Being able to imagine, design and sew your concepts from scratch is an excellent business opportunity. But is the real hard graft worth it?
The value of designing fabric isn’t only financial – the ability to see your designs on sale can lead to other niche money-spinners: teaching gigs, magazine features and more licensing opportunities. Tempted? First consider these key issues of earning from making designs.
A licensing contract?
Having spoken to several designers, the clear message is to consider a licensing contract with a fabric company. There’s no upfront payment or advances against future royalties. There is no money at the start! It is a gamble.
The designer works on the collection for a few months with the goal of having it ready to show to buyers at Quilt Market in either May or October. The designer earns royalties on each yard sold. Royalties are paid out a few weeks after each fiscal quarter comes to a close.
So, if a designer signs a licensing contract in November, debuts the collection in May, the first possible payment is October: 11 whole months. And there are no guarantees.
How much should designer’s earn per yard sold?
Each fabric company has a different royalty arrangement, but there appears to be an industry average. Most designers earn about 5% of the wholesale price per yard of fabric sold. If the retail price of a yard of fabric is $15.50, the wholesale price is $7.75, and the designer earns .39 cent per yard sold.
But how many yards sell?
There’s no way to know for sure as there are many variables:
Distribution. Fabric companies with strong distribution channels sell more yardage to more stores so designers can earn more compared to fabric companies with weaker channels.
Reprints: Some fabric companies only print a collection once, while others reprint the same collection for several seasons. If a fabric is reprinted, the designer has the chance to earn on that collection. Once it’s out of print, the earning potential disappears.
A collection turns on its popularity. A designer with a large devoted following may have a better chance at a reprint than a designer with no online presence.
Once royalty payments begin to come in, on average a new designer with a sizable online following putting out a first collection may earn $2,000-$4,000 in total on that collection.
A seasoned designer with multiple collections and a devoted following who works with a company with strong distribution can expect to earn $8,000 per collection.
Even if you’re very successful at designing fabric, the money earned from a single collection isn’t enough to sustain you. It has to be coupled with other sources of income, whether that’s multiple collections, other licensing deals for stationary or books, designing sewing patterns, writing craft books or teaching online. A mix can add up to a sustainable business.
So what about expectations?
Each designer I spoke with all concluded on one point: fabric companies have vastly different expectations for what a designer should do to market their fabric.
A huge proportion of fabric buying and selling takes place at Quilt Market where a bare minimum booth consisting of a single table and no walls costs $2,000 USD. A better appointed booth, plus airfare, hotel, and meals for four days costs $3,000 USD.
Quilt Market is not optional. But fabric has to be shown to retailers at the show, but how it gets there and who foots the bill varies tremendously.
Here’s a sense of what to expect:
Company W: Pays for each of their designers to have their own booths. Not only that, this company pays airfare, hotel, supplies, and trip expenses. A designer at Company A told me: “I refuse to attend Quilt Market unless my fabric company covers my hotel and flight costs. They also pay for the booth and supplies. Many companies don’t do this which is crazy when you are making such a small amount of money.”
Company X: Shows all of their collections in a company booth, but suggests designers attend the show and be there to talk about their designs. They don’t require it, nor do they pay for travel, hotel, or meals.
Company Y: Encourages their new designers to have their own booths, but doesn’t pay for the booth, travel, hotel, or expenses.
Company Z: Tells new designers they will not print their fabric unless the designer funds their own booth at Quilt Market.
Is the collection guaranteed to be printed?
In some cases, fabric shown at Quilt Market is not guaranteed to be printed.
A few companies bring strike-offs (samples printed on fabric) to Quilt Market. Others bring paper samples, and this seems to show the level of commitment a company has to printing.
For example, Company X brings paper samples to Quilt Market and based on those sales numbers at the show judges whether a collection is worth printing. Not enough orders, the fabric doesn’t get printed. When you work with one of these companies part or all of your collection can be cancelled before production and the designer earns nothing.
What about independence?
Some fabric companies are hands off with their designers, others exert control over colours and style. Others exert control over their designers’ behaviour, both online and off, at Quilt Market and back home.
Company Z dictates what a new designer can share on Instagram while attending Quilt Market, and how often they can share it. While at Market they ask their new designers not to photograph fabrics from other companies to post on social media and request their new designers not take and post photos with designers from other companies.
This company also asks their designers to only sew with that company’s fabrics going forward for all projects. This company also frowns on their new designers displaying print patterns in their booths because they see print patterns as detracting from the main product at hand: the new fabric line.
Remember a new designer is likely to make somewhere between $2,200-$4,400 USD on a first collection. Being required to fund a booth could mean a first timer spending more than they make.
Without the ability to market self-published print patterns, the designer loses out on the opportunity to earn any income at the show. It places them in a vulnerable position: it’s easy to feel like you have to accept whatever is being offered or the offer will be rescinded.
Asking informed questions almost never means you lose out on a business opportunity, if anything it gains you more respect. You have to evaluate the quality of the offer being presented and you can only do that if you know what other offers look like.
I believe open sharing of information benefits everyone. Aspiring designers know ahead of time what to expect from this potential income stream, current designers know what they’re taking on, and consumers understand the role a fabric collection plays in a designer’s overall business strategy.
In a royalty situation the popularity of the collection determines the designer’s compensation. This set up can make designers sensitive to talk to one another about how much they’re earning and what’s being asked of them.
But sharing experiences about money, contracts and expectations, makes us more informed. As one designer asserts: we should get together and insist the booth and travel costs be covered. This kind of alliance can only happen when we speak up.
Learn more about art licensing