I've seen that pattern making can be quite a mystery due to it's perceived, and actual, inaccessibility to learn.
A necessary component in design, a pattern is the base level template for every item of clothing. However, as necessary as it is to fashion design, it is a challenging and very technical aspect of the process. Pattern drafting requires a high degree of skill, and certain aptitudes and ambitions within the maker, for a successful pattern to be drafted.
Today I want to demystify the learning process. In my classes, lessons, and articles on this blog, I always seek to clarify a process with the as much clarity and honest transparency from my own personal experience in this profession because learning a craft is a significant investment. You have to know what you are getting into and I find it helpful to create guidelines of expectations before starting out on a long journey of learning.
Pattern making can be a long learning path. I’ve been working on it steadily for almost 10 years now. However, if you figure out that you love drafting, it's incredibly rewarding and worthwhile because it's the template for your own unique design and perspectives.
In this article, I'll begin with an overview of why you would want to study the intensive skill of patternmaking. I'll sketch out the learning process, the ideal aptitudes in the maker, the skills you will use, the timeframe of investment, and the conceptual development you will need in order to really be a good pattern maker.
I'll also help you discern whether or not you really need to learn how to draft, it's benefits and disadvantages, so that you can determine if it is worth the investment of your valuable time. Does learning this skill really solve your problems? Or is there another approach that gets you to your desired outcome more quickly and easily?
A Road Map to Learn Patternmaking- If you aren’t going to Fashion School
If you were going to fashion school to learn the craft of fashion design, most programs will have a balance of courses in sewing construction and pattern drafting to cover the technical production of fashion design. If I were choosing a fashion school, I would look for a program that offers comprehensive classes on manual drafting, computer aided drafting, and if you can find it, pattern grading.
A lot of students I teach currently are folks who are looking to get their feet wet in the area of sewing and fashion design, before deciding to attend a fashion program. And of them are enrolled in fashion collegiate programs and still need the extra one on one assistance to grasp the pattern drafting principles and execute them. I have sat down with many people this past year who have different reasons for wanting to draft their own patterns.
When I new student tells me that they want to learn pattern making in order to produce their own designs from sketch to sew, I outline the process for them. First I ask them if they enjoyed math while in school and specifically geometry. Remember geometry proofs where you analyze a shapes and work backwards through a series of math principles in order to solve how that shape was made? That is the type of math and critical thinking used in pattern making.
If that student tells me that they hated math and dislike that level of analysis, then their time might be better spent learning ways to work with existing patterns, or learning how to manipulate pattern blocks first- before deep diving into the pattern drafting process.
If they tell me they are willing to work with the math and want to proceed, then the next assessment to consider is how much sewing have they completed. I think it's critical that the student know the basic shapes and understand how an existing pattern comes together before learning patternmaking.
I do get a lot of resistance here, because I’ve had some who are so excited that they want to dive right in. Especially if they feel commercial patterns don’t fit right, or they aren’t finding patterns in the design that they have in their head or see on the runway. In this type of conversation, I use my own experience from studying the visual arts, sometimes you have to make some stuff just to learn, not because it is your ideal final vision.
Let’s compare this to a painting class. First you have to learn still life, paint live models, learn grey scale, play with positive and negative space just to learn the principles. I apply the same approach when I teach a new person patternmaking. I think you should have made a dress, a shirt, a pair of pants, a skirt, a jacket, and have worked through the basics of a wardrobe to see the patterns so that you know what they look like and the order in which they assemble.
If you have already had your fill of commercial patterns and you are fed up with the patterns you are using- that’s great! That means you are seeing how they can be better and how you can bring something new to the table.
I think that to be a good drafter, it's important to be familiar with pattern design first by working with what has already been produced. It's going to visually imprint into your mind how patterns look and how they function in the construction process. When you begin to make your own, and you see problems, then you know what you can start implementing in your own unique ideas of design.
After this first conversation, if a student is on board with everything I just asked and outlined, then we begin their first lesson.
The Pattern Making Process, the Aptitudes, and Investments
Pattern makers are the hardest working people I have met. They are exquisite problem solvers, and when a designer tosses them a design, immediately their minds start to compute the math, and how those lines and shapes can be accomplished in the drafting, how it will be sewn, and how to communicate that to a team of people who are going to sew that garment.
Why a professional pattern maker cringes when they get calls from aspiring designers to produce their patterns is because their job is NOT EASY. It is their aptitude, profession, and talent, but their draft must perform and that's going to take a high degree of their skill. And they don’t want to teach you and have an argument with you as to why gold lame is not going to work in the design that you have chosen. They want to know that you know the process and the challenge that every design you sketch brings. That’s why it's not easy to bring a design to production without knowing the right people who can help you find a patter maker willing to work with you.
When I've taught pattern making, we start by drafting the basic blocks. Pattern blocks are drafted from a set of measurements, they can be from a dress form, a standard measurement chart, your fit model, or your very own measurements of your body. I've taught how to measure the body first, because most people want to make patterns for their body type so that they can draft future patterns that fit them best. These blocks are the most basic pattern, and all patterns are drafted from there. The first blocks that you draft are a front bodice block, a back bodice block, a sleeve block, a skirt block, and a pant block.
Most people start with the bodice front back and sleeve because that is the hardest part to fit. It’s also challenging to draft, and this is going to teach you whether or not you want to proceed with patternmaking. Some fashion programs don’t even teach this! So if some of you are aspiring to find a fashion program, make sure you ask if you are taught to draft blocks or are they using preexisting blocks.
In my opinion, drafting from a preexisting block is going to have the same problems as a commercial pattern, because you did not make any decisions as to how the pattern should fit, or what body type you are drafting for.
Drafting the basic blocks shows you if you have the aptitude to proceed. You must be precise in your use of your rulers and measurements. You must be able to add and subtract fractions, and follow the steps outlined in order, in whatever text you are following.
Next step: get some books
There are pattern books that have all of the math and measurements and steps involved for making your own patterns. I use Helen Joseph Armstrong's classic Patternmaking for Fashion Design when I’m trying to analyze a design, and my new favorite book by Lori Knowles, The Practical Guide to Patternmaking for Fashion Design is great for drafting your blocks. Pattern books can be expensive because they go out of print fast, and these are technical texts to help you achieve your design. You have to have a good dependable book to really help you in the design process.
After your blocks drafted, you will sew up a muslin and check the fit. You will still need to alter the fit, and also use your best visual judgment to make those alterations. Sewing a lot of garments helps you develop a critical eye, as well as trying on a lot of clothes. A block is not going to look like an item of clothing you are going to wear, so don’t go dropping the waist or slimming the sleeves- it's used as a base for your next design. When the block is complete and the fit is achieved, next the patternmaker goes in and uses applied math and measurements to design the different style lines that the garment needs to achieve the design.
Blocks can work great for those of you who struggle with the fit of commercial patterns. You can use them to compare where the dart apex is on your body compared to the pattern, where your sleeves should set, the length of your shoulder seam, the length of your shoulder span- you can lay the block over the pattern and get a quick compare.
Usually your first block isn’t perfect, and usually has to be drafted again, by adjusting your initial measurements and redrafting. It is so much work and can be frustrating to have to go back and redraft and sew a new muslin. But it's part of the process. Some patterns that I design go through 3 iterations to get the fit that I want to achieve, which can take up to a week at a time just to get the pattern to fit exactly how I want it to fit.
If you are starting to think, I don’t want to work on a pattern for an entire week just to make one design- after drafting the front, back, and sleeve block, that’s a good place to stop. Like I said above, it's a massive investment of time to draft your own patterns and you can use your blocks to help you fit commercial patterns. But if you love drafting the block, and even enjoy the revision process, then that’s a good indication that you will love pattern making and you can proceed to drafting more blocks and manipulating them into actual designs.
But if you are now of the opinion, “OMG, there is no way I want to spend that much time, there must be another way!!”
Learn how to manipulate existing patterns
Now, if you are an aspiring designer, and you want to produce and sell clothing- it is UNETHICAL and a form of stealing to take a commercial pattern and turn it into your design and sell it. If this is your dream, you either need to hire a patternmaker to make your design or learn pattermaking, because you need to have a production pattern to proceed.
But if you are wanting to build your own wardrobe, and bring more of your unique perspective and voice to the design of your patterns, then you can choose to alter existing patterns. Connie Crawford’s Patternmaking Made Easy and Helen Armstrong’s book that I mentioned above will show you how design elements like collars, plackets, facings, etc. that can change a design to make it more like you want it to look.
If fit is the problem, you could draft your blocks and stop there. Or you can get a great book in pattern alterations like Pattern Fitting and Alteration by Elizabeth Liechty and Judith Rasband and learn to analyze the problems in the fit. I know its challenging but in advanced sewing, to make things for your individual and unique body, you are going to have to learn some pattern alterations. The book I just mentioned, and Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book, a vintage gem, show you how to analyze what’s up with your muslin and make it fit.
I am a pattern maker myself, though of a different variety. Have you heard of my signature fashion design online courses, The Fair Fit Method? It's a series of courses designed to teach you intermediate to advanced fashion design skills like padding a form to your shape and size, fashion draping, pattern alteration, and adaptations for custom design. Enrollment happens only 3 times a year. If you would like to learn more about these courses and possibly take a class with me yourself go here to learn more:
I know this has been a lot of amount of information, and but I totally want to encourage you to get started and head to your local library to check out some of these resources! What do you think? Is this a skill that you are going to learn, or are you more interested in altering existing patterns?