Pattern maker vents about clients

Tracy writes:

I have made a lot of mistakes and had bad luck with working with DEs, retailers and individuals who have used my services. Some of it does stem from lack of experience, but some of the things that have happened I couldn’t have seen coming from an inch away. In this case, I did the job for free to hopefully to get other jobs and references. I was given a production pattern and a line sheet for a pair of pull on pants. There was a front technical sketch and the pattern looked pretty straightforward to me. The customer asked me to change four things, which pretty much means a new pattern to me. So, I drafted a pattern off the production pattern, with the changes, adding 1/2 inch seam allowance to the production pattern. I sewed it up with 1-inch seam allowance, so they could fit the performer in this costume. I only had his waist measurement. The pattern sewed up gigantic! I know the DE’s line and knew it to use a lot of ease, but this was way bigger. Granted, I did not double measure the production pattern, the line sheet gave me finished waist size so I went with that.

OK Here is the question: It turned out that she had given me a “Shrink to fit” pattern that was used apparently with a very shrink-y fabric. She said “I should have known” it was a “shrink to fit”, even though it was not noted on the line sheet or pattern itself. I was accused of making an avoidable mistake due to my “lack of experience.” Is this true??? Are shrink to fit patterns recognizable? I never saw one before and have not worked in the knit industry, so I had to take her at her word. I feel bad as I put in a lot of effort and would have liked a good result. Even if I had seen it, I still would have needed much more information to fix the pattern. So I think it was just a bad situation and that I could have avoided if I had more experience that for sure!

Before I move on to your question, I have to deal with a few things for clarification. First, I don’t understand why you had to add 1/2″ seam allowance to a production pattern because allowance should have been there already (only slopers don’t have seam allowance). By definition, it couldn’t have been a production pattern if it didn’t have allowance. Secondly, I would have discouraged sewing the sample at 1″ allowance. For better or worse, the only way to properly test a pattern is to sew it at the stipulated seam allowance because taking a larger allowance would mean you’re moving into area allocated to the pattern rather than any construction allowance which usually compromises the proving of the pattern. Third, by “line sheet” I’m thinking you mean a sketch sheet? A line sheet is a little different.

Returning to your question “Are shrink to fit patterns recognizable?”, I’d say not. If a pattern is rendered for a specific fabric (and they usually are) one cannot guess -unless they’re the person who made the original pattern. Typically, you’d have to know the specifics of the “parent” pattern (block or “style reference no.”) the fabric for which it was made and the allowance for shrinkage that was added. This sort of information should be tracked on the sketch sheet or specifications sheet of the block or parent pattern. It was entirely inappropriate for your customer to have had the expectation that you’d know. Assuming you did know, how were you to guess the shrink percentage? Rather, it is incumbent upon the customer to provide that information. Since the pattern was not marked for “shrink” and you could not know that, the customer should have provided that information one way or another.

Customers like this can be a real pill. In real life, the situation is often such that a customer like this becomes exasperated if you ask them for more information because they think they’ve given you enough or they don’t want to be bothered. When I’ve asked for more information in the past, I’ve gotten reactions ranging from insults to paranoia. If I ask for more, a designer has too often implied I must not be very professional because her last pattern maker didn’t need it (no mystery why she needs another pattern maker, eh?). Or, if I’ve asked about specific fabrications, a designer gets really paranoid, like I’m trying to copy her design or something. It was designers like this who inspired me to write that book in the first place.

If you are someone just starting out providing services to the community, our continued conversation will be of interest to you. My first response to her was “As you gain some experience, you will learn to avoid jerks like this. I know it took me a couple of years to figure it out.” In response Tracy writes:

She had a large production at one time, and six retail stores as well. I have admired her for years, and when I ran into her, I was falling all over to help her on this “celebrity project”, because I thought it might have possibilities for me. Also, I was very interested in seeing her process going from concept to production. However, as we progressed it became clear that she may be rusty (read time waster) as a designer, and was not very familiar with pattern making, even though she employed a bunch, and owns “thousands” of production patterns. I knew “something” was up with the ease, and I called her during the process and asked her about the patterns fit, but I realize now she probably was a “business owner” and this maybe even her first time dealing with the mechanics. I should have asked the name of her X pattern maker. She is on a first name basis with all of the major clothing companies around here. Also she is extremely “cool”, in a way that I have always wanted to be.

When I first started out, I was impressed by some customers too; they had a lot of good press. It takes awhile for reality to sink in. I got patterns so bad I didn’t know what to do; I couldn’t understand it. Some patterns were so bad that I honestly reflected that they couldn’t be burned -the fumes of which had the potential to compromise the fertility of the entire county for generations to come- yet somehow, they’d been “successful”. Course, later you find out all kinds of other stuff. That they’re into hock up to their ears. That they have second and third mortgages. That they’ve filed for bankruptcy. That they’ve stiffed everyone. In fact, it got to the point that when a local big name approached me, my first thought was that they needed another pattern maker because their last one had cut them off. A lot of them take advantage of the fact that they’re known, that their name will wow you and even get upset if you request an advance on the job. I definitely have been stiffed more by known companies than unknowns so watch out. I also suspect this is common nationally. That’s why a lot of service providers and suppliers who’ve been around for years honestly do not care if you’re the Queen of Sheba, you pay up front or upon delivery or you don’t get table time.

The other thing about this profile of customer, is often they don’t know the mechanics; they’ve been insulated from it usually by a partner, production manager or assistant. The thing is, the assistant or partner finally bails and the designer doesn’t have the background themselves to cover the short fall so in many respects, it’s like starting over with a newbie but it’s worse because you’re catching someone with an ego (self invested) who thinks they already know everything on the downhill slope so this can be a tough battle. My advice? Get a deposit. Everybody pays, no matter how famous they are. Chances are excellent a client like this will walk but trust me, if they won’t pay beforehand, they won’t pay later either. Once you have an established relationship, then you can extend terms (not requiring an advance for example). I have a friend who charges a $500 retainer before she starts work for a new client, refunding the balance as needed of course. She figures if they can’t come up with that, they’re not serious. But back to the point of a “known, successful” name not knowing anything, you’d be surprised who doesn’t know what. It’s truly shocking. I wrote a whole chapter on it. It’s called “The Big Dirty Secret”. That’s why people in the business will often vett each other, interviewing extensively about early work experiences. Someone with a lot of history in the cutting room and patterns has a lot more credibility than someone with a college degree but no factory floor experience.

My idea was to start a DE service company (you had mentioned a similar service, a while ago) up here in the SF area, but over the last three years almost all my jobs have turned out to be for “crazy people”. I keep thinking it must be me, but when I have worked for designers, the things that have happened have been really discouraging. There are a lot more egos than I anticipated, a lot of ignorance, and not enough courtesy and knowledge. I have been yelled at, rushed, stiffed and of all things, snapped at! I don’t want to deal with the GP (general public) either so I don’t think I am cut out to make custom clothing.

It’s not just you. There’s a lot of ego, a lot of prima donnas; it’s exhausting no? I’ve been through a lot of crazy, arrogant, dumb customers. Crazy gets press but it’s kindness, compassion, understanding and a willingness to learn that makes people successful. Believe me, it gets tiring. Even now, I get calls from people out of the phone book who have no idea what I’ve accomplished and they treat me more rudely than you’d treat a satellite-selling telephone solicitor calling repeatedly in the middle of supper, so I still do know how pattern makers are treated. It’s really amazing when you think about it. Only amateurs (or graceless, unkind people) treat pattern makers -or anyone- like that so why would you want to work for either one -especially if they don’t even pay? These people seem to come with the territory which is why most of us work through referrals (I know other pattern makers have gotten work in the forum).

One of these days, I’m going to host a horrible customer contest just to amuse myself. I’m sure everybody’s got an entry for that one.

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  1. Karen C. says:

    I guess there is crazy on both sides (see my recent forum post on Confronting my Patternmaker). I treated my patternmaker with the utmost respect only to have her tell me to never contact her again when I asked her to suggest a solution to unmade pattern adjustments from our last fitting.

    So, Kathleen, as to shrinkage and such, should it be marked on the pattern whether it’s for woven or knit?

  2. nadine says:

    It is unfortunate problematic clients are so common. When the client (no matter how well known) is unknowledgeable about the pattern or manufacturing process then there will be issues. I feel this starts from the very beginning from what attitudes and conduct they learn in their art or fashion school environment. There is this hierarchical culture that has always existed with Designers where the DE is considered “at the top” and the workers and assistants are viewed as having the sole purpose to keep the DE at the top. This isn’t as petty as it might sound. Designers follow this hierarchical model which comes from the european apprentice/atelier system. Compounding the issue is a prevalent attitude among freshly out of school DE’s if you want to succeed all you need to do is come up with an idea and “pay someone to execute it for you”. Many schools don’t have roots in manufacturing and therefore don’t teach the process well to their students. Not to over generalize but these motivations all lend themselves to a hierarchical way of thinking which corrupts further when you start throwing class issues into it ie: rich person wants to do “fashion” and finds a “worker” to make it happen. Not every designer falls in this trap but it is so common and shortsighted it is really hurtful to those who love being in the manufacturing/production end.

    The US business model has roots in Henry Ford’s production line and our business climate which delinates the professional roles of each job. Having a clear understanding of a contractor’s role cuts through a lot of problems as both parties understand what their responsibilities are toward each other and who provides what info/material etc.

    Because I’ve also suffered from designers with lack of professionalism or understanding, I’ve made a point of teaching on this issue to my students who may go off to be DE’s in the future. I want them to conduct themselves with knowledge so as to protect the local contractor environment. If everyone acts badly then contractors eventually won’t want to do what little business is around and close up shop which is happening at an alarming rate.

    For myself, I no longer am willing to work with DE’s who are so uninformed. I don’t even want to be involved with the headache or help them “be famous”. I always require payment or a deposit up front from everyone except when working with large corporations who are sue able and have accounting departments that issue vendor numbers. I always provide a written quote of exactly what I am doing for the money and how much more will be charged if the work goes beyond the proposal. I always charge for work, even if partial or canceled (happens a lot). I also take a small project just to test the relationship and if there are problems with that – the end. period. And I don’t have too much invested or too much loss. And when the DE then asks me to refer them to someone else – I won’t because I value my relationships and won’t willingly pass bad clients on to bring disasters to others I respect. I always call around town to find out about my client before doing the work. I’ve found that even in a major city, everyone knows what is going on. If they have a bad rep, I ask them to explain it before proceeding with their work. I’ve learned if I’m not comfortable then I’m not going to get paid. I stopped taking work because I was excited about what the person was designing or wanting to be a part of their “fame”. In every case those were some of the worst people to work for and get paid for the work.

  3. Tracy says:

    I received a style sheet, with a technical sketch, and included in the style number were the letters STF. At the time, I did not pay any attention to the style number, as this could have been for a color way, or some other internal coding. Looking back, I realize that this was their internal code, for “shrink to fit,” but, nowhere was written an indication of the percentage of shrinkage or other information on the grading rules. There was nothing on the pattern to indicate any deviation, other then regular marks, drill holes, indication of seam allowance, very standard. Now, I know to read and question more carefully.

    As this pant was being made for a specific person, I drafted the pattern with the extra 1/2 inch, because in my experience in fitting costumes, it comes in handy. I only had a waist measurement, not length or hip. The finished waist measurements listed on the sketch sheet told me there might be other areas that were on the small side.

    When I wrote my e-mail to Kathleen I was pretty upset at feeling blamed for something that I could not have known. I had the feeling like maybe there was something I could have seen ahead of time. I take responsibility for learning as much as I can from every experience. This one really taught me that I needed to slow down, and get more information and not allow the “rush” nature of most jobs to force me into doing work that might have an evil outcome. Also, I am hearing, and they are sinking in, the things about not working free, getting a deposit, and being more careful about who I work for.

    I know it is ironic, but I am most upset that my work did not turn out the way it was supposed to and that I did not sew up a muslin, because I thought her production pattern was proven. I re-read the parts of Kathleen’s book about designers and their blocks and how we need to see them, as pattern makers, to know where their styles are coming from.

    Right now, I am designing on spec again, without deposit or contract for a DE I know, on the hopes that my product might get made… Seeing my dilemma published on this blog, I vow to get some clarity in writing soon! I also agree with Karen C’s comment and have been surprised that pattern makers are not ranked higher ( like #1) in most fashion hierarchies .

  4. Sarah in Oregon says:

    Apparel Product Development is what I do, and the first time I talk to a potential client I say “have you read Kathleen Fasanella’s book?”.

    If you have them read the book before you work with them, you will save yourself amazing time and energy. They have a much better idea of what’s going on, and they will ask much more informed questions, instead of time wasting questions.

    The most amazing part is that even designers and manufacturers who are very experienced will discover new things when they read the book. I’ve worked with manufacturers and designers who have been in business for 10+ years who say they have learned so much from Kathleen’s book, and thank me for suggesting it.

    The bottom line is, in this business there is always more to learn. Process improve, technology evolves, and there are multiple ways to solve every problem. If you work with people who aren’t complacent with their knowledge, and want to learn more, both you and they will be happier and more successful.

    Thanks to Kathleen for giving us this great tool for learning, and thanks to all of you readers who are contributing to the education by writing in!

  5. laurra says:

    First, Kudo’s for being out there!Wish I was at your level.
    Focus on being better not bigger!
    Good patternmaking takes time at least for me. Kathleen streeses not to be emotionally involved with product, easier said then done. laurra

  6. maria says:


    Hierarchy can be a very efficient way to organize a company. It reserves “big problems” for people whose time and talent are scarce or expensive and delegates lesser problems to people who are still learning or not as talented. This keeps costs down.

  7. Suzanne says:

    It’s my greatest fear to be a “bad DE.”

    And I agree, if someone won’t pay for at least partial services up front, they won’t pay at all.

    I hope you find many non-crazy clients in your future. My husband used to do his own graphic design business and because he was naive about client selection, he used to work for total nuts who never paid him. I think as someone because more confident and experienced, they learn they can turn away bad clients.

  8. Hi Tracy,

    We have been offering CAD services in the US and Europe for 10 years, and I can assure you that unfortunately this type of customer is a global fenomenon that is on the increase.

    It’s very tempting to take “any work” when you are first starting out, but this is also the expensive way to get experience.
    We have a “list” of things clients must provide us with in order to get a final price in writing (Front and back flat sketch, style number, what type of fabric, if it’s knit how stretchy is it) and we basically discourage Designers from giving us old patterns to work from by charging a premium for this service and only working with existing patterns from other sources if they are TRUE TO SIZE.

    Over time you’ll probably feel more comfortable with the tough of saying NO or even FIRING BAD CLIENTS….

    I wish you the best of luck!

  9. cuttingline says:

    Dear Tracy,
    I made the exact same mistake about 15 years ago when I made 6 or 7 patterns for a student of mine who was freelancing his designs. All I knew, in addition to his rudimentary flat sketches, was that the garments were to be made in jersey (No fiber content indicated). I was yelled at and stiffed when they garment dyed the 100% cotton jersey garments, which of course caused them to shrink into ” baby clothes”. I had not been told, I had failed to ask, and learned an important lesson. I agree with Nadine’s assessmment. And of course, get a deposit or a retainer fee before beginning.

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