Blog,  Sewing Tips

“Which pattern is this?”

There is a big difference between:

  • Industrial patterns designed for the garment industry
  • Commercial patterns designed for the home-sewing market

…and it goes way beyond the topic of my last post about notches.

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:
  • bridge/middle-market, to:
  • mass-market department store brands, to:
  • home-sewing market

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?

  1. 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).

2. Industrial patterns  must be thoroughly tested (measured, walked, trued.)

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?”

Happy Sewing!

Best, Janet

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.


  • Theresa in Tucson

    And since almost every factory has its own pattern maker you don’t dare buy three pair of same style, different colorway, close fitting Levis without trying them all on as they could be made in three different factories/countries. Very good explanation of the difference between RTW and home sewing patterns. I always enjoy your posts and usually learn something new.

  • Battra

    I grew up in Asia where commercial patterns for home sewer was (and still is) unheard of. If you want a garment made, you go to a seamstress with a photo or even just attempt to describe what you want to him/her and in a few weeks you get your dream garment that fits perfectly. It’s still the norm today that I get perplexed look when I tell my relatives & acquaintances that we have ready patterns sold in stores here.

    And another observation I made recently is in western bag sewing groups, there are a lot of people asking for patterns even for simple grocery bag where you basically just sew 5 rectangle pieces and 2 handles. Whereas in an asian sewing group, people just look at a bag and ‘roughly’ draft the pieces themselves and voila! A new backpack for their kids with front & side pockets, laptop sleeve inside, all the bells and whistles and done in a day or two.

    My point here is commercial patterns have been available for the longest time in western countries that for many people it’s baffling how someone can look at a garment (or bag) and make it without having templates and instructions to follow. It’s like a norm to have a pattern. Which is a complete opposite on the other side of the world 🙂

    Very nice post as usual, Janet! Always an eye opener.

  • [email protected]

    I imagine it’s like cooking: most people that I know (myself included!) need a recipe….yet if you’ve grown up in a family where cooking is done by taste and touch and appearance, a recipe is useless. You go to market, see what’s fresh, buy it, and make up your own dinner! Who needs a cookbook? This type of “hands-on” cook can predict what the final dish will taste like even before it’s finished.

    When I worked in Asia I had many blouses and suits made for myself, just by going to a tailor shop as you say, and getting measured and giving them a sketch. Within a few days, the outfit was ready to be picked up, and the fit was always flawless! It’s an amazing skill to create a 3-dimensional garment with just measurements and a picture. Now that I think of it, I never saw a pattern or pattern-book in any of the fabric markets in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka…

    Many thanks for reading and commenting!

  • [email protected]

    Yes exactly why you should try on jeans, bras, anything made in multiple factories/countries! Each factory is given the specifications but reserves the right to use their own patterns. Even if you give a pattern to the factory, chances are they will “tweak” it to better fit into the marker and therefore save money (or make more profit, same thing). Kathleen Fasanella ( once explained that a common tweak with pants manufacturing is to ever-so-slightly angle the legs and/or trim the crotch hook, to fit the pattern marker better..which definitely affects the fit BUT the factory can get away with it because the finished pants can still meet the specifications (measurements) even though the shape has been altered a tiny bit.

    You’re right that manufacturers tend to break up production by style/colorway. A big firm like Levis has cut tickets (production orders) in huge volume, and spreads them out among multiple factories. It’s rare that any one factory can meet the demand,and even if they could, it’s risky to place production “all in one basket” because there’s always a risk of fire, flood, power outage, worker strike, ship can sink (it happens!), product can get stuck in Customs clearance, etc. It’s also risky for the factory to place all of their production with one designer, because there’s always a possibility of bankruptcy, company take-over, or the designer simply changes their mind and wants to try a new factory/country.

    Thanks for reading!!

  • Marsha

    My elderly aunts (in their late 80’s) and my grandmother made all their clothes from scratch when they were young. They didn’t have much excess money and printed patterns were relatively more expensive in the 1940’s and 1950’s than they are today. They would copy clothes from magazines or movies and make their own patterns out of newspaper. If you grow up making things from scratch (whether clothes or food) you quickly learn basic styles (or recipes) that you can then alter to your own taste. When my sons were growing up, they often requested costumes for which patterns weren’t available, so I would take a basic style and add the specific parts to make it look like the super hero, animal, or whatever they wanted. I’ve also concocted my own recipes that copy food I’ve enjoyed at restaurants. I think the thing that holds many people back is fear of failure. Sure, I’ve had a few wadders or inedible dishes, but for the most part I learned from my failures and had more success in the future.

  • Karen

    I am Dutch but have lived in the Philippines for the past 30 years and worked for a long time in the garment industry, so can totally relate to what you wrote in this post. I grew up and learnt to sew in Europe using the home sewing patterns available then, Vogue Simplicity etc as well as the European patterns such as Burda, Knip etc. Although my mother could sew, I learnt the most by following the instructions that came with these patterns. I now teach sewing here in the Philippines and I find that the biggest barrier to learning to sew for yourself is the lack of home sewing patterns. Sewing is a much easier skill for most people to learn than pattern making, and in order to be able to make good patterns even just for a bag, you have to have some sewing experience so you know how things go together. Even though things improved with Youtube, blogs as well as PDF patterns being accessible to many, most of the home sewing patterns are drafted for Caucasians who are much taller and have different body shape Asians. So again, Asians would have to have some idea of how to adjust patterns to their measurements, which is also difficult to learn/understand when you are just starting. So even though there are many Filipinos who know how to sew to a very high level and can make patterns, very few sew as a hobby but there are still seamstresses around who will sew up a gown for you in a couple of days! There is little formal pattern making taught here, regardless whether it’s for factories or for personal use. Pattern making skills are disappearing as the Philippine garment industry is also slowly dying (high wages in comparison to other countries and no local fabrics) and pattern makers who learned their trade on the job in factories get older and retire. I am slowly experimenting with patterns drafted to measure such as Lekala for my Filipino students however the downside of these companies are that the instructions are not good enough/non-existent for beginning sewers. Up to now the easiest has been is to use Japanese sewing pattern books and hope we can find English instructions, or that I write up new instructions for them for student to follow!

  • Marieke (circle meets line)

    That is simply hilarious. The dutch pattern you mention, actually never made a pattern. The blogger made a tutorial on how to achieve this style, by laying your kid on the floor and roughly draw around it. I noticed a lot of home sewist asking for a pattern in ‘the’ big pdf group. But there never was one in the first place. What worries me the most though is how Ali is using the original pictures from the blog.

  • [email protected]

    Hi Marieke! There never was a pattern to begin with? Wow that does make it hilarious! It shows the power of a great photo though! Such a cute little girl, looking darling in her comfy romper….I agree 100% it’s terrible that photos are stolen my the importers. You can ask them to take it down, but another one pops up so fast.

  • [email protected]

    Hi Karen! Somehow I missed your comment, sorry! You’re Dutch? My husband is Dutch as well….from Mierlo (near Eindhoven). You teach sewing in the Philippines, that sounds exotic! When my daughter was little I would buy her dresses that were beautifully hand-smocked in the Philippines…I imagine those workers must be retiring. Same with embroidered linens, when I worked in Asia I’d buy gorgeous handwork and now it’s all done by machine. It does seem like there’s a great opportunity for you to create petite patterns for the local market! Do you think the Japanese fit is similar to Filipino? (I’ve traveled/worked all over Asia EXCEPT Japan….and my husband travels ONLY to Japan!)

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