The home sewing industry is sorely lacking in good longitudinal data. The Association for Creative Industries does a survey every few years about the crafts industry as a whole, and Quilts, Inc. does the same for quilting but granular data about the sewing pattern market is very hard to come by. This makes it hard to know how the industry is changing.
Those of us who are involved in the sewing community know that over the past 10-15 years independent sewing pattern designers have poured onto the scene, many of them creating thriving businesses with lots of momentum. This year, I think we’re seeing hard evidence of their impact on the industry for the first time.
Just a few weeks ago, on November 3, CSS Industries, a publicly traded company that specializes in gift ribbon and seasonal gift products, bought Simplicity Creative Group from Wilton Brands for $64 million. A year ago, in December of 2016, CSS acquired the McCall Pattern Company for $14 million, which means that now this single company owns all of the legacy American sewing pattern brands: Simplicity, McCall, Butterick, Vogue (together known as “the Big 4”).
Although at first glance this consolidation might seem to present a monopoly, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the government agency that is in charge of breaking up monopolies, doesn’t think it is.
That’s new and I think that it’s really significant.
Back in 2000 when a similar merger was proposed it did face a challenge by the FTC. In 1999 a decorative trim company called Conso International purchased Simplicity. A year later when Conso tried to purchase McCall the FTC sought a preliminary injunction to block the acquisition. “Conso’s purchase of McCall would result in the combined firm controlling more than three-quarters of the U.S. unit sales of domestic home sewing patterns,” stated the complaint. After the challenge Conso dropped the sale attempt.
And yet here we are, 17 years later, presented with a similar merger that was met with no challenge.
So what’s changed?
I think there are several possible factors, perhaps some working in concert.
One possibility is that the home sewing pattern industry as a whole has simply shrunk. In the 1970s the interest in sewing began to decline as women entered the workforce in larger numbers and, at the same time, it became cheaper to buy ready-made clothing than to sew. Perhaps that trend is simply continuing, although I don’t think it is.
The distribution channels for Big 4 sewing patterns are shrinking as well. In 2017 Hancock Fabrics filed for bankruptcy closing its 185 stores leaving many consumers with just two places to buy sewing patterns from the legacy brands: JoAnn and Wal-Mart.
It’s possible that the pricing structure of Big 4 patterns has also undermined their profitability. Although priced between $8-17, big box chain stores often have .99 pattern sales that get consumers accustomed to buying patterns at a steep discount.
Some or all of these factors may have contributed to the shrinking market for Big 4 patterns, but it’s also possible that the FTC didn’t challenge the merger due to a change in government regulation. In 2000 acquisitions valued below $78.2 million could go unchallenged by the FTC. In 2017 that threshold was raised to $80.8 million. Although the raise is proportionally small, perhaps a challenge would have taken place had the old threshold still been in place.
Yet a fourth possibility, and the one that I think is most likely, is that the home sewing market is facing real competition for the first time in nearly a century. To me this unchallenged merger is evidence of the impact of independent sewing pattern companies.
Independent Pattern Businesses are Thriving
In the 1980s and 90s there were independent sewing pattern companies including Indygo Junction, Marcy Tilton, and Folkwear, among others. The barrier to entry to get into the business was high, though. Patterns had to be printed, requiring a steep upfront investment and it was challenging to reach a wide enough customer base to make a profit. Companies would sell patterns mail order, advertising in the backs of women’s magazines.
But the internet has radically changed the sewing pattern industry, lowering the barrier to entry for independent designers significantly and making it possible to build an audience directly. There are now hundreds of indie pattern companies, maybe more. Many are very small, but some are grossing annual profits in the millions. Deepika Prakash, founder and owner of the sewing pattern community Pattern Review which has over 400,000 members, explains, “From my vantage point, I see an explosion of independent pattern makers and there is a new company springing up each week. These are exciting times for the sewing industry for sure and I am loving it!”
These new companies are flourishing not only because technology has made it possible, but also because they’ve innovated on a product that wasn’t meeting consumer needs. By the 1940s the format of home sewing patterns was generally established: an envelope with styles on the front and a size chart with materials requirements on the back containing tissue templates and an instruction sheet. At the fabric store consumers would sit down at a counter, leaf through the pattern catalogues to choose a style, than take the pattern home to sew. The pattern assumed you already knew what you were doing.
Without real competitors, the product stagnated, that is until sewers connected with one another online. It turned out that there was a lot of room for improvement.
A Stagnant Product Is Ripe for Disruption
Sewers were searching for patterns that more closely resembled ready-to-wear clothing and that came in a larger range of sizes. They were also frustrated that the instructions in Big 4 patterns assumed a level of prior sewing knowledge that many people today simply don’t have. The option to download a pattern instantly, print it out, and begin sewing right away rather than having to go to the store was attractive. And these consumers were hungry for a community of support and inspiration to bolster them as they sewed. Independent pattern companies have met every one of these needs faster and in many cases more effectively than the Big 4.
Many of today’s new sewers have little to no sewing training. The language of sewing used in a Big 4 pattern can prove challenging for these consumers to decipher. Maggie Powell is a sewer in Durham, North Carolina. She told me, “Indie patterns are just so much more descriptive. The big pattern companies still write their patterns with the assumption that you have been sewing for your entire life or your mom has been and you can just go next door and ask for help.” For Powell access to independent patterns with instructions written in plain English made sewing possible.
Taping together a PDF pattern is by nature somewhat cumbersome, many independent designers offer files that make it as easy as possible for the consumer, including copy shop versions prepped for large format printers. The legacy brands have a long way to go to catch up. Around 2011 the Big 4 began offering digital downloads, but their system was poorly executed requiring customers to install specialty software, limiting download attempts, and offering patterns formatted in a way that created a lot of waste.
Many independent designers offer both print and digital options in order to serve all customers well. Ironically, the majority of indie designers have their tissue templates printed at McCall’s printing facility in Manhattan, Kansas.
Independent designers offer sewalongs for patterns using photos to show every step. They connect with customers through their blogs, on Instagram, and in Facebook groups where customers can go to seek inspiration and ask questions. In the spring of 2014 McCall hired a social media manager, Meg McDonald, to begin to do the same. McDonald is now doing social media for all of CSS’s sewing brands.
Although the legacy brands are connecting with consumers online, they were late to the game and many independent companies surpass them in following and engagement. Colette, for example has 86.5K Instagram followers today in comparison with McCall’s 65.4K.
Over the past few years I’ve spoken with two highly successful independent pattern designers who have turned down offers from McCall and Simplicity to license designs, and I’ve got to assume there have been others. Whereas at one time signing a deal with a Big 4 brand was a way to become successful, today designers can establish profitable companies under their own brand.
Now There’s Real Competition
Still, many experienced sewers remain highly loyal to the Big 4 patterns siting the quality and consistency of the drafting, the large variety of styles available, and the low prices. Not everyone who sets up shop as in independent pattern designer has the skills to create a well-designed garment pattern. Prices for indie patterns range from $7-18 and are rarely deeply discounted, and independent designers can typically only release a handful of new patterns a year. There’s certainly room in the market for both independent and Big 4 patterns and many people sew from both.
Now that all of the Big 4 brands are under one corporate roof, though, I think the type competition will change. Rather than competing with one another, they’ll compete with the indie designers. Perhaps that’s already been happening.
In November Chris Munyan, CEO of CSS Industries, gave some indication of the company’s future plans in sewing. “We think about millennial shoppers and their interest in customized products,” he told an analyst. “I think providing home sewing offerings through both Simplicity patterns and McCall patterns gets us into that market…”
“It’s our intent to come up with simpler sewing pattern items which we believe appeal to the millennial sewer…as well as to expand digital offerings because traditional sewers use physical patterns, millennial sewers use physical patterns, but also have an interest in digitized patterns,” he said. “We already have started to offer digitized patterns, but we’re going to expand that offering.”
While the lack of data on the market as a whole makes it difficult to get a clear picture, the FTC’s failure to challenge the recent merger of the major sewing pattern brands could be seen as a signal that the market is shifting to include new competitors. I asked Munyan if CSS has further acquisition plans. In a written statement he responded, “At CSS we regularly look at all opportunities for growth and expansion within our chosen categories,”