19. About CAD Software

So You Want To Take The Next Step .....

If you’re reading this it’s most likely because you’re interested in starting the transition from paper patterns to a CAD program … you want to start making digital patterns. And no one is more pleased to hear that than me! If you already know how to make a pattern on paper then the transition to CAD is really no more than learning new tools.


If you’ve never made patterns on paper and you want to start out in CAD then you have twice as much to learn at the same time. I’m not fond of steep learning curves, but most fashion colleges do this … and many of their students don’t cope. It’s better in my opinion to get used to manipulating patterns on paper first … but of course, that’s up to you.


Now you’re going to hear a lot of people recommending a lot of different programs and always remember they're coming from various different backgrounds, different experience, different needs and different interaction with other parts of the industry. You have to get a clear picture of where you are at with pattern making right now, how good you are with computers and technology, how much time you have to allocate to learning something new (at home, from a book, going to a course etc) and what you really want to achieve by the transition.

Most tell me they simply want to get with the times, but really on discussion they're looking for a faster more efficient way to make patterns just for themselves at home. They have no interest in being a professional pattern maker or working with other members of the industry. They want to make patterns digitally, print them at home and then use them to make clothes to sell. And most of these people already know how to make paper patterns. You guys really don't need comprehensive, costly fashion specific software ... you just need a CAD program and to learn how to use it properly.

Some people of course are already in industry and have used whichever software the company they worked for used ... so they know what it's capable of. But these aren't the people who are asking me where to start. If you've never used CAD before then you have to start somewhere ... this article is for you. It's comprehensive and often confusing. I'll refer to file formats and compatibility ... if you find that hard to understand then just imagine how hard it's going to be to decide which software you want to buy! Software companies don't talk in those terms ... instead they'll tell you everything you can do with their product and make you feel all warm and safe ... until you stick the CD in the drive and wonder what you've just bought.

CAD means Computer Aided Design ... it means instead of using pencil on paper to draw lines you use a cursor on a screen. CAD does not mean AutoCAD anymore than vacuum cleaner means Hoover. AutoCAD is one of the earlier brands of CAD programs and there are many. 
There are two basic generic types of CAD software when we’re talking about making patterns:

  • Generic CAD

  • CAD designed specifically for the fashion industry

All fashion specific CAD programs evolved from generic CAD.


Generic CAD is simply a CAD/illustration program that you would use in the same way as you use a pencil and paper. It’s a drawing program. It wasn’t created with making patterns in mind and it doesn’t have features specifically created for the ease of making patterns. It doesn’t store your measurements and it doesn’t change the image automatically when you change a measurement. It doesn’t have a pre-set table of arbitrary (and frequently incorrect) numbers that you can use to automatically grade up and down to different sizes. It doesn’t have a special add on program that you can use to layout all your pattern pieces efficiently for cutting out (a marker). No it doesn’t have any of those.

Fashion specific CAD programs do have these things (or at least sell the optional extras on top of the already inflated price so that you can do them). You can store multiple sets of measurements and change existing patterns with a click of a button. You can grade up and down from a single size using their highly complex and arbitrary grading rule sets. You can tell it how many of each size you want in a production run and it’ll create a cutting layout (marker) that optimises the use of fabric. You can do other incredibly cool stuff too (depending on which CAD you choose) … like seeing a simulated walk on a mannequin, see a brightly coloured tension map on stretch fabrics, apply elastics and other things so you can simulate construction … all cool things but none of them essential to making a pattern if you know what you’re doing. These are features that are designed to make you dependent on the software and not develop skills beyond using that software … ie; you become reliant on the software to tell you if your pattern is correctly or not. Or instead of spending thousands of dollars you could just learn how to make patterns in the first place!

Generic CAD can still do all of these things, but in a different way. Just because people lead you to believe that to get from A to Z you must follow a certain path doesn’t mean its the only path. For example if you have a size 0 and want to grade it up to a size 6 (seven sizes in all) … instead of creating the size 0 in a fashion specific CAD and creating a complex and arbitrary grading rule set to get those additional 6 sizes, in generic CAD you’d just create the size 0 and the size 6 from actual measurements and blend 5 sizes into the gap with the click of a button … and end up with a much more accurate result.


If you can learn how to properly use a generic CAD program you’ll quickly realise they generally already have all the tools you need to make patterns, but not just that, they also have lots of powerful and useful tools that fashion specific CAD don’t have nor want you to have. I recently heard an argument from a Gerber user that they could do anything that Illustrator could do, but they failed to realise they were using AutoCAD as an addendum to Gerber … yes they were saying literally they could do what generic CAD could do without realising they were actually using the original daddy of generic CAD programs to supply Gerber with what they were working on.

Remember previously I told you that fashion specific CAD evolved from generic CAD? In the early days (30 years ago) you could write add on programs for things like AutoCAD which made it more customisable to your workplace. You could get special libraries of images for architecture, for example, and little plug in programs for calculating things or for performing repetitive tasks. This is still possible for programs like AutoCAD, CorelDraw and Illustrator. Corel Draw currently has the most sophisticated scripting range of all the generic CAD packages using the very simple Visual Basic language ... I've used it to write specialised macros that duplicate almost every single function you'll see in the big names like Gerber. I've recently created a linked database so I can rapidly redraw patterns by changing measurements just like you can in parametric systems ... once you get the hang of a generic CAD program you can perform insanely complex actions. But don't let all that scare you ... it can be as simple as drawing a line on a piece of paper to as complex as creating scripts to automatically generate patterns.

So what are the options ... here's a list of some of the main ones people talk about and links to where you can find out more about each one. Prices can vary considerably depending on where you buy them from or whether they're packaged with other products. 



Generic CAD Brands

  • Inkscape: The best free generic CAD out there. It's not perfect, it's buggy and clunky, but it's still powerful with more tools than the average fashion specific CAD ... and it's free! It is terrible with import and export although it will take SVG, DXF and PDF. It's useless with layered files.

  • Corel Draw: in my opinion the best generic CAD on the market simply because it has every tool your heart desires, will import AND export every single imaginable format (my Corel X6 imports DXF, SVG, AI, PDF, CLK, CDX, DWG, GEM, FMV, PLT and more than 50 raster formats) and if it doesn't come built in someone has made it available as an add on ... this means you can use it to convert or send files to almost anyone. It has the most stable drawing engine on the market today and calculates faster than even Adobe Illustrator. When you add its programming potential then there is literally not a better solution. It's down fall though is it has quite an initial learning curve and there aren't lots of places you can get in person courses on.

  • Illustrator: this is the market leader. Everyone knows or has heard of illustrator and it's sister Photoshop. Adobe are the world leaders in digital art and design. The products are innovative and extremely well supported ... getting courses is easy. But as good as illustrator is, it's no Corel Draw. It doesn't have the range of import and export filters that Corel has, it's notoriously unstable on lower spec computers, and it's significantly slower to run complex operations. But on a well set up machine it's still a top product. It's definitely my second choice.

  • AutoCAD/AutoSketch: Although everything started with AutoCAD it's just not the software leader it once was. DXF and DWG are the original AutoCAD formats that everyone imports and exports today so it's viewed as the system everyone copied ... but that couldn't be further from the truth. AutoCAD is terribly resource heavy, slow, overly sensitive and lacking in the sophistication that is now available in Corel and Illustrator ... it's a dinosaur. But it is used in the engineering and technical illustration fields as much as illustrator is used in the art and design fields, so similarly it is a very well supported package with lots of online and in person training available. It's still a great package but just not what I'd prefer to use anymore ... I started on AutoCAD 25 years ago!


Fashion Specific CAD Brands


  • Patroneo Key: beyond a few basics, almost everything is an additional module and expense. Around US$1200 before you add on any real features. Only exports to DXF.

  • Stylecad: I haven't used this very much but it's well recommended by a number of industry people ... it's often viewed as a little Gerber (should I read that as less cumbersome too?) but still just as professional. It's really the subcontract pattern makers entry into the professional industry by exporting to things like Gerber, Optitex and Lectra. I'm only going to say that if you aren't using a manufacturer that requires these file formats then it's probably way more than you'll ever use for the money it's going to cost you.


  • Clo3D: now this one is kinda cool and there's a free trial that's worth playing with just for fun. It has the novelty of being able to simply simulate your patterns on a mannequin and tweak them til they fit ... it's the digital equivalent of draping. Still very limited on import and export formats and even more limited on tools. Good for home people wanting to experiment on the screen, no good for serious professional use (IMO).


  • Wild Ginger: even their top of the range product

    doesn’t have all the export formats you need for communicating with other people in industry, only DXF and raster/bitmaps, which for nearly US$1,000 is abysmal. I have used this before and found it reasonably intuitive and functional but very limiting in that it lacks the flexibility to do things I’m used to in generic CAD. It made me frustrated but to a beginner it would probably be ok as a stepping stone.

  • Seamly 2D: is the Inkscape of Fashion CADs … it’s open source and for that alone I’m impressed. I have played with it a few times but honestly not given it the time it deserves because I found it awkward and frustrating right from the word go. I have seen people use it way better than myself and they seem to get a lot more out of it so its probably just that initial period. Seamly’s biggest draw back is it will not import anything and it will only export to SVG and DXF. If you want to import something you need to do it as an image then trace around it … 10x faster just to use a generic CAD

  • Valentina: very similar comments to Seamly considering they have the same origin … that’s all I can really say. I’d choose Seamly over Valentina.

I'm not going to talk about Lectra, TukaCad or Gerber as these are not the product that someone moving from paper to digital is looking at  .. or if they are then they already know what they need.



Printing and Plotting


Something that’s been sold as a new feature of many fashion specific CAD packages recently is their ability to print the patterns and markers as a PDF onto any size of paper. This is because new users to CAD desire the ability to print patterns on their home printer … so it’s seen as a good plus in the feature list. What they don’t tell you is that poster printing to any size paper is something you’ve been able to do in Adobe Acrobat for free for nearly two decades now … you know … the people who invented the PDF viewer that comes as default in MS Windows® these days. So if your software can export to PDF then its something you can already do for free. The majority of Generic CAD programs (certainly Corel Draw and Adobe Illustrator) can do this right within the program.


Now what you also need to remember is MS Windows® doesn’t care what plotter or printer you have attached to your computer. If it runs on Windows then you can literally now print anything you can create if it runs in Windows … I could print out my kids English homework on the latest ultra wide HP plotter or I could equally print an A0 nested set of blocks on my little Epson Inkjet … the computer doesn’t care as long as it’s all connected.


The catch is if you aren’t the one doing the printing and the person who is doing it, doesn’t have the same software as you … and yes that used to be a huge problem and you needed special standardised plot files and ohhh the drams that used to be. Sneaky lying sellers of some fashion specific CAD programs still make a point of exaggerating how difficult this is and how great they are for providing the special HP plot files. What they don't tell you is that a document created in any software that exports to PDF can be printed in Windows with Acrobat Reader installed … for free. The days of compatibility issues are very very long gone unless. There are still some manufacturers using really old plotters for which there are no windows drivers but seriously if they tell you that you need specialist software because they won’t get with the times then you ought to think really hard about what other problems they’re going to give you.