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Bringing it home: why retailers are taking pattern cutting in house

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Retailers that want to be quicker to market and improve fit are seeking to bring pattern cutting in house – but are finding something of a skills deficit. 

Pattern cutters act as an essential bridge between the design and manufacturing processes, helping to translate creative vision into a garment that looks good on different sizes and shapes of body. Over the past few decades, many British retailers have outsourced this function to their suppliers, for ease, speed and to save money.

However, as competition in the market increases and more fashion retail moves online, businesses are waking up to the benefits of highly skilled in-house pattern-cutting teams, and embracing new technology alongside traditional skills. Ensuring customers get the proper fit the first time helps to reduce returns, and the associated costs and administration.

In-house pattern cutting necessitates changing relationships with suppliers and can increase costs, but an increasing number of brands are deciding that it is worth it.

“We have seen more brands, especially premium and luxury, taking pattern cutting in house,” confirms Sarah Harris, associate director of recruiter Freedom Recruit.

“Consumers have increasingly high expectations of what they are buying: they expect a well-fitting and well-designed garment, and if they don’t get it, they can easily go elsewhere. As a result, retailers are finding that pattern cutting must be a part of the in-house team, to create seamless garments, and to enable a closer working relationship with the design and product-development teams.”

Doug Jameson, managing director of recruiter People Marketing Fashion Recruitment, echoes this: “In 2018 we saw an almost 10% rise in registered vacancies for pattern cutters in the UK, compared with 2017. While salaries for the time being have remained stable history tells us that as the supply of experienced individuals contracts the cost will undoubtedly increase.

“As with any spike in demand, there are normally an number of influences, such as the retailer’s appetite to move away from outsourcing to suppliers favouring to work directly with factories. One of the ramifications of this could well be that they miss out on a level of technical and quality monitoring. By bringing pattern cutting back in house, the margin for error is reduced as the patterns are developed with the development teams in house, enabling style and fit to be agreed at an early stage.” 

“Retailers want speed of response and more ownership on trends and designs,” adds Jenny Holloway, founder of London manufacturer Fashion Enter and the Fashion Technology Academy.

Growth area

N Brown Group began to build up its in-house team of pattern cutters last year and now employs four. It plans to grow this to six by the end of the year. 

“Because we’re fit specialists, we want to make sure the fit is the best it can be, whatever the size or garment,” says Ralph Tucker, chief product and supply officer of N Brown Group, which owns Simply Be, JD Williams, Figleaves and Jacamo, among others. “Bringing pattern cutting in house gives us more control – we can standardise the grading and implement the findings from our body-scanning programme quickly.” Since last May, N Brown Group has bodyscanned hundreds of JD Williams and Simply Be customers at various events, and has been rolling out adjusted size blocks.

The group’s brands – including Simply Be, JD Williams, Figleaves and Jacamo – cover a wide age and size range, extending up to a 32 in womenswear.

“We can’t just stick two inches on the sides – we need to shape products as closely as possible to the body,” explains Tucker. “If you have someone cutting in the Far East, they are understandably focused on the most efficient use of the fabric. We have brilliant supply-base partners, but bringing pattern cutting in house makes sure there are no little cuts that could change the fit.”

Designers that can’t pattern cut are at a huge disadvantage – how can you design something that can’t be made?

Christopher Nieper, David Nieper

Midlands-based womenswear brand and manufacturer David Nieper does all of its pattern cutting in house.

Managing director Christopher Nieper argues that all designers should be trained in pattern cutting: “In companies that make everything off-shore, they have had no need for in-house pattern cutters, as they rely on their suppliers to cut and develop patterns from a sketch supplied by the designer. We have always kept pattern cutting in house – both to keep control of the design process from beginning to end, and ultimately to ensure the seamless quality of the garment from start to finish.

“Our design team is also unique in that our designers also pattern cut. Designers that can’t pattern cut are at a huge disadvantage – how can you design something that can’t be made? It makes the design process very inefficient.”

Marks & Spencer has an in-house development studio, which ensures it can centralise the fit of garments across its global supply base.

“The studio works on all product areas to create basic starting patterns, styles, standards and grading, which are then centrally distributed ensuring the consistency of our samples,” explains Dawn Brazier, pattern and fit development lead for M&S.

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David Nieper does all pattern cutting in house

“It is so important in today’s climate to get the product to the customer efficiently and correctly, and this can really only be achieved in house,” agrees Nick McIvor, co-founder of womenswear brands PSYN and Repeat Clothing. 

Potential dangers

However, in-house pattern cutting carries some risks.

“The danger is, if you make the pattern incorrectly in house, the machinist makes the sample and doesn’t flag up problems. It then goes into production and it’s graded up – and it’s all incorrect,” says Mustafa Fuat, director of luxury CMT (cut, make, trim) manufacturer Gosha London.

N Brown’s Tucker notes other hurdles: “It’s a big change for the supply base – they have been used to doing this for long time. Our teams, from design through to buying and product innovation, have to operate in a much more joined-up way. The other challenge is there are not many people around [in the UK] who can do pattern cutting.”

But he adds: “I struggle to see why more companies wouldn’t do it. It speeds you up, which is important in the tough climate we’re in at the moment, and it gives you greater control and consistency.”

 Finding people with appropriate skills is an issue, and retailers will need to invest in training

Adam Mansell, UKFT

To get around the skills shortage, N Brown has developed a pairing process – through a partnership with the Manchester Fashion Institute, it pairs “old-school” pattern-cutting specialists with tech-savvy graduates.

“There is a talent gap for people that have knowledge of how to cut fabrics, which is really skilled, and can balance that with an ability to use the technology,” Tucker says.

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N Brown Group’s Jacamo brand, spring 19

The UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT) developed the secretariat for a new Level 3 apprenticeship standard for pattern cutters last year in response to demand from the industry. Asos, Burberry and value retailer M&Co were involved in its development, and it was approved for delivery in October.

“Retailers are increasingly looking at developing in-house technical capabilities to ensure better right-first-time production,” says Adam Mansell, CEO of the UKFT.

“However, as with many sectors in the industry, finding people with appropriate skills is an issue, and retailers will need to invest in training for staff.

“The challenge is that the majority of young people aren’t aware of pattern cutting as a career path and the sector as a whole is still suffering with issues around the perception of the industry – it is seen as a low-paid sector with poor working conditions. [The new pattern-cutter standard] is a step in the right direction. It goes hand in hand with a lot of our other work around raising the profile of the industry and ensuring we can support the development of the existing workforce to acquire the skills required, as well as meeting future demand.”

Many pattern cutters today can work both manually and on computer-aided design (CAD) systems such as Lectra, Gerber or Optitex. A new 3D designer role is also emerging, which brings the pattern cutting and design teams closer together – ensuring fit is considered from the beginning.

Pattern cutters in the M&S development studio use Optitex software to visualise what a garment looks like on an avatar or mannequin. “That has helped to eliminate time out of our sampling process and aided the pattern cutters to visualise the design,” says Brazier. 

“With the development of 3D CAD systems, speed to market of designs is quicker,” says Freedom’s Harris. “However, coupling creative ideas with 3D CAD technology means that the possibilities of innovating and creating garments is endless.”  

Fashion Enter’s Holloway agrees that demand is increasing for 3D CAD and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) skills: “Companies such as Next, Marks & Spencer, River Island and Asos are all investing in 3D CAM systems. We are joining forces with EFI (owners of Optitex) to bring 3D CAD/CAM into our new tailoring skills academy [due to open in summer 2019].”

Nieper, meanwhile, last year worked with Chesterfield College and New Economy in Manchester – a group that was launched in 2009 to advise on economic growth – to set the new apprenticeship standard across three specialist job roles: sewing machinist, pattern cutter and garment technologist. All fashion and textiles apprentices training in the UK for these roles will be assessed against the new standard, which has been in operation since the end of 2018.

“Bringing pattern cutting in house is an encouraging new direction in the fashion industry,” says Nieper. “It is perhaps a step towards bringing fashion production skills back to British shores.”

The growing demand for UK-based pattern cutters brings with it opportunities to upskill the workforce. While it requires some investment in new training, the arguments in favour of bringing this essential skill back in house clearly outweigh the cons.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Pattern-cutting is a highly rewarding and creative role, as well as being an invaluable asset to companies that recognise the importance of fit. Therefore, I welcome initiatives in securing its future within the UK. However, apart from the shortages highlighted, there is a fundamental concern on the caliber of pattern-cutters that are emerging - based upon the quality of training and investment during education and beyond.
    The colleges need to focus on basic technical skills, such as balance, accuracy and attention to detail. These courses should also be supplemented by working industry experts. Furthermore, whatever entry price points they are working towards, the course should always be directly linked to technology and production.
    Pattern-cutting is heavily dependent upon varied experience, so graduates need to have mentor ship / support during the early years of their career. This time is crucial as it sets the foundation for future development of their skills. They also need access to good experienced pattern-cutters. However, the increased speed to market could have a negative impact, because there may not be the resources to support less experienced pattern-cutters to address and analyse their pattern issues.
    I do not agree that Designers needs to be trained pattern-cutters - as this may hinder creativity. However, in this day and age, the pattern-cutter has an increasing pivotal role, and needs to be fully conversant in construction techniques, as well as being able to communicate fully with other sectors, such as technologists and factories. Creating a commercial product has to exists at all levels of the industry, (luxury, premium, value) so the pattern-cutter's input is essential to eliminate potential problems during production and be able to support the process through technical data.
    On a general note, the industry should be reaching out to technicians that are retired, or approaching retirement, such as pattern-cutters, machinists, fabric cutters etc..Their wealth of knowledge is not being passed on to the new generations, and may eventually be lost.
    Today, technology in pattern-cutting is a necessity to integrate with the other processes. However, these advances will not achieve full potential if high quality pattern-cutting skills and passion for the art does not exist.

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  • What seems today to be an interesting concept, of course it is just history repeating itself. What has gone in between is the decimation of the skills base as suppliers, where the full range of technical skills were honed and transferred, either closed or moved offshore when retailers decided that the far east was a lower cost and better option. For me the title 'Pattern Cutter' or 'Grader' has always placed the roles as subservient within a Design Team and been relatively low paid. In order to be able to produce a sound manufacturable garment the practitioner needs a far wider set of skills then just marking card and cutting it, or sitting at a cad machine for the same function. Working blind from someone else's time served Block Patterns is possible but to be able to create, drape fabric and convert it into a production ready set of patterns requires a person with Super Skills. Fabric knowledge, Cutting Room Practises and the ability to make the garment to manufacturing standards and methods to prove the pattern and prove that it will fit the manufacturing system that will eventually produce the stock.. I quite like the American ' Technical Designer' title for this role as its use demands the skills to warrant the title and is not just a title to fit a pay grade level. For my initial training with Canda, in the dress factory, I first had to work on the sewing lines as an equal operator until I was able to make any style to production speed as part of each team in the factory. It took me 15 months to earn my place before I was allowed to begin any pattern development training. The two in house Designers and their Pattern Cutters, Sample Machinists and Graders, together produced new dress ranges of around 30 styles each week from which the following weeks production styles were selected. Three weeks later these styles were delivered direct to each of the 60 retail branches around the UK. No Warehouses, No Distribution Centres. As 'Just in Time' as was possible to be in the 1060's. 18000 dress units produced every week. This time served process required 'Trust' in the skills of everyone in the team. The Strong supporting the Weak. Skills were transferred, learning while doing. No messing about with the fit elsewhere. No Garment Technologists changing things on line. No distant factory, altering patterns to suit some other objective. I personally benefited from my 46 years in the industry when it was UK based therefore I do hope that the industry does reinvent this wheel and bring home these creative skills and benefit from the new technologies that offer additional consistency and speed to market.

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