Spotting the difference: on copying in fabric design.

 This morning I turned away a sales rep from a company I have in the past
bought fabrics from.  This company has great designed fabrics, and
although their quality is not great, they are cheap.  There are plenty
of shops that stock their fabrics, and the usual retail price is £6.99,
although I have seen it both dramatically cheaper, and dramatically more
expensive.  This all sounds like a great deal, right?
 So why did I turn them away?
The designs aren’t theirs to sell, they are copies of prints from other designers.  
Alexander Henry – Goo Goo Babies, original on the left, copy print on the right.
 Let me add, for fear of being reprimanded, that I am sure that not all
the prints are copied.  I am sure that some lovely prints are available
from this company that are entirely their own designs.  But while I can’t be sure of the original prints from the company, I can be sure of the copies, as we have previously sold their original counterparts in our store.  
Over the past year I have come across more and more designs from this
company where we have stocked the original, yet a cheaper ‘fake’ is
being sold around the corner for half the price.  I’ve thought about
saying something.  I haven’t.  I have spoken to the company, but each
time I have mentioned it to them they have protested ignorance, and
blamed their ‘german factory’.  They have told me that once they know a design is a
copy, they withdraw it from sale.  I have been through their fabric
racks, and shown them which ones are, where they can find them, and yet months later still see them
being shown at the trade shows. After noticing this company, I became aware that there is more than one
UK company out there selling these same fabrics, or others in the same
vein.   I haven’t said anything further than
this, I’ve thought about it, I’ve stopped buying their products, but I
haven’t said anything about it on any public sphere.
Another Alexander Henry print. 

This week, I read this article: – if you
haven’t read it, you should, it’s an interesting portrayal of how much
the designers we all know and love earn, and what, precisely,
they have to do to earn it.  It made me stop and think.  It made me
realise that there’s more to designer copyright than just the ‘kudos’ of
having designed that print.  It costs them money.  Very few designers
earn a living wage unless they have more than one string to their bow. 

Alexander Henry Goo Goo Babies – this one was obviously popular, as it’s now available in all the prints and colours.
Now, I’m motivated to talk about this for various reasons. 

I have a
store, here in the UK.  We focus mainly on designer ranges of quilting
fabrics, and  also stock a lot of modern Japanese prints.  We are not
known for being ‘cheap’, yet I (hope) we aren’t equated with bad value
for money, either.  We value good design, and want to share our love of
print and pattern with our customers.   Our relationship with our
customers is important, and it’s important for them to feel they can
trust us.  

echino by etsuko furuya.  The colours on this one has been changed, but that’s it.
I’m speaking out on this because I now feel that this could effect that relationship. 
I do not want our customers to feel we are marking up items
unnecessarily.  I do not want our products to be undervalued by their
cheaper counterparts.  And yes, on a base level, I do not want to lose
my sales to another company selling the ‘same’ fabrics at half the
Please don’t misunderstand: me writing this blog post is not in
any way an altruistic act.
Kokka Trefle – this entire range of hedgehogs, scottie dogs etc in all colours has been copied.
 But there’s so much more to it than me making sales and keeping my customers happy.
also have friends who are in the design world.  They rely on their
designs for their living.  They don’t make much, often.  They are
successful, and busy, yet royalties from fabric design can be pennies, as shown in
the link to the blog above.  These copies are, in effect, robbing what
small income these people have.  It’s entirely probable that the designs won’t
get reprinted, if sales are being lost to elsewhere.  
ok – so I couldn’t find an original picture for this.  But it is a Cosmo-Tex print we stocked several years ago.
This week I contacted the various companies involved.  I wanted to see what the ‘official’ take on this was.  I do think, being based in the UK, for the bigger (usually) American companies, we are such a small market for them, and unless it starts directly affecting their customers, it’s easier to ignore.  I was pleased to read from the (very quick) responses I received, that the companies do take it very seriously and plan to pursue my worries.  More than one had already tracked it to a mill – not in Germany, not even in Europe, but in Asia – and told me that these designs were being sold for less than 10% of their UK market price.  
Obviously, selling fabrics at this price leaves a lot of room for designer royalties.  And the cost of the base cloth.  And the cost of the inks and dyes.  The machinery that makes it.  The people that make it.  The workers on the factory floor.  Obviously it does…  Does it?  And don’t forget that’s all with the mark up to the wholesalers, too.
kokka – j’aime le ballet – je n’aime pas le copy
robert kaufman metro market (this collection seems to have been popular.)
And of course there’s the long term effect on the market.  The designers who aren’t making the money to be able to keep designing for the fabric industry.  The manufacturers who are less likely to be able to introduce new, lesser known designers.  The independent retailers not able to encourage a new generation of sewers.  Without innovation, the market goes stale.  
We are a creative industry.  We’re a group of makers, doers, and encouragers.  We should be making a stand about the importance of creativity, and should be supporting the people trying to make a living from it.  More than any other industry, we should understand this.
robert kaufman metro market?  guess which one.
this is a print a few years old from Kokka – original on the left, copy on the right
I’m not naive.  I know not everyone can afford to buy the higher priced items – if I didn’t own a fabric shop, I would be shopping around looking for the cheap options too.  I know that it’s a buyer’s market,  and it’s down to the consumer to buy from the person they choose, be that me, or my competition down the road.  That’s fine.  I’m not against cheaper fabrics.  Ultimately I want people to be sewing, rather than not.  As long as they are designed by, or for, the company producing the fabrics, then have at it.  The playing field is even.  Competition in the marketplace produces a healthy industry, with everyone, including me, trying harder, doing better, trying to be best.
Sevenberry Strawberries?  Or an identical print?

47 thoughts on “Spotting the difference: on copying in fabric design.”

  1. Well said. I always think that the copies are not such nice quality to work with as well. If you are not up on the latest patterns and trends how are you supposed to always spot the difference though?

    1. I know – it's easier for me as I'm around new fabric all the time, but I know it's really hard to tell, and I've definitely been fooled before. That's why I'm trying to get to the source and stop it happening 🙂

    2. Thanks for writing about this issue. I have noticed many copies and if you buy a lot of fabric or look at 'official ' fabric sites, it's immediately obvious which fabrics are copies, one site I buy from sells 'alexandra' henry and 'klona' cottons, which really annoys me, they are of inferior quality to the 'real' fabrics. I also wonder if designers are credited for their work when I see unusual patterns that I have seen on design led sites such as Spoonflower, in watered down form elsewhere.

    3. I work for a manufacturer/wholesale company in the U.S. We have about 300 prints that we design in house. We also sell close outs from Robert Kaufman, Michael Miller, Riley Blake, etc. Often one print comes in several different colors. My advice would be to compare selvages, and the bolt board labels. We ship worldwide and have awesome prices.

  2. Thank you for this article! I hope you don't mind me sharing, my customers will be able to read it tomorrow morning via my FB page. Hopefully that will explain some why handmade, good quality items costs a lot.

    1. please do! All the shares possible would be great, I think it's important for people to realise the costs involved in all aspects of making.

  3. This is one side-effect of globalisation – manufactuing is pushed out to countries with no regard for copyright or intellectual porperty. Maybe we need a "name & shame" website? Great article.

  4. Thanks! I agree about globalisation. I thought long and hard about whether to include the names of the companies involved but thought I might be in a grey area legally (even though it's true!).

  5. This is interesting, I have seen very similar copies at a fabric chain store in Australia. I doubt they are realising that that is what they are, it is difficult to be over every fabric line and many non-quilters would not be aware of most fabric designers. A great thing about the internet is that word spreads pretty fast and you can be in touch with designers immediately and let them know what is out there.

    1. It's entirely possible they come from the same place, although I doubt they're the only ones doing it. I think the answer is the internet, and letting the stores and the manufacturers know when you do notice. It's not going to stop unless we let people know we think it's wrong.

  6. good on you! there is such a lot of rot around about IP and copyright, people trying to protect rights they actually don't have, whereas this, this is the real thing. I was told that Mandor's in Glasgow had the sock fabric. I denied this was possible as i knew just how out of print it was! I see now it must have been the copy.

    what about the selvedges, can we be sure of what we buy with the selvedges? or are they copying that as well!

    1. As far as I can tell, the selvedges aren't being branded. So that's a way to tell, if you think it might be alexander Henry, it's got to say it's Alexander Henry, or it's not.

  7. I'm glad you have written this post as I have noticed for a long time that there are fabrics that are direct copies all over the place! There's definitely a seller on eBay who are based in Thailand that have hundreds of copies of quilt fabric designs for about £1.50 a FQ with free shipping. I haven't ever bought from them, but it's amazing how they are getting away with copying the work so obviously.

  8. It is shocking that they have gotten away with it for so long, and that they have the audacity to make such blatent copies. They aren't even trying to disguise what they are doing. Good on you for speaking up and making people aware of what is happening.

  9. I'm glad you raised this issue too and will be sharing this article for my customers at The Village Maker. I see a lot of the copies coming out so fast after the long hard yards done by designers and fabric houses to produce originals and get these designs to market. The one I see a lot of at the moment is the Native American trend. Like you say, it is hard to know where the true origin of the themes comes from for both fabric buyers and consumers.

  10. We see it in our industry too (papercrafts), but we even see manufacturers within the UK imitate other UK manufacturers. You would like to think they should know better.

    It's laziness too. Turnaround and new product development times are getting shorter, and recession sees big budget and production cost cutting. So to copy someone else who did all the hard work in thinking up the idea first is a cheaper, easier option. If they get away with it they will keep doing it.

    It's wrong on so many levels. When we are in a creative industry companies are more exciting when they develop their own unique ideas. Often those with the cutting edge passion are smaller, independent and don't have deep enough pockets to take the plagiarists to task in a legal battle.

    Which is why social media can be the best way to name and shame the plagiarists.

    It's important if you become aware of any copying to immediately let the original creator know, and there is no harm in flicking an email to the copycat manufacturer/distributor. Tell them you are aware and that you will be exposing their inappropriate actions/behaviour online.

    Good for you in doing just that ! This kind of thing is so disappointing to see. It certainly seems to be increasingly common.

    1. Thank you – I think if we all start being vigilant and saying when we see it we're not creating an apathetic environment where we're just letting them get away with it. Make it harder for them, and they'll think twice next time.

  11. It is the factory's in the Far East who are doing the copying not the importers/wholesalers. They offer these designs to importers/wholesalers like myself.
    They are sold to us as 'factory designs' without us knowing that they have been copied. I have imported designs I found out at a later date were infact copied from an American company. Had I known this I wouldn't have imported them.not a chance.I now only design and produce my own fabrics.

    1. Hi James – I know it's the far east factories doing the copies, and it's important to stop them. But they won't be stopped unless people don't buy them. And while I agree that many such as yourself are innocent parties (and I can only imagine the problems that may have caused) I know that the particular one I was talking about has been told and has done nothing to change it, so is guilty in their own way. It works all the way down the food chain, from the manufacturer, to the importer, to the shop, to the end user. Well done for producing your own fabrics. Would love to see them!

  12. Thank you so much for taking a stand and letting us know what to look for in counterfeits. I have seen watered down "tribute" prints at one prominently inexpensive fabric company that prints all their own fabric. While I applaud their efforts to print at home and keep costs down, I think it is shady that their I'm house designer spontaneously has very similar ideas to many varied designers from other fabric companies.

  13. Thanks for clarifying something that has been baffling me for a while – I recognised a few of the copies and when I see something familiar priced too low it sends alarm bells ringing! I'd much rather purchase fabric from a place that makes a point of not stocking copies!

  14. Thanks for this! I have come across prints that I assumed were copies of designer fabrics (e.g. the metro market), and decided not to buy them – but as someone else has mentioned here already, buying and using designer fabrics makes handmade items more expensive – yet ultimately also better quality! Let's hope your blog post will help our customers better understand our pricing now… Will share it on my fb site!

  15. Great article. I hope that the police forces in the countries that are hurt by the copies go to work. They bust counterfeit "name" bags, sunglasses, clothes, etc. It would be nice if they started joining forces on counterfeit fabrics, also. Magistra13 at yahoo dot com

  16. I don't believe the wholesale companies are intentionally buying them as copies. They won't be sending cutting of the designers fabric and asking for it to be copied on a poplin quality. They are offered these designs and then buying them without realising they have already been produced by an American company. As I have said previously I have been guilty of that myself. What is important is that when you do come across a fabric that has been 'copied' you notify the supplier so they can relay this information back to their supplier in the Far East.

    1. I agree with you that the copies aren't being commissioned, and are likely bought in innocence. But I do believe that once told, they shouldn't continue to make a profit from it. I have repeatedly told the wholesaler, and they continue to market and sell the fabric, and it is this part that I believe is wrong.

  17. Bravo!! For making a business decision without sacrificing ethics and morals. And for speaking out boldly about it. Realistically, this sort of knock-off will continue to dog designers, in all fields. The internet has made it all too easy for unscrupulous (or desperate?) people to rip others off. We probably can't change that. But as consumers, we can use common sense when making purchases – if prices seem too good to be true, then someone is getting ripped off somewhere, somehow. And as business people, we can continue to make ethical choices, courageous choices, and have the trust and respect of our customers (even if a small minority go bargain hunting elsewhere).

  18. Whatever we sold at holiday bazaars was quickly copied and produced from China in less than 12 months. It's that quick of a 'steal'. I'd see the "made in china" copy in catalogs the next year.
    Love your thoughts – it ultimately resides in the end user to buy responsibly. Which means doing your homework when sourcing supplies.

  19. my husband owns a manufacturing company and has to patent everything he does because the Chinese will copy everything. It's gets weary trying to bust those that buy the counterfeit products. In one case, a BIG discount store used to buy from us and then quit. We found out that they started to buy from the Chinese factory. Fortunately the patent protected him and he won. But it was only because he discovered it. Who knows how many others do the same thing and haven't been caught. They are just so unscrupulous! At the trade shows when they see the Chinese walking down the aisle, they assign someone to stand with them so they don't take pictures to go home and copy. So it's EVERYTHING they copy and leave the original design person out. It's so sad.

  20. I'm glad you wrote about this, I've come across several of these copies that you've shown and not actually known the lines well enough to tell if it's a "real" print or a copy.

  21. Thank you – I was a little afraid that I was imagining things for awhile. Ultimately, counterfeits undermine the creative process. I don't want to support that which (in the US) might be a federal crime.

  22. Good for you, at least someone is making a point. As a customer, I would never buy a copy if I knew it was. Touching a fabric is one way of telling the quality, but not as easy to do as more & more sales are through the internet. Let's hope this terrible practice can be stopped.

  23. As far as I know its illegal to sell counterfeit goods in the UK and Trading Standards are hot on the topic but I'm not sure if this falls into the counterfeit area as the fabric isn't being branded to be something its not. Pity in some ways because importers would be prevented from bringing it in. Might be worth raising the issue with Trading Standards though to see if anything can be done.

    Just a thought and I've no idea if this actually happens but could an original design be 'sold on' when its no longer being printed by the original manufacturer .. thereby making the copy prints legit?

  24. This is an excellent article. Well researched, well documented and factually stated. Thanks for sticking your neck out with it, and for your honesty. I've seen some knock-offs in stores but never complained to the store owner. I think I will now.
    Also, in response to one of the comments above: there are definitely "designers" on Spoonflower that rip off designs. But, interestingly, it works both ways. I recently walked into a store and saw a complete knock-off of one of my Spoonflower designs. And it wasn't copied in China but "designed" by a US designer (who is also on Spoonflower) and printed by a US fabric company. Mine had been entered into a Spoonflower contest (so viewed by other Spoonflower designers) a few years prior to the knock-off hitting the shelves. I never contacted the fabric company to complain, as I try not to put negativity "out there", but reading this article makes me think I really should. Thanks!

  25. Thank you for putting together this article. Copying artists' work is becoming a very big problem nowadays. A lot of people aren't even aware of just how much hard work goes into each design but once you find this out you can understand why the price is higher too. I'll share the link on my Facebook Page.

  26. yeah, that's blatant thievery. I'm glad you contacted the big companies – seems like they're the only ones to do something about it officially. Poor designers can't get a break.

  27. Some of the textile factories in Africa are now on 3 day week and have sacked thousands of workers because within 3 weeks of a new design coming out, it is copied in China and smuggled into the African countries to be sold at a much lower price. Sometimes shoddy and sometimes mixed with nylon. Everyone is suffering this underhand business.

  28. Hi. Thank you so much for making this stand. I am a very small seller of quality 100% cotton like the ones you sell. I am also a designer. Im furious with the industry for not stamping on this quickly. I have shared this with facebook groups and anywhere else I can think off, far & wide. Huge support, lets get rid of the crap fabric.

  29. I had no idea there was a trade in copied designs, though I should have guessed it since everything else gets copied.
    I will keep my eyes peeled and tread carefully when buying on EBay too.
    Thanks for the heads up

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