Designing a Class and Project That Will Sell

It's not enough to design a piece of needlework that delights -you- if your goal is to make a commercial class out of it. Instead, you must design a project - - and structure a class around it - - specifically to be appealing to the stitching public that attends the show where you propose to teach it. The name of the game is to fill your classes, if you are a professional designer/teacher whose aim is making a profit at festival needlework teaching.

General Marketing and Finance Concerns

The process of designing a piece to teach at a festival encompasses much more than the design work. You also need to do fairly detailed financial projections, as well as have a pretty firm handle on the probable market for your class.

First, marketing generalities. You need data about the stitchers who attend the festival(s) where you might teach this class. Is there a teacher who has taught there before who can give you some information on what classes or what type of projects seemed popular?

Have you attended this festival as a student? In general, what sort of folks took classes with you at the festival? Whom did you see walking around in the halls? What were they stitching when they were perched on any flat surface? What were they exclaiming about?

Did you take a class similar to what you are thinking of teaching? How full was it? (And how was it taught? And how long was it, how much did it cost, etc.? What was the project?)

Ask festival staff to provide you with some demographic statistics about students. From how far away did they come in past years? From how far away are the bulk of the attendees? Characterize the areas in which most attendees lived. Does this have an impact of what you might select to design?

What sorts of projects were offered in years past? Which of these was wildly popular? Perhaps staff can give you some general ideas, such as projects on 6-count fabric did not fill well; or classes on Battenburg lace filled the within the first hour of registration. In fact, a festival should have these data prepared for teachers who ask for them.

Teachers repeat classes that are proven money-makers for them. What kind of class was it?

Another indicator of a class' success is if it is a "sequel." Did last year's pincushion go over with such a bang that students are clamoring for this year's needlebook?

It would be lovely if staff would say "Teacher X's classes were 100% full at all festival locations" so you could look at that teacher's projects and class descriptions, and use this to help you design a project for this festival. (Unless staff has disclosure permission from the teacher, these data are private and will not be released.) Therefore, expect to have to work indirectly to obtain the information you need.

Now specifics. How well does your proposed class parallel what you know seems to have been successful in the past? Does it seem to be a fit or outside the norm? If outside the norm, are you pretty convinced it will sell? Sell well enough to be financially feasible for you to prepare it and then journey to teach it? (More on finances in a moment.)

Students' Ability and Sophistication Levels

To what ability level stitcher do you wish to appeal? Rank beginner? Stitcher who does not blanch at stumpwork or working Hardanger on 110-ct. silk?

It's important to know exactly the clientele who are most likely to be attracted to each project you design. Write out a profile of such a stitcher for each class. For example, "lots of practice on aida; knows some fancy stitches; ready to try evenweave if project is not too large or has too many techniques other than cross stitch;" or "confident on evenweave; bored with vertical band samplers and designs which are set in concrete; ready to take freestanding motifs and explore different ways to put them together; ready to stitch something where colors are not exactly specified."

Attendees at long-standing festivals tend to increase in sophistication each year: a "been there, done that" kind of thing. Look in last year's class brochure to see how many (and what kind of) advanced-techniques classes were offered. How does your proposed project fit the sophistication levels implied by last year's brochure?

Of course, there will always be beginning stitchers "coming in at the bottom," and often this is a neglected niche because some established teachers feel that beginning classes are beneath their dignity. If you want to aim for this target market, good for you! -You- know that beginners need the very best teaching there is so they have a flawless foundation on which to build!

What Kinds of Stitches?

As I mentioned, these days stitchers are very sophisticated. A "picture" class project using only cross stitch and backstitch will not be much of a draw unless you are a fabulously-famous designer. I'm thinking of someone like Donna Vermillion Giampa or Teresa Wentzler or Marilyn Leavitt-Imblum.

Not in that league?!

All right, what do we mortals put in -our- projects to make them sell? If you are doing a picture, this is perfectly ok, but make sure there is something besides the image. For example, the class project may be stitched on an usual fabric (such as edge-finished stitchband or silk gauze), or it might have unusual threads (such as silks, blending filament, rayon, metallics, etc.).

Another thing that is important is that some extra techniques be taught to go in the picture. What will the stitcher learn by taking your class? Presenting your piece on unusual fabric or with unusual threads automatically gives you techniques to cover. Have you used a blended needle? Does your design have a section stitched over one thread (evenweave projects)? Is your design such that you can incorporate some fancy stitches? This shouldn't gratuitous, but the stitches should be an integral part of the image. Perhaps you'll want to add beads or something else dimensional. Again, don't just stick them in there; these additions must look as though they were part of the design process from the outset, not an add-on because you were trying to come up with something other than cross stitch and backstitch.

Your Ability Level

At what stitch ability level are -you-? Don't teach anything with which you are not thoroughly comfortable. How long have you been stitching at the level of your proposed class? Beyond that level? Read the level descriptions carefully. They are there not only to help students decide which classes will challenge them and offer them specific skills, but also for teachers so they know where to position their projects along the stitching skill continuum.

Your Teaching Experience

Don't underestimate the pressures of teaching publicly! It is not at all what you expect, even if you are an experienced teacher in your local shop or an experienced teacher in another venue (such as a public school or in sales training).

Be rock-solid in your own knowledge! Can you do all the techniques and stitches on your piece without referring to notes? Can you diagram all stitches from memory? Can you do all stitches and techniques left-handed if you're a right-handed stitcher (or vice versa)? Have you taught these techniques publicly before? At your local shop? For your local stitch group? For people who didn't seem to catch on after you presented the material the first time? After the third time?

Design from Scratch or Retread?

In my opinion, you will have better luck filling your classes if you offer projects designed for a specific target market at a specific festival, rather than looking through your collection of pieces and "seeing if any of them will work." You want to aim your project at a specific market and incorporate any idiosyncrasies of the venue and festival "flavor."

Usually the only way to do this is to start from scratch with a design.

Also, festivals often require exclusivity in projects. This means the project is not available for public purchase and has not been taught anywhere else (less the practice cruise at your local shop). Be prepared to sign a contract to this effect.

Note: What about after the festival? Can you publish the project then? Your contract will say. (If not, ask before you sign it. Either write in this new clause or ask staff to send you a corrected contract.) The usual practice is that you may teach a festival project at the end of the festival calendar year if you are not going to offer it again at the next year's festival.

Exclusivity is a good thing for you and for the festival. Why should students pay $40 to take your class if they can buy your chart for $6 at their local shop?

Class Attendance Tradition

With this festival, how popular are classes, compared to shopping? Is it the tradition to take many classes while at the festival? Is it mainly to shop?

Is taking long classes (all day or multi-day) or many classes a mark of prestige?

Knowing class attendance tradition will help you decide the sorts of classes you might want to present.

The attitude toward classes also can tell you if it's worth your time and effort to design a project to teach at a particular festival. If most folks want to party, your costs will have to be very low indeed to make a decent profit after expenses if your class fills poorly just because that's the way it is at this festival.

Suppose you are proposing to teach 10 classes at a festival, and students generally take one or two and spend the rest of the time shopping or sight-seeing in the host city. Don't expect your classes to fill unless they are -very- inexpensive!! And even then, don't count on it. Knowing this, do you want to teach at all at this festival? (Plan $100/night for hotel and $50/day for meals, and add your travel costs plus any income you forfeit at home in order to teach at the festival. There's also freight costs, kit materials costs, payment to people to make kits or help if you don't do it all yourself, etc.)

Note: Remember that staff has to keep teachers -and- vendors happy! Vendors want students in the merchandise hall all day! Teachers want them taking classes! Staff has the delicate job of balancing the two opposites!

Genre and Techniques

What genre do you have in mind? Cross stitch? Hardanger? Bobbin lace?

Is it a comfortable, common genre that everyone recognizes? Is it a common one of which everyone is tired? (This is a tough call!)

Is it a genre which is unusual at this particular festival? Is it so uncommon people will hesitate to take your class, fearing they will be unable to do it? So uncommon that people will flock to learn a new technique? (Again, a tough call!)

Is the genre you're thinking of using difficult to teach? Is it one that requires you to demonstrate to each student individually to be effective, rather than show the class as a whole and then go around to check on everyone? How well do class length and class enrollment fit with whether the techniques can be taught en masse? (More on class length and enrollment below.)

Project Style

Again, a survey of past brochures will let you know what overall styles are popular at this particular festival. Floral pieces? Geometrics? 18th-century samplers? Sewing cases? Pillows? Garments?

Project Size

Generally, a larger project commands a higher class fee. (Stitching over one with silk on silk gauze is obviously an exception!) Multi-piece projects (such as stitchers' tool sets) also are worth more because there are more "pieces" and techniques to the class.

A larger project usually also means more time is necessary to teach it. In turn, this generally makes the class cost more.

More complex stitches also increases class time needed. So does an unusual genre. More time is needed to teach, so the class price rises.

Will this higher cost make your class out of the range of most stitchers at whom you have aimed the class?

Note: If your project cloth size is bigger than the kit bag, I recommend you take the project cloths separately so you don't have to fold them in order to get them in the kit bag. (Your students will be -so- glad there is not a semi-permanent crease in their projects cloths when they have no access to an iron!) Is this feasible? If not, can you size your project differently and still make your desired profit? Another option: iron project cloths at your hotel; call the concierge to borrow the equipment.

Extras

An extra surprise is such a nice touch and makes stitchers really appreciate you! An extra is something that wasn't discussed in the class guide and is completely unexpected.

Pull out a portion of your design and make a chart for a bookmark (everyone can use another bookmark!), a scissors fob, or a Christmas tree ornament. Be sure to stitch model(s) of these bonus pieces so students fully appreciate the value of your bonus chart.

You need not provide fabric for the bonus piece, but there might be a big enough scrap for it, especially for a bookmark, which is long and skinny. Can you select a starting point on the project fabric that leaves plenty of room to stitch the class project but leaves a scrap that will accommodate the bonus chart? If so, tell your students this as they begin stitching the project. Your kit will have plenty of floss to make several bonus pieces, so really, all you need to worry about is fabric! (Make sure all techniques for the bookmark are covered in class. Maybe your project doesn't use nun's stitch edge, but the bookmark will use it for the edge; be sure to cover this!)

Meg Shinall uses a doodlecloth in such a way that the doodlecloth turns into the bonus project! Her students rave about this. Clever Meg!

Bonus charts are things that make your classes stand out as "good values" among all the other classes offered.

Project Colors

What colors to use is an important question because color can make or break your class.

Should you choose colors only by what you think is appropriate to the piece or your taste, without regard to other factors?

Should you design the piece and then "color it in" to fit what you project your target market might like?

Should you start with colors and design the piece around them?

Should you select colors without regard to current "popular colors?" How outré are the colors you are considering? Would unusual colors be a possible stumbling block to filling your class? (Are they in use by any other designers now? Check your local shop. Look in current magazines, especially lifestyle magazines, which tend to have only the latest colors.)

Should you use "safe" colors in your project, instead?

If you want to go with safe colors, look at previous festival projects for ideas of what other teachers thought these were for the student mix that attends this festival. What colors were often used? Rarely? Never? What was used often in the type of project you are planning? Do you have any information about how popular these classes were? What colors were used in classes that are repeats?

In your local shop, look at current leaflets which are the same style and genre as your proposed project. What colors are often found?

Look at leaflets in the mark-down bin. What colors are there? Do you think color selection influenced this leaflet's being in the bin? Combination of color and genre? Bad design? Design not appealing to the people who frequent that shop?

What are "safe" colors? DMC 221 pink, 930 blue, and 500 blue-green families (plus ecru) are a proven combination that appeals to a wide variety of stitchers.

Note that these are muted colors. They are "soft" enough that the project doesn't scream, "Ha ha! I'm stitched in blue, and you -hate- blue!" This makes the design more accessible to people who can overlook the color in order to learn the techniques, stitch the overall piece, etc.

Digression:

The mark-down bin is a -great- source of needlework marketing information. What needlework genres are there? What "moods"? What sizes? What designers? What subject matter (landscapes, samplers, wildlife, cutesy, cartoon characters, etc.)?

Conversely, what is given prominent display space in your local shop also tells you what your local shopkeeper thinks is going to sell well (in your area).

Ask your shop owner what came on "automatic" from the distributors. This tells you what the national distributors think will sell nationwide. What colors are used? (True, your class will be about a year out of phase with these designers' selections, but usually public taste in needlework colors takes longer to change than one year, so I think you are safe in using this information to guide your color decisions for festival projects.)

Pantone, the color folks, have some interesting information about color in general on their home page. One of the things they note is that blue is the most popular color, with green (!) next, and then purple/red. (So much for the idea that green cars don't fare well on the used car market!)

Fabric

What sort of ground will you use? 14-ct. aida and 28-ct. evenweave are standards. If you wish to deviate, how far can you go/should you go? Does the ground suit the project, the time allotted your class, and the stitch level of your projected students?

If evenweave, will you work on a linen-type fabric? This will have slubs and "some thick and some thin" threads. If your class is to teach beginning evenweave techniques, you'll be better off using an evenweave where all the threads are the same size. If it's a beginning linen class, then of course you'll use linen but don't choose anything too small (28-ct. would be the smallest, in my opinion).

Match the fabric count to the stitcher's level. Does your project have over-one stitching? If it is an introduction to over-one stitching, 36-ct. linen may be too much of a challenge.

A corollary to fabric size is what needle size you'll put in the kit. A #24 tapestry is standard for 14-ct. aida and 28-ct. evenweave over two.

Threads

Threads should be matched to the piece. Silks and complete beginners won't be a good match - - for the obvious reason but also because the price will be high and beginners will not understand why your class costs so much!

How difficult are different threads to handle? Look in your stash cabinet and list the types of threads you find there. List them in order of "co-operativeness." Keep this ranking and your target market in mind when you design your piece. For example, twisted rayon is more difficult to use than stranded rayon; and twisted rayon with woven-in blending filament will challenge the most experienced stitcher (if only to find a suitable expletive to use in public!).

Stitches and Techniques

Match the difficulty of techniques to the skill level of your projected students if you want happy campers in class who rave about your afterwards.

Students at different levels absorb new information at different rates. By this, I don't mean individual differences among stitchers at one level but differences among levels: more proficient students usually absorb more new stitches more quickly than beginning needleworkers because they have a general idea what is required. Also, more advanced students are likely to have used some of the stitches - - or related stitches - - before, thus streamlining the teaching and therefore reducing class time necessary for teaching some of the techniques/stitches.

Figure five minutes per fancy stitch on a doodlecloth for a beginner. This does not apply to complex stitches such as Amadeus, stitches which must be laid such as waffle, or specialized techniques such as Hardanger dove's eyes. Just regular fancy stitches, such as Smyrna cross, fly stitch, four-sided stitch, and rapid stitch. Allot 10 minutes for eyelets.

The more new stitches, the greater the amount of class time which must be devoted to stitch-learning and the less there will be for stitching on the project. Know this so you market your class effectively and write your teaching plan in a realistic way. You may have designed the class in such a way that time to stitch the project is not an important part of your lesson plan, and this is ok. Yours is a techniques-heavy class, rather than a mostly-stitching-on-the-project class. Students like both kinds.

Length of Class

Festivals have classes of different lengths to accommodate students' pocketbooks and schedules.

How long do you think you'll need to teach the project you have in mind? What activities will you do in class? What techniques will you cover? Write down a tentative class teaching plan.

Is this workable, given the amount of time your class will run, the complexity of the project, and the maximum number of students who could enroll?

For a techniques-heavy class, plan class length based on the amount of time you'll need to transmit the information. Extra time to stitch on the project (if there is one) is a bonus. For every extra hour class lasts, the more it costs, and the more that cost might be a barrier to registration for students in your target market.

Number of Students in Your Class

Maximum class enrollment can be handled in a number of ways.

The festival may have a set enrollment per class (for example, 24 students for all classes), over which you have no control.

Or, you may have free reign as to enrollment - - up to a maximum, which is determined by the festival and probably is based on size of the classrooms.

There also might be a minimum enrollment, again set by the festival. The festival has calculated how much money must be made from your class in order to break even. You would not be allowed to set enrollment so low that the festival did not make a profit - - and usually a specific -minimum- profit, often expressed as a percentage.

The festival may give you a range within which you are expected to work (for example, 6 to 24 students). Can you? Do the techniques, materials, and the size of the project lend themselves to such an enrollment?

Have you taught this many students publicly before? Often? How comfortable are you with teaching this number? How comfortable are you teaching this number with the genre and specific project you are planning -in the time allowed-? Under stress?

If you may choose the number of students and you select a small number, will your income from the festival be enough to cover your costs and allow a profit? Be worth the effort?

Finances

Although we think of designing in terms of color, size, and materials, I advise that when designing a class for a festival that you also attend to financial considerations before finalizing the project.

Class Cost

Do not underprice your class. This is more common than overpricing!

If there is information which you think will help you price and develop a class, ask for it if it is not offered.

For example, staff should have data on how many classes were offered in different price ranges. Information on the fill-rate compared to class cost also should be available. Ask for these data. If you ask early and it is not available, staff will have time to prepare this information for you. Staff will do all it can to support you. After all, they want you to be a success so -they- will be a success!

How Teaching Fee is Calculated

Will you be paid an hourly fee regardless of enrollment or be paid a specific amount multiplied by the number of students who sign up for your class?

If hourly, what is the rate? What will your take-home pay be for the projected class? Is that acceptable to you, given the amount of time the class will last and the preparation time it will take?

If you are paid on a per-student basis, who sets the rate paid by each student? You alone, at any amount? You, within a range provided by the festival? (Note: The higher your class fee and if you can get it, the more profit the festival makes, so it's to their advantage, too, for you to have expensive classes that fill well.)

Payment on a per student basis means how you design the "appeal" of the class has direct impact on your take-home pay!

Although the hourly fee basis is comforting because you know what your teaching fee will be, the per-student basis offers the chance for greater profit.

How risk-adverse are you?!

On the other hand, you may have no choice. Be sure you ask staff how teacher pay is calculated and whether you have influence on that method before you even submit a proposal!

How Kit Fee is Covered

Sometimes festivals reimburse kit costs, and sometimes they don't.

If you bear the burden of your kit costs, keep that figure in mind as you design. If kit costs are reimbursed, it is still prudent to keep costs low, as costly kit components drive up the class price, making it attractive to fewer students.

If reimbursement is made, you must document your costs with receipts. Festivals will not pay inflated invoices. They know what kit items cost. And they know what kit items are given as gratis product.

Kit Cost

How much will each student's kit cost? This is something you need to know, at least in general way, before you design (especially if you are paid on a per-student basis and must absorb the costs for kit items.)

Pricing Your Class

This applies only if you are paid on a per-student basis. Festivals are moving toward this as the norm, as it puts more of the burden on the teachers to develop good classes. Some festivals which paid most teachers on the hourly basis have found themselves in financial difficulty when some classes had a very low fill rate and the festival did not break even on such classes, much less make a profit.

Where you price your class is influenced by three things:

Kit Costs. Try to keep kit cost per student low, but don't skimp on quality or amount. You won't be remembered for your wonderful design, but rather for your meager kit. Not a reputation you want.

One way is to order items for all kits for the year at once to save on shipping and handling costs; you might also be able to get a bulk discount. Of course, if your class doesn't sell, you'll have leftovers. Can you return them? Find out before you order. Is there more than one vendor with the same product? Check prices. They -do- vary!

Are there any exotic kit contents that command a higher class price? Silk comes to mind here.

Desired Gross. How much do you want to receive per student? One way is just to eyeball it: "I want to gross $40 per student on this class." Sometimes you just "know" what represents a fair trade-off of your efforts/expertise/kit materials and the student's money.

If you're a new teacher or new the festival teaching, you probably won't "know."

Another way is to estimate time and multiply that by the minimum hourly wage or some other hourly rate.

Consider: How much effort and time will it take you develop this class? Chart the design? Write the instructions? Put the kit together?

Projected Student Cost. At what price point will the festival put your class? If festival teachers are on a "per student" pay basis rather than an hourly rate regardless of class enrollment, staff should be able to tell you the festival mark-up.

Will the final cost to the student be feasible to fill your class? To fill your class enough that it is close to or more than your desired gross?

Is projected student cost easily correlated with the length of the class, the size of the project, and costliness of kit materials so students will not think your class overpriced? Obviously, if your class is too expensive for what it is, students will not be attracted to it. You can't teach a bookmark in cross stitch and backstitch with cotton floss and charge $40.

You might want to start with several "desired gross fees" per student for your class and calculate the student's cost for each. How reasonable is this fee for what your class is, what the project is, how long the class is, and so forth? Then work backwards from your desired gross, subtracting kit costs, your design and work costs, etc. Is the net (what's left after expenses are deducted) an acceptable profit? Did you -make- a profit?! This is not a charitable enterprise, remember!

I've already mentioned transportation, hotels, and meals as expenses you need to figure into your class costs. Also: don't forget to estimate your shipping expenses to get kits to festival sites and freight costs to get kit materials to you from vendors. There may be shipping costs to get extra kits home (try to get them in your luggage or as checked-baggage boxes; curb-side check-in in the most flexible in letting you have just "one more tiny little box!" Another technique: ask for a big box and put several things in it; this now counts as one piece of checked baggage).

Obviously, you need to get on the phone and get some general information about costs of plane tickets, hotels, and other "hidden fees!" More on this in the above-mentioned kitting link.

Financial Projections

A quick and dirty way to see if this class is worth doing: calculate your gross based on a fill-rate of 50% for each class. Is this enough money to cover your transportation, hotel/meals, and kit costs and still leave enough for a profit that is worthwhile?

What will you have to give up in order to prepare this class?

Probably you will give up time! Time for family, for volunteer work, for personal enrichment, for design work for other purposes, for other employment.

Do the profit plus other intangible positives (name recognition, networking, contacting publishers, etc.) outweigh the negatives (cost, time filched from other sources, travel aggravation, etc.)?

A Too-High Class Price

Suppose, after you massage the numbers, your class is priced too high. How can you change things about the class to reduce the cost, yet still yield an acceptable profit (use the quick-and-dirty 50% figure for a worst-case profit scenario)?

Could you do a smaller project? Less complex project? Different fabric? Cotton floss instead of silk? Shorter class? Fewer techniques (shorter class time and also perhaps smaller project implied here)? Fewer or less expensive gadgets in kit (for example, toothpick for a laying tool rather than something specifically made as a laying tool)?

As I mentioned above, it is -not- a good idea to skimp on the kit contents. It's better to teach a shorter class with a less complex project than to pass out a chintzy kit, in my opinion. I sure remember the chinzy kit I got in a class I took with a nationally-known teacher!

Venue

Where will you be teaching? Is this a city that is accessible by public transportation? Is it in a populous area? Is it also adjacent to populous areas? Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho are beautiful states, but I suspect festivals there would not be well attended.

Will classrooms be cramped? What about lighting? Will there by magnification at each student chair? If the student brings lighting/magnification, will there be power cords set up? If you've attended this festival before you'll have a good idea about these aspects (or at least a baseline, if the festival is at a new location the year you embark on this venture!).

What in-class teaching aids will be provided for you? Staff can tell you if you don't know. What teaching aids do you require for this class? Which ones would be nice to have? Can you conveniently transport any additional teaching aids you'll need? Will staff arrange to have and set up audio/visual equipment if you need it?

Local Preferences

It may be that certain pieces will be appropriate only for certain festivals or locations. Almost nobody in Tallahassee will want to stitch a University of Florida Gators project, for example, but -everybody- in Nebraska will want to do a Huskers sampler!

Try to keep your designs "neutral" enough so they'll play profitably in Peoria as well as Los Angeles and New York City.

copyright 1999, Martha Beth Lewis
Contact me about reprint permission.


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