Intentional Technical Debt

This goes along with the entry I wrote called A Big Ball of Mud. Often when you work for someone else, even though you’re the pattern maker, you don’t get to decide how to do things. Some decisions are taken out of your hands for whatever reason. Here’s an example that annoyed me way back when.

This coat (#72558) was a unisex wool bomber type jacket. The point of contention being “unisex”. In my opinion, there is rarely such thing. What “unisex” must mean by default is “sized for men” but with the implication that “we’re optimizing our chances by saying women can wear it too”. That’s the reality. Were it not and sized for women, it wouldn’t be called unisex because few men could wear it. In the photo above, you can see the woman’s sleeves are much too long and the neck way too large. In this case, the technical debt of this jacket was incurred by a purchasing decision. In this plant, they only wanted to buy three sizes of separating zippers. No lie.


In this case, the big ball of mud -“a haphazardly structured, sprawling, sloppy, duct-tape-and-baling-wire, spaghetti-code jungle” were the grade rules, haphazardly cobbled together to fit purchasing specs. This made for all kinds of fun and games with grade rules. Normally length increases or decreases with sizes but with only three size zippers, the grade rules had to be designed with size breaks. XS/S took one size, M another and L/XL yet another. This rule library was called SMLZip. Jackets that had button or snap closures took another grade rule library, RulibSML. This meant that an otherwise identical jacket but with a button closure, would not be the same length for all sizes for the version that came with a zipper.

Complicating matters rule libraries were shared between men’s and women’s even in non-unisex goods. The work around -which actually worked pretty well as a strategy, the practical expression being the difficulty- was to name sizes (with numbers). Since they’d run out of size names long before I showed up, the RulibSML names worked like this:

  • 92=women’s small

  • 93=women’s medium
  • 94=men’s small
  • 95=women’s large
  • 96=men’s medium
  • 97=men’s large
  • 98=women’s xlarge …and so on.

And yeah, I realize that women’s extra-large at the outside of the men’s large looks like a glaring problem. It did in real life too. Any pattern maker or grader worth their salt has gone into dry heaves at this point. How does a company decide to use the same grade rules between men and women is beyond me too. By the way, the company was sufficiently successful, they weren’t in debt or anything or bleeding money from every orifice. As there was no crisis, there was no sense of urgency to repair what probably would have been an undiagnosed problem.

Anyway, with the styles that took a zipper (remember management only wanted to buy three sizes) you had sizes grouped in three length size breaks too, exacerbating fitting problems from using the shared rule libraries. SMLZip worked like this:

  • 92, 93, 94 =zip size short

  • 95, 96 =zip size medium
  • 97, 98, 99 =zip size long

Since the company had a Gerber CAD system, resolution for better fitting patterns wasn’t insurmountable. My suggestions would have been to separate men’s and women’s grade rules, developing separate rule libraries for each. Unlike with hand made patterns, the new grade rules could have been implemented with the click of a button, pulling down the new library substituting for the old one. It just seemed so pointless. I can only imagine this system was implemented way back when, when the person who was then in charge of patterns and didn’t know much (she didn’t, a lot of her work was liege and legacy around there) thought this would make a quick fix solution. And maybe that’s all it was ever intended to be. A quick fix solution in a novel situation became policy. And that brings me to that concept of intentional technical debt; “a conscious decision to optimize for the present rather than the future”. That’s the problem with short term fixes, they tend to become long term solutions. No one ever revisits the problem, it just gets buried with other “solutions” cobbled on top of those.

As far as a solution to the zipper quandary, with a closer analysis, there could have been some overlap in purchasing between sizes. Better still, they could have purchased by the yard and set stops and sliders too. This would have allowed a lot more variety in styling since fabrications were repeated across styles. Having zippers by the yard would mean there could be five different sizes for women’s short jackets, or long ones as well as those for men (although their jacket lengths didn’t vary). The end result being, the women’s line was being impinged by purchasing requirements for the men’s line. Who’s to say what the effects of these practices were?

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7 comments

  1. dosfashionistas says:

    This is not quite the same thing,but I have been out of pocket the last few days and I’m eager to stick my oar in.

    In my working life I found that there were trade offs of one kind or another between quality and value in almost every garment I shepherded into production. Some production managers seemed to think their main goal was to squeeze every penny they could out of a garment after it had been costed and sold (with these guys I always wondered if they were pocketing some of this; with one of them I was pretty sure). Some were due to unexpected complications, or time constraints, or any number of things. Murphy’s law was written for the garment business. The trick is to know what the cost of the workaround will be and how far down the line you will still be paying for it.

    On a personal note, I have now had a successful cardiac cauterization procedure, with a balloon inflated in the right artery of my heart to open up a 70% blockage in one spot. Went home the next day and I am feeling great. It is like my body is aware of having more blood flow and more oxygen available throughout. I am more alert and energetic, and my chest doesn’t hurt either.

    Sarah@dosfashionistas

  2. Kudzu Fire says:

    the girl is cute so little else matters I had to deliberate get past her looks to see, yeah, it doesn’t seem to fit her right does it?

  3. Gail says:

    Personally, I love the ‘One Size Fits All’ BS. Whenever I see that idiotic phrase on some hapless article of clothing, I immediately think ‘One Size Fits One’. ‘Cuz it *never* fits me.

  4. Valerie Burner says:

    I suppose this as as good a time as any to ask a question I have pondered for years: Women’s clothes button and zip opposite to the way that men’s do. But why is it that on pants and jeans women’s zippers are the same orientation as men’s? Since I am not only a newbie here, but also getting prepared to start my own, very small and local clothing business, if I were to manufacture pants for women, should I do it the “correct” way (at least that’s my thinking) or do it the way that women are used to having their zippers? (Like men’s pants)

  5. kaaren hoback says:

    Women’s buttons were set the way they are simply because all those buttons were for the wealthy who had maids to dress them and it became “tradition”.

    Use the traditional methods or possibly be spurned for having the zip/buttons on backwards.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Stumbling across this entry in preparation for another entry I’m writing, I could have been more effective resolving this problem in my work situation if I’d known enough to follow the advice from the preceding entry (Big ball of mud). Specifically, to make the costs of the unisex decision more transparent. It would have been better that I used these costs as an example for this entry instead of ranting about how stupid the unisex jacket decision was. Hitting the reset button, I should have used costs to encourage reconsideration of the unisex decision:

    1. The easiest and most obvious argument is the direct cost of fabric. This was an expensive 20 oz custom loomed 100% wool. All told, costs were minimally $10 per yard (in those days). The conservative difference in allocation btwn men’s and women’s sizes is 1/4 yd or $2.50.

    2. The cost of the zipper was @ 50 cents. However, they wouldn’t have been able to make the minimum purchasing req.s for separate men’s and women’s sizes. To save on fabric costs, a varying zipper length solution would have required they added an operation. Adding an operation isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

    • They need a trained operator (not difficult, this was routinely done in sampling and protos so the skill existed).
    • They needed a work station set up for it. It could have been put in finishing.
    • Tools needed to be assigned to the worker (a pair of pliers).
    • Materials were needed -zipper stops- also available
    • The piece rate for zipper alteration needed to be determined. This was the production manager’s responsibility and not her strength. She excelled at keeping the system flowing smoothly but she wasn’t good at finessing it, analyzing the ROI of improvements.
    • Scheduling and process: adding this operation would have to take this step into consideration to deliver the modified zipper sizes when needed (production manager duty).

    All told, adding an operation might have doubled the purchase price of zippers ($1.00) but this doubling of cost still would have saved a net of $1.50 (1/4 yd of fabric).

    3. Indirect cost of the development and implementation of a complex custom grade rule was largely invisible because this pattern and grading function is overhead. Salary costs of pattern staff are the same regardless of units produced so having the pattern staff fix it was seen as a “free” solution.

    Like I said, if I’d had the foresight to stress the direct costs of fabrics vs modifying zippers to size, things might have been different.

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