The print-on-demand fabric company, Spoonflower, launched a new division last month called Sprout Patterns. Sprout allows customers to select a fabric design from the Spoonflower marketplace and have it printed as templates for a sewing pattern. Sprout users avoid the tedium of tracing pattern pieces and get right to the fun of cutting and sewing their projects.
The project is headed up by Caroline Okun who has a history with Spoonflower that dates back to its earliest days. Okun befriended Gart Davis, a Spoonflower co-founder, when they’d both worked at the print-on-demand book company Lulu.com. When Davis was preparing to launch Spoonflower in 2008 he asked her to design the logo and website. Several years later Okun left Lulu and Davis brought her to Spoonflower to serve as Art Director, a role she had until April of this year when he tapped her to be the Director of Sprout Patterns.
The idea for a cut-and-sew division of Spoonflower has been brewing for a while. Just for fun Spoonflower employees often merge indie patterns they’ve purchased with the fabric designs available in the Spoonflower marketplace to create cut-and-sew fabric. A year ago they used this method to quickly create a whole set of circus-themed Halloween costumes for the staff. “It was just so much faster than tracing,” says Okun, “and for a less experienced sewer like me it was easier, too.”
In the summer of 2014 the company tried out the model on a small scale by adding a section to the Spoonflower site called Sew Projects that allowed customers to choose a Spoonflower design and have it printed as templates for either a t-shirt or a tote bag. Both patterns were designed in-house. This experiment revealed a few clues as to what people wanted in a cut-and-sew project.
First, a generic sewing pattern designed in-house didn’t create enough excitement among consumers. “Nobody was really like, ‘Oh, that Sew Project t-shirt! That’s amazing!’” Okun recalls, “but they will talk about a dress from By Hand London, for example.” And second, Sew Projects had the design printed just within the pattern templates causing customers to complain that the excess white fabric around the templates felt wasteful.
The idea itself was successful enough, though, for the company to invest in creating a bigger and better version in Sprout Patterns which is the first project to go live from SpoonLabs, a small, experimental area of Spoonflower. Others are in the works.
One of Okun’s first tasks was to secure indie sewing patterns for the Sprout marketplace. Okun and her team put together an initial list of 100 designers. “We looked at people that had awesome social followings and awesome patterns,” she says. “Colette was at the top of our list.” They narrowed it down to 10 that would provide a nice variety including menswear, women’s garments, kids clothes, and accessories. Only one designer turned down their offer to come on board. The site launched with patterns from By Hand London, Grainline, Betz White, Hey June Handmade, Colette, See Kate Sew, Brindille and Twig, and Sew Liberated. Okun says she gets at least one email a day from a designer hoping to become part of the marketplace.
Designers receive the wholesale price for each sale of their patterns and there is no requirement of exclusivity. According to Okun the company is committed to working with indie designers and has no plans to partner with the big four pattern companies. Spoonflower designers whose fabric designs are chosen by customers to go on Sprout patterns receive the standard 10% commission they receive in the Spoonflower marketplace.
The Sidekick Bag by Betz White printed out as a Sprout Pattern.
To get a PDF pattern ready for sale on the Sprout website takes a significant amount of effort. The text of each pattern is edited by Sprout to reflect the special way that Sprout patterns are cut and sewn. Templates can’t be placed on the fold, for example, and fabric is sold in whole yard increments. The document is otherwise left as is. “We want to preserve the brand integrity for the designers as much as possible,” Okun explains.
(When the site launched customers received the pre-printed fabric and a PDF of the Sprout-edited instructions, but many requested the original PDF pattern as well and Sprout has complied. Customers now receive both.)
The templates are then arranged on the fabric so that they fit best and the designs are uploaded to Marvelous Designer, a software product commonly used in the gaming industry that can create a three-dimensional model. Okun felt it was crucial for customers to be able to see how their fabric selections would look on the finished project.
The 3-D model of the Colette Laurel Blouse using a fabric print available on the Spoonflower marketplace.
“Probably for most people it’s really difficult to make a leap from a swatch of fabric to a dress. It’s like getting a paint chip from the store and saying, ‘I just can’t imagine this splotch of color on my walls,’” Okun explains. “So the idea of trying it out was really important.” Auditioning fabrics on the three-dimensional model almost feels like playing a game. “Nobody is ever going to bored again on a Saturday night,” Okun says. “It’s just so fun to play with.”
Some sewists have been skeptical of the idea of cut-and-sew patterns, especially for women’s garments. One of the prime motivators for many people to sew clothes is the ability to customize sizing and fit according to their measurements. With Sprout customers must choose a particular size and the fabric is pre-printed making it impossible to do those alterations.
Okun is aware of this issue and acknowledges that at this time it’s one her team can’t resolve. “It’s just very difficult to do right now because there has to be a line around the pattern pieces so that you know where to cut. We just don’t have a way to solve that right now,” Okun says. For this reason patterns that have a lot of ease or are more drapey are the best match for the site in its current formulation. “Ideally it’d be great if you could pick a size for the top and a size for the bottom and even have it laser cut here,” Okun says, emphasizing that there are lots of exciting ideas for the future.
The Sidekick Bag by Betz White sewn up from a Sprout pre-printed pattern.
Sprout Patterns has 35 patterns available right now and Okun hopes to have 300 available a year from now, and 1,000 in two years, including plus-sizes and more menswear. In the month since launch Sprout has taken 879 orders for 1050 items.
A special area of the Sprout Patterns marketplace will launch soon that will welcome new and aspiring designers. Tentatively called The Sprout Collective, it will feature patterns from new designers who do not yet have a full line available. For those who want to come aboard as designer partners Okun recommends beginning with a well-composed email pitch. “Send me a good email telling me what you’ve been doing and how it’s going,” she says. “We need your designs, but we also want to see your marketing engine.”
You can reach Caroline Okun at cokun at spoonflower dot com and check out Sprout Patterns at SproutPatterns.com.
UPDATE November 7, 2018: Spoonflower has announced that Sprout Patterns will be shutting down for good on December 16, 2018.