Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview - Patternfish

 Over the last 5 years, several craft-oriented websites have emerged as key players in bringing the fiber arts into the digital world. Among these leaders is the web site Patternfish, the brain child of Julia Grunau in Toronto, Canada. Patternfish provides members access to over 14,000 knit and crochet patterns from major publishers and independent designers alike.
While I'm busy organizing my thoughts and photos of my 3 days at the Stained Fingers Dye Camp, here's a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes at Patternfish.
1) Where did the idea for Patternfish come from? How did it come into being?

I joined the industry in 1997, as a rep for S.R. Kertzer.  That means I worked for a distributor and sold yarn to yarn shops in and around Toronto-- Lopi, Stylecraft, Classic Elite, Austermann, Naturally, lots of different brands.   

Of course, the yarns and colours were great, and that's where everyone principally made their money.  But a lot of the designs really knocked me out: the beauty and imagination of them-- Classic Elite's in particular.  At the same time, though, patterns were often treated as afterthoughts-- quickly discontinued if a yarn quality failed, and then literally trashed.  They could disappear forever.  And the designers were notoriously poorly compensated. 

I thought all this was appalling and wondered over the years if something couldn't be done about preserving the patterns, regardless of the particular yarn's availability (and compensating the designers on a royalty basis).  I certainly never threw any of them out, even after I left the company and struck out as an independent rep.  Eventually it dawned on me that they could be sold as PDF's in a kind of massive, independent, unaffiliated online pattern bookstore, and since no one else seemed to be doing it, and I wanted to shop there, I thought I should.  So Patternfish was incorporated in October 2006.

While Phil was still writing the code, for a year or two before we went live in June 2008, I went round to all the usual trade shows I had attended and talked to all the people working for those companies whose patterns I still kept, and asked if I could scan and post their catalogues for sale.  I already had a lot of their patterns-- all they had to do was give their permission and then wait for us to send them their money.  For the most part they were incredulous that anyone might actually choose to buy something not from the current season.  But I could see that even if they thought I was being idiotic, I was at least a trustworthy and amiable idiot long known to them, so they all said to go ahead.  I was very lucky.  Now, of course, we have what engineers call "proof of concept" industry-wide.

2) What is the goal of your site?

First, and from the beginning, I wanted good patterns to get respect.  I wanted people to care about them as potential works of art.  For a long time they were treated like Kleenex.  I thought this was a dreadful miscarriage of justice.  Would you toss out an Alexander McQueen dress because it's a year or two old?  Certainly not.  Why do it with designs?

I want to present great-quality, compelling patterns as if they were in a beautiful magazine of their own, with large lush photographs and the kind of captioning that actually gives you a good idea of what the pattern was about.  If I'm going to have to purl four together through the back loops 500 times, I want to know about it in advance.

I want these worthy things to appear in a beautiful, classy setting.  I want people to get patterns at their best, in all senses of the word.  I want people to be able to sit in front of Patternfish with a cup of tea or glass of wine and browse happily at length until they find exactly what they want.

I do NOT want to be bombarded with flashy headache-inducing ads, so we don't carry any.  This has actually worked in our favour: yarn stores tell us they're happy to send their customers to our site because "they're not going to get poached by another store" offering free shipping or whatever.

I thought that if all this worked, that pattern sales would enrich the designers and companies (it costs Bergere de France, for example, about 2000 Euros to produce each of their designs, from sketch to printing, and they produce hundreds a year-- how long is this sustainable?).  And from the beginning, I saw it as all intertwined.  That if you sold more patterns and enriched those publishers, yarn sales had to follow from somewhere: "a rising tide floats all boats".  And from having worked in a big yarn store (Romni Wools in Toronto), I knew something else.  I dreaded someone coming in without an idea in their head of what they wanted to make-- or worse, too specific an idea, which would make finding that exact pattern impossible.  But if someone came in with a pattern already, and asked, "Do you have the yarn to make this?" then I could always answer "Yes!" and everyone would be happy a lot faster.  I never wanted to compete with yarn stores; they're too important.  So long as I make the decisions, we'll never sell yarn or anything that's not downloadable.

Once, one of our publishers-- also a yarn manufacturer!-- suggested launching a Patternfish brand of yarns.  I was very amused by this.  Why compete with our suppliers?  What on earth could we do better than they, yarn-wise?  I'd rather make their own product look irresistible, then everybody wins.

3) How many patterns does Patternfish have available? Where do they come from?

We have over 14,220 patterns, and that number increases virtually every day.

Sometimes we approach designers or companies and ask for their work; sometimes they approach us.  Of course, we have a dream list that we work on all the time.  Sometimes it takes years to get a commitment.  You have to be very patient and very focused.

4) What do you offer to your members that is different from other pattern web sites?

(I'm not terribly familiar with how other pattern web sites operate, so can't really compare.  That said...)

First, Patternfish has an unparalleled selection of superb patterns, both contemporary and vintage, from hundreds of renowned designers and name-brand publishers all over the world.  Almost half of them are exclusive to us-- absolutely not available anywhere else.  And when you buy from Patternfish you know that your purchase is backed up to the hilt.  Both we and the publisher stand behind the product.

One thing people always mention is our response time.  If you have an issue of some kind, and email us, apparently we respond very quickly compared to what customers might be used to elsewhere.  Phil and I have all the Patternfish email inboxes visible at all times and practically trample each other trying to get problems solved, and there are other Patternfishers who check frequently as well.
Our monthly newsletter is more engaging and entertaining than others according to fans who write. People describe it as sitting down for a chat with a knowledgeable  knitting companion.

Also, since patterns and associated customer happiness are all we ever think about, we've been innovators in a lot of ways that others have copied: establishing your pattern stash, automatic access to corrected PDF's if there's errata, and so on.  In addition,  Patternfish's pattern stash lasts forever, many others don't.

100% of our software and product development is devoted to bettering the customer's pattern experience.  I don't believe other pattern-buying sites can say that.

We are about to increase the speed of the site by a factor of 10, and introduce a couple of other staggering new features and products.  Fall 2013 is going to be very exciting for us.

5) Do you see trends in the kind of patterns that are popular among your members? (aside from seasonal trends)

Cardigans are more popular than pullovers for both adults and kids.  Cabled designs are decidedly more popular than fair isle or intarsia.  Easy is more popular than hard, obviously!  But the biggest single popularity factor, I think, is when something doesn't have to fit exactly.  Many knitters and crocheters shy away from having to achieve very precise fit or measurement requirements.  So anything where an exact fit isn't required-- shawls, shawlettes, wraps, swing coats, A-line cardigans-- they all do very well compared to more tailored projects.  Top-down designs are very popular, especially for babies and children, probably having to do with this reason; you can try the piece on as you go and adjust on the fly.

6) Is there any criteria for a pattern being accepted to Patternfish or can anyone post a pattern?

You have to have a good design.  We don't care if it's for spats or lunch boxes-- we have both.  The pattern has to be well-written, and preferably tech-edited.  The pictures have to be nice and big and crisp.  And we much prefer it if you have a body of work, say, 12 or more patterns all told.  It's very hard for anyone to make any kind of splash with much fewer than that.  The more patterns you offer, the more you tend to sell of each one.

No one can post a pattern directly on their own-- not yet, though it may happen in some cases.   They all have to go through an approval process.  Not to vet each one for arbitrary quality or standards of taste; once a designer or publisher is on board, they're free to do and submit whatever they want.  We check more for uniformity.  We want "Cascade 220" to be spelled the same correct way wherever it appears, and for Brown Sheep Company to be the manufacturer across the board rather than sometimes Brown Sheep or Brown Sheep Co. or whatever.  We (try and!) make sure the spelling is correct and that a US7 needle is correctly reflected as a 4.5mm and so on.  Just yesterday I had to change a yarn manufacturer's listing from "Alicia Goes Around" to "Alisha Goes Around".  We love having people be able to search designs by yarn manufacturer or yarn name, but for this to work properly, you really have to be consistent.  It takes a surprising amount of time.

7) How do you see the site evolving over the coming years?

Everything we do will be aimed at improving the PDF pattern browsing, buying, and holding experience for our customer.  And everything we do for the customer will benefit the publishers commensurately.  We will become more international both in patterns offered and revenue reach (right now about 75% of our sales are American).   There are going to be different formats and platforms to work with.  We're terribly excited.

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