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RTW Explained: Why Stripes Don't Always Match

Posted by Betsy C on



You are a stripe perfectionist. Your tiny stripes are matched to a millimeter. You have painstakingly worked to get it this way. Your perfect side seam on Instagram even has it its own hashtag. If you can do it then why can’t ready to wear make this happen? Slackers!
It’s not that ready to wear doesn’t want to match stripes. There are a lot of variables that don’t always make it a feasible scenario. I'm going to touch on the main reasons why, but first I need to explain something. 
Ready to wear is not cut piece by piece. Instead, markers are made to squeeze out every usable inch of fabric and reduce waste. A marker is a long sheet of paper that fits the width of the fabric. All of the pattern pieces for every size has been placed to maximize how much fabric is being used. Here is an example of a pretty basic marker. 
These markers are printed off and lay in wait for the fabric to be spread on a long table. A special spreading machine is used to spread yards and yards on a table that can potentially run the length of a city block. Depending on the order size there can be multiple layers of fabric that are stacked on top of each other. When the correct number of layers are spread the marker printout is placed on top and a cutter uses a special saw to cut through all the layers. It’s definitely not handled with the same delicacy that you prep your sewing projects.
Check out this video on how the spreading and cutting of the fabric works: 
Now that you have a rudimentary idea of how the process works let’s get into the details and how it actually applies to stripes.
If you have to buy a quarter of a yard more so you can match your stripes on your me-made garment, no big deal. It’s only going to cost a little bit more. However, when you are making thousands of garments this cost of extra 1/4 yard more adds up to a huge expense and a lot of waste. When that happens in ready to wear, it’s a bad thing. It means that you have a ton of fabric that you paid for that’s going a in the garbage.
Here is an example if we just laid the pieces randomly without regards to the stripe matching. It's taking up the same amount of yardage as the plain marker above, but your stripes won't be matching. The benefit of this is that it saves fabric and the same marker layout can be used for stripes and solids. 
Stripe repeats
Depending on the repeat of the stripe (aka- distance between), it could affect your yardage requirements even more. If the stripe repeat is let’s say, 5”, this is really going to limit how you can place multiple pattern pieces. Often times the larger the sizes you are working with the more fabric can go to waste because pieces don’t plug into each other as well. multiply this by 1000 pcs and that’s a lot of waste.
Here is an example of cutting a wide stripe. Notice the areas marked with red circles will always align to the corresponding piece so the stripes match.
You see they big gaps in between pieces. This stuff is all going to go in the garbage. However, your stripes will match!
When you compare a random placement to to a stripe layout placement you can see that the stripe placement will always require more fabric. 
Bah, it's only a yard, you say! But think about it this way. If we are planning to cut 20,000 t-shirts. Each one averages one yard, but now its about 1.25 yards each for the stripe. Thats a lot more: 
Original order: 20,000 yards @ $10 per yard $200,000 fabric investment
Stripe order: 25,000 yards @ $10 per yard= $250,000 fabric investment
This means you have to spend $50,000 more on fabric. Let's hope they sell!
Sometimes a customer will understand that the solid will cost less than a stripe but most times they are expecting it for the same price if they are seeing both of the same style presented together. 
Fabric is not always on grain
This is just a fact of life for RTW. We call this skewing and factor in a certain accepted percentage. Even a stable woven fabric stripe has potential to be skewed, especially if it is a wide loose weave. Because knits are very unstable it is even more difficult to control this.
Some additional skewing can even occur when the fabric is spread on the table to be cut. The knit gets pulled as it is spread, then allowed to rest and go back into shape naturally. The thing is, we are not talking about one single layer. There will be many layers (plies) that have to be aligned, as you saw in the video. if the fabric that is stuck in middle doesn’t relax then this could mean the stripes will be off for different layers. 
When you cut a lot sometimes things shift
When you cut a whole thick stack of papers you know that naturally the layers sorta separate. This can also be true of fabric. But we hope not because special saws and care are used, but there could be a slight shift.
If the idea is to make the stripe matching intentional then the fabric needs to be painstakingly marked ply by ply. If it’s not right you have to restart the spread. This adds to the cost of labor because it doubles or triples the cutting time.
Stripe size
1” wide stripes should generally be pretty doable. If they aren’t matched just know that this was produced super cheap and you probably shouldn’t buy it for moral reasons that go way beyond the aesthetic. But when the stripes are around a 1/4” repeat/spacing this gets kinda grey. When you are spreading multiple plies of fabric the length of a gymnasium, the 1/4” becomes a minor detail. Oftentimes during product review designers will opt to only match seams that could be visually distracting, primarily on the center front and leave the side seams not matching. 1/4” is doable but tedious which comes back to cost.
Operator error and fatigue
Imagine yourself as a factory worker. Your only job is to sew the side seams of T-shirts. When you start your day the first couple of garments are "meh". But then you get your rhythm and you are on fire. You got it down, knowing that top and bottom layers will stretch more than the other during sewing and you adjust accordingly. By lunch time you are tired and letting things slide a little. Eh, good enough! You have become sorta blind to the stripe matching. It’s just another seam after seam. It happens!
Quality checks
At the end of the day there needs to be a certain amount of pieces sewn and someone is going to have to make the call to either discard the non-matched stripe garments or add them to the finished production. How much is acceptable? Potentially, a lot of garments could go to waste. But then the factory would have to explain to their customer why they will not receive the total number of pieces that they ordered and how there is no more fabric left to cut additional. This is not a place I would want to find myself. 
I hope it makes sense why things are the way they are. It’s not a matter of not wanting to give you matching stripes, but rather limitations and choices that have to be made. Sometimes we have to choose between cost and style. Yes, you say that you would pay more, but would you really? At a certain price point the fact is, most people turn to ready to wear because it’s so cheap.
So next time you see an unmatched stripe take pause know the reasoning why.
If you are interested in reading further about markers you can check out my post here

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  • Thanks for this very useful post. I really appreciate the time you take to explain these industry practices.

    Sewing Princess on
  • As a tech designer in the apparel industry for 12+ years, I really appreciate this explanation! At a few of the companies I used to work at, we had “good, better and best” standards for stripe and plaid matching. Good was basically no matching, better was CF and CB, and best was CF/CB, armhole, yokes and plackets. Thanks for sharing this info!

    Monica on
  • Good information. I find myself looking at pattern matching of stripes and plaids when I’m at church. For some reason men’s western wear even at a reasonable price point still does a decent job. So does mid-range men’s shirts, but then that has always been the case. Can’t say the same about women’s.

    Theresa in Tucson on
  • This was a really fun read! I have wondered if this is one reason why higher end brands (that take more care with pattern/stripe matching) are more expensive. There is more waste.

    Stephanie Allen on
  • Thanks for such an informative article that really highlights the differences between home seeing and industrial sewing.

    Melinda Smull on

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