When should you hire a full time pattern maker?

I don’t have the answer to the question of knowing when it is time to hire a full time pattern maker but maybe you can help me sort it out. There are two scenarios in which to frame the question.

First scenario: A company I know (they attended my manufacturing boot camp class in 1998) is over a barrel. Succinctly stated, they’ve been using a freelance pattern service over the past eight years and recently the relationship has soured. The pattern service refuses to hand over digital files for the 800+ patterns owned by the customer. While that is being sorted out, the company has hired a new pattern service. The thing is, I’ve only heard negative reports on the new pattern service. Considering their problems and choices, I suggested that they should bring pattern making in house. The owner says they can’t afford to hire a pattern maker but then said maybe they could hire an intern (which made me shiver all over and not in a good way). I said they could buy everything they needed (CAD software, plotter, digitizer) for 20-25K new, less for used. He said they don’t have the money to acquire the CAD system or plotter either.

They have 25 employees, 15 of whom are stitchers. With respect to head count, there are 10 non-sewing employees which as a ratio (40%) is quite high. However, they also dye all their products in house so the company isn’t as inefficient as one could suppose.

That said, I don’t need to be there to know that the operation isn’t as efficient or cost effective as it could or should be. Having a pattern maker on staff will reduce costly problems and make the company more competitive. He said they did have a production manager but in my way of thinking, if your company is small and you have a production manager, the production manager should be a pattern maker. Obviously this company isn’t going to can their production manager on my say so nor should they but this is something you have to keep in mind as you grow. If you’re at the stage of hiring a production manager and you don’t yet have a pattern maker, you should hire one person to fill both jobs.

Which round about leads me to a discussion I was having with another party and my second scenario. Said party asked me if they should bring patterns in house but they are in a similar situation as the company above in that they have a production manager who is also not a pattern maker and probably won’t ever be one. They also asked about bringing in an intern but I explained you need a very experienced person for this and worse, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find them.

It struck me that the trade is in a very bad spot. We have a whole generation of working pattern makers who have never been exposed to production beyond a factory visit here and there. When the production went off shore, new hires never gained the opportunity to see the effects of their work in the sewing line across from them. They’ve never been called back to the cutting room to see first hand how a poorly conceived seam truing makes for a difficult cut and unnecessary waste. And now that we need people with these skills, they are difficult to find. Most of the people with these skills are older, settled and they don’t want to move.

One of my far off goals had been to start a sewing factory school to train workers in a real plant. A small one of course but a training facility nonetheless. I don’t know if it is tenable or if it will become more so as the situation becomes increasingly worse but it is something to think about.

But I digress. When do you think a company is of such size that they should consider bringing patterns in house? What are the cost considerations of doing so and how could this decision be made most cost effectively? I await your advice with bated breath.

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  1. Rocio says:

    When do you think a company is of such size that they should consider bringing patterns in house?

    When the weekly amount of invoices from the service providers exceeds the salary (including payroll taxes, etc) of a full time pattern maker/production manager
    I specifically say weekly because if they only have pattern work 1 out of every 4 weeks + 1 week is allocated to “production management” then it wouldn’t really make much sense to have someone “sweeping the floors” for 2 weeks a month

    What are the cost considerations of doing so and how could this decision be made most cost effectively?
    – Cad System (Pattern+grading+marker)= $6K
    – Used wide format plotter and digitizing table= 8K
    – Salaried Pattern maker (who can also grade, create markers and has production management experience)= 90K +

    The elephant in the room is that the VERY FEW CAD pattern makers who were “the last generation” to get “hands on” training (dealing with domestic factories, sampling, etc) get snapped up quickly and can choose from a group of high bidders that don’t even require them to deal with production issues…

    Another thing to note is that just because someone is an amazing production pattern maker it doesn’t mean they can be good production managers

  2. Esther says:

    I have many thoughts on this topic, which perhaps would be more appropriate in the forum. I’m not sure how realistic it is to have the production manager and pattern maker be one and the same. Having worked in a smallish factory, I don’t see how that is tenable especially in a cut-order setup. I think a more likely scenario is to start with two part-time individuals that can work as a team and jump into whatever role is needed. An experienced pattern maker could train the production manager to create markers for cutting (as an example), and the pattern maker could assist on the production floor in supervision, training, or even working on the line. Such a scenario requires team-oriented and flexible individuals. Of course finding a pattern maker willing to work part-time may be a challenge all by itself.

  3. Jessica says:

    I don’t have an answer to your questions, but do think a sewing factory school is something to keep exploring. As you’ve said, it’s not so easy or commonplace for up and coming patternmakers to get the experience of working in a production environment.

  4. The problem is severe. Kathleen, you are right on target with your idea for “starting a sewing factory school to train workers in a real plant. A small one of course but a training facility nonetheless.” This is truly needed!

    I believe fashion education needs to add fashion technology as a separate major. Granted some of this is taught in the fashion design classes, but not enough and without the emphasis I believe is needed if we are to be able to manufacture clothing well. At present fashion education offers essentially two majors: fashion design and fashion retail.

    Adding fashion technology as a separate major would mean teaching production patternmaking hands on so students taking that major have the skills needed to draft the patterns and be able to set up the work so it can go down a factory line.

    I’ve found far too little production skills taught in the collages. For example: many college fashion programs teach home sewing and are using home sewing textbooks. Professors are often recruited who do not have online experience with production, since finding such workers is difficult, and even when found may prefer to keep well paying jobs in the industry.

    When given the opportunity to teach in Continuing Professional Education I began teaching the skills I found I needed when I worked as a production patternmaker in the industry, writing my program and testing its books in the classroom, and now in my own school. The big problem with this is that these books are tough to write and are taking forever to finish. I’ve been at it for over 20 years. So I’ve got a developed program with books, but getting all of it finished causes time conflicts with getting it out there.

    Two of the biggest problems with offering fashion technology as a major are:

    1. Finding people who can teach it. “…now that we need people with these skills, they are difficult to find. Most of the people with these skills are older, settled and they don’t want to move.”

    2. Colleges make a lot of money with their fashion design programs. That’s where the money is. Many young people want to be designers. Pattern drafting is something someone else will do for them at the fabulous jobs they will have after they graduate.

    I am convinced we need a new approach. “… start [ing] a sewing factory school to train workers in a real plant” is DEFINITELY something to think about and I believe VERY MUCH NEEDED.

  5. Ellen says:

    Patterns are the key to a good product and pattern makers skills are acquired over many years so the better idea to help offset cost is a marker making system. The cost for this is less, 9-15M which includes the software and plotter and if you only want to get mini-markers to help expedite manual marking making then you are in the 3.5-6M range.

  6. emily says:

    I’m so blessed to work where I do. As a newly minted and still learning pattern maker, having the factory steps away really makes me accountable for every single notch placement. When I was in school I was taught not to fuss with the little details since “the factory will fix it in production”! sad. marrying the patterns and the manufacturing seems like a no-brainer to me now.

  7. Lillian says:

    Having started my first career in the film business lugging coolers and working my way up to Line-Producer over a period of 4 years, I can say that there is nothing to replace a “hands-on, learn from the master approach”. There are plenty of books and mini-courses around the country geared toward home sewing and fitting. As I struggle to learn this business, to take the next step, I would definitely go to a pattern making/production school. Sign me up!

  8. sahara says:

    “Pattern making is a low end job. Designers get the money AND the fame.”

    THIS is what I was told from the granddaughter of a friend who was the lead pattern maker for Tommy Hilfiger. His salary – low six figures – was the salary an excellent head pattern maker could pull in NYC at the time. In the present he runs a sweet pattern service and has a nice lifestyle; but this means nothing to HER – because there are no “famous” pattern makers (BTW, my friend is willing to teach, but feels there’s not enough interest). And F.I.T is STILL derisively called “the production school”, according to some young acquaintances who attend it.

    A sewing factory school is an EXCELLENT idea, but you’d need a focus group to choose another name. The name FACTORY = low wages, bad working conditions, and no advancement. How about “Fashion Component Assembly Academy?” It’s okay to laugh.

  9. Taylor says:

    Call it The Technical Academy of Industry Production, sign me up for semester 1, I’d like to be a designing multi-threat one day; classic designs and excellent pattern making skills. Girl can dream right?

  10. Leslie Hanes says:

    With respect to the pattern maker that wouldn’t hand over the digital files, I have to wonder why they had them all in the first place. Each time my pattern maker (Sally Beers, I love you)
    does a pattern, she sends me an electronic copy and retains one, obviously. Even though I don’t have the program to read the file, I still have the copy so I can send it to my marker-maker when I need markers. Sally also sends me paper copies of the pattern (as well as nested patterns) so I can copy them off and play with them, making my own samples and also testing the grade, for sizing. Kathleen recommended Sally one time when she was too busy to do a pattern for me (moving to her new city…I don’t know why a move should interfere with taking my important work but she seemed to think so…lol)

  11. Anteos says:

    I feel like sharing after reading your website.
    My company is small, but people always think my company is big enough for my age. Im 26 yo.

    I study fashion design knew how to sew, knew how to pattern and knew all the basic things to do.

    I started my business when I was 22 years old. with 5 undergrad student with very low pay. I fired 3 in the first month, after knowing if they can do things or they dont. then I hired and employed senior pattern maker, which having a hard time grading without CAD, and dont really understand evening wear. (which I dont have the money to have it, I hardly pay his salary as well).
    He quit and he feel bored to work for a “small’ kid.

    I got funded and rent a first store, with 2 seamstress who know how to cut and in the first day of opening my stores I sell 1200 usd a day, everyone laughed I only have not more than 20 pcs in a store. I bought a pattern from the top student from my school, and it doesnt looks like how I imagine it. so I stop and make pattern on my own again. I have intern from Central St Martin london and bunka japan, they did not know anything about patterning.

    The second year, I opened another stores in the city. and another stores in hotels. consignment with 5 star chain hotels and international airport. People saying, the comfort of the dresses for my label is top notch. none knew I still made the pattern my self.

    I starting to open a custom made, again I draft my self. though custom dresses is cheap here, mine is only 3-5k per dress. and no matter how busy I am I draft my self. believe it or not, I only work with 3 seamstress with all the stores and stockist. I need to sharpen my skill and update with the latest innovation anyway.

    Hiring thousands of dollar for pattern and if they cant get your style is useless.
    will I employ someone to do my pattern? I might one day, but only if they can do better than me.
    Patterning is one of the key role of a fashion business. I agreed. if they have no idea what is comfort and how does it look on one body its again useless. I always think, patterning is useless if the patern maker has no idea how to sew it, what is the fabrics, esp when they cant imagine it like how the designer imagine it. in the end the seamstress will blame the pattern maker when the dress is not right and the pattern maker will blame the seamstress for not making it right.

    I think, designer should know how to make pattern them self. They are the best at their imagination. the bad thing about people now adays is, they dont want to do things them self anymore.

    so why bother outsource pattern? do it inhouse, take some basic course, at least get some information, read book and go consult kathleen here!!



  12. Heli says:

    You mentioned that patternmakers are nowadays hard to find – I agree to it completely.
    I study patternmaking in Tallinn and one thing that I faced recently is that there are basically almost no places where to go for an exchange semester, because it has either been replaced with fashion design, which hardly covers any patternamking or is it pretty much killed. And on the other hand it is difficult to choose a place for internship, because there are too many options, the demand is high.

    So, if you need top notch patternmakers, search through these Unis for interns (who won’t mess things up) or alumni:
    Tallinn University of Applied Sciences
    Swedish School of Textiles, University College of Boras
    Germany Hochschule Albstadt-Sigmaringen

    Probably there’s more, but these are the few I firsthand know they’re professional.

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