Sewing Pattern Copyright Law – Myths Debunked!

sewing pattern copyright law

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.

sewing pattern copyright lawphoto 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.

sewing pattern copyright law

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.

sewing pattern copyright lawphoto 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.

sewing pattern copyright law

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!

If You'd Like To Support Our Site

If you want to help us continue to bring you a wide selection of free sewing patterns and projects, please consider buying us a coffee.  We'd really, really appreciate it.
Bookmark the permalink.

402 Responses to Sewing Pattern Copyright Law – Myths Debunked!

  1. Elizabeth Rose says:

    I’m confused, if I buy a sewing pattern and make a doll from it is it okay for me to sell it? she said it’s for personal use and that she doesn’t want us selling the dolls we made?

  2. Jess says:

    Thanks for this straight-forward article! What are your thoughts on patterns that limit mass production? Thank you!

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      Yes, there is where people get in trouble all patterns are covered by law even if they are not marked. Plagiarism, copyright law infringement, loss of income and future revenue are just a few things that a lawyer can grab into to make a case.

  3. pamela says:

    This was very fascinating and very useful. Thank you so much for writing about this.

    I have a question regarding beaded jewelry tutorials on YouTube. I have watched a number of jewelry tutorials where the teacher/designer creates a design piece using a set number of specified beads and a set manner of sewing them together into a pattern. She specifies the size of the beads and sometimes the colors and tells us where we can go to purchase them. She then demonstrates exactly how to sew the beads together to create the pattern that she has designed. We do not pay for these lessons except through viewing them on YouTube. But she gets paid by having lots of students view that particular tutorial.

    But at the bottom of the page inside the YouTube description area, she will say “you can make this for personal use only. You cannot make them for online sales.” I am wondering, and this is my question, if we learn how to make a certain piece of jewelry from this teacher’s tutorial, which is described and promoted as a tutorial to learn from, don’t we have the right to continue making more and selling them if we wish. I know we do not have the right to use the teachers YouTube video to teach how to make the design. But once we learn the design, don’t we have the right to make several pieces and to sell them even if the designer/teacher says that we cannot sell them?

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      Hi Pamela, you need millions of views to be paid, YouTube has changed the rules and every year is less and less money because you need more and more views every month. To be able to make money you need a minimum of 10K subscribers and 100,000 views a month then you can see perhaps 30 or 40 dollars it is not as profitable anymore as people think.
      I would seek written permission, It is not only fair to the designer but also you avoid any legal problems.

  4. Saime says:

    Beside from selling what you se i have question for sellin patterns. I am planning to start an Etsy shop where I will sell cross stitch templates (PDF files) for $3-4. The templates will generally consist of cross stitch patterns of pop culture characters, quotations, manga characters etc. It seemed like a very good idea at first since i, myself, love buying and producing pop-culture related products. But then, although I saw hundreds of unlicensed products being sold on other online and non-online platforms everyday, I thought that this might be copyright infringement. I don’t think componies with millions of dollars of worth will care about my small business but i anted to be sure. am i allowed to do this? can i? I mean i am seeing baby yoda patterns everywhere but i still have concerns. If you have any information on this regard could you help me?

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      I would stir away from selling someone else’s work. Why don’t you make your own patterns, this is not hard to do.

  5. Kayla says:

    Question, Ive taken many store bought garments apart and created patterns for them to recreate the same style dress for myself many times. Im wondering if its legal to sell these? Im not selling the exact dress I bought, Im not selling the patterns I made, just final product that looks similar with different fabric/colors/sizing/ect. Is this legal?

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      HI Kayla, you will be fine. As long as you do not sell the dress you bought under your label. Did you know that simplicity patterns started this way? taking apart dresses from French designers? true story.

  6. Peggy says:

    Am I correct in assuming this also extends to knitting and crochet patterns and the items created from them?
    How about indie yarn dyers recreating a dye pattern from a company that no longer produces that colorway?

  7. Cindy says:

    Re: Disney designs: My son works for Disney here in the USA. They have aggressive lawyers and jealously guard their images.
    Kenner (toys) came after a dollmaker friend of mine who in the early 1990s designed her own pattern of a Strawberry Shortcake cloth doll from a picture. It was a Cease and Desist letter and a demand to destroy the doll and hand over her patterns.

  8. Amelia says:

    I have seen a lot of people making PDF’s and selling them on Etsy. This seems like it would be illegal. Just like it’s illegal to sell a PDF of a book unless it’s authorized by the publisher.

    • Mayra Cecilia says:


      • Alexia says:

        I’ve researched the legality of this sort of thing mainly because I have discovered a series of patterns I wish to publish digitally. The creator of the patterns is no longer in business and has let the trademark registration lapse, so the trademark is even legal to assume.

        This is governed by laws that date back into the middle 1800’s that have been upheld by the Supreme Court which basically say that clothing patterns are uncopyrightable (that happens to be the longest word in the English language that uses each letter only once.) I don’t have the specific law citations here, but I have them at home. Basically it comes down to the fact that person A can create a pattern for a t-shirt and person B can create a pattern for a t-shirt that for all intents and purposes are identical and person A cannot file for copyright infringement.

        It doesn’t even matter if person B bought a t-shirt from person A and “disassembled it” and created his own pattern from that.

        Consider the plethora of street artists around the world who re-paint masterpieces, including some with incredibly exacting accuracy. This is not illegal, even if it is a modern masterpiece, just as long as they don’t claim that it is an original Van Gogh or whatever. and they are free to sell as many copies as they desire.

        A person can take a pattern for a dress or shirt or whatever, re-draft it and sell it as their own as long as they are not saying that it is an original Vogue pattern or Simplicity pattern. As long as they are not zeroxing the patterns and selling those, they are not violating the law.

        • Mayra Cecilia says:

          Alexia, it is good to know the law, but there are many ways to work around it. Sleeping in peace have a price. it is always best to make your own patterns even of the style is so common.

  9. Barbara Mayes says:

    There are many sites on EBay selling copies of vintage patterns & stating the copyright date has expired. Isn’t the copyright date only good for 20 yrs? One lady has sold 177 of 1 doll pattern! Just wondering!
    Many thanks

    • Amelia says:

      Interesting, perhaps this is the case with the PDF’s being sold on Etsy of vintage patterns. The copywrite has run out.

  10. Emma Laney says:

    I have a question regarding vintage patterns. If it’s a pattern that has not been offered in print since the 40’s and the parent company was bought out a couple times, but the original line was long since dissolved, is it legal to sell a digitized copy of the pattern? My great grandmother bought several doll patterns and a couple of them are in mint condition, unused. I digitized one for personal use already.

  11. I suspect this article is based on US laws, be aware that the laws are different, for different parts of the world. I’m a UK based pattern designer, and just found the following information on a government issued leaflet:
    Can I sell an article that I have made from a pattern?
    “As explained above, from the point of view of copyright law, it is broadly the case that unless the made work that emerges from the pattern is itself a work of artistic craftsmanship (or unless the work bears an artistic work, along the lines of the Homer Simpson example) then making the article will not be an infringement of copyright. It follows therefore that neither will it be an infringement of copyright to distribute (including sell) such an article.
    However, it will often be the case that the designer / author of the pattern will have included terms and conditions with the pattern, limiting what use may be made of a finished article. Those terms commonly specify that the pattern is licensed / sold on the basis that it is only for personal or non-commercial uses. This means that you may give as a gift, or yourself use, an item that you have made from a pattern, but if you sell an item you may be in breach of contract law.”
    If of interest, this is the source of the quoted text:

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      Absolutely, this is not lawyers advise at all…as I always say do your due diligence before deciding to sell anything, especially online.

  12. Co-D says:

    Thank you for the article. I have a question. Is it illegal to create an Acrylic pattern from a purchased pattern and sell it to others?

  13. Darlene says:

    You’ve provided very helpful and factual information that clarifies a lot of misinformation that I’ve read from various websites who sell their patterns. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to reading more of your articles.

  14. Brooke says:

    I’m so confused. So if I buy a quilt pattern can I make quilts using that pattern and sell the quilts on Etsy? The article made it sound like I can but your responses on the comments say otherwise.

    • Cynthia Marie says:

      The article states that you can buy a pattern. Make the product, then sell the item. What we can’t do is sell the actual pattern. Countries other than the US might be different.

      • Mayra Cecilia says:

        No, the law is the same, do not sell the pattern you used even if it is free.

      • Elizabeth Rose says:

        I’m confused. So if I buy a doll pattern off of etsy and I make a doll from it( says for personal use and doesn’t want anyone selling the dolls they make from her patterns) am I allowed to sell it?

  15. Lauren says:

    Thank you very much for this. Even though it’s not legally necessary is it polite/considered good form to notify the pattern maker before selling a product made from that pattern?

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      absolutely, What seams like a small detail says more about you that you could possibly know, this is a small world after all and building bridges and good working relationships that can open many doors in the future.

  16. Carole says:

    Very interesting article you have sent. I had no idea. Thank you

    Carole H.

  17. Janice Kubiak says:

    Thank you for the clear information.

  18. Jan Massie says:

    Thanks for the great article. I’m just starting my bag business and you answered a lot of questions

  19. Peggy Finch says:

    Excellent information for those of us sew and sell! Thank you!

  20. karen says:

    Thanks. I’m creating instruction to a bias top pattern that others have sold but I’m sure it goes back to the 1920’s. So because they don’t own it and I have a different way of constructing it, I won’t copy any of their materials or illustrations. I think I’m safe.

  21. Marie Murphy says:

    Great article! Thank you for answering some questions!

  22. Roberta says:

    Embroidery designs state that you can sell some products but acknowledge the original designs, but my question is Disney, no where can you find designs unless you buy a Disney machine

  23. Sandra says:

    Great article and very helpful! Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *