How we make patterns in real life

Ginevra sent me a link to an interesting and lengthy post from a home sewer (“sew 4 fun”) who was explaining her ten year long experience learning pattern making. It’s a good read, much better than my entry, go check it out and then come back. I’ll wait.

~thumb twiddling~

Oh, you’re back! Awesome. Other than my self serving observation that she’s learned to have a great deal of respect for pattern makers, she has -in a manner of speaking- come full circle to make patterns using a process similar to that used by professionals. Imagine that! I’d say she’s learned well enough indeed:

I wasn’t expecting miracles, or at least I didn’t think I was. I knew it would take a few months and a lot of hard work to get my measurements right and get my sloper to fit, but that was ok… So I put in the hours of hard work, learning how the software worked, reading the manual from cover to cover, taking all my measurements exactly as instructed and sewing sloper, after sloper, after sloper, after sloper, after sloper……20+ slopers later! Yes that’s right… And what did I learn? I learnt that building a pattern from the ground up is so much harder that altering an already drafted pattern, because there are so many variables that I didn’t even realise existed. So many things I have to know about part A working with part B. Things that take many years of learning, and a heck of a lot of trial and error.

Contrast the above with something I’d said several years ago:

Drafting a basic fitting shell (”sloper” to home sewers) is just a whole lot of work. In real life, there’s faster ways to get there. Beginners feel as though they have to earn their stripes the hard way, that they have to put a lot of work into drafting a basic fitting shell as tho it were a rite of passage or something. It’s amazing the work they put into it and what for? They still end up with a jizillion iteration cycles. Bummer.

“Sew 4 fun” continues:

What do I do today? I buy commercial patterns and alter them, and have the utmost respect for pattern makers. They have years of experience* that I simply don’t have the time to learn. It would take years of practice to learn how to draft some of the styles I see in Burda magazine, and I’d still have to sew a muslin to test if the design elements worked. Rather than sewing one, two or three muslins to get the fit right, I’d be sewing the same number of muslins to ensure I got the design elements right. I don’t have this sort of time so I leave it to the experts.

In real life, we don’t draft each design from zero and no, we don’t use home patterns. Nor slopers or fitting shells. We use blocks of existing patterns we’ve made with proven performance. Since there’s residual confusion about blocks, those are:

A block is the pattern of a style that sells well for you. It sells so well for you that you use that pattern to generate new styles. If you are in the gestation of your line, you won’t have any real blocks because you haven’t sold anything yet. In such case, a block could be whatever pattern you’ve used to generate most of your products. It is the building block of your product line. Let’s call it a parent pattern. You use the parent pattern to generate styles from it or children.

I just think it’s very cool that after ten years of study, this home sewer has stumbled on the solution employed by professionals. There’s no loss of integrity doing it like this, there’s still plenty of work to do, consider making protos!

I have worked for plenty of companies that didn’t cut protos in all colorways. Plenty. It does seem like overkill and typically, we’re all very confident in what we’re doing because most of the time it comes out okay. But if your colorways are using fabrics you haven’t used before and consequently, you haven’t been able to gauge their performance, you should cut a proto. If not, the problem usually becomes apparent when making up salesmen’s samples which is when you can least deal with it… People always talk about “moving up another level” and by this, they usually refer to increased sales, greater esteem in the marketplace or greater distribution. To move up another level, you must move your product development practices up another level first.

As I’ve also said many times before, I think it’s the educational system (no criticism implied; it’s the nature of the beast) that sets people up to think they need to learn pattern drafting in a rote fashion, starting from zero with a fitting shell. The books show it like that because it’s easiest to illustrate and drafting can be challenging enough without introducing ambiguities. Anyway, because books always show the same starting point, it become inculcated in people they must start there too. Our process is more like this:

Now, the way we do it is to buy or use something that is similar to what we want to do and we fit that. Then we use a basic body -a block or an existing pattern, the fit of which we already like- and transfer to that, whatever the distinctive features of the new style. Plus, we make our fit changes. This way our first prototype will come out looking pretty good. For example, let’s say we’re making a coat. We are not going to start with a basic fitting shell. We will start with a coat pattern that we already have, that looks closest to the style we want to develop. That’s much different than how they teach you in school where everybody starts with a basic fitting shell. Fitting shells are pretty close to useless when it comes to style development; doing that, one will end up making a lot more iterations than we do. In real life, you’d be hard pressed to find a basic fitting shell pattern in the plant of any manufacturer. Beginners go from a “sloper” to coat incrementally. That’s a lot of work. Start with a coat. Make the changes, including fit. Then, bingo, you’re there. If you want to make a blouse, start with a blouse. Develop a basic range of styles that fit you and use them over and over again.

If I could successfully convey one idea to enthusiasts or anyone who wants to learn patterns, it is to do this. At some point you will be starting from zero but from there you create styles via iteration cycles. Build successive styles on the previous ones. I personally wouldn’t start with a home pattern because so much about them annoys me (inaccuracy, unjustifiable ease, improperly made facings, pieces you need they don’t include or mention you need, no interfacing patterns, bad lining patterns etc) that it’s faster to make my own. A pivotal thing is learning to walk patterns and correct them but most of all, a willingness to take charge and forget what the book or any number of “experts” say and approach it logically. People are far too invested in other people’s advice. I found (link broke, sorry) an interesting quote from Arthur Schopenhauer today and handily enough, have an excuse to use it:

It is quite natural that we should adopt a defensive and negative attitude towards every new opinion concerning something on which we have already an opinion of our own. For it forces its way as an enemy into the previously closed system of our own convictions, shatters the calm of mind we have attained through this system, demands renewed efforts of us and declares our former efforts to have been in vain.

In other words, it’s work to learn something new. If you’re going to learn something new, clear out the old clutter first. And who wants to admit all the time and money they spent previously was wasted? A useful question to ask one’s self is, does this advice I’m about to follow, defy the laws of physics? Pretend you know nothing about sewing. Pretend the item is made of sheet metal, can you get those pieces to fit neatly? With extremely rare exception (this isn’t, nor this), they should.

I was chatting with one of my very few pattern making clients today and at the risk of alienating any future customers, I had an epiphany, discovering I’ve deliberately chosen clients who have the capacity to replace me. The one I talked to today hasn’t had a lesson in his life but he’s so detail focused he noticed a missed notch. Heh. I love that. It makes me glad I picked him all over again (I’d ignored for him awhile). Plus, he asked some “dumb” questions (love, love those) which gave me great ideas for some future tutorials. I guess my clients are more like students than customers. Students who get lessons for the price of having a pattern made that we can each then work off of, and I can explain what I did and how they should incorporate those lessons into other styles they generate. It’s no fun to just make something, pass it off and who knows what comes of it after that? Each pattern should be a learning tool.

*Oh, and in reference to one last thing from “sew 4 fun”. She’s right in that it can take a long time to learn pattern drafting but maybe not as long either. If you’re doing this on the side, part time, yeah, it’ll take awhile and you have to do all the work. In many respects, professionals have a lot of unfair advantages so it’s cruel to compare yourself accordingly if you’re not in the same situation. Our learning cycle time is compacted, we’re doing this at least eight hours a day, not after dinner or on weekends. We also have support staff, someone to cut the pattern in fabric and sew it for us. While they’re doing that, we’ve gone on to “learn” another pattern. In fact, any pattern maker worth their salt will admit it’s been ages since they’ve actually sewn anything. The time we spend learning through practice is greatly compacted. And we get paid for it so we don’t have to squeeze it in around everything else. I think most people’s (including enthusiasts) time is better spent learning more about production pattern making to fix the patterns they already have.

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  1. Kathleen says:

    Ah, after I finish this post, I forgot yet another link I intended to include. Maybe I’ll update this. In the meantime, Ms Trunk cites The Economist in saying the traits of work that makes someone happy are:

    1. stretches a person without defeating him
    2. provides clear goals
    3. provides unambiguous feedback
    4. provides a sense of control

    And all of which, are absent in a self-learning environment. :(

  2. Esther says:

    Thank you for writing this. Now that I have time to sew clothes for myself, I find myself stuck. Do I go through the process of starting from scratch or do I find something that is good enough and fix it. The home sewing patterns will require a lot of fixing for fit and personal preferences. Starting from scratch will require many iterations. Analysis paralysis I guess. All I want is some basic blocks. I am now leaning toward fixing some existing patterns – either that or tracing off a favorite style.

  3. Thanks Kathleen for joining in and contributing to the conversation. I’m flattered that you took the time to read my blog and write this post. As a home sewer I’m always interested in hearing how things are done in the industry so thanks for the insight and your point of view.

  4. catx says:

    Kathleen — I’m quite curious to know why you feel those traits can’t be found in a self-learning environment. Would you mind expanding?

  5. Kathleen says:

    I’m quite curious to know why you feel those traits can’t be found in a self-learning environment. Would you mind expanding?

    Boy, are you ever going to be sorry you asked that, itemized as follows but re-ordered somewhat (I could write a whole post about it)

    2. provides clear goals

    The self-learning student, absent oversight and guidance, is rarely in a position to set clear goals. At best, they can have desires, wishes and aspirations. While useful, they don’t know enough to know the criteria and standards of completion, what constitutes success in completing a goal. Their goals can only be defined in terms specific to themselves based on where they started. And even then, as they learn and grow, they find it’s not enough. Their goals evolve, they move the goal posts further out.

    It’s like learning a language independently using tapes. One may “know” more than they did but is it useful in practical application? Can one be relatively conversational? One will not know until they expose themselves to an environment where that ability is tested. But then doing such, means one is now exposed to an environment that transcends self learning.

    1. stretches a person without defeating him

    This is somewhat related to #2 above. Typically, one starts with a cursory self-defined survey of what is possible to know (they cannot know all of this; few are sufficiently wise to know what they don’t know). As a kindness to one’s self, this should be limited, otherwise one can become overwhelmed and give up before they’ve started.

    There’s two basic methods to this. One is that one learns basic concepts that presumably can be integrated into future projects. This is mostly how drafting is taught in school, say, making a certain kind of collar. I tend to avoid this for the most part, I think project completion is more rewarding psychologically (a collar is useless by itself). I prefer to work on projects that translate into fixed results, the concepts learned in the process can then transfer to other projects. If I teach using the first method at all, it is only those concepts that work in nearly all other related projects. An example would be teaching someone to walk a pattern, that’s used with every draft. Another is making a welt pocket; that can be used in every project needing a welt pocket. A collar is a stylistic device. I had to learn bertha collars in school but I’ve never needed one in real life.

    3. provides unambiguous feedback

    If one is self-learning, where will they get feedback? And if they get it, how qualified is the given feedback?

    Returning to the language learning example, I learned spanish many years ago. It wasn’t a goal, I didn’t try to learn it but I was in an environment where most of my friends spoke limited english. I got continuous feedback. So, imagine my chagrin at not being able to understand one particular spanish speaker after many years of speaking spanish with native fluency. While this person was certainly “qualified” to give feedback in that they only spoke spanish, their spanish was, well, a paucity of expression as compared to what was typical of the gamut of speakers. In sum, if one is self learning and not precluded from getting feedback (self learning presumes one is), one is rarely competent to know whether another’s feedback is qualified. Even business owners make this mistake frequently. They hire someone who knows slightly more than they do but it doesn’t mean the person hired is competent as compared to their peers. I call this “hiring failure”.

    4. provides a sense of control

    Control implies dominion. How can you know what you know or don’t know if you can’t know what you know absent oversight in the self learning environment? Everything is so nebulous, there’s no defined end. Many learners are dominated by fear, some horrid internal task master who doesn’t hesitate to punitively diminish one’s advances through doubt. I don’t know why people say I’m so mean when they are much crueler to themselves than I could ever be. It breaks my heart. This is why I say people should just jump off, make lots of mistakes and laugh about them. When you make one, add it to your mental list of things not to do. The problem is, people use mistakes to limit any future attempts. Learning should be an adventure, a process defined by joy and pleasure.

  6. catx says:

    Boy, are you ever going to be sorry you asked that, itemized as follows but re-ordered somewhat (I could write a whole post about it)

    Heh! Nope, not a bit sorry that I asked :)

    The reason I was curious is that many of the (computer) technical environments that I’ve worked in are essentially self-directed/self-learning, and it’s never struck me that the described traits were absent.

    Reading your descriptions though, it’s clear that those environments do have a lot of implicit ‘rules’ that constrain the “fuzzy aims” problem.

    Thinking out my fingers, using your language example, it wouldn’t be “Learn Spanish”, it would be “Learn how to ask where the bathroom is, in Spanish, in two different ways, and then use that to ask some spanish speakers where the bathroom is…”. Success would be being directed to the bathroom ;)

    I’d absolutely agree that poorly bounded or loosely directed self-learning tends to be unsatisfying — having clear goals, and recognizing when you’ve passed milestones is a requirement for measuring progress.

    As far as feedback is concerned, I’d split feedback into two categories, at least — one being “am I learning the right things/way to do things”, and the other being “success/failure”. I suppose you could say that more concisely as “technique” and “task”. Getting back to the language example, it might be that you manage a technique failure, but a task success — you get directed to the bathroom, not because your spanish is at all understood, but because you’re dancing up and down like a little kid, so your body language explains what your spanish doesn’t.

    Thank you for expanding — it’s certainly food for thought, and a clear reminder to know where you’re trying to get to when you’re directing your own learning.

  7. Sandra B says:

    As a patternmaker who finally feels like I can draft from scratch adequately, I know that it’s only because I have drafted for so many people that I achieved this. I couldn’t have got there simply as a hobbyist. The funny thing is that I have had the book I now use, Natalie Bray’s Dress Pattern Designing, since I was 20, and in fact drafted a block in 1991 to my measurements. It looked weird to me so I figured the method was no good, and never looked at the book again until relatively recently. When I came across the draft again, I realised that the measurements I’d taken back then were pretty much the same as my current measurements (Whoohoo!) and the reason it looked weird was because I had made a mistake. I corrected the mistake, sewed it up, and it fitted. Perfectly. Sigh.
    I like Natalie Bray’s system, it ticks all the right boxes. The armhole is the right shape, the front is wider than the back, it is based on anthropometrical research not direct measuring, and the sleeve has barely any ease.

  8. Kathleen says:

    This has been interesting. Through this discussion I realize now that my tutorials are designed to reduce ambiguities typical of the self learning environment. Taking the example of the zipper tutorials, there’s very little technique, it’s all task. They’re short (don’t overwhelm), the goal is clear, provide very clear feedback (one can judge the result themselves) and definitely give a sense of control (sense of accomplishment). Thanks for asking. I’ll try to use these guidelines in a calculated way in the future rather than intuitively like I have been. My “technique” entries are not as successful. They require too much interpretation from the reader.

  9. Natasha says:

    At FIDM they made us do a basic block but we draped it on the form and drafted the sleeves. Our final was to drape it, transfer it, true it and draft the sleeve within an 1 1/2 hours.

    They made us draft from scratch at community college and it was a disaster.

  10. Clara Rico says:

    As an enthusiast, the reason I started drafting/draping my own patterns was due to dissatisfaction with commercial patterns.
    On rereading this post, I realized you’re saying it’s O.K. to start at zero, once; just don’t start at zero every time. Did I get that right?
    You once mentioned selling basic block patterns that people could change. Starting with trustworthy, proven blocks would be a huge advantage.

  11. Kathleen says:

    Right, don’t start at zero each time. Build a library of patterns you’ve cleaned up.

    The problem with selling basic blocks (better defined as styles rather than fitting shells) is these would still need to be tweaked for fit specific to one’s purposes. This is part of the proving process. I hesitate to make them widely available because criteria for a “good” pattern is often subjective and at times, seemingly arbitrary. One often says a pattern is “good” if it fits them personally and are very vocal about patterns that don’t and are hence, “bad”. In the case of home patterns, these are also judged to be “good” if the name on it is prominent altho I could never sew one of these up myself without correcting its technical inaccuracies first.

  12. emily says:

    oh this has been SO useful to me! I have a huge list of projects that I want to work on (learn how to draft/construct a jacket, make shirts for husband, etc etc) and was despairing at ever finding the time to draft up from a shell.

    it feels so good to have kathleen’s blessing to use patterns I already have! whoo! thanks kathleen!

  13. Debbie says:

    Just wondering if your book can help me to adjust a set in sleeve pattern to a raglan and figure out the grading for the new raglan patterns? I’m a self taught (along with my supervisor) CAD operator and neither one of us have a good idea on how to do this process.

  14. Debbie says:

    I don’t know what “blocks” are. I was a cutter for 17 years and made patterns by hand and am now trying to do the CAD system.

  15. Juliette Curtis says:

    I’m a home sewer. I by-passed pattern drafting and arrived at the block concept without knowing the correct term for any of it.

    I used to be plus-sized and always struggled to fit patterns. After many failures and random successes, I decided to make a few patterns fit me properly and base my entire wardrobe on those patterns, with variations. I called those patterns my “basic shapes” and I chose them carefully. There was a princess blouse, dart-fitted blouse, princess jacket, knit top with darts, knit top with princess seams, slacks, and jeans. (I don’t wear skirts and I’m curvey, so princess seams work well on me).

    When I want to sew a new pattern, I choose the basic shape that is closes to the new pattern, then morph the details of the new pattern on to the basic shape.

    Now my clothes fit as I like them (not perfectly, but much better than RTW) and I don’t spend a lot of time fitting muslins of every new pattern.

  16. Tammy says:

    For years, I have secretly been doing this and feeling ashamed. I knew I had to move things along quicker so I discovered that patterns already have been trued, tried and tested. So, I would get a pattern or patterns closest to my design and start doing a little “something- something” here and there to get the right, shape, fit and whatever.

    It has never failed me, but you see, I went to design school –and loved and learned every minute–but, I started every pattern from the very beginning (a line on a GREAT BIG PIECE OF BROWN PATTERN PAPER). So I used to be filled with guilt when I did this. Not anymore.

    Having worked in the industry, I have seen many times that a new design was patterned from a tracing of the pattern/ patterns of other old designs that have the appropriate shape. Since the fit worked for that one, with a little tweak here and there, the new design achieves a similar fit. The company is a couture bridal/evening wear design house that has produced wedding gowns for several stars and other high profile women. So if they can do it…so can I.

  17. Kate in England says:

    I’ve been meaning to buy your book for ages, but this post has tipped me over the edge – I went back to college precisely because I had those very problems with self-learning; having just about completed a degree in bespoke tailoring (old-fashioned style), I really need to have my eyes opened to the more convenient and, dare I say it, effective ways to do things (that link to the sleeve ease myth just about blew my mind, masses of sleeve ease – at least an inch – being sacrosanct in Savile Row). Thank you for an always enlightening blog!

  18. carol says:

    Hi Kathleen!

    I just came across this website and I agree with your assessment of Helen Joseph Armstrong’s book. I have the 4th Edition. I am a part-time student at a college in Toronto, Canada. Last year I took the Pattern Marking Level I class and we had to purchase the book. That is the only pattern book they sell.

    I find this book to be very confusing and with a lot of mistakes. Some of the teachers have indicated this also as well as some students who are really good at pattern making. They also take the full time course which is much more intense. I also am a member of Threads and apparently as member who was taught by Ms. Armstrong mentioned to her that she too had problems with her book. Ms. Armstrong was very upset that there were problems.

    I don’t sew as often as I should and I thought that taking a pattern drafting course, I would understand more about sewing. I find her steps are not complete. I try to listen and learn from the teacher who is teaching (she knows her stuff) but when you get home after taking notes (or trying to take them and look and listen) I tend to forgot. For an example, she may have taught about the empire line toro basically and then she gives you homework where it is a diffent empire line sketch. You review it and then you hope by reviewing her book, it will help you out a bit. I find that you only get half the answer, if at all. Also, I agree with you regarding the index. It is very confusing. Also when you need to know something about the empire toro, for example, you have to look all over the place in order to find the answer. Which is not that often.

    I am going to review Connie’s book by getting it from the Library, if they have it and if I think it is helpful. I may buy it. I paid $124.00 plus tax for Armstrong’s book and I don’t have a lot of money to buy another. Also, I try and go on the internet and there is not much help on the sites as well. It is also helpful in these books that they show you visually as well as written.

    The thing I am finding very hard is to create a pattern that has to have a lot of variations in it. For example am empire dress that has gathers in the front, with a scope neck and flare body and the bad that has two darts on the back shoulders as well as on the bottom bodice and a flare body front and back. What pattern book would help with something like that?

    I hope to hear from you soon.

  19. LizPf says:

    My sewing Mission is to find basic patterns (I guess they would be my blocks) for a few pieces of clothing, the type I wear over and over, but am unable to buy for myself (fitting) issues. I also thought the best way to go would be to learn to draft patterns for myself, from scratch, with my measurements.

    Now, i see this isn’t the best way to get started. Instead, it sounds like I should begin by copying my ill-fitting clothes, altering the copies so they fit, and then using a pattern from that as my block. Does this make sense to the experts?

    Also, what book would you recommend for a neophyte with a set of blocks, who wants help with drafting different necklines, collars, sleeves, etc.?

    I am learning so much from F-I … and I ordered The Book yesterday. Thanks, Kathleen. [And I did click the notify button this time :) ]

  20. Also, what book would you recommend for a neophyte with a set of blocks, who wants help with drafting different necklines, collars, sleeves, etc.?

    My key suggested book was actually linked to in this entry but I know it’s a lot to check them all. You may actually have seen this already. If you’re on a budget, Handford’s drafting book is good.

  21. Reader says:

    “The self-learning student, absent oversight and guidance, is rarely in a position to set clear goals. At best, they can have desires, wishes and aspirations.”

    I couldn’t agree more. If I hadn’t finally had the time to take some classes, I’d still be pin-balling around the web, reading sites (although I remain an avid reader :-) and I pride myself on knowing something about the history and rationale of garment construction techniques). Even when a particular class didn’t offer exactly what I wanted, I learned a lot of skills and it was helpful to be directed to do particular things.

  22. Pingback: Paper draping
  23. Hi Kathleen, thank you for pointing me to this post in your comment on my blog. Here’s what I said in reply to your comment:

    “Hi Kathleen, thank you for the link. I’d actually already read that post but when I read it I think I didn’t have enough sewing schema to fully incorporate all of the information. One justification for going off on tangents that will ultimately prove useless is that in doing so you are able to back fill in missing schema you need to understand why the tangent is useless. In other words, learning is by its nature a somewhat iterative process.”

  24. Victoria says:

    One of my favorite new quotes:

    “When you make [a mistake], add it to your mental list of things not to do. The problem is, people use mistakes to limit any future attempts.” — Kathleen Fasanella

  25. Tyesha W says:

    Figured my comment would be better suited here instead– :/
    *If i was to always design from my blocks, would I be able to do so in a interview? I can’t bring my blocks to the interview to show my drafting abilities..I’d figure they’d expect you to draft from scratch with their measurements to see how well you are.*

  26. mychelle says:

    please excuse my lack of capitalization, i’m typing on my sons x box. i’m more than a home sewer but never worked in the ‘industry’. the most valuable tool i have are block patterns that i drafted on posterboard to my exact measurements as well other blocks i drafted for whom ever i am making a garment for. when these blocks are placed on the pattern paper it is simple to draft a pattern with as little or as much wearing ease as is desired when the dimentions of the figure are visably represented by the block. these blocks of actual measurements of the figure especially help with fitting the armseye and crotch if these measurments are drafted into the blocks. i hope i’m using the correct terminology in naming what i describe as a block. i’ve desgned, drafted and manufactured quilt lined / nylon, wool or canvas shelled, snow suits, jumpsuits and coveralls using this method that move with the body completely unrestricted.

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