Why you shouldn’t hire a tailor to make your first designs

female_machinist-ovalMany start ups try to get a jump on getting to a finished product by hiring a tailor or “couture” seamstress to make their first prototypes. While this can be a great solution for a designer who cannot visualize the finished product without a physical sample of their idea, it’s a problem because neither the pattern or sample can be used in manufacturing. Just so we’re clear about this, the reasons you can’t use these samples and patterns is not because the tailor or “couture” seamstress are incompetent (often quite the opposite) nor that a patternmaker or grader is penalizing you for not having come to them first. The problem is not the tailor, seamstress, patternmaker or grader; it is a conflict between how each party arrives at a finalized prototype and how this process dovetails (or fails to dovetail) with manufacturing.

Yes, tailors and patternmakers render samples and patterns using an iterative process -but how they get there and how it impacts manufacturing, is another story.

Most of the time, the intention of the tailor is to cut the final fabric but once and do what needs to be done in order to get the customer’s final product. Tailors measure the customer carefully and cut a pattern with large allowances (called “inlays”) to allow for changes as needed. Sometimes the tailor directly draws the pattern on the fabric which can be a problem because there is nothing on paper to take to a grader. But I digress; the garment is basted together, fit to the customer and then portions of the fabric are trimmed away to fit.

The tailor’s process repeatedly adjusts the fabric to the customer. There is no need or little incentive to return to the paper pattern (if one was made) to make precise adjustments because the fabric has already been cut. One would only adjust the pattern if it were to be used to cut the fabric but that’s already been done. To be sure, good tailors will return to the pattern at some point to make notations of adjustments they made in the event the customer returns for another suit. However, most of the corrections are done after the suit has been delivered. The tailor is not as precise as would be required in manufacturing because they don’t need to be. For one thing, the customer may never return so whatever the tailor puts into the pattern after the fact, may not be worthwhile. Secondly, customers gain and lose weight all of the time. It is very possible that any corrections would need to be undone later on if the customer returned for another suit. In sum, tailors don’t fail to correct patterns due to callousness or incompetence; it is only logical and efficient that they wouldn’t.

The process a patternmaker uses is similar in that several trials may be needed; but changes take place in the pattern rather than the fabric. The patternmaker measures as the tailor would and the pattern is made. The fabric is cut precisely to the pattern with no allowances for inlays. A trial or mock up garment is made (often without linings etc to keep costs low) and then fit to the customer’s fit model. Fit changes are common so the pattern maker returns to correct the pattern. Following the correction, the fabric is again cut precisely to the pattern. Repeat as needed. The point is, there will be a precise and fixed record of the trial or prototypical garment on paper that is portable; it can be used as is, by parties downstream. This is starkly different from a tailor’s garment (and pattern, if you get one) because it is anyone’s guess what a tailor’s pattern actually constitutes since the final version only exists in fabric. The only way to get an accurate pattern from the tailor’s product is to dissasemble the garment and even then, accuracy is debatable because “iron work” is used to shrink and shape the fabric so it will not lie flat for a paper pattern to be made from it. Of course the garment could be rubbed off but this involves unanticipated costs over and above what one had expected to pay for grading.

Other differences: a tailor’s pattern is incomplete for manufacturing purposes [because it doesn’t need to be otherwise]. Often, there are no lining patterns per se, or none as we can use them in manufacturing. Usually the lining and facing are drawn in, superimposed on top of the shell and are not separate pieces. The same holds for canvas, fusibles, sleeve heads and chest pieces -really, any internal guts of the garment. The tailor often cuts these by laying the fronts or backs on top of the guts and cutting to fit around, on the fly. In manufacturing, these need to be separate pattern pieces so they can be cut in quantity. What this means is that even if you have a pattern from a tailor, it will need to be re-made.

As to cost differences between the two options, who can say? Between practitioners of a type, presumably highly skilled, the costs should be comparable. Meaning, it might cost $2,000 or so to have a custom suit made and a production pattern with a finalized production pattern, would run about the same. The difference between the two though, is that the latter version can be used by someone other than its maker, to produce items in quantity. The tailor’s product is not reproducible; it’s like your grandmother’s recipe to add a bit of this and that with no fixed amounts. To get the real story on the dish, you’d have to watch your grandmother and catch anything she threw in the pot to measure it first. By contrast, a pattern maker’s pattern is quanitifiable, and can be used and modified by complete strangers. It is a literal and fixed recipe. This is great because it is much easier to modify any ingredients you don’t like by simply knowing how much of them are in the meal.

The point of my post is not to quibble with individual choices because again, it is worth the cost of going to a tailor for some people because they can’t visualize their design without a finished product and a tailor’s process may be faster. At the same time, I get customers all of the time who show up with a garment made by a tailor, perhaps with a pattern and want me to grade it. This just isn’t possible. First, all of the missing pieces must be made. Secondly, because the tailor or “couture” seamstress’ garment will not exactly match the provided pattern, a new garment must be made -and the cycle starts over again with fitting iterations and what not. The customer often becomes frustrated thinking they should have something to show for all they’ve paid the prior party but this is a conflict of expectations.

In sum: if you want a one-off quality custom garment, it is worth the time and expenditure to invest in developing a relationship with a tailor or “couture” seamstress. If you want to produce an item in quantity, the most cost effective choice is a pattern maker. Again, it does not matter whether your tailor is literally, the finest tailor to ever draw breath, their output can’t be used in manufacturing unless they’ve followed the iterative process used in manufacturing. Meaning, a fully developed pattern is made, mock ups are cut precisely to the pattern, it is fitted and then the process is repeated if needed.

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