On becoming a pattern maker

Here are two similar questions from my mail:

What recommendations would you make to a person who wants to educate herself to work as a professional patternmaker? I have seen the books you recommend (and plan to acquire some at Christmas) and would like your advice on schools, exercises, experiments, etc., you think are helpful.

What is the best way to learn how to sew and pattern-draft “professionally” without actually getting a job in the industry. I use quotes because I already have a career and am not willing to give up my amateur status. However, I would like to improve my abilities. My local JC has classes in pattern-drafting. Are those useful? What path did you take?

Regardless of whether you want to become a career professional or improve your skills, I’d recommend accredited classes. While most of the following advice is geared to professionals, even if you’re an enthusiast wanting to upgrade your skills, a professional educational environment is best. While there is tremendous variation in the skills taught in schools, there are standards that must be followed. The same cannot be said about informal classes. While you can get lucky with private instructors, I’d strenuously avoid personalities known in home sewing. You’re better off with someone low-key without an agenda.

Personally, I think community colleges offer a tremendous value. Sure, you can pay a whole lot more at private “art” schools but I’m not convinced the education they provide is worth it. As an example, I consider intellectual generosity of an instructor to be key. By intellectual generosity I mean, how do you know whether your instructor actually shares all that they know with you? Based on my experience, I’ve found that community college professors tend to have less of an agenda -they’re not fighting for tenure or competing with other professors to keep their jobs in this era of dwindling programs. The program success of community colleges is rated according to how many students actually graduate and get jobs but it’s not like that at the private schools and universities. There’s a lot less drama and theory and more hands on with community colleges. Another example, I don’t sell many books to four year schools, I sell a lot more to the two year schools. I’m not trying to downplay a four year college degree but pattern making is a trade; you need as much supervised practice as you can get. Of course, not all two year programs are as good as they once were. F.I.T. is no longer teaching pattern design. I’ve tactfully omitted further comment.

In my case, I went to El Centro College in Dallas TX. While it’s not as prestigious as Parson’s or FIT to the average person, I’ve gotten any job I’ve ever applied for because the school has an unparalleled reputation with apparel manufacturers. Many manufacturers have told me that they’d hire anybody who went to school there and second, that students graduating from prestigious schools are the most difficult to work with. Again, if you’re someone who went to an expensive or prestigious school and you don’t like to hear that, sorry. That’s just what everybody says on the inside of this business, not the outside, pretty-fluffy-vogue magazine world -that I’m not sure really exists anyway. Pattern making is a technical hard-skill set. It takes infinite patience and dedication to detail. I know that designers think they do that too but I guess pattern makers bring that up a notch or two.

Once you get some classes under your belt (I never graduated), get a job preferably in production pattern making. That’s not as scary as it sounds because you’ll learn, trust me. If you can’t get a job doing that, try to get hired as a line stitcher. You’ll learn very quickly that most of what you’ve been taught is abject silliness and believe me, you can deal with the finite concreteness of industrial sewing. You’re going to like it much more than you’d ever imagine and the pay is much better than what media leads you to believe. The experience is invaluable and it’ll make you an awesome pattern maker.

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