What is a marker?

Here’s another subject that deserves a reminder: what are markers?

Markers are a guide used in the cutting process. It is long sheet of bond paper with all of the pattern pieces used to make a style laid out in a configuration intended to reduce fabric waste as much as is possible, including all of the sizes you’d need of a given style. Markers are often made by computer and printed out with a plotter. The marker is laid on top of the fabric layers which cutters then use to cut out all of the pieces at once.

Below is an image of what a computer generated marker (not particularly well made) looks like in a CAD program. This marker is for a simple bodice with facings and a short sleeve in five sizes, XS-XL (larger image):

Markers don’t need to be made with a computer program but it is best that they are¹. A CAD program is useful because it automatically calculates the yardage needed and indicates how many layers of fabric need to be spread in order to complete the desired number of products. Each fabric layer is called a “ply”.

A marker is a consumable, meaning you’ll need one for each production order. This is (most obviously) because the cutter follows the lines printed on the marker to cut out the pieces. Markers are not re-usable because they’ve been cut apart. However, it is possible to save the marker as a file for possible re-use. I say possible because while you can do it, it may not be in your best interest to re-print and re-use a given marker except in limited circumstances.

The second reason markers aren’t (or perhaps should not be) re-usable is because markers are made specific to an order. If you will always need size quantities in the same ratio, then you can order a reprint of a marker but identical orders are rare. In the marker example above, you could only cut one of each size because that is all that was put in there. The marker above would only work if you needed 10 of each size (XS-XL); with 50 pieces total, only ten layers of fabric is spread. Typically, manufacturers sell more of some sizes than others so you’d need a marker with the quantities of sizes per your orders.

Some people imagine they can save money by having a marker made once (let’s summarize the marker cost as $10 per size) and still have the flexibility of cutting whatever ratios of sizes they want by having a marker with the sizes separated. In this way they would only have to pay marker reprint costs ($1-$2 per yard). A marker with sizes separated from each other would look like this (larger version):

Doing something like this would be a case of being penny wise and pound foolish. Considering the extra fabric that is wasted, each unit will end up costing about 25-30% more than it should normally. This cost adds up quickly. If your fabric costs $10 per yard fabric, using a per size marker you had made with the intention of re-using it, each individual unit you cut would quickly cancel out the “savings” of reusing a marker. Say it is $2.50 extra per unit -that is, per ply. If it were spread ten layers deep, the costs over and above having a marker remade would be about $75.

An aside: Forgive me climbing up on my soapbox for a minute but DEs complain non-stop that buyers say their prices are too high. The truth is, costs often are because people take shortcuts like this. It is one thing if you’ve done all you can to reduce costs but quite another thing to expect others to subsidize cost trade offs we would advise against. Assuming a worst case scenario in that having a marker remade is the same cost of fabric waste with a bad marker, it is still better to have a marker made instead of throwing extra fabric away because that money will go to support another person or business while fabric gets thrown in the trash. Other than downstream costs of disposal and expending finite resources, people lose respect for you if you’re wasteful. They will resent that you’re throwing that money away but balk at paying wages and benefits and conclude you don’t care about them. Worst of all though is that decisions like this tend to become ingrained practices.

There are strategies you can use to reduce marker costs. Markers may not be reusable but marker files can be. Just as you must request digital copies of your pattern files for archival purposes, you should request a digital copy of the marker file in the hope you can reuse it later, either with this provider (who may delete the file) or with another vendor.

Having a file is useless if you can’t find it or know what is in it (because you probably don’t have the software to open it) so it will be important to start a database to keep track of them. I don’t know how the provider will save the file but you can rename it -just be sure to leave the file extension intact. Rename the file (if needed) to reflect style number and size ratios of the cut. If you don’t know what the ratio of the spread is, you can do a couple of things.

You can usually request an Excel (spreadsheet) export of the marker data, I suggest making this a part of the work order. It is the sort of information your cutter would need with directions on how many plies to spread. The export may not make sense to you but someone else could figure it out. The marker report should have the same name as the marker file itself except for file extension.  Anyway, a good naming strategy would include style number and the ratio of sizes included in the marker. For example, if you are cutting style number 1001 in a common ratio of 1 Extra Small, 2 Smalls, 3 Mediums, 2 Larges and 1 Extra Large, the file name could be 1001_12321_xs-xl.mrk [style no, ratio, sizes.mrk (file extension dxf is common)]. On the other hand, since you’re going to be a successful thriving brand, a better strategy may be to create a database file to log and track the particulars of each marker file by name and date. The database should include a description of each marker file to include the yield, sizes cut, fabrication, date or whatever. If you did that, file naming conventions wouldn’t be as important.

Three last notes:

1. I agree this can be very technical and not nearly as interesting as petting nice fabric and sketching cool designs but if you can’t see your way to getting through this, you’ll have to hire it out or decide whether this is something you want to do. Fashion design in real life is less about art than it is things that you may find boring. Believe me, I sympathize.

2. The other thing is that anyone will tell you this is a very scanty over view of marker making. There is a more complete explanation of markers in my book on pages 114-120. It is mandatory reading even if you personally won’t make markers because it is the only way to estimate fabric use to know what your costs will be. Otherwise, you’ll have to rely on other people who are probably very busy and aren’t getting paid to watch your budget as closely as you are. This is the only way to prevent over buying of fabric.

3. Lastly, a marker file is not interchangeable with a graded pattern file.  Marker files don’t include sufficient pattern data to permit later editing, re-grading or re-purposing of the patterns. All you can do with a marker file is rearrange a marker but if you needed to change the pattern itself, you need the pattern file. So, if you paid for a pattern to be graded, you are entitled to the graded pattern file. If it won’t be released to you and you’ve paid for it, you’re not getting what you paid for so get your money back.

I hear the craziest things; some people have said their grader wouldn’t give them the file because the grader “owned” the grade rules (because the customer didn’t provide them). Who comes up with this crap? This is ridiculous. These are grade rules, not state secrets. If you’ve paid for pattern work, the very definition of needing patterns supposes one will need to use the files going forward. If you don’t get your graded pattern file, the patterns will have to be re-digitzed and then re-graded and potentially, the cycle could start all over again. This amounts to being held hostage and being forced to use that provider for everything, forever. This is not ethical or professional.

¹ A clarification: CAD is a tool, its efficiency is only as good as the user. CAD programs can automatically make a marker but in test after test, humans best the automatic function on the order of improving efficiency by 3%-7%. Humans can also make markers by hand by tracing out all of the individual pieces on a long piece of paper (we call it marker or marking paper) but this takes much longer. If you are doing your own cutting in house, I suggest getting some help laying out pieces efficiently and then taking a photograph of the layout for future use in making another one.

CAD software compatibility in marker making
Where and how to get markers printed
Marker questions and costs
Pet Peeve: Cutters and Mixed Markers
What to do if a contractor shorts an order

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  1. Grace says:

    You’ve just introduced the concept of collecting and maintaining metadata on your data (pattern and marker) files. Excel is just the .minimum. metadata one should maintain. If you work with many files and want to search and sort on many fields, you may want to use a beefier database program or, better yet, in a more flexible xml scheme.

    Whatever you do, do NOT throw away your metadata by accident. Name your metadata with the same file name as your data file, but with a different file extension that you use specifically for metadata.

  2. bente says:

    Beautiful! and very important post.
    Could you eventually get the company that makes the patterns and markers to send you the files via Dropbox?
    Don’t know much about what kind of files could be loaded there.
    I understand that if you use StyleCad most pattern/marker technologies can be imported into their system.
    Btw; wish more people would follow Kathleen’s logic: “it is still better to have a marker made instead of throwing extra fabric away because that money will go to support another person or business while fabric gets thrown in the trash”.

  3. Paul J says:

    What is a range of ‘good’ fabric yields (either % yield or conversely % waste) for a well-made marker? Understanding this will vary by fabric and product type, such as plaids and stripes will by necessity have lower yields than a solid color.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Grace: if it’s an accident, how can you prevent throwing it away? :)

    Bente: Dropbox would work but it seems like another layer when they could be easily attached to an email. The files are relatively small. The largest graded file I have is a hair over 1MB. Most are much smaller. At least in my CAD program. Dropbox could be good if the sender could synchronize files, replace outdated files with newer ones etc.

    Paul: we had a long convo about this once but I can’t find it now. Maybe those comments got eaten or went poof. Very frustrating. It may have also been in the forum.

    Being held accountable for marker efficiency was never my area. Or it was but it never came up which means I was doing an acceptable job engineering the pattern for better utilization.

    As I recall, what came out of the conversation was a figure of 85% being the minimal yield (exceptions duly noted of course). Some operations have higher thresh holds but this is usually because their product lends itself to such.

  5. Tara says:

    Is there a best practice to making markers by hand?

    Up until now I’ve just moved the pattern pieces around until I think I have the best fit, starting with the biggest pieces/sizes and pairing/filling in with the smaller sizes/pieces – but it seems a bit haphazard.

  6. Chigozilu Enigwe says:

    While I think I understand, this question may prove otherwise. You said that making a marker separated by size would ultimately cost more and be more wasteful, but does that apply to ‘made-to-order’ situations as well? For instance, according to the bridal salon owners that I spoke with, they order samples to show their customers and throughout the season, they place orders with the manufacturer (could be of any random style/size) when a customer places an order. Larger designers may keep inventory of their product, thus multi-sized marking makes perfect sense for their mass production, but what about smaller DE’s who are, in essence, producing made to order products? Is separating the marker by size still not efficient in that case?

  7. Kathleen says:

    Tara: it kind of is haphazard. No, that’s not true. What is true is that people who tend to be highly skilled at it do it somewhat intuitively if only because they haven’t much practice articulating it. It tends to be a one on one thing, show-> do, with constantly varying parameters. It’s also relative. People think I’m really good at it but I know people who are good and I’m barely competent by comparison -in my opinion. If I ever had the chance, I’d spend a day looking over the shoulder of Humberto at Patternworks.

    Chigo: This opens a lengthy discussion of lean manufacturing (which I’ve written of extensively) and cutting to order no matter how large or small the order might be.

    Separating a marker by size is never efficient; it presumes a spread with multiple units cut at the same time. If you as a producer are cutting one or two items, it is probably best to cut them manually, maybe even without a marker since it is just the two sizes. You’ll have to figure out the best layout as you go along. Cutting with a marker presumes the two ends of the lay are cut off in a straight line. However, if you have a job shop, you wouldn’t trim off the ends. You’d use whatever jagged but substantive edges to lay in your new cut. You’d also save scrap (presumably of the same fabric lot) to further reduce waste.

  8. Lorraine says:

    Hi Kathleen,
    I am a bit biased but Humberto is a master marker maker. Please feel free to visit us anytime. I know Humberto would be happy to share some of his marker making techniques with you.

  9. Dara says:

    I have to say a master cutter’s ability to save you fabric is…painfully awesome. We got a new cutter (replaced our old cutter) and the shop started saving 20-30% in fabric usage in a week. Really huge difference to the bottomline.

  10. Diana says:

    That first marker is a delight to look at; I mean that sincerely. I believe Kathleen when she says that they can be done better, but still–the end result is cool, like origami or a good Lego creation. It’s a little like blackjack, too, because you want the pieces to add up to 45″ wide (or whatever) but not go over it.

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