This is my friend Yuka who works for a well known high street boutique.
We met for lunch, but before that she treated me to a look around the works. The company was sensitive to the issue of design copyright, so I won’t mention their name or show the design process. I will focus on the pattern cutting and sample making.
Here is Denise, working from a sketch, making a blouse pattern on the company software. She usually starts with the block, but sometimes designs from scratch or by modelling on the stand. Once the pattern is finished she checks it by making a half toile in a cotton. When it is finally right this file gets zipped up and sent to the manufacturer who can be in China, India or elsewhere.
The other patten cutter was Anne, who does some flat patten cutting on paper and most of the draping. Many of the clothes this company makes are in black, but Anne uses white fabric – often jersey – for the draping as it is easier to see what is happening. She loves her job, feeling she has the best job in the company. She is very talented and it was a joy to speak to her.
The next stage of the process once the pattern is finished is for it to go to the cutter. Alan is a very interesting man and had been in the trade since he was 16. I liked his huge cutting table, although he told me this was quite a small one. He had worked on cutting tables that took up the whole length of a room.
He opens the patterns up and his first job is to check them, to ensure the measurements line up, that all parts are present etc.
Then he creates the fabric layout on a special part of the programme. This was very interesting for me, (I love to get a garment out of too little cloth). He was proud that every 10cm saved contributes to better profits for the company. Also if the manufacturer argues for more cloth, his evidence is supplied to deflate their claims. He told me that the bias strips here could be cut from a separate piece in a long run, but at this stage the layout is created for making the in-house sample garment.
What happens next really excited me. The pattern is printed off on a really huge printer. Alan kindly showed me how this was done. You get a sense of the scale of this from the large number of sample garments (and a male mannequin) behind the machine. The pattern is printed off exactly as Alan has laid it out on the computer, in the same dimensions of the fabric. The whole printed paper pattern is then placed on the fabric, and it is attached by pressing with a warm iron. This means no pins, no weights. An exact fit. The paper holds the fabric (in this case polyester chiffon – a nightmare to cut out) completely steady for cutting out. How amazing is that?
And then Alan let me cut out the top. There were 1cm seams on all edges apart from neck and armhole where they were smaller. Notches were just little snips in the seam allowance. His shears were pretty heavy and I have RSI unfortunately (too much sewing and typing) but the fact that one of the most challenging fabrics was completely anchored and square was a revelation to me. This type of paper that sticks to the cloth has been available for 40 years and comes on a roll of dot and cross paper too. I was worried that when removing it it might leave a residue, but no – even better than so-called freezer paper. And it can be used again and again. In a commercial environment speed and economy with the cloth were central concerns, naturally. I was given some to take home but I imagine this would make life a lot easier for the home pattern-cutter.
Eventually the clothes are made up in the studio. I saw the welt pockets being made up – very impressive.
The ladies and gentlemen who worked in the basement of this company were some of the most charming and skilled people you could ever meet. I daresay the designers are the ones who are better paid and lauded, but if I were working in this business, I would love to be in this team. They were all friendly, open, generous and willing to discuss their work with an amateur. Of course London Fashion Week has just finished. They wouldn’t have been so relaxed last week!