On becoming a pattern maker

Here are two similar questions from my mail:

What recommendations would you make to a person who wants to educate herself to work as a professional patternmaker? I have seen the books you recommend (and plan to acquire some at Christmas) and would like your advice on schools, exercises, experiments, etc., you think are helpful.

What is the best way to learn how to sew and pattern-draft “professionally” without actually getting a job in the industry. I use quotes because I already have a career and am not willing to give up my amateur status. However, I would like to improve my abilities. My local JC has classes in pattern-drafting. Are those useful? What path did you take?

Regardless of whether you want to become a career professional or improve your skills, I’d recommend accredited classes. While most of the following advice is geared to professionals, even if you’re an enthusiast wanting to upgrade your skills, a professional educational environment is best. While there is tremendous variation in the skills taught in schools, there are standards that must be followed. The same cannot be said about informal classes. While you can get lucky with private instructors, I’d strenuously avoid personalities known in home sewing. You’re better off with someone low-key without an agenda.

Personally, I think community colleges offer a tremendous value. Sure, you can pay a whole lot more at private “art” schools but I’m not convinced the education they provide is worth it. As an example, I consider intellectual generosity of an instructor to be key. By intellectual generosity I mean, how do you know whether your instructor actually shares all that they know with you? Based on my experience, I’ve found that community college professors tend to have less of an agenda -they’re not fighting for tenure or competing with other professors to keep their jobs in this era of dwindling programs. The program success of community colleges is rated according to how many students actually graduate and get jobs but it’s not like that at the private schools and universities. There’s a lot less drama and theory and more hands on with community colleges. Another example, I don’t sell many books to four year schools, I sell a lot more to the two year schools. I’m not trying to downplay a four year college degree but pattern making is a trade; you need as much supervised practice as you can get. Of course, not all two year programs are as good as they once were. F.I.T. is no longer teaching pattern design. I’ve tactfully omitted further comment.

In my case, I went to El Centro College in Dallas TX. While it’s not as prestigious as Parson’s or FIT to the average person, I’ve gotten any job I’ve ever applied for because the school has an unparalleled reputation with apparel manufacturers. Many manufacturers have told me that they’d hire anybody who went to school there and second, that students graduating from prestigious schools are the most difficult to work with. Again, if you’re someone who went to an expensive or prestigious school and you don’t like to hear that, sorry. That’s just what everybody says on the inside of this business, not the outside, pretty-fluffy-vogue magazine world -that I’m not sure really exists anyway. Pattern making is a technical hard-skill set. It takes infinite patience and dedication to detail. I know that designers think they do that too but I guess pattern makers bring that up a notch or two.

Once you get some classes under your belt (I never graduated), get a job preferably in production pattern making. That’s not as scary as it sounds because you’ll learn, trust me. If you can’t get a job doing that, try to get hired as a line stitcher. You’ll learn very quickly that most of what you’ve been taught is abject silliness and believe me, you can deal with the finite concreteness of industrial sewing. You’re going to like it much more than you’d ever imagine and the pay is much better than what media leads you to believe. The experience is invaluable and it’ll make you an awesome pattern maker.

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  1. Christy Fisher says:

    What great advice! I am so happy to hear your recommendation as a line sewer as well. I did that for 2 years before I was a cutter for a manufacturer.. What a wealth of knowledge I learned being on the line! You are truly a gem, Kathleen..who tells it like it is.
    You are so right on with this post.
    I have worked with others who have come from “prestigious schools” (some of them have also worked for “pretigious designers”- for FREE, of course..as INTERNS (slaves)..and they have had more attitude than skill)..There is no better teacher than getting in the trenches and getting your hands dirty..
    When I hire workers, the first thing I look at is their hands. If they are the frou-frou-always-have-a-manicure type, I am very hesitant to hire them.

  2. Natasha says:

    “I have worked with others who have come from “prestigious schools” (some of them have also worked for “pretigious designers”- for FREE, of course..as INTERNS (slaves)”

    and most of those internships consist of doing such high level tasks as unloading boxes of trucks etc (trust me I know!)

  3. Debra Emig says:

    I have just recently discovered this blog area, and I think it is great. I am trying to read everything I can, when I have time.
    I am an industry professional 1st patternmaker and production patternmaker going on 20 years.
    I have been in this industry forever, I started as a production sewer. My mother taught me how to sew when I was young, I always wanted to be a designer. I attended design school and that is where I discovered I LOVE the technical part, the actual pattern making itself more than design.
    And I agree that industry patternmakng is different, in fact when I landed my first position ina sportswear manufacturing plant, I soon discovered they did patterns diffently thanhow I was taught in college, personally, I think some of the classes I studied could have been condensed, but they seemed to drag them out longer than needed. It can be very technical , but it can also be so easy, there is a lot of “unwritten knowledge” in a patternmakers head that in my case was learned on the job, trial and error, or just plain common sense….also I did have the opportunity to workwith one the “older patternmakers” in the trade in this area and he taught me many techniques I did not learn in college or haven’t read in any pattern book.
    and I intend on ordering Kathleens book, I can’t wait to read it!
    Deb Emig, Pa.

    • Kat says:

      Hi there. You peaked my curiosity: do you have a blog or book where you share ome of that knowdlege. Greetings from Colombia… not Columbia.

  4. Ker Vang says:

    I currently work as a Product Development Coordinator for an Outdoor Retailer. I support a small team of technical designers. After a few months of working here, I’ve learned this is where my interest is – the technical area. I’m really interested in pattern making. I’m trying to find a way gain more experience, but not sure how to get in the door?? Most company require SOME experience. While surfing the net, I stumble on this site. The sites been very informational.

    FYI – I graduated from a private women’s college, and yes, most of them are SNOTTY!

  5. Oxanna says:

    New comment on an old topic…

    A local JC has apparently cut their pattern drafting class due to what they see as a lack of need. Apparently they’re seeing that most area industry jobs aren’t requiring pattern drafting – they’re requiring just basic pattern knowledge, speccing, etc. instead – so they’re considering it to be more of a personal interest class. Now of course I cry foul at losing such a class, but I suppose it’s true that this country is asking for more managers than skilled workers.

  6. Deborah says:

    Does anyone know of any schools in CA which teach pattern making? Do you have to acquire a full AA or BA? Can you just get certificate and then go to work? Are there any schools in CA which give certificate?

  7. ted b says:

    i am looking for school who offer pattern draftting certificate in toronto please help.I am a graduate from IAOD toronto in Fashion Design.

  8. sandy says:

    what a wonderful blog. there are some great insights here. unfortunately, i just found this and many comment are over a year old. i am a pattern maker working in los angeles. i have done my time with proenza schouler, narciso rodrigues, guess, arden b, nordstrom and so on… i love pattern making and the attention to details. as was mentioned earlier you learn on the job. i started out as a cutter and sewer and am now working as a head pattern maker. i would really love to hear what some of the masters have to say. any tips on anything would be appreciated. and/or if you are a novice please don’t be hesitant to ask me any questions.

    • My name is Cristian Suarez from Miami, FL,
      I design clothing on my own time while working a 9 to 5. I really want to pursue work as a pattern maker. Should I go to trade school and get a pattern making certificate or degree (if there is one)? or is this something I can just practice on and apply to jobs for?

      • Avatar photo

        The majority of designers who become successful (meaning, provide sufficient income to support their families) do not have fashion degrees. You couldn’t say the same about pattern makers. You need training -and even that isn’t enough.

        There is a lot of content on this site about it but these will get you started:
        Do you need a pattern maker?
        How to hire a pattern maker.
        Interviewing tips for pattern makers (gives you an idea of expectations).
        You’ll also need to know a lot about production sewing (so you can engineer patterns to tight parameters), grading, marking (better look it up if you don’t know what that is) in addition to industrial engineering and materials utilization. Pattern making is a very simplistic and low key term to describe a difficult and complex job function. We are the engineering back bone of the whole process. Even the WSJ said that once management decisions have been made, the pattern maker is the single most important person in the factory.

        Good luck!

  9. vaso says:

    Really appreciate this blog. I am sincerely interested in becoming a patternmaker. I graduated with a BA, fashion design and it was in school that I realized that the technical: pattern, drape, fitting, flats are what suits me. I have been working in the industry for about six years: assistant designer, retail, merchandiser, graphic artist, design assistant. I would like to dedicate my efforts to patternmaking; I am having a difficult time. I live in a smaller city in the mid-west and am very free and very willing to move for work, but am wary of moving without work. A few times, I feel my location has held me back. Anytime I have applied for (entry-level) technical design, patternmaking assistant work I have been unsuccessful. I have considered going back to school in order to sharpen skills, but believe my foundation to be solid, would like the opportunity to build. I will attempt to find line sewing, cutter positions. Please advise… Thank you!

  10. Million says:

    I wish I knew of somewhere in the Vancouver, Canada area where I could apply for a job like this.

    I think on-the-job training is great. All of my training for casino games as a dealer, which is also very technical, was on the job. We didn’t learn everything on a live game, but when we did take a course it was with seniors in our own workplace who taught us exactly the way they wanted us to do it, not some random course in a separate school which may or may not have interested the employer. Even within that context, the teachers had a big impact on whether we thrived or not as students, and it was often possible to tell which class a person had come from by the way they worked later on.

  11. Rhonda says:

    I’ve been looking for schools teaching pattern making as well. In regard to Million’s post – I think I saw three schools in Vancouver Canada. Unfortunatly here in Oregon I have only found one college and it doesn’t spacifically state that it includes the pattern classes, just fashion design at this particular location. I have over 20 years of production sewing experience. I started by taking every textile, sewing, serger , class I could at Anchorage Community College – back in the late 1980’s. I have been production supervisor two years for a company who did boat cushions, seats, tops. But my love is design and more apparrel, bags, pillows and table linens. LOL Any community colleges anyone knows of giving pattern design classes in Oregon, Washington, Idaho or CA? Might consider AZ, NM, NV, MT, or there about states as well. LOL

  12. Donna says:

    My first introduction to pattern drafting was in the 60’s at a community college night class. The instructor had a long career in the industry. I learned a lot and really enjoyed the experience. Later after retiring from teaching I wanted pick up where I had left off so I enrolled in a fashion design program at another community college. I decided I would get the most out of the program if I took all the classes even though I didn’t plan on starting another career. Again the experience was invaluable for my own knowledge of sewing.

  13. Lisa Brazus says:

    I am wondering if the different programs could be listed and complied for their offerings. May take tons of research but it would be interesting to know how many programs are still being offerred in the US.

  14. Kathleen says:

    The problem with listing programs is criteria because there are private, unaccredited and many nationally accredited programs that are problematic but the alums think they are great -not having another point of comparison. Frankly, it’s a heady mine field I don’t dare contemplate…

  15. Nathaly says:

    Dear Kathleen, thank you so much for referring me to your blog. I actually decided to study Fashion Design because I grew up watching my grandmother sew…she was “my 1st teacher”. I agree with your advise on being a line sewer. At the internship I’m at now, I made friends with the seamstress, so she always lets me watch and sometimes help her. I did went to a 4 year college, but I’m always asking the seamstress all kind of questions because I’m eager to learn more and more…there’s always something new I can learn from her. I’m very hands on and that is why I’m trying hard to pursue a career in pattern making. I’d rather do that than just design; it is a job that I enjoy doing. I will definitely look into sewing jobs too. Thank you!

  16. RLW says:

    FIT has a great certificate program in Patternmaking. I am in the program now and find the professors to be very knowledgeable and very helpful to the students. Most of the students in the program are continuing education students (people with day jobs) so there aren’t many “divas” in the classes that I have had so far. I am thoroughly enjoying myself and highly recommend the program.

  17. Gabe says:

    Hi Kathleen,

    Thankyou or this. Can you tell me what the most common operating systems/programs are, that are currently used in the industry? When looking at schools I want a more clear cut way to evaluate how well spent my time will be. Thankyou so much!

  18. Violet says:

    Hi. My dream is to become a designer and start my own clothing line. I stumper your blog while searching for to hire a pattern maker. But, phew I have to carry a little knowledge in pattern making to do a hiring. Therefore I’m looking for a school or an apprentice that I could take just for that in south Florida where I live. Thank you

  19. Cheryl says:

    Love your site and its wealth of information! I would love to become a patternmaker. I live in a small town in Australia that doesn’t have a community college but am considering doing a diploma through open colleges (an online program). I’m a little bit dubious because even though you get a tutor who is working in the industry I am told that this tutor may have anywhere from 50 to 1000 students they look after. Being a teacher myself I know that 200-250 students is manageable but I question the ability to mentor 1000 students. I’m not normally a person who needs a lot of hand-holding if I’ve got a good book to follow, but still I wonder if I’m missing something from not being in-person. What are your thoughts on correspondence diplomas in pattern making?

  20. Krystalon Smith says:

    In high school when I was in the 10th grade, I’d taken home ec. During the first semester, I’d taken a sewing class learning how to thread the sewing machine. I’d learned how to sew in a sraight line! Then, at age 18, I’d gotten my very first sewing machine and had started sewing my own clothes! And, it was a lot of fun! I’ve started accumulating fabrics. I’d sewed whenever I wanted to, and whatever I wanted to make. Back then…I was using commercial patterns, and boy were they confusing! I’d dreaded using commercial patterns! I’d so desperately wanted to learn how to design my own patterns. I used to have a pattern making textbook. I was no able to comprehend the instructions in the textbook. It’d discouraged me , a lot.
    Then, back in 2001, I had a job working as a fitting room attendant at a department store called Stein Mart. An idea had came in my head! I’d thought of a t-shirt in my head…and I’d thought, “I could design a jacket from a plain t-shirt”, so that was what I did! And, so far…I was able to design a blazer from just a plain t-shirt! For a few years…I’d thought I’d never be able to learn how to create my own patterns, but fortunately…I was wrong! I was able to create my own patterns! So, therefore I was. And, I’ve been doing it ever since!

  21. Daniel says:

    Love your wisdom on everything fashion, I agree that without skill pattern maker there would not be fashion at all. So, much is played up on being a fashion Designer, but the real skill is the pattern making, and those who craft it in cloth. Note, I found that Los Angeles Technical College has Fashion program that have emphasized it courses on mass production side of the fashion industry. It cover industrial sew, CAD, and a strong focus on pattern making, draping as well as, fashion illustration. Being a community type college the price is right. Note the author of “PatternMaking for Fashion Design” Helen Armstrong was one of their instructor. Myself, sense high school I have been crafting clothing, and draping my own patterns, and recently I earned my AA degree in “Patternmaking and Fashion Production.”

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