Old school patternmakers: Should you get a CAD system? Or update the one you have?

old_school_toolsA conversation with another old school pattern maker brings this topic to the forefront -if you’re a highly skilled pattern maker accustomed to manual work, is it worth getting a CAD system for pattern making? For that matter, if you already have a CAD system but it is aging, should you upgrade to a newer version or get another software program altogether? The latter has been a real sore spot lately so I’ll try to tease these two out. This is a real crisis and I hope this gets through.

First, keep in mind that I’m old school too and I haven’t been using CAD very long myself. I know all of the reasons against it so let’s deal with that first. Oh wait, should I start with why you seriously need to consider it? Gosh, it’ll be hard to read but this is my personal opinion -not saying I’m right, it’s what I believe to be true.

Let’s be honest -how old are you? When do you plan to retire? If you plan to work another 10 to 15 years, the time to seriously consider it is past; it’s time to set a deadline for a decision -say January 1st? The key reason is that by failing to keep up with technology, we are defecting the trade. Yes, self attrition from what we love, we’re marginalizing ourselves. Today’s customer is looking for a soup to nuts pattern provider. This means patterns through markers. Yes, I know, grading and marker making was never part of our job description but this doesn’t make sense to today’s customer so the very best pattern makers out there are being pushed aside precisely at the time when we are most needed. Sure, it was typical for us to make our patterns and then pass them off to a grading and marking service for the rest of it but you know what? Stand alone grading and marking services are on the way out. It’s getting harder to find G & M services because the newer services are full package so if you don’t have CAD, you’re not going to have anyone to send your patterns to anymore. And if you can’t refer your customers to grading, you’re not going to get anymore work either. Today’s customer is savvier in this respect -if you don’t have CAD, you’re losing customers.

This is a situation that has caused me a lot of personal anguish: Over the past 20 years, I’ve sent a lot of work to a friend who owns a grading and marking service -that’s all she’s ever done and she’s very good at it. Last year she had her best year ever so I can’t get her to see that she’s on the edge of a precipice. The reason? I can’t afford to send her any more work; there are too many problems working with her archaic Gerber* files if they come back for correction or later revision. It takes hours of clean up that I cannot charge my customer for. I can’t charge my customer for that part of the job because I recommended the grader and it wasn’t the customer’s fault that my colleague uses outdated software (a case could be made that if I did charge for clean up, it was an indirect way of increasing my own receivables, knowing that the files would need work later on). So now, I reach the painful decision of not referring anymore work to my friend -and it kills me because she needs the income and she does wonderful work! My colleague has made noises about upgrading or getting another program but nothing has ever come of it. I can’t afford to eat the costs of her obsolescence in the interests of loyalty anymore. I don’t know what to say to her that I haven’t already said before. Since I don’t know how to have the conversation, I probably won’t say anything.

~An aside~*This is not intended as an indictment of Gerber. If anything, these problems are a testament to the stability and ubiquity of the program in that users don’t feel that they need to upgrade. Reason is, most enhancements focus on the drafting segment of the program and most of the users I have worked with are strictly grading and marking services so justifiably, they have little reason to upgrade. The conflict is that newer and competing CAD programs such that I use, can only be backward compatible to a certain extent. It is not reasonable for another software programs to create import utilities for Gerber files created on 10, 15 or 20 year old software. What I find troubling is that there is less awareness of the costs that my colleagues’ continued use of obsolescent software imposes on the community overall. At the same time, many don’t want to upgrade or migrate to other software because it cost them an incredible amount of time to learn the program. For many -perhaps as much as 60% of the market- Gerber is the only program they’ve ever used. Since it has such a towering reputation, users can’t imagine anything else would be as dependable or easier to use. But trust me, other programs don’t take as long to learn and they are a lot less work. It is hard to imagine but it is true.

If you have 10 or more years before you retire, consider taking a CAD class to try before you buy. If you can’t take a class, ask around to try a friend’s program. If you’re in my part of the world, you’re welcome to take a spin on mine. I cannot speak for everyone but the main barrier I had was that the CAD programs I had experience with, left me very unsatisfied. I didn’t feel I could do my best work that way. Everything was such a hassle, it took too long and I felt I could do better by hand. But finally, I knuckled under and yes, it took time to adjust and learn the software but I’m so glad I did. And yes, it was very difficult to summon the courage to do work I had little experience doing -such as making markers- but I’ve learned. It’s been good. It feels good to be able to still learn new things and acquire new skills. Making markers was terrifying at first but now, I’ve come to enjoy it.

I created a forum to support users of StyleCAD. I haven’t done much with it. Just me and another customer of mine are the only users but we’d be more active with it if there were any interest. Before I forget, I’m not paid to sell this software. I just think it saved me when I’d given up. I had tried another program before that and it was the worst and most expensive decision I’ve ever made. I lost a lot of money on buying that program.

Speaking of costs, you’d be surprised how amenable CAD sellers are to a personal approach. It’s not like buying a car or even a house, if you buy from given companies. StyleCAD isn’t the only company that will give you terms. Some will give you a discount if you’re a refugee from another CAD program. I got a discount by trading in my other software. I know that they will also let you make payments. I can’t speak for all of them but StyleCAD will let you pay out the cost over a year with no interest.

So ask me questions, what’s holding you back? Are you ready to pack it in and call it a day or will you stick around? We are losing the very best pattern makers in the trade because so few of them have CAD. It’s not useful to criticize younger pattern makers -they may be great with software but they need tutelage with patterns and who is there to do it? Will everything you know die with you because you can’t approach the abyss? Think about that.

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  1. Sophia says:

    I am a theatrical costume maker, and I have lately been wondering about this. Every pattern we make is a one off for the particular actor and show, but of course I still refer back to old patterns I have done. Our brothers and sisters in set design all use CAD, but I don’t know anyone in costumes who uses computer aided drafting in any form. I too have probably another 10-15 years to work and wonder if I should even go to a computer from the brown paper and tracing I currently use.

  2. Sally says:

    You are so absolutely right. I agree completely with your assessment of taking the leap from manual pattern making to adding CAD to the repertoire. I made that leap about 18 years ago. It has served me well but you are correct that old Cad systems are not compatible with many formats. I have been asked a number of times to convert my Gerber pattern files to .dxf and had to send them to someone else to convert. This is a waste of time/energy/money. I have been thinking I will retire but even if I do I can’t imagine not having a CAD system for my own projects. My concerns are: ease of use, compatibility with other CAD systems and ability to convert all my existing graded pattern files and grade rule tables. Thanks for the motivational push.

  3. heidi says:

    Yes, I too think you have to do it if you want to stay in business. The downside is: all those formats are changing and you have to update your software often. A friend of mine graded pattern for China. They have very new tools and those could not read the .dxf Version her software provided.
    She had to change to another system. Means lots of Euros and to learn a new system.

  4. Avatar photo

    Heidi, good point. It reminds that I should probably write a post on how to buy CAD software.

    An additional benefit of Stylecad is that you don’t pay for updates and you aren’t saddled with paying an annual licensing fee that other companies charge.

    Sally, if you (anyone) get Stylecad, they will convert all of your existing files for free.
    I have been able to open any CAD file I’ve gotten. You should come over and play with mine.

  5. Tyesha W says:

    Thanks Kathleen for this article;
    And I’d love to read on HOW TO BUY a CAD software because I am interested in the StyleCad.

  6. Avatar photo

    Are you suggesting the site hasn’t been updated because they haven’t *manually* changed the copyright date at the bottom of the page? If so, that is a poor yardstick. I gave up on updating my copyright date years ago but my site is still current.

    More importantly, I wouldn’t recommend a program that was outdated.

    The best companies -particularly contractors- don’t even have websites. For old school people, sites are more like business cards. Serious inquiries take place by phone. And sure, you could say they’re not getting your business but to be fair, you probably aren’t their customer.

    This post explains dichotomy – it is couched in terms of services but product vendors are very similar.
    Sourcing freelance services if you’re smart, young & web savvy

    In the trade, a site that tells all, doesn’t have credibility with the traditional buyer. Sites that list pricing and such are typically retail oriented.

    Here’s a comment which is typical of traditional trade practices:

    Universal Sewing Supply had a humongous booth. They have a humongous catalog that you need a dolly to carry. The website looks like it was done by a little old lady from Peoria (please, no offense meant to little old ladies in Peoria or anywhere else). The most impressive features are the controls that allow you to spin the globe and shoot fireworks and play Tchaikovsky. If you venture into the featured items, you might actually find something you’re looking for. But don’t bother looking for a search box – for that, you need to call. Or risk the hernia that comes with the hardcover catalog. Perhaps they haven’t noticed that Thomas Register has gone electronic?

  7. Alex Gallo says:

    We just installed our CAD system at our new factory in Puerto Rico. Went StyleCAD for the win. We are up to three licenses now (Purchased one and rent to own two)

    I completely agree with what Kathleen said about not judging a company by their website. I made the terrible mistake of getting hoodwinked by slick graphics and marketing of the “other” apparel CAD company’s in the past. Talk to end users and get demonstrations. Ask the hard questions. Downloading a trial version can be a waste of time because you will not know how to use the software and will get frustrated with it. Getting a pro user to demo the software for you is best. I gave up on CAD until Kathleen turned me onto StyleCAD. I’ve used a bunch of them and they all had their issues that were deal breakers (Optitex, Gerber, PAD, AutoCAD, Illustrator+hotdoor cad plugin, TurboCAD, draftsight, coreldraw, mspaint) I’ve got a post in the member forum were I review the main ones.

    We also went with an Ioline 72″ plotter and GTCO table digitizer. The next upgrade will probably be a Graphtec plotter that cuts out the pattern paper for the design studio to speed up our prototyping and sample making.

  8. Vesta says:

    I have had more than one colleague run into trouble with files from someone using an old Gerber system. Lots of time and money wasted while folks either clean up the mess or duplicate efforts elsewhere (paying for the pleasure).

    We bought StyleCAD a couple of months ago and are very happy with it overall. But I admit that the import of existing digital files is about to kill me. I need to talk with you, K. StyleCAD says they can convert files for me, but they require a lot of information up front (make and version of the creator’s software, inserting a 10″ x 10″ square into the pattern before saving, having it saved with the settings just so, etc). That’s all well and good if the sender is friendly. But the reality is that usually when someone is sending a digital file, they are losing business. We have yet to find anyone who wants to go out of their way to fuss with a file transfer. At this point, I’ve about decided it’s faster and easier to have them send me a nested grade, and digitize the pattern into our system myself!

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    Marina is just trying to do the best job possible. I can import a lot of files. Send me a sample file. I won’t clean it up for you (being that Gerber makes such dirty files, points every 1/32″!) but I can probably help.

    I imported a Tuka dxf the other day which was rather surprising in that I don’t have a tuka import utility and it came out rather well. Nowhere near the number of points that Gerber files have.

  10. @ Vesta
    You make an excellent point regarding the difficulty in being provided with the MOST BASIC information to handle file conversions…
    I think I’ll self combust the next time a file sender expects ME to show them how to use THEIR software to convert files (even when it’s in their own self interest)… And that’s before we get into the subject of companies using PIRATED software which (surprise!) creates all kinds of unexpected problems for anyone trying to use those files without knowing their origin

    If the opportunities brought on by the economic downturn and all this work coming back from overseas are not enough reasons to entice companies to invest in their own future… NOTHING WILL!

  11. Vesta says:

    That’s exactly what I mean. If folks won’t make an effort when it’s in their self-interest, imagine how folks react when they’re losing control of digital files from which they were previously making money. I inquired after the origin of files a couple of weeks ago and the response I got back from a pattern maker (through the client!) was “I can’t imagine why she’s having trouble opening that file.” No further help offered, even in the face of my saying the files were opening corrupted. I wish I knew who the pattern maker was so that I could avoid them in the future. What an awful attitude. I sent the client away (with the caveat that I can easily digitize a plot, if the pattern maker would deign to provide one). I have enough work without banging my head against a wall.

    But in the end, I’m disappointed that the compatibility across programs is so poor. I feel like there’s a lot of rework and cleanup going on, every time files are passed around. Either the service provider eats the cost or the client pays for the same work multiple times. Neither is a great option. And the busier I am, the less likely I am to donate any time on this type of issue.

  12. Avatar photo

    I inquired after the origin of files a couple of weeks ago and the response I got back from a pattern maker (through the client!) was “I can’t imagine why she’s having trouble opening that file.” No further help offered, even in the face of my saying the files were opening corrupted. I wish I knew who the pattern maker was so that I could avoid them in the future.

    You can’t assume the pattern maker really said that. Unfortunately. That was a mistake I made too many times. It is just as likely that the customer didn’t pay their bills or has been a non-stop pain in the butt. I have one customer currently, that has come back to me with requests for files in just about every conceivable format. Over and over, if it’s not one file transferred to X format, it’s another (and yes, I’d sent them a panorama of exports already).. Day before yesterday I mentioned that they still haven’t paid their bill for work done since X date. Haven’t heard from them since. And if I do, I’ll send the invoice again but I won’t be doing anymore file transfers until it’s paid.

    I’m not having cross platform compatibility problems with any software unless the originating system is really old. By really old, I mean not upgraded within the last 10 years.

  13. @ Vesta

    I rule out “software compatibility” as an issue because out of the 1000s of files I’ve received from OVERSEAS factories over the years (some of them using CAD Systems that are only known in their countries), only a tiny minority ever required some initial work around and (even then) they were committed to providing a file I could use

    @ Kathleen
    Compare the experience with overseas factories to the scenarios I’ve come to expect from USA based users EVEN when I specifically make it a point to ONLY deal directly with the CAD user handling the file for conversion because (as you rightly point out) sometimes there are unresolved “billing issues” that I wouldn’t want to be part of

    One example is dealing with CAD operators who have been using the same system for DECADES and expect ME to give them a step by step on how to adjust export settings in THEIR system (because apparently I’m supposed to train them for free too)

    Another scenario is having to deal with someone who (in this day and age) doesn’t even know there are numerous DXF standards and (instead of taking 5 minutes to “Google it”) doesn’t acknowledge the validity of my request and implies to the 3rd party that my request for information is absurd (wasting a good opportunity to LEARN something)

  14. Marsha says:

    Now that I have a proper pattern maker with the knowledge I need and the temperament suited to work with mine, I am planning to switch over to CAD. I still have 35-40 years of work left in me, and with a bulging pattern library after two years in business I am looking forward to transition into digital. I am not sure how the pattern makers will deal with it (I’m open to the idea of running a dual system), but for sure I’m looking forward to the day I relish getting repeat orders because all the production data is. Stored. Safely. There. (Just make sure there are two copies of recent backups stored somewhere away from the studio.)

    That, and a one-hour turnaround time for simple style developments. Gotta love that.

    I’m also looking to hear from those who have used Grafis, as I’m looking into purchasing the suite for its ease of size range management. I do a lot of custom orders and overseas markets (i.e. different size ranges) so I need help in distinguishing all the different sizes.

  15. Jeff Garner says:

    I started hand drafting and grading 33 years ago making production patterns for jeans. Previous to that I worked in radio on early automation and computer systems so I always kept abreast of developments in computers. About 20 years ago the company I worked for at the time purchased an Impact CAD system from NNT of Europe. There was much celebrating and cheering that now finally some work would get done. The rep came and spent 2 weeks (at the company’s expense of course) at a beach resort nearby. He was on hand at 7am for training everyday and left for lunch at 2pm. Since the plant closed at 3:30 he felt there was no need to come back after lunch. He was after all “European”. So after 10 days he declared the 2 new hires trained and flew back to “the continent”. Within 2 months 1 trainee’s husband had new military orders and the other had given notice because she was too stressed. Still, I made patterns by hand. And ran the cutting room. And made markers. We were lucky enough to find a college student that was not intimidated and she quickly learned the ins and outs. I made fewer patterns now. We finally had someone that could digitize on that 36″ table. She didn’t understand grading at all but could do an acceptable job if someone directly supervised.
    In 2006 the company moved up to a Lectra Systems setup. The software is not intuitive but it is easy to learn. The 60″ table makes digitizing a snap. The Flypen plotter drew a beautiful marker but was very problematic. I replaced it with a Sinajet a couple of years ago. The Lectra package was very expensive ($23k) and expensive to maintain ($5k yr). The service was not very good either. All that being said I find I now own that Lectra system (the factory closed) and it serves me well. I have made perhaps 3 patterns by hand in the last 3 years. There’s no more old school work.
    Finally, my website has a price list to provide a baseline understanding of value. You’d be surprised at the number of calls and emails I have received from people that are convinced their pattern should be digitized and made true, graded and printed in every conceivable size for the cost of a Butterick fabric shop pattern. And reprints should be free…forever.
    Tire kickers aren’t needed, my time is limited and with a price list to go by my good clients feel special if I discount some things for them.

  16. zeus says:

    la verdad no he trabajado con ese programa, pero hay un nuevo programa que compre, se llama optitex PDS 10. es para patrones (moldes) apenas estoy aprendiendo a menejarlo pero es muy bueno.!

  17. Avatar photo

    Optitex, aunque no es tan conocido como Gerber, no es nuevo. Ni modo, yo tuve optitex y para mi, fue el error mas grande que he comitido desde que empeze mi negocio -y yo empeze hace veinte anos!

  18. Lisa says:

    I have a mac and I know I can run a program to use a windows based CAD system, but I tried that once and wanted to kill myself just signing on. Do you have a gerber/lectra compatable suggestion for CAD for MACS? I have so much artwork going on the pieces for printing, it is better to go with my MAC completely if possible. It will save time and so much trouble. Thank you Kathleen!

  19. Kathleen Fasanella says:

    Unfortunately, neither Gerber or Lectra run on a Mac. The choice is not part of the equation tho because even if these were Mac compatible, you couldn’t place artwork on the pieces. See CAD vs CAD. The intersection of the two types of CAD is limited.

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