How to make a fabric collection - a designer’s perspective.

When I talk to artists and crafters, I often get asked,

“How do you make a fabric collection?”

Today I want to share, from a designer’s point of view, the behind-the-scenes process of making a fabric collection.

Every designer, manufacturer, and industry is different.

My goal with this post is to share one perspective.

From coming up with an idea, to soon receiving finished bolts of fabric, this is my experience of making my new fabric collection, Sweet Tweets.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index


First off, let me give you some background.

Sweet Tweets is my fifth fabric collection designed for the quilting industry.

I license my designs to Clothworks, a Seattle based manufacturer of premium quality quilt-weight cotton fabric sold to independent quilt shops all over the world.

Licensing means that I give Clothworks permission to use my designs on certain products, in a certain industry, for a certain period of time, over a certain location (territory), in exchange I receive a percentage of what’s sold (called a "royalty"). I get to keep the copyright and ownership of the designs.

Phew. There’s licensing in a nutshell for you.

The intended audience are quilters and crafters making items for baby. However, it’s important to me to include designs that can be used for other items not exclusively “baby.”

I like to think that my audience is people who want to “enjoy some cute.”

OK, now that we’re up to speed, let’s get to the process.


Beginning

Making Sweet Tweets did not start from “being inspired.”

I think a lot of people want to feel inspired before beginning a project. But sometimes you have to start a project, then inspiration will come after you’re already working on it.

It sounds backwards, but that’s the biggest advice I could give anyone who wants to be a working artist.

It’s pretty much my daily mantra.

Just start. Inspiration (and motivation) will come after.

Sweet Tweets began by having a deadline. And a deadline is a great excuse for getting started.

I had about 2 1/2 months to deliver final files to Clothworks so they in turn could get them to the factory to reach their own deadline.

Time to get started.


Inspiration

Usually I start a new collection with the content. (Basically, what cute animals do I want to draw.)

This time I thought I'd explore a style and color palette.

I’ve had an idea for a while to make a collection with a “drawn” look to it. Like little doodles. I thought that might be an interesting direction to go in.

For the color palette, I wanted to try a mostly black, white and grey collection with pops of colors. Like a coloring book being filled in with an 8-pack of crayons.

I wanted a collection that felt sophisticated yet still worked for “baby.”

I proposed the “Animal Coloring Book” idea as well as a second unrelated concept, “Sleepy Bears,” to Clothworks.

Below are the initial concept boards. They're made with my sketches along with other art, patterns, and trends to give an overall feel of the collection.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

Since I’ve worked with Clothworks before, and they know what to expect from me, quick concept boards were fine to get the ball rolling.

Usually at this point Clothworks will pick a direction. This time, however, the Clothworks team was split between the ideas, so they asked me to develop both a little more.


Theme

As I started to develop the animal coloring book idea, I realized that “doodles,” and “pops of color” weren’t enough to hold the collection together. I was having trouble figuring out what to draw with only “animals” as a guide.

I needed a theme.

I have two bird feeders outside my studio window, and I love watching the flock of sparrows, the tiny chickadee, the family of cardinals, and the squawking bluejay come to eat. I call them my “outside pets.” I’ve been wanting to do a project that was inspired by them, and I thought maybe this collection was it.

So I got rid of the “lots of animals” idea, and decided to focus on one animal.

Birds.

Birds are also a popular animal in the “baby” and “quilting” markets, so the idea made sense.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

With “birds” as the theme, all the designs could relate to birds in some way, making the whole collection more cohesive.

After deciding on a theme. Coming up with ideas immediately became easier.


Sketching

When designing anything, I start developing ideas in my sketchbook.

Always always always.

I make super rough drawings to get ideas down before I forget them. This process is much faster than doing anything on the computer.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

After I had initial sketches and some ideas worked out, I switched to the computer.

I took a quick iPhone photo of the sketches then emailed them to myself (nothing fancy). Then I opened the sketches in Adobe Photoshop.

In Photoshop I started to trace the sketches, made new sketches, and honed them into actual drawings I liked. This meant cleaning up lines, drawing additional pieces, adjusting proportions, etc.

I draw in Photoshop with a pen and tablet made for illustrating on the computer.

I use a Yinova MSP19U tablet. It doesn’t have all the features that a Wacom Cintiq has, but it does the job for me right now.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

I also started playing with the layout of the design. Are the elements close together? Are they in one direction or turned in all different directions (tossed)?

Typically each design has 3 different color versions (colorways). So I start to play with that as well.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

I worked on this “tossed bird” design in the above pic, made a couple other designs, then did the same process for the other proposed collection, “Sleepy Bears.”

At this point I had a good sense of how both collections would look, and was excited to work on either one.

Here are the revised ideas I sent to Clothworks.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

Clothworks decided to go with the Bird collection.

Yay. Sweet Tweets was a go.

The next step was to continue to build the collection.


Building the collection

For the final collection I would need to have 6 different designs, each with 3 different colorways.

I continued sketching and developing designs, all the while asking myself the following questions:

• Will the designs appeal to my audience?

• Does each design stand on it’s own as well as within the collection?

• Do the colors work as a collection and in the individual designs?

• How well do the sizes of the elements in the designs relate to those in the other designs? Are any designs too big or small?

• How well will the size of the elements work on a sewn quilt block? On baby clothes?

• Do I have a good variety of “main theme” designs vs. “supporting” designs?

• How does the collection feel overall? Do I need to add a design to the collection to make it more fun? More sophisticated?

• Does the collection feel like me?

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

As I was building the collection I made a bunch of printouts (mostly black and white) so I could check sizes of elements and how one design works with another.

Having a printout gives me a more “physical” look at a design. It feels different than just looking on the computer monitor.


Repeats

I started to put the designs into repeat once I had a good idea of how a design would look.

I made the designs repeatable (connected each edge of the design so it seamlessly repeats) in Photoshop. I do this by duplicating an element on one edge of the design, then placing the copy along the opposite edge. Then I fill in the center area with other elements.

I have second large window open in Photoshop to test the repeat as I work on the designs.

I can see if I have mistakes in the repeat or if any spacing of the elements are weird. It’s also a chance to see if the overall feel of the design is what I was intending it to be.

At the factory, the printing screens that they use to print the designs to fabric are 24 inches wide. So all my designs have to be made to repeat at some multiple of 24 inches. So when they’re repeated on the screen, they end up at 24 inches.

So I can make my designs 24 inches wide, 12 inches, 8 inches, 6 inches, 4 inches, etc.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index


Finished designs
Once I had a finished collection that I was happy with, I sent it off to Clothworks again. If they had any changes at that point I'd go back and make them.

For Sweet Tweets they thought everything was good as is (yay), so it was time to prepare the files for the production process.

Here is the final Sweet Tweets collection.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index


Preparing designs for production

Preparing the designs for production was a 2 part process for me.

First I edited every Photoshop file so each color was on it’s own Photoshop layer. Those color layers also had to be in the same order as the other colorways of the same design.

This was a hugely tedious process but doing it right helps ensure that the design and it’s colors would be printed properly.

The second part of preparing the designs for production was to create something physical that the factory could match their ink colors too.

For me this involved printing out every design on my nice Epson printer and making any adjustments to the colors. The colors on my monitor are often not quite the same when printed.

Once the colors were how I liked them I made a new document that had numbered swatches of the colors. I also labeled the colors in the printed designs so that they corresponded with the numbers on my swatches printout.

That way Clothworks and the factory could easily see what colors go where and on what design.

Now everything was complete and I emailed (dropboxed) the files to Clothworks, and sent them the color print-outs in the mail. They in turn sent it off to the factory.

And that’s it!

The files are off to where they need to go.

Yay!

Now I wait.

For months.

Actually, I started working on ideas for the next collection after Sweet Tweets.


Strike offs

A couple of months after sending off the files, Clothworks let me know that strike offs arrived from the factory, and they would send them my way.

Strike offs are test prints on fabric from the factory.

Strike offs are used to see if there are any errors in the design or the colors before the factory prints yards and yards of fabric.

Clothworks and I compared the strike off colors to the colors in the original swatch and design print-outs that I sent to Clothworks.

If anything is wrong, like the red is too orange, or the blue is too dull, then it gets communicated to the factory and they make changes and send new strike offs. After everything is correct and approved, then the factory starts printing the actual fabric.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/index

For Sweet Tweets, the strike offs were good (surprisingly) the first time around.

Woo hoo, let's get printing!


Waiting

After approving strike offs my part of the design process is complete.

Now I wait about 6 or 7 months before I see the final fabric.

During this time I designed embroidery and sewing patterns to sell through Penguin & Fish that feature the collection. I also worked on marketing the new patterns and fabric, and prepared to market the collection at the International Quilt Market Trade show.

Below is the Nest & Tweet quilt pattern that I designed to go with the collection, hanging in my trade show booth. It was made with the bits of strike offs that I received during the strike off stage. No real fabric yet.

The quilt was partially designed based on how much strike off fabric I had of each design.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/products/sew/nest-and-tweet-quilt-pdf-sewing-pattern


Shipping

When the fabric is complete Clothworks will receive it from the factory on huge bolts or rolls.

Clothworks will do the final processing of the fabric, like rolling it onto smaller bolts of fabric. Then it will be ready to ship to stores.

We’re not quite at that point yet for Sweet Tweets, but it will be here soon in mid-October.

I haven’t seen it yet, and will get my hands on it the same time as everyone else.

Oh the suspense!


Interesting facts

To give you a sense of how long this entire process took, I sent my initial concept boards to Clothworks on September 20th, 2013. And the finished fabric will ship mid-October, 2014.

That’s over a year in the making.

During that time, I already completed the collection that comes after Sweet Tweets, and am currently working on the collection that follows that.

That’s 2 more collections before I even get to see the final Sweet Tweets fabric.

Pretty crazy.

But also really fun. I love that I have several collections going all at once. If I get burnt out on making marketing materials for one collection, I can jump to drawing designs for another collection.

Also I think it’s worth mentioning (especially for artists interested in designing fabric or licensing their designs), I don’t get any royalties until a month after the fabric starts shipping. So I won’t receive any payment for work done in September 2013, until November or December 2014.

http://www.penguinandfish.com/products/stitch/tweet-wreath-instant-download-pdf-embroidery-pattern

There you have it.

My process of making a fabric collection from a designer’s point of view.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and any questions you have. Leave a comment below.

Are you a fabric designer? I’d love to hear a bit about your process. What’s the same? What’s different? Share your comments below.

Also be sure to check out the Penguin & Fish website after October 5th to pre-order fabric bundles of Sweet Tweets.

If you'd like to place your order before then, click here to sign up to my email list. All email subscribers will have first dibs in the Penguin & Fish fat quarter fabric bundle sale starting on October 1st. They will also be able to pre-order Sweet Tweets then.

UPDATE - The Penguin & Fish fat quarter fabric bundle sale is now over. Thanks so much to everyone who participated.

If you found this post interesting, I hope you join me to get my weekly emails on how to craft a happy life - and make something cute in the process. For signing up you’ll also get a FREE Picnic Pals minis hand embroidery pattern.

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37 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your process...it is so interesting and it gave me a greater appreciation of why designer fabrics are a bit more costly.

    I can't wait for the collection...it is so cute and definitely appropriate for more than just babies!

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    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad you hear that it works for more that just baby. Mission accomplished!

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  2. Great info Alyssa! As a wanna-be surface pattern designer this really helped break it down - hard to believe it takes a whole year! I have been working in Illustrator to create designs/repeats - is there an advantage to working in Photoshop that you can share?
    Thanks! Those birdies are too cute

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    Replies
    1. Hi Melissa. I use Photoshop mostly as a personal preference. I want a more drawn/painted style and I think Photoshop works a little better for that. It helps me blend colors a little better as well. Also, I did my first collection in Illustrator, and the factory converted it all (poorly) to Photoshop. So that has definitely influenced me. However, I love Illustrator and think that's perfectly fine to work in, and better in some cases. Using vector images (like in Illustrator) are great when you want to resize something. Hope that helps a little bit. Thanks for the question!

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  3. Good fabric design is really hard work! Thanks for sharing the information, would love to design fabrics too one day. :)

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  4. So inspiring. Loved your process and finished product. Well done you.

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  5. This was fascinating!!!!glad I found this quite accidentally. I am an artisan/clothes & jewelry designer. I've been thinking of making some drawings and/or photo collages and sending them off to Spoonflower so I could use the fabric for my clothes. What you explain here in such beautiful detail is very inspiring (although your process compared to mine is like comparing a five-course meal in a Michelin restaurant to ordering take out at Taco Bell!)

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    1. Thanks so much, Indre! I'd say go for it! It's crazy how awesome it is to see something you did printed onto fabric.

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  6. Thanks, this was really interesting. I often wonder about the fabrics I sew with and how they came to be, I'll be looking out for those birdhouses.

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  7. Thank you for sharing this - it's the best post on designing fabric I've ever seen. I'm thinking about designing fabric sometime in the future so it's nice to get a glimpse of how the magic happens :-)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much, Christa. I really appreciate it!

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  8. Great insight in your process. I have worked in a collection and learned a lot by doing so. You definetely is a pro! Good luck with those marvellous birds!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Bethania. I feel like I learn something new with every collection.

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  9. Thank you for such an informative post on designing a fabric collection!

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  10. Fascinating, thank you for sharing the process. I've often wondered how fabric is designed. Love the finished product - definitely something I would use, not just for babies!

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  11. This was very interesting. I only dabble with designing on Spoonflower and hopefully earn enough to support it as a hobby.

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  12. Great job Alyssa, you really covered the subject well. Very adorable collection. I have followed your work for awhile...since I first found you on Etsy. I love your animals. I am in incensing also and have done a few fabric collections and your process was spot on. I also teach at Washington University in St. Louis and I would like to share this blog post with my students in my licensing class if that is okay with you. Thanks for the great post.

    Linda Solovic

    PS...my daughter goes to MCAD and has had your husband as a design instructor and she asked me if I knew about you and Penguin and Fish and I said sure, Alyssa does great work.

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  13. Great breakdown of the process Alyssa. It sounds just as long as the publishing world. I understand the suspense totally. Good luck with your new design.

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  14. This was such a fantastic post, and so interesting! Thanks for sharing!

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  17. very informative post for me as I am always looking for new content that can help me and my knowledge grow better.

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  18. You explained everything REALLY well! I had to teach myself about art licensing through multiple books, til I got one that made sense to me - wish I had found you many years ago! My question is - WHAT do companies that you'd like to interest in your designs - look for as a standard -- aka how do I present my work? I have over 2000 hand-drawn patterns, NOT made into collections YET... I would like to eventually show them professionally at say Printsource, NYC. I used to be in the Surface Design Assn, but everything I know (mostly) is self-taught. I even attended a conference, learned some. I STILL don't know how to present them - getting samples printed on fabric would be very expensive, but I'm thinking maybe on paper, particularly since I have so many, though of course I'd winnow them down. Any visual resources that could identify the "standard visual" those companies would expect? TY for your post!!! Glad I found you!

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    1. Hi Carol. I'm not sure there is any one standard. I think the biggest thing you could do is start getting your work out there. Have a website and instagram with work available to view. You can contact manufacturers directly via email and social media. I think try to be as visible as you can to them. I wouldn't worry too much about having a ton of materials. Have a buis card and maybe postcards with your newest / best work on it to send around. But I'd for sure try to have an online presence first. Then I would try to start forming some collections around your best work, and show digitally what the collections could look like on things. Like bedsheets or mugs, or whatever type of manufacturer you're looking for. However, I'd first get something online to get the process started. Then you can worry about collections, etc. Also, work on getting a good social media following with people interested in what you're doing and start building an email list as well. Manufacturers / publishers want to know sometimes how big your follower base is these days. These are all just my opinions. I know that everyone has their own way of doing things and story about what worked for them.

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  19. Hi Alyssa,
    Sorry if this information is covered somewhere, but how many strands of floss should I use for your Splendid Sampler block? Thank you!
    ~Lori

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    1. Hi Lori. I used 3 strands for mine. Feel free to use however many you like though. If you use less strands the lines will be a little thinner.

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  20. Hi Alyssa, I predict the new fabric line will be a huge success! When will this fabric line be released? I need some cute fabric. Thanks

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  21. HI Alyssa. This helped me a lot in creating a different but beautiful and creative design.

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  22. Thank you - this was really interesting and useful to read. I have lots of main ideas but really need to work on the supporting ones. I love all of this range it's super cute :)

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  23. Thankyou love your work. I am a embroidery design Artist at Picturestitch.I hand draw all my designs. I am going to look into design some fabric you have really help me thankyou so much

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