How I got started as a pattern maker: Heather Menzies

My name is Heather Menzies, I’m a pattern maker who got my start in the fashion industry just after I graduated from Michigan State University with a Clothing & Textiles degree. I had been working at Dayton Hudson for about a year as a tailor and also part time at a custom bridal house as a seamstress. A friend of mine called and said she was moving to New York and asked me if I wanted to go. I jumped at the chance. I sold my car for $2000, packed up my cat and sewing machine, and moved. I had exactly 8 weeks to get a job before my money ran out and I landed a position as an assistant designer within a month. It was a stereotypical garmento job. Everything that is negative about the garment center was there. You got to the ‘loft’ office by a rickety and dark freight elevator, the place was filthy, the designer was moody and screamed at EVERYONE, and to top it off the owner of the company was a lecherous and creepy guy. BUT, it was a job and it got me started. As it turned out -I hated being a designer! Too many choices and details etc, and I found it overwhelming.

After six months as the assistant designer, one of the sample makers told me about a design studio where she was working on the weekends. I ended up getting a job there as an assistant pattern maker. There was a huge range of clients and each pattern maker had to manage several accounts. The salary was hourly and very low, but the knowledge and confidence I gained was worth it. I took on many freelance jobs to help pay my rent. My boss overheard me talking about a project one time and gave what I considered to be pretty bad advice. He said “Why are you sewing these projects yourself? You’re a pattern maker, not a sample maker!” I’m so glad I ignored this comment because I continued to befriend many sample makers and sew for other people, and I think it has helped to make me a better pattern maker.

I stayed at the design studio for almost three years and left for another assistant pattern making job at a private label company. It was an entirely different world for me. There was a ton of paper work, corrections through faxes (sometimes corrections that I knew were wrong!) and a cantankerous senior pattern maker who was awful to work with. I stuck it out for two years and then I landed a job at Ellen Tracy.

I tried twice to get into Ellen Tracy and the second interview -a year later- I convinced them to hire me (lesson: if you really want it, don’t quit). This is really where I learned from some of the best in the industry. There must have been twenty five pattern makers there and most of them were very generous with their knowledge. (I was never afraid to ask if I wasn’t sure how to fix something). The pace was frantic most of the time. I would turn out 50-60 garments for each season -multiply that by 25 pattern makers- the number of styles we all made was mind boggling.

I was at ET nearly six years and I hate to say it, but it took me at least three before I got over being terrified that I was going to get fired! It was SO intense and demanding. One incident happened when the head pattern maker (who I greatly admired and respected) was looking at a dress pattern of mine. He looked at the sleeve and held it up in the air and said to the entire department “I feel sorry for this sleeve!” Ugh. I could have died. He added across the bicep, fiddled with the front and went on his way. No one even looked up. All in a days work, I guess!

I left Ellen Tracy after nearly six years when my daughter was born. I then started a small company where I made miniature wedding gown replicas. This is not where I had planned to be, but it has kept my sanity while I stayed home. I was still making dresses, they just happened to be fourteen inches tall! I’ve also started to do pattern making for others again thanks to Kathleen and Fashion-Incubator. I had no idea that it was possible to do patterns from my home studio. Fashion-Incubator has helped me to connect to the industry again in a way that works for me. I have also devoured ‘the book’ and recommend it to all my former colleagues and future clients.

I think the best advice I would give to someone starting out in this industry is really just common sense. Be decent and professional to all that you work with -the designers, sample makers, cutters, and delivery people- everyone. The good will comes back to you and people will go out of their way to help you if you need it.

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16 comments

  1. Heather,

    Very interesting story. You lived my teenage dream–get to NYC as fast as possible. I never did live there, but I still say I’d love to for a while.

    Your miniature dresses are GORGEOUS and I bet you could stay busy full time at this.

    Marguerite

  2. Beth Laske-Miller says:

    Hi Heather,
    What a great story! I love your miniature dresses.

    I’m curious about the patterning you’re currently doing from your home studio, are you doing it by hand, computer, etc . . . ? Just wondering what others are doing.

    Beth

  3. Leslie Hanes says:

    I love it! Many of us glamourize the fashion industry…but it’s hard work and survival of the fittest, in many cases. I wish you much success. Working from home is often the best of both worlds. Even though I have a shop, I find I get much more done in my housecoat.
    Warm Regards,
    Leslie Hanes

  4. Barb taylorr says:

    I love Heather’s advice about being decent & professional to all you meet! This is so important! After 30 years working in both the fashion world and professional theatrical costuming, I have noticed a pattern of behavior that almost always hold true. The people that show the most respect and compassion for others seem to be the ones who are also very good at what they do. The ones who act as prima donnas with no time for their “underlings” (or support staff) also seem to be less skilled at their work. So does insecurity lead to inconsiderate behavior, or does compassion and respect enhance our knowledge & growth in this professional journey?

  5. Kathleen says:

    I totally agree that people who are competent and secure tend to be more psychologically intact. People who don’t know much -or think they don’t know much and are judgmental about it thinking they should know more, tend to posture a lot. Another form of defensiveness. Could explain much of the recent debate over professionalism seen around here. I call it over compensating.
    Dilettantes and competition
    Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. (pdf)

  6. Heather says:

    Thanks everyone for the ‘mini’ compliments and good wishes! The customers keep coming, so I keep turning them out :)
    Beth-I am doing my pattern making manually (which I prefer) but I hope to get a computer system in the near future. I had about two years on Gerber at ET. I told Kathleen that I went kicking and screaming into it (LOL!), but am glad for the experience.

  7. Gitasan says:

    What a great and inspiring story! Many young designers dreams can still be kept alive by reading this story.

    I Love your mini dresses! wow the detail is amazing! I bet your daughter has the best dressed barbies!

  8. liliane says:

    Heather, I was wondering which book you were referring to in your story (thanks for that). You referred to it as “the book” which you devoured and recommend.

  9. Your work is so beautiful and unique as was your message of being pleasant to others. I am sure your name will be around in this industry for years to come.
    If you could get your cat to work for you and be more of a team player I think you could make millions. Although, ever since my cat got an agent he hasn’t been good for more than an hour or two at the sewing machine each day…then it’s all naps and massages.

  10. ANN says:

    I used to work as a patternmaker then I moved to NY and could not find a job as a patternmaker. I became a technical designer and worked for a few labels until launching my own label in Sept 2008. You can view my collection online. I am still a struggling designer, it is a tough world.

  11. Mary Lu (Menzies) Gemoets says:

    Hi. I believe I’m your cousin. Your father and I are first cousins. Reading about your career makes me a proud cousin. I’ve lost touch with him. If you’d let him know I wrote, I’d appreciate it.

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