Bewildered by pattern services?

confused_fi_jpgAre you bewildered by pattern services? Have you been frustrated and wondered:

  • Why can you only find pattern makers who make patterns or grade patterns, but not both?
  • Why won’t my pattern maker make markers?
  • Why won’t pattern makers illustrate my designs?
  • Why won’t pattern makers write sewing instructions?
  • Why won’t pattern makers make samples?
  • Why don’t pattern makers just know how my patterns should be graded?
  • Why can’t pattern makers tell me where to buy fabric?
  • Why wouldn’t a pattern maker have pattern making software?

You’re suffering and it’s not your imagination; the market for pattern services is [seemingly] schizophrenic. Understanding why can reduce your frustration and enable you to ask better questions to find the best provider for your needs. But first, a short history lesson which explains the legacy of what ails us -which is the only clue to a cure.

In the olden days (20+ years ago), a pattern maker’s job was (comparatively) much simpler. We made the patterns, measured shrink and stretch, supervised the making of prototypes, advised the designer, and participated in fit meetings. Most manufacturers didn’t have CAD—which is no different from today—so we did it all by hand. Of the manufacturers that did have CAD, 85% of them only used it for grading and marking. This means we do not have a long history of making patterns by computer, this is a new development. We didn’t use CAD for several reasons— expense, the programs weren’t ideal etc., so each company may have only had one license. With only one seat, the pattern grader/marker maker (usually a technician, but not a pattern maker) was the only one with a computer. Long story short, although companies may have had patternmaking software, most pattern makers didn’t or couldn’t use it. So, that pattern makers didn’t use pattern making software is the first dichotomy. Moving on.

The industry has a long history of subbing out work and this increased once CAD was available because companies without CAD, often hired a grading and marking service to do the job. In this way, the 85% of companies without CAD, could still get computer graded patterns and markers. The grading and marking services did not typically make patterns because they didn’t need to; customers came in the door with production patterns in hand.

What cannot be overlooked is that this was a B2B arrangement. Customers were experienced manufacturers so there was little need for a grading and marking service to educate the customer, nor the customer to educate the provider. Contrasting this with today, you might understand why established providers are at odds if new entrants expect a panorama of services that were never needed before. I’m not suggesting service evolution is a bad thing only that an established provider prefers a customer who doesn’t need hand holding because hand holding was never built into the structure of the business. The B2B manufacturing customer didn’t need it because they made their own patterns and sewed in house. Inadvertently,  that pattern services select customers with longevity (and consequently, firm size) became a cognitive short cut because knowledgeable companies that didn’t need extra services, survived. In this environment, the range of services expected today, were never needed. Not being needed, there was never any staffing or resources designed to support it, much less bill for it. This creates a problem today because smaller firms don’t have the knowledge base or even budgets, but they expect what is considered to be special treatment [that established customers don’t expect]. Is there any wonder new companies are having trouble finding services?

Contrasting this with today, old school pattern makers—the ones you should really want to hire—are quizzed daily about whether we do jobs that we never had to before. Illustration, tech packs, fabric testing, sourcing, grading, making markers, making samples, calculating yield, cut lay planning, writing instructions—none of these were ever a part of our job description. To be sure, we individually may know more about given duties but for one person to have extensive experience in all of it, is not reasonable to expect. This is why the most experienced pattern makers out there, cannot provide the full range of services that you need. It bears mentioning that the environment to support this future skill development was also being undermined just when it was needed most.

Consider: Most manufacturers had their own pattern makers so stand alone pattern service (as opposed to grading and marking) businesses were quite rare and only available in the larger apparel manufacturing hubs. Since most companies had their own staffing, independent pattern businesses were closer to temporary staffing solutions for peak workload that exceeded what could be managed in house. Either that or a manufacturer was short handed and or between pattern makers.

There were a lot more pattern makers then, than today. As sewing moved off shore, pattern jobs dried up. In the beginning, pattern work migrated to the off shore contractor as a matter of scheduling (the whole package is more easily managed under one roof). Jobs here, then became focused on technical specifications of the finished product to prepare the design for the offshore contractor. And sure, one could say the pattern jobs left because manufacturers only cared about paring costs but the explanation is more complex. Here’s an excerpt from an earlier entry that explains:

Do you recall the very first time you were in a store and noticed a great top name brand that was being sold for an uncustomary low price? Perhaps you noticed because it was a brand you coveted (confirmation bias). This would have been about 15 to 20 years ago, give or take five years. In the beginning, people were very excited about it. They were happy to buy big names they previously could only have aspired to own. These products were the first of the big push coming in from off shore. Product landed at the loading dock with the 40% hang tags already attached. People were so excited, they didn’t care that the fit was a little off. Between price and the anticipation of acquisition, they were willing to overlook a small defect (like fit or diminished product complexity) because they wanted The Brand so badly. I remember that. It was exciting. Nobody cared that the back neck was cut too deeply so the front rode up into the neckline, it had a horsie dammit! And everybody wanted one. Me too.

Then other manufacturers saw how good that worked for The Brand and they wanted more market share so they did it too. That made people even more excited and happy. Malls and outlet malls became a veritable smorgasbord of brands they’d never been able to own before. After awhile, competing brands and lower pricing became the new norm.

So what does this tell a manufacturer? I’m not saying it’s right or wrong but they were structured to give consumers what they wanted and fit and well developed sizing wasn’t their priority at the time. It was brand and its price. So, many manufacturers got rid of their pattern departments and let the offshore contractor handle it all. Why would they continue to spend for features their customers did not care about?

But I digress. Once the jobs dried up for highly experienced pattern makers, they either retired, went into another line of work or assumed different duties than they’d had before, such as acting as intermediaries between their employer and the contractor (often as technical designers). The long term consequence is that the proving ground to train new talent, disappeared. There were fewer places hiring pattern makers and those that did, often only had one, meaning tutelage from experienced seniors was absent.

The situation we’re faced with today is that people are forced to reinvent the work, haphazardly cobbling practices together from sources wherever they can be found. Many are very poor quality but seen as better than nothing. In many respects, it’s a case of the blind leading the blind. My point is that if the most experienced individual pattern service providers don’t have the full panorama of skills to fulfill the expectations one has of service providers, anyone who entered the industry in the last 20 years, won’t have them either. Not that you’d know that from a survey of the web. Judging from the evidence (pretty websites, excellent social media skills) the youngest practitioners are the hottest properties going.

Continuing on; the most experienced practitioners have different expectations and although many would like to offer more comprehensive services, it is difficult to do so from a financial but also cognitive and even practical stand point. For example, the first step for many would be to acquire a CAD system, but again, keeping in mind that most never used CAD for anything but grading and marking, which they didn’t do as a part of their jobs and have little experience in, it seems easier to continue to make patterns by hand and send it out for grading to a service.  Even today, an embarrassing number of pattern makers who have CAD, continue to make patterns by hand (or by draping) and then digitize it into the system. This is not a bad thing but it is difficult to justify the costs of software, a digitizer and a plotter, costing between $30,000-$50,000. That is a heady investment for someone who has very little CAD experience and they’re going to need proven ROI to do it.

Probably most important of all is training. Most practitioners who are faced with this decision are solo operators. They don’t have anyone at their elbow to teach them and even the easiest to learn software (what I use), can take years to become proficient with. It is difficult to sign on for this because the major CAD programs don’t have the best reputation because these are difficult to learn, inefficient to use (except for grading and marking) so deciding against CAD acquisition is easy. Let’s say one does decide to go through it; one still is lacking competencies to provide services that customers expect. A friend of mine is a good example. She’s very bright and highly skilled but she’s not planning on getting a CAD system because she’s never made markers. Let me tell you, for us, knowing what we know, marker making is very scary because the potential for error means financial ruin for our customers. There is nowhere for an experienced patternmaker to go, to learn how to make markers from an expert, using real life examples. The opportunities exist but you have to know the right person, and have the time and money to travel to watch over an expert’s shoulder.

If you’ve read this far, I wouldn’t blame you if you think this is but an apologia and you’re in a bind because you want someone who can provide a soup to nuts pattern solution but there aren’t enough practitioners yet who can do it to meet your expectations. And, you can find plenty of patternmakers with even 20 or maybe 25 years of experience who have never actually worked in a sewing factory. I’m not suggesting those pattern makers aren’t good but I am saying that if at all possible, you want a pattern maker with plant experience. Unfortunately, those with factory experience are the ones who are least likely to have CAD experience and possibly, have the most skill gaps with respect to your expectations. If you’re making fairly simple products (sportswear, knits etc), you probably don’t need a pattern maker with plant experience. However, if you’re particular or your project is more challenging, you may have to bend on your skills wish list.

In the short term, here are some suggested solutions:

  1. Use 2 pattern services, one for patterns and another for grading and marking. Keep in mind that this is the traditional method that has been used very successfully by experienced and successful manufacturers for many years.
  2. If you must have a provider that can do everything from illustration to costing to graded patterns and markers, and can afford to pay for it, use a larger soup-to-nuts pattern service, as opposed to solo operators.
  3. If you’re on a budget, learn to perform some of the job duties that designers traditionally did instead of expecting to be able to hire a pattern service to do it. The duties that designers typically did are illustration, costing, sourcing, specifications as needed, etc.

In summary:

I understand that many of you think that the industry has not progressed sufficiently but you’ve only stepped into this, and thus, have limited points of comparison. The changes and growth you have not seen are tremendous. Although you may be disappointed, we have come a long way in a very short period of time.

TBA: Bewildered by sewing services?
Handmade or CAD patterns: which are better?
Why pattern makers resist learning CAD
Sending patterns off for correction
Why pattern makers don’t want to grade patterns

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