Designing quilting cottons is a significant status symbol in the sewing world, and for good reason. Fabric is beautiful. It’s the raw material that draws many of us into sewing in the first place. The chance to design your own collection, to sew with it and see other people sewing with it, is a wonderful and exciting opportunity. And, like writing a book, having your own fabric line is a sign that you’ve made it in this industry.
Is designing fabric lucrative, though? Exactly how much do designers earn from a fabric collection?
The value of designing fabric isn’t only monetary, of course. Showing your line in a booth at Quilt Market can lead to other great things like teaching gigs, magazine features, book deals, and further licensing opportunities. Clearly there are big benefits beyond just getting a check.
But what about the check?
I spent last week talking with fabric designers trying to find some answers. I spoke with six designers who work with six different major fabric companies. These designers shared specific information with me about their contracts and wages, and gave me permission to include that information here with the understanding that they would remain anonymous. It’s not my intention to point fingers at or call out any one company or person and I hope you’ll show that same respect in the comments and social shares of this post.
So let’s start at the beginning. When a designer signs a licensing contract with a fabric company there’s no upfront payment or advance against future royalties. There is no money at the start. 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’s income will come through royalties earned on each yard sold. Royalties are paid out a few weeks after each fiscal quarter comes to a close.
So, if a designer signs the licensing contract in November and debuts the collection in May at Quilt Market, the first possible payment will go out in October. This means it’s 11 months or so before a designer gets any compensation for the collection. All of the work is done up front and, as we’ll see, there are no guarantees.
How much do designer’s earn per yard sold?
Each fabric company has a slightly different royalty arrangement with its designers, but there does seem to be an industry average. Most designers earn about 5% of the wholesale price per yard of fabric sold. If the suggested retail price of a yard of fabric is $11.12 the wholesale price is $5.56 and the designer earns .28 per yard sold.
The big question is how many yards will sell?
There’s no way to know for sure. There are a number of variables at work that can give you a clue, but we’re talking about predicting the future and that’s impossible. This is the gamble.
A big factor, though, is distribution. Fabric companies with strong distribution channels sell more yardage to more stores and therefore their designers earn more royalties than those working with fabric companies with weaker distribution channels.
A second variable is reprints. Some fabric companies will only print a collection once, while others will reprint the same collection for several seasons. If a fabric is reprinted the designer has the opportunity to continue to earn on that collection. Once it’s out of print, the earning potential disappears. In some cases whether a collection is reprinted is determined by the popularity of that collection. A designers with a large, devoted following may have a better chance at having their line reprinted than a designer with no online presence.
Once the royalty payments begin to come in, on average a new designer with a sizable online following putting out a first collection might earn between $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 more like $8,000 in total per collection.
Even if you’re very successful at designing fabric, the money earned from a single collection isn’t going to be enough to sustain you. It’s got 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, teaching online and in person, selling blog ads or ebooks, etc. A mix of these things can add up to a sustainable business.
(Creating an exclusive collection for JoAnn’s is another way to make being a fabric designer financially viable as a business. Come back on Friday for an in-depth look at what those deals consist of.)
And that leads us to questions about expectations.
The more I talked to each designer the more I realized that while most of them were earning about the same amount of money for each collection, the fabric companies they were working with had vastly different expectations for what a designer would do to market their fabric. This is where their experiences diverge.
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. A nicely appointed booth, plus airfare, hotel, and meals for four days costs at least $3,000. Quilt Market is not optional. Fabric has to be shown to retailers at the show, but how it gets there and who foots the bill varies tremendously.
To give you a sense of the range, I’ll take you through four different companies’ approaches.
Company #1 pays for each of their designers to have their own booths. Not only that, this company pays airfare, hotel, supplies, and expenses for the trip. A designer at Company #1 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 do not do this,” she said. “That’s crazy when you are making such a small amount of money.”
Company #2 shows all of their collections in a the company booth, but suggests that designers attend the show and be in the company booth to talk about their designs. They don’t require it, though, nor do they pay for travel, hotel, or meals.
Company #3 encourages their new designers to have their own booths, but doesn’t pay for the booth, travel, hotel, or expenses.
Company #4 tells new designers that they will not print their fabric unless the designer funds their own booth at Quilt Market. “We were told that unless we would pay to have a booth, they would not put out the fabric,” a designer at Company #4 said. This company demands that new designers have a booth, but doesn’t fund anything.
Is the collection guaranteed to be printed?
In some cases fabric that is shown at Quilt Market is not guaranteed to be printed. Again, companies vary on this issue.
Some companies bring strike-offs to Quilt Market (strike-offs are test samples printed on fabric) while others bring paper samples, and this seems to make difference as to the level of committment the company has to actually printing the fabrics.
For example, Company #2 brings paper samples to Quilt Market and uses sales numbers generated at the show to judge whether a collection, or particular prints within a collection, are worth printing. If not enough orders are placed, the fabric doesn’t get printed. When you work with one of these companies part or all of your collection can be cancelled before going into production and the designer earns nothing.
A word about autonomy
Some fabric companies are very hands off with their designers. Others exert control over the colors and style of the artwork. While still others exert control over their designers’ behavior, both online and off, at Quilt Market and back home.
Company #4 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 that 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 upon 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 that a new designer is likely to make somewhere between $2,000-$4,000 on a first collection. Being required to fund a booth means that it’s very possible for a first time designer to end up spending more than they make. Without the ability to also market self-published print patterns, the designer loses out on the opportunity to earn any income at the show.
Wanting something very badly, and then finally having it offered to you, is a vulnerable position to be in. It’s easy to feel like you have to accept whatever is being offered or the offer will be rescinded. And perhaps that happens in some cases, although I’ve found that asking informed questions almost never means you lose out on a business opportunity. Most of the time, the opposite is true. Asking informed questions gains you respect. But you have to be able 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 that 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 that 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 even to one another about how much they’re earning and what’s being asked of them. But it’s when we set ego aside and talk to one another about money and contracts and expectations that we become powerful.
As one designer I spoke with emphatically told me, “I would love for designers to get together and insist that the booth and travel costs be covered. Maybe there won’t be as many of us at Quilt Market, but we’ll know if our company values our presence for marketing.” This kind of alliance can only happen when we speak up.