How to know if you need digital or paper patterns

There are a few misunderstandings on this subject which beg addressing. I’ll open with a basic review and include links to the other pertinent entries at close.

Having patterns in CAD (computer aided drafting) format is great but it is not necessarily required that they be made this way at the outset. It’s better to hire based on pattern making skills. Some or maybe even most patterns can be made faster with CAD but if their maker is a poor pattern maker, CAD will only get you to a bad solution faster.

Having patterns made by hand doesn’t restrict your decisions down the road. For example, having your first patterns made by hand do not preclude you from having them digitized later. On the other hand, having patterns made by CAD isn’t necessarily a slam dunk either if you have to worry about file format compatibility. There’s pluses and minuses but I think all of my colleagues would agree that the determining criteria should be the pattern maker’s skill rather than the tools they use. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s use Olga’s email in which to frame this discussion. She writes:

I don’t know whether I need paper or digital patterns. Personally I believe digital would be better as it seems that alterations and modifications can be done faster. My only concern is whether it can be exported in some common format (such as pdf for example), so that I could print a draft and glue pieces together for a trial without having the pattern mailed (don’t know if that’s even an option). Or do i have to have that software in order to be able to use the patterns?

Let’s tease this out. Yes alterations and modifications can be done faster with CAD and in some ways, CAD is hard to beat such as with shrinkage allowances. In the latter case, it would be a matter of loading your patterns, applying the different shrinkage formula and voila. It’s essentially a 10 minute job. However, you’d likely be on the hook for a one hour charge (everyone has a minimum) but it would still be much less than applying a fabric shrinkage change to hand patterns which would entail cutting every single piece anew. That is not a fun job.

It is well to be concerned about file export, some of which was discussed in software compatibility in marker making (below) because they are proprietary. If you wanted to be able to use the patterns (manipulate them) you would need a copy of the software. Printing them out is another story. Most but not all CAD programs will export to dxf format natively. Then you’d need a program that opens dxf files. Another alternative is to have the files converted from one format to another. Your pattern maker might be able to do that or you can go to another firm. Example: I have StyleCAD but exporting to other formats (Lectra, Gerber etc) is a separate add on module. I don’t have enough calling for it to justify buying it and StyleCAD will convert for me for nothing (they will convert files for anyone migrating to their program at no cost). A company like Patternworks does a lot of file conversion, I can’t think of a filter they don’t have. You wouldn’t have to have your patterns made by them for this service. I don’t know what the cost is, again it’s probably a minimum charge.

Exporting to PDF is another option. Whether the given CAD software facilitates it or not, it can be done albeit circuitously with Adobe Acrobat Pro or a free program like Cute PDF. In the print dialog, the pattern maker would select the appropriate PDF making program to print to which then opens another dialog box to save the file. Of course beforehand, they have to set that “printer” up with the right page size. More on that is here. I suppose that if you were a whiz with Illustrator, you could make minimal changes to the pattern within that program but I strongly discourage that unless you’re a pro at pattern making too.

Returning to whether you should have patterns made by CAD or hand, it’s important to take stock in how you intend to use the patterns. If you are hiring a sewing contractor who wants markers made, you need markers printed (see links at close). If you’re doing small runs in house and making your own markers, hand patterns might be the better option. There is very detailed information on how to make your own markers on pages 114-120 of The Entrepreneur’s Guide.

Many DEs haven’t approached a contractor yet because they’re still in the exploratory phase and doing much of the design iteration and sampling themselves. In this case, I don’t know which is the better option although I’m weighing in on the side of hard patterns. The reason being, if one is still in the R&D cycle, you probably don’t have a plotter to print soft patterns and taping innumerable sheets of paper together is annoying and inaccurate. Having hard patterns lets you trace as needed to cut styles or even make new patterns. If you don’t have much industrial experience, hopefully the hard patterns would be marked with standard labeling conventions that would help you model and refine the pattern work you do for yourself.

Once you’ve completed your prototypes and have nailed down your final collection, you might revisit the digital versus paper patterns decision. [But again, if you’ll be doing your own production, you might want to make your own markers and not need the CAD option.] Don’t feel you must go digital to be taken seriously. No one is going to laugh if you only have hard paper patterns. The truth is, only 15% of manufacturers even have a CAD system and of those that do, 85% only use the CAD system for grading and marking -not pattern making per se.

Either way, you don’t want to overlook CAD as a grading solution but again, the output is variable so it’s not an inflexible situation. You can have the layout set up to facilitate the making of hard pattern sets or as markers. One further alternative is to have hard patterns cut by computer but those cutters aren’t as common as plotters. I only know of two providers that have those. I wish I had one.

Sending patterns for digitizing
Sending patterns off for correction
Paper patterns, soft or hard?
CAD software compatibility in marker making
CAD 101 part one
CAD 101 part two

Get New Posts by Email


  1. Frank says:

    I had some of the questions in my mind that you have answered in this section, Thank you. It was very helpfull as I am starting a small run and i was trying to figure out if I needed digital generated patterns in addition. Thanks

  2. Josh says:

    Hi Kathleen – Josh here from OptiTex. I read this posting and couldn’t help but add a few things. I obviously could not be more biased, but I think that a CAD system also can greatly improve the patterns themselves. There are many reasons for this, but I thought I would throw one out there. Walking is a classic example of something not enough people do because it can be a bit tedious to do by hand. However it is so easy to do this in our system that there is no reason not to walk and rewalk your patterns to make them perfect. Adding seam allowance, comparing measurements and dart rotation are just a few other things that are so easy with CAD

    Also, we have web conversion that anyone can use, not just for OptiTex users. From our website anyone can create and account for this and convert to their hearts content.

  3. Lorraine says:

    Hi Kathleen,

    Thank you for another great post. I speak with start-up companies nearly every day here at Patternworks. There are a great many factors to consider when deciding whether or not to use digital patternmaking. CAD is a tool, like a pencil–it does not replace the skills necessary in patternmaking. When drafting a new style, the time involved is often just about the same as it would be by hand–the time saved is in the cutting/labeling of the hard patterns. CAD patterns can be more accurate because it is very difficult to cut hard patterns with perfectly straight lines and smooth curves. On the other hand, I have seen a lot of beautiful CAD patterns that don’t walk together, are not balanced, etc—I agree, it depends on the skill of the patternmaker. CAD patterns do take much less time to grade—but much of the time is saved because there are no hard patterns to cut. Most large companies go straight from grading into marking. They do not need copies of patterns in each size. Small companies must consider this. If you are cutting only a few of each size, then the cost of markers may not be worth it. This is where it gets tricky—the cost of grading digital files will cost less and be faster than grading by hand. But some services, like us, do not include full print outs of each size in the grading cost—that’s what keeps the grading costs low. We provide a copy of the nest with the grading charge. So what are the pros for small companies? It CAN be much faster to create patterns from existing CAD patterns. I say CAN, because it is not always the case. It depends on the new styling. Here’s another consideration—I don’t know about all services, but here at Patternworks, if a client is creating a new style from an existing graded style, we do not charge for grading the pieces that have retained the grade. So this could help keep future grading costs down. If you are using hand graded patterns, the entire set is usually copied, re- cut, and re- named along with the new pieces. I know there are those of you out there who take the shortcut and just pull the pieces out, add in the new pieces and have a new pattern—but this is dangerous. At some point you will likely end up with a style missing pieces, searching thru mountains of patterns on hooks to put together the original pattern. Also, if you are using hand graded patterns, then move to digital, you would have to deal of the cost of digitizing and re-grading. One last consideration—if you do need markers, digital marking is much quicker and more accurate—but most importantly, can help give you the best yield. In digital marking, the marker maker can see the percentage of waste during the marking process and make recommendations to correct. If you are cutting large quantities, this can save you thousands of dollars by cutting down on fabric usage, all on a single cut. We are a digital pattern service, but I don’t believe that CAD patterns are for everyone, especially those cutting one or two of a size—weigh in the pros and cons before you decide. (Sorry for the length of this post!)

Leave a Reply

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