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Cutting crew

As UK manufacturers struggle to find skilled pattern cutters, womenswear chain Karen Millen is going it alone by training up its own talent at its in-house atelier.

You wouldn’t think it, but inside an office block called Telephone House in Shoreditch, east London, lies a highly skilled workforce whose attention to detail and technical expertise is the driving force behind the ethos of womenswear chain Karen Millen.

The retailer, which celebrates its 30th birthday this month, is unique in the UK in that it has a working atelier at its head office and still cuts and grades about 60% of its patterns in-house, which is a remarkable feat in itself.

“Part of the ethos of Karen Millen is good fit,” explains joint managing director Gemma Metheringham. “It is absolutely integral to our business. You should be able to put on Karen Millen clothes which make you stand in a very particular way, and that comes from the way the patterns are cut and the way we fit the clothes.”

At its most basic level, the process of pattern cutting is bringing the design to life, or as Metheringham puts it, making the design 3D and ensuring it works as
a garment.

“A lot of designers think in 3D,” says Metheringham. “Obviously you can only draw something that’s flat, so the job of a pattern cutter is to take that sketch and bring it to life in a series of pattern pieces.”

According to Metheringham, more often than not, UK retailers produce the design and then send it to the manufacturer, often in another country, and a pattern cutter there will cut the pattern, make a sample and then send it back.

The advantage of doing pattern cutting and grading in-house is that alterations can be made a lot quicker. “Who’s actually fallible? Who gets a sketch completely right?” asks Metheringham. “If you can just walk around the corner to the pattern cutting area and look at a toile of your pattern, you can say ‘I don’t like where that seam is, wouldn’t it look nicer if I did this with it?’ So there is a creative dialogue which goes on which gives you a better product.”

She adds: “We do some of our pattern cutting in China and we spend an awful lot of time miming to people because it is all about the shape and how you want it to fit, so you need to have that one-on-one conversation with someone to really get it to be what you want, which is what we have here.”

Karen Millen does not grade any of its knitwear in-house - these are graded by its manufacturers. “All of our knitwear is fully fashioned which means it is fitted to size. It is a very technical process,” explains Metheringham.

“They use squared paper and shape the knitwear in across the seams. It is like a hand-knitting pattern and they have to work out how many stitches there are in an inch and shape it to size. So we give them the measurements and then they do the maths.”

Walking around the atelier floor, Drapers gets a real sense of the sort of creative interaction that Metheringham is referring to. The floor is strewn with product, mannequins and fabric, and there is a real buzz about the place.

“We often think we should tidy up when we have visitors,” says Metheringham. “But that’s not how we work and it wouldn’t be a true reflection of what goes on here.”
Once the designer and pattern cutter are happy and the design has been finalised, the toile is then made into an actual garment and the pieces sewn together to make a prototype. The team then decides whether it is suitable to make it into the range, which about 50% of the time it is.

If it is going to be used then one, but more often two, samples are created. In Karen Millen’s case these samples are always a size 10 which sits in the middle of the retailer’s six to 16 size range. Once this has been done, the pattern is then at the stage where it can be graded.

Grading is altering the pattern so it can fit every size in the same way. “We need to make sure that what fits a size 10 and looks great on a size 10 will look equally great on a size six or 16,” says Metheringham. “This means if there is a seam running under the bust it has to run under the bust in exactly the same place in every single size.
“The job of the grader is to work out by how much the pattern must be altered to enable it to fit every size.”

The grading process is done by computer and to Drapers it looks more like an extremely complicated maths problem than anything to do with fashion. Every pattern piece has to be altered to fit each size and sometimes it is by a matter of millimetres.

“Grading is the engineering room,” says Metheringham. “Even now I’m still astounded by the amount of work that goes into grading a pattern.”

Holly Royal, one of Karen Millen’s two full-time graders, explains that with the more complex pieces it can take up to a day and a half just to grade one garment. “If it has lots of seams, sections or folds it can take a long time,” she says. “I never get bored because with Karen Millen products there is always a new challenge.”

According to Metheringham, because so few retailers grade their patterns in-house, finding and recruiting graders can prove problematic. “I think students on fashion design courses are aware of what grading is and some might be able to do it at a very basic level, but very few are trained to actually do it to a high level. That’s why we’ve invested in our graduate programme.”

Karen Millen has three in-house graduate trainees who all work across different areas of the atelier, learning on the job. “There’s not enough emphasis on the technical side of fashion courses,” says Metheringham. “Everyone wants to work in design and people aren’t aware of the different roles that exist in fashion.”
And there’s no better showcase of this variety of roles than on the atelier floor at Karen Millen. l

To add your support to the
Save Our Skills campaign, go to www.drapersonline.com/news/save-our-skills

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