Sewing Tips

Fashion Design versus Technical Design


Recently a job posting surfaced online for the position of Fashion Designer at an independent pattern-making small-business geared towards the home sewing market.  Applicants were encouraged to respond quickly whether “this is your dream job” on the one hand, or “you’ve never thought about designing” on the other. That about covers the entire population, so in other words basically anybody should apply. But it got me thinking….

In my limited experience with the pdf pattern market, there seems to be an over-supply of  “designers”, and a severe shortage of “pattern-makers”.  This point of view is jaded by my own background in technical design: I see the technical shortcomings instantly…the design aspect  is a secondary consideration.  In my opinion, this particular company who is hiring needs a pattern-maker/technical designer, far more than another fashion designer on staff.  I’ve tried a few of their patterns, and none of them were alpha-tested (measured/walked/trued).  However, they have an enormous fan-base who doesn’t seem to mind, and their business is in fact quite healthy: enough so that they are expanding, and that’s always a positive thing.


So here’s the question: if you ran your own pattern company, where would you invest in staffing?  Creative, or technical?  Talent, or skill? Obviously there has to be a balance:  no matter how technically  accurate and perfectly fitting a pattern is, if the style isn’t on trend, it’s not going to sell.  However it’s far more likely in pdf world, that the opposite is true: the styling is often more updated than with the paper pattern companies, yet the pattern-drafting and grading need work.  The strange part of that situation is, there are plenty of professional services that will draft and grade patterns for a fee…are they not being used?  Who ARE the entrepreneurs who own these pdf businesses, and is their background in fashion design, or pattern-making?



People sometimes ask me “If you went to fashion design school, then why aren’t you a Fashion Designer?”  I have to explain that I’m a Technical Designer/Patternmaker. So what’s the difference between a Fashion Designer and a Technical Designer?  They are different JOBS, requiring different fields of STUDY, and different SKILL-SETS entirely.

Different job descriptions: the Fashion Designer is responsible for creating the image of the product line, figuring out who the target customer is (what she wears, how much she spends, what her lifestyle is), developing the season’s “themes”, sourcing fabrics and trims, putting together the seasonal palette, drawing sketches of individual styles, and putting together the storyboards (and, in the garment industry, spending  lot of time attending fashion shows and travelling to exotic locales to absorb inspiration).

The Technical Designer takes the sketches and develops them into specification sheets, which are used to create patterns, which go to the sample-maker to make the fitting muslins.  The tech follows through with costing,  tracking  samples for fitting, scheduling the fit models and fit meetings, adjusting patterns and construction methods, and following through on the vision of the designer (and, in the garment industry, spending half of her time in factories and fabric mills/dye-houses.)



Different education: Fashion Design students also study patternmaking (flat pattern drafting and draping) however they concentrate more on fashion history, color theory, trends, and drawing  colorful illustrations for mood-boards

Technical/Pattern Design students do study fashion design, however they take more advanced classes in pattern development and grading, factory methods, costing, and drawing black-and-white specification line drawings for communication with factories

The reason that the fields of study overlap, is because the two different professions need to be able to communicate with each other and understand each others’ “language”.  Also, generally you don’t yet know, as an entering student, which area is your strength. So as a design student, how to you decide which is right for you, fashion or tech? Good design professors help you recognize your strengths, and develop your talents.  Here’s what they look for:

Drawing versus sewing: most students prefer one over the other: chances are the ones who like illustration will tend towards fashion, and the students who like the stitching part will lean towards tech.

Sewing class: fashion students tend to complain that they already know how to sew, or won’t need to sew samples because they’ll have a team of sample-hands.  Tech students love the sewing studio and playing with the machines.

Drawing class: you have to learn both “live model” illustrations, and “flats”: line drawings for specifications.  Model drawings are full of motion and emotion, attitude and feeling.  Flats are not on a model, and show all the stitching details. Guess who prefers which?

“How do you get into that garment?” If the professor critiques your sketches and can’t figure out the garment closures just by looking, you’re probably going into fashion, not tech.  Tech-oriented students automatically indicate the garment openings.

Costing the samples: fashion  students are often uninterested in how much it costs to make their fashion show garments, while tech students are cautious of yardage yield, fabric price, trim price.

The Senior Fashion Show: the fashion majors swoon over the “looks” and aren’t so concerned if they have to hand-stitch the model into the garment…the tech majors drool over perfect construction, matching plaids and mitered stripes, flawless zipper installations.


By graduation time, it’s pretty clear which area you belong in.  However within the pdf-home-sewing market, many “designers” have no formal education in either Fashion Design OR Patternmaking/Tech Design.  The apparel business in the U.S. is largely concentrated on the coasts, specifically in NYC and LA,  so that’s where the strongest educators are, who still work in the industry.  Unlike let’s say Australia, where there are a dozen prestigious fashion schools, in the US there are only a handful: Parsons, Pratt, FIT, SCAD, FIDM, Carnegie-Mellon, and some of the state colleges. Graduates of these schools are in demand from the apparel industry.  Chances are they can’t be well enough compensated by a small business.  There’s always the possibility of starting one’s  own business, but anecdotal evidence suggests  that most pdf-businesses are run by women who have no  apparel degree.  Let’s say you are a self-taught entrepreneur: how can you tell which parts of the job are your strength, and which should be hired for (or sourced out)?  After all, there’s always an overlap. It’s important to look inward:

Different Mindset: the Fashion Designer has a creative mindset, is constantly aware of popular culture, streetwear, influences of music and theater on what people are wearing. Designers in general tend to focus on a specific area: they have strength in either tailored design concepts or draped design, they often develop a focus on sportswear, evening, or active-wear, etc. Fashion Designers are all about the STYLE and LOOK of a garment.

The Technical Designer has an analytical mindset, is fascinated by how things are made and how to make them better, faster, easier, more cost-effectively.  Tech designers often don’t care what product line they are working on: women’s’ wear, men’s wear, children’s, active….each is a challenge and a learning opportunity. Tech designers are all about the FIT and FUNCTION of a garment.


So where does this lead us….how can the entrepreneurial pdf-maker, without a fashion degree OR garment-center experience and training, handle all of the job processes demanded of a fashion design/pattern-making firm?   If one starts out “doing it all”, then as the business grows, how does one expand the team?  Would you hang on to your own fashion vision, and hire out technical support?  Or would you keep the technical work close at hand, and hire a new designer? What would you do?





  • Monica Novotny

    Great post. Drafting patterns for RTW & home sewing requires skill level that is often not appreciated or executed.

  • Robin

    I too would be in the technical designer category, if the fashion industry was my thing. I suspect a lot of pattern “consumers” are that way.

    When it comes to successful pattern sales, I do wonder how much comes from having good *promotions* vs. having good *products*. I know one of my frustrations on Etsy is reading 5 star reviews of patterns that “look cute” and “came quickly – I can’t wait to start!” but give no sense of whether the clothing ran true to size or the instructions were straightforward. Another is having a great experience with a designer’s most recent pattern, only to purchase some of the designer’s back-catalog and discover that there was a steep learning curve and older patterns are not nearly as well put together.

    A lot of amateur sewists have limited sewing time, limited budgets, and on Etsy there’s a limited time to put your review in (or on the designer’s own site, no guarantee that any reviews that appear are not curated). So I have to imagine that there are a fair number of patterns that get purchased but then never used, or used well after the window for providing helpful feedback to others has closed.

    Of course, I too am guilty of the “buy 3 patterns at once for a discount, or stock up while they’re 20% off” temptation (virtually guaranteeing that I won’t be able to review them all within my window). But I definitely agree that it’s frustrating that there isn’t more accountability from a tech design perspective.

  • [email protected]

    Yes the Etsy reviews drive me crazy! Probably 90% says exactly that: “downloaded instantly” or “Cute, can’t wait to make it”. That says absolutely nothing! Of course it downloaded, unless there’s some glitch, and yes I can see it looks cute…but tell me about the PATTERN please. Of I’m sure that “most” patterns never get made….I’m completely guilty of purchasing more than I can ever use.

  • Ann

    So, as a novice sewist, how do I figure out which pdf pattern makers are worth it? How do I weed through the thousands of glowing reviews on Etsy and Facebook to find the true gems?

  • Sharon

    Great post! Drafting is definitely a skill, my mom went to school for this and definitely can pick out the flaws in patterns. I am myself, just doing my best to buy relatively well drafted patterns that fit and learning to make adjustments as I go.

  • [email protected]

    Have you joined the “Pattern Reviews and Resources” group on Facebook? It’s a great place to ask about specific patternmakers and designs before you buy, and the only place I’ve found where members feel free to honestly critique patterns. I would definitely take any “reviews” on Etsy with “a grain of salt”, because often the customer hasn’t even made the pattern up yet. Most reviews in the FB “Pattern Sales” groups seem highly biased and overly complimentary. And forget the FB groups for the individual patternmakers, they are basically fan clubs. You can read hundreds of glowing reviews for patterns that are actually impossible to sew without corrections, and if you dare ask a technical question, you risk being shot down as an “inexperienced seamstress”…like the pattern problems are YOUR fault!

  • rita

    People who grade patterns professionally create pdf patterns too? I would have thought those were two completely different things.

    I have noticed this lack of good pattern making skills too, and read about it. I have all the skills to make patterns with Illustrator, PhotoShop and Acrobat. And what’s more I’m a longtime pattern user and sewer. I figure there might be some people who might be willing to pay to have their pattern look like it came from a real pattern house.

    Your thoughts?

  • [email protected]

    With the explosion of independent PDF-makers selling patterns online, many “designers” and doing it all: sketching, drafting, grading, testing….from financial necessity. Hopefully when they sell enough to hire out for some of the work, they would bring in professionals to do the grading. Of course, most experienced graders in the fashion markets (NYC and LA) are expensive. If you have the skills to offer independent pattern designers, that could be a great match!

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