The Saga of the Stock Design

And a Tale of Two Siblings   

 Once upon a time, a sister and brother opened a retail shop in Vail, Colorado, offering upscale, “screen printed” clothing. The ordering process included original designs which the customer could peruse, choose and have a custom shirt printed. This is all the rage on the Internet right now, so it is clear we are dealing with a duo that was far ahead of their time.

But wait, there’s more.

One day they received some golf shirts on consignment and decided to have them embroidered. They quickly found that the embroidered shirts sold faster than the printed variety…and began to do some research. They traveled to the kingdom of Denver to gaze at the first embroidery machine they had ever seen…and decided if they could make embroidered custom shirts one at a time, they would have a brisk market. A trip to the far-off land of Georgia found them at the Bobbin Show. Armed with sage advice from three wise men, they looked for a machine that could recreate their designs the best. One company did not wish them to buy their machine as they feared that too much knowledge on the part of the customer might affect the demand for embroidery—if it looked easy and accessible, no one would be willing to pay.

This company would later open hundreds of shops across the Greater Kingdom, following the lead of our dynamic duo, but our heroes purchased the now-retired Ultramatic and started on their journey to renown.

Fearing that their reputations and not their designs were the impetus behind their success (they had three stores and people standing in line to get in), they moved to the outlying lands of California to test their business plan. They wanted to prove it could work in Anytown, USA.

A consultant was called in to offer advice about production and, on his recommendation, they decided to travel to an Embroidery Tournament (trade show) and exhibit their line of embroidered clothing. The whole idea was to market the finished product….

They were offered a seminar opportunity and decided to encourage other embroiderers to develop a line of 100 or so designs of their own stock designs and offer custom clothing. At that time, most designs were logos of the custom variety and so the idea of having a library of designs was new.

 Most custom designs were created by machine companies and some had requirements that after one year they could sell the custom design to other customers…so proprietary or distinctive offerings were not a consideration.

Out of 18 attendees in their class on Stock Designs, 16 walked out—but two brothers stayed and listened intently…Jerry and George Westfall.

Many of the trade show attendees asked about buying our siblings’ designs rather than creating their own so, a few months later, Keith and Lee Caroselli attended their second trade show as exhibitors and sold a 175 design library—the beginning of what we now know as the “stock design industry”, and a company called Balboa Threadworks.

Also debuting at that show was Dakota Collectibles. The Westfall brothers from North Dakota had taken the information learned at the Caroselli’s seminar a year earlier, and developed a business that followed in a similar direction to Balboa Threadworks. They differed in that they often traded designs they created for those created by other digitizers in order to build a large body of designs.

Lee and Keith (until his passing in 2009) always preferred to create their own designs, growing in their skills and keeping their fingers on the pulse of quality.

When Keith and Lee Caroselli arrived back in California after their second trade show, they found that there was a demand for custom pieces with the names of cities, events and schools. They developed an alphabet that allowed embroiderers to create designs by piecing letters together. For the price of a custom design the embroidery shop could purchase an alphabet with 126 individual but interlocking letters. Their first alphabet carved letters out of the fabric—negative space surrounded by lightly stitched backgrounds with a bean stitch outline. The stitch count was economical and the look was wildly popular and excitingly different—called Balboa Stitch.

It would be wonderful to say that everyone lived happily ever after but, even though stock designs are a staple of our industry now, the ensuing volumes of our Stock Design Saga contain caveats as well as cheers.

How do stock designs fit into our business?

Should we create them ourselves or buy from others?

How can we safely sell our designs in the wider embroidery world in which we live?

How can we protect our work and our bottom line?

 Where Stock Designs Fit…

 It is so difficult to imagine not having stock designs to use in speculative embroidery work and as a menu for our customers. The industry might not be that old, but we are hard-pressed to remember a time when stock designs—anything other than custom—were not an integral part of our offerings.

It is so much easier to choose from a collection in order to have, say, decorated baby blankets ready for sale…the name and date the only addition needed at the time of purchase.

We can save money for business clients—I did a nice design for a concrete finisher once with the name of his business and a generic design. Remember that if the company wants to use the design on cards and in advertising, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Remember, too, (see Hart of Embroidery this month on Copyrights) that you only purchase the right to use the design. You don’t own it; you can’t sell it; you can’t give it.

Following the rules is important if you expect the rules to be applied to you as well.

You can now buy and sell a used collection if the license is transferred—it was not always so.

 Digitizing For Others

 Digitizing systems have become more affordable over the years and so the machine companies now bundle them with machines. Some digitizing systems are sold individually. A digitizing system in every shop is like a chicken in every pot—the vendor wants to sell it and the embroidery shop is convinced that it is a must-have.

In ways it is a requirement, as adding lettering and the need to merge and edit designs requires some level of software. If you purchase stock designs and want to be able to change them or add lettering, you have to have a basic level of software and some training.

 Not everyone wants to be a digitizer, but many enjoy the art and set up shop as a digitizer or an embroiderer offering digitizing to others and accept commissions for custom designs. Those who can create distinctive designs often venture into creating their own designs and, if the demand and desire is present, they offer a collection for sale—which brings up the question and challenge of safely and successfully marketing those designs.

 Marketing Stock Designs

 The Internet makes it possible to get your designs in front of the buying public. Accessing the search engines for the best exposure is an additional trick we must learn when we market on the Web. I always advise in favor of websites as it takes the place of a brochure for whatever kind of customer we are courting.

But sometimes there is strength in numbers which gave rise to the concept of marketing designs at a central website. I compare this style of marketing to choosing a heart surgeon. You better know the reputation and as well as the skill and integrity of your choice because your creative life will be in that stock doctor’s hands.

First, you must turn over the master of the design to the company. They have to have it to make it available to the buyer. You also have to have complete faith in the integrity of the owner of the site when it comes to accounting for sales. You will have absolutely no way of knowing if there have really been 4 sales or 400 of a design.

The dropping price of the embroidery designs (something I have railed against) is also a factor in this equation as anything that is procured for little is worth little to the owner. A user name and password are easily shared with friends when the designs cost $5.00—thus could a second download of all designs purchased be secured for a non-buyer. As price goes down, buyers are more apt to trade and share which further devalues the design.     

A recent court case found in excess of 150 of the same design downloaded by a single buyer.  An accidental “stuttering on the keys” was presented as a possible rationale or it might have been 150 web friends sharing a design—or even an enterprising buyer making a profit on goods not their own.

Asking for copies of the download logs can help gauge sales. But what would you do if you discovered, as one seller did, that over a million dollars worth of designs went out with no payment made to the copyright holder? How many of us have the money to mount a law suit against a larger adversary even when we are right?

Some call these central selling sites “malls” and there are many different types of web sites that qualify. These large sites offer the small digitizer a larger audience than they might command on their own. They also offer the embroidery shop owner a wider choice. It can be easier and less time consuming to find specific designs at a larger communal site than trying to visit and many smaller and less well-known sites.

There are also different ways to operate these malls. An embroidery shop owner needs to trust that the site they are patronizing has superior and trustworthy standards. A digitizer/artist needs to  investigate the rules and choices if they are looking to participate in a mall setting.

At some malls, the digitizer can choose to participate in the advertising section only or have a presence on the mall. They can also have their own site and have a presence at the mall. Most of the malls handle the credit card transactions and send a check to the participating digitizers. A commission and/or rent is charged but the exposure is considered worth the price. All the designers/digitizers are listed on the main page of the site but when you select a designer, you are taken to pages that contain only that digitizer’s offerings. Each member of the mall is independent; all designs created by that digitizer are credited accordingly.

Other malls are operated by large stock design companies. The offerings there are produced either by in-house digitizers or secured by contract from off-site designers. These off-site designers may create the designs for a set price or they may allow selected designs to be placed in a consignment fashion at the site. We would like to think that the quality is carefully monitored—a good idea if a reputation for stellar products is the goal.

Sometimes we have to do our own assessments or rely on feedback from Internet Forums. There is also the very real possibility that the business may change hands. A former owner may not supply precise records that will keep any consignment payments flowing. Or a new owner may not play by the same standards. Their fair play barometer may be better…or worse.

If you are a member of any mall, it is incumbent on you as the digitizer/designer to know what the rules are and, while abiding by them, make sure that you are treated fairly as well. Any change of ownership status should be reported to participating members and any changes in policy carefully reviewed and agreed upon.

 Protecting Your Work           

 I have heard it said that it is better to sell 100 designs at $5.00 than 4 at $50.00. I could argue that both ways…but I tend to come down on the side of the value of designs, embroidery and the industry. Others are only interested in the bottom line, not in the economic health of the industry (remember the machine company that didn’t want embroidery machines “exposed” for fear of dropping prices and demand).

This leads to the thought that if you really want to be safe, you have to sell your designs in an environment where you have total control. This could mean less traffic but you might also get more for the designs as you are not side-by-side with low prices.

Until we have ways of accounting and protecting that are fool proof, we will have to weigh the odds and make tough choices. We may also have to take some lumps.

If you decide to bail out of a marketing site or any co-operative effort with another digitizer, if any “contract” comes up for renewal and you decide to pass, keep an eye on the site or collection and make sure your designs are not kept or “re-worked” leaving you out of the income loop.

 And They Lived Happily Ever After

 Your copyright in your artistic work is important. We can live happily ever after in the Land of Stock Designs if we abide by the rules when we purchase licenses for use, protect our own work to set a standard for the industry and hold accountable those who would help us market our intellectual property.