The Marriage of Patternmaking and Fashion Design

A look at the people who are truly making your clothes unique.

Fashion designers within the conventional fashion industry have become disengaged from fashion construction and makers are marginalized. Designers are the public face of the fashion industry, basking in its glamor and prestige, with makers often sitting at the opposite end of the hierarchy. The distance is philosophical, with the role of the fashion designer seen to involve applying creative vision to generate a sketch for the maker (or more, usually a team of makers) to manifest.

Julian Roberts, inventor of the “Subtraction Cutting” method in an Openwear interview talks of designing in patterns, “rather than in vague illustrative drawings which become reinterpreted by other skilled cutters.”

The distance between designer and maker of fashion at the design stage can also be physical, with the actual manufacturing process hidden from view in far-away sweat shops and not talked about or celebrated. Julian Roberts says “before you buy a garment and wear it, it will have been touched by many skillful hands, but often the hand that touches it the LEAST is the hand of the fashion designer.”

The physical and philosophical distance has enabled a range of issues to arise and be solidified over the last 150 years, or ever since Charles Worth the “Father” of fashion design, placed his label on a garment. These include concerns of exploitation, copying, speed vs. innovation and secrecy. How can a re-engagement of design and making foster meaningful, sustainable change in the fashion industry?

Shingo Sato

I consider myself to be a patternmaker-designer. To design zero waste garments you need to be able to design as you make the pattern and not just in response to a design. Design occurs in many places but it does not occur as a sketch of the exterior of the garment, but in the development of the pattern. What implications does designing in this manner have on the development of a sustainable fashion industry? For a start it can result in the unexpected. Much of the fashion we see is a copy of what’s been done before, either last week, last season or last century. For many, the design process involves directly or indirectly copying an existing design, so the patternmaker’s job has become to faithfully recreate the look within the companies size range and for the desired fabrication, perhaps with a few modifications.

The end result can be disheartening for consumers when they see a rapid dissemination of similar styles globally, a process that leads to its ever-faster fashion “death.” It is also a difficult thing for designers, as they know styles are repeated ad nauseam throughout history, then their consumers can (and do) buy vintage garments while remaining fashionable.

For most companies it does not make economic sense to invest time (and therefore money) into the development of a design if the likely outcome is not known. The speed of change driven by the monetary benefits of Economies of Scale and consumer are demanding, so while the argument for which comes first generally descends into a chicken and egg debate, the problem is a very real and immediate one for fashion companies. A problem they solve by repeating and copying existing styles. It should be no surprise that this is the foundation of the contemporary fashion system.

Comme des Garcons, AW 2012

Famous Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie MacIntosh, once said “There is hope in honest error. None in the icy perfections of the mere stylist.” Have fashion designers become mere stylists? With economic and time pressures at an all time high for fashion creatives, the space once available for truly innovative fashion is being squeezed out and much of what does happen occurs at the fringes of the industry. This is often in education, where both graduates and academics in many cases have more creative time and space without the financial restrictions demanded by the need to produce a commercial body of work up to six times per year (or more in the case of fast fashion).

Luckily every season there are examples of designers who push things in a different direction. Whether by material use, technique or form there are designers and their creative teams which pride themselves on demonstrating true innovation in at least parts of their collections. When Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garcons sent her models down the catwalk for AW 2012 devoid of a soundtrack with 2-Dimensional garments full of wry cliché it was a clear critique of the growing “flatness” of the industry.

Junya Watanabe

Rei Kawakubo is renowned for being an innovator in the true sense of the word in the fashion world, constantly pushing viewers and wearers with her own unique view of the dressed body – famously bulging and distorted, always 3D – so for her to present such a flat body of work speaks volumes of the state of the industry. As the representation of the fashion industry becomes more and more about ubiquitous and repetitive copies, fashion rebels like Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe seek to find alternatives. For many, this alternative is evident in the rise of craftsmanship, in particular, a re-emergence of innovative patternmaking.

Pattern Magic, Tomoko Nakamichi

Patternmaking is seen by many to be an aloof, mathematical and often dry practice, certainly not design, and very inaccessible. However, when Patternmaking and Design meet as equals, magical things can happen. The brilliant and enigmatic book series from Laurence King Publishing called Pattern Magic, gives a taste for what kind of alchemy is possible. Written by Tomoko Nakamichi of the famous Bunka Fashion College in Japan – a college who taught fashion innovator Yohji Yamamoto –  this series of books introduces the reader to thinking about the design of garments in unashamedly 3D and unexpected ways. Originally printed only in Japanese the images show garment features merging from collar to body, form leaping off the body, while soft geometry and the body tussle with each other and mercifully, standardized forms became passé. The skilled patternmaker can become a kind of magician-designer, deceiving the wearer and viewer, distorting the dressed body, and giving us something refreshing.

From Pattern Magic

Patternmaker, designer and educator Shingo Sato gives away many of his techniques and make his “tools of the trade” readily available on youtube. While his approach, which he calls “Transformation, Reconstruction” has been critiqued as simply dart manipulation and elimination, something which is neither new or innovative, he demystifies the process, merging design with patternmaking to “draw” line and form on the dress form, often with a magic marker. An exploration of his techniques reveals an ease with breaking tradition and the adoption of new form, the old rules need not apply.

Julian Roberts, Subtraction Cutting

Julian Roberts is a UK based designer and inventor of what is called Subtraction Cutting. This process involves designing not the exterior, not the front, back or side, indeed there are usually no side seams to his garments (after all, do humans have side seams?). Instead, Roberts designs the interior space of the garment that the body travels through. His approach results in forms that are difficult to predict, requiring an intimate relationship between designer, hand, cloth and body. While acting as “Fashion Adviser for Europe, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa” for the British Council, he also spends much of his time teaching workshops full of students how to take the creation of clothing in new directions by engaging their maker-mind in the design process.

Julian Roberts, Live Subtraction Cutting, Liverpool

Both Shingo and Julian freely share their processes, rebelling not only against aesthetic norms but also against the tradition of secrecy in the fashion industry. The growing call for openness and transparency strikes fear into the hearts of many designers and the wider implications still need working out. However, sharing design processes which cannot lead to mindless copying (from designer to designer to highstreet to trash), helps to slow the fashion juggernaught down, provides consumers with real choice and not just the illusion of choice, while reconnecting designers and consumers with makers and producers, will lead to an industry which does all things better.

And for that we should all rejoice.

Image:, Laurence King Publishers