Pencil please; mark each statement true or false:

Q. It’s the seamstresses or sewing contractor’s fault if:

T F Sewing costs are higher than expected.
T F Stripes don’t match or meet evenly.
T F Vest points curl up.
T F Pockets are sewn on crookedly.
T F Cutters waste too much fabric.
T F Sleeve caps are puckered.
T F Buttons are sewn on carelessly.
T F Appliques are sewn ‘where-ever’.
T F Collars are sewn off balance.
T F Sewers quit because they’re lazy.

If you answered “true” to any question, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Bad patterns are responsible for 95% of these problems. DEs often underestimate the value of a good pattern. DEs think lazy, sloppy, and uncaring seamstresses cause these problems.

In fact, seamstresses are the victims. First, they’re blamed for something that’s not their fault. They’re blamed for something over which they have no control. Then insult to injury, their character and work ethic are insulted by converting the blame into a character flaw. In short, all of these problems were caused well before they ever reached the sewing line. It’s not fair to blame sewing people just because they had it last.

Underestimating the value of good patterns is stereotypical among small companies. Many start-ups usually do one of two things or a combination of both. Either they make their own patterns or they buy ready-made from a store or mail order. This is problematic in three basic ways.

  1. It’s illegal. Using retail patterns for production is a violation of copyright. In some cases, you could be arrested for theft of service, brought to trial, fined and you could be sued civilly. Copyright infringement is a federal crime. It’s also an international crime.
  2. Your design ideas are unprotected. Using a copyrighted pattern designed for hobby sewers means you have no legal protection if someone knocks off your products; even if you file separately for copyright. This is because only the pattern is protected, not the design. If the basis of your design used property that didn’t belong to you, you have no legal recourse at all.
  3. Poor product quality. Most important of all, is the quality of your product. The previous reasons pale in comparison to this one. Using store bought patterns is the number one quality and cost problem of small manufacturing companies. Using poor quality patterns causes 95% of cost over-runs, waste, returns, and reduced retail possibilities.

If DEs use store bought patterns, they have hired a pattern maker they don’t know, without an interview, resume, or verifying skills. People right out of college make most of those patterns. Many of them don’t even know how to sew. Why would you hire someone with these qualifications to design your production system?

This is a true story
I worked for a company that produced thirty million dollars worth of sportcoats a year. For the sake of argument, let’s assume they knew practiced and professional ways to sew sportcoats.

One day, management (in a fit of boredom) decided to develop a new fitting style, and sent someone to the fabric store to buy a “commercial” pattern to try it out.

Mass confusion raged. It took four people, two days just to cut it out. We’d never seen anything like it. The pattern pieces looked ‘weird’ and some of them were even missing. The production manager became angry because the entire department was working on one ‘commercial’ pattern. She said, “If home sewers can figure it out, it should be a breeze for you guys.”

On the third day, we gave it to the sample maker who couldn’t figure out how to sew it. In fact, she literally threw it at me twice. I kept pleading, “But I didn’t make the pattern.” She said, “You’re the pattern maker. You figure it out. I’m not sewing it!” By the way, this lady sewed three lined sportcoats every day, for thirty years. I had never seen her frown, much less get mad and throw things at anyone.

Then we sneaked over to the sewing line and begged gratuitously. Having the sewing line put it together took a combination of bribery, thinly veiled threats and seriously depleted our favor bank. Finally two weeks later, it was finished.

It looked horrible; but gluttons for punishment that we were, we weren’t willing to give up. We fit it in the style meeting. Management was appalled; they kept saying, “How do home sewers put up with this?”

Normally a test sample like this is sold in the company’s outlet store, but they were afraid a consumer would try it on and think that all of the company’s products fit and looked like that one. So they literally threw it away (a nice silk too). No one stole it from the trash since we were very disgusted by then and very happy to see the last of it (but I did save the pattern to amuse myself).

For the sake of argument, let’s assume two things:

  1. This company is professional.
  2. You aren’t.

Conclusion: If professionals can’t use store bought patterns in production, why would you?

Other new companies don’t use store bought patterns and the designer will make their own. This could mean they’ve underestimated the technical skill and training needed to generate quality work. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the DE actually has any training; I’ve seen just as many non-sewing, untrained DEs make their patterns as I’ve seen design school graduates make theirs.

Many times, untrained DEs are better at the task because they assume they know nothing and re-invent the wheel. They’ll often study and practice at length and even attend classes or pay private tutors. Design school trained DEs often think they have the skills, because they took ‘production pattern making’ in college. Well, I took production pattern making too, but I was not prepared for the realities of the workplace.

I’ve found that it takes a company about fifteen years to figure out that bad patterns are the source of all of their problems. It usually takes many companies that long just to understand the importance of the engineering and design phase. The problem is, most companies go under before they last fifteen years, so they never figure out the real reasons they failed.

Once a client complained non-stop about my $40 per hour fee. “The pattern is already made, you just have to fix it” he said. A local moonlighter who had no training, experience, and couldn’t even sew had made the ‘pattern’. I re-cut the pattern from scratch in four hours. My fee was $160. Compare that to the $195 he paid for the first pattern. The moonlighter charged $10 an hour, but it took her nearly three days to do it.

I’m not exaggerating, but my pattern sewed up in thirty minutes (instead of an hour), reduced fabric use by a full yard, and it fit better. It is for this reason that contractors want to make the production patterns; they know costs are far too high using a DE’s patterns.

Another DE thinks I’m fussy and obsessive; which could always be true, but I know things about her business that she doesn’t. I know why half of her sewers call in sick on the same days. It’s because they know a particularly toxic design is scheduled to be sewn that day. The sewers know they won’t earn enough money on piece-rate to pay their baby-sitters, so it’s cheaper for them to stay home and miss a day’s work. Plus, they won’t be blamed for the inevitably poor results.

This DE doesn’t know that her seamstresses draw straws in the parking lot to determine who gets to call in “sick” the next day. One style caused a fist-fight (a sewer called in sick when it wasn’t her turn) and they had to call the sheriff to break it up. This particular style was so toxic I wouldn’t recommend burning it. The fumes of which, had the potential to compromise someone’s fertility for generations to come. These patterns should just go to the closest hazardous waste disposal facility.

By the way, this designer is not stupid; she’s absolutely brilliant. She’s got a great sense of humor when she lets her guard down. But even after ten years in business, she still doesn’t understand the importance of a quality pattern. She’s proud of the fact that she makes her own patterns and blames her quality problems on the seamstresses.

Production people don’t complain to undermine your authority or to criticize you. They look to you for leadership, security and guidance. They depend on the jobs you provide to support their families. If you go broke, they lose their jobs and their families suffer. The success of your business is a partnership. They have a serious interest in the success of your business.

The grainline on a pattern can literally determine whether the children of your employees have good shoes and warm coats, to say nothing of a place to live.

In conclusion. Don’t use store-bought patterns. It’s illegal and they’re not worth the money at any price. If you make your own patterns, have others check your work, like professionals do. Lastly, if something can’t be sewn quickly, efficiently and well, you are responsible. Don’t blame the victims.

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  1. Kat says:

    Wow. Just wow… I’m speechless.

    I’m just wishing the day comes when you make an online school. We need a good pattern making education over here in Colombia. I’ve searched, but this vital area is only an appendix to Fashion design… Drawing and coloring is all nice and good, it has its place… but when push comes to shove, taking those ethereal ideas and translating them to tangible items in an efficient manner its helpful to everybod. Here that culture is lacking.

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