Before I worked in the apparel industry, I wasn’t aware of the difference. I knew from a young age that the selection of home-sewing patterns was MUCH smaller than what was available in ready-to-wear…. I often visited the pattern counter with my mom, looking for a pattern similar to an outfit that a friend had worn to school or church, only to come up empty-handed. But until I worked with factories, I didn’t realize how much more detailed and professional that industrial patterns need to be.
In online forums these days I often read the question “What pattern is this?” or “Who has the pattern for this?”(together with a photo of a mass-manufactured piece of apparel that the OP wants to make at home). Given my background, my gut reaction is, “Why would anyone assume there IS a home-sewing pattern available? Only a tiny fraction of the factory-made apparel styles are ever copied into a commercial sewing pattern.”
And then I remember that relatively few home-sewers have had the opportunity to work in the fashion industry, so it makes sense that many people assume that industrial patterns and commercial patterns are the same. Nobody else blinks at this question, and people are helpful to suggest patterns. For example, if you saw this Nelly Stella dress:
…and asked :“What pattern is this?” …you’d get replies saying “You can use the VFT London” (left), or “Try Duchess and Hare Sweet as Pie” (right):
..or even this vintage Simplicity:
…which most likely was inspired by a mass-manufactured garment back in the ‘fifties. Possibly even Nelly Stella style was inspired by the Simplicity pattern: ever since the advent of the Web, the photo files of vintage commercial patterns are more easily accessed than actual vintage garments.
But you’re not going to find the same pattern that Nelly Stella uses, because in all likelihood they made their own pattern, to their own specifications.
The timing and development process of industrial patterns is quite different from the commercial home-sewing pattern market. Aside from the relatively few cases of industrial production being inspired by vintage commercial patterns, the process usually works the other way around. Fashion inspiration generally flows from high-end to mass-market to home-sewing:
high fashion couture, to:
mass-market department store brands, to:
There are some exceptions, for example when a commercial home-sewing pattern company such as Vogue partners with designers to bring styles to the home-sewing market before they are watered down to the mass-market retail level. But in general, there is a consistent trickle-down flow of fashion, and silhouettes, and color trends….as explained so well by fashion Editor in Chief Miranda Priestly to her rooky assistant Andrea in “The Devil Wears Prada”: “that sweater is not just blue, its not turquoise. It’s not lapis. Its actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then i think it was Yves Saint Laurent – wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets?And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner”
Also look at the time frame: it takes about 5 months for a design to go from sketch to store in apparel manufacturing. Roughly you need a month for each step of the process:
a month for design development and approval
a month for patternmaking and testing and fitting
a month for sourcing fabrics and trims, and getting dye lots approved
a month for Cut-Make-Trim (factory sewing)
a month for packing, shipping, customs clearance, distribution
By the time a style hits the selling floor, the garment manufacturer is developing the next two season’s ahead. But the home-sewing market often waits until the styles are already at retail AND selling trends are established. The commercial home-sewing business just doesn’t have the resources to expend on styles that may or may not be popular. While the garment industry has much bigger budgets and can take more fashion chances, the home-sewing market plays it pretty safe. Which is why commercial patterns often seem a step behind.
Indie patternmakers can afford to be ahead of the Big Four schedule-wise since small businesses do not go through all of the corporate committee meetings and approval processes to finalize a style range…and PDF makers can be even faster since they bypass the paper-printing process. Still, the commercial (non-industrial) pattern business, whether paper or pdf, is almost always slightly behind the retail fashion garment business.
So why would an apparel factory NOT use a commercial home-sewing pattern? What are the differences between industrial patterns and commercial patterns?
The timing is different (see flow above). Industrial patterns must be completed according to the schedule of fashion Market Weeks, and missing deadlines means huge repercussions for factory production….commercial patterns may also be rushed for release, but the patternmaker faces fewer financial consequences for lateness (only the loss of sales of the pattern, not of garments).
3. Industrial patterns are drafted to fit well into a production marker for most efficient use of fabric:
3. Most importantly, the fit wouldn’t be correct. In the garment industry, manufacturers fit to their own blocks for fit consistency throughout the collection. The production development system within apparel manufacturing companies goes like this:
body measurement chart is established
basic fit blocks are drafted to fit those body charts
researching fashion and sketching each season’s styles
developing patterns of those styles based on the fit blocks
For a garment manufacturer to purchase a commercial home-sewing pattern, that would be a total waste of time, because it often takes more effort to revise an existing pattern than to draft a new one to your fit block (just like altering a garment often takes more time than sewing a new one). Also, apparel manufacturers have their own professional patternmakers, who are trained to draft/drape from sketches. If the patternmakers could use home-sewing patterns, they wouldn’t have jobs, right?
For awhile I thought “Oh I must be misunderstanding the question….maybe they’re not asking for THE pattern that was used in the garment industry, maybe they’re asking for A pattern in the same style”.
But then this week I read a curious discussion online, reinforcing the misconception that a manufacturer would need to use a commercial home-sewing pattern. A Dutch indie pdf style had been copied (and the designer’s photos stolen) by discount importer Aliexpress:
….and D H Gate:
…and another China importer on Ebay:
Many importers scour Etsy and Pinterest and Instagram for photos. They list popular styles for sale, and accept purchase orders for as-yet-unmade garments, taking a chance by showing a picture of something they did not sample and have never made.
Anyway the discussion veered towards the question “How do they make that if it was somebody else’s pattern? ” I posted in reply “They don’t need the original pattern, every factory has their own patternmaker, they make their own pattern from the photo.”
But I couldn’t seem to explain that well enough for the poster to understand. She kept asking how they got the pattern. Well if they really wanted to, they could just order the pdf online from the indie designer they stole the photo from. But the point is, they don’t need to. These days, almost all factories have their own patternmaker who is dying to show off their skills in drafting any design idea thrown at them. Especially in Asia, these workers pride themselves on being able to make any Western style.
Back in the sixties and seventies, patternmaking for the American market was done in the fashion capitals where product development took place. The designers, sample-hands, fit models, technical designers, and patternmakers were all located in New York, LA, Chicago etc, and the process from concept to sketch to fit-sample to pattern took place within the design office. Then the patterns were sent to the garment factories (which used to be local). At the factory, the product development department would make production-samples using the patterns and send them back across town for approval.
In the eighties, this domestic patternmaking process continued even as globalization moved production “offshore” to 807 countries (so called because of the regulation code number for programs cutting out garments in the U.S. and then sending to Caribbean countries for sewing, then bringing back without paying import duties). The advent of affordable computers allowed better communications,which encouraged businesses to move production to Asia, saving even more money . Then in the nineties a big change occurred: just as it was cheaper for the sewing (cut-make-trim) to be done overseas, manufacturers started to shift technical design and then patternmaking overseas as well.
These days it’s common for the production-country factories to have the blocks, to draft the patterns, to make the fit samples….often the only parts of the product development process done in the home-country are the sketching and editing of the line, and the fit and construction approval.
Bottom line is this: if you see a mass-manufactured garment and want to find a commercial home-sewing pattern to reproduce it, I guess the more accurate way to pose the question is to ask for “a” pattern, not “the” pattern:
“Any suggestions for a pattern that looks like this?”
“Has anyone seen a pattern for this style?”
PS: There’s also a difference between industrial printers, and commercial home-computer printers. I received a comment/question today about a pattern not matching up, so I checked my own copy and it did match up with about 99% accuracy. Every home-printer I’ve ever used (right now I have a Dell, an HP and an Epson) is ever-so-slightly off-skew, not because of the data but rather because of the mechanics of the printing machine itself. So even “perfectly drafted” pdfs will match up with about 99% accuracy when printed at home. If you want 99.9% accuracy, I suggest using the one-sheet print-shop options available on many new pdfs.