Interviewing tips for pattern makers

I was talking on the phone to someone yesterday -a new graduate- and giving her some job hunting tips. It occurred to me that somebody else at some point might be interested in what those tips might be so I thought I’d write it down. These tips apply to someone who is interested in getting a pattern making or related technical support job. Those of you who interview pattern makers may also find this useful.

The traditional strategy of sending out resumes with cover letters and copies of your sketches is just dandy. Really. But that’s a presentation you’re taught to do in school. As you may have figured out already, the industry is just a tad quirky. I recommend a different tack which is to just show up.

  • Show up and ask for an application. Do not ask if they have any openings. You don’t need an appointment to get an application.
  • If you can, stay there and fill it out; they’ll usually give you table space to do it. This is most highly recommended. You want to be seen. Things are very informal in factories. The front desk may not know there’s an opening but somebody walking by just may.
  • Bring a copy of your resume and attach that. Attach a copy of your transcript. It doesn’t matter if you graduated or not. They’ll want to see the applicable classes you took as well as your grade point average. It doesn’t matter if you went to school over 20 years ago and never had an industry job before. Pattern makers with natural ability are in short supply.

  • Bring a product sample and the pattern that goes with it. There is no crime in asking for an application while holding samples slung over your shoulder. Rather, it will be intriguing. Most people are sufficiently curious that they’ll want to see them which will necessarily involve an interview.
  • Your pattern should be on oak tag. It should be marked correctly. Don’t write on it the way they (usually) teach you in school. It should be marked and color coded according to the production pattern guidelines you’ll find on pp.176-180 of the Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing. It should be clean, neat and pretty. Neatness counts.
  • If you’re applying at a company that makes coats (or whatever) and you’ve never made a coat (or whatever), don’t worry. Bring whatever type of pattern and prototype that represents your best work. If you have made a coat (or whatever) but it doesn’t represent your best work, bring two; the coat (or whatever) and your best work.
  • If you don’t have a pattern and sewn sample that represents your quality of work, make up a set.
  • If your best work is a piece you actually use or have worn, so much the better. It doesn’t have to be new. Personally, I prefer to review the design and construction quality of an item that has withstood the rigors of usage. If used, the item should be clean and pressed.
  • Your sample and pattern set need not be in a specific stock size or “medium”. There is nothing inappropriate about bringing something you made for yourself.
  • Under no circumstances should you bring work that belongs to another designer or a past client (unless they never paid for it, in that case it’s your property) unless you have their permission to use it for demonstration purposes.

Sketches are another useful tool in getting a job since there’s a limit to the number of garments and patterns you can cart around. Accordingly, you should be keeping a notebook (portfolio) of technical sketches that represent your work history. You should not leave any sketches, nor should these be attached to your resume or application.

  • Technical sketches are better than fashion sketches. Although prettier, the latter can be ambiguous.
  • You should only bring sketches of items for which you have made the patterns!
  • If the sketches do not belong to you, get permission to show them. If the sketches are not recent (a year or two old) no one will think you’re unethical if you didn’t get permission to show them.
  • If the sketches are recent (technical sketches are always dated) and you don’t have permission, you most likely won’t be hired. Contrary to popular perception, using new sketches won’t score you any points with your next employer -even if your last job was with their biggest competitor! If you’re unethical towards a past employer, a new employer will assume you’d be just as dishonorable towards them. So, if you worked for their competitor, show older sketches, not new ones.
  • If your past employer or client has gone out of business, I’d say the sketches would be safe to use (unless it’s an engineered or patented product). Ditto for sketches of patterns you’ve made that you weren’t paid for.

Using this strategy, most people will get an interview as soon as they’ve finished filling out the application. If they don’t have any openings, ask if they know of another company who does. Then repeat the process at the other company using the name of your referral.

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  1. Danielle says:

    Thanks for the guidelines Kathleen! I am mucking away at a sample/pattern set right now…

    I just bought a proper overhead worklight for my cutting table… it makes such a difference, oh my goodness. Small steps – every little job I get, I buy a new tool.

  2. trish says:

    Kathleen, I love your site and this is a great article to help new pattern makers get an interview. I miss you!!

  3. Sarita says:

    Kathleen, have I ever told you how awesome you are? This is just the kind of information I’ve been in need of.

  4. Love the guerilla approach, but I have an uber-basic question:

    How do you figure out where places that might be able to hire patternmakers are located? I mean, retail shops are in the phone book, but the back end (Office? what would you even call the building where the people who hire patternmakers are housed?) doesn’t exactly need to advertise its presence. So how do you find them?

  5. Kathleen says:

    How do you figure out where places that might be able to hire patternmakers are located? I mean, retail shops are in the phone book, but the back end (Office? what would you even call the building where the people who hire patternmakers are housed?) doesn’t exactly need to advertise its presence. So how do you find them?

    First, you’re obviously looking to work for a retailer who also happens to manufacture. For the most part, these are push manufacturers who private label a whole lot of stuff off shore so they don’t even hire pattern makers; they outsource that along with production. Of the ones that don’t, are you sure that is what you want? Of all the producer types there are, this group hires the fewest number of pattern makers because they need fewer patternmakers than anyone else (they generate fewer bodies but put out more units per style). Personally, I’d also think it the least rewarding work. Commonly, they don’t have in house sampling; it’s usually in another state if not out of the country altogether so the feedback loop on your work is a loooong time in coming. In the quest to develop and improve your skills, a short feedback loop is preferable. By the time a sample comes back -often months later- you may have forgotten whatever it was that you did to the pattern to generate a given effect or worse, whatever it was that you did that created a problem. Another thing, making patterns for a retailer will mean that CAD patternmaking is usually a required skill. Lastly,only apply with retail cum push manufacturers if you’re comfortable in a “corporate” environment because it will be very corporate.

    To find a retailer who also manufactures, find their headquarters. You can usually do that on the web. At headquarters, find the section that does product development. Product development won’t necessarily be housed at headquarters but it usually is. The people in product development can help you. Maybe the best option is to contact HR and peruse their job listings (if they post them). In any event, the HR people will have the skinny on any job openings in product development. Oh, and you could always check with WWD or headhunters too.

  6. Danielle says:

    Regarding: retailers who employ patternmakers (on a per-project basis)

    Sometimes independent boutiques hire patternmakers. They will produce small runs of a few styles on a non-seasonal, ad hoc basis. The feedback loop is very small. Often they have no idea how things are done (they should get your book, Kathleen) and are kind of just dabbling. Other ones are more serious and strategic about it. Essentially they are retailers who are dipping into the manufacturer category.

    In a boutique, just ask them if they make any of the clothes themselves, and if they do, show them a sample of your work.

    Like I said, it’s ad-hoc employment and you have no benefit of more experienced people above you. Often you have to do it in your own space. But it’s sometimes interesting and you do have that short feedback loop.

  7. J C Sprowls says:

    Working in a boutique as the resident cutter/sewist isn’t such a bad gig, either. I don’t know if I mentioned it; but, my grandmother used to do precisely that for almost 30 years. She was the chief seamstress (among 5) for a high-end boutique housed in a department store (that’s no longer there).

    She sewed for the owner, exclusively, and developed production patterns based on the “lady’s” approval that were shipped off to the manufacturer for limited (i.e. short) runs. She did walk the mfg floor from time-to-time; but, I wouldn’t think she’d consider herself an expert.

    She was a formidable woman who taught me a lot about sewing. I find out more about her (in passing, mostly) as the years go by. I’ve begun to develop a deeper understanding for the things she was capable of. I own three skirt suits she designed for the store’s RTW line in the early 60s, which I found at auction about 10 years ago. I think I need to pull those out of storage and gloss over them some more.

  8. Esther says:

    Many retailers (the big box kind) hire technical designers. This may be a track to pursue if you want to work with retailers. The pay is good, with benefits. Most patternmakers have the same qualifications as a junior or assitant technical designer. IMO, a better technical designer is one that has worked as a patternmaker. In fact, most of the retailers I have worked with have only technical designers and no patternmakers.

  9. jinjer says:

    Thanks for all your replies, y’all!

    At first I was a little confused why everyone thought I wanted to work for a retailer/manufacturer, and then I re-read my question and realized: Garbage In, Garbage Out! It was really badly worded. Let me start over:

    I am interested in working as a patternmaker for a clothing manufacturer in the Bay Area once I finish some more patternmaking classes at my local community college. Being a little community college, they have good classes, but not such great fashion-industry hook-ups. I loved Kathleen’s interviewing suggestions, because they circumvented the need to spend $20,000 a year in order to get a decent interview at the end of your schooling. I mean, if I can figure out where to do my guerilla interviewing.

    Normally, the best way to find a particular category of business in a particular location, is to crack open the Yellow Pages.
    But a manufacturer who sells wholesale (likely my favorite type of potential boss) has no need to advertise in the phone book. If I lived in New York, I’d probably just go to the rep houses and write doen the names of designers I liked, and use the internet to figure out where they were based, assuming a good proportion of them would be based in New York. But I don’t. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    The question:
    So, is there a way to find garment manufacturers–the kind that need to hire patternmakers–near me?

  10. av says:

    One thought might be to see who is registered in the State of CA as a garment manufacture. There is supposed to be a list at their website of everyone’s garment registration status. This list could give you a great start on who to call.

  11. hannah says:

    Kathleen, this is exactly the kind of article I need right now. Thanks so much.
    One question – Working for Nicolas, I made patterns for at least 8 different designers, some of whom no longer work with Nicolas. All of the pieces have already been produced, or are in the process of going to production (if that’s where they were headed…many were show pieces). At work everyone just suggested that I make copies of the sketches (not technical, we usually only got fashion sketches.) for my portfolio. No one ever asked permission to use the sketches in their portfolios…should I contact each design house, or is permission implied via Nicolas’ business?

  12. Kathleen says:

    Re: implied permission via Nicolas… imo, even he wouldn’t have permission solely by virtue of having done the work.

    Perhaps this is a nuance but there’s a difference btwn collecting material for a portfolio and showing it. It IS a good idea to keep copies of your work (history). However, I wouldn’t show that to anyone until the styles had been released and were a couple of years old. The workaround on this is magazine clippings. If you find a style you worked on that’s been photographed, hey, it’s out there. No reason you can stick it in and show it to whomever. If in doubt, don’t. Always ask. I never assume I have the right to use a client’s sketch in my portfolio until it’s aged. And even then, be sure to delete any proprietary info like sourcing etc if it’s a technical that includes it.

  13. Ayodele O. says:

    Wanted to know any tips on trying to find a job that’s a few states away from where u currently live. i live in Washington state right now and am trying to look for jobs in New York. i can’t afford to show up in person for an application. so what can i do from here. i’ve already sent my resume to several of my prospective jobs but am not sure whether or not to start checking in with them every now and again. i don’t want to come off as creepy or stalkerish. Your feedback would be most appreciated.

  14. Hello Kathleen!

    I have been going back and forth on whether or not I’d like to go into pattern making since I got out of school (2009). I enjoy it quite a bit, but don’t really know how to navigate an industry like this. I have decided to be open to whatever fashion/sewn opportunity come along. Your site is rich with info, and I very much look forward to devouring your book!
    I live in Ohio and think I may end up in the same boat as Ayodele O.
    I guess I just wanted to say thanks for posting your knowledge. :)
    All my best,

  15. Ms. R,

    This is a really good post on the topic of NDAs:

    (You need to be a member of the forum, which you should be if you are a DE or on the way to becoming one.)

  16. Naomi P-R says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I was trying to find my local garment manufacturers — never thought to just pull up the registered businesses on the state website!

  17. Soo says:

    Ten years after this post was written, I revisit and feel twice the appreciation I had then.
    I’m a recent college graduate who loves pattern making, and searching for technical jobs in fashion. Although I do have a basic guideline on what to do and bring for interviews, after reading this, I feel so much reassured; I can actually visualize my self carrying ‘my stuff’ into offices!

    One thing with today’s economy is that the industry is more leaning towards seasonal jobs and forever-part-timers for entry levels. I’ve been directly told at one interview that they can’t risk hiring someone who’d eventually look for something better and not stay part time – despite me saying “I don’t mind staying part-time long term” truthfully. I guess I need to up my portfolio meanwhile, and will pull through this job market :)

    • Avatar photo

      This is a very tough market. I would also be guilty of being tenuous about hiring and investing in the education of someone, only to have them leave.

      I was talking to someone this weekend and his question was, where and how to new pattern makers get jobs? The answer is much different than it was 10 years ago. These days, unfortunately, most jobs are in freelancing. While this is a solution in some respects, it doesn’t provide tutelage that entry level people need which means one’s practices and habits are reinforced through feedback that may not necessarily be best.

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