PSA: Pattern makers are not failed designers

I’m disconcerted by a private conversation I’m having with a design school grad. By grad, I mean it’s been several years (10? 20?) since she matriculated and she’s never worked in the industry. It’s always such a rude awakening to be reminded of the fashion school mindset. Specifically, she’s so very kind and what not but she has the idea that pattern makers are failed designers -not that she’d be so rude to come right out and say it. You know, that people who couldn’t make it as a designer become pattern makers so we are not as important, skilled, smart or whatever. I don’t think I’ll ever become accustomed to this.

So here’s my little PSA (public service announcement) to design school students and graduates: In many schools you may be taught that people who can’t cut it as designers become pattern makers. All I can say is believe that to your peril.

Pattern making is an engineering degree. Fashion design is liberal arts. Since engineers nearly always out-earn artists, that would explain why pattern makers can earn twice as much as designers -unfortunately they don’t tell you that in design school either.

Yes, designers are taught a bit of pattern making and pattern makers get the same training as designers but we get additional coursework and training designers do not. It’s an entirely different educational and career track. Pattern makers are not settling for second best. We don’t want to be you. We’re not jealous of you either. We do not pine for adoration and public acclaim.

In school they tell you have to become a pattern maker to become a designer. This drives me crazy. It is not that you have to be a pattern maker in order to get to be a designer, it’s that a pattern maker becomes a designer because they’re not cut out for the pattern job -not that they paid their dues.  And they may not be cut out for the pattern job because of many things, temperament, the requirement of absolute precision, having to take everyone yelling at you when production has a problem etc..

Does this mean I don’t think start up designers shouldn’t make their own patterns? Of course not, I think that is the best way to get started if one’s budget is tight. However, once a designer wants to hire another business (as opposed to stitchers working out of their homes), required competencies are brought to bear -sometimes quite rudely and abruptly. Moreover, by virtue of the fact that I’m a pattern maker (and thus you presume I’m inferior to you) and I know some contractors does not mean I owe you an introduction just because you’re a designer. I would never presume that you owe me something if I’m not your customer -even if you are a designer.  I know you may be the only designer that your friends know so they think you are great or you may even have a couple of aspiring designer friends you hang out with for the comfort of a collective group hug. However, all of our customers are designers so nobody stands out as great unless they are nice and all that.

Meaning, if you’re looking for other businesses to sew for you, a pattern maker can help you provided you are prepared to step up your game. Everybody thinks that moving up to another level is a matter of more sales but moving up to another level means increasing your competencies and hiring it out as needed. [Trust me, I took production pattern making in school too but I was not prepared for the realities of the workplace.] Frankly, among many designer start ups, it is endemic, a given, that they don’t even know they need a pattern maker. Hiring a pattern maker doesn’t mean you’re less of a design professional -it means you’re more of one.

Lesson: Pattern makers are not underlings, servants or inferior to designers and we can teach you a lot. There’s no need to pity us, talk down, or use mono-syllabic words when speaking with us. Most importantly, you should not disregard what we’re saying because you don’t understand. Make the effort and you’ll gain more respect, profit and partnering opportunities. We know lots of people who can take you to another level but we’re not going to hook you up if you treat us like servants. Most of all, we don’t owe you anything.

Want to know the ugly truth? In a factory, we own you. Just as a good sample maker can get a pattern maker canned (so pattern makers don’t get too cocky either), a good pattern maker can get a designer canned.  The power structure is in the inverse. Be nice. Call it my “opinion” all you like but that my friends is the real world.

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  1. Rocio says:

    I suppose I was lucky to have pattern making teachers who were not shy about telling us (Fashion Design AAs) how much more pattern makers made vs designers

    It took me about a year in the job market to face reality and fully emerge myself in the production side of the business…
    It wasn’t easy but 20+ years later I’m still in the industry providing development and production services to many companies , while many of my former Design colleagues have been forced to make the choice between starving or leaving the industry

  2. Eduardo says:

    Hello MS. Fasanella,
    I just wanted to let you know how much i enjoy reading your postings.
    They are to me a great way to read about what goes on in other patternmaker’s mind.
    Althoug i work in the industry( allways did) i have very little oportunity to really talk with my peers about many of the different subjects that you post in your blog.
    Thank you very much.

  3. Xochil says:

    Thank you for this! I sometimes get asked why I don’t want to do my own line, and some people just don’t understand that I am not interested in having my own line. I am happy working with other’s designs, and going through the pattern development, drafting, sewing, fittings, etc. All the things I enjoy — all the math, and problem solving, and things a lot of people don’t think about. It’s true that while pattern making as a career is mentioned in fashion school, no one talks about it as a serious or desirable career. Most people are there to become designers, and don’t even appreciate the basic pattern making classes they do go through. I had no idea how in-demand a pattern maker was [as a student].

  4. Nora says:

    That reminds me when I was fresh out of highschool and just started the mandatory tailoring apprenticeship that was required for fashion school. The in house pattern maker at the studio I worked at suggested that I would be much more suitable as a pattern maker. I felt pretty insulted at the time, because I wanted to be the high flying designer.
    While in Fashion School I always enjoyed the pattern and draping classes much more than the design ones. And if I may brag, I was the only one who was allowed to show the entire senior year collection, because I really payed attention on the execution of the clothes rather than the wow factor.

    I ended up meeting that pattern maker years later and told her she was right for the beginning.

    I never realised that pattern making was engineering until Kathleen mentioned it a while back. Coming from a family full of academic engineers I am now proud not to be the odd one out anymore.

  5. martin says:

    Holy frijole! What a mindset.
    Most folks, especially management, do not understand just what a patternmaker is, does, what an impact the role has. It can get lonely for us.

  6. Ahhh… I so just had a *lightbulb* moment; I sew and I’m trying to learn pattern making for my own personal enjoyment (not for work)! Maybe this is why I enjoy pattern making so much – my family on my Father’s side are/were all engineers/civil engineers/carpenters etc. and I even studied a science degree at University – so perhaps the “family” genes for an analytical, logical, problem-solving and structural-adept mind are at play in my choice of a pleasurable pastime :) ?

  7. Heather says:

    This idea is definitely out there. I never noticed it while working for the bigger companies, only now with smaller ones. Luckily, most people lose the mindset after they figure out the process.

    When I explain to people (outside of industry) what I do for a living, pretty much all of them say ‘Pattern maker— what is that??????’

  8. Nkem says:

    Wow, in school I thought about working as a pattern maker. I had an excellent professor who taught pattern making and gave us an article about Nicolas Caito.I never thought of pattern makers as failed designers, I actually thought of pattern makers as THE experts. Technical skill like that requires years of practice and perfection. Kathleen what is the best way for a new grad to get a job in pattern making? Im in Toronto Canada.

  9. Lillian M says:

    I agree a hundred percent. Having more of a visual, creative mind, I have a hard time taking my draping to flat patterning. I struggle with translating the precision adjustments I make from fitting to the pattern. Each adjustment on paper seems to solve one problem, but create another. Good to know there are those out there that love and enjoy that part and can do it so well. But, unfotunately, it is not me. Do you have any tips for becoming a better pattern maker? Loaded question! Maybe another post? :).

  10. Reader says:

    I have the highest respect for pattern makers. But I did once take a pattern making class with an excellent teacher who once said in passing that she wished she’d been a designer. She had worked in the industry; this was a top school and you could not teach there without significant industry experience.

    For whatever it’s worth, you’ve persuaded me: Assuming a competent sewing operator, the pattern is the most important part of the construction of a successful garment.

    Congratulations on the anniversary of your blog.

  11. Kenna says:

    Hear hear!! This is a terrific article that speaks to the hear of the matter – design vs. patternmaking.

    I can’t seem to make designers understand that I am not interested in designing. I love the logic and puzzle solving of technical design and patternmaking. I really thrive on it. I find choosing colors and deciding on silhouettes that are decided on the whim of merchandisers to be really arbitratary. For so many designers, it’s like Heidi Klum says: one day you’re in, and the next day, you’re out. But a good patternmaker is ALWAYS in.

  12. Mrs. Nelson says:

    As an aspiring designer I am glad you mentioned this. I have fallen into the role of actually working as a technical designer for others, I used to do it for myself but have found a way to make cash doing that but it has opened my eyes up to how designers work. I’ve been lucky so far & I hope to stay that way as I am pretty good at it. I took pattern making and I can do patterns but not on the level that a professional can and I appreciate what they do even more now that I also work for designers. Now that I am looking for a pattern maker I respect what they do how that I am on the other side of things sometimes.

  13. Sarah_H. says:

    I feel as though something should be said for those patternmakers who do want to be designers. I have had a long love affair with clothing, from the time I sewed my first dress in 8th grade, through a Bachelors in Clothing and Costume Design, and years as a designer and patternmaker both, and now as an etailer and sometime designer of clothes for my grandchildren and religious vestments. My diffusion of talent/interest may have hampered my rise in the industry, although I retired with a good rep and people wanting me to come work for them….but more importantly, I have been well satisfied with what I did. I am not and never will be as good an engineer as some, but I have been a good designer and a good patternmaker, and I am beginning to be a good etailer. And I have had a great time at it!

  14. Annie Rose says:

    I can’t remember if my teachers ever told me and my classmates that pattern makers earn more than designers, but they definitely DID NOT tell us that pattern makers are failed designers! Most of the students were pretty intimidated by the pattern making classes.

    How common is it for schools to have real production pattern making classes? My school taught us home sewing techniques in the “production sewing” classes but in the pattern making classes we learned a lot of things that match up to what I read in your book and blog. I wish that they had focused more on real production sewing instead of giving us conflicting information.

  15. Jess S. says:

    I am very thankful that I went to a more technically based school for apparel design; the university at large is a major engineering institution so it seems natural that the technical side of design would be the main focus. I’ve always had great admiration for pattern making, simply because it’s so difficult to master. My husband (and most of my family) are engineers or research scientists, and DH finds it fascinating that pattern making is so closely related to what he does with composites and metal. Yes, it’s engineering for the human body – and quite frankly, some of the people I went to design school with were ditzy idiots who couldn’t even begin to approach a serious level of pattern making. I have much more respect for the technical side of things than for the design side.

  16. Melissa Brown says:

    Thank you, Kathleen. It needed to be said.

    I can’t count how many times I have told someone I am a professionally trained apparel pattern maker and they have responded, “Oh, so you design clothes!” Argh!

    My brother-in-law, an electrical engineer, asked me some really pointed questions about what I do, what breadth of knowledge I bring to problem solving, how precise my work is, and said, “Well, it sounds like you ‘re an apparel pattern engineer. Why don’t you call yourself an engineer?” I think he has a good point.

    At first, I felt calling myself an engineer would be pretentious, but what we call things matters. I can’t imagine my brother-in-law calling himself an “electrical maker” or my uncle calling himself a “structural maker.” We need a name change!

    Apparel pattern engineers of the world, unite!!

  17. Julie says:

    There was a short TV series shown a couple of years ago in the UK called “The House of Chanel” and I was in awe of the women who actually made the clothes. Karl Lagerfeld wandered in every now and then, drew a few sketches and handed them over to the people who I consider to be the real experts – the pattern makers, sewists, finishers, etc. He then swanned off to whatever else it was he was doing that day, and the women got on with the real work.

    Years and years ago, I was tempted to buy some overpriced department store clothes because they were by “xyz designer” (I honestly can’t remember who it was now), until I read somewhere that all that designer did was draw some sketches and then hand them over (for a very hefty fee) to the department store – all the rest was done by the real experts, and the clothes were actually produced by the same manufacturers as all the other clothing made for that store.

  18. Erika says:

    The same thing happens in the theatre world as well. I have a master’s in Costume Technology and at that school you can get “demoted” to Technology from Design if you aren’t doing well enough in design. Unfortunately in theatre many of the costume shop workers may be designers waiting for their chance. Just like all waitstaff in LA are Actors…

    It is frustrating getting “oh! you design costumes!” or “so, I’m going to see your name on the big screen soon!” when I tell people I make costumes for theatre. No, you’re not. I like making patterns and sewing, not designing.

    I think I’m going to be a Costume Engineer now.

  19. Stephanie says:

    I am a graduate from design school (Im still green and naive lol) but I never ever *ever* thought that about pattern makers. I hope that’s not what the majority of students believe.. that is ridiculous. I have been DYING to find a job as a pattern maker (well… an assistant… something to start out). At the college I went to you had to take a sewing class to coincide with your design class. There were 6 pattern making classes total that you had to complete throughout your degree, plus specialty classes such as draping, eveningwear and corsetry, tailoring, costume making (for more unconventional things) etc. I dont know how most school programs work but based on my education I dont see how one could not see the importance of pattern making!
    Its patternmaking! lol….

  20. Susan says:

    I am an industry patternmaker who began in 1979 and have done private label production for the GAP, Mervyn’s and Gymboree. When I started out, I wanted to become a designer because designers are “better” and only losers would spend their careers as patternmakers. Well, 10 years into it, I finally had a light bulb go off – I was a damn good patternmaker and I loved it! My designer boss told me once – “Patternmakers are worth their weight in gold. If you have a good patternmaker, never let her go because she is extremely knowledgeable. Patternmakers have job security. But designers are a dime a dozen. If you need a new look, just get a new designer. Or if a designer is not cutting it anymore, just get a new one. I was always surprised that as a designer she would tell me this.

    After I left that company, I began to teach patternmaking and have loved it for over 17 years! Students come into the program all wanting to be designers. They see it on Project Runway and the reality shows. They don’t know how great it is to be a patternmaker, they just see the glamour of being a designer. The fact is that most of the students are not designers. They don’t have the creativity to design 8 hours a day, 7 days a week and at the drop of a hat. They dry up in 5 minutes and have no new ideas. But I always tell them that they can be a patternmaker. It is a well paying profession and well respected. I have some students that have gone to be patternmakers and they love it! My most famous student is now working for BCBG as patternmaker for runway. In the beginning she never dreamed that she would be a patternmaker. She thought she wanted to be a designer. Well, I had the last laugh!

  21. Kathleen says:

    I would be unhappy if this derailed into a discussion of how pattern makers are better than designers etc, it is just a different job. A designer’s job is also very difficult, it is not one I would want for long because it’s not a match to my working style or interests. Their job has less to do with creativity/styling as much as it is project management.

    Another thing to know (as Susan mentions) unlike other industries, it is not necessarily a red flag for designers to change jobs frequently (for patternmakers it is). Designers get blamed for everything, slow sales, missing the trend that crops up from out of nowhere or even, the market is evolving and managing the sales base (stores, reps) hasn’t evolved along with it -it takes time to notice the trend and move on it.

    And sometimes people aren’t challenged by what they’re designing and need a change, maybe the employer does too. Each need new perspectives and a break from each other. Pattern makers need that too and they’re more inclined to get it if the company changes designers who do different kinds of things.

    It is merely two different personality types. Designers tend to be risk takers and consequently, entrepreneurs. Pattern makers tend to prefer stability and security and aren’t as drawn to entrepreneurship unless compelling circumstances force the issue. We need both. We need the risk takers who are willing to take a chance and in so, get things moving and provide jobs. Designers need pattern makers precisely because they tend to be stable and security loving. It would create a lot of havoc and ruin in an operation if a pattern maker took the same sort of risks -autonomy in implementation. Luckily tho, technical staffers have the means to test new processes or designs in advance so a result need not be fatal. The latter of course is dependent on management (the designer) which is really our usual biggest beef in that new designers often don’t listen to our counsel as to the wisest course of action.

  22. Marie-Christine says:

    Sad how school can corrupt entire generations.. I started in software when we had the most eclectic bunch of educational backgrounds. Developers were on the whole a very nice bunch, kind of geeky but earnest, and curious to learn anything, not to mention eager to work with others. The later generations trained specifically for this in school are not so nice to work with. Takes them at least 10-20 years to relax, if they ever do. And almost none of them are into it for the fun of it, most of them would have been MBAs in the 80s, or dentists in the 50s.
    I suspect most of your young designers would have tried to be rock stars in the 70s :-). Patience, most of them will eventually open a restaurant and leave you to work in peace..

  23. Angie says:

    Holy crap! What a great article! Testify, girl!

    And by the way, as a professional patternmaker, my best and most successful clients haven’t been what one might label “designers”. They have been really great businesswomen/men with an excellent idea and fantastic grasp on their target market. NONE of my successful clients (and as patternmakers, we all see lots of people take a stab at this business and fail) have been trained in apparel design. (Again, just MY experience!) They all come from different worlds that they know and understand, they pay me to figure out the technicalities, and they apply the product to their market.

    I am NOT bagging designers! But what I look for in a client is someone who has good business skills and knows exactly what they want and who their customers are. I did NOT learn this lesson in school. I hope the educators now are doing a better job of getting the word out.

  24. RobinD. says:

    If I had understood this difference when I was at an age to choose my career, I would have gone towards patternmaking. I just didn’t know it existed. And I sure didn’t want to be a fashion designer and have everyone looking at me for some kind of ESP as to what people will want to wear next season.
    I have never understood the allure of fashion, because at heart I am analytical.
    I’ll take it as a compliment if someone thinks I have good taste, but that’s as far as it goes.

    Unrelated to clothing, but the same concept: I majored in music and when I graduated, I wanted to be a studio musician, or perhaps play in a pit orchestra on Broadway. I never wanted to be a famous performer. I just loved playing very accurately and beautifully. Again, I will accept a compliment if a listener thinks I have good taste, but that is not the same thing as being a pop star or any kind of star, really. I continued to play music over the years, in addition to more education & employment in accounting and IT. My engineer husband understands my sewing hobby and fascination with pattern-making.

  25. ElfineP says:

    Having a technical background I wholeheartedly agree with your idea. Honestly I believe many design school is destroying their own students’ mindset and, subsequently, future.

    I have a sister who is currently in one of the top design schools. She went to a fashion design oriented high school before that so she had a pretty good background in what design is, pattern making, etc. And because of this background, her one and only goal in life is to have a bridal. Now, having a bit experience in the garment industry I told her to be the best pattern maker she can. Because there is no way she will have a bridal fresh out of college as opening a bridal requires a lot of resources and not to mention skills required to manage a bridal and stay afloat in this kind of economy (economy might not matter to vera wang as much, but for young aspiring designer, it’s a make or break). However, her answer was she doesn’t care much about pattern as there are people who make patterns for her later.

    It was one disheartening conversation. I have many aspiring designers knocking on my workshop for work or freelance. Many of them went to the best design schools but can’t make one good design or communicate with the pattern maker. When I asked them to get me a design, they have no idea about a workable fabric (those that are actually worn by people, not models, I don’t want my store to be selling clothes half pvc half cotton), have no idea what is a good pattern making that their design look funny on human being, and frustrate the pattern maker by making impossible cuts or drapes. To be perfectly fair, their designs LOOK good on paper. Look, I love viktor&rolf and I think they are genius. Revolutionary design is awesome and great. But you have to know how to make it work. It’s your design. This is a waste on samples, fabric, and the pattern maker’s and the model’s time.

    After few bad experiences, now I asked every prospective designer to make a sample of their design (pattern, cut, sew) to make sure they have enough training. Those who can’t are given the doors. It’s something that my sister still has to learn *sighs*

  26. RenaF. says:

    Absolutly right on the money!

    As an aspiring designer, I’m working really hard to learn enough about pattern making to be able to source and effectively work with a professional – If I’m allowed to have expectations then I’d better be able to measure up as well.

    You should see the looks I’ve gotten from people when I tell them that my biggest concern at this point is making sure I find a really really good pattern maker, because it doesn’t matter if I design the most amazing clothes if the designs can’t be executed or my profits get eaten up in production waste.

    If I don’t have a really talented patternmaker, I’m done and that is a fact.

  27. Ayisha says:

    Hi Kathleen, great article, I’m glad I’ve come back here to check out your blog again. I’m a entry level patternmaker myself and aside from studying as many books as possible on patternmaking, I was wondering which other books I could get that elaborate on the requirements and responsibilities of patternmaker (in detail and example), would your book be such a book? Thanks in advance for any advice/suggestions.

    Have a wonderful day,


  28. Kathleen says:

    I don’t know of any books other than mine.

    The thing to keep in mind (as your career aspirations are concerned) is that the pattern maker is the bridge to the factory floor. One must know a lot about production. Pattern makers are the technical backbone to the manufacturing process and have more control than any other single person to produce a quality outcome. As far as that goes, I don’t know of another book, currently in print or readily accessible, that goes into more detail of the pattern maker’s role or small lot production than mine does.

  29. Marsha says:

    I occasionally can my freelance pattern cutter, heh heh. Especially after he graded something wrong and one time it took me four hours to set everything right again. I had the pleasure of having him grade the same style into a different size to point out that ‘what seemed like it was is not what he thought it was’. It had a finished sample and all. Yay me.

  30. denise says:

    Well put. I have so many wanna be designers come through here and become quite irritated that they have no idea of the procedure from sketch to finished garment. Patternmaking/grading is a precise, problem solving and mathmatical skill. I think it helps having these skills to be a designer as you are informed of required steps to production. I freelance as a patternmaker/grader but now also have an on-line store due to the fact that many of my customers are selling on-line with no idea of what they’re doing, so my motto is, if they can do it so can I. All the best to you, fellow patternmaker, a skill that is becoming obsolete here in Australia.

  31. Angela says:

    I love this article! I feel validated! I make my own patterns, I would love to know the “why’s” behind the angles they use to make the patterns. I currently go step by step from my book when making patterns. I only have jokingly tell my friends that I have a love relationship with rulers of all shapes and sizes. A “minor” miscalculation, leads to an incorrect cut, sew job and and ill-fitting garment.

  32. karina says:

    I am a designer and I am definitely intimidated by pattern makers and hold them in high regard, maybe its because I still (struggle) and do around half of my own patterns! I know how talented and smart they are! It is a luxury when I get patterns done and I appreciate it soo much!,
    My most expensive patternmakers I have used are the best ones, I use the pattern blocks again and again- good patterns are worth the weight in gold and save you so much money in the long run.
    I have had terrible experiences too, lazy pattern work with terrible fits- not even what I would do on a first pass- but that is every profession.
    no one is less than anyone in any proffession in my view.

  33. Rifda says:

    Hi there, my name is Rifda, i am not a patternmaker or at least not qualified, is there maybe some one that can help me, how to make kiddies patterns
    thanking you
    kind regards

  34. Maribel says:

    You nailed it. I always refer people to your website so they can educate themselves with at least the terminology since they expect it for free. My time is not free. But this is load of free resources and sources if they are smart they will use it and buy your book which will save them like I state tons of money. Unfortunately that’s not always the case.

  35. RoxAnn says:

    When I initially had an interest in fashion, I wanted to be a designer. Through the years I have found that I enjoy making the pattern more. I have been fortunate that I can design, make the pattern and sew the sample. There were some people in school that didn’t even know how to sew and I think that’s quite important in all of this.

  36. Mohammad khalil says:

    As a pattern maker grduated from Burgo school ( Two years vocational diploma – pattern making only ) I that to be distinguished in pattern making you have to be in touch in all creative ideas to reach the edge in Fashion world .

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