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Learning digital pattern cutting

Last year I enrolled on a course to learn how to make my own sewing patterns. It’s been interesting and I’ve learned a great deal, but so far all the pattern making I’ve done has been with pencil and paper, not on a computer. Given that I want to sell my patterns as PDF home sewing patterns, it therefore made sense for me to begin learning how to transfer my skills across to digital pattern cutting.

This is the main reason I’ve been quiet again for so long on both social media and my blog; I haven’t really had anything useful or interesting to talk about! It’s also been a much steeper learning curve than I was expecting, given that I’ve just spent the last year learning manual pattern cutting – though that is mainly because I’ve had to try multiple options when it comes to digitising the patterns I created for my course.

Digital pattern cutting involves much less paper and fabric than manual pattern cutting
Digital pattern cutting involves much less paper and fabric than manual pattern cutting

What are the different methods used for digital pattern cutting?

It’s important to acknowledge that there are an awful lot of options when it comes to digital pattern cutting – and there’s no right or wrong option here. You just need to choose the one which is most appropriate for you.

Using graphics software

The first – and perhaps easiest given my starting point with paper patterns – is to scan what I’ve created into graphics software and trace around it. This isn’t a bad solution if you already have a graphics software like Adobe Illustrator or Affinity Designer or even the free-to-use Inkscape, however it’s important to understand that this is only as accurate as your paper patterns are. If there are any slight anomalies or miscalculations, these will get transferred into the PDF pattern. I’ve only got an A4 scanner, so to scan my patterns in would involve cutting them up – and as I needed to hand them in for my course for marking, this wasn’t an option. I’m also not convinced that my first pattern is the most accurately drawn, given it was my very first one, so this route wasn’t for me.

The next option is to use the graphics software to draw the patterns in directly. Adobe Illustrator is a very popular option for this, as it has lots of tools built in which you’ll need for digital pattern cutting. However, I really dislike Adobe and the software-as-a-service model, so I’d rather not use Illustrator. When I had the Adobe suite, it was a lot of money for not very much in terms of bug fixing and new tools – often it felt like Adobe prioritised slapping a new interface over the old one than actually fixing known problems. Instead of Adobe, I have Affinity Designer – and I even wrote a blog and made a video on how to set it up for digital pattern cutting, but sadly this isn’t a perfect solution. If you’re making bags and accessories, then you might be able to get along with it, but there’s simply too many features that are missing which are necessary for creating garment patterns.

Open source software designed for sewing patterns

I was therefore excited to discover Seamly 2d. Seamly is open source (and therefore free to use) and is designed specifically for making sewing patterns. It’s an evolution of an earlier software known as ‘the Valentina project’ and it has two main facets – a measurements program (SeamlyMe) and the main pattern cutting program. In SeamlyMe, you can create either individual measurement files or a multi-measurement file, which is perfect for grading patterns with. Once you’ve added your measurements, you can then link any pattern you create to these measurement files – so if you do custom work or are making patterns for yourself and your measurements change, you just update the measurement file that your pattern is linked to and the software does all the hard work for you.

I really wanted to like Seamly because it’s got so much potential and I know the developers work hard to try and add new features and fix bugs as soon as they can. However, it’s been two months of trying desperately to make things work as they should and constant program crashes. I’ve tried it across two different computers – one much newer than the other – and had the same result with both. It’s just too stressful for me to deal with! Maybe it’s because I work on Macs, so perhaps the Windows version is much more stable, but I can’t make any alterations from the basic blocks that I built without it crashing immediately.

Similar to Seamly, there’s an online, browser based software called The Fashioner by Fearless Makers which is also free to use. There aren’t any built in grading tools, but there’s lots of blocks ready to use as starting points. Again, if you’re only making patterns for yourself or one-off custom pieces for clients, this could be a really great option. The lack of grading options, however, means it’s not that useful for what I want to do.

Industry level software

So what software is used in the fashion industry? Well, much of it is incredibly expensive – so for a home sewist or a one-person business like me, it’s not attainable unfortunately.

If you’re going to fashion school, you’ll likely be taught how to use Lectra by Gerber or Optitex. These are super expensive (as in, if you have to ask the price you know you can’t afford it expensive) and are aimed at the really big fashion brands, as you might expect. There are lower priced alternatives out there to these big software programs, but for me they’re still out of reach – eTelestia and Wild Ginger being the main two.

eTelestia is €1,000 for the main pattern cutting program and a further €1,000 for the grading program, which puts it firmly out of my reach – at least for now. They do have dedicated training courses which include a license key for the program, which makes it a pretty reasonable deal. Wild Ginger’s range of software is very similarly priced – US$950 for the pattern cutting program and the same again for the grading program in their Cameo suite (note: you must use the Cameo suite if you want to sell any patterns made using Wild Ginger software, as it’s the only one with a license which allows you to do this). So if you’re confident that you can afford the up-front cost for either of these pieces of software, then it’s quite reasonable value for money compared to the big software suites.

This leaves me with the new kid on the block, as it were: Clo3D. Clo is another software-as-a-service program and at $50 per month, it’s not super cheap. However, having looked into it and trying my best to give it a fair chance, it does seem to be pretty good. It’s certainly got some great features that the other software – across all levels – don’t have which are making me slowly come around to justifying the price.

In addition to the flat pattern-making tools, Clo also has a built in 3D viewer, so you can digitally sew your pattern and see a 3D toile right there in the program. It makes it quick and easy to see potential fitting issues and it has a lot of assets like different fabrics built in, so you can see what your pattern should look like in anything from a jersey knit to a super fluid viscose or even heavy weight fabrics like denim. This is the main feature which is making me come around to the program; I had planned on learning to use Blender alongside Seamly in order to do the same thing, though admittedly with more steps in between, so that I could reduce the number of toiles I needed to make to check the fit of a garment before making the final product sample. As far as I understand it, this built in 3D ability comes from Clo owning the software Marvellous Designer, which is intended to be used for creating realistic clothing for video game design. Clo3D also has clever features like being able to match up pattern pieces along a seam – including rolling them around curves, like you would with a paper piece – in order to accurately place notches and ensure everything matches nicely (known as truing up).

Paying one subscription fee for a software which can do both digital pattern cutting (including grading, fabric costing, cutting layouts and digital pattern export) and 3D modelling (including digital runway simulations) therefore becomes a bit of a no-brainer. That’s why I’m warming to the idea, at least. That and there’s a 30-day free trial, so if I don’t like it I haven’t wasted my money.

How is digital pattern cutting different to using paper and pencil?

A basic, close fitting bodice block that I drew on Seamly 2d using Winifred Aldrich's instructions

For the most part, digital pattern cutting is very similar to how you would do things manually. As such, you can use just about any pattern cutting book as a guide or reference when drawing your blocks out and making alterations.

There are a few key differences though which you’ll need to bear in mind.

Firstly, any time the instructions you’re following say to use your tape measure to find where two lines intersect, you obviously can’t do that in the software. The solution is to use radiuses and arcs. Simply put, you draw a circle, or part of one, with a radius* of the correct distance and ensure that the centre of the circle or arc is precisely aligned with the point you need to measure from. Where the circle or arc intersects with the line that you need it to, that’s where your point should go.

* Don’t forget that the radius is half the total diameter (or width) of the circle

Secondly, you won’t find any equivalent to physical tools like a French curve or a pattern master. Digital pattern cutting software uses bezier curves, so you can choose exactly how you want your curves to look. Beziers also make it slightly easier to correctly align curved seams and quickly alter the shape of a neckline or other curve. Additionally, computer software can easily be made to draw lines which are exactly vertical, horizontal, or diagonal. You can also cheat a little by using rectangles as a starting point. Therefore you don’t need to worry about ensuring everything is exactly squared up, as you can just hold down your shift key to force the software to square things up for you.

Perhaps one of the really key differences is that with software, you can be absolutely certain that your measurements are correct. Often when calculating measurements for manual pattern cutting, you’ll get a result which has a fraction of a millimetre in it. In these cases, you’ll need to either round up to the closest marking on your ruler or guess roughly where that is in between said ruler markings. Computers however can be accurate to tiny, tiny fractions of a millimetre. This is why I mentioned when choosing to trace paper patterns in software that they’ll only be as accurate as your paper pattern piece. Helpfully, most digital pattern cutting suites have a built in calculator for you to use when working out, whereas on my course my phone would often be used as both a weight on the paper and my calculator! This is also one of the reasons I really wanted to like Seamly – because of how the measurement files interface with the main software, you don’t actually need to do any of the calculations yourself. You just type in the formula and it automatically works it out for you.

Ultimately, there’s also the cost of software versus cost (both financial and environmental) of manual pattern cutting. Needing rolls and rolls of paper to draw basic blocks, create designs from these and even grade sizes isn’t especially environmentally friendly – let alone the physical space you need to work on and store everything. This doesn’t even take into account the amount of calico you might use in getting a design just right – for my first pattern, I made three full size toiles just to get the design right, and that doesn’t include the one I made of only part of the garment to show that what I wanted to do could work.

Manual pattern cutting may still, therefore, be cheaper than digital pattern cutting in the sense that the tools and equipment don’t cost much. However, given that you’ll need to digitise your patterns somehow, you’ll still likely be paying for software and it’s much more environmentally friendly to design and model patterns on a computer. This is Clo3D’s biggest strength – don’t get me wrong, I would absolutely still make up a toile once I was happy with how it was looking in the software to check everything, plus I’d still go through pattern testing to be certain that my instructions were correct and easy to understand. That being said, the ability to check the pattern on a 3D avatar so I can see how it’s looking and make any necessary design or fit alterations without going through metres and metres of fabric is pretty invaluable. It’s therefore not difficult to see why Clo is rapidly becoming the go-to software suite for the whole fashion industry.

What have I learned?

Digital pattern cutting takes a little rewiring of the brain in order to understand compared to grabbing a pencil and some paper. Of course, a large part of that is knowing how to use the software to its fullest in order to get the best out of it, but there’s also the translation of how to do things like close darts properly, or how to slash a pattern open to add in fullness or a design detail.

As much as I dislike the software-as-a-service model, when I look at what Clo3D can do it does make sense. It makes a really high end piece of software available to me for a reasonable price – and offers a lot of inbuilt features for that too.

If you have the patience to learn Seamly and Blender (and stable versions of both programs) then you could get a very similar output to what Clo offers for free. As much as I wanted this to work, it simply wouldn’t do so for me. I learned a while ago that anything causing me too much stress simply wasn’t worth it; my mental and physical health is too important to let a software program stress me out.

Ultimately, as I said earlier, you have to choose the option which is best for you. If you already have Adobe Illustrator, there’s no real point getting another software subscription with Clo when Illustrator can do pretty much everything you need – especially in combination with Blender. I think I’m slowly coming to the conclusion though that out of everything I’ve tried so far, Clo seems to be the right fit for me. I guess I’ll see how things go with the free trial though.