Why you shouldn’t hire a tailor to make your first designs

female_machinist-ovalMany start ups try to get a jump on getting to a finished product by hiring a tailor or “couture” seamstress to make their first prototypes. While this can be a great solution for a designer who cannot visualize the finished product without a physical sample of their idea, it’s a problem because neither the pattern or sample can be used in manufacturing. Just so we’re clear about this, the reasons you can’t use these samples and patterns is not because the tailor or “couture” seamstress are incompetent (often quite the opposite) nor that a patternmaker or grader is penalizing you for not having come to them first. The problem is not the tailor, seamstress, patternmaker or grader; it is a conflict between how each party arrives at a finalized prototype and how this process dovetails (or fails to dovetail) with manufacturing.

Yes, tailors and patternmakers render samples and patterns using an iterative process -but how they get there and how it impacts manufacturing, is another story.

Most of the time, the intention of the tailor is to cut the final fabric but once and do what needs to be done in order to get the customer’s final product. Tailors measure the customer carefully and cut a pattern with large allowances (called “inlays”) to allow for changes as needed. Sometimes the tailor directly draws the pattern on the fabric which can be a problem because there is nothing on paper to take to a grader. But I digress; the garment is basted together, fit to the customer and then portions of the fabric are trimmed away to fit.

The tailor’s process repeatedly adjusts the fabric to the customer. There is no need or little incentive to return to the paper pattern (if one was made) to make precise adjustments because the fabric has already been cut. One would only adjust the pattern if it were to be used to cut the fabric but that’s already been done. To be sure, good tailors will return to the pattern at some point to make notations of adjustments they made in the event the customer returns for another suit. However, most of the corrections are done after the suit has been delivered. The tailor is not as precise as would be required in manufacturing because they don’t need to be. For one thing, the customer may never return so whatever the tailor puts into the pattern after the fact, may not be worthwhile. Secondly, customers gain and lose weight all of the time. It is very possible that any corrections would need to be undone later on if the customer returned for another suit. In sum, tailors don’t fail to correct patterns due to callousness or incompetence; it is only logical and efficient that they wouldn’t.

The process a patternmaker uses is similar in that several trials may be needed; but changes take place in the pattern rather than the fabric. The patternmaker measures as the tailor would and the pattern is made. The fabric is cut precisely to the pattern with no allowances for inlays. A trial or mock up garment is made (often without linings etc to keep costs low) and then fit to the customer’s fit model. Fit changes are common so the pattern maker returns to correct the pattern. Following the correction, the fabric is again cut precisely to the pattern. Repeat as needed. The point is, there will be a precise and fixed record of the trial or prototypical garment on paper that is portable; it can be used as is, by parties downstream. This is starkly different from a tailor’s garment (and pattern, if you get one) because it is anyone’s guess what a tailor’s pattern actually constitutes since the final version only exists in fabric. The only way to get an accurate pattern from the tailor’s product is to dissasemble the garment and even then, accuracy is debatable because “iron work” is used to shrink and shape the fabric so it will not lie flat for a paper pattern to be made from it. Of course the garment could be rubbed off but this involves unanticipated costs over and above what one had expected to pay for grading.

Other differences: a tailor’s pattern is incomplete for manufacturing purposes [because it doesn’t need to be otherwise]. Often, there are no lining patterns per se, or none as we can use them in manufacturing. Usually the lining and facing are drawn in, superimposed on top of the shell and are not separate pieces. The same holds for canvas, fusibles, sleeve heads and chest pieces -really, any internal guts of the garment. The tailor often cuts these by laying the fronts or backs on top of the guts and cutting to fit around, on the fly. In manufacturing, these need to be separate pattern pieces so they can be cut in quantity. What this means is that even if you have a pattern from a tailor, it will need to be re-made.

As to cost differences between the two options, who can say? Between practitioners of a type, presumably highly skilled, the costs should be comparable. Meaning, it might cost $2,000 or so to have a custom suit made and a production pattern with a finalized production pattern, would run about the same. The difference between the two though, is that the latter version can be used by someone other than its maker, to produce items in quantity. The tailor’s product is not reproducible; it’s like your grandmother’s recipe to add a bit of this and that with no fixed amounts. To get the real story on the dish, you’d have to watch your grandmother and catch anything she threw in the pot to measure it first. By contrast, a pattern maker’s pattern is quanitifiable, and can be used and modified by complete strangers. It is a literal and fixed recipe. This is great because it is much easier to modify any ingredients you don’t like by simply knowing how much of them are in the meal.

The point of my post is not to quibble with individual choices because again, it is worth the cost of going to a tailor for some people because they can’t visualize their design without a finished product and a tailor’s process may be faster. At the same time, I get customers all of the time who show up with a garment made by a tailor, perhaps with a pattern and want me to grade it. This just isn’t possible. First, all of the missing pieces must be made. Secondly, because the tailor or “couture” seamstress’ garment will not exactly match the provided pattern, a new garment must be made -and the cycle starts over again with fitting iterations and what not. The customer often becomes frustrated thinking they should have something to show for all they’ve paid the prior party but this is a conflict of expectations.

In sum: if you want a one-off quality custom garment, it is worth the time and expenditure to invest in developing a relationship with a tailor or “couture” seamstress. If you want to produce an item in quantity, the most cost effective choice is a pattern maker. Again, it does not matter whether your tailor is literally, the finest tailor to ever draw breath, their output can’t be used in manufacturing unless they’ve followed the iterative process used in manufacturing. Meaning, a fully developed pattern is made, mock ups are cut precisely to the pattern, it is fitted and then the process is repeated if needed.

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  1. Eric H says:

    Yep, when we were watching Men of the Cloth, I think that even I flinched when they were trimming things. The final product from good tailors may be very nice looking, but from a production point of view, egads. It’s all human glue and tribal knowledge. No wonder the apprenticeship is years. Modern production just doesn’t work that way (and the results need be no less in quality).

  2. Vesta says:

    What I’ve come to realize, though, is that consumers only have a few “points” where they interface with apparel makers. So if you peruse Craiglist, for instance, you’ll see many posts by folks looking for a “seamstress” to make them a pattern (if they even use that word) or sample (not realizing there’s pattern in between their sketch and a sample) of an idea they have for a dress/t-shirt/pants. That’s right before they say they want this “seamstress” to get in on the ground floor of this innovative company and donate their time/work.

    Tailors have storefronts and they make clothes. They’re just such an obvious place to start. The tailors with great customer service will explain to these folks that they aren’t the right place to start and give a referral to a pattern maker, or they’ll explain the limitations of using their services to start with and the customer will know that their pattern will have to go to a pattern maker after initial development is done. We have a wonderful tailor in town who I’ve seen do both (she’s young and hooked in deeply to our little apparel industry).

  3. Donna says:

    As a seamstress who happens to have learned pattern making I totally get this. It is really hard for me to go back and record on my self drafted pattern what changes I make as I fit garments for myself or others. My mind set if on fitting fabric not paper. I try to make the changes though.

  4. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Great explanation of the difference between the two fields. In the home sewing world we have a similar type of disconnect, where we sewers are frustrated that printed patterns don’t always fit us. Even sewers with lots of experience don’t get it; look at the number of people who take up quilting because sewing for themselves has become impossible.

  5. Cheryl says:

    I TOTALLY agree with Steffani. I don’t receive a lot of requests but I do receive e-mails and the occasional phone call about samples AND production sewing. I am not set-up for production sewing. I am a professional seamstress and I make a living SEWING :) My work is 90% alterations. The other 10% is various custom work. I LOVE to do custom work but it’s EXPENSIVE and not readily affordable in my area of Southeastern Ohio. The people who contact me for production sewing are expecting to pay just a few DOLLARS per item. That is a NEGATIVE in my world. If I DID production sewing I REFUSE to make less than $26 per hour for MY labor. I am a knowledgeable, talented self-employed seamstress. I LOVE my job but I am the EVERYTHING at Cheryl Designs :) Labor, management, sales, book-keeping, floor-sweeper :) There are ZERO benefits and no days off or vacations, no sick days either :( I would go to work at a burger joint for $8 an hour before I would sew for a pittance. I WOULD like to teach home-sewers how to fit THEMSELVES someday when I don’t have to worry about making a living. There is a HUGE educational gap and that makes me sad :( LOVE this blog :) THANKS :) :)

  6. Susan in Boston says:

    I’m a home sewer who is learning to make patterns from a professional, and this post makes sense to me. I’m in a middle ground where I’m working on patterns for myself that I want to reuse or revise, so I care about capturing the information about the pattern in the pattern instead of the garment.

    I’m also getting quite an education in the difference that the fabric makes to garments from the same pattern. I’m not talking about woven vs. knits or organza vs. coutil, but just differences between fairly similar wovens. That’s when I become a tailor ;-)

  7. Patricia says:

    Theresa, regarding commercial patterns, there’s a book from the Singer library called “The Perfect Fit”. It explains how to adjust them to different body types. I got it on Amazon for a few cents.

  8. Dana says:

    I made the mistake of going to a seamtress to help me learn how to see and develop patterns for my swim line. After reading your book I realize that I need a pattern maker. Although I enjoyed learning to sew and became familier with the tools and vocab for how to explain the garment I am trying to make. I am a bit frustrated that the seamtress was not as forthright with me. But I think she was only teying to help. My idea to produce a small line with 8 pieces and so far I have nothing to show for it but some custom items that as you said were changed during the process of fitting and no pattern changes. I hope to put my money towards the right person now and not waste anymore time. Thank you!

  9. Kate Dicey says:

    We mostly make historical stuff, wedding stuff, and LARP kit, as a specialist bespoke service, so are pretty specialized. We still get people asking us to make sample garments, and it’s sometimes hard for even supposedly almost qualified fashion students to understand the difference between making a one-off bespoke article for a final show and a production pattern and sample, and the latter we do not do. Want a steampunk themed wedding for him and her, taking place on a steam railway? We are your gels. Want a sample garment for a production line Jaeger style suit? Nope! Want a sheer fabric farthingale and wings that light up? No probs. Want a graded pattern for a swimsuit? Go over there…

    I may not have a single piece of paper that tells me I know which end of the scissors to hold, or which end of the needle is sharp, but I have given numerous fashion students a quick lesson in the differences, and pointed them to the Fashion Incubator. It’s a Must Read for all fashion students the world over.

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