How to issue style numbers pt.130

Sorry, yes, it’s yet another entry about style numbers. I apologize if this bores the old-timers.

Today we’ll review two concepts related to style numbers. Thanks to Lisa who brought need of it to my attention.

  1. Please do not add letters to your style numbers. The exceptions are rare.
  2. Do not code for fabric type. Again, exceptions are rare.

There’s four other previous entries in this series. If you only have time to read one, it should be this one.

Adding letters to style numbers
I’m aware there’s a new consultant on the block who’s charging a lot of money for her seminars and telling people to add letters like “F” for fall or “S” for spring etc. I’ll tell you not to -for free. There’s at least three good reasons why you shouldn’t and I don’t see one good reason you should (but I’m all ears). This is the first reason. The second reason is unnecessary complexity. KISS (keep it simple stupid).

The third reason is less obvious. If you’re re-running the style for subsequent seasons, the only thing that’s changed is the fabric you’re using but it’s still the same pattern. This means you’ll have to change the style number for the exact same product when you really didn’t need to do anything. That it is being re-run for another season is obvious from costing sheets, line sheets etc. If you need to assign designation by season, that’s what skus are for. Skus are not style numbers. Now sure, if you have a professional firm like PatternWorks who is managing your pattern and sample production, then that’s just fine. Their internal processes insure this won’t be messed up. But most people aren’t using them or are not sufficiently managed internally and need a system that won’t confuse outside service providers like pattern makers, contractors or sales reps. It’s just unnecessary complexity. Manage seasons (and costing) with skus, not style numbers.

You shouldn’t change style numbers according to season because these provide guidance to buyers. Buyers notice style numbers. Numbers SAY something. Let’s say a buyer sees style numbers 21134, 22345, 13468, and also stuck in there is 21001, 31001 etc. In other words, all low numbers. What do you think that says? To buyers (and service providers) it says that these are strong sellers, probably your signature pieces, pieces that consistently sell well for you and have from day one. If a buyer is considering picking up your line, they will view those pieces with low numbers as less risky buys. That you’re obviously re-running those because they’ve sold well in the past and buyers should probably buy those too being solid performers. In summary, if you reassign numbers according to season, the buyer has no way of knowing that those styles have a good track record and have performed consistently season in and season out. Don’t you think that Levi’s 501 (a style number) got some of it’s cachet by being a classic? The low number conveys it, decades after the style was first created.

Exceptions to adding letters to style numbers:
You can add letters only if it is standard in your niche. The only exceptions I know of are people using tees. People who produce tees add LS for Long Sleeve and SS for Short Sleeve. What ever will you do if you’re adding letters SS for Short Sleeve and it’s for spring? SSS? What about for summer? SSSS? Or how about LSF? This is getting way too complicated. This confuses buyers. Interrupt their paradigm and force them have to think about what your style numbers signify to your peril. This should be seamless. Step cautiously and keep this advice below that bears iteration if you’re thinking of doing it anyway:

Other than the fact that people will instinctively attempt to make words from groupings of letters, your style numbers must be visually friendly to people who are learning disabled, illiterate and non-English speaking. Roman numerals are internationally universal and you only need to know 10 graphic representations. Never assume factory workers speak English! With letters, you have unnecessarily raised the bar, not all stitchers speak English or use a language with our character set. If someone is illiterate, an “S” and a “Z” can look the same. Similarly, learning disabilities are common among factory workers and “S” and a “Z” can look the same to someone with a visual processing disorder. Never forget that the very people who are spatially and kinetically talented have these kinds of learning problems and it has nothing to do with intelligence. If you think they’re stupid because of it then be sure to add me to the list too. Then, let’s not forget the handwriting differences between people; there’s a lot more ambiguity with letters than there are with numbers, especially if something is printed in block letters vs cursive. It’s much easier to discern a number scrawl than letter scrawl. With the former, the process of elimination is 9. With letters, it’s 26!

Do not code for fabric type
In the Entrepreneur’s Guide, I mentioned coding for fabric type but I think the nuance was lost on nearly everyone. I specifically mentioned leather. Based on how people have interpreted my advice, they seem to think the coding was related to the cost of goods. It was not. It was related to the cost of process! Most people were confused because they think of leather as being very expensive and to be sure it costs more than cotton but it is the process that makes it costly, specifically the DIES. I don’t know what dies cost lately but over ten years ago, they were $5,000 for a short leather jacket. In other words, coding for cost of process is an infrastructure cost for custom made tools you’ll need. Dies must be produced according to your pattern. As such, they require their own time line and production schedule to have them made in time. The other thing is, leather patterns look entirely different. The pieces would be smaller and at a fast glance, a leather pattern could look like a child’s pattern due to the small size of the pieces. Someone searching through the racks will visually search for little pieces first and second, check it wasn’t a child’s pattern -assuming you have both laying around- before third, checking the style number. Few people have rings on their pattern racks with patterns correctly organized by number.

So, if you assign one code for velvet, another for cotton, another for linen for the otherwise same exact style, this is too complicated. These should be hanging near each other on a rack. Again, assuming you can run the same pattern as is across different fabric classes, you only need an additional number in the sequence, not a separate category. For example, a cotton blouse would be 1001, in linen it’s 1002, velvet is 1003. Simple. Assigning numbers according to fabric category would mean 1101, 1201 and 1301 for the same styles. I used to say it was okay to assign category numbers if the cost of goods was extreme but people have gone overboard. Just use the next number in the sequence, not a whole other category number. You’ll be fine because you track costs per style number anyway.

Now, I could see assigning a different category number if process costs were inordinate. Let’s say you had goods that were custom embroidered (extensively, not a pocket logo). Because arranging to have this sent out to be embroidered in time for cutting and sewing product, I could see this being justified. The same would hold for custom painted goods. But tieing category numbers based on fabrication gets too complicated. What if you’re doing four kinds of cottons, would you then assign each a number? What if you also used denim or silks? You’d run out of numbers quickly.

Another possible exception is if you were producing identical styles in only two kinds of fabrics, in other words, minimal differences one of two choices. Say you only produced goods in velvet or cotton or linen and cotton, then I could see it. In general, just avoid it. It’s too much complexity in relation to the size of your lines and the number of years you’ve been in business. It’s overkill. The best advice is, if in doubt, don’t. That holds true for just about everything in life.

If you’ve hired someone to help you, they will remember the meanings of your style numbers -within reason. They’ll remember the first number stands for women (men or kids, whatever), the second number stands for pants, tops or jackets or whatever. Forcing them to remember than the third digit represents the gamut of possible fabrications you’re using is just too much to ask.

Style Numbers revisited
How to issue style numbers pt.127
How to issue style numbers pt.128
How to issue style numbers pt.129

Get New Posts by Email


  1. esther says:

    I DO assign new style numbers if a style is made up in a new fabric. This is true of prints also. I have seen too many buyers get disappointed when they order something and expect a certain print or fabric and get something else. (I have seen confusion in cutting and sewing too if the style numbers are kept the same). If a style is made up in the same fabric but a different color, then I keep the style number and write down the color name on the order. Occasionally, if the fabric is so similar that it would be hard to tell it apart from the original, than I will keep the same style number (and send a memo or “change notice” to all departments). But like you said – keep it simple.

  2. Rocio says:


    We gave up on asking for SKU’s years ago, so now we specifically request alphanumerical style numbers in order to process CAD Services… not perfect but at least we are not getting the silly names anymore…

  3. Big Irv says:

    As long as we get style numbers to work with, throwing on a silly name is sort of fun. And if that name is tied into a marketing angle for the product, let her rip.

  4. Andrew says:

    We DO use letters in our style numbering system, but to denote fabrication rather than season.

    For example, this past season we offered a selection of pieces from our collection in silk jersey which is a beautiful fabric, but has a certain look, commands a certain price, a certain cleaning process and can be quite delicate in wear. Not everyone likes the sheen, or the fact that it highlights every curve. As a more daywear-friendly and washable alternative, we offered the same pieces in a matte viscose jersey. The patterns are identical except for the style numbers: MD 12130 SLK for the silk version, and MD12130 VISC for the viscose version.

    This particular method seems to work well and is easily understood by those within the company and fairly transparent for others who work with us such as manufacturers and sales agents.

  5. /anne... says:

    I agree – mixing letters and numbers (btw, I think you meant arabic numerals, not roman) is fraught with danger. Even if you discount the hazards of handwriting, the font you choose on your printed sheets can also confuse people. If you use a san-serif* font such as Arial or Helvetica, depending on the font there may be no difference between a lower-case L, an upper-case i, or the number one.

    *a serif font has a little horizontal bar at the bottom and sometimes the top of most letters – the most common example is Times Roman. A san-serif font like Arial does not. Serif fonts are easier to read.

  6. Miracle (MW) says:

    If you need to assign designation by season, that’s what skus are for

    Not necessarily. SKUs (stock keeping units) are for proper inventory tracking and warehousing, allowing orders to be easily fulfilled. It’s usually not a good way to track production issues as they should be used to track inventory variances. For example, style numbers almost never denote size and color, while skus definitely should.

    If a company must differentiate between seasons or fabrics, they should probably add appendages to the style# whereby: 12345-01-FABRIC, where the numbers could be used to designate seasons (i.e. resort, spring, summer, etc. or alternatively using letters). this way, the appendages can use the letters that are easier for buyers to remember, yet drop thier use when working with the contractors.

    A SKU should never be that messy, nor include that type of information becuase it’s not really relevant to pulling and order and inventory tracking. Rather the SKU should have an inventory number along with a vairant for sizing and color (or whatever else differentiates one item from the next), so that each item is uniquely identifiable. Ideally skus would be entirely numeric, however, most do use letters for color and size:


    But see how much better it would be to use


    The reason you would not use season in a sku is that you’d have unique identifiers for items that aren’t actually unique. Say you produce a white dress in the fall and spring. If you put the season in the SKU, when it’s the exact same item, you are actually creating a potential inventory and warehousing problem of having duplicate inventory in stock for the same item. You may have (example) 20 leftover from spring and because you used a new sku for fall, you have added to this excess inventory and your shipping department may not (and your outsourced fulfillment usually will not) pull FIFO (first in first out) because you use a different sku for those items. Thus, you’re not shipping oldest inventory first (which is how it should be done).

    So, you ship all of fall, but still have 20 from spring leftover. A buyer asks, hey can I get a reorder, but your inventory system shows 0 inventory. Yes, someone can put 2 and 2 together and realize that the different sku, the different inventory number, that you used for spring is the same thing, but don’t count on it. Just set the system up correctly from the beginning and save accounting, sales, and warehousing/shipping problems.

    Ideally numbers (instead of color abbreviations) should be used to represent color, with the color written in text in a descriptor. The reason is that designers often prefer to use sexy names for colors that don’t represent how people actually expect them to look. A perfect example I have is a vendor whose magenta is actually quite purple. Or lipstick is pink.

    Thus the label on your item would have 123456 (or whatever)
    and beneath it would read (example) long sleeve tee black LG
    Just to verify

    Another thing is your skus should always be the same length. The reason you have that standard is that there are times where things get cut off in printing and if your skus are different lengths, people usually don’t pick up on the error.

    Proper product tracking and identification is key to accuracy in shipping. Without fail, the companies that we buy from who do not have good SKUs, nor labeling of products, send us the wrong stuff. Part of it is because they rely too heavily on visual identification (which is not as easily correctible or manageable) and part of it is just because poor inventory identification and product identification is usually just a clear sign of poor product management. RAs are expensive and time consuming.

  7. Carrie says:

    When I used to work for a clothing company our style numbers had a three diget # followed by a dash for the fabric code. But then this designer only used about five different main fabrics so keeping the fabric codes straight was not much of a leap.

  8. Patton says:

    My line at the moment is just handbags. Who’s to say that i will not someday want to expand into apparel or other accessories? I want to set up my style numbers to allow for this expansion.

    I have glanced at line sheets for popular brands (like Rebecca Minkoff) and found that there are NO style numbers, just bag names. Is it customary to use names instead of style numbers in regards to handbags? That doesn’t seem right.

    If I have 4 styles of bags, each in 3 different color ways, how would i set up my style numbers?

    Let’s say i have 1 tote, 1 satchel and 2 clutches. Each bag comes in black, white and brown (hypothetical). I would like the numbers to be as universal as possible to make it easier for everyone who has to use/read/understand them.

    Would i do something like this?
    10000 series – bags
    20000 series – reserved for future use, perhaps women’s wear
    30000 series – reserved for future use

    and my existing style numbers would become;
    11100 = totes
    12100 = satchels
    13100 = clutches
    so on and so forth . . . ??

    And if i am on the right track how would i distinguish between my two different clutches?

    is this one of the exceptions where names and letters can be thrown into the style number?

  9. Kathleen says:

    I have glanced at line sheets for popular brands (like Rebecca Minkoff) and found that there are NO style numbers, just bag names. Is it customary to use names instead of style numbers in regards to handbags? That doesn’t seem right.

    You mean actual line sheets they use to pre-sell the line? Or the spread you find on the website? Either way, I wish I could say it surprised me. I never cease to be amazed that companies that seem to be highly successful from all outward appearances, do this sort of thing. What it tells me is they’re losing money. Or maybe not losing money, just wasting it needlessly. I wrote about it in my book in section called “the big dirty secret”.

    I suppose I should stop being so shocked. In the news this morning, Burlington Coat Factory is on the hook for three more recalls. Just how many have they had in the last 12 months? 10? 15? More? I don’t know but I do know there is a serious problem with buyer training at BCF if they’re still buying products with features that were banned 14 years ago. Talk about a lack of institutional knowledge…

  10. Patton says:

    thanks for the responses!!!

    Kathleen – i do mean the actual line sheets used to pre-sell the line, though the ones I have are 2 years old. I haven’t been exposed to tons of line sheets in my day, but I was able to collect a few from different types of designers (apparel, jewelry, bags). RM’s was the only handbag line sheet I could find at the time and my plan was to use it as a template of some sort. The lack of style numbers confused me. THANK GOD FOR THIS WEBSITE. that is all i have to say. She probably has style numbers now that she has expanded into the world of apparel. I have never heard of a clothing company not having them.

    How is money being wasted by not having style numbers? Do you just mean that it is a waste of people’s time trying to play matchy matchy, and therefor it’s costing them financially?

    I don’t even know what to say about Burlington besides – shocking.

  11. Kathleen says:

    How is money being wasted by not having style numbers? Do you just mean that it is a waste of people’s time trying to play matchy matchy, and therefor it’s costing them financially?

    Not so much that it’s a waste of people’s time (and it is) but that it creates situations rife with error and misinterpretation. It’s just silly because those problems are largely preventable. As Alison mentioned, we’ve discussed this quite a bit on the forum, in more specific detail as it affects people’s needs for their lines.

  12. Madisen says:

    What about colors?

    I have multiple color ways, how do I work that into all this? I am an artist and teaching myself the technicals…. A little lost.

    Love your site and book!

  13. Kathleen says:

    If you have the book, see pages 54-57. Make note of the sketch sheet. The paperwork (form to fill out) has spaces for up to 3 colorways. You can also download this form in excel format (along with many others from the forum library) and customize it to suit your product requirements.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.