toolsLately, I have be getting mail asking about pattern making. It seems many of you are capable at the sewing thing yet not so much with the pattern thing. Some of the questions that I’ve been getting are:

  • What industry standards do you use to make your patterns?
  • What seam allowances should I use?
  • What kind of paper do you use and where can I get it?
  • Are there special rules to drafting a pattern?
  • I want to make my own patterns but I don’t know where to start?

Well, let’s see if I can demystify any of this for you.

First of all, I begin with drawing a sketch of my idea. Now, right away I can hear some of you groaning that you cannot draw. Relax, we are designers, not art critics. You have nothing to lose here. If you don’t like the sketch or you mess it up, turn the page in your idea book (see idea book) and try again. You need a visual record of your idea to plan out the execution of your design.

Next, I go shopping for my raw materials. Yes, that is correct. I get my fabrics and hardware before I start to draft out my pattern. Here is where designers find their creative inspiration from the abundance offered in colour, texture, and pattern. It simplifies the design process (see Generating Ideas). Your fabric selection will dictate the shape and function of your design. It is ideally more practical and time/labour saving to work with the resources available to you, rather than design a product, then go search for its parts and components. For instance, say you wish to have a buckle on your shoulder strap. If the only buckle available to you has a 2-inch inner diameter, then you draft a 2-inch wide shoulder strap pattern to ensure the proper fit in assembly. Do as the experts do, search and acquire your materials and supplies before beginning to draft your pattern and simplify the process.

Now I am ready to draft my pattern. I begin by listing the design specs of my idea onto a worksheet with all the pertinent details (see Prep is the Key). Consider the type of closure and hardware you wish to have and its best application, and the type of seaming and stitching techniques that are appropriate for the design. The lining, either drop-in or fixed, can be added to the interior of the bag for support and appearance. And finally, pick a strap style: will it be a fixed or adjustable length? will it be attached to front and back or from side gussets? will it fit in the hand or over the shoulder?

The style and formation of any designer bag is based upon simple body shapes when laid flat, fit into a square or rectangle, of which the size depends on the final shape and parameters of the pattern. There are some basic considerations to keep in mind in planning your bag design: the bag has five planes – a base, a front, a back, and 2 side gussets. You may want to add a sixth plane – a top or lid in the form of a flap or other closure detail.

I start by drawing a rectangle or square on my paper and proceed with my styling, often relying on an invisible grid (see Foundation) and the Rule of Thirds (see Rule of Three). This initial pattern is known as the Working Pattern and has no seam allowances. Any kind of paper is fine to use to do this first stage – from newsprint to professional dot paper. I like using kraft paper aka parcel wrap as it is available in large sheet rolls and is inexpensive. The working pattern is used for marking out the basic stylelines and design features (eg. pockets, bag handles, hardware placements) of my bag design. Pattern sections can be traced off and may be further adapted to make hidden facings, interior linings, and interfacing templates. Feel free to cut and paste wherever it is needed. Complex styling may need a number of trials at this stage. 

Pattern-making is a skill. However to make that skill work to its best advantage you need the proper tools and equipment. Take precise and accurate measurements. It does not matter whether amounts are in imperial or metric but be consistent with whichever you choose. Measure seam lines that connect together and ensure they are equal in length. The applied math is basic but if you cannot convert fractions then use a calculator as an aid. Get a long metal ruler (yardstick) to draw straight lines, a set square to make 90° and 45° angles, a French curve to draw curved lines and a tracing wheel to transfer pattern markings. I cut ALL my straight lines with a utility knife on a large cutting mat. Only on curved lines do I use paper scissors. You are only as good as your tools you use. Also, get a good sewing reference book. The more you know about sewing construction, the more you can expand on your pattern-making.

Once I have my first draft, I make a mock-up of the bag design (see creating mock-ups). Always make a mock-up to test your pattern before cutting into your fashion fabric. Trace out your pattern pieces onto inexpensive muslin and mark the seam allowances onto the fabric. Keep in mind however that the mock-up should be constructed in a similar weight fabric therefore an upholstery weight of muslin is ideal. For items like leather, a wool felt is compatible in thickness and in weight. Be certain to use the same hardware and use the same construction techniques and machine-stitching as you will use for the final product. Don’t be disappointed if your sample does not ‘turn out ‘ on the first attempt as planned; that is why we make mock-ups. These mock-ups allow you to evaluate your design and modify the end result, correct your pattern if needed, and work out the sewing/assembly process. This step is often “skipped” by newbies but I assure you it is worth the time and effort to produce one. The bonus aspect is that this is a practice trial run for constructing the finished product in real time. Remake the mock-up as often as needed until you are happy with the final results.

Once the working pattern has been perfected, re-measure all your connecting seamlines to ensure that they are equal in length. Remember, measure twice, cut once.

Now I am ready to transfer my corrected pattern onto manilla oaktag aka paperboard. At home, you can use poster-board (bristol board). I use white poster-board for pattern pieces that create the bag exterior (fashion fabric); pink poster-board for interior pattern pieces (lining); and green poster-board for interfacing pattern pieces (stiffener). The various coloured cardboard is for quality control and teamwork. For instance, if a co-worker is asked to mark and cut out a lining, he/she will use the pink pattern pieces. However if you are the pattern maker and the cutter/sewer (and I think most of you are) you can use white bristol board for all the pattern pieces and colour-code the pattern pieces by labelling them with blue or black ink for the fashion fabric, red ink for the lining, and green ink for the interfacing.

To make the Final Pattern from the Working Pattern, start by laying out the pattern pieces on the cardboard and weigh the pieces down with pattern weights to prevent any shifting of the pattern. With the aid of a straight edge, trace around the working pattern with your tracing wheel. Remove the working pattern and set it aside. Your tracing represents the new final pattern. Remark all straight lines with a straight-edged ruler and all curved lines with the French curve.

You will recall that no seam allowance was provided from the original pattern-draft when you made your working pattern. As none was added to the drafted pattern, it must be provided at this point. All final patterns should have proper seam and facing allowances. Seam allowances are not standardized in the fashion industry. They are varied according to the weave of the fabric being used or the assembly method of the handbag. With the aid of your transparent ruler, add seam allowance to all edges except if the piece is cut on the fold. If you are using multiple widths of seam allowance, you must indicate them on your final pattern by notching the beginning and end of each seam except where two parts make a whole unit in the assembly process.

Each pattern piece should be labelled with a pattern I.D. (often a style no.), name of the piece, size if applicable (often S-M-L), cutting directions and number of cut pieces required. Each pattern piece should have a directional grainline running through the center of the entire pattern piece. With the set square triangle, draw the grainline with arrows on each end which will show position of the vertical and horizontal grain of the fabric when using the pattern to cut the handbag parts.

For internal items on pattern pieces such as pocket placement or hardware location, mark placement points by punching a hole at the location with a awl or small hole punch. Circle each hole with red ink to highlight the location.

When checking the Final Pattern, all pattern pieces should include, where needed:

  • Pattern I.D. with cutting instructions.
  • Corrected seam edges at bag openings.
  • Grain line indicators.
  • Punch hole or circle indicating hardware placement.
  • Notches indicating seam allowances.
  • Foldline ends should be notched.
  • Additional notches showing various sections to be joined together at seams.

Once the entire Final Pattern has be checked, complete the pattern by cutting out this final pattern with a utility knife and metal safety ruler for all straight lines and using paper scissors to cut curved edges. The final step is to punch a hole in each pattern piece with a large holepunch to hang up when the pattern is stored. I often will total up the number of pattern pieces to make up the style and number each piece out of the total (eg. #3 of 5). This comes in handy when I make up the style again knowing that I have all the pattern pieces at hand.

These technical steps with the use of custom measurements are common to the making of almost every handbag pattern. With a little careful study and practice they are easily mastered and become the foundation of all your pattern making and personalized styling.  So channel your creativity by setting creative goals. Let your goals grow as you grow in your knowledge of pattern drafting. Know that pattern drafting will eventually free you of “cookie-cutter” fashion and develop a personal made-to-measure bespoked style.


Filed under Design Insight

6 responses to “PATTERN MAKING

  1. Rhonda Gillette

    thank you for another great post. The problem I’m having is setting in a fixed liner . For example, say there are two or three interior pockets with fixed lining. A) what is the proper steps to be taken to put it all together in the right order. B) for the seams that will still be noticeable in the process – what kind of binding is used to cover them.
    I love the color poster board idea for the final patterns. I learned quite a bit from this post and will use your tips in my next attempt at the Ipad purse I’m designing. thank you so much.

    • Don

      Thank you Rhonda.
      For a fixed lining, I always start by laminating the fashion fabric for the interior with a fusible interfacing as an interlining. Knit-fuse® works well as it will stabilize the area without making it stiff. However if stiffness is part of the style you could use Pellon® or a fusible fleece. Any pocket compartment must be construct on to the bag lining before attaching the lining section to the exterior section. Don’t forget your hardware. For instance, if you are using a snap or magnetic closure, the stud portion of the set must be inserted in place before attaching the interior to the exterior. Once you have the lining completed, you can sew (RST) or glue (WST) the lining to the bag’s body. Most often there will be no raw edges as I turn under the seam allowances. If there is an exposed raw edge(s), use narrow bias fold tape to bind the edges to neaten.

  2. This makes me want to make my own bag, quick! Thanks for the post.

  3. NADA
    June 26,2013
    Thankyou for these importent notes its more helpful.

  4. Aussierob43

    Amazing instructions. Loved your Leather Bag Course on Craftsy. So inspired. Hope you do some more courses

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