Miracle or Myth? MTM (Made to Measure)

Many entrepreneurs are excited about a new-ish technology called MTM (Made to Measure) that they think will revolutionize retail. The premise is this: A customer is scanned, their measurements uploaded into an MTM CAD program that will spit out a pattern that fits the customer and his or her style preferences. The customer selects the fabric and features they like and after payment, can expect their order to be delivered within a matter of days. To be sure, the MTM system is costly (software + body scanner+ retail space+people to cut and sew onesies and twosies) but the thinking is that customization will be the demand driver, there will be less dead stock and of course, no pattern maker is needed. Sounds awesome, huh? Unfortunately, MTM software isn’t what most people think it is. If it were, me and most of the pattern makers I know would have bought it before now.

The MTM software is better described as a database, not a drafting to measure or pattern making program.  In fact, implementing MTM requires a lot of patternmaking in advance. The MTM [database] will definitely spit out pattern pieces specific to given measurements provided those pieces -an enormous data set to include every conceivable size, to be loaded into the system.

Using the image of my blue shirt, top right, here’s an example of the work needed to populate an MTM database:

A pattern is made by a patternmaker to fit a prototypical customer. Let us say that the customer is 5’5″, with a bust of 36″, waist of 28″ and hips of 38″. This pattern is then graded for the other sizes of this prototypical profile. No problem.

Next, the pattern must be modified to fit a variation of the prototypical customer, this one just like the first but an inch taller. And then, an inch shorter. This new version must then be graded to fit the spectrum of that fitting profile.

Next, another pattern for this same style is created to fit a customer with a 35″ bust, or a 37″ bust, and of varying heights, precisely as was done with the first pattern we started with. And so on.

Once this has been completed, or concurrent with it, style variations that can be interchanged with the basic body, are drafted and graded. This could include a variety of collar, sleeve and cuff styles, hem finishes, a back with pleats or not, etc.

All of the fit and style variation pattern pieces that interchange with this basic body style are then stored as separate styles; or rather, individual pattern pieces may be stored as separate components of the configuration build. The beauty of the MTM system -again, a database- is that the algorithm will select the needed pieces to complete a garment that is closest to fitting the scanned customer.

All the above is to explain that MTM is not a made to measure system as most people think of it; it is not bespoke. The MTM program cannot draft a pattern to fit anyone; it merely selects the pieces in the system that most closely match the fit attributes and style preferences of the customer. In short, MTM may not be the elusive holy grail in that it cannot draft patterns and the system must be populated in advance, with patterns made and graded by a pattern maker.

Unfortunately, few MTM resellers will mention what it takes to implement. Case in point, I’m a sophisticated pattern technology person, but even with direct and intensive questioning, it took an hour and a half for a vendor to admit to me, that no, the MTM software does not draft to measure. It can’t.

The last unfortunate thing is that anyone [the aforementioned entrepreneurs who think MTM is a license to print money] I’ve tried to explain this to, all say that I’m wrong. Some even suggest that I’m opposed to it because it could put pattern makers out of business. To which I’ve responded, if MTM really was what it is marketed to be, any pattern maker who could afford it, would have it. I certainly would. How awesome would that be? A real dream come true in my opinion.

In short, if one decides to get an MTM system, one will also need to include the salary cost of a pattern maker to make the patterns. Case in point, someone contacted me for an estimate for patterns to populate their system but calculating the costs soon became so time consuming that I wasn’t willing to create an estimate without being paid for it. I’d never done that before. I did get far enough into it to recommend that they just hire a full time salaried patternmaker.

MTM can be ideal for certain operations, here are some other considerations if you’d like to consider implementing an MTM system:

1. Since MTM is best implemented with a paucity of style options, men’s suits, slacks and shirts are a good choice.

2. Have a retail space that is large enough to house, and the capital to acquire:

  • an MTM system,
  • a pattern CAD program,
  • a body scanner
  • and a single or low ply CAM cutting solution
  • a sewing operation*.

3. One will also need dedicated, experienced stitchers who are accustomed to sample making and single piece flow, as well as a variety of sewing machines and pressing equipment. It goes without saying that the stitchers need to be adept with complex garment construction.

4. A pattern maker and skilled measurers (as back up).

5. An inventory of fabrics and findings suited to the products.

At this stage, someone may think that the sewing and cutting operations can be outsourced to an outside domestic contractor. These days, I’m thinking not and for two reasons. First is that contractors are in short supply and two, it’ll be pricey. A suit -with no handwork- can take 4-6 hours to cut and 3-4 hours to sew. At a shop rate of $40 an hour (the least expensive one I know), you’re looking at $280-$400 just for cutting and sewing. This is why I think that if you’re going to do this, you may as well go whole hog, spend an extra $75K-$100K and buy a CAM single ply cutter. Otherwise, cutting will be a constriction point you’d never considered.

You can outsource to a contractor offshore if you’re comfortable with managing the logistics and their operation is a perfect match for you. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need CAM or sewing because you’d send the patterns electronically for plotting or cutting directly to CAM -if they have that.

If you made it down this far, there is still one last problem and that is fitting your customer. Even if you do fit people perfectly, exactly to scan, the customer may not agree it fits well so be prepared for customers to be disappointed because fitting preferences, a bit snug or overly loose, are common.

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27 comments

  1. Liesl Binx says:

    I knew it! I am familiar with a few companies doing this that cater to plus sizes and I have been curious how they have been doing it. I agree with you it sure would be awesome if this could actually, “draft to measure,” but I just knew that this is not how it worked.

  2. Theresa Riess says:

    As to the dedicated, experienced stitchers, capable of sample making and single pieces, those falling in that category domestically are probably already gainfully employed either for themselves or for someone else. Interesting post. I have the same type thoughts going through my head every time a sewist states she wants to learn how to draft patterns so she can make patterns specifically for her own idiosyncrasies. You don’t have to be very far off the norm to have something not fit, especially with an aging body! Thank you for a thoughful and well articulated argument.

  3. Demetra says:

    I am a “techie” person and most of the things your mentioned are plausible. However, the last paragraph, is the problem, most customers even when something fits them perfectly, will still want something tweaked. Since the “eye” of the customer is the most important judge, no software or computer can satisfy that requirement.

  4. Andrea says:

    Liesl, are you thinking of e s h a k t i? I have been trying to figure out forever how they do it. I mean obviously there is a lot of overlap in designs so they could mix and match bodices and skirts and there is a reason they aren’t doing pants, but still, it seems like they must just have a huge database of patterns to offer their customization. And labor costs are lower because they construct out of the US. I also know some indie designers are offering size XXS-6X and I have no idea how they are doing that, other than drafting patterns when orders come in because they have low volume. Definitely does not seem scaleable.

    I do think at some point we might see more automation in the patternmaking and cutting but I don’t think it’s there yet, and even if you’re doing MTM like Kathleen said, people are always going to have issues with fit or whatever and then you have to deal with returns on a custom garment.

  5. Judith Newman says:

    I had a pants pattern drafted a couple of years ago (and I’m assuming things have improved since then) but the pattern generated was so far off it was laughable. It was redrafted with a person checking the measurements against the pattern and I got into the ballpark but the pants weren’t the perfectly-fitted pair I’ve been chasing. In the end I gave up and worked at drafting pants patterns (or modifying existing patterns) myself. I’m getting closer, but not there yet! Pants are hard and my measurements have changed over the past 10 years so the adjustments that might have worked 5 years ago are no longer appropriate. Gotta redraft/adjust a pants pattern every time you make pants!

  6. Liesl Binx says:

    Yes Andrea I was thinking about e s h a k t i. There is also another company called Abbey Post that is now doing this, I am friends with the owner. Yes I have no idea how they are offering that large of a size range either. My guess is they are cutting to order. My size range is 1X-4X and that is already enough as is. I would love to expand my sizes but at this point it just doesn’t make financial sense for me. I am curious of the fit when people size up from XXS-6X. They could have a separate plus size pattern set for that style though, but it raises a red flag in my mind.

  7. Natasha E says:

    I’ve tried various incarnations of the MTM ordering over the years and I still prefer the old Levis (from 2002ish) system. You went to the store they measured you and then they had a “database” of all the possible size combinations and you tried them one, they took the length and you could pick the wash. Best fitting jeans ever and I reordered several times before I outgrew the fit and they had discontinued the program.

    Sewing pattern wise I love Lekala from Russia. Especially once I realised not to check the box for shorter arms since they already took into account my height. I usually don’t bother to alter and it’s a nice option for when I just want to cut and sew something.

  8. Colleen says:

    Thanks, Kathleen, An interesting post. I *wish* it really worked because “standard” Ready to Wear (RTW) is increasingly ill-fitting and poor quality.
    When I gaze into my crystal ball, I see the end of fast fashion and a return to, and an appreciation for, quality.

    Thanks, Natasha, for the Lekala rec. I enjoyed looking at their web-site and will certainly try their patterns. I’m curious to see how the printing process works and how well the garments will fit.

  9. Elle says:

    Lekala is good, and starts you off a lot closer to perfect fit then most because of the measurements, but they aren’t perfect.

    I know when I print them off at home, there is some wasted paper, but they go together quickly (for an A4, DIY printer PDF type pattern). For the most part, sewing then out of the box as it were does get you a much better fitting garment then buying one or making one from McCalls.

    They aren’t without problems. I am one that does check the short arms, and I still should take another inch out of them or so. I have also had a couple styles place darts in wonky spots, as well. Over all though, they’re pretty great if I don’t want to spent 3 days messing with a pattern.

  10. Kelly G says:

    Fascinating topic, Kathleen. Thanks! One may hope that MTM will have some future. I personally like eshakti, the garments fit quite well, and I usually order them made to my measurements. I wish they used cotton/spandex instead of just 100% cotton, I would buy from them a lot more, but its just my personal preference.

    From design and sewing patterns, Natasha you are spot on! I also had a good experience with Lekala patterns. Though recently discovered a new site, Bootstrap fashion that sells these same patterns. The patterns are overall more polished than lekala. Th have the same features of entering your measurements and getting the patterns sized to your spec, and you will get them in your email 10-15 minutes later. Both are about the same price. But bootstrap is overall a huge step up from original lekala, so I now buy only from them. What I really love is that bootstrap fashion offers these patterns in Adobe Illustrator format. I started editing my patterns digitally and it’s just a real time saver. I have seen Ralph Pink’s videos on drafting patterns in illustrator, but it takes hours to do that. I literally save hours and hours of my time and the fit is very decent. Some minor changes, but overall I have been very happy.

  11. Ricardo says:

    Oh, and don’t forget about the hassle of returns.
    There’s one thing about not liking the fit, but its another not liking the style.

    There’s one rule about humans; they dont like complicated thinking.

    Having to choose between what to buy without returns might make the brain hurt just a bit.

    You cant rule MTM out.

    Blockbusters ruled the internet out. Now look at it.

  12. Laura says:

    I’m also a techie person, and I suspect that you may have discovered a(n?) MTM system that isn’t actually what the more modern ones are doing. Essentially, it’s not hard to dump a set of measurements into a point graphing program and end up with something quite similar to a basic block; add a set of pre-programmed translations to create your specific style lines, and there you are.
    I’m not saying that anyone is actually doing this, I’m saying that it’s possible. (And I do wish I could see that thread of Ann’s!)

  13. Kathleen says:

    Hi Laura

    I suspect that you may have discovered a(n?) MTM system that isn’t actually what the more modern ones are doing.

    Without mentioning names, I surveyed the acknowledged industry leader in MTM software. The date I did this was May 2014 in Atlanta GA at the TexProcess Tradeshow.

    Have you considered a career in programing apparel CAD programs? Maybe your fresh eyes can resolve problems that no one else has been able to overcome.

  14. Laura says:

    > Have you considered a career in programing apparel CAD programs? Maybe your fresh eyes can
    > resolve problems that no one else has been able to overcome.

    I… have. Much more research is required. I come from the Silicon Valley, where doing new things in the face of people saying it can’t be done is a way of life, but I also acknowledge that there’s probably not much venture funding interest in disrupting industrial systems at the moment. Kathleen, I’m happy to chat over email if you’d like.

  15. Kathleen says:

    Venture capital wouldn’t be needed, there are established companies currently trying to develop these programs. It’s the holy grail-the possibility of eliminating patternmakers, you’d be a very hot property if you have an angle no one else has thought of. And so, no disruption at all, it’s a matter of you applying for a job! You’d have at least 6 companies that I know of -not including the federal government- that would by vying for your brain.

  16. Laura says:

    Hm, I have a hard time imagining that this is a “new” angle. But then again there are often things in old businesses that don’t make a lot of sense, and having coders with zero knowledge of the problem they’re approaching wouldn’t be the most outré I’ve heard. I suspect there are other considerations (either within the established production chain, or with the IT infrastructure required) that would prevent this being developed in existing business.

    Do you think that MTM would entirely remove patternmakers? I imagine that there’d be a good deal of tuning and prototyping required, and in the case of new designs, new translations into the block system to program.

  17. Kathleen says:

    Cut to the chase, it’s probable that the constraints and variables to designing a true MTM product are far more complex than even experienced coders imagine. I know it’s easy to look at it from the outside, even with one’s professional experience, and think that the people working on it either aren’t very smart, old thinking, perhaps lazy, not particularly motivated (for perhaps dubious motivations) or aren’t doing a good job. The truth is that we’ve got the best German, Russian and Israeli brains working on it; all are minimally known to be as tenacious as badgers -and for all intents and purposes, with virtually unlimited budgets. I don’t jest that this is the elusive holy grail. Multi millions of dollars are being spent on it.

    Perhaps MTM is possible some day but today is not that day.

  18. Customer may not agree with fit…exactly! And another reason I prefer my mass produced items vs. the part of my business that is custom outerwear. 99% of the people are thrilled to bits with the jackets we make them, with no software…just common sense fitting of an existing sample and making obvious changes to the cut of the stock pattern before we sew. “Occasionally” someone will think their jacket is too baggy, (when they wore a sweater to the fitting and “always” like to layer…) but sometimes the fit is perfect, and they simply like their clothes to fit like a mummy wrap. All of which is why I don’t offer any of this online. Hard enough to guesstimate with skill, the adjustments necessary, factoring in a different stretch of the fabric they might choose. Doing the same thing over the internet is dicey and a gamble at best. I thought that having high tech software to take the guesswork away might be the answer. Glad to hear its not the cure to the common cold.

  19. Beth S. says:

    Kathleen — very interesting. I do wonder though, if perhaps it’s time to get back to educating the consumer about how a garment is supposed to fit. Or at least advising them of what to expect. E.g., “this garment should slightly compress the bust, and will not fit slimly in the hips” or “this garment is unfitted with the exception of the shoulders.” Some websites do this already, and I’ve noticed it’s actually quite common in old sewing patterns, especially in the 60s and 70s.

  20. Lizzie says:

    I’m coming late to the party here.

    I have a small custom dressmaking business, and for the past two and a half years, I’ve been using Lekala patterns almost exclusively. I *can* draft, but I *hate* it. My clients are larger, older, fairly wealthy women who wish to be well- and even interestingly-dressed, but who are not ‘fashionable’ in the current use of the word. This demographic of women are scarcely catered for by RTW at any price, at least here in the UK, and so might seem to be the perfect customer for the MTM systems described here.
    However, their range of ideas and opinions about precisely what constitutes correct fit is mind-boggling, and would surely be impossible to satisfy in any on-line or distance service, even if they could be persuaded to supply accurate measurements and honest information. It’s difficult enough to get those even when I – a larger, older woman myself, and personal friends with a couple of my clients before I became a semi-professional dressmaker – am face to face with them armed with a tape-measure, and they are vulnerable, in their underwear!

  21. Lauren says:

    As a pattern maker working with CAD and MTM, the system I am using needs a pattern maker to beef all the patterns to make them work for the MTM database. IMO – Only a pattern designer is the only capable of performing that work.

    The current process for our custom ordering system is fairly straight forward. The customer provides key body measurements sent in with the order. The designer/pattern maker reviews the customer’s measurements and determines what size the customer closets fits into with the least amount of pattern alterations. (Blue-penciling). Once we have decided what pre-set alterations we are going to use and what value to add or subtract (2 inches off the bust, add 1 inch to the sleeve, ect, increase back width), we key that in to MTM and get a pattern on the other side. MTM for us is just a database of pre-set alterations. We don’t let the system fully run it’s self with body scanning or just typing in customer measurements.
    A lot of set up goes into the base pattern alterations but even more work goes into creating the measurement charts we use to determine the patterns key measurements and design ease for the entire range of the sizes.

  22. Kate says:

    It certainly is a tough challenge and while the technology is getting closer, it’s certainly not there yet. But the potential is so exciting! Thanks for covering this.

    • Laura says:

      Frederico, that’s a really interesting video. I’m a current eShakti customer though, and they don’t do any of the scanning part of this to my knowledge. (If they did, I’d have fewer returns I bet!)

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