Lauren Dahl’s online course, Pattern Workshop, has taught thousands of aspiring sewing pattern designers to digitally draw and grade pattern templates. This course, which launched in 2014 just as PDF patterns were gaining steam, has helped many aspiring designers to enter the sewing pattern market with a professional product they could be proud to sell. Although online courses that help entrepreneurs create small businesses are fairly common now, this one has had a particularly strong and enduring impact in the sewing community at a time when few were available and even fewer were so highly targeted.
Identifying a market need
Throughout her life, Dahl has been an avid sewer. She studied advertising in college and when she left the workforce to have children (she now has four), she became a sewing blogger. It was 2012 and sewing patterns were just making the jump from print to digital. Many of her fellow bloggers were beginning to release original designs. Creating professional-looking templates presented a challenge. Professional pattern design software, such as Gerber, costs tens of thousands of dollars, far outside the budget of a sewing blogger or solo entrepreneur.
Although Dahl wasn’t a pattern designer herself, she’d learned Adobe Illustrator while getting an undergraduate degree in advertising and figured she could digitize and grade a pattern with the skills she had.
Hand-drawn pattern sketches.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Dahl.
“I learned it as I went,” she says. “I knew the concept of vector images and, while I didn’t know how to draft patterns, I knew how to sew. I just put two and two together and came up with a solution that was a middle ground.”
Soon, she began working with fellow sewing bloggers, offering to digitize and grade their patterns for $45 an hour. “I was fortunate enough to have a couple of people, in the beginning, that kind of let me just do my thing and I learned as I went.”
From freelancer to course creator
But soon her workload increased and by January of 2014, she was stressed.
On a family vacation in California, she had to stay indoors in front of her computer digitally drawing patterns on deadline, a six-month-old baby on her hip. “I was so stressed out,” she remembers. Dahl’s husband, a software engineer, told her she needed to approach things differently. “He said to me, you need to figure out a way to replicate what’s in your head instead of doing all this work yourself. And I said you mean like teaching a class?”
An example of a sewing pattern template drawn in Illustrator.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Dahl.
She was a fan of Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Work Week, but creating her own passive income stream had never occurred to her. Now she was intrigued.
That evening, while still on vacation, Dahl got in touch with Melissa Esplin whom she’d seen speak at SNAP! Esplin had a popular online calligraphy class. “I ran the whole thing by her. I told her I was worried because I felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing. She said, yeah but you know more than 98% of people out there. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to get it out there.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to get it out there.” -Melissa Esplin
Presale and launch
A few months earlier Dahl had taken a class with Clay Collins, the founder of LeadPages, where she’d learned about offering a presale. Armed with Esplin’s encouragement and Collins’ marketing tips, she put together a logo and a landing page and wrote a course outline. She offered a presale discount to members of a Facebook group for PDF sewing pattern designers. “It was January. I said the course would launch in March, but I hadn’t actually created it,” Dahl says. She priced Pattern Workshop at $149. Within a few hours, 20 people bought it. Dahl was thrilled.
“I mean, I’d been staying at home with my kids. To make over $2,000 in just a few hours from something that didn’t even exist? It kind of blew my mind and it made me realize, yes, there is really a demand for this.”
Few online class platforms existed in early 2014 so Dahl created the first iteration of Pattern Workshop on her WordPress blog. She asked a handful of friends to beta test the course as she created it. Pattern Workshop launched that March.
A few weeks after the launch Burda Style got in touch with Dahl to ask if they could license the course for their site. “Quite embarrassingly I laughed at [the Burda Style representative] and said something along the lines of, ‘Do you know how much I make from Pattern Workshop? Why would I give you half of it?’ She said, ‘Do you know that our mailing list is 758,000 people?’” Dahl agreed to create a distilled version of the class for Burda Style that would be sold at a slightly lower price and the site’s marketing power helped the course take off.
Lisa Neri from the sewing blog and eco-friendly pattern line Cucicucicoo enrolled in Pattern Workshop shortly after launch. “Up until then I just freehand drew simple patterns,” she says. “Lauren’s course was amazing for me. I’d wanted to start selling PDF patterns, but I had no idea how to do it to look good enough that I could feel right asking to be paid for them.”
Here Sara Curtis of Radiant Home Studio shows an example of one of her patterns before and after she took Pattern Workshop.
Image courtesy of Sara Curtis.
“My free patterns look so much more professional and are a lot clearer than before. This makes me look more professional to my readers, but also feel more professional myself.” -Lisa Neri, Cucicucicoo
Kelli Ward from the popular women’s indie pattern brand True Bias took Pattern Workshop when she was getting ready to launch her business. “I had gone to school for pattern drafting so I did not use the classes that were dedicated to those topics, but I lacked a good understanding of how to convert my hand-drafted patterns into digital files,” she says. “The workshop really helped bridge the gap and gave me the base I needed to create a professional digital product that I could be confident in. My process has evolved over the years, but I owe a lot to the Pattern workshop for giving me the basic tools I needed to get my first digital patterns off of the ground.”
Next, Dahl launched a second course on surface design, Fabric Design with Illustrator & Photoshop. “It’s the same thing. I’m not an artist. I’m a technician. I’m not going to teach you how to create art. I’m going to teach you how to set up a repeat in Photoshop and Illustrator.”
When Teachable launched a few months later Dahl was an early user, working with the developers to move Pattern Workshop from WordPress to this much more user-friendly class platform. “I love Teachable,” Dahl says. “It really makes life easy.”
Pattern Workshop has made a significant impact not only on the lives of the designers who have taken it but on Dahl’s life, too. Her revenue split with Burda Style was 50/50 and her first check was for $16,000 with another $8,000 check soon after. Direct sales have been strong and steady. She says her family bought their current house in her name with just the income she’s earned from the course.
The current chapter
In recent years, though, Dahl’s life has changed. She’s gone back to work full-time as a Marketing Project Manager at a commercial real estate firm. She no longer blogs or actively markets Pattern Workshop and has allowed most of the customer service for the course to be taken care of by members of the course’s Facebook group, rather than answering questions herself. She says one thing she wished she’d considered was an exit strategy. “It got big so quickly and I didn’t think about what would happen if there came a point that I wasn’t into it anymore,” she says. She’s had a few offers to buy Pattern Workshop but feels daunted about getting the financials and technical aspects in a position that would allow her to sell. “I wish I had planned for that,” she says.
Dahl’s advice for aspiring course creators? “There’s an audience for every possible class topic. If one person wants to learn something, there are probably thousands of other people who also want to learn about it.”
“I thought my niche was too narrow, but there are at least 5,000 people out there who are interested in what I’m teaching.”
Sara Curtis of Radiant Home Studio sums up the overall effect of Pattern Workshop. “Lauren raised the bar for designers and has made a huge impact on the indie sewing pattern community,” she says. “I think pattern consumers would be thanking her in droves if they knew the impact she has had on so many of the patterns they buy.”