artistic medium. There used to be mentoring programs, but I don’t know of any currently in existence.
Most of my designer friends and I learned from reading everything we could get our hands on and then testing that information on our needles. I own a large number of books on sweater construction, and I went through everything my public library had. Beyond that, I read books on yarn and fibers, sewing books, and dozens of knitting patterns. These days, not only is there more to read, but there are also other options for different learning styles, like Craftsy classes. The first step to designing well is to devour a lot of information, which is time consuming and maybe not the most fun, but it’s essential.
While reading as much as I could, I started putting the information to the test. I knit myself a couple sweaters using the information I picked up before I ever wrote my first pattern. I wanted to make sure I really understood what I had learned, and it’s good that I did that instead of throwing garbage patterns out into the world, because the first sweaters I designed from scratch fit very poorly. Even these days I’m not very happy about the fit on the first cardigan pattern I finally released because I’ve learned even more since then. It’s not a bad pattern, but it could have been much better if I hadn’t been itching to give into the requests to release a pattern for it.
There is no shortcut for this process. If you want to be a good pattern designer, you have to learn how to be a good -project- designer first. Develop your design skills on personal projects. That means knitting a bad sweater or two until you figure out how things work. And it means reading and maybe knitting from other designers’ patterns so you can really see why things are done certain ways. It takes patience and dedication, but it’s worth it.
Consider why you want to be a designer.
Back when knitting blogging was a bigger deal than it is now, many bloggers stumbled into knitting pattern design as a source of traffic and income, myself included. These days new designers seem less likely to be bloggers with an established audience adding onto what they already do, and more likely to be knitters who are intentionally trying to develop a new career as a pattern designer from scratch with zero audience.
I think it’d be good for aspiring pattern designers to think long and hard about why they’re pursuing this path and if it will get them what they want, particularly if the three key skills I mentioned previously aren’t all there.
For some, although few will admit it, it’s about the joy of having a large audience and being a bit of a knitting celeb. I will happily confess that that’s why I started designing, because there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have your work be seen and to connect with like-minded people. I released my first patterns for free because I liked seeing the bump in blog traffic, and the positive comments I received on my early sweater patterns fueled my desire to do more long before I made significant money off my work. But there were fewer designers and patterns being released at the time, and I don’t think it’d be nearly as effective if I was in the same position today that I was in nine years ago. These days, if I was an attention-deprived college student like I was then, I’d probably start a podcast or YouTube channel instead of designing patterns because patterns no longer attract attention on their own. The hardest part of my job these days is making sure my new releases get seen, so the tables have definitely turned. If celebrity or an audience is really your goal if you’re honest with yourself, there are other options than pattern design.
Another reason why people go into knitting pattern design is because they think it will be a quick and/or easy way to supplement their income. This is always hard to see because designing is truly not an answer to immediate financial problems. No one is making big bucks off of pattern design alone, and those that are making a reasonable amount took time and/or spent money building up their business. Very few designers make significant amounts of money. It takes a lot of skill, hard work, time, and investment to make it happen. Money is a horrible reason to get into pattern design.
So you might be thinking that money and fame aren’t good reasons to get into pattern design, but there must be a reason why people do it. Yes! There are a bunch. Some designers notice that there’s an under-served market out there– for a particular knitting technique, or fashion style, or body type– and they feel the urge to fill the void. Some designers love helping other people be crafty and creative. Some love the flexibility and risks of self-employment and running their own businesses. Frequently, it’s a combination of some of those things, and they’re great reasons to get into knitter pattern design. Some designers, like me, get started for questionable reasons but stick with it for the other parts, but at the end of the day, you need a solid reason to keep with it, and it’ll be an easier journey if you can figure out the “why” from the start.
Designing isn’t for everyone, but for certain people it’s amazing and checks all of the right boxes. If you want to be a designer, really think about the work that goes into it and if you want all of it or just bits and pieces. Like any job, you might not enjoy everything, but you have to love enough to make up for the crappy pay.
How crappy is crappy pay?
There’s always a certain vagueness about pay, which is understandable because you don’t want to create the illusion that you’re rolling in dough and overcharging but you also don’t want to seem like you’re putting out a sob story to drum up sales. It’s hard to be honest without making a bad impression with someone.
When I was a full-time designer (I’m not currently but was for a few years), I made slightly over minimum wage most of the time, about as much as my friends who were baristas if you included their tips. It wasn’t as much as I made as an editor at a small craft magazine, but I could pay my rent and was making about as much as most of my friends from college because I’m a millennial and the majority of my peers were underemployed. Choosing a fun but low paying job was easy when I had a low-cost lifestyle and friends in similar financial positions.
I started designing full-time at the age of 23. My age is significant because I had been out of college for just a year and hadn’t really upgraded my lifestyle. I had a roommate; most of my furniture folded up; I was still on my parents’ health care; and no one/nothing depended on me financially other than myself. On top of that, I had been planning on leaving my job at the magazine I was working at, so I had a substantial amount of savings; I was debt free; and shortly after I was laid off from the magazine, I got offered a regular writing contract for knitting content for a craft website. Circumstances lined up very nicely for me to become a full-time knitting pattern designer, and my extremely low expenses and lifestyle expectations contributed to that.
When I first became a full-time designer, I wasn’t actually making enough money from designing to support myself. I knew that would be the case because, although I had been designing and releasing patterns for a few years prior with good results, I hadn’t been putting in full-time hours. I gave myself a timeline to get my design work to cover the essential bills, and until then I relied on savings. I managed to meet my bare minimum goals within the first six months, but not through pattern sales alone. While I was a full-time designer, individual pattern sales rarely made up more than half of my monthly income. The craft website I was writing for was essential for making designing work as a job because it was predictable, reliable work. I also did a lot of freelance writing about knitting and wrote patterns for other publications.
Now, I consider myself to be a B-list designer– I’ve got a niche but it’s not a huge one– so my income seemed about right to me, but I imagined at the time that there was a lot more room to grow because there were so many designers who appeared to be successful and have huge followings. After I stopped designing full-time, Casey from Ravelry shared a set of stats on pattern sales in August 2016 that made me feel like getting a part-time job was the right choice for me, because the number of designers making a significant income from pattern sales was even lower than I ever imagined. January is often cited as the best month for sales on Ravelry, so I requested similar stats for January 2019 from Casey for this blog post, which he kindly provided, and even in the best month, less than 100 designers are making a middle class income from Ravelry pattern sales. If you pay close attention, most designers who work full-time are doing more than just independent pattern design work, like publishing books, creating apps, teaching classes, selling merchandise, or developing yarn.
Not only does knitting pattern design not pay that well and not include retirement or health care benefits, but it’s also extremely variable, so you have to be very diligent about budgeting. My pattern sales income has dramatic spikes, and there have been unpredictable slumps, such as the first time I encountered my November gift-knitting slump, when people stop buying as many sweater patterns. And then there are taxes that have to be budgeted for because there’s no employer setting them aside for you.
Here’s what my sales for the last seven-ish years have looked like. 2013 is when I started designing full-time, and in 2014 I was putting out multiple patterns each month. In April 2015, I scaled back design work to part-time, but because I work months in advance, the drop is later on in the year and then sales level off in 2017 and 2018. The big spikes are generally from the beginning of KALs, and the slumps are generally months where a KAL isn’t in progress and I didn’t release anything new. A designer has to be very responsible to keep their spending in check during the spikes so they have money set aside to weather the slumps.
If you’re a financially-independent indie pattern designer, you have to be very comfortable with budgeting to make designing work. I found budgeting to be an enjoyable challenge, and I had a lot of fun being a somewhat-broke, full-time designer, but I outgrew it eventually and wasn’t making enough to develop or expand my little business, so things stagnated, and I moved on to an office job.
You’re running a small business if you’re an indie pattern designer.
Once you start selling patterns, you’re in business. Congratulations! You get all of the pros and cons of small business ownership. You probably already know about the pros, so unfortunately this section is going to be focused on the cons, most of which are just boring things that don’t get talked about often enough when giving design advice.
First, all of those nuggets of small business trivia apply to knitting pattern design businesses, too. 50% of small businesses don’t make it past 5 years. Most small businesses don’t make a profit in the first year. Starting a small business is rough, and that’s true of designing, but knowing this can help manage expectations.
Next, you need to get your paperwork in order. If you’re in the US, you’ll want to register your business, get a business license, and become familiar with your tax responsibilities, both for state and federal taxes. Depending on what state you live in, there might not be a low-earning threshold, especially when it comes to sales tax, so don’t skip this step just because you think of selling patterns to be more like a hobby. If you can afford to hire an accountant from the start, I highly recommend because they can help you be sure that you haven’t missed anything.
Bookkeeping is also very important and can be difficult to manage if you’re a sole proprietorship with no clear line between your money and the business’s money. Start tracking your expenses not just for tax purposes but also for budgeting. Make sure that you’ll never find yourself without enough cash to pay your business’s bills, and don’t forget to plan for future expenses like equipment upgrades and replacements, so your business won’t die just because your computer does.
Outside of the dry paperwork aspects, marketing needs to happen just like for any other business, and knitting patterns aren’t as unique as you might think they are when it comes to the core essentials of marketing. Grab some general marketing books, familiarize yourself with the basics, and let go of any preconceived notions about what will and won’t apply to working with the knitting community. Learn what a sales funnel is, how your work fits into the hierarchy of needs, who your target audience is, and all that jazz.
Last but not least, selling patterns means you’ll have customers, and most won’t care how you think of what you do. They’ll see their purchase as a business transaction and expect your product to be as described, correct, and delivered on time. Good, prompt customer service can help if you don’t hit all those marks, which you won’t every time because descriptions aren’t always understood, pattern errors happen easily, and online sales rely on many systems coordinating correctly. Getting the problem solved quickly is what customers expect from a business, and no one will be happy waiting weeks for you to deal with the issue because you think of this as just a hobby at the moment. New designers can find themselves in over their head because of presales and club-style collections that they either don’t have time to complete by the official date or lose interest in completing or because they didn’t invest in the editing process. “It’s just a hobby,” isn’t a good excuse for any of that when you’re selling a product because you’re a business now.
What does a good pattern submission look like?
Most of my work is self-published. It’s generally more profitable for me, and many of the things that led me to pattern design make me prefer working independently. Still, the collaborative aspects of creating work for other publishers is a delightful exercise, and the validation of being accepted by respected publications is not worthless, particularly if you’re being careful to maintain a resume that is easily understood outside of the craft world.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there was better advice out there on pattern submissions, but I’m happy to share a proposal that got accepted to the now defunct Twist Collective. This was my submission proposal for Quarry, from the Winter 2014 Twist Collective. The layout is plain-old ugly, but all of the necessary information is included, which is more important than a pretty page, I’ve got a schematic with approximate measurements, a sketch, a swatch, a description of the design’s construction and inspiration, a personal introduction, and all of my contact information. If I were to make changes to this proposal, I would have included approximate yardage calculations for the full range of sizes. Not all publications always use size S models, and it would have been better to not assume.
P.S. Good designs with good proposal can get rejected because they don’t fit with the publisher’s concept or because there’s something they like a little more that’s too similar. There’s a lot that goes into decision making on the publisher’s end.
P.P.S. When we were still producing Stranded Magazine, cutting out the submissions that did not include all of the required information took out at least half every time. Many of these cut submissions included information about inspiration that made them appear that they were reused submissions from some other publication’s call. If you submit a design that was rejected from another publication, be sure to update it to include all of the relevant details and remove the ones that aren’t! If it’s an original submission, double check that you have all of the requested information, because the ability to follow directions is important!
What’s my pattern writing process?
There are many different methods for designing, writing, producing, and publishing a pattern. This is just how I do it, but it’s by no means the only way. I have two different methods for getting started, and from that point it’s all the same for me.
Most often I start with an idea first. It generally comes to me in the shower, as I’m trying to sleep, or while watching tv or a movie because those are the times my mind is a little more free. I’ll scribble down the rough idea in my sketchbook, but I’m always in the middle of working on something else, so it will linger there for anywhere from months to years. Periodically I’ll come back to an idea and draw a more refined sketch or variations. Eventually ideas that really stick with me and won’t let go push me to find the right yarn. It can be tricky to find a yarn that matches what I have in mind in my preferred color palette, but once I do, it’s time to start swatching.
I’ll knit anything from four swatches to thirty to try to recreate the stitch patterns in my idea into physical form. Designs like Vianne that start out as a vague concept like a mesh panel with a lace border require more swatches than something like Myrna that’s all stockinette and I just needed to pick the right needle size for stockinette density and drape and work out the shaping details. It’s not uncommon for me to go through full skeins of yarn just working on swatches for a design.
Sometimes I’ll start with a particular yarn, though. A lot of my old designs are like this because I used to buy yarn and then figure out what to do with it, but these days, this usually only happens when a yarn dyer or yarn company approaches me and asks me to work with their yarn. I’ll swatch a bunch to try to get a feel for what the yarn wants to be, and then I’ll sketch based on my swatches.
No matter how I get started, I always end up with swatches and a final sketch. I typically buy most of my yarn, and I paid for my needles, sketchbook, and pens, so we’re at about $120 in expenses at this point to knit a cropped cardigan sample in my size, a CYC medium, and 1-5 days worth of work if you compacted it.
After I’ve got my swatches, I start plugging everything into a spreadsheet. I use Google Sheets because it’s what I’m used to and is hard to lose. It’s free because I’m a single user, but it’s $5 a month per person if I wasn’t a sole proprietorship. I calculate all of the numbers and grade it simultaneously to my full size range. There is no program or trick to doing it. With the help of a spreadsheet, I do the math for every size and adjust for stitch patterns and design details. I use a combination of the CYC charts which are free and the ASTM charts which cost $90 for adult women’s and adult women’s plus sizes. Grading takes anywhere from a day to two weeks, depending on the complexity of the design. Some designs look simple but are difficult to grade, like basically any raglan that really fits well.
Once my pattern is graded in the spreadsheet, I’ll probably start knitting the sample. I intend on writing the pattern first, but I rarely do it unless I’m hiring a sample knitter. Grading always happens first, though. I write my patterns in Google Docs for the same reason I use Google Sheets. Writing can take a few days if I really focus on it. Most of the kinks get worked out in the calculation stage, so writing goes quickly, and it’s just a matter of choosing the right words. If I think I might want to adjust the design as I go, I always knit the sample myself and fuss with the pattern. It takes me about a month to knit a sweater if I’m not working on anything else. If I’m confident that the pattern won’t need adjusting, I can hire a sample knitter. My usual sample knitter can do it in half the time, but she costs roughly $150 for a cropped cardigan. I should also mention that my sample knitter is a good friend, a ridiculously quick knitter, and probably under charges me. She knit the sweater below!
Once the pattern and sample are done, it’s time to make things pretty! I use the Adobe Suite for everything.I put together my charts and and schematics in Illustrator. My patterns get laid out in InDesign. I have zero formal training with either of these programs so I’m woefully inefficient, but I can do most of the work in two days. The Adobe Suite cost me around $700 when I bought it, but now it’s only available as a monthly subscription for $50 a month. It’s likely less frustrating to hire someone to do this part of the job and well worth the money, but I do it myself.
I’ll put rough photos in my layout for reference so it’s ready for a technical editor (TE) earlier than if I waited to put in the final photos. I send it to my TE who edits it. Finding the right TE can be challenging, because you need to connect well in addition to their editing skills, but I’ve had good experiences with unfamiliar TEs that I found through the Indy Pattern Designers’ Resources group on Ravelry and got to know through the initial discussion of the first editing project, as well as through recommendations from people I met through networking. Networking can shorten up the process, but it’s not everything. Working with someone new is always a bit of a risk, but it’s necessary. Once the editing process gets started, based on my TE’s availability, it can take from a week to a month of back-and-forth to get all of the errors sorted out. This will cost from $30-$160 depending on the number of errors.
At this point I generally choose between hiring a second TE or test knitting. These days, my pattern language is pretty consistent, so I only test knit when I use new language or think there is a potential point of confusion. I either pay my test knitters a low, per-yard rate or an amount equal to their yarn. It’s not a lot, but I’m just paying for feedback, not their finished knit. I’m a firm believer that everyone should be paid when contributing to a project where I will also be paid. Many designers use free test knitters, and I have in the past, but it doesn’t sit well with my beliefs about women’s work being undervalued. This usually ends up being about $120-240 for a handful of test knitters. More often recently, I will opt to use a second TE instead of test knitters which will cost an additional $30-$160.
I try to save pattern photos until the weather is right for the season I’m releasing it in, so I do what I can to give myself flexibility. I shoot everything myself on my DSLR camera using a tripod and a remote, and I frequently take advantage of my aunt’s lovely gardening skills and use her backyard. Photography was a hobby for me long before knitting, and I’ve taken more photography classes than knitting classes, so I’m pretty comfortable with it. My camera was $1100 when it was new, the lights $300, the remote $16, and the tripod $35. Many designers choose to hire photographers instead of buying expensive equipment, learning to use it, and figuring out how to work with a remote and tripod, but I have a lot of fun with it. I edit my photos on PhotoShop, which is part of the Adobe Suite I mentioned earlier, and the process takes about two days. I don’t include styling costs into my designing budget because any pieces I buy for photo shoots get incorporated into my everyday wardrobe. I really do dress the way I do in my pattern photos.
The photos get popped into my layout, replacing the filler reference pictures, and they’re also resized for the various online venues where I will promote my pattern. I add them to my website, which I pay a low biannual fee for. It costs me like $30 a year because I’ve owned it for so long. Once my pattern is published, I’ll promote it on Twitter and Instagram for free. My newsletter service costs me about $50 a month due to the size of my list, and I’ll use that to promote a pattern. When this blog was more active, I’d try to stick to content that’s interesting and related to the new design but not salesy in the first month after a release. I might also have featured a new design in a KAL numerous supplementary blog posts and activity in my Ravelry group.
I publish through Ravelry, which takes a monthly cut. Ravelry is required to pay VAT on behalf of designers, and they collect it from us in our monthly fees, so I pay them A LOT. I’ve opted to not charge EU customers more than non-EU customers to try to keep my patterns accessible, so I don’t collect extra money to balance out my larger fees. This was a business choice, though. I don’t have a huge percentage of EU customers, but they’re very active on social media, and the good feedback and promotion I get from them balances out the couple dollars less I make off of their purchases. Paypal also takes a cut of sales. Combined, my total fees are usually in the $120-300 range per month.
I always advertise newly released patterns for the first couple of months and spend on average $60 a month on Ravelry ads for a single new pattern. I only advertise my latest release plus three tried-and-true patterns at a time. My Ravelry monthly advertising bill is generally $80-160. I’ve experimented with ads on other websites but never had as good of a click through rate as I do on Ravelry, which is frequently ten times the average or more.
My promotional focus on a pattern might dwindle after it’s no longer new, but the work never really goes away because there’s always pattern support. You can have a pattern that would be old enough to be in kindergarten if it was a child, and you’ll still get emails and Ravelry earburns with questions about it. The FAQ and blog posts on my website help cut down on the questions I get, but they never truly go away because many knitters will choose to ask the designer directly instead of searching for easily available answers. I couldn’t even guess how much time gets spent on average answering questions about a pattern.
I’d like to note that, although I’ve outlined my real costs here, there are less expensive ways to do things. As of writing this, my sample knitter and I are arranging a trade of services instead of a monetary payment for the sample she’s currently working on. There’s freeware and cheaper software that can do the work of the Adobe Suite. Less experienced technical editors can charge less but still have good math skills. VAT can be added on instead of deducted from the listed prices. I don’t make the most expensive choices and outsource as much as I could, but I’m also not cutting every possible cost.
And that’s my process of creating a pattern. It’s not cheap, quick, or easy, but it’s what I feel comfortable with. You can find more examples of the creative side of my design process and a few of the technical side in blog posts under the Sketch to Sweater tag.
How do I get yarn support?
“Yarn support” is a working arrangement between yarn dyers/company and designers/publications where the yarn dyers/company provides free yarn, and in exchange, the designer creates a pattern with it and promotes it. The idea is to boost yarn sales, but it doesn’t always work that way.
In effect, it’s the yarn dyer providing their work in exchange for exposure, and I have a lot of feelings about working for exposure. I won’t do it except for friends, so I don’t ask for it except from friends or when I can offer something tangible in exchange. I’m probably not the best person to ask for advice about yarn support. One time, after ordering yarn from a wonderful small company, I was sent a refund followed by a polite email chastising me for purchasing their yarn when they’d happily give it to me for free. I’ll accept freebies, but I’m not very comfortable asking for them because yarn dyers have it just as hard as designers but with more up-front costs.
So with that in mind, here’s my advice for designers who want yarn support and think I’m someone to ask about it. The first thing is to work on building relationships. Go to trunk shows at your LYS. Go to the big yarn shows within driving distances. Meet your local and not-so-local dyers. Get to know the dyers you love on social media. Relationships are important in this industry, and it’s better to get to know someone before you ask for favors, particularly if it’s for them to send you $20-500 worth of yarn.
Building a relationship in advance isn’t always possible, and that’s okay. Politely introduce yourself in a semi-formal email. Do not assume that they’ll know you or have the time to look you up. Be nice because you’re asking for a favor, and include all of the important information about yourself. You want to make it clear that you’re a reliable designer who won’t just add their yarn to your stash, never to be seen again.
You should have a design sketch, most of the construction details figured out, and an approximate publishing date when you go to ask for yarn from a yarn dyer who doesn’t know you. You might not need the level of detail you’d have for a magazine proposal, but you should be pretty close.
Once you get your yarn, don’t disappear. Stay in communication so the yarn dyer knows it arrived, that you’re working with it, and the approximate release date for the pattern. Cross-promotion is valuable, so keep them in the loop. Send them a copy of the pattern when it’s done and pattern photos for promotional purposes. And if something comes up that delays your release or maybe the yarn doesn’t work as planned, keep them informed and come up with an alternative that makes you both happy.
If you choose to use yarn support, you’re no longer totally independent and need to keep in mind deadlines and how you represent the other business you’re associated with. If that’s unappealing, just buy your yarn and use the tax deduction. Many designers prefer to buy their yarn for exactly this reason.
And finally, please consider the value of the yarn and if you can offer equal value in publicity. Yarnies who take a chance on unfamiliar designers are a treasure, and their risks should be rewarded.
P.S. A nice thing to do to build on the relationship started around yarn support is to lend your samples to yarnies for their booth at knitting events. It’s nice cross promotion because both your design and their yarn gets shown off.
How do you market patterns?
Marketing is hard. What works and what doesn’t work constantly changes, and you have to be proactive about keeping up. I can’t really tell you, “Do this! It works!” because it might not work by the time you read it. So instead, here’s some general marketing advice.
1. Learn the basics and look outside our niche. There’s a lot of core marketing information that is applicable across industries, like identifying your core audience, mapping the steps it takes from awareness to sale (AKA the sales funnel), building trust, branding, etc. Don’t skip the basics because you want information that’s tailored for our little niche industry. You’ll miss out on a lot!
2. Make your work recognizably yours. You want someone to see a picture of your pattern and know it’s yours. Logos, distinctive color palettes, a clearly defined design aesthetic, using the same model, and/or using the same setting are all different ways to create a clear, recognizable brand for your business. Branding is one of those buzzwords that has a bad reputation for being insincere, but it’s all about how you approach it, and it’s essential for making your other marketing effective. Knitters need to be able to recognize your work as yours at a glance
3. Study other successful designers for inspiration. Pick out a few designers who you admire and who might share your audience, and really start looking closely at what they’re doing. Once you start looking for it, you’ll likely begin to see that they’re marketing harder than you might have realized and each in different ways. Make notes on what you enjoy as an outsider and what feels a little icky to you from a potential customer’s perspective, and also pay attention to the public responses of other knitters. It’s much easier to filter through marketing tactics when you’re slightly removed from them. Once you have some notes, you can cross out the things that won’t work with your business and then use the rest as a jumping off point for your own marketing. Do not outright copy anyone but also don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
4. Be careful with gimmicks. Remember when designers gave away free patterns to drive blog traffic? Remember when everyone was giving away temporarily free patterns in December? Remember when designers were hiding clues in their pattern listings to make Easter egg hunts? Remember loop giveaways on Instagram? Now can you remember the last time any of those things made really big waves? Gimmicks can work if you think of the gimmick first, but copying or repeating them does not bring the same level of success because they depend on novelty. Don’t rely on them or use them too often.
5. Change with the times. Blogs used to be how patterns got discovered and sold, thanks to help of feed readers and aggregator sites like Pinterest. That’s how I developed my following, and if you were to copy what I did as a new designer, it’d fall flat. If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d have a newsletter and people actually responded well to it, I’d probably have laughed at you because it seemed so unbelievable. The best way to market changes, and it changes quickly! A lot of specific marketing advice will either be so dated that it’s now useless or it will be very vague, like this is, which can be frustrating when you don’t know what to do. The best thing is to stay curious and think outside the box but also pay attention to trends, so you’re not extremely late to the party when everyone moves from one platform to another, like from blogs to Instagram.
6. Keep in mind that good marketing doesn’t always lead to instant sales. I often see designers complaining about ads not bringing in more sales the one month out of the year that they ran them, and I always think, “Well of course not unless you’re selling impulse-purchase patterns.” Impulse purchases definitely happen, but older, un-discounted patterns that attract a significant number of them in a short time are rare. Your marketing probably isn’t failing you just because you don’t see a quick bump in sales. How often do you make impulse purchases yourself? Good marketing builds awareness so when a knitter wants a specific kind of pattern, they’ll remember seeing your work around and look it up. That kind of result takes time and persistence, but it builds a stronger foundation for your business than trying to get those one-time impulse purchases. If you think of traditional marketing, the ad is the beginning of the sales funnel, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly.
7. Remember that marketing can be fun and focused on community. Part of marketing is about keeping the people who love your previous work around to see your new stuff and happy, and that’s where you can start to build a community around your business. Community is the most satisfying result of marketing because it offers so much more than just sales. Knit -a-longs are the easiest way to jump start that, but there are many more options. It used to be blogging and blog-hops, but right now special event hashtags on Instagram are a big part of building community.
In short, make your work distinctively yours, promote it as sincerely as you can, and make sure you give people a reason to stick around beyond buying your product.
Get comfy on the internet.
If you want to mostly self-publish, you’ll be running your business online, and while becoming a Very Online person isn’t necessary, your experience will be much easier if you become more internet-savvy than the casual user. In order of importance, in my opinion, as of 2019, here’s what you need to get good at.
1. Become a power user on Ravelry. As a designer selling on Ravelry, you will be expected to know how to manage your patterns, moderate your group if you start one, and troubleshoot problems customers have accessing their patterns. That’s very hard to do if you’re not using Ravelry very often yourself. Learn the language of Ravelry users, start watching the Ravelry Shopkeepers group about the back-end of pattern sales as well as For the Love of Ravelry about the front-end of Ravelry in general, check The Mod Squad to brush up on those tools, read the pattern database guidelines, and absorb as much as you can. Don’t be the person who can’t answer questions and who doesn’t understand why the database doesn’t have the functionalities of a storefront. Ravelry is also an amazing place to find information and network! So many publications post their calls for submission in the Designer group, and I’ve never had trouble finding a freelancer by posting in the Indy Pattern Designers’ Resources group. The Budding Designer group is also a nice place to connect with peers if you’re new and get advice from slightly more experienced designers who like to help out.
2. Learn how to use Instagram. If your audience is on Instagram, start following other designers as well as knitters who love your patterns. You want a mix of both in your feed, and you want to actively try to follow a diverse mix, so Instagram continues to offer you a diverse mix. I recommend following designers whose work you enjoy and is in a similar niche as your own, people you’re friendly with on Ravelry if you’re an active user there, those who have knit your patterns and added projects on Ravelry if you’re publishing, and so on. Learn Instagram etiquette, like how to use hashtags, how to engage with others without being spammy, when to tag other accounts respectfully, how to share others photos and content with permission, etc. You might also start to see unfamiliar terminology, but Instagram is a bigger part of general internet culture than a niche site like Ravelry, so UrbanDictionary.com will generally have the answers for you. When in doubt, Google it. One more thing to note is that Instagram was made for mobile devices, and while you can send yourself photos and captions to post via your computer, using your computer to engage on Instagram isn’t the best choice. For example, if you reply to comments on a computer instead of on your phone, you’ll break the threading of comments, which is an unpleasant experience for others trying to follow the conversation. You also won’t’ be able to reply to stories, see your replies to your own stories, click through stories to see shared posts, or see your direct messages. It sucks that you have to use Instagram on your phone or tablet when you typically work from a computer, but that’s the platform.
3. Make good Facebook choices. To be a business account on Instagram– which comes with privileges like stats and if you’re over 10K followers, swipe up links in Stories– you need to connect it to a Facebook page. If you only have a Facebook page for that purpose, you need to make that clear, and beyond that, I can’t offer you Facebook advice. There are a lot of knitters who use Facebook, especially among demographics who are on their phone less and computer more, so it can be worth your time to use Facebook if that’s your target audience. I know a lot of designers who have success running Facebook pages where they share cute knitting memes as well as their designs, but I’m personally not a big Facebook user and don’t get the impression that my audience is either, so I can’t tell you much more than that. I’d guess that it’s on the same level of usefulness as Instagram but for different audiences.
4. Use Twitter for networking, maybe? Twitter was never a great place for marketing your pattern but was and maybe still is a great place for networking. As it has gotten more political and bleak, it’s a bit less useful, but Twitter was once the water cooler for many experienced designers. It was once the go-to space for networking, and it’s where I found most of the tech editors I worked with, through recommendations or because I was already Twitter buds with the tech editors. It’s where I became friends with other designers and editors. There are opportunities that I have been offered because I regularly engaged with other industry people on Twitter, but things have changed a lot in the last three years, which is why this is the last specific platform on the list.
5. YouTube, blogs, iTunes, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. Beyond the four platforms mentioned above, there are many other platforms that can be useful for marketing and networking. Your best bet is to choose the one or ones that you genuinely enjoy using and learn the internet culture around it/them. Whichever you choose, to effectively use them for marketing and networking, you’ll need to use them regularly and at a moderate to high level of proficiency. Google, UrbanDictionary.com, and KnowYourMeme.com are all useful tools to understand Internet culture and how it ties in with these platforms.
You’re better off not using a platform than using a platform that you don’t fully understand or engage in outside of your promotional sharing. In the last handful of months, there have been a lot of important discussions on Instagram about racism in the knitting communities, and some designers who use the platform to promote their work have made offensive statements that demonstrate that they’re unfamiliar with how social media can be used for social justice work and that they’re not paying attention beyond sharing their design work and seeing responses. And it’s always rough to see automated Tweets selling knitting patterns when the Twitter conversation is focused on a tragedy like a mass shooting. Don’t be that person if you care about the community. Either fully engage and learn the platform’s culture or don’t bother at all, because only showing up to sell is not the right choice.
There’s always room for new designers.
A lot of what I shared probably sounds quite discouraging, and to some degree, that’s intentional, because the actual work can be discouraging, and I don’t want to mislead. After seeing well-intentioned encouragement in designer groups create unrealistic expectations, like the frequently perpetuated myth that sales will pick up after you publish X patterns, and then emotionally crush designers who do all the “right” things and never make a profit, I don’t want to do that here. It is rough to become a successful designer, but it’s absolutely possible, and there is always room for new designers.
Since I wrote the first draft of all of this, I’ve seen designers pop up and then surpass me in terms of audience. They probably were doing a lot of work prior to that, learning behind the scenes and/or developing an online following, before they published their first designs, but they did it! There’s always room for new designers, especially ones that are doing something different, whether that’s through technique, fashion style, or the body type they’re serving. If you really feel that drive and can handle the financial challenges, push through and do it! The idea that only designers who are currently well-known can sell patterns is a bunch of bullshit. It’s just hard, and not everyone who tries is going to succeed, but outliers exist. You, an aspiring designer, could be that outlier. Just, you know, don’t quit your day job until you’ve figured out all the pieces of the financial puzzle.
If you’ve got additional questions, leave them in the comments! I’ll try to answer as much as I can, and I’ll do a follow-up post if necessary.