Bewildered by pattern services?

confused_fi_jpgAre you bewildered by pattern services? Have you been frustrated and wondered:

  • Why can you only find pattern makers who make patterns or grade patterns, but not both?
  • Why won’t my pattern maker make markers?
  • Why won’t pattern makers illustrate my designs?
  • Why won’t pattern makers write sewing instructions?
  • Why won’t pattern makers make samples?
  • Why don’t pattern makers just know how my patterns should be graded?
  • Why can’t pattern makers tell me where to buy fabric?
  • Why wouldn’t a pattern maker have pattern making software?

You’re suffering and it’s not your imagination; the market for pattern services is [seemingly] schizophrenic. Understanding why can reduce your frustration and enable you to ask better questions to find the best provider for your needs. But first, a short history lesson which explains the legacy of what ails us -which is the only clue to a cure.

In the olden days (20+ years ago), a pattern maker’s job was (comparatively) much simpler. We made the patterns, measured shrink and stretch, supervised the making of prototypes, advised the designer, and participated in fit meetings. Most manufacturers didn’t have CAD—which is no different from today—so we did it all by hand. Of the manufacturers that did have CAD, 85% of them only used it for grading and marking. This means we do not have a long history of making patterns by computer, this is a new development. We didn’t use CAD for several reasons— expense, the programs weren’t ideal etc., so each company may have only had one license. With only one seat, the pattern grader/marker maker (usually a technician, but not a pattern maker) was the only one with a computer. Long story short, although companies may have had patternmaking software, most pattern makers didn’t or couldn’t use it. So, that pattern makers didn’t use pattern making software is the first dichotomy. Moving on.

The industry has a long history of subbing out work and this increased once CAD was available because companies without CAD, often hired a grading and marking service to do the job. In this way, the 85% of companies without CAD, could still get computer graded patterns and markers. The grading and marking services did not typically make patterns because they didn’t need to; customers came in the door with production patterns in hand.

What cannot be overlooked is that this was a B2B arrangement. Customers were experienced manufacturers so there was little need for a grading and marking service to educate the customer, nor the customer to educate the provider. Contrasting this with today, you might understand why established providers are at odds if new entrants expect a panorama of services that were never needed before. I’m not suggesting service evolution is a bad thing only that an established provider prefers a customer who doesn’t need hand holding because hand holding was never built into the structure of the business. The B2B manufacturing customer didn’t need it because they made their own patterns and sewed in house. Inadvertently,  that pattern services select customers with longevity (and consequently, firm size) became a cognitive short cut because knowledgeable companies that didn’t need extra services, survived. In this environment, the range of services expected today, were never needed. Not being needed, there was never any staffing or resources designed to support it, much less bill for it. This creates a problem today because smaller firms don’t have the knowledge base or even budgets, but they expect what is considered to be special treatment [that established customers don’t expect]. Is there any wonder new companies are having trouble finding services?

Contrasting this with today, old school pattern makers—the ones you should really want to hire—are quizzed daily about whether we do jobs that we never had to before. Illustration, tech packs, fabric testing, sourcing, grading, making markers, making samples, calculating yield, cut lay planning, writing instructions—none of these were ever a part of our job description. To be sure, we individually may know more about given duties but for one person to have extensive experience in all of it, is not reasonable to expect. This is why the most experienced pattern makers out there, cannot provide the full range of services that you need. It bears mentioning that the environment to support this future skill development was also being undermined just when it was needed most.

Consider: Most manufacturers had their own pattern makers so stand alone pattern service (as opposed to grading and marking) businesses were quite rare and only available in the larger apparel manufacturing hubs. Since most companies had their own staffing, independent pattern businesses were closer to temporary staffing solutions for peak workload that exceeded what could be managed in house. Either that or a manufacturer was short handed and or between pattern makers.

There were a lot more pattern makers then, than today. As sewing moved off shore, pattern jobs dried up. In the beginning, pattern work migrated to the off shore contractor as a matter of scheduling (the whole package is more easily managed under one roof). Jobs here, then became focused on technical specifications of the finished product to prepare the design for the offshore contractor. And sure, one could say the pattern jobs left because manufacturers only cared about paring costs but the explanation is more complex. Here’s an excerpt from an earlier entry that explains:

Do you recall the very first time you were in a store and noticed a great top name brand that was being sold for an uncustomary low price? Perhaps you noticed because it was a brand you coveted (confirmation bias). This would have been about 15 to 20 years ago, give or take five years. In the beginning, people were very excited about it. They were happy to buy big names they previously could only have aspired to own. These products were the first of the big push coming in from off shore. Product landed at the loading dock with the 40% hang tags already attached. People were so excited, they didn’t care that the fit was a little off. Between price and the anticipation of acquisition, they were willing to overlook a small defect (like fit or diminished product complexity) because they wanted The Brand so badly. I remember that. It was exciting. Nobody cared that the back neck was cut too deeply so the front rode up into the neckline, it had a horsie dammit! And everybody wanted one. Me too.

Then other manufacturers saw how good that worked for The Brand and they wanted more market share so they did it too. That made people even more excited and happy. Malls and outlet malls became a veritable smorgasbord of brands they’d never been able to own before. After awhile, competing brands and lower pricing became the new norm.

So what does this tell a manufacturer? I’m not saying it’s right or wrong but they were structured to give consumers what they wanted and fit and well developed sizing wasn’t their priority at the time. It was brand and its price. So, many manufacturers got rid of their pattern departments and let the offshore contractor handle it all. Why would they continue to spend for features their customers did not care about?

But I digress. Once the jobs dried up for highly experienced pattern makers, they either retired, went into another line of work or assumed different duties than they’d had before, such as acting as intermediaries between their employer and the contractor (often as technical designers). The long term consequence is that the proving ground to train new talent, disappeared. There were fewer places hiring pattern makers and those that did, often only had one, meaning tutelage from experienced seniors was absent.

The situation we’re faced with today is that people are forced to reinvent the work, haphazardly cobbling practices together from sources wherever they can be found. Many are very poor quality but seen as better than nothing. In many respects, it’s a case of the blind leading the blind. My point is that if the most experienced individual pattern service providers don’t have the full panorama of skills to fulfill the expectations one has of service providers, anyone who entered the industry in the last 20 years, won’t have them either. Not that you’d know that from a survey of the web. Judging from the evidence (pretty websites, excellent social media skills) the youngest practitioners are the hottest properties going.

Continuing on; the most experienced practitioners have different expectations and although many would like to offer more comprehensive services, it is difficult to do so from a financial but also cognitive and even practical stand point. For example, the first step for many would be to acquire a CAD system, but again, keeping in mind that most never used CAD for anything but grading and marking, which they didn’t do as a part of their jobs and have little experience in, it seems easier to continue to make patterns by hand and send it out for grading to a service.  Even today, an embarrassing number of pattern makers who have CAD, continue to make patterns by hand (or by draping) and then digitize it into the system. This is not a bad thing but it is difficult to justify the costs of software, a digitizer and a plotter, costing between $30,000-$50,000. That is a heady investment for someone who has very little CAD experience and they’re going to need proven ROI to do it.

Probably most important of all is training. Most practitioners who are faced with this decision are solo operators. They don’t have anyone at their elbow to teach them and even the easiest to learn software (what I use), can take years to become proficient with. It is difficult to sign on for this because the major CAD programs don’t have the best reputation because these are difficult to learn, inefficient to use (except for grading and marking) so deciding against CAD acquisition is easy. Let’s say one does decide to go through it; one still is lacking competencies to provide services that customers expect. A friend of mine is a good example. She’s very bright and highly skilled but she’s not planning on getting a CAD system because she’s never made markers. Let me tell you, for us, knowing what we know, marker making is very scary because the potential for error means financial ruin for our customers. There is nowhere for an experienced patternmaker to go, to learn how to make markers from an expert, using real life examples. The opportunities exist but you have to know the right person, and have the time and money to travel to watch over an expert’s shoulder.

If you’ve read this far, I wouldn’t blame you if you think this is but an apologia and you’re in a bind because you want someone who can provide a soup to nuts pattern solution but there aren’t enough practitioners yet who can do it to meet your expectations. And, you can find plenty of patternmakers with even 20 or maybe 25 years of experience who have never actually worked in a sewing factory. I’m not suggesting those pattern makers aren’t good but I am saying that if at all possible, you want a pattern maker with plant experience. Unfortunately, those with factory experience are the ones who are least likely to have CAD experience and possibly, have the most skill gaps with respect to your expectations. If you’re making fairly simple products (sportswear, knits etc), you probably don’t need a pattern maker with plant experience. However, if you’re particular or your project is more challenging, you may have to bend on your skills wish list.

In the short term, here are some suggested solutions:

  1. Use 2 pattern services, one for patterns and another for grading and marking. Keep in mind that this is the traditional method that has been used very successfully by experienced and successful manufacturers for many years.
  2. If you must have a provider that can do everything from illustration to costing to graded patterns and markers, and can afford to pay for it, use a larger soup-to-nuts pattern service, as opposed to solo operators.
  3. If you’re on a budget, learn to perform some of the job duties that designers traditionally did instead of expecting to be able to hire a pattern service to do it. The duties that designers typically did are illustration, costing, sourcing, specifications as needed, etc.

In summary:

I understand that many of you think that the industry has not progressed sufficiently but you’ve only stepped into this, and thus, have limited points of comparison. The changes and growth you have not seen are tremendous. Although you may be disappointed, we have come a long way in a very short period of time.

TBA: Bewildered by sewing services?
Handmade or CAD patterns: which are better?
Why pattern makers resist learning CAD
Sending patterns off for correction
Why pattern makers don’t want to grade patterns

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  1. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Kathleen, a very good post and sorely needed and it does not just apply to sewn product. The details change for other industries but any industry that has seen a lot of off shore export of jobs is going through the same upheaval with similar challenges.

  2. Rocio says:

    You bring up some good points and all I can add is that EVEN when though we offer the entire range of services mentioned, people still want to be able to cherry pick or get free tuition

  3. Ellen says:

    Yup. I’ve been in the industry for 34 years I went contract 20 years ago. I work as a contract grader and I’ve never wanted to invest in a CAD system precisely because I didn’t want to be responsible for the cut (marker making). I have a friend since fashion school and we worked together in the industry through the 80’s. She does contract patternmaking and between the 2 of us we provide a service. It was hard enough to turn out good product in house (design, draft, sew sample, sell, fit, grade, cut production, sew and ship all from the same location). Having the sample maker communicate with you and being allowed to be there for fittings is pretty much unheard of as they’d have to pay for that. Really, I’m sorry but doing a fitting without the pattern maker is asking for trouble.

    No one wants to pay what we’re worth and thus we can’t afford to train someone. To really learn you need to work along someone experienced it’s an apprenticeship (they make doctors intern don’t they? and before you laugh at that think how long you’d last outside with no clothes north of the 49th)

    It’s going to be lost as we’re 55+ and will retire without passing along what we know. I teach but 3 hrs a week for 12 weeks is just an overview, read Outliers it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert.

    Up here in Canada we used to be known for turning out a high quality garment, there are still some of us doing it but it gets more difficult with time. Services have disappeared and specialized machinery is gone.

    Most clothing coming from Asia is garbage fabric and poor fit. You never used to be able to see through a t-shirt and it didn’t pill after 1 wash.

  4. Jay Arbetman says:

    This is an article that reminds me why Kathleen’s writings are so compelling. Part of this is a case of young enough to know and old enough to know better.

    A couple of years ago, my wife was in Costco and bought three shirts for me. One was a Calvin Klein and I remember that the other ones were also prominent designer names. Crap would be giving them the benefit of the doubt. One was made in India and the others in China if my memory is correct. Even I was surprised how bad the fabric was and how poorly made they were. Two of the shirts did not make it through the first washing. One we returned before we took it out of the package.

    I wrote to Costco but received no answer. What do they care if a few customers complain about a shirt that costs them three or four bucks and that they sell for $17.99. This is the secret sauce.

    So the path for DE’s is to create something that is not in Macy’s/Nordstrom/Costco/WalMart
    etc. This brings us to a mistake that I see occur constantly. When shoddy work on pattern and tech work happens you are pretty much DOA. So when someone appears on my doorstep which a great marketing idea and a plan to use students for pattern and tech, I beat a hasty retreat.

    If you are a marketer with a great idea that is terrific but don’t expect to be production ready for $250.

  5. Sip says:

    I recently purchased Illustrator to begin to draft my own patterns, but there are a lack of classes to teach how to use the software and good books. If there are some suggestions please let me know.

  6. Karien says:

    To me as a starting pattern maker this is tremendously interesting to read. Maybe I cannot be compared with the ones you describe, but I have a great advantage in my husband, who is developing software for me which automatically grades everything I draft. Very very nice to work with once you learn how to give the commands for the lines. The possibilities are endless, adding markers, text and so on, and except for the grading there is of course the possibility to enter personal measurements for each model. Maybe not for the industry, but somehow I hope I will get my place somewhere once everything is working.

  7. Betsy Cook says:

    Great read. I do the “etc” in suggestion number three and test the patterns myself and sew my own samples. I would not be in business right now if I had to pay, and wait, for someone else to do it for me. It’s very empowering to be able to make a sample right when it’s needed.

  8. Patricia Sousa says:

    Thank you Kathleen.

    Ellen, I’m in Montreal. I already do patterns but would love to learn from you. If you ever read this, please leave a reply and I’ll post my e-mail to exchange details. Thanks!

  9. Liesl Binx says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post but it saddens me. As a recent graduate from fashion school and designer entrepreneur I often wish I could have the opportunity to have an apprentiship with an seasoned patternmaker. It really scares me that this knowledge base is being lost. :(

  10. victoria kathrein says:

    Sorry to say that not all pattern makers are as generous with their knowledge as you all think. I offered to work for free for someone (apprentice I guess), but that person refused. I am not a novice, so I don’t think it was because I would be annoyingly under their feet. I think it is because some people consider you as competition and in fact, do not want to share knowledge. Good pattern making is first a knowledge, that develops into an instinct. It’s a dying art, like stone carving.

  11. Ed T says:

    Wow….it’s funny, I didn’t think the US was in such a state when I left for the continent 5 yrs ago(wow 1/2 a decade). Having now starting on my path to become a decent(for now) patternmaker, I am actually grateful to the schooling I’ve been receiving. They work you HARD here and though generous with the information and tips, they do expect results….I would say though over 1/2 of my class have no real interest in continuing the art, rather becoming DE/EDs instead. The ones who are continuing….? the older students( 30+) because the have been in the trenches and decided that their skill was fast becoming outmoded/sent offshore….etc. Yes the school I got to actually is mainly geared for patternmakers only – teaching the fundamentals, and some advanced courses(CAD/CAO, and advanced moulage).

  12. Georgette Verdin says:

    Kathleen, thanks for this very informative post. It’s always helpful to have the back story on why and how things have developed.

  13. c brennan says:

    kathleen, thanks again as always for your insight. it takes someone who has seen the transitions occur on the ground to be able to tie all the threads together into a coherent story. i’m definitely grateful for that!

    i am an extremely small-scale tailor (also very young, 28) who took up the occupation in response to an anemic job market. i have scraped together piecemeal my practice, first doing basic tailoring, then some clothing restructuring, then some custom work, now some small-scale wholesale. as a result, i have an extremely unorthodox practice that would probably (and understandably) give most of you an aneurysm with the amount of rules i bend or break.

    i’m not interested in industrial manufacturing, so i’ve had a good experience using adobe illustrator, along with a large-scale plotter (i have a secondhand one, my FedEx Office nearby also has one you can use for cheap) to make custom patterns. illustrator’s use of vectors makes it more advantageous than photoshop, and it is less specialized than the more industry-specific CAD programs. for example, my experience laying out patterns on illustrator recently helped me layout my first lookbook, saving me time and money. Sip, there are a growing number of YouTube tutorials on using illustrator for pattern layout, once you get the basics it begins to snowball.

    for my generation, i believe it’s important for us to be flexible, have many abilities and be able to work “cross-platform”. it makes me very sad to read about those of you with the specialized information retiring or moving into different fields. i wish i could study with you! unfortunately, the idea of narrowing my field seems to be inviting further unemployment in later life. that may be incorrect, but with the fluid nature of our changing world, it’s something i’d rather not bet against.

  14. Kathleen says:

    Hi C, thanks for your comments.

    I agree it is critical to be flexible regardless of your generation. That said, it is perhaps even more important to learn what we’re already doing or have tried, so you don’t spend your time on something you will get NO benefit from.

    For example, even if you have all the time in the world, I cannot see any benefit to making patterns in Illustrator (unless it is for home sewing patterns you sell by the download). It takes a lot less time to make them manually. See CAD vs CAD (I mean, really, do read that). I’m inspired to mention this because I don’t want others to think that Illustrator is a worthwhile alternative because it isn’t. Again, see the links at close, but also this one: CAD software compatibility in marker making . If one (again, writing for manufacturing aspirants who have read your comment thinking this is an option for them) goes through all the work of making patterns in illustrator, creating a marker in it and then finds that no one can use it, well, it is disheartening to say the least.

  15. Laura Treas says:

    Kathleen, I agree! When I was doing our own garment under one roof and we had no fear of fit problems, it was more manageable. But setting up a one-stop apparel manufacturer company takes time and is hard work. Building a sewing team takes days (or weeks). Training them on each new garment can take hours (or days). Figuring out the steps of sewing production so that it’s most efficient and writing them down takes hours and is tweaked over and over. And before any of that can take place or you can begin to lie out the fabric the patternmaker has spent hours making several patterns and sample garments to get the right fit.

    Now that I’m starting my own manufacturing company for emerging designers I spend most of my first consultation educating DE’s who do not come to me with a ready to use pattern on (1) the pattern will probably take several tries to get the right fit; (2) they will need a production pattern and why; and (3) grading and marker making will have to be outsourced and why. (As you stated, the CAD system is very expensive.) And none of that even touches on the other issues of sourcing fabric and other notions. All of this takes time and cannot be lumped into one small sum of production.

    Thank you so much for a much needed informative blog post!

  16. Lynn Werner says:

    Kathleen, what a great article. I’m so thankful that my patternmaker works in an office alongside my sewing factory. It took two years and many problems to finally find her, and it makes a huge difference. I do also deal with a separate cutting factory, where they do the grading and marking as well. My only fear is that my Patternmaker will retire one day!

    Thanks so much for the detailed info. As always, a great read!

  17. Cathy B says:

    Hi Kathleen,

    In earlier blog posts, you were trying to choose between CAD programs, and at that time you chose OptiTex (I think the posts were from 2007 or 08). In this recent post you link to StyleCad as the software you use.

    Can you tell us something about that changeover, why and how you made the switch? I am researching CAD patterning programs now, and the options are bewildering.

    And also, thank you for your blog. I have learned a lot,

  18. Kathleen says:

    The entry you’re likely referring to is here. I posted an addendum at the top of the page, noting the correction (thank you for bringing it to my attention).

    The reasons I migrated from Optitex to StyleCAD is explained here.

    I completely agree that selecting a system can be overwhelming (oh wait, you said bewildering and it certainly is) and I keep thinking I’ll write a post about it. Maybe after I come back from TexProcess where I plan to try out more programs than I was qualified to assess before.

    An additional thing to keep in mind is the annual licensing fee you have to pay when you select a system. Optitex charges around $1500.00 per year (optitex is not the only one). If you decide to forgo paying because you don’t need service but then later on you do (because your dongle stops working), you’ll need to pony up the fee for all the years you didn’t pay. Really. In my case, I decided not to pay [because I wasn’t getting as much value from the program as I’d hoped and I didn’t want to invest still more,] and then my dongle stopped working. In short, I wasn’t able to use the software I paid for. It was a very very expensive lesson to learn.

    There were other reasons I switched as well but StyleCAD doesn’t charge an annual fee. Their system is competitive price-wise with the other programs but is cheaper to keep. If your dongle stops working, they’ll fix it. Aside from that, I find it much easier to use. Maybe that’s just an old school pattern maker talking but I like that I can make my patterns electronically, the same way I would manually. With StyleCAD, I can do that.

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