Making ePatterns Part One: Pattern Drafting & Grading

on April 12 | in Sewing Trends, Sewing Tutorials + Patterns, Small Business Ideas | by | with 38 Comments

Carla Crim from Scientific Seamstress is here today for part one of a three part series on drafting, grading, formatting and marketing your own ePatterns! In addition to Scientific Seamstress patterns Carla works with Jennifer Paganelli to create Sis Boom eBooks; she’s an ePattern/eBook expert and also a top-notch designer. We know Carla’s series will be a fantastic resource for those of you thinking about creating your own ePatterns. If you’ve already ventured into your own ePattern designs Carla’s tips can help you improve your patterns, instructions and marketing efforts.

Part One today covers pattern drafting and grading, and tomorrow Carla will be back for Part Two in her series to show you how to “e-format” your patterns. Part Three covers writing instructions and marketing your patterns.

We’re offering a 20% discount on all Scientific Seamstress PDF Patterns in the shop. One of the (many!) nice things about Carla’s patterns is the wide range of sizes offered in each pattern. You get a lot for your money, for example, with a Portrait Peasant Top and Dress pattern that covers sizes eight months to eight years! Check out all of Carla’s patterns in the shop and take advantage of the discount today…

Hi, my name is Carla Crim, and I’m the patternmaker behind Scientific Seamstress and Sis Boom eBooks. Almost seven years ago I left a career as a research scientist to stay home with my infant son. To help make ends meet, I designed and sold one-of-a-kind ensembles for collector dolls on eBay. I loved making the little clothes, but given the cost of materials and the amount of time I put into them I really wasn’t turning much of a profit. I was getting lots of requests from other sellers for my patterns, so I put together a few using the same software I formerly used to give presentations about DNA molecules. Since I was working in electronic format, I could go “over the top” with detailed instructions, photographs, and color diagrams. The response was so positive, I decided to make and sell simple ePatterns for American Girl dolls. From there I transitioned into children’s patterns, and a few years later teamed up with popular fabric designer Jennifer Paganelli to make patterns for kids and adults. Like many ePatternmakers, I am completely self-taught, using books and internet resources. At first I was a little sheepish about my lack of “professional training,” but have gained so much confidence thanks to my customers, who have generously shared their testimonials and photographs of their beautiful creations. Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing my techniques and tips for creating and distributing ePatterns.

I get lots of emails asking: “What patternmaking software do you use?” The truth is, I don’t use patternmaking software at all. I did a little research when I first started out, and commercial versions were WAY out of my price range. The more affordable, user-friendly versions are for home use only (which is fine if you are making patterns for yourself, but you can’t sell them – bah). My patterns are actually made using good, old-fashioned drafting techniques and outdated presentation software. I know I could probably justify splurging on commercial software at this point, but you know what?– I don’t even want it! First off, I know there would be a huge learning curve as with any advanced, highly-specialized software. Most importantly though, I’ve come to think of my patterns as a handmade product. Lots of time and love go into them, and I’m proud of the fact that my two hands touch each size of every design (even though it is via a keyboard to a great degree). Today I’m going to discuss the resources I used to learn how to draft patterns, and the tools I rely on to ensure accuracy.

My patternmaking studio.

Making the initial pattern can be done by draping, flat drafting, or a combination of both. When I designed patterns for dolls, I did everything by draping. I would hold up pieces of muslin or tissue (paper towels work great) to the doll, then manipulate and cut to fit. She would hold perfectly still, and didn’t mind if I occasionally jabbed her with a pin. After trial and error, I would get just the fit I wanted, and would then proceed to computer import. I knew that if the pattern fit my doll, it would fit every doll just like her (life was so simple then… Sigh). I don’t do that much draping for human clothing. I have a vintage adjustable dress form, but she is a bit warped and she’s missing some parts. Plus, I tend to stick to basic, free-fitting designs that are very suited to flat drafting. If you want to learn more about draping, there are entire textbooks written on the subject (or you could just watch lots of Project Runway and learn by osmosis).

Patchwork Twirl Skirt

My first multi-sized pattern for girls was the Patchwork Twirl Skirt. Sizing on that one was really simple because the elasticized waistband was all that needed to fit to the body, and length determination (waist to knee) was very straightforward. After that, I did the Stripwork Jumper. It has a very basic bib-style bodice with straps… Something I had made over and over for various-sized dolls. I made the prototype to fit my then two-year-old son by the draping process I described above. It fit like a size two should, and he looked cute as a button twirling around in it. But what about the other sizes? I was pretty sure what should happen with girth just based on sizing charts I had found online. But what about the length of the bodice? And how deep should the armholes be… And what about the straps? ACK! After lots of trial and error (mostly studying size charts, measuring finished garments, and getting fit feedback from friends), I drew up bodice patterns in sizes 6 months to 8 years. They worked out great, but if I had known about flat pattern drafting, I could have saved weeks of effort.

Stripwork Jumper

Flat pattern drafting is based around 2D renditions of the human form called slopers. Slopers are basically patterns that, when put edge to edge (no seam allowances included), would fit the body exactly. I’ve seen them referred to to as “second skins.” Slopers are drawn using a set of measurements (standard or custom) and a series of calculations. Here is an article from 1942 that shows in gory detail how to draw a bodice sloper. Don’t be intimidated… It is easier than it looks if you just take it step by step. I’ve actually drawn a couple of bodice and pants slopers, and I have to say it was a good exercise and I’m glad I understand and appreciate the process. But, it is a lot of work, and there is always the chance of making one tiny mistake and messing up the sloper (and all subsequent patterns based on it). Luckily, there is a great company in Canada called String Codes Designs that sells standard and customized slopers to the patternmaking community (that means they are yours to trace and modify as you please)! They are computer generated and printed on large format paper, and contain the detailed measurements that were used to generate them. They come in toddler through plus sizes, and you get a big discount if you purchase multiple sizes in a group.

A bodice sloper complete with sleeve.

So how does one go from sloper to usable pattern? In a nutshell, it is all about adding length or width to different spots to get the fit you want. Ease is a term I’m sure most of you are familiar with– It is what makes the garment wearable and not skin-tight and constricting. Wearing ease is the amount of excess needed so you can walk around and move comfortably (I think some of the skirts I wore in college lacked this). Design ease is excess beyond wearing ease to give a certain look– fitted, semi-fitted, loose fitting, etc. Again, that is a subject that entire textbooks have been written about. I own Patternmaking for Fashion Design, and it has instructions for drafting lots of different styles for both adults and children. It is a good reference to have on hand, and covers lots of neat details like collars and cuffs (FYI– It tells you how to draw them, but not how to sew or add them).

A-line Top

The A-line Tops and Dresses pattern was my first foray into flat pattern drafting. Below is a little recreation of how I drew the bodice front piece for each size:

    First, I traced around the top and side edges of the sloper (because of the style, I didn’t need to worry about the bottom edge or the darts).

    Then, keeping in mind the amount of ease I wanted and the placement on the shoulders, I drew the outline of the garment edges.

    After that, I added in the seam allowance. Keep in mind that this is just the pattern draft, and the finished version is electronically rendered and much neater!

At first, it was a little hard to envision that flat piece of paper as representing a human figure, but I got used to it with time. I’ve used this technique for all my child-sized patterns, even for more complex designs like the Bowling Shirt and Precious Dresses. I like to flat draft toddler, child, and tween sizes individually, because the proportions change so much as children grow. Once you have a good fit at one size, however, grading can be used to make a few smaller and larger sizes.

Three sizes of Precious Dresses with different collar, sleeve, and bodice options.

Before I get into grading, I want to talk a bit about measurement charts. Just about every clothing company has the basic measurements (chest, waist, and sometimes hips) they use for sizing online. This is a good starting point if you are doing simple things like skirts. More detailed charts that give vertical measurements (waist to knee, waist to ankle for example) and additional girth measurements (like neck and wrist) can be found scattered about the net and are also compiled in many sewing and patternmaking books. The ultimate source for detailed sizing charts is the ASTM– These folks come up with standards for everything from the electrophoretic mobility of proteins to the retackablility of carpet adhesives. They offer separate size charts for infants/toddlers, children, women, plus-sized women, and probably dogs and cats. The standards are $30-$50 to download, but well worth it if you plan to get into the patternmaking business. The science geek in me loves the comprehensive nature of these documents– Diagrams of the different body measurements are given here.

ASTM standard chart taped near my computer for quick reference.

OK, back to grading. As the human body grows (up or out as the case may be), different parts of the garment need to expand to different degrees. In other words, you can’t just enlarge a size 2 on a copier and make it fit a 20. That is why the size chart is so important– It tells you exactly how much each part of the body changes from size to size. Grading is something that can be contracted out (here is an article geared towards fashion designers, but gives some good information on hiring a grader), but I like to do it myself because 1.) I’m a control freak and 2.) it is actually pretty fun. This article from Threads Magazine gives a great explanation of two different methods. I use the pattern shifting method, but I do it right in my drawing software rather than with actual pencil and paper. If you are just starting out, I recommend doing it as described in the article. Then, as you become more comfortable with digital drawing, you can replicate the same process on the computer screen, saving you from having to scan so many pieces.

If I am doing a multi-sized pattern, I usually start out with a single, middle-of-the-range size for a “group” of patterns. For example, I’ll flat draft a Misses’ size 6, and then I’ll grade it up and down to 4 and 8 (and possibly 2 and 10 depending on the complexity of the design). Of course, before you go to the work of grading, it is important to make sure the original size is a good fit. It is very helpful if you have access to a live person who is this size. Dress forms are great, but they don’t move and they lack limbs. I’m a Medium on most days, so I usually make something that fits me (bonus is I have something new and pretty to wear). For kids’ clothes, my son is a great test size, but I find it harder and harder to get him put on dresses… Imagine that! Anyway, once you get that first size just perfect, you can go ahead and grade up and down a size. After grading, I measure the pattern piece to make sure the right amount was added or subtracted. If I’m grading several sizes, I also like to “nest” them by aligning all of them at a top or bottom corner to make sure they are increasing or decreasing as expected.

Some nested bodices.

The ultimate test of whether or not grading worked out is to sew up a sample and see if it fits someone (or a dressform) of that size. Sometimes I’m jealous of people who have lots of kids to use as fitting models (but then I remember that they have to feed them and do their laundry). Luckily, I have a big group of friends and family who are more than happy to trade a sewn item for pictures and detailed feedback on fit.

Cute neighbor kid in the new Sis Boom Marissa Dress.

After I get all the sizes graded to my liking, then comes the task of breaking the full-sized patterns down into overlapping pieces that will fit onto letter sized pieces of paper. In tomorrow’s post, I will outline the techniques and common software I use to import and format my PDF patterns. Hope to see you then!

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38 Responses to Making ePatterns Part One: Pattern Drafting & Grading

  1. Shannon says:

    I’ve found this series of articles absolutely fascinating!
    I’ve sewn too many of Carla’s patterns to even count. Every single one has fit exactly as the pattern has described. Every. Single. Time.
    I wish I could say the same of commercial patterns. It seems I never have the kind of fit that is predicted.

    GREAT work, Carla!

    Thanks so much, Sew, Mama, Sew for posting such informative articles!

  2. Tom says:

    Great post! Carla’s patterns really are the only one’s that fit like they are supposed to. The sizing standards that she uses are great, and if any fit issues are found during the testing phase, she always takes care of it then. Another reason I always feel confident in purchasing her e-patterns. I know they have gone through rigorous testing for fit and with her clear measurement guidelines, I can sew with no worries! Thanks again, Carla for creating such wonderful patterns that my family loves!

  3. Sara says:

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for this post! Pattern making has always been this mysterious process that I am constantly seeking to define/refine. This is such a great resource! Thanks SMS and Carla. You just rocked my world!

  4. Kathleen says:

    Re: ASTM standards
    Context: In part, I’m a voting member of ASTM committe D13 and have worked in apparel production and sizing for nearly 3 decades. I’ve lost count of how many articles I’ve written on the subject of standardized sizing and grading but easily over 200. I’ve also been interviewed by the NYT, Forbes, CAN etc on the subject of sizing.

    Considering I’m a committee member and that I make a living advising manufacturers on sizing, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from using standards per se but in this context, I think the US Commercial Standard is better for several reasons.
    1. They’re open source -free. More discussion of the CS151-50 (children’s clothes) is here. Btw, that link includes links to several entries on grading children’s clothes. Specifically, how to take the measures in the chart and design grade rules for given cardinal points. I’d include a link to a definition but then my comment would look entirely too spammy and would probably get kicked out.

    2. I think the commercial standard is better if you’re DIY and want an out of the box solution. These were developed by major retailers for catalog sizing. They’re more reflective of the norm -especially the kid’s sizing. Sure, the CS data set is circa the 80’s but the ASTM D5826 is at least 30 years older than that. If you’re interested in women’s sizing, ASTM D5585 et al are even older -the original data set is a legacy of Sheldon’s much maligned study in the late 1930’s and 1940’s. This link will take you to a discussion of the issues of using the ASTM data set Carla has (D5826) vs the CS151-50. That entry has a direct link to the pdf download for the commercial standard for kid’s clothes.

    Btw, if you’re going to buy the women’s data set (D5585), I recommend waiting until November to buy the D5585-11 because there’s a substantive upgrade coming which will include data collected by Alvanon, TC2, CAESER etc. This particular standard is still in committee as we speak but in any event, if you derive grade rules from it (or any ASTM standard), you’ll see the grade *isn’t* normalized -and I refrain from further comment.

    A clarification re: D5219 that Carla mentioned. It’s probably not what you need but likely found at your local library so check there first. In any event, every standard has a description of the measures which will vary from laymen’s experience. [Also, the standards themselves are becoming integrated with avatars (a generous donation from Alvanon) so the 5219 will likely be phased out at some point due to redundancy.] The points of measure follow anthropometric, not dressmaking standards which presents conflicts at times. Not insurmountable of course but it is critical with respect to other standards (I’m thinking of the D5586, sizing for women aged 55+ specifically). Make careful note of the differences between given heights vs lengths; these are *not* the same thing.

    Sizing (designing a grade) is more complex than many realize altho it seems quite simple. I’m not saying you can’t do it but if it were easy, then sizing wouldn’t be the problem that it is. Meaning, if it is trickier than you imagined, you’re not the only one who struggles with it.

    I do admit to being surprised that Carla was using the ASTM data, until now I have never known anyone who did!

  5. Natacha says:

    Wow, this post, and the links too, just enlarged my world of possibles and dreams. Thank you!

  6. Fran says:

    Thanks for sharing ! Carla….your information was very
    informative & insightful ! Off to read your next post….

  7. Wow, what a great post! Thanks so much for sharing, this information is invaluable!

  8. Mama Lusco says:

    Thank you, Carla, for sharing your insight. I am so impressed with your patterns and it’s fun to see the science behind them :)

  9. Carla, fantastic job! I took pattern making back in the day and i had a sloper for myself!! So much work, very interesting, and i am very happy you make such amazing patterns!! Thank you!

  10. melissa q says:

    Fantastic information! Thank you! I’m working on a dress size 4T but have requests for sizes up and down from there and was perplexed! Now..problem solved.

  11. What an amazingly detailed article. Thanks so much for sharing so much knowledge that you have built up over a long time. I’d love to design my own patterns one day, and articles like this make me think I could actually do it!

  12. Wow! Thank you so much for this post!!!!! This has seriously saved me a month’s worth of headaches! So much wonderful and helpful information. Thanks for putting this all together. Looking forward to the next part :) Carla – you rock!

  13. VickiT says:

    Wow. Great info here. Thank you for taking the time to write all this up. Can’t wait to read more.

  14. Jenny Fish says:

    Thank you for sharing this Carla! You have answered several of the questions I have regarding drafting, slopers and grading. The resources are wonderful!

  15. Rachel says:

    Wow, that was very informative! Thanks for sharing.

  16. amanda says:

    What kind of paper do you recommend for pattern drafting?

  17. Katherine says:

    Thanks, Carla! I really appreciate all the info you’re sharing on the process and look forward to the next two parts in this series.

  18. Cricket says:

    I am so excited to see this. I have been looking for a pattern drafting class but haven’t found one yet. This at least gives me somewhere to start learning. Thanks so much!

  19. Katrina H says:

    I love your workspace!!!

  20. Appreciate you sharing, great article.Really looking forward to read more. Awesome.

  21. Wendy says:

    Very interesting!!! I can’t wait for tomorrow to learn even more!!!

  22. Miss Julie says:

    Thank you for the inside look at your pattern-creation process. So helpful and informative.

  23. Seanna Lea says:

    This is awesome. I know a lot of work goes into making a pattern, but it wonderful to get an insight into exactly what the process is for a designer.

  24. Sonja says:

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge Carla! I have a few patterns floating around that I would like to turn into pdf files to share. I am so looking forward to your next post as my attempts so far have been a real challenge.

  25. Eva says:

    This is so cool! Thank you so much for this series and for sharing your experiences, Carla!!

  26. Elisa says:

    Interesting. Thank you.

  27. Heather says:

    Ha, never mind. I just realized you had a link to the standards. Thanks again!

  28. Heather says:

    I use ASTM standards all the time in my job, and had no idea that there were standards for sizing! Do you have the ASTM number?

    I’m an engineer and this post was SO written for me. I’m definitely a novice sewer, but I’m starting to realize that I may have more of a mind for sewing than I ever thought possible. Thank you!

  29. Melissa S says:

    Carla, thank you so much for sharing this! It is so helpful and covers questions I’ve often had.

  30. Michelle says:

    Carla, I am not a pattern-maker by any means, but I find the entire process fascinating. I’ve purchased quite a few of your patterns (including two more I just picked up this morning with the awesome discount) and, as a beginning sewer, I think they are the best out there.

    After making some raglan tees as one of my first apparel projects, I thought I’d try out a regular old Simplicity “easy” pattern. Boy, was I shocked when I opened it out and saw how fussy and overly complicated it was. Now, I’m totally spoiled because of your e-patterns!

    I’ve got two boys and one girl and your patterns are enough to keep them clothed in various styles through childhood. My next step is trying out some patterns for myself that I’ve gotten. I’ve got the fabric for my peasant dress all ready, but I’ve got to finish the boys’ Easter outfits first.

    I would love to see a bowling shirt for men! My husband loves the Cuban-style guayabera shirts and they’re perfect for our Florida weather. I’ll keep my fingers crossed and hope to see something similar from you one day!

  31. Nicole Scott says:

    Thank you Carla for doing this series!
    I’m so curious about this and have dreamed of doing my own epatterns for a while! I have all those pattern drafting books sitting in my room… but this is great!
    I can’t wait to see what’s next.

  32. amanda says:

    Wow! I was really hoping there would be some posts about this kind of stuff this month. Great post – can’t wait for tomorrow’s installment.

  33. Lisa says:

    Excellent article, thankyou!!

  34. i’m glad there are people like carla doing all the leg work! I think for now i’ll just buy her patterns.

  35. Pat says:

    Wow!!!! Thank you so much..This is incredible..I have thought of dabbling in pattern making, you have put a attainable swing on it. Have you ever thought of doing an eclass….I would be your first student…Thanks….

  36. Clodagh says:

    What a great post, thanks for sharing. Love your patterns, keep up the great work.

  37. Anita says:

    What a fabulous article. I love the fact that Carla does all the work herself, it appeals to my control freak nature!!

    Thank you for passing on some of your insights in to the world of e-patterns. It is something that has interested me for a while.

    Looking forward to tomorrows installment.

  38. Andi says:

    Wow! I love this article. I’ve always been interested in making my own patterns but did not realize that there are standard slopers available for purchase. I’m so piqued by this that I may actually begin trying my hand at this.

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