Muslin, “muslins” & protos

There is a disconnect between standards used in custom clothing and industrial practices which bears discussion. While laudable within a given context, many of the practices from custom clothing or design school aren’t cost effective or appropriate in a professional environment. Specifically, the problem is the difference between “muslins” and prototypes.

First, muslin is a basic woven undyed cotton fabric with sizing. Some muslin is described as pre-shrunk which means someone waved steam or a heat source in the general direction of the fabric probably from halfway across the room at some point in the process -judging from typical outcome. Usually, muslin is not used as a fashion fabric but used to test patterns. In factories, muslin is a rarity because other fabrics are used to test styles. Personally I don’t use it either. I find the quality and grain of muslin is too inconsistent to be used as an effective test medium -other than to test the engineering of a pattern.

In school, students are traditionally instructed to render their draped styles or drafted patterns using muslin fabric. These are test garments and are commonly referred to as “muslins”. Even dilettantes have adopted the practice of using muslin to cut test garments which is a step in the right direction because this means they’re being more critical, testing the pattern (usually store bought) to prove it before cutting their intended goods. Some people have moved one step beyond that by using a sample fabric that more closely resembles the characteristics of the final fabric; I’ve recommended this many times. Besides, muslin never looks good on anything other than the bolt.

To complicate matters, a sample test garment, not made in muslin but in a similar fabrication to the final intended design, is also called a “muslin”. In most companies though, the term “muslins” isn’t used. That’s just design school and sewing magazines talk. In industry, “muslins” are usually called dummies or mock ups. The point of all this is that if you’re ready to move up to another level, you should pony up to making prototypes rather than “muslins”.

Prototypes are pre-approval stage renditions of the style that use all of the componentry and final fabrication. Ideally, a prototype would become the sample if no changes are needed.

By way of the forum comes an example to explain the differences between “muslin” and prototypes. Jinjer writes:

[A] problem I’ve run into several times in my rather novice patternmaking attempts has been that the fashion fabric behaves so differently than the test fabric that it hangs, fits and well…looks totally different, and I end up doing major revisions AGAIN. (yeah, um, I often go through 4-6 revisions before I’m done with a dress.)

I’ve been pretty frustrated with this, and thought “there must be something I’m missing!” I was talking to my draping teacher , who said he used to work for a knitwear company, and that he would drape a seperate block for every new knit fabric, and sometimes different colors of the same knit because the fabrics behaved so differently. On the one hand, I can see how this would totally solve my problems, but on the other hand, if you use new fabrics every season, this seems like an awful lot of trouble. My question: has anyone else worked for a company that did this? What are your thoughts on the practice?

In answer to Jinjer’s question, I’d say I’ve only worked at companies that used the final fashion fabric to render test samples -aka prototypes or “protos”. The only exceptions to this were instances where I did not have the confidence in the pattern I’d made to the extent that I wanted a dummy to test the sewing or engineering of the concept but in no way was the test garment intended to mock up the performance of the intended style. This kind of “muslin”, dummy or mock up is intended to check the sewing and engineering process, not the fit or design translation. My friend Sally makes a lot of mock ups, all in muslin to check the pattern but checking the pattern and checking the hang, drape, fit or features of a style is totally different from that.

The thing that really grabbed my attention about Jinjer’s comment was “if you use new fabrics every season, this seems like an awful lot of trouble.” To which I’d respond, if you use new fabrics each season, you more than anyone else, should be testing fit in your fashion fabric. I realize this isn’t a cost that many of you can absorb at the outset but move towards this as a goal. In such case, you’d be making prototypes rather than “muslins”.

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. Jinjer’s draping teacher was absolutely correct when he said he’d drape a separate block for every new knit fabric, and sometimes different colors of the same knit because the fabrics behaved so differently. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had the same experience. If you don’t cut a prototype (prototype is defined as a sample in the fashion fabric) in all the colorways -even of the “same” fabric- you can find yourself in a peck of trouble when you’re least able to manage it.

For example, 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. The reason is that you’ve already tested the pattern and approved it in your main colorway. Now, if in rendering it in other colorways just before you need to ship these things out before market, if the other fabric colorways fail to come out the same way, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board and recut the pattern for whichever colorway failed to meet spec. Let’s pretend you have the least expensive and fastest pattern maker and stitchers on the planet who can turn this around really quickly, it still creates a whole host of trickle down problems. If another colorway needs its own pattern, you’ll need a different style number for it which means that the line sheets, costing sheets, order forms, look books and all that other stuff, will need to have the numbering changes made to them as well. And chances are good that by this stage, all of those documents have already been drawn up and printed which means you’ll have to correct them all by hand.

Also, it is not that you must produce salesmen’s samples in all colorways (that’s not a decision I can make for you), just that you should produce prototypes (in house testing samples) of final fashion fabric in the other colorways if these are goods you have not worked with before. Obviously, this is a lot of bother and expense. This is one reason why designers will tend to focus and repeat certain fabrications as their lines mature.

One final caveat (this is important). You don’t want to gauge the fit of a style based on prototypes that have been cut in black, navy or dark colors if it can be avoided. That said, you must also cut protos in the dark colorways and test wash (or dry clean) them for performance. I know this sounds contradictory but dark colors (blacks) will often need their own patterns because they shrink so much as compared to the other colorways. I don’t know how I manage to do it but I do this wrong all the time! It’s so frustrating because I know better.

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  1. Danielle says:

    Hee. Of course you write this exactly at the same time I buy muslin.

    Of course, I have no clue how this pattern is going to turn out and i’m not about to risk it in $40 wool. Time to hack $1.99 style.

  2. La BellaDonna says:

    Huhn. And here I’ve been making “toiles” of my garments. Of course, I don’t manufacture on a large scale. I found out a long time ago, though, that I needed to cut my mockups in something that behaved at least approximately as my fashion fabric – I needed to make a mockup in a knit if I was working with knits, I needed to use crepe if I was working with crepe, I needed to use felt if I was working with leather (sorry, Kathleen – I’m sure that just gave you a moment! But I needed to check my pattern!) – I needed to approximate the behaviour of the final garment, or I was not going to have any kind of useful, usable result. I have found that the strange behaviour of different colourways extends even to shoes – my little cloth “ballet” flats, all made by the same manufacturer (or at least marked that way), fit differently depending on what colour they are!

  3. Kathleen says:

    Is there a economical substitute for leather when doing early mock-ups?

    There is a substitute but it costs twice or three times more than leather. It’s that fake suede a lot of home sewers are wild about. I don’t remember the name of it right now.

    The problem with a substitute is you need to match weight, drape, thickness etc. What most leather people do is use leather but a less expensive kind. This usually means pig. Pig is cheap. I use pig for mock ups.

    Another option is wool because you need to mimic the conditions of layer thickness and density. Some of the outerweight wools might work (altho I’d fuse them first).

    Still, it really depends on what kind of leather because they vary so much. Above I was only talking about garment weight leathers and even then, not all of them. Some of the lamb suedes are so thin and delicate you could almost use a fused knit to mimic them.

  4. nadine says:

    I work in the industry and I teach in Fashion School. I make tons of protos but I always use a similar fabrication that is cheaper but as exact in properties of the final fabric. Since I make accessories you can’t make a muslin hat that uses the same ease as a wool tweed hat. You also can’t make a leather pleated handbag out of muslin or canvas that drapes the same way as a leather bag. Yes, using similar materials has a higher cost but industry spends the money because of the money you save is more.

    What do I tell my students – I told them forget the muslin thing and use a similar fabric to make a “mock-up”. We just went through this exercise in class. Those students who used some thin fabric or a muslin spent 3 more weeks correcting their patterns for nylon sports types bags. Those students who used similar fabrics were able to quickly correct and spend the next 3 weeks finishing their product. Those who mocked the mock-ups are crying now. That’s for sure. I’m going to share your article with them so they realize I’m not just a mean teacher. Thanks for getting my back!

  5. nadine says:

    An economical substitute for leather –

    I found a great material that is a soft white PVC (vinyl) with a ribbed knit that is muslin color on the back. It acts very similar to lambskin that has a fusible backing or soft nappa (calf) skin that is used in garments or unconstructed handbag shapes. It costs around $5.00/yard and you can buy it from AK fabrics – 257 W. 39th Street, NY, NY – The most nicest people in the world. They ship.

    I like it because you can write meeting notes on it with a sharpie marker.

    I find that the vinyl (PVC) product out there is very sophisticated right now so it is easy to find some pvc that will substitute for leather. However, I’m not sure what price per yard some of you have to pay for that.

    You can also try to use a thick poly double knit – the old fashioned kind which has a similar thickness or body as the leather. You can iron a soft fusible to the back to give it more body.

    Another option is to use craft felt for leather patterns. Not my favorite but it does retain the body. I also will iron a light nylon fusible to give it more body to reflect the leather I am using.

    If using stiff leathers, then just substitute with a similar feeling vinyl or you can use heavily sized canvas or denim – or iron a nonwoven fusible to give it more body.

    These are all some ideas I’ve had to rely upon in the past.

    Once my pattern is corrected from the mockup – I make the final prototype in the exact leather or material.

  6. Esther says:

    I always sample or mock-up in my intended fabric. This is very common in children’s clothing design. A good quality muslin ends up costing as much or more than many of my intended fabrics anyway. The only time I use “muslin” or substitute is when I don’t have confidence in my pattern.

  7. jinjer says:

    A minor interjection–in my original discussion forum post, I clarified that I don’t use muslin for my dummies (I was calling them “prototypes”, though–oops, I’ve been using that word incorrectly!), I use rayon challis, because it drapes a little more like the fabrics I tend to use.

    Still, my final fabrics (silk crepes are a favorite) are still too different for me to work out the kinks in the rayon. I realize that I’ll have to go through more trouble (and expense) to pick fabrics for dummies that behave nearly exactly like my final fabric. I cringe at the thought, though, because, as I mentioned, I tend to go through several major revisions. (Meaning several times the final yardage in the test fabric).

    All of this has given me much food for thought. I realize that my designs probably require me to thoughtfully develop my own pattern testing process, which is as effective and economical as possible. …And come to terms with the fact that complicated designs mean expensive pattern development. Of course, I also need more practice at patternmaking :)

  8. Yahzi Rose says:

    I’m getting my samples done for the first time (by 3 different people) and was pleasantly surprised when the 1st samplemaker gave me my “mockup” in a similar fabric to what I am using. Including using a contrasting print to substitute for my tie-dyed fabric. She said she just had the fabric ‘lying around’ and that she never does mockups in muslin. I can’t tell you how much this improved the fitting/correction process. I could tell by the weight how the fabric would behave as a child moves and the effect of the contrast on the overall look. I’m now thinking of giving my samplemakers extra fabric when we begin working so that I won’t have to guess with the muslin. Of course, tomorrow I have to fit a muslin mockup with the 2nd samplemaker…aaarrggh, I’m spoiled now.

  9. Andrew says:

    Using fabrics other than muslin [a.k.a calico in the UK] is standard practice in all of the places in Europe that I’ve worked. Patternmaking companies and manufacturers will expect a sample cut to make up a first sample or toile in or will subsitute something similar themselves if it’s fairly generic. I know of one company [a very big one that I’m not allowed to name unfortunately] that actually selects new fabrics seasonally by sampling a similar style from a previous season. This is done to see how that fabric performs [or doesn’t] in the manufacturing process. It always amused me to see rails of coats with notes from the manufacturers attached – “not ideal, reacts badly to steam”, “ideal, perfect”, “presses poorly” etc. Invariably, these samples ended up being bought [and loved] by the company staff for knockdown prices in the warehouse sales.

  10. La BellaDonna says:

    I should clarify that the felts that I’ve used to test-fit patterns for leathers have been wool felts, or wool-blend felts, and they have been of a similar weight, with similar properties, to the leathers I was going to be working with.

    Jinjer, do you get your silk crepes from places where you can get a break buying in bulk? I know the idea of buying silk crepe in “bulk” is a little cringe-making, but places such as Dharma Trading, Thai Silks, Exotic Silks, etc. might be a good place to start, if you don’t buy from them already. A plain and/or undyed silk crepe might not behave exactly like a printed silk crepe, but it will be closer than a rayon challis.

  11. laurra says:

    ? How long should one labor to complete a pattern for a difficult dress to a plain style.
    Mabel Erwin states (Practical Dress Design 1933)55 hours complex and 16 hours for a simple outfit.
    Does this sound about right Kathleen laurra

  12. J C Sprowls says:

    I’m interested to hear Kathleen’s take on this, too…

    At first blush, I would say: “as long as it takes”. But, there is a practical business aspect to managing your R&D, too. I believe your risk tolerance is based on the anticipated return on the investment.

    Start with the end in mind… Let’s say the target is 1,000 pieces at $70 wholesale (i.e. gross sales = $70,000). The cost to cut & sew 1,000 pieces is, say: $17,500. Inputs and materials cost: $30,000. Your realized cashflow would be appx: $22,500 (if everyone pays on time – I recommend you reduce this number by at least 30% to give yourself cushion for slow pays).

    Somewhere between $0 and $22,500 is where your R&D + overhead + salaries + reserves need to cost. Based on these numbers, I would say the inital R&D budget (i.e. sourcing, style development, pattern development, and protypes) should probably be capped at $5,000 – both sweat equity and hard cash. If you pay yourself $25/hr (and exercise the law of thirds), that equates to less than 65 hours of your time divided among: sourcing, designing, patternmaking, and sample making activities.

    In my opinion, if the pattern making aspect looks like it would take more than 12-15 hours, I would say the design wasn’t efficient enough to support this sales target. If the design can be engineered in such a way to reduce the cut & sew costs, material utilization or costs, or the operational overhead, it might have a chance. Otherwise, I would set that sketch aside and pull down another one and perform the same top-down estimate.

    The most successful business people recognize potential when they see it. And, frankly, potential is abundant. Developing the fine skill of discernment (i.e. determining what, how much, and when to invest) requires patience, time, and practice.

  13. Rene says:

    Is it unheard of to sell your prototype as is? How would you recommend pricing that way? Everything I make is made from draping. Would you recommend drafting a paper pattern from my prototype? What is the greatest reason for that? I am a self taught artist (painting, drawing, digital photography, hair and make up artistry, costume styling, and am learning many new arts and computer programs )

    My current job is apprenticing for a luthiar, so I have a good sense of how to draft a pattern from prototypes. Although I have been working with wood and metal I have sewing experience and a growing knowledge of fabric. I prefer to work as a freelance artist. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I am in the dark with the terminology but I learn quickly.

  14. Kathleen says:

    Hi Rene
    Is it unheard of to sell your prototype as is?

    How would you recommend pricing that way?
    It’s like anything, it’s only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. That said, it’d sell for less than if you had a paper pattern to go with it. My book (more below) explains your responsibilities and the expectations of industry.

    Everything I make is made from draping. Would you recommend drafting a paper pattern from my prototype? What is the greatest reason for that?
    You’ll get a better return for a pattern. With a pattern, the design can be “proven”. A one-off drape may be lovely but not manufacturable. Ideally, you’d make a sample from the rendered pattern as a proof.

    My current job is apprenticing for a luthiar, so I have a good sense of how to draft a pattern from prototypes. I have sewing experience and a growing knowledge of fabric.

    ~gentle chuckle~ I have vast experience (beyond apprenticeship) in making patterns but I’d never imagine I could do the work of a luthier, much less have the skills to design something appropriate for a guitar manufacturing environment :). Even highly skilled one-off custom clothiers don’t have the skill set to produce patterns for apparel manufacturing. These can be acquired tho. Since you have the interest, consider getting a pattern making book to explore the option (don’t buy something cheap, get a trade title). Similarly, if you plan to design for manufacture (and you are if you’re wanting to sell the drapes and designs), I’d recommend buying my book which is an orientation to the industry, explaining all that is expected of you as well as standard practices common to the industry. The book is available in the upper left side bar.

    I prefer to work as a freelance artist.
    Pattern makers are more akin to engineers than artists :)

  15. Rene says:

    Thank you for the advice. I purchased your book (very, very helpfull) as well as a pattern making book. Hopefully I can manage to merge artist and the engineer with time and study. Is there a trade pattern making book you would recommend? Do you think it is still possible to make a career creating one off and custom clothing? Still learning.


  16. buki says:

    Thank you! I made a cowl back dress pattern from instructions in Helen Joseph Armstrong’s textbook in calico and its so not “cowl-like”. Time to break out the chiffon. n Please what are colourways? I would like a link if its a previously treated topic.

  17. Kathleen says:

    Colorway refers to offering a given style in X number of colors. For example, you have blouse #101 that you will sell in yellow, pink and blue. Yellow, pink and blue are the colorways for style #101.

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