Hi there! We’re starting a surf and swimwear line here in Los Angeles. We love the look of your button up shirt and would like to purchase the pattern to use for manufacturing. Would that be okay with you?”
If you design and sell home sewing patterns for clothing, this sort of email lands in your inbox fairly frequently. It happens to pattern designer, Jen Beeman, on a weekly basis. Jen is the founder and designer of Grainline, an independent home sewing pattern company. She’s formally trained as a pattern maker and used to work as one. In her former job these sorts of emails would have led to new work. But now, in her current role, these requests make her recoil.
“Home sewing patterns are simply not drafted for production,” Jen explains. The reasons are threefold: technical, financial, and philosophical.
Grainline Archer button up shirt.
There are basic technical differences between a home sewing pattern and a pattern intended for use in an industrial scale, according to Jen. “In a factory setting, even in a smaller factory, workers aren’t sewing a single garment from beginning to end like a home sewist would. This can change the order of operations. And shrinkage is not addressed in home sewing patterns, whereas in production patterns shrinkage is drafted in. Believe me, if you’re wholesaling fabric you aren’t going to want to try to fit 20, 30, or 100 yards of fabric into your washing machine!”
Pattern designer Sonya Philip concurs. “In the factory sheets of fabric are laid out on a vacuum table, one on top of another,” Sonya explains. “Then the fabric is covered in plastic and vacuums suck the air out making the stack of fabric rigid, like wood. All of the pattern pieces are programmed into a computer and laid out like a jigsaw, trying to get as many pieces cut most efficiently. In a home sewing pattern the difference between a 3/8″ versus a 5/8″ seam allowance is negligible, but when it’s multiplied out over several pieces it really has an impact on the amount of fabric waste.”
Perhaps some of the aspiring fashion designers contacting home sewing pattern designers are aware of these technicalities, but are faced with the not insignificant challenge of finding someone to custom design and grade a pattern for manufacture. Sonya explains that this information is not readily available today. “The clothing industry, including fabric importers, sample and production sewers, cutters, pattern makers and graders, even in its most robust, was a closely held network of family businesses. There’s not really a need to advertise because people would know one another.”
If you are able to find a pattern maker in your area, you can get your goal accomplished for an upfront cost. Sonya advises, “Go to a pattern maker with a sketch. They could draft a pattern and sew a sample for about $250. That pattern would be within industry specs. Then you would go to a grader and for perhaps $50 more you would have that pattern graded into however many sizes you wanted.”
It seems that a better accessible directory of pattern makers and graders, and more transparency in how the process works and how much it costs, could be a real asset right now. There’s growing interest in bringing manufacturing back to the United States so perhaps a fashion incubator like Manufacture New York or a manufacturing organization like SF Made could provide that resource over time. Fashion Incubator is a great site for online research, as is their web forum.
It’s possible, though, that some of these aspiring designers have looked into hiring a pattern maker and grader, but are interested in saving money. A $12 pattern for the Archer button up shirt is certainly cheaper than having a custom pattern made and graded. This might work out for now, when your company is small, Jen says, but if you aspire to be in business for the long haul its wiser to figure the true cost of production into your pricing. “Say your company expands,” Jen explains. “The pattern you started your line with for $12 you now realize was actually about $300. Once you decide to wholesale your products you’ll find yourself in a pickle because the true cost wasn’t figured into your pricing from the start.”
Beyond the technical mismatch of home sewing patterns to the industrial setting, there are philosophical questions to consider as well. Pattern design teacher and author, Cal Patch, explains why using home sewing patterns are not the right choice for starting a clothing line in a broader sense. “While this might be a valid thing to do if you’ve been granted permission from the pattern designer, I wouldn’t call it a ‘line.’ To me it’s more like a service, much like a dressmaker would have done.”
For some sewists, though, home sewing patterns are the ticket to beginning small businesses, making each item by hand to sell on Etsy, for example. More than being a seamstress, the creativity comes in choosing fabrics and embellishments, and in the fineness of the finish.
Tasha Early makes and sells children’s clothing in her Etsy shop, Glitter and Wit. She uses indie patterns for all of the clothes in her shop.
“For a long time I went back and forth about selling my own sewn goods,” says Tasha, “but always felt that I had to do it all: design the garment, draft the pattern, source the fabric, style the samples, take photographs, write listings, promote the brand, and package the product. I finally realized that drafting the patterns was the only thing holding me back and five years had gone by. I finally found the worth in my work and realized that I don’t have to do it all. There is value in the way I put it all together – the fabrics I choose, colors I pair, attention to detail and dedication to a quality product are enough for my work to stand out and appeal to customers. I see myself transitioning to my own designs at a leisurely pace. For now home sewing patterns help me work smarter, not harder”
Billie sweater dress from ElizabethSuzann
If you have bigger goals and really intend to launch a clothing line, though, beginning with home sewing patterns is the wrong move according to most fashion designers. Elizabeth Pape owns the women’s clothing line ElizabethSuzann. She makes modern women’s clothing based on simple shapes and clean lines.
Elizabeth explains, “I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all to practice and experiment with home sewing patterns to determine what shapes and garment you like to work with, but when you’re ready to launch a long-term, legitimate business you need to be ready to draft your own, or hire a skilled pattern maker to bring your specific ideas to life. Even if you’re working with simple, basic shapes, having the background knowledge and understanding of pattern drafting and how clothes are made will give a stronger foundation to your work and contribute to higher quality, better made, original garments.”
There’s an additional point to consider, according to Jen Beeman. “If you’re using patterns from an independent company such as Grainline you’ll run into the problem where none of us indie designers really have enough patterns in our lines to create a full clothing line of your own. At that point you may end up mixing lines and in turn having absolutely no size consistency since we’ve all done our own research and draft and grade based on our own fit models and grade rules. It doesn’t matter how amazing your clothes are, if they don’t fit or people can’t rely on the finding their size easily between garments and styles, it’s not going to sell.”
Jen sums the situation up well. “Starting a clothing line is a serious investment of both your time, money, and energy. To me it doesn’t make sense to start out by trying to cut corners on the most important part of the process by using a pattern not made expressly for that purpose.”
Have a question about this topic? Feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to find the answer for you or have an expert weigh in.