How to hire a pattern grading service

This post comes in response to a posting on an internet board from a woman (who wishes to remain anonymous) who was charged outrageous fees for pattern grading. She paid $960 to have 6 pieces graded in five sizes. That’s right, $960! The customary price from any professional grading service is $50 at most, so I was beyond outrage when I heard this. She was unaware of acceptable industry pricing and I publish this with the hopes of preventing someone else from being taken advantage of in a similar way.

The following material is reprinted from The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing ©1998 by Kathleen Fasanella (me). All Rights Reserved. All of the original material is included with minor amendments, having been re-formatted for easier reading on your screen. In addition, I’ve added a couple of reputable pattern companies you can contact if you need to hire someone and I will be adding to the list. You can order a copy of this book here or by writing me. Depending on reader feedback and demand (and hopefully donations), I will consider writing a follow-up post that deals specifically with the issues faced by designers of home-sewing patterns due to ludicrous and outrageous grading prices from certain companies. I define “ludicrous and outrageous” as grading prices that are ten to twenty times the average going rate of industry professionals.

How to Hire a Grading Service
“…Sometimes a designer thinks we’ll grade their design with a B- or C+…”
When a new designer needs technical help in design creation, they rarely know the steps it takes for a design to come to life. When discussing grading with new designers, they may become very quiet and then a “I don’t have a clue look” crosses their faces. Designers know a pattern needs to be developed, but rarely think about the range of sizes a pattern may need.

So what is grading? Grading is increasing and/or decreasing pattern sizes proportionate to specific instructions. Since the best client is an educated client, a designer should learn more about grading. Designers can learn about grading from books such as Professional Pattern Grading for Women’s, Men’s and Children’s Apparel by Handford through college courses or even from pattern graders. Learning will help anyone understand the precision of grading and help designers to make educated decisions as to how the work needs to be done.

The first step is a prototype pattern. If a designer does not have one, it can be made for them. After a prototype pattern is ready, the design is produced in samples. After market or after sales potential is demonstrated, the prototype pattern is corrected and made into a production quality pattern. Only after this step, is the pattern ready to be graded for production.

How is Grading Done?
Grading is done in two ways; manually or by computer. Each method has different benefits and costs. Whichever method is used, the most important component is the pattern grader themselves. The most advanced tools will not help if the technician is poorly trained or lacks experience.

Manual grading: Grading has been done manually for years. Companies that grade manually use a grading machine of which there are two kinds; a Gradiomatic or a Sunny. Machines cost between $350 to $600. Others use a Hinged Grading Ruler, which are low cost, highly accurate tools. When only a few pieces are needed, a basic 2″ X 18″ ruler is used to mark growth increments. A benefit of manual grading is the low cost of equipment but it can be very costly in hourly wages. A disadvantage of grading machines is that they mis-calibrate and it’s difficult to find someone qualified to reset them. Used machines have worn gears, which contribute to errors. Rulers are never perfectly accurate and worn rules must be monitored.

Computerized grading
Grading by computer is very fast and accurate. If the operator is experienced, errors are virtually unknown. The disadvantage of computerized grading is the cost of equipment. Costs of computer systems and software can run into the thousands of dollars. Since it’s hard for new designers to purchase them, most companies use a grading service.

Computerized grading services provide the benefits of accuracy at a very reasonable cost. A very important additional benefit is markers, which few small companies consider when selecting a method. A grading service can make markers for all sizes of a style once the pattern has been graded. A computer will do this in a fraction of time and print out the full length of the cutting order. Computers can also “nest”, which means that the different pattern sizes are laid inside each other and printed out for inspection. Nested patterns can speed up the process and lower costs because the biggest errors are easily spotted at a glance.

How is Grading Priced?
Many designers don’t realize the industry has conventional standards of acceptable pricing for each method. Prices vary according to the design and to the part of the country in which services are located. This details pricing common to most professional companies. Grade prices are traditionally based on a piece rate or a flat rate which is based on the number of pieces (the latter is more common).

Piece Rate
Designers pay a set price for each piece that is graded. Figuring the grading price can be a little confusing to a newcomer because not all pieces need to be graded, as in the case of mirrored pieces. Designers have also thought that the size of the pattern piece is related to price, but it isn’t. A small undercollar will cost the same as a floor length dress piece. It’s too difficult to price according to piece size, so a grader makes a little extra on small pieces which covers the losses on larger pieces. Still, there are always exceptions. If appliques or design details like beading patterns are graded, this work is priced by the hour.

Mirrored pieces are pattern pieces that are exact copies of each other. Since mirrored pieces are just “flipped” for the opposite side, they are only graded once and a designer only pays for one piece. It’s two for the price of one. An example is a vest with 2 identical fronts, the right and left front being exactly the same.

Designers pay per piece, per size. For example, if you have a size medium vest with five pattern pieces and you want an extra-small, small, large and an extra large made from it; you would pay for five pieces for each of those four sizes. The cost is 5 X 4 = 20 pcs or described as (# of pcs) X (# of szs)= ____.

[Amended w/2011 market conditions] Piece rate prices are fairly consistent between companies. It’s not “price fixing” because it’s so inexpensive as to be not worth the effort.

These days it is almost impossible to find someone who will manually grade patterns and cut them out of oaktag. If you do find someone, I can’t imagine what it would cost but at least double or triple the cost of computer grading. At best, a grader will give you a plot of your graded pieces so either you or someone you hire will cut them out of oak tag yourselves.

Computer grading prices can seem confusing because prices vary according to company policy. Companies price in one of three ways: piece rate, package pricing or hourly.

  • Piece rate: The customer pays a set fee per piece. The industry average is currently running between $2 to $5 per piece for computerized grading. If the company charges on the low side, be sure to ask if they charge a set up fee. A set up fee can run between $15 to $75.
  • Package pricing:  This is the most common form of pricing today; many companies charge a flat rate per size based on the number of pieces. The vest example I used (five pattern pieces) would cost $10-$25 per size.
  • Hourly: Charging hourly was a rarity in both grading and pattern making but has become increasingly common mostly because the profile customer has changed so much. Before, our customers knew what was expected of them and vice versa. These days it consumes a lot of time to get all of the needed information from the customer and it is just as common that the customer needs to have size specs created for them. Since there is no way of knowing how long or short a time that can take, these charges are hourly. A good provider should be able to give you a good estimate and stay within range of it plus or minus 20%.

Today, most companies charge one price based on 1-10 pieces, 1-20 pieces etc. While prices can vary quite a bit, the usual range is from $15 to $25 per size for a 1-6 piece pattern. Therefore, if you find a grading service that charges $125 to $250 for a 1-6 piece pattern per size (total cost of 4 sizes being $500-$1,000) you should probably keep looking. Don’t assume a service with a dramatically higher cost is superior in value to other firms. It is more likely that the company knows how to market to people who don’t know how to find industry service providers and so, don’t know any better.

Marker Making
A discussion of the costs of computer grading is incomplete without discussing marker making. Markers are the actual full size print out of how the styles are cut on the fabric.

Hand markers
An individual can make markers by hand by tracing out each size onto paper, which can literally take hours. The labor costs are very high not to mention the mistakes that may be made.

Computer made markers
If a style has been graded by computer, the computer can make a marker in very little time since most of the work was done in the grading process. The greatest benefit is convenience. A designer only needs to pick up the phone and order a marker made to fabric width. The cost is minimal, less than what it costs for a person to trace out the patterns at an hourly wage. The prices vary, so ask the grading service for pricing. Markers can be delivered by mail, so it’s not necessary to live in the same town as the service.

The Mechanics of Grading

Having discussed the costs and methods of grading, I will explain the mechanics of grading. A designer needs to be familiar with these concepts in order to make better decisions about how, where and why the styles will need to grow. This will also help designers get their “specs” together before they call a grading service provider. At the very least, you’ll know what others are talking about.

Where patterns “grow”
Most patterns grow in three ways: circumference, length and width. The circumference or girth is the total distance around the body, such as the total waist or hip measurement. Length is also added or subtracted in size changes. The width grade is used in areas like the shoulder. The width grade might be better described as the distance across grade.

A more unusual kind of grading is called radial grading, which is used mostly in bras and similar garments. Radial grading is quickly becoming a lost art, as a fundamental knowledge of calculus, trigonometry and geometry is required.

Factors of grading
Designers should know how they want the sizes to grow or shrink and provide the information to a pattern grader. If a designer is unsure of how a pattern should grow, these are some of the concepts to consider:

  • What is your market? Women’s, Juniors, Men, Children’s or Toddler’s? Each apparel category is graded differently because each of these market categories fit people of different ages and sexes. Grading is done according to age, sex and size.
  • Garment Styling, Fit and Fabric. Is the design form fitting, loose fitting or baggy? Fabric type is also important. Knits and wovens are graded differently. Just as knit patterns cannot be substituted for woven fabric patterns, a knit grade is different from a woven grade.
  • Type of retail customer. Sizes can vary according to the type of retailer and end consumer. The retail price can guide the determination of your sizing standard. Retailers like J.C. Penney’s may insist the grade follow their specifications, since the retailer is noted for strict quality standards.

It’s impossible for a new designer to have all the answers to the topics discussed in this article. The best part is, a designer won’t need to. Unlike pattern makers or contractors, grading services are comprehensive and grade patterns of any type and description. Likewise, services are probably more aware of how sizes are graded for different markets than the designer may be. Since grading services are straightforward, they will ask for information in order to determine what you need. Likewise, remember the past lectures on paranoia, they are asking certain questions in order to help you and they’re not spying on you. They will want to know:
* Product type; skirt, vest, dress etc.
* Market; men’s, misses, toddler’s etc.
* Fabric type; woven, plaid, striped, napped, knit etc.
* Sizing; SML, or 2-12, 3-6x, 38-48, etc.

What to Expect
Hiring and using a service doesn’t need to be intimidating. Since DEs may know little about what to expect, they’ll often use pricing as a strategy to select a grading service. Unfortunately, it’s close to impossible to get pricing information by telephone. It’s difficult to get a firm price quote over the phone because it’s just not possible unless you know the technical terms used to describe garment or product attributes. Many DEs will describe their products by saying, “Oh, it’s really simple.” “Really simple” can mean “really scary.” Just so you know, “really simple” is the universal cue for industry people to run and hide. It’s always better to use nouns to describe the design. Just ask about their pricing policies to get an idea of how costs are calculated. The way to get an accurate price is to send them a copy of the pattern, technical sketch and a swatch of fabric. I can’t say all estimates are free, but I will say that any service I’ve dealt with does them free.

The reason why they need a copy of the pattern, technical sketch and a swatch of fabric for estimates is that what looks simple to you is different for production purposes. Services have had too many negative experiences over basic misunderstandings that this is the best way for both parties to communicate efficiently. Once they have your things in house, it’s a very clear-cut issue and they’ll call you right back with some firm answers to your questions. Just remember that they are not being vague to get more money out of you. They are vague because you don’t share the same frame of reference, terminology, or standards of comparison. Once you’ve worked with a service a couple of times, it’s much easier. The person who assists you will have a better idea of your preferences, likes and dislikes. Likewise, you won’t need to send anything for estimates. They will only need a sketch. By then, pricing won’t be an issue anyway because the value of the services will have been established.

After you’ve gotten your estimate and hired the service, it will be graded. The service will not send you a graded pattern back. Not yet anyway, or at least they shouldn’t. Remember that this is a system of checks and balances and this is how things are done to prevent big wastes of money. The service will send you a nested pattern. If you’re not sure what nested means, it’s what you’ve seen with store-bought patterns. All of the sizes layered inside each other in a predicable, orderly way; it’s the concept of those Russian dolls you’ve seen. Open the first doll, a smaller one is inside, open that one and there’s another one, etc., etc. Anyway, the service sends a nested pattern because you need to check their work to make sure it’s graded the way you wanted. They will be waiting to hear from you for approval or questions. The nested pattern is their way of demonstrating “This is what I’m led to believe you want. Is this so?”

At any rate, once you the customer are satisfied, the service will send the graded pattern for use. The graded patterns come rolled up in a tube of 24-lb. paper. If you want the patterns on “hard copy” (on traditional pattern paper) you handle this.

Payment policies
Each company is different. Like most industry people, until you have an established relationship, you will have to pay before your order is shipped. In fact, most services will require the payment before you get the nested pattern. They aren’t being mean to you; payment may be required because it’s easy for a less than ethical person to trace each size off the nest. A not nice person would be guilty of using something that wasn’t paid for. Once you have a relationship and have paid your bills on time, it’s common for a designer who uses a lot of grading services to be billed monthly. This is an individual relationship and not subject to any industry standard other than the rule common to all people everywhere: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In closing, remember that people do want your money and they’re willing to work for it in return. Always be honest, if you don’t know, ask questions instead. They’ll think you’re self-confident and most definitely, destined for success.

Here are a few service providers:
Stephen Singer pattern co.
260 west 36th street, NYC 10018
tel: 212 947-0107, 212 967-2996

Patternworks Inc
1117 Baker Street, Suite A
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: (714) 884-3678
Fax (714) 884-3681

I also provide pattern making, grading and digitizing services. You can find more providers on the resources page.

Keep in mind that service providers are commonly described as rude. This is because we get a lot of calls from starry-eyed designers who don’t have the first clue. I strongly recommend that you mention if you’re calling from a referral and who it was that sent you. It is a mistake to pretend you already knew of the provider or don’t remember who sent you! Most business is conducted by referral so they may not take you unless you can say how you found out about them. If you say you found them from reading The Entrepreneur’s Guide, you will often be surprised at the warm reception you get. Many service providers these days won’t work with someone unless they’ve read it because of all books, its unique focus is production preparedness.

Other chapters you should read in this book are: Do You Need a Pattern Maker, How to Hire a Pattern Maker, How to Hire a Sewing Contractor, Troubleshooting Sewing Contractors, Production Cutting: Making Markers, How to Test and Measure Shrinkage, Cutting a Pattern for Shrinkage, Fundamentals of Fitting, A Practical Guide to Grading, Production Pattern Making 101 and more. There’s also a some free forms available at the bottom of this page that would be useful to fill out and give to your grading service.

I will be posting a sticky in the discussion forum under the category of “SOURCING” with pattern and grading service resources as I collect them so please be sure to check there periodically. The services I’ll be listing are companies that respond to a simple pricing survey and meet standard industrial criteria. I’d like to reiterate that it would be inappropriate to select a service based on the lowest cost. If you are a service provider yourself and would like to be included in the resource list, please contact me. Similarly, if you have a service that you’re using and would like to throw them some business, please advise me and I will contact them for possible inclusion.

Lastly, if you’re reading this, you should probably just get it over with and buy the book. Read the reviews on Amazon (50 five-star reviews) to see why readers describe the book as the first and best investment you can make in your business. It will save you thousands of dollars, I guarantee it or your money back. To readers who are not in business and have no intentions of getting into it; you may enjoy the book and its purchase allows you to join our forum. If you suspect that what you’re reading in home-sewing or fashion magazines isn’t the whole story, you’re right.

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