How to cut stripes and plaids to match

By way of introduction, Betsy writes:

I could get very good at matching the stripes on samples and even tiny runs, but I’ve still got to trust any contractor to cut them correctly and sew them correctly.

Matching a stripe or plaid has less to do with trust -which is  ambiguous, implying a leap of faith- and more to do with engineering. Before I explain the factors that affect stripe matching in both small and large quantities, you should know that the costs of producing matching stripes will be higher. How much more I cannot say but pattern and marking services will cost more especially in more complex products. This is in addition to the increased cost of goods because there will be more fabric wasted.

Here are the specific items (more or less in order) that make stripe and plaid matching possible in production:

The pattern must be set up with a correct match line. Without this, it doesn’t matter how well everyone else downstream does their job. For complex products such as suits and coats, you’ll need a specialist who can design sleeves and armholes to match exactly because it is not possible to match a stripe with an eased sleeve.

The marker -all affected pieces need to be aligned at the fabric points laid on the pattern. This can cost quite a bit more as it uses fabric less efficiently.

Fabric spreading – limitations are mostly material and machine.

  • Machine: the fabric needs to be spread evenly; this can be a matter of making sure the spreader is the right one for the job and feeds evenly without hang ups. I know that some companies will pin the goods along the selvedge when the fabric is being laid but I haven’t worked in a plant that did that (even though I’ve done tons and tons of stripe matching) so I’m not sure it is really necessary. I’m sure that statement will cause lots of invective but if the subsequent test is met…
  • Material: A successful result relies on a quality weave. Quality isn’t determined by proclamation or even cost although cost is often related. It doesn’t matter if your fabric was woven by the world’s costliest fairies or your dearest friend who ships it from far away lands like Italy Korea or France Turkey, it will impact matching if the weave isn’t even. Often the weave is compromised because the selvedges are too tight (those can be clipped). Other times you cannot know the weave is uneven until it is being spread; the center of the goods are bowed and don’t line up with the table seams. I think this is why some places pin the goods to the table.

Bundling– after cutting, it will be critical that pieces from the same ply and their pair mates within the same ply, are bundled or stacked together in the proper order.

Sewing– It is only now that we get to the last leg of sewing, the party who has least control but gets the most blame. Matching stripes well depends on man and machine.

  • Machine (feeding) -if the machine feeds evenly like it is supposed to, the lines should match up.
  • Operator– as long as the pieces are aligned exactly at seam start, the lines should match up. Believe me, if they’re working with a stripe and know they need to match up, they’ll be diligent about making certain that they start and stop precisely.

Betsy continues:

Land’s end (or maybe LL Bean?) actually charges more for plaids and stripes alongside their solid counterparts. I often wonder how they can sew fast enough and still keep the stripes perfectly lined up. If there is a tip or two, or if everyone just simply has to slow down, even the pros.

As you can see by now, matching stripes involves more controls (costs) throughout the whole process although of course, fabric costs are higher.

I can’t speak for anyone else and perhaps I have this opinion because of having matched so many stripes but I think that from an operations standpoint, your practices of pattern quality, spreading and bundling between products that have stripes versus those that don’t, should be the same. Call me draconian old-school but I think the pattern test of whether a pattern can walk neatly together and be balanced is only possible with the proof of a match stripe -which is not the same as suggesting you need to use the line because it affects yield/allocation.

Illustrated step by step instructions on how to prepare and mark your pattern pieces for a match stripe can be found here.

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  1. Sarah_H. says:

    Listen to what she says about plaid lines. Also, while a cutter will charge more to cut a plaid (or stripe) to match, a good one knows how to do it. And I have seen plaids pinned not only at the selvedge, but also across the body of the goods. They start by laying out the marker so that they space the nails where the marker has holes. Then the fabric is laid out with the same point in the plaid on the nail each time. The marker is then laid onto the goods, again matching by the nail holes made in the marker when the nails were put in the table. In sportswear it is very common, unfortunately, to have to use this method to straighten the plaid.

  2. Xochil says:

    Are there additional challenges with matching a stripe on a knit material, vs. a woven? Particularly with sewing, vs. cutting, because it seems like the cutting and pattern matching would be the same process.

  3. Stephanie K says:

    I remembered that my BIL worked at Pendleton in college, and here is his commentary:

    “Yes, I did, when we were at Reed. I some ways, it was a horrible job. I was one of very few men working there, and many of the women were immigrants–signs all over the place in multiple languages. We had a power failure once which stopped all work. The union rules allowed that the you had to wait 30 minutes to see if the power came back on, and and you didn’t get paid for that waiting time unless it was more than 30 minutes at which point the company had to pay for the half hour and then could either keep paying until the power came back or send us home. I was surprised to see so many folks looking at their watches and quietly hoping the power stayed off. (In that case, it did stay off, and we had the rest of the afternoon off–without pay except for that half hour.)

    On the other hand, the quality was extremely high. Plaids had to match exactly. I shopped at the company seconds store where the policy was that you had to be shown all of the flaws of the garment you got. The QA folks were excellent and could point out every missed stitch, every knot in the cloth, every slight wobble in a seam, every line in a plaid that did not align perfectly. I still have one of the shirts I got then, and I remember looking a few years ago and I could not find what was wrong with it to warrant the 90% employee discount I got. “

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