I have a prototype but I don’t have a pattern

By definition (see the preceding entry), you cannot have a prototype if you don’t have a pattern. It is impossible. I do not doubt you have a nicely constructed sample of what you envision your product to look like and perhaps even rough figures on fabric needs and maybe even an idea of what it will cost to sew it up -although I strongly doubt the latter. This is why:

If you do not have a pattern, you cannot know the amount of fabric needed nor the costs of production with any degree of certainty. The reason I say this is because although you may have hired a skilled operator to wing a sample for you but this person could not come up with a pattern for you, it is likewise probable that any figures or calculations of allocation or cost estimates are not verifiable either. If they could have verified all that, they would or could have provided a pattern as the first step.

This does not mean you shouldn’t hire someone to mock up a version of what you have in mind -but it’s not a prototype. A prototype is a benchmark of reproducibility. If you don’t have a pattern, by definition it can’t be reproduced.

This is no different than hiring a whiz kid to do some experiments for you in a lab and even if the whiz ends up with promising results, it’s a waste because nobody else can reproduce the results because the whiz kid isn’t so hot on documentation. That’s what a pattern is -reproducibility. The prototype itself is a proof of the pattern’s reproducibility. If the pattern doesn’t produce the intended results, you don’t have a prototype. The prototype is the first product to roll off the line as it were but under more controlled circumstances than later units will be.

All of the above inspired by one person who wrote me saying:

I am not yet at the stage where I would have a pattern made. What I really need is someone to help me create a prototype design that I can use for marketing purposes.

As you may imagine, it terrified me. Okay, not terrified but you know what I mean. As it happens, I suspect this person thought I was trying to get more money out of him which was a complete miscommunication because I was trying to help him even though I didn’t want the job. Just another example of no good deed going unpunished. And you all wonder why people never write you back.

This person -no person- can use a mock up (it’s a mock up, not a prototype) of their idea for marketing purposes. If you only have a mock up with no firm idea of costing, just how can you market it? Let’s say you have a magic wand and end up with a sewn sample that is exactly what you had intended without a pattern. Without firm costing figures, how are you going to market it?? Wag the item in people’s faces, play coy when it comes to pricing because you think they’re going to snatch it out of your hands, salivate over it and beg to buy it at any price? Seriously?

For what it’s worth in the case of this man’s product idea, it has been done before. Repeatedly. It’s available for sale from various manufacturers. Does this mean his idea isn’t viable? Hardly. However, because it’s been done before, it is incumbent upon a newcomer to buy the range of existing products in the marketplace to survey the competition. The first step in this case is not to re-invent the wheel; it is to take competing product ideas to someone like -dare I say- a pattern maker for an assessment of whether their idea is worth pursuing based on the limitations they may have. For example, they don’t have the means to take a lot of orders so they can’t get a lower quote on production, or they plan to do it domestically or whatever.

You know what the biggest problem is with people? Not that they are too stupid but that they are too smart. As I’ve said before:

Being smarter means they’re more skilled at defending their opinions, if only to themselves… Now they may be right and I may be wrong but like I always say, it’s more typical to go broke slowly in this business than quickly. It used to upset me greatly to watch people do this to themselves but I can’t save everyone. Someone who is drowning will want a larger flotation device when I think they should first cut off the anvil tied to their legs…

In conclusion: there is nothing wrong with hiring somebody (say a skilled home sewer) to help you mock up a concept even if they can’t make a pattern but that is a far cry from having a prototype you can use to market with. If the cost of services are low, you can save money over having hired a pro. However, it can be dicey. Some people who sew from home are really expensive. I know one lady who charges $85 an hour while most professional services cannot justify charging more than $25-$35 an hour. Anyway, if you find someone who sews from home with reasonable rates and has time to help you develop it, be mindful that you will need to take those mock ups to someone else to have a pattern and a prototype made. Again, keep in mind that the first sample a pro makes is not a prototype. It is only a prototype if it meets all the proofs of benchmarking. Once you have a prototype, then you can market it but not until then.

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  1. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Kathleen. I’ve probably made that mistake myself, referring to something that is in reality, a doodle in cloth, as a prototype instead of mock-up. It is always educational coming here.

  2. Sabine says:

    ok, thanks for the clarification.
    I always believed it to be like the Wikipedia description, were it is described as a “primitive first” and “often non working sample of inferior materials”, which is the same as I thought a mock-up was.
    According to the dictionary however it is just as you say:
    An original, full-scale, and usually working model of a new product or new version of an existing product.
    I shall hopefully not make the mistake of using the wrong word again.

  3. Brina says:

    To add to the idea of people being too smart–I’d say too smart intellectually–but without the smarts that come from experience.

    Anyway this was a great post–especially in letting folks know that part of ‘market research’ is actually studying the items that your product would compete with to see if your version is worthwhile financially and otherwise.

  4. DP Wolphe says:

    Hi Kathleen! Great article. I have no experience in sewing, but have an experienced person helping me out in making a pattern while at the same time, making a prototype out of it. Before I went to her, I kind of knew I needed a pattern first. It seemed like the logical thing to do. This article just proved to me that common sense was in my favor. I’m glad I found your website. I have learned so much and can’t wait to purchase your book. :-)

  5. Xochil says:

    It happens to me often enough that clients bring these sewn “samples” and need patterns. I ask if they have even a crude pattern that they may have used, that might need to be revised and made ready for production, but most don’t have even that. It amazes me sometimes, especially on a complex garment. I need to remind them that this is not much different for me as a pattern maker, than starting from a sketch and measurements, because even as detailed of measurements that I can take from the garment, it may still need another iteration for fit much like any other first sample. It’s too bad, because I think the designer thinks they are getting a head start because they have the garment put together, but since it’s not reproducible without a pattern, they are in the same place as if they just had a sketch. Thank you for this entry.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Or even, tweaking the pattern and it doesn’t come out like you planned but you end up with something that works better or for something else.

    Xochil: I agree from the pattern perspective (naturally). I’ve come to realize tho that for some designers, these garments serve the purpose of the equivalent of 3D drawings but it doesn’t help a technician in the ways that are meaningful (read: cost effective for the client). Finished products are useful if the designer can’t successfully convey their design ideas on paper but as you said, doesn’t lower the costs or shorten the cycle time (much if at all).

  7. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    …How does someone come up with a mock-up without any kind of pattern at all? This confuses me. Do they just drape on the form, draw chalk lines at the seams and start sewing? I can understand draping (although I *hate* it), but I don’t understand not taking a few extra hours to transfer it to paper, true the seams, smooth out the curves/straighten lines, and *then* cutting…

  8. Ginger says:

    I need some help here. I am working on producing a new piece of apparel (not a whole line) …just one piece for women. I have had a local seamstress make up a few “prototypes” that I have been wearing to assess how it feels, looks, etc. I am not a sewer and do not have a design background either. I believe my next step is to have a pattern made. Thanks to Katheen’s recommendations, I have decided upon which pattern maker I will be using. My question is this. What should I do, bring along with me when I meet with her the first time. My unique apparel idea seems relatively simple (to me anyway). Also, is it appropriate or me to have the pattern maker sign a non-disclosure statement as my idea is not yet on the market. (that I can find!)

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