I want to go digital! I want to take all my self-drafted patterns and make them into neat little computer files. Then I can trash all those bits of paper, folded into recycled brown envelops, stuffed into magazine holders. (With a rough sketch on the outside to remind myself what I was thinking, dated, with measurements). I want to be able to take my pattern and make it smaller for my daughter, or bigger for a friend. Having tried the pattern I want to make alterations quickly and accurately to all adjoining parts. I want to be able to send a pattern to a friend in Melbourne or Toronto without having to buy stamps.
When I learnt to pattern cut (in the 1970s and 1980s) I used paper, pencil and a set square. I still do. I like working with paper and scissors and feel safe with these tools of my trade. I have a set of curved rulers and other useful equipment to make my patterns professional. And yet – the lure of digital kept badgering me.
“Imagine! You too could join the internet age. Look at all the young women, world-wide, expressing themselves through pattern design,” Temptation suggested.
“I already have a blog. Isn’t that enough?”
“Maybe your pattern cutting skills are more developed,” Pride whispered in my ear.
“But their IT skills are far more advanced,” I countered.
Encouragement smiled sympathetically “Maybe one day you could learn how to do it!”
“My brain is old and I can barely use Photoshop” I warned.
“Make a commitment. Find a friend and collaborate” Wisdom replied.
Digital Pattern Cutting Course
Maybe the same thoughts have occurred to you. I looked for evening courses where I could learn digital pattern cutting with an experienced teacher, but was disappointed. The London College of Fashion runs such a course, but only as part of three-year undergraduate degree. I thought of employing an expert to give me individual lessons. I talked it through with my friend Suzie of Huckleberry. Suzie is a talented designer who makes fabric, screen prints tea towels, and aspires to her own clothing range. She is very experienced in using Illustrator and related packages but she is a novice at pattern cutting. So she suggested we sign up for an online course and support each other to develop our skills. Great idea Suzie.
So in June she and I both signed up for Burda’s Digital Pattern Drafting with Lauren Dhal. Lauren is based in Utah (“No, we are not Mormons!”) and gives her classes by pre-recorded Video once a week for eight weeks. An experienced Illustrator user, and commercial pattern designer, she offers courses in her own name, as well as through Burda. Lauren is an enthusiast and we enjoyed her cheery approach.
It cost around £90, provides 8 lessons lasting between 30 minutes and two hours, weekly assignments which are checked by Lauren, and a message board so you can communicate with 100 or so other students across the globe. As a concept it was pretty wonderful, and we both started with high hopes. To support our learning, and each other, we agreed to meet up each Monday evening to work through the material together. And to eat pizza. The material is only available for 12 weeks – after that it disappears, so if you haven’t got it by then, tough. However Lauren will mark you work even if its late, so that is good. And she offers to answer any questions you may have.
The strength and weakness of an on-line course
Of course correspondence courses and distance learning have been around for a hundred years. Especially for sewing as many women could not go to classes due to family responsibilities or living in the sticks. And the internet has really replaced these courses with many techniques being explained patiently by gifted amateurs with home made videos and photo story formats. In fact until recently Lauren provided alot of this information free on her own website so you could see if it was for you, in advance.
Learn at home!
Blackboard.com is the platform Burda use to deliver the content and it is not bad. It enables anyone to upload a course and provides for assignments, chat rooms, and support for the delivery. Chirpy music comes on, then you see Lauren’s little face in the corner and a big computer screen, just like yours at home. As she clicks on various drop down menus in Illustrator (really quickly) you can watch and see what happens. You can then replicate the actions to get the outcomes. I found myself having to stop the video every few seconds to catch what she was doing, but by the end I could basically use Illustrator. My take on this is that it is quite a reasonable approach but alot depends on the content.
Would I recommend the course?
Perhaps. I personally found the pace far too fast for me. Whereas Suzie has 15 years of experience with Illustrator, I was completely new to it. I found it pretty challenging and certainly Lauren’s introductory lesson was really hard going, trying to learn all the functions that we would need on Illustrator. I especially struggled with pen tool, despite finding some exercises on-line and getting extra help and encouragement from my colleague Nicholas Mawley at Notting Hill Housing. Lauren sometimes fails to spell out every step and I spent a whole Saturday trying to move my work around without being able to work out how she did it. She is not always 100 per cent accurate – the breezy style begins to grate when she slips over details that you need to know.
Bottom line – Illustrator is an amazing and very powerful tool. It allows you to create virtually any diagram, drawing, logo or pattern, but it is not easy to master. To learn the basics in one week is a pretty tall order especially when you haven’t got a one to one teacher. Sweet Suzie was very patient and helped me produce a skirt block on Illustrator which I submitted for my home work. This was the meat of the course. Lauren uses Winifred Aldrich (“Is he a man or a women, I dunno!”) and although I own this book she relies on a later edition so that didn’t help. For me I needed much more time and one to one support to get to grips with Illustrator. Really it was a heroic assumption that one might learn digital pattern cutting in 8 weeks. I am not sure how many of the 150 students dropped out, but I did.
Suzie really had the opposite problem. She more or less knew everything there is to know about Illustrator and was disappointed that Lauren just went through the book – something she could do herself.
Some of the course was brilliant – a Google spread sheet (which I easily converted to Excel) that automatically does all the calculations for you. And just seeing how Lauren does slash and spread, adds seam allowances and tiles her patterns were creative and useful classes. Here is the schedule, in case you are interested.
- Adobe Illustrator Essentials
- Preparing Measurements for Block Creation
- Creating Blocks in Illustrator
- Adding/Subtracting Seam Allowances
- Tiling Patterns for At-Home Printing
- Modifying Blocks to Create Unique Styles
- Grading Your Pattern
- Pattern Markup
Specific proposals for improvements
If I were Burda I would sort out the many small, irritating features that stop this course being as good as it could be:
- Lauren makes quite a few errors – for example she gets the angle of the darts wrong on the skirt block. She admits this after a number of students complain, but doesn’t go back and correct the lesson
- there are mistakes in each lesson that really require re-recording
- get the order of the classes sorted out and label them correctly
- release the lessons at the same time every week, giving students in each time zone the release time
- sort out the glitches in how you receive files from students. The failure to upload assignments was a constant problem
- Lauren’s mistakes would be acceptable in real life, and if one were already very familiar with both pattern cutting and Illustrator it wouldn’t matter so much. But if you are just about following this can be disheartening. It is a bit unprofessional too.
- Lauren insists on swapping from metric to imperial measures throughout which is really irritating. Use metric and then tell people they can convert it at the end if they want.
- specifically warn students that this course is not really suitable for people who have no Illustrator or Pattern Cutting experience. It is best for people with a good knowledge of both.
These skills are worth knowing and there are tremendous advantages in making digital patterns. The main one is accuracy. A pencil and set square can never be as exact as a programme which is accurate to the millimetre, and it is just great being able to square off your pattern automatically. You can line up your pattern pieces and check they will sew up easily. You can accurately measure curved lines (rather than using the side of your tape measure). If you already have made patterns up it would be relatively easy to digitise them, but I wonder what it is like to go from a drawing of a garment to a pattern. I can’t quite envisage that yet. I suppose you soon get used to it, and of course you still would have to try out the garment as a toile, in any event.
Over time we will surely find a better way. Maybe technology already exists that converts a drawing into pattern pieces? Maybe it is possible to put your measurements in and a pattern comes out? Using Illustrator seems to be a really laborious way of using technology to do what we have always done. With the apparell industry being such a huge market there has got to be work going on, on moving from idea to garment in a more elegant way.
In the meantime I am sure people would like a course teaching these skills face to face in London, or other major cities. As far as I know nearly every real life pattern course available today teaches the pencil and paper method which has been current for a century. Opportunity, anyone?