Sewing pattern copyright law – myths debunked

Do you know the law about the copyright on sewing patterns and the things you make from those patterns. Don't believe everything you read! Here are the facts.

There were a couple of articles in July that had a lot of interest, both about sewing to sell.  How to price your work and A round up of Projects that are good to sell.

Sewing to sell. How to price your work. Several different methods discussed and a handy worksheet to give you a range of selling prices.

Ideas and tips for sewing for selling. What do you need to consider and links to some great projects that could be good profit-makers.

Good to see so many people were interested in this subject, but at the same time I got such a lot of emails telling me that it was illegal to sell things you had made from either someone else’s sewing pattern, or from licensed fabric.  Or that you had to buy a licence from the pattern designer if you wanted to sell an item made from their pattern, known as a cottage licence.  Or that if you want to make more than one item (such as 3 matching bridesmaid dresses) that you have to buy a new pattern for each person!  Sadly it only proves that there is a lot of mis-information out there which is holding you and your business back!

So I got in touch with a couple of contacts, one of whom is a lawyer, and another who has a lot of personal experience in copyright law, and scoured the internet looking for definitive advice on this subject.  There is too much nonsense out there.  I had to wade through a lot of people who were apparently stating a fact but in the end were just really passing on hearsay and opinion without any basis in fact at all, and thereby just perpetuating the myth that you cannot sell certain items.

I’m trying to put the record straight here in an easy to understand way, but at the same time it is a VERY complicated area and opinions, even legal opinions, can sometimes vary.  Please therefore make your own enquiries with your lawyer if you wish to set up any kind of business and think these sort of restrictions might apply to you and your products.  Different laws may also apply to different regions of the world.  Check your local laws.

Sewing pattern Copyright law – myths debunked

I’m aware that some of which I state here below may be controversial, and not everyone will either agree with me or like what I say.  Of course as usual all comments and feedback are welcome.  If you do make a statement of fact that relates to the law regarding sewing patterns and copyright, that contradicts any of these statements below, please provide a source in law where such information can be found and verified.  Saying this isn’t true because I read it on the internet, only provides even more confusion and passes on inaccurate information which is something we are trying to avoid.

3822687027_622ce9d1c2photo credit: Disagreement via photopin (licence)

1 – if you make something yourself from a commercially available sewing pattern, it is illegal to sell it because of copyright laws.

Not true.  A sewing pattern itself may be subject to copyright law, but that is only the pattern illustrations, diagrams, written instructions and the pattern envelope art (sometimes, again there are limitations).  That means that you cannot simply photocopy or scan in the sewing pattern and then sell copies of it.  Naturally, I’m sure you wouldn’t do that.  Although if you look on Etsy there are plenty of seemingly illegal copies of sewing/knitting patterns and even scanned copies of whole books on there.  But that’s another matter for another day…

You CAN sell things that you make from sewing patterns, with only minor limitations (see later).  A pattern is simply that – a template to follow to create a uniform item.  You add your own artistic flare to what you create using that template.  What you make is your property and is yours to do with as you will.

Will this happen if you sell what you sew? Absolutely not.

In legal-ese.  Patterns for clothing and other useful items generally are not copyrightable. See Supreme Court – Baker v Selden, 101 U.S. 99, (1878).  Even if patterns were copyrightable, the product made from the pattern would not be covered  by the copyright. see Baker v Selden, (1878). Copyright owners only have the rights defined under copyright law and cannot make statements that restrict the subsequent use of their product once they have sold it. see Supreme Court – Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus, 210 U.S. 339, (1908)


As you can see, these Supreme Court rulings established certain factors over 100 years ago, and those have not changed since that time.

You might enjoy this interesting TED Talk about copyright in the fashion industry that explains how utilitarian items cannot be subject to copyright.

So if I saw a cat-walk dress I loved, I could create a pattern for how to make a similar item and you could all sew up similar dresses, no problem. That’s how the high-street stores are able to create copies of designer clothing.

2 – If you buy an ‘indie’ pattern and then find right at the end it says for personal use only, or not for commercial use etc, then you aren’t allowed to sell any items you make using that pattern.

Not true.  These terms are trying to impose a contract between the pattern seller and the buyer.  But for a contract to be legally binding, both parties have to be fully aware of all of the terms of that contract and both expressly agree to them before entering into that contract – at the point of the purchase of the pattern.

In legal-ese. Unless the purchaser agrees to the restriction before the sale. the limitations on the product do not apply.  (Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus) The non-commercial limitation is not legally binding upon the purchaser because the manufacturer lacks the legal standing to make such demands.

3 – What about the designers who want to charge you for a ‘licence’ to sell what you made from their pattern? 

Angel licences, sometimes called cottage licences, are agreements between two parties. If you purchase the pattern without first agreeing to limitations the same applies as in #2. These licences are attempts by designers to get around copyright law.  Don’t fall for it and pay out money for a licence you don’t need and isn’t worth anything.

If a pattern designer expresses their wish that you do not sell items created from the pattern, then you may decide to simply use another pattern, there are lots out there.  Don’t waste your time and money on pattern designers who are overly-restrictive or unco-operative.

5488454359_39be14506bphoto credit: Pattern via photopin (licence)

4 – You can’t sell items made with ‘licensed’ fabric, such as Dr Who fabric.  That’s illegal and the BBC will come after you for making forgeries, illegal copies of their products or going outside of the licence agreement for the fabric.

Not necessarily true.  Licensed fabric means the design was licensed by the rights owner to be manufactured. The licence is between those two parties, not between the manufacturer and the fabric buyer.  There is no license on the use of the fabric as long as the user insures that when selling the items it is very clear to any potential purchaser that the product is not an official licensed product but rather made from licensed fabric. We suggest users include a Disclaimer when advertising anything made in this way.

Read more about the use of licensed fabrics here. Are there ‘restrictions’ printed in the selvege edge of your fabric?  These restrictions aren’t legally binding on the fabric purchaser – read more about that here.


5 – What about those designers who insist you ‘credit’ them by adding a notice to your sales pages and a tag to the item saying it was made with their pattern? 

Depends where you live.  American copyright law does not require the original author be given credit as you describe. European copyright law does require attribution but Congress declined to add that to American copyright law.  Their demands for credit are not legally enforceable.

6 – You must purchase a pattern for EVERY item you make.

Not true.  Patterns are reusable and there is nothing in the law that allows any pattern designer/manufacturer to set such a limit on the number of items that can be produced from the pattern, even if they are items of clothing intended for different people.  Imagine if you had two daughters and wanted to make them matching dresses – why would you need to buy two patterns?  The same applies even if you are sewing items to sell.

Coming up next

I’ll be following up with my opinion in the next article about why I think pattern designers and companies try to put these restrictions on their products.  I’ll also be happy to tell you more about what is and isn’t allowed with So Sew Easy patterns too – basically that’s just common sense.  You know what’s right and wrong!

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148 Responses to Sewing pattern copyright law – myths debunked

  1. Ashley Howard says:

    So I saw an image on instagram of a a cute baby swaddle and made up my own pattern of the image and have started selling them on etsy. Another seller who sells these swaddlers as well, messaged me saying that she is patent-pending the design and appearance of these swaddlers and demanded that I stop listing and selling these or she will take legal action upon me. Is she allowed to patent the appearance of an item?? I didn’t think that was possible. You see so many similar items online and in stores that I didn’t think one could patent the appearance. Also, could she actually take me to court for this?! I feel so confused and a bit bullied by this person and their demands. I just want to know what I can do about this and what is actually correct.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Ashley, I’m certainly not a lawyer but I’m quite sure that you can’t patent appearances or even designs. In some countries you can register designs, but they must be distinctive and novel. You can, however, patent inventions so if the swaddle is unique in some way that it could be an invention, it may be possible to patent it. I don’t know if you are in the US but have a look at the US Patent Office website: and do a search for swaddles. There are actually a few things listed there. If the person bothering you has a valid claim, either granted or pending, they should be able to give you a reference number that you can look up and confirm. If you can confirm it, you should probably comply and stop making them. If the person’s claim can’t be confirmed, you can probably continue. Don’t feel bullied in any case. Hope that helps a little.

  2. Carmen says:

    Hello, my question is if I buy a quilting kit online, make it, am I allowed to sell it without breaking any rules? Confused in Canada

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Carmen, the rules vary country to country and I’m not particularly familiar with Canadian laws, but I can’t see why there would be any problems if you’re buying a genuine kit and making something. You’re basically selling the labor involved in the assembly. I would think the maker of the kit would be happy as they would be making their expected profits on selling the kit and you may make something on your efforts as well. If you started replicating the kit or using the same pattern with new materials not from the kit, I think it could be a different story (although there’s a good chance you’d still be ok) but I can’t see any issue if it is from a genuine and original kit. I’ll add my usual disclaimer that I’m not a lawyer so if you want a 100% answer, please consult a local intellectual property lawyer but I think you’re OK.

  3. GhostWolfe says:

    A question in relation to point #2:

    I purchased a crochet pattern on Etsy. In the item description it includes the following disclaimer:

    “You may feel free to sell the finished products on your local bazaar,craft fairs,etc.
    You are not allowed to sell them on the internet. Thank you!”

    In this case, you see this condition before purchasing, therefore should be aware of the stipulation. However, I believe what you wrote, that “the non-commercial limitation is not legally binding upon the purchaser because the manufacturer lacks the legal standing to make such demands”, still applies.

    Am I understanding correctly?

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi, technically I think you’re probably right. However, as a matter of propriety and fairness, if the designer has expressed specific conditions that you are aware of prior to purchase, then I think it would only be fair and reasonable to comply with those wishes. This certainly isn’t a legal option, only my own personal one. My sense is there are probably quite a few other patterns around without these conditions attached. Why not use those?

      • GhostWolfe says:

        I intend to respect the seller’s wishes; but I thought it was a very strange stipulation, and as a real example out in the wild, it would be a good to opportunity to clarify.


  4. Terri Gibbs says:

    Thanks for that,
    I am just launching Lazy sewing – children’s fast easy patterns for quick sewing, it looks like a legal mind field and expensive too, while being told to protect my intellectual property. My conclusion was i am wasting time, energy and money trying to do so. My instinct is do not worry about it, i still have a brain to create the next idea and at least the patterns are out in the market place and they are getting used. So thank you for backing up my point of view. Terri – Lazy sewing

  5. Jane Parker says:

    I have a question…
    There is specific indie pattern designer that requires to be credited on the ad and item if you sell anything made using their pattern. This designer allows you to make modifications to the pattern for personal use, but not for sale.
    I love to support other indie designers, but I don’t agree with these terms so I’ve decided not to buy from this designer.
    My question is (finally LOL): is it wrong for me to just draft my own pattern? This designer has very unique things, and my final items will resemble their items a lot.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      I guess you can make your own pattern, but you really shouldn’t copy the actual pattern of the other designer. Many things resemble many other things without being copies though. Like in writing, paraphrasing is not copying. If you go through the process of making your own pattern I think you’d be ok. But if you’re going to do that, go ahead a make some distinctive modifications of your own so it is absolutely clear you haven’t copied. Hope that helps.

  6. ninamakesnz says:

    Just what I needed to know, without all the ‘truths’ I have been wading through to find this information! Thank you for writing a nice clear and easy to understand post!

  7. bobbie says:

    pretty much what legalzoom wrote!!

  8. Danielle says:

    I’ve just come across this post from endless searching for a different matter and had a question regarding patterned fabrics (instead of fabric patterns)
    Say I found a set of fabric featuring the design of say an owl or fruit printed on it, and then make say a bag from said fabric and then sold this bag online, would I be okay with doing that?
    A lot of fabric stores who sell patterned fabric VERY rarely state the designer of the fabric therefore I cannot even contact them to find out more information if it’s okay.

    For example, say I were to purchase a fabric with a distinctive pattern with the intention of making a bag from it to then sell online, as it doesn’t state a designer, how would I know it is okay for commercial use?
    Would I constantly have to ask the sellers of the fabric (regardless whether I am buying it from online or a local store) whether the fabric they sell is okay for commercial use?

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Danielle, as always, for specific legal concerns, it is always best to consult a lawyer, but for my opinion on the situations you describe, I think it would be OK to make and sell items with patterned fabric as long as that fabric is not “distinctive” with say the likeness of a Star Wars character or Dr Who as the example we used in the article.

  9. Sarah says:

    Thanks for this super useful information! I am looking into starting a small online shop of items I have sewn. However, I live in Canada…do you know if Canadian laws are significantly different than American or where I could find reliable information to find out?


    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Sarah, I suspect the Canadian laws are probably very similar. Lots of trademark and intellectual property law has be harmonized around the world, probably more so than any other legal category. As you can imagine there is a tremendous amount of intellectual property that flows and trades around the world every day. Of course for any specific advice, it’s always best to consult a local lawyer skilled in the subject but if I were you, I would assume that the laws are essentially the same.

      It’s technical stuff but I’ve found the World International Property Organization to be useful. This is an intergovernmental body which coordinates global international property rights. Here’s the link to their info on Canadian copyright:

      Hope that helps.

  10. Beverly Branch says:

    I just took a look at a remnant I bought a few weeks ago. Cotton plaid with Mickey Mouse. Clearly states in the selvage that it is sold for noncommercial home use only. That makes it pretty clear on this issue, I think. Disney is very protective of their trademarks so I wouldn’t risk selling anything with their characters or graphics. They have a lot more money and lawyers than me🤑

  11. Tiffany says:

    So I’m pretty new to all of this. I am confused about many things, and have a lot of questions but will start here…..If I purchase an embroidery design to stitch on items to sell, say Etsy for example, where does this fall under all of this? Also, how does one go about making their own designs to sell on their website or Etsy? I see so many designs that are the same from different websites or embroidery sites, I’m confused as to how one does this without any Copyright issues. If I purchase a design, download it and change it to add my personal designs for sell or use, does that change when I save it? Or does copyright still apply? I use embrilliance essentials and it saves as my design by default. Can you clarify any of these questions?

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Tiffany, we’ve tried to pull together a good summary of copyright law as it relates to sewing and patterns, but we certainly don’t have all the answers. For specific questions, it’s always prudent to consult a lawyer. Perhaps one of the many followers of this article can comment more on this.

  12. Michele says:

    Thank you for clearing up many of the mundane rules for hand crafting. Many persons have held back from pushing forward with their craft ability because of so many grey areas that have been for years stated as black and white. I often look for patterns and see many patterns that I know without buying I can make it. I’m always settling on not to because I don’t want to be accused of stealing someone else ideas.

  13. Gretchen says:

    Thank you for clearing up something that has been nagging at the back of my mind for several months!

  14. Patricia says:

    Thank you for taking the time to review copy right laws regarding patterns and the selling of things you make. You cleared a lot of myths for me and I’m sure for others.

  15. Tammy says:

    I have a question about Appliques. When a pattern, such as a Simplicity Pattern or a McCalls Pattern contains appliques are they covered any differently under copyright law than the pattern itself? For example, a Stocking Pattern has appliques, are the appliques considered “Works of Art” or “Artwork” and therefore cannot be replicated and sold? I have a small Etsy shop and I made an item that contained appliques from a Simplicity Pattern and the pattern maker contacted me and said that the artwork is copyrighted and for personal use only as stated on the pattern envelope, is this the case with appliques? I thought, as the article you posted states, that the pattern itself is copyrighted and not the items made from the pattern, but I guess I just need to know if appliques are different. Thanks.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Regardless of what it says in the article, please follow the instructions given by the designer. It is not that hard to find royalty free appliques, you may have to pay for a membership, but is worth it, since you will not be braking any laws.

  16. mila says:

    It seems very simple, and understandable, but just to be repetitive with a specific question. I go to Joannes to buy “john Deere ” printed fabric. I make a bag out of it and want to sell it. Im “able to ” happily?

    • Deby says:

      According to the advice we received, yes, the fabric design is licenced to the person printing it, but there is no restriction as to how you can then use it afterwards. You should however, of course, note when creating and selling any item, make it clear that the product has been made from licenced fabric and is not an officially licenced John Deere product, nor should you use John Deere in your marketing title which might imply that it was. Hope that helps. Laws on this matter may vary according to where you are in the world and where you transact business, so you should take legal advice before putting your business at risk of any potential conflicts.

What do you think?