Sample cutting and sewing costs pt.3

Following up from part one and then part two,

Switching gears, I intended to explain two other reasons why sample cutting can cost more than one would hope.

  1. We cut more pieces than one would in many sample or design rooms, and
  2. it depends on the provider’s infrastructure.

A. RTW products have more guts. One easy example is fusibles and or sew in canvas. In the average design studio (or even home sewing), these aren’t used to the same extent. For example, it is rare for one to cut fusibles for a zipper inset area but this is done routinely in better RTW. We also fuse hems, fold lines and make chest pads, stays and what have you. To give you a better example of what I mean, I created what I’m calling a Fuse Map for a sportcoat which should be self explanatory.

B. Costs can vary depending on a service provider’s infrastructure refers to the range of possible cutting methods. Such as:

  1. A hand made marker,
  2. manually but with a CAD made marker,
  3. or, a sample is cut with an automated CAM cutter.

Now I’ll drill these three possibilities down for you

1. A provider makes a marker by hand and cuts manually
One way sample cutting can cost more is if the provider doesn’t have a CAD system and has to lay all the pieces out by hand. This costs more in two ways. First is the making of what amounts to a jig saw puzzle for greatest efficiency. Second is the cost of either tracing each piece out by hand or the time spent in pinning paper pieces down (which I don’t like also pt.2).

Considering the ubiquity of CAD amongst providers and its lower cost to the customer, it is becoming increasingly rare to find hand markers as a service. Most of the people making markers by hand are doing their own in house production. [If that describes you (see pgs 114-120 in my book), I think that is great and you should keep doing it until you scale or something.] It is possible that the quotes from providers who make hand markers for one-offs are competitive (cost wise) but only because the provider without CAD is charging less by the hour so they can remain competitive (at least price wise) with a CAD enabled provider.

I can speak to this in two ways, pre and post CAD. Before I had CAD, I rarely made markers because I had hard patterns which I traced out on the fabric. As such, I could only give an estimate as to material usage. I was not crazy about marker making (some people love it) so I only made them rarely. The other thing is, I was afraid of the responsibility and feared the costly consequences of potential error. So I usually jobbed markers out to a friend (along with the grading, another thing pattern makers aren’t too keen on) or to the contractor’s preferred marking service (they can be picky -with good reason) until I got my own CAD system. Once I got the CAD system, I had to pick up the job of making markers because customers increasingly expect one to provide soup to nuts pattern services. It probably seems strange to customers that we’d divide it up that way but traditionally, marker making was never a pattern maker’s job. Making a marker for match stripes makes me more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

2. Cutting manually with a CAD made marker
If you’re using a CAD pattern service, those markers are made by CAD, it’s a lot faster than hand tracing each pattern piece and it’s more accurate. I can’t speak for anyone else but the marker cost is minimal provided the service is also sewing the mock up or sample. Other than the cost of paper which may be billed separately (it’s a couple of dollars) the cost of making it is typically rolled into the time billed to cutting. The hourly rate of a provider who has CAD, a plotter (and thus higher overhead) will be higher than a provider without CAD but the costs even out because it takes less time.

As I mentioned above, I’m not wild on pinning because it leads to inaccuracies; it’s also more time consuming. The way we’ve been doing it in my shop is to staple the marker onto the fabric. Not the good parts but the waste around the pieces. I also use an underlay (spreading tissue) which makes it even easier. Truly, this is the only way to cut slippery fabrics; the underlay provides a little friction that keeps pieces evenly lain. Anyway, stapling is much faster than pinning and every little bit of time saved helps.

3. Automated CAM cutting (electronic marker)
Cutting with CAM is the least time-intensive way of cutting. A cut that may take a couple of hours by hand, may be cut in 30 minutes or so, depending on a bunch of mind numbing factors you could or should thank me for not mentioning at this time. However, being that CAM cutters are expensive ($85K) and the provider has higher overhead costs, the fee charged for cutting (be it hourly or by the piece, I do not know) is going to be higher. Not having a point of comparison I could not tell you which is less costly in the long run.

At the risk of confusing you, I do not know of a pattern service that has a CAM cutter but some contractors do. If a contractor is making the sample, I don’t know how they cost the cutting but they probably have a set up fee.

Now in case I’ve lost you at this point, we return to point A above in which I said that cutting can take longer in a service provider’s shop because we cut more stuff; stuff that typically isn’t cut in design rooms when mocking up designs. For example, when fusibles are cut in the design room, you’re usually cutting a repeat of a shell piece but a better provider will make a separate pattern piece for them -except in the case of block fusing which I’ll get to in a second. Fusible pieces are cut 1/8″ smaller all the way around. At least that’s how it is in better goods. With CAD, it takes very little time to make a fusible pattern piece. It’s mostly copy and paste, and changing the seam allowance to be 1/8″ smaller than the piece it fits on to. It takes me longer to remove all the notches on fusible pieces because they’re not needed. I do everything I can to speed up cutting so removing them means not wasting a cutter’s time.

Many sportswear or moderately priced items are often cut after the fabric has been block fused. I’m still not sold on block fusing but that’s my bias. Making a separate marker for block fusing and then to have to spread it as a separate operation seems more costly to me.

Other guts we cut are wigan, stays, sleeve heads and multilayer chest pad pieces. Some projects require multiple layers of graded batting to make the best shoulder pads. It depends on the look the customer wants and of course, what they’re willing to pay for. Speaking of, I discover I’m not charging nearly enough for consumables. I’ve had a stash of shoulder pads for a long time that I wasn’t charging for but now that I need to replenish my supply, I’m shocked at the cost; 75 cents per pair, uncovered.

Oopsie, I almost forgot another reason you want to cut single ply -and that is marking. It is not unusual for one side of a garment to be different in some small way, say the right side has a pocket but the left does not. In the design room or at home, you’d cut the one piece on the fold and worry about marking the placement of the pocket later. In production, that is a recipe for disaster. I mean, you’re basically asking for trouble. While the pattern piece itself may be mirrored, the markings on the pocket side will be different so these two pieces couldn’t be cut on folded fabric. You always want as few exceptions as possible and to not need to constantly check up on somebody that they didn’t accidentally mark (meaning, drill a hole!) on both sides of a two ply lay.

Last but not least, I’m publishing another post on what I’m calling “fusing maps” for lack of a better description. It is the only way I can show you how much extra stuff we cut. I realize some people don’t like fusibles (maybe you’re not using the right kind) and some people are rather elitist about it but I do know that if fusibles had existed as long as hair canvas, they’d be a sacrament rather than an anathema. As ever, use what you can and leave the rest. And no, I don’t use fusible for everything; each material has it’s place.

Oh, and one last point -I know the fusible looks like a lot so you wonder if you really need it. All I can say is that manufacturers are keen to shave costs wherever possible so if it were possible to eliminate it, they’d do it.


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  1. Sarra Bess says:

    If I ever become fabulously wealthy, I am buying myself a CAM cutter. I hate cutting, hate hate hate it. Alas, it costs more than most luxury cars.

  2. Oh boy this is a great post! I am going to have to reread it a couple of times to digest all the info though! And I am with you on the block fusing, even though I am only sewing for myself at the moment I still trace out a seperate slightly smaller pattern piece for cutting fusing. It means I don’t have to trim away any seam allowance while sewing, I do all the cutting at one time, less waste (why fuse fabric that will only end up as scrap) and makes my sewing ‘operation’ much faster. I guess that there must be some instances where block fusing is preferable in production though?

  3. Quincunx says:

    After looking at that fusing map, block fusing may just be a way to cut down on irritation instead of costs. Yikes.

    Sometimes block-fused fabric percolates down to where home sewists can buy it, in sampling-sized lengths. Makes me wonder

    a) if it was block fused to make a first sample (type 2 of 13) and the pattern would have had separate cost-saving interfacing pieces made only once it passed that stage–and it didn’t

    b) if the fabric becomes absolutely not reusable in the workroom once being fused with a very particular fusible and thus has to be sold to a jobber as yardage just to get rid of it

    c) if we home sewists are paying a premium for the block-fused fabric–and if so, We Do Not Mind! We mostly haven’t got fusing machines or expertise with diagnosing what exactly went wrong with home application or the patience to fuse everything. To us it’s a value-added product!

  4. Great series Kathleen! I’d like it published in a pamphlet to give to my custom tailoring clients. I get asked ALL the time why it costs “so much” to get a suit custom made. Even cutting the second or third jacket in a different fabric has reduced time because you are already familiar will piece placement etc.

    Question: “… is to staple the marker onto the fabric. …” What kind of surface does your table have? and what kind of stapler do you use? In theatre we used thumb tacks, but the mental image I had when reading your post was of the stapler roofing guys use to attach tar paper before shingles. Swinging it like a hammer. That would be cool.

    Oh, and where do you get those 75cent pads?

  5. Avatar photo

    Question: “… is to staple the marker onto the fabric. …” What kind of surface does your table have? and what kind of stapler do you use?

    I have regular Philocraft tables. See
    PSA: Caring for your cutting table and
    Going from prototype to production sewing pt.2

    I’m using a Pilot #412 stapler for this particular function. I describe in more detail how to staple and cut a lay most accurately and quickly in cutting: a match stripe tutorial which ended up requiring back tracking to write a beginning cutting tutorial.

    In theatre we used thumb tacks, but the mental image I had when reading your post was of the stapler roofing guys use to attach tar paper before shingles. Swinging it like a hammer. That would be cool.

    The traditional stapler for deeper plies is called a pattern tacker. I have quite a few of those too. The version I linked to is not the kind I have. Apparently its maker went out of business.

    Oh, and where do you get those 75cent pads?

    I haven’t bought these yet; I got the quote from Chicago Wholesale Fabrics.

  6. Vesta says:

    Now that I’m making markers for folks, I am cogitating deeply about block fusing. You said:
    “Making a separate marker for block fusing and then to have to spread it as a separate operation seems more costly to me.”

    But the alternative is to lay and cut a fusible marker, and that seems to balance out the separate lay and cut of a block fused marker. But then if you add in the extra work of matching and fusing each pattern piece, it seems like block fusing wins. Am I missing something?

    I’m searching the blog for a whole post devoted to fusing. Not finding it. I’m shocked, Kathleen. Or I’m inept. One or the other. :-)

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