How to work with a Pattern Maker…to get the Most for your time and money

After speaking at last month’s, Pattern meetup, I realized that there was a lot more that needed to be shared about the production side of garment design. So here is a lengthy, but what I hope is a helpful post about working with Pattern makers. If you have any questions, please post them below.

As you search for a pattern maker, before anything else, ask for and check their references! Make sure the results are good, patterns fit well, deadlines are met, and the person communicates well. Be advised that a less experienced pattern maker may charge less, but it may take much longer to get a pattern that works well. Errors cost money, too, so don’t skimp. You can save time and money by being really prepared before you start the process.  An experienced pattern maker will be a busy pattern maker, so make the most of your time by being prepared.

Know your designs

Before starting to develop patterns, sit down and write notes for each design. Really think about the fabrics, fit, fullness and how the design works on the body, since your pattern maker will ask questions before he/she can begin. If you haven’t drawn the back of a design, at least think about how the design lines are resolved in the back of the garment. Consider the location of closures and type of closures as all of these things can affect how the pattern is drafted.  It is also very helpful to know the width of the fabrics, especially for designs that use a lot of fabric. A pattern maker can create a pattern that is the most efficient use of fabric if he/she has all of the information.

Know your budget

Get a sense of the cost of developing patterns: ask the pattern maker’s references (if they will tell you), your designer friends, or your teachers. This phase is research and development for your business; you will be paying not just for what works, but also for what didn’t work. I’m often asked to estimate the cost of patterning a series of designs, which is frustrating and often impossible, unless I have done something very similar previously. I charge by the hour, and simply put: time is money. The more pieces there are, the more it will cost not only to pattern, but to sample and manufacture. Pockets, zipper fly, collars, asymmetry, linings, and color blocking are all design features that add to time, and therefore to your cost. If your budget is lower, then consider streamlining your designs or starting with fewer designs. Don’t skimp on your pre-production. Be prepared to spend some money.

Be organized

With any project, be it patterns, samples or piece work, you need to be organized. Bringing me instructions in writing is stellar, but it doesn’t happen very often. I try to force clients to send me instructions in writing by limiting correspondence to email as much as possible, but even then I have received some vague and rambling emails that make my job really hard.

Why in writing? I figure if you write down instructions, you will (hopefully) think more than if you tell me verbally, and with no record. I don’t like to start a project and then have the design or materials changed part way through the project. Those kinds of changes also will cost you more, because I may have to start over. Really think about what you want, sleep on it, and then move forward when you are sure. Yes, you can change things during the process, and you probably will, but too much indecision will make everything take longer and you’ll spend more money.

Keep track of your designs. It’s not difficult—it just takes a little time and paperwork. Assign each design a number, and number the illustrations, the fabric swatches, patterns, and instructions accordingly. Take notes on where you found your fabrics, the fabric widths, trim sizes, cost and availability–all those details that the pattern maker may ask you for. This will make it easier to talk about your designs and in general makes you look like you know what you are doing. It’s also just a very good habit to start now, while you have few designs to keep track of.

Communicate

Know what you want and know how to talk about it. If you aren’t trained in fashion, buy some books and start reading. Specifically, fabric types and assembly techniques will be very helpful for conversations with your pattern maker. There is so much fashion jargon, you won’t learn it all to start with, and don’t try to pass yourself off as a know-it-all. If you aren’t familiar with a term, just ask. Leave your ego at the door and the process will go much better!

Give instructions in writing even if you meet with your pattern maker in person. If you have a deadline, make sure the contractor knows this (write it down), and check in with them (politely) to see if they are on track. If you are working long distance, you may get pre-empted by a Squeaky Wheel who is there in person to try to rush their process. Head this off by keeping in good contact. I have had clients who disappear for months at a time, and I can tell you—it’s very hard to feel motivated to do their work if you’re wondering if they will ever pay for it.  A check is a great motivator.

If your pattern maker has a question, often it is something that will halt the process until you give an answer. A speedy answer will keep the project moving, otherwise it will get shelved and I’ll move on to another project where all the questions are answered (or all the materials are on hand). Make sure they have your best contact, be it email or cell.

Be realistic about your time line

You will probably have to test and tweak patterns (and samples) several times before you get the item just right. Don’t rush it—a small mistake now can haunt you when it is repeated by the thousands in manufacturing.  If you’re working with an out of town pattern maker, figure in the time to mail items back and forth, and also assume that your pattern maker has a lot of other work to finish. “As soon as possible” is not a deadline. I’m not going to shelve other customers’ work to finish yours in a rush because you didn’t plan well. If you aren’t sure how long it will take, ask about the contractor’s work load and see if your proposed deadline is workable.

Your Designs

A note on your designs:  As a pattern maker, I don’t care how well you draw, I just need you to be clear. If you’re having trouble sketching the design, do your best and then write notes next to the design. Pulling pictures that show finishing techniques, sleeve types, skirt shapes, and so on can be very useful if you aren’t able to draw what you want. I will often do some sketching during conversations with clients in order to better understand their designs; however I generally refrain from suggesting design changes unless they are necessary for fit or function.

Do a little research and improve your skills by looking at fashion illustrations and flats. There is a kind of shorthand in fashion drawings which helps the pattern maker understand the design, none of which is difficult to draw.  Don’t attempt to draw in a fabric print or texture (it’s confusing). Light, scribbly or sketchy lines may look cool to you, but to a pattern maker it’s just garbage. Make a note if you mean “ruffled” or “gathered” if you can’t draw it clearly.

Flats versus illustrations on the body:  while flats are very clearly drawn, sometimes with no notes it’s not clear how they fit the body. I find that a simple sketch on a croquis is more useful to me, to tell me where a hem hits, the garment’s proportions, how full or fitted a garment is, and where design lines are on the body.

Body Block

Your pattern maker will ask for a body block, but if you don’t have one, be prepared to have one made for you. This will make creating your patterns easier in the future, and it will make your fit consistent. I honestly have never had someone show up with a body block, though occasionally they will come with a pattern made by another pattern maker. For designers working on their first collection, I assume we’ll start from ground zero.

You’ll need to provide the pattern maker with the body measurements of the size you want to start with, including details like petite/regular/tall, juniors/misses/women, etc. I can’t create your size chart…don’t ask me. Really. Your size chart is a big part of your brand, and it should grow directly from your target demographic.

Mockups & Samples

Each pattern will need to be tested, and likely tweaked and retested several times. Don’t take someone’s word for it—even a professional needs to test the patterns. For my clients, I generally suggest at least having me do a muslin mockup of the design, so that I can catch assembly issues or obvious fit problems right away. That way I can correct the pattern even before the client receives it for the first time.

If you can sew the samples yourself, you will save yourself a lot of money, since usually it takes much longer to sew the garment than to pattern it. Make sure you ask questions about assembly before you leave with the pattern, because it won’t come with instructions (as home sewing patterns do). Ask about seam allowances, finishing, any markings that you don’t recognize. Calling a pattern maker with questions about a pattern that he/she doesn’t have in front of them will be confusing for both of you.

When the pattern is perfected, you’ll make sales and/or production samples in the exact fabrics that you intend to use. Test these again on the fit model! Fabrics with spandex and mechanical knits (jersey, ITY) can vary quite a lot in fit. Though it’s best to pattern with a final fabric already chosen, I find this doesn’t happen very often with the independent designers, so just know that you’ll need additional fit testing.

Testing, testing, testing

This is your job! Nobody is going to care as much about your product as you, the designer, should. Make sure that you don’t let something go by that you are not sure about: what seems like a small concession now become a major deal later.
You will need to:

    • Test the fit of the patterns on your fit model.
    • If it’s a design for a purpose (athletic wear, dance, medical) test it in its use! Fixing problems now means fewer lawsuits later.
    • Check for federal regulations concerning your product (especially children’s clothing/toys).

Each time the pattern maker gives you a pattern, a sample should be made and tested. The sooner you can do the fitting, the sooner your contractor can adjust the pattern for you. If you can’t do fittings yourself, have an alterationist (or better yet, the pattern maker him/herself) fit the model for you. The length of the entire process will depend on how much your availability, too. You don’t just “hand off” your line to a pattern maker and then sit back and wait for things to be done.

Grading

You don’t really need to grade your patterns until you are ready to manufacture, so this may not happen at the same time as your patterns are made. I personally do not do grading for my clients, unless the design is very basic, since I would be grading by hand. Grading is a specialized skill that takes knowledge of the body and how the body grows from size to size. Computer software makes the process faster and more standardized (though this doesn’t mean it fits better). Do not assume that a graded size will fit. Test the largest size and the smallest size (assuming you are grading from a median size) to make sure everything still works.

A grader should ask you what is “held” (not graded), and how much to grade between sizes in both circumference and lengths. If you have a very wide size range, be aware that you do not have to grade the same amount between all sizes

What you should walk away with

When you have finalized your pattern’s fit, you should come away with a physical pattern (either hand drafted or computer plotted). Your patterns should be marked clearly with the style number, as well as the standard pattern markings (grain, stretch, pattern piece, trim placement, etc). Included with the pattern should be notations on the included seam allowance, the proposed seam and hem finishing techniques, fabric type and width (if known), yardage of fabric and quantity of trims/buttons required. All of this information will be needed by you to figure an accurate costing of the garment.

Good luck! Toughen yourself up and gird your loins, because it’s about to get much harder.  KEEP TRACK OF YOUR PATTERNS. I can’t even count the times a designer has come to me to make patterns and samples, and then never took their patterns. Your sample is pretty much useless without the pattern. You’ve paid for it—take it and keep track of it. Don’t mail it to someone without retaining a copy. I do my best to follow up with clients who fall off the earth, but it’s your responsibility to hold on to your stuff!

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