This is the fifteenth post in my series of monthly posts where I speak with people in the creative industries and ask them questions about the things that "I Wish I Had Known" when I started out as a creative myself.
I had the immense pleasure of meeting Neil J. Christopher, Pattern Cutter and co-owner of ARN Mercantile, a small company with great ideals that makes workwear combining British Heritage with Japanese technical skills and quality. Neil and I spoke about what makes a good Pattern Maker and how to successfully mix technology with manual skills within the craft:
1. What is the role of a Pattern Maker?
The main role is to interpret the ideas, ideals and vision of the designer, taking from the flat image and building a 3D garment, but also advancing the concept of what you are doing, offering advice on structure, movement and fabrics needed to build a better garment.
2. Which skills does a Pattern Maker need to have?
The ability to see in 3D is a key skill, but also fabric knowledge, construction and production. If you can sew that is a wonderful thing, but on a basic level, maths help, as does skill with a pencil. Clean lines save time and effort later on.
3. Is there a difference between a Pattern Maker and a Pattern Cutter, or are they interchangeable names?
In basic terms, they do get confused, but a Pattern Cutter cuts cloth to build garments in a factory, where a Pattern Maker makes the pattern they will work from, but a knowledge of what is needed for both jobs helps. If you can cut cloth and build garments it helps you to understand how the production works and will make you a better Maker. A Cutter can and do make patterns but that is a question of ownership
4. Why do we need patterns?
They are the building blocks of garments. To be able to make anything we need the pattern to make it from, but there is also an ownership issue and to fully have control over what you make and to keep it 'yours' is to own the pattern.
5. How are patterns made?
I cut the card by hand but some use computer-based cutting which would only become a 'hard' pattern in the factory, which is the basic answer, but the more build focused answer is with a lot of practice and understanding of the finished product.
6. There are in the market many software packages aimed at Pattern Making, but there is still a percentage of Pattern Makers who prefer to do it by hand. Are they just being old-fashioned or is it still more reliable to do it by hand?
There are many different software packages out there to build patterns but they suffer from the age of the core processes used to establish them. Many do use them and in fact, if you are making basic mass-market products they are the most cost-effective way to go. But, if you wish to build something that speaks to you and is yours, a hand-made card pattern is the best way to get your ideals out there. I am very bias on this but I have worked on many different kinds of 'software' and even helped build them and I feel you can not replace the hands of a good Maker within the process.
7. Do you think that technology has helped Pattern Making in any way, for instance, with fabric optimisation?
For layout, the cutting of cloth, yes very much so. It has simplified that part and increased fabric usage. I would always say that nothing beats the computer for that, but for shape and construction, we still have a fair way to go.
8. Can a designer make and cut their own patterns?
A few do, to begin with, but it's a skill where the basics can be simple to learn but as you grow and build a more complex garment you would need to have a skill set of hands working on that. With the basic skills, you can better help a skilled Maker to achieve your needed shapes. I would highly recommend anyone who was thinking of going into design to spend the time to understand patterns.
9. What about sizing? Why don’t we still have a standardised sizing in the industry?
Simple answer: too many markets. The clothing business can no longer focus on one market and with that comes a huge set of block patterns and sizes options. Even within one market, we are not all the same shape. Sizes have to reflect the needs of the customer; block patterns must also focus the producer to make for body type, not just size.
10. There is also some controversy with laser cutting. A lot of people criticise laser cutting because of its perfection. Do you think it diminishes the garment?
I have just seen some laser cutting and been given the option to program and cut with it. Yes, there have been issues with it, but mainly due to how it's been programmed to be used. It was not originally set up for cloth and the engineers who set it up did not intend its use in this field. In time and with care it will be a great benefit to the industry but right now it's still in a learning curve.
11. Is Pattern Making something that you study or that you learn as an apprentice?
Both, if you are lucky and find someone who is willing to teach you then an apprenticeship is a wonderful way to learn by doing. Some colleges do offer a short course, but it is normally part of a bigger design lead program. In the US and the EU it's a course in its own right, but here in the UK we tend to show the basics and hope that that will do and that you pick up more by working on it. I was lucky enough to work with a skilled Maker when I was young and then learnt more as time past, but you will always learn from other Cutter/Makers as there is little formal training outside of the bespoke business. As a Maker we find our own way around 'issues' and sharing that with your peers is a great way to improve.
12. Do Pattern Making students need to learn about the history of fashion?
I do believe they should at least look into it but within context. I have a huge collection of vintage patterns and pattern books yet some students I know have no interest in it. Most problems that you will ever have with Pattern Making are problems that others have also had, solved and, if you are lucky, shared their results.
Thanks so much, Neil, for taking a few minutes from your busy travelling schedule to speak with me about the important and often overlooked role of the Pattern Maker! This is everything that I Wish I Had Known!