Pop Quiz: notching challenge pt.2

So tragic. We only had three participants to the challenge. No matter, what we got was useful enough.

Our first submission was from Sharon Denaro, a production patternmaker with over 20 years of experience, she’s new here so say hi (Hi Sharon). Second was Lisa Blank, enthusiast extraordinaire and last was me. Being that I’m in charge, I’m going to call a winner. And that would be Lisa. ha ha. 50 years of experience loses out!

Now I’ll show you why -based on the earlier entries on notching and from my book, you know that the fewer the number of notches, the better. If you use too many, it confuses stitchers and annoys cutters. Annoyed cutters will “forget” to notch a pattern with too many notches so your stuff may not be sewn as you had anticipated. Here’s the notch count:

  • Sharon: 10
  • Lisa: 8
  • KF: 13 (embarrassing, eh?)

Notches aren’t the whole story of course. Let’s discuss the finer points by introducing the entries:




First we’ll analyze Sharon’s entry.

Since notches should be placed in such a way as to eliminate ambiguity -no piece should be able to be sewn to a wrong piece- the distance between notches can be critical. Generally, notches should be offset by half an inch or more. Now it is difficult to get a complete picture of the measurement of Sharon’s placement because she did not (could not) do it digitally. In real life, I strongly suspect the gap between her notches would have been greater but owing to scale, the distances are not evident. Which means her entry looks worse than it really is or would be in real life. However, I don’t think (or at least I hope not) Sharon will be upset if I use her entry as an example of things to avoid mostly because we need one. Again, this is not representative of what an experienced production pattern maker would do in full scale.


sharon_denaro_analysis2The distances between the notch of seam 2+3 appear to be similar. I printed it out and read a difference of almost 1/4 in this tiny scale. In real life, it would be at least three times that so it is well outside the half inch window. Let me explain what I mean. Assume pieces 2 and 3 are mis-matched. The upper end of piece #3 is aligned to the lower section of piece #2. At right is the image.

sharon_denaro_analysis3Continuing with our disservice to Sharon, we have a similar situation with the seam between pieces 3 and 4. If one of these pieces were flipped, the distance between notches is not distinct enough. Again, Sharon didn’t have the benefit of her CAD system (she uses Lectra) to measure these distances.

The lesson here is, never assume your pieces will be joined as you imagined. Do not assume the stitchers have seen the prototype. Do not assume they’ve had the chance to inspect the pattern. Do not assume they’ve seen a sketch. Again, the one thing that we do assume that less experienced people do not, is that notches are exact. As I mentioned in this entry, we will assume we have the piece mis-aligned if it is off. If the pattern maker has a good reputation and is known for good patterns, a quarter inch is sufficient to raise a red flag. But in any event, if notches are off an inch, everything comes to a screeching halt.

Now let’s discuss Lisa’s entry. In a nutshell she won because she doesn’t know the rules. Or if she does, she doesn’t need no stinkin’ rules.

Speaking of rules, experienced pattern makers have rules embedded in their brains (which was why we lost). When you have a bunch of adjoining pieces that look very similar (think an 8 gore skirt), the rough protocol is this:

  • PC#1: 1 single notch
  • PC#2: 2 single notches spaced apart
  • PC#3: 3 single notches spaced apart (space permitting)
  • PC#4: 1 single notch and a pair of double notches
  • PC#4: alternatively, a pair of double notches
  • PC#5: 2 pair of double notches spaced apart
  • PC#6: 3 pair of double notches spaced apart
  • PC#7: Hmm. Maybe we should mirror Pcs 1 + 2… otherwise this style is too expensive and will be dropped.
  • PC#8: Take a break. Notch it somehow. Then pray and hide from the cutter and stitchers.

Before I digressed, Lisa’s entry didn’t follow the notching rules. On a garment this would matter (single notches to the front, double notches on the back). On a bag it doesn’t matter because there is no front or back or if there is, the two are so different it makes little difference.

lisa_notch_quiz_2You might have to scroll up again but there is no ambiguity in Lisa’s notching. The only place there is a potential conflict is the single notch near the bottom of seam 1 & 2 and the outer edge of seam 5 & 6. The distance between these notches and their respective cut edges are very similar. However, it does not matter because the total seam lengths are so different. The total seam lengths of pieces 1 & 2 are much shorter than the seam lengths of pieces 5 & 6 so there is no way to line them up (shown at right).

Being the clear loser of this challenge, the less said about my entry the better. In my defense, this pattern was designed as an exercise in notching according to that bulleted list above. However, after this challenge, it has become another sort of lesson -let’s call it necessary de-programming. I think it will be better to come up with another design (a six or eight gore skirt) to illustrate the notching protocol. As a practical matter, I’ll redesign the notching of this pattern to be more like Lisa’s and Sharon’s. And gratefully so. All those notches were driving me batty. Annoying they were.

Oh, and the notching of the quarter circle piece? This is yet another lesson but for another day. The notches these ladies used were fine if it were constructed in the manner they had imagined it to be but I do it another way. It is best defined as a future sewing lesson.


  1. Lisa Blank says:

    You gotta be kidding me!

    You are right that I had no idea of those notching rules. I pretty much only know single notch for front, double for back, and offset them so they can’t be confused.

    I really enjoyed playing with this challenge but was frustrated by not having tools to measure distances. I just eyeballed it and hoped there was enough disparity in lengths to be obvious.

    I like your notching of the quarter circle. That makes more sense. I wish I had thought of it! ;-)

  2. Lisa Blank says:

    Oops. The quarter circle notches I referred to were Sharon’s. I like the idea of matching notches to seams rather than what I tried. Looking forward to learning how you do it, Kathleen.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Ha Ha! You win and you almost didn’t enter.

    I find these challenges to be so educational. Not always educational in the ways I intend them to be but I think what we end up with is better.

  4. Lisa Brazus says:

    It is always interesting to see how everyone’s brains are working. Awesome postes!! I have always had questions concerning notches. As always extremely informative.

  5. Matthew Pius says:

    Really interesting stuff. So, perhaps this is a silly question: Your comments about stitchers not having seen sketches or prototypes make me wonder – are the cut pieces marked in any way other than notching (in a production setting)? As a hobbyist, if cutting out something like this I would probably have lots of chalk marks all over the wrong side of the pieces to indicate #1, #2, etc. However, my impression from you is that this would be considered wasted effort in an industrial setting. Are the stitchers expected to put these together with only the (well-designed) notches to guide them? That’s a daunting thought.

  6. Kathleen says:

    are the cut pieces marked in any way other than notching (in a production setting)?

    Not a silly question at all. This questions speaks to the issue of work organization which can be all over the map depending on the professionalism of a given company. A clue is the tracking label affixed to each piece mentioned in my book; the second paragraph in the right hand column of page 117 and followed by the section on shading which begins on pg.118 (for those who don’t have my book, see this entry on bundling).

    However, my impression from you is that this [I would probably have lots of chalk marks all over the wrong side of the pieces to indicate #1, #2, etc] would be considered wasted effort in an industrial setting.

    It simply wouldn’t be done, it shouldn’t need to be done if the work is well organized.

    Stitchers wouldn’t necessarily get all the pieces from a bag, it depends on how many bags there are to sew and how many machines and operators are available to work on the lot. A stitcher might only get a bundle of 1’s and 2’s to join. Another bundle would be 3’s and 4’s etc.

    So you might think that if the bundles are so limited, notching doesn’t matter so much but remember that the pieces had to be sorted before that. Well before this stuff gets anywhere near the sewing line, workers are separating the cut piece stacks from the lay and pairing them with the pieces they go to (not so simple, see the matter of colored tissue paper in the marker making section, pg.119), affixing the labels and tying bundles together to complement the sewing order.

    I can only think of two exceptions to this and that is single unit production (lean sewing) and samplemaking.

    With samplemaking, the sample maker has the pattern handy. Or if she doesn’t, let’s just say that the person who didn’t provide it to her or him deserves whatever tragic outcome there may be for not having provided it and I don’t even feel sorry for anyone (other than the sample maker who will surely be blamed).

    With lean sewing, each stitcher will get all of the pieces for each unit in a bundle or little basket but the nature of sewing in this environment requires a better informed worker to do their jobs well. They will have the opportunity to examine a finished prototype and examine the pattern or its plot so they will understand how it goes together. It is not unusual for the proto to be on display as a reference.

    Are the stitchers expected to put these together with only the (well-designed) notches to guide them? That’s a daunting thought.

    It shouldn’t be daunting at all. Good production pattern making (see pg. 176-) is all about facilitating this process. I think there is only one way to truly understand it by having the experience of sewing a nicely engineered production pattern.

    I have mentioned I might produce a sample production pattern for people to try as a point of comparison but my worry was that people would customize the pattern to fit them or whomever and this would totally ruin the point of the exercise. For an optimal comparison and experience, the pattern can’t be fiddled with. I haven’t abandoned the idea; I’m currently working on a pattern so quirky that it would dissuade people from attempting to alter it because it would be difficult.

  7. Matthew Pius says:

    Kathleen, thanks for answering my question. However, I think I see the need for a clarification. You state that my hobbyist solution of labelling each piece with chalk marks “simply wouldn’t be done” and shouldn’t need to be done. But, really, the tracking labels you describe in the section you’re referencing are just another way of achieving the same end. Instead of making chalk marks that have to be rubbed out, you would use a label that gets detached.

    Anyway, when I said it was daunting to think that the stitchers would have to put the pieces together with only the notches to guide them, I was thinking from the perspective of the pattern-maker! Daunting to know that if you don’t design your notches well, the poor stitchers will never be able to consistently get their job done. :- )

  8. Matthew Pius says:

    Oh, and as fo ryour idea about a sample production pattern – I think that would be interesting. Perhaps you could bypass the question of fit/sizing by using a non-apparel pattern (like this interesting bag)?

  9. Kathleen says:

    Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. I did not say the pieces wouldn’t be marked, just not marked with chalk. In the paragraph that starts with “So you might think that if the bundles are so limited”, I did say “affixing the labels and tying bundles together to complement the sewing order”.

    Marking with chalk wouldn’t be done because it is too labor intensive and doesn’t provide the same value (as labeling) and in several ways. Chalk marks aren’t as easily tracked in the process stream (again, see the citations I left) to account for given plies (again, spreading from different dye lots) or in the case of leather, sorting units per individual hide to prevent shading -as labels are (the label output comes from a spreadsheet). As a rule, the labels are not detached nor should they be (see the link I left on bundling). Keeping labels intact is an important way to troubleshoot a product if it fails inspection later on. Another downside of marking with chalk is that the writing can brush off or be erased with pressing.

    This does not mean I think chalk is a horrid tacky thing to use, that it is home-sewey or that I don’t like it. I use tons of chalk. This entry was intended as a discussion of best practices rather than sampling or making one offs.

    Daunting to know that if you don’t design your notches well, the poor stitchers will never be able to consistently get their job done. :- )

    Unfortunately, people often blame the stitchers so the pattern maker isn’t held to the accountability they should be.

    Oh, and as for your idea about a sample production pattern – Perhaps you could bypass the question of fit/sizing by using a non-apparel pattern (like this interesting bag)?

    Optimal project design should teach target concepts. One element of this bag uses a construction process that is more work and probably not truly needed (altho it does greatly simplify one difficult thing to execute) but the concept will translate into other projects one may have. There is also one part to the bagging of it that I suspect people will skip (if it is a first project) so I prefer a person has had another experience prior and has developed confidence in the patterns and their ability to execute them successfully.

    The other thing is, I’m trying to instill a different kind of mindset. I would prefer that people start with something they have no expectation of being able to use. That practice with no compensatory gain of a finished product is very worthwhile. Sewing practice should be seen as no different than practice sessions of a musician or athlete but we have different and unreasonable expectations when it comes to making things. Practice should be liberating. People should be freed from the expectation of creating something they’re “supposed” to use or wear. It should be penalty free and low cost. They don’t need to throw anxiety into the project by ruining a fabric they liked or was costly so they could do it inexpensively with muslin.

  10. I’m trying to instill a different kind of mindset. I would prefer that people start with something they have no expectation of being able to use.

    Meaning you will not be making this available in smaller sizes. Rats.

  11. Traci Akierman says:

    I will sign up for the production pattern for sure! I’m sure it will be quite enlightening to compare a production pattern sewing experience to a home sewer pattern sewing experience.

  12. Matthew Pius says:

    The idea of finding out what production patterns are really like appeals to me. But, while I understand the need for practice – once you make the leap from doing buttonholes on scraps (for example) to making a whole garment that will not be used, my inner cheapskate starts balking.

  13. Kathleen says:

    I completely understand Matthew. Completely. But I’m not sure you understand me.

    My idea is not to find a way to transmogrify or dilute industry methods to please the endless variables home sewers would find appealing and desirable and I’m not going to insult either of us by pretending otherwise. These exercises really will be designed for people who want to learn best practices in manufacturing. If that’s you, great. If it’s not, that is very okay with me.

    The nature of the way we work is that every manufacturer sews up practice samples that cannot be used. Cheapskate is relative. Not sewing samples beforehand is sheer lunacy, insanity. If someone sends something into production without having done that, they deserve whatever happens to them. I have no sympathy for them. That is what I’m trying to teach.

    Professionals sew things we don’t particularly care for and would never use personally. It amounts to discipline. Discipline and professionalism is doing the best job you can no matter that it will be thrown away, that it is something you cannot use and also, something you dislike.

    So sure, making practice garments in homesewing may be overkill but I’m not qualified to say because that is not my business. I only know that making a sample that will be thrown away is a mandatory, unsexy, boring, most cost effective expenditure of time and money best practice there is in my industry.

  14. Matthew Pius says:

    Kathleen, I think that you and I understand each other. I actually admire you for sticking to what you know, rather than trying to “dilute industry methods to please the endless variables home sewers would find appealing”. I realize I’m not your primary audience. I just really dig your pattern puzzles and your articles on fit.

    On a tangential note – what happens to all those mock-ups, prototypes, and samples that get made in industry? Is there a way of recycling the materials, or do they just all end up as landfill?

  15. Kathleen says:

    Protos are usually sold to employees at discount (often cost). There’s a pecking order. Designer/owner/mgmt get first dibs but they usually abstain (a matter of grace). Then it’s open to the pattern department, again more pecking order. What they don’t buy is first come first serve to the rest of the employees. It is usually once or twice a year. Samples or items that are dropped are usually sold in a company’s outlet store. They manage to be sold one way or another even if there is no store because the discount is so nice (ad hoc sample sales). Occasionally a few items make it to the trash but not often. This is usually because the fit of the item is so bad they don’t want it out in the marketplace where consumers can see it and end up with the idea that all the company’s products fit like that.

    I worry less about the waste incurred with one offs and much more about enterprises that cut production units for which they have no sales to back it up. Those items often end up in lesser developed nations, undercut domestic manufacturers there which then displace workers and leave families bereft. There are also cases of manufacturers who don’t test their materials and end up having all the products returned. Both of these situations are avoidable if one cuts practice garments ahead of time for testing and to secure orders. It is less wasteful than the alternatives.

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