How I got my start (by Hannah)

This entry is written by Hannah Flor, an apprentice pattern maker who’s blog Not Enough Thursdays was recently featured here on F-I.
I have been thinking about my rapid – can I say ascent?- into the world of pattern making. When I say that, I’m not referring to how quickly I became a skilled and successful patternmaker; God knows, I am still struggling with both my skill level and my success, however one chooses to measure it.

What I mean is, two years ago I had recently graduated from a massage school in Portland, Oregon, and instead of studying for the board exams, I was wistfully watching back to back episodes of Project Runway. It was the closest I had come to seeing the world of the garment industry, and I was realizing that, alas, Massage Therapy would never be my profession. I wanted to make clothes.

Like so many people in the fashion industry I have plenty of stories of spending my childhood making disastrous and beloved clothing for myself. It was something I always did, that I felt compelled to do, but the idea of making a career out of it somehow never quite occurred to me. I don’t think I believed it was a possibility. I grew up in the woods of Alaska, where fashion was considered frivolous, and I think the residue of that attitude stuck with me long after I left Alaska for Portland.

But several things happened to turn my attitude around. I met my dear friend Carly at my first sewing job, working at a canvas tent shop while putting myself through that ill-fated massage school. She immediately took me under her wing and taught me what she knew about sewing, which was perfect because somehow, after sewing for a full day at work, all I wanted to do was go home and work on my own sewing projects. We fed off of each other’s enthusiasm, but after a year I was tired of learning from books and experimentation, and decided to take a community college class on the basics of pattern drafting.

The class was taught by Ms. Sharon Blair, who I’ve realized since, is a little bit of a legend in the Portland sewing world. She looks not unlike Faye Dunaway and has a classy and composed manner that is juxtaposed by her sometimes ridiculous jokes and pop cultures references. And she knows a whole lot about making clothes.

Within a few minutes she had us slashing and spreading to move darts around a bodice, and I was so excited that I actually got a little choked up. It’s an old cliché, but I really did feel completely at home. There were so many questions I had from my spotty reading and experimentation, and Sharon answered them all that night. I got home and fixed the patterns I had been struggling with earlier that week (which were made of taped together newspaper! Really, how far I’ve come.). The next several months were overwhelmingly exciting. I had so many ideas for projects that had piled up because I didn’t now how to execute them, but the mysteries were being solved right and left. I took all three patternmaking classes that Sharon offered, and was content for a little while to play around with the flat pattern principles I had learned.

At some point, while searching for the book Pattern Magic (highly recommended) online, I stumbled upon the Fashion Incubator. The discovery of FI was a goldmine. It helped solve several problems I had been struggling with (the aforementioned cameltoe) and provided a burst of inspiration to keep me challenging myself. It also proved to me that I had only scratched the surface in terms of my knowledge of patterning skill and technique. I wanted to learn more, but I wasn’t sure what to do next.

The thing was, I wasn’t happy working on personal projects in Portland anymore. I knew I wanted to move on, but I wasn’t sure what step to take. I was resistant to the idea of school, having only recently finished massage school, and I had another University degree besides. I just wanted to jump into the fray. All the same, I started searching for patternmaking programs, thinking it was the only way to go.
Then, one fateful day, the August issue of Elle magazine arrived in the mail. I lazily paged through, and was surprised to see, halfway in, an article about a patternmaker. I read it, getting more and more excited as I went. This guy talked about quality, about taking time to do the work right, about learning to work with the fabric and make something that balanced beauty and practicality. Everything he talked about fit with what made me love patternmaking in the first place. I don’t think I entirely realized what I was doing when I turned and typed his name, Nicolas Caito, into the Google search engine, and came up with his NYC phone number. I wrote it down with the nearest thing I could find and then immediately called Carly.

“Can I just call him?” I asked. She told me I had to. I hung up and took several deep breaths and dialed his number. I was so nervous that I’ve forgotten most of the conversation, but I remember him telling me he could meet with me that Monday. I hadn’t mentioned I was on the other side of the country, and he paused and asked “Oregon? Where’s Oregon?” I guess the state isn’t well known to the French. Then he asked “Are you planning on moving to New York?” I hadn’t gotten that far in the thought process, but I replied without pause, “If I could work with you, I would move in a heartbeat.” I think he was a little taken aback, but he agreed to meet with me after the Spring 2008 shows ended in NYC, and told me to bring whatever I had been working on.

The whole thing happened so quickly and without premeditation that when I hung up the phone I was in shock for a bit. Somehow the possibilities of my life had changed in a matter of half an hour. I had meant it when I said I would move to NYC in a heartbeat, but I hadn’t known that was true until it was already out of my mouth.

I spent the next two months frantically creating my portfolio of pieces– I wanted everything to be just right, and obsessed over the fit of a pair of jeans, the lining of a wool coat, and learning the professional way to annotate patterns. I was driven by the knowledge that if I didn’t put absolutely everything I had into the pieces, and Nicolas didn’t end up taking me on, I would always regret that I had lost my chance because I hadn’t worked as hard as I could have. I skipped a lot of nights out and bicycle rides and barbeques during those couple of months, but at the same time it felt amazing to want something so bad.

I was a little bit of a wreck when I arrived in NYC, but was successfully hiding it (I think) until I managed to really mangle my trip into the city. I got on the right train, going to wrong way, and then transferred to a wrong train, going the right way, and realized my error about fifty blocks north of where I was supposed to be. At that point I had only five minutes until the interview, and I gave up on the subway and got a policeman to show me how to hail a cab (I know, I know, but come on, in Portland I rode my bike everywhere. And NYC cabs seem much more stubborn about stopping). I was 15 minutes late, and ran up the 5 flights of stairs to the atelier, arriving completely out of breath and sweating from the 95 degree heat. Nicolas opened the door and I promptly tripped over the door jam.

Miraculously my nervousness evaporated almost immediately. Nicolas was so calm and easy and after looking over my patterns and samples, took me to lunch at a nearby French café, Petite Abeille. We discussed our ideas about pattern making and what it was I was hoping for in a career. He wanted to make sure I was intending to be a patternmaker, and not that I was just a motivated aspiring designer, signing on to learn how to cut beautiful clothes to further my line. I think he had been approached by more than a few designers. After going over the details of what an apprenticeship would mean, he agreed to take me on. I couldn’t believe it!

I spent the next two days in NYC dancing around in circles and calling everyone I knew. I moved in a flurry, three weeks later, feeling both uncontainedly thrilled and totally in over my head.

I have been here in New York nearly a year at this point, and I’ve stopped pinching myself for the most part. I’ve never regretted the move, even though at times things have been pretty tough. NYC is such a different world from anything I’ve known, and I worked harder than I ever have. To quote Orwell “Sleep ceased being a necessity and became a debauch.”

Before I moved to NYC Carly and I talked about keeping a blog as a form of continuing our discussions and sharing the projects we were working on. Our blog, Not Enough Thursdays was born, named for our habit of meeting friends for drinks every Thursday night to discuss projects and their related problems. The story of my first year in NYC is told there.

As a post-script, I finished my apprenticeship with Nicolas just before the Spring 2009 Collections showed here in NYC, and am now readying my portfolio for a hunt for my first true pattern making job. Once again, I feel a tad over my head, but the thrill of having found something that I love to do, that challenges me and satisfies me and often makes my brain really hurt, is enough to take most of the worry away.

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  1. Heather says:

    A girl after my own heart! I came to NYC right after college with a mere $2000 and exactly one month to find a job….Many years later I would not have changed a thing! If you are interested in freelancing, there is a great freelance agency for the fashion industry called Project Solvers ( Sometimes you can get your foot in the door to a place this way and maybe it will lead to a full time position. Good luck! Heather

  2. Vesta says:

    What a great story, Hannah. It makes me realize that I spend a lot of time trying to capture that feeling of wanting something badly, and working really hard to get it. I love that feeling. Good luck finding a position!

  3. Lisa B. in Portland says:

    Yay!! Hannah, you’re so awesome!

    I moved to Portland from Eugene, OR in the middle of 2000. About a year later, I saw a giant billboard for the Art Institute of Portland that had all its programs listed, including apparel design. That’s when it clicked in me that that is what I really wanted to be. I have a BA in Romance languages from the University of Oregon, ’95, and I really didn’t want to be an interpreter or translator. I had been sewing since the end of middle school/beginning of high school, so I don’t know why it didn’t click earlier. I didn’t even take theatre costume classes at the U of O. I actually really wish we had more pattern making classes. I don’t think I’m a *stellar* designer; what I do well is sew. I’d like to be better at making patterns.

  4. Amy Mello says:

    So very inspiring. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I can relate to your love of patternmaking. I started school for design and instantly fell in love with patternmaking instead. I envy your courage to take on New York. You deserve all of your dreams to come true.

  5. Emily says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Hannah. It sounds just like mine (minus the awesome apprenticeship – I chose the school way). As I’m finishing up my certificate program and looking for a job, I’m curious as to what I should put in a portfolio. Do you have pictures of finished garments? the actual garments? entire patterns?

    By the way, after Kathleen recommended your blog, I’m reading that one too!

  6. Christelle says:

    What a great story! I have been wishing I could take private patternmaking classes. Anyone inRhode Island or SE Connecticut looking for a student? Or I would be willing to travel for a workshop…. Kathleen? :)

  7. Tonya says:

    Ditto the ‘Great Story’ comment! I want to be Hannah when I grow up! If there is anyone looking to take on an apprentice near Memphis- let me know!

  8. Donna says:

    Well, I am totally jealous. I am well past the age of taking on such an endeavor but have been drafting my own patterns for a very long time. I did get a fashion design degree at a community college after retiring from teaching. I did this because of my love of sewing and pattern drafting.
    It never occurred to me that I could ever work as a pattern drafter even though that was the aspect of fashion that challenged me the most. I am overwhelmed with your moxie in persueing a dream. Continue the good work and congratulations on following your instincts.

  9. Alyson Clair says:

    First off w00t PDX! I love Sharon Blair and was lucky enough to have her my last term of school at the AI. Your story is so awesome, and I am really enjoying the new discovery of your blog. I think I know Carly, if it is the same Carly who does Auntie Fashion. I am so glad to know that there are others out there that are so excited about patterning.

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