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Industry Insider: The work of a Professional Samplemaker

Posted by Betsy C on

For some, sewing for a living could be a dream job. It's so satisfying to see an idea come to life and to know that you've built it with your hands. If you have a knack for alterations, that is a special skill in itself and your patience is to be commended. But what is it like to do this professionally. What does life look life? Would you even like to do a job like this?

I run an apparel development business. This means that someone with an idea comes to me to bring it to life in the form of a pattern and sometimes a sample. The end goal is to create a template for mass production.

We are not talking about making someone a dress for Aunt June's wedding. Nope, sample making is about fine tuning processes and patterns to ensure that mass production can happen without any difficulties. For instance, If I have a notch for a zipper endpoint that is off by 1/8" this is a big mistake when you have to adjust on 10,000 garments.  Creating a product from scratch is no easy task- even if you are making a basic t-shirt. There are always variables along the way to be addressed and most of these come up during sampling. 

My business is not so big (just yet but getting there) as to hire a full time sample maker, but I do bring in freelancers when I am swamped. I end up doing a lot myself and I am very hands on even when I have help. 

The Glamorous part

There are only fleeting moments in fashion where it is actually glamourous. I would have to say the most exciting part of samplemaking is working with beautiful fabrics and trim and then seeing it all come together as a finished garment or in a photo from a styled photoshoot. Then there's....wait.....No. That's it. That's the only glamorous part. It's a super tough job, but somebody has got to do it!


How a garment comes to life

I'm going to start at the cutting. Sometimes there is a person who just does the cutting, but these days that's just me so I'm going to include this as part of the sample making process. It's a critical part because no fabric can be wasted. Even if there is a roll of 20 yards at the ready it is my job to ensure I have a pretty darn good excuse if more was used than needed. As we all know, fabric is expensive and sometimes limited so it's imperative to plan ahead.

At this point I am also reviewing the fabric for any defects, and any tendencies that could pose a problem for mass production. I often don't know what I'm looking for until I see it. 

The first sample is made

The first sample made is the trial run. It's the discovery stage.

When we talk about muslins for sewing, you generally think of muslin fabric or something cheap to do a test. For mass production sampling we don't generally do muslins. Instead we are using fabric that will either be the same or really similar to what the final garment will be made in because we are engineering around its variables. There is no point in using muslin to make a garment if the final item is going to be in silk because the look will be completely different.

When I am working on a complex garment with a samplemaker I ask to review the garment at certain stages. I do this to ensure that the look that is needed is there. If the shape isn't just right or a detail is too small/too big, we will take it apart and recut. The challenging part of my job as a patternmaker is to understand every designers point of view and their expectations so that I deliver a garment that matches to their vision.

If it's just me sewing I'll review at each stage on a dressform, building/deconstruction/ building again as I go. To me, a first sample is like a painting. There are layers and no set directions until it looks the way I want it to. It's all about figuring out the best way to put it all together. To be a samplemaker you have to be flexible and be endlessly pursing perfection. Trust me, nothing sucks more than putting a collar on a blazer only to decide that it's not right and it all has to come off. But if it has to be done, it has to be done. One must be ok with pulling apart an entire garment to put in different interfacings if need be or removing rows of topstitching that are not perfectly straight. 

2nd Sample

Rarely do we make one sample and call it done. More often then not a second sample is needed based on feedback from the designer and/or any construction changes improvements needed.  At this stage we are looking for any areas of the pattern that can be improved to aid in sewing. Maybe the angle of a seam endpoint can be adjusted 1/16", or we have to factor in shrinkage that happens during pressing. For me, the 2nd sample is more about the pattern as the way it was sewn should have been established for the first sample. 

Getting Ready for Mass Production

If the second sample is final then it has to be perfect. Correct fabric and correct trims and correct measurements. This will be passed to a factory as a guide to follow. A sample in hand is a visual reference of the standards that must be met. For instance, my skirt may look perfectly crisp and pressed, but the factory may want to skip certain pressing stages. If the designer gets their production sample and sees that it looks like a disaster they will tell the factory to go back and review the sample, because this is what it should look like. There is only so much information you can write down. A sample tells the whole story. 

Samplemaking and Sewing Patterns

My point of view has been from a mass production. However, sewing pattern companies will go through similar steps, and more often make more samples then mass production.

I may engineer a pattern for a specific fabric, but the characteristics of what you choose to use will vary. Sewing pattern companies have to make patterns that work for a variety of fabrics within a certain category. It's a tall order to fill and sometimes additional samples will need to be made in different types of fabrics to ensure the look is consistent.

Becoming a Samplemaker

If this is something you are interested in, you will not be short of work. Good samplemakers are really hard to come by. But you will need top notch sewing skills and the willingness to alter or take apart and re-do if needed. The goal is to present a client with a beautiful garment that few comments can be made on the workmanship. 

I would say that practice makes perfect and the skills come in time. To build up, I would recommend working on small projects with a fabric that you feel comfortable with. Maybe you find someone needing pajama shorts samples. Awesome, that is an easy project. However, I would be hesitant to take on any type of fancy work that is sewing with silk or slippery fabrics. But definitely build up to it!

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  • @ Mary Anne- I would do some reasearch to find local designers in your area to see if they need assistance. There are TONS of small businesses working all around the country, not just fashion capitals.

    Betsy SBCC on
  • Where does a person apply to become a sample maker?

    Mary Anne Sherman on
  • I like how you went about telling how a pattern is made. I have often heard making your sample from muslin and I, like you thought why use anything but the finished product fabric to test the fit and flow of said garment. Lot’s of work but satisfying in the end. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thank you so much for taking the time to explain all your hard work. It was very enlightening and I admire your skills.

    Heather Hill on
  • Very interesting to read about how it’s done professionally. So much we don’t know about when we shop for clothes or buy a sewing pattern. Thank you for describing the process.

    Pat C on

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