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An introduction To Stretch Fit Pattern Making & Fashion

I had initially intended to provide an introduction to swimwear in an historical context, but I'm almost certain you've all seen enough old movies to see how swimwear has changed along with fashion over the years. If not, there are numerous fashion websites that can help ... about the only precaution I'd mention is that mainstream media provides a more high fashion weighted impression than what is really happening in popular culture. For example, you'll see more footage of beautiful girls in the tiniest of bikinis and Brazilians on TV than you ever will at your local beach. This is important because it's easy to imagine the market for high fashion swimwear is larger than it really is. Surf wear brands sell more bikinis than high fashion brands.

So how are fashion trends started? For much of history the fashion industry itself has controlled the overall direction of fashion. Certain style trends are established each year by industry groups so as to control the fabric colours and accessories manufactured. To the uninitiated this process can seem like cloak and dagger stuff, but really its more to do with economics and practicality. Of course we lap up these trends without even realising it. If big brand name X says it's fashionable then it must be. Oh how strong our desire to be the only one to have the latest style ... just like all our friends.

The public's greater access to mainstream media has, however, significantly lowered the industry's ability to control fashion trends. Smaller, independent designers can create whatever they desire and gain equal access to the market on media like the internet. This has resulted in the public exercising more control over where their money is spent. Literally, if the public likes a design then the designer will do well and the rest of the industry will reinterpret the design in order to steal back a market share. The moral then, is listen to your market rather than tell it what to believe. Also remember that creative ideals do not always equate to successful business.

​Designing swimwear has long been, and still is, a very secretive art. With a distinct lack of technical understanding of the principles, designers and pattern makers have used little more than trial an error to produce a pattern. They might have started with a very generalised 'block' given to them at school or have purchased an existing commercial pattern and tried to work backwards. No one could tell them how these blocks and patterns were made ... just that they work and a few basics on how, but not why, they should be graded or modified.

Because there is such a poor understanding of the principles, designers have guarded what little they had achieved like it was gold. There was never time or money for the average company to research the principles and the fabrics were changing so quickly that it was almost impossible to develop any standard process. Indeed most designers who claim to understand stretch fabrics base their claim on having enough experience to be able to predict what will work and what won't. Some very extraordinary and successful designs have been produced by trial and error.

Making patterns for swimwear is not something you really want to tackle if you have limited pattern making and sewing experience. I will need to assume you understand certain jargon and principles in order to demonstrate my techniques. A good grounding in patterns and sewing will not only make things easier to problem solve, but will make the process so much more fun.

I demonstrate using the flat pattern technique. That is to say, I show people how to draft patterns from a series of measurements on a flat sheet of paper or computer CAD program (which then prints out a sheet of paper). I believe this is the only way to repeatedly make accurate patterns for stretch fabrics. Some people utilize what is called 'draping', a method in which you wrap a body or dress making dummy in fabric and manipulate that fabric to how you want the garment to look before marking the fabric for tracing and cutting out. Both systems work for non-stretch fabrics, draping does not work successfully for stretch fabrics. I believe the flat pattern technique works significantly better for all types of fabric.

Tip: If you have no experience in working with patterns I suggest first visiting your local library or bookseller and find something on dressmaking. It's much easier to get a good grounding in these techniques before you add the complications that stretch factors bring to the cutting table.

Many people will tell you that stretch fabrics are more forgiving and much easier because you don't have to worry about a few millimetres here or there. True and not true. Certainly you can make something that will vaguely fit, but to make something that fits well means understanding why you are doing what you are.

Sewing stretch fabrics also takes some practice to get right. Most people find it quite daunting at first but with a little practice it isn't really any harder than other fabrics. You just need to get the hang of how the fabric behaves in each of your machines. Don't expect perfect results, even tensions and straight seams the first time. Stick with it and a whole new exciting world of sewing will open up for you. Although this text is about pattern making, I'll add hints and tips here and there to help you through some of the sewing difficulties.

OK, so if all this hasn't scared you off then we're ready to start.

 

I strongly recommend working your way through every page in this section, in order, before you even start to look at the pattern making process. There is an enormous amount of important technical information in the beginning pages that you really must read before jumping in. Read it thoroughly or you will have trouble understanding my techniques. Read it twice if you have to. I've even put a little "Next Page" button at the end for you .... use it!

If you haven't noticed, I'm big on preparation. That holds true for when you come to making the patterns later. Make sure you have decent sized sample of fabric to play with and a good sewing machine and overlocker (serger for our American friends). A cover stitch machine is very useful but not essential. Clear away a nice big table for working on, and, if you're doing this from home, do it when the children are at school (they will always find your needles, pins and scissors more exciting than nice soft fabric). Sharpen your pencils, find your set square, make sure you have plenty of adhesive tape and a clean eraser.

This site will demonstrate how to make patterns for a number of designs; some old fashioned, some current, some way out there on the edge of acceptance. My task is to show you how to convert your designs, whatever they might be, to functional patterns.

This site will work from technical or trade sketches rather than fashion illustrations as that's predominantly what you'll be presented with as a pattern maker. Fashion illustrations, while pretty and representative of the designer’s concept, do not communicate construction method or any sense of accurate proportion. In reverse, pattern makers, sample makers and machinists will not generally work with illustrations so as a designer you should either convert your illustrations to trade sketches when dealing with other industry members or do what most designers do and design your garments directly as trade sketches, rather than illustrations at all.

A trade sketch is a proportional drawing of the human body showing exactly where each design line and seam is located. It may even be a series of drawings and close ups. When sent to another industry member it would normally be accompanied by a written description of outer fabrics and linings, each type of seam, thread weights and type, construction method, and any other information that is necessary to make a sample garment. Sometimes you may even be provided with samples of fabrics or print artwork.

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