Paper vs. Digital Patterns – Which Are Better?

Fashion is a very old-school industry. In many places patterns are skillfully made on paper, fabric is cut by hand with a knife, and there are real people operating each sewing machine. At the same time, companies are adopting technology within their design, development, and production processes – including patternmaking – more and more. This transition to digital has brought up the question whether traditional paper patterns or digital ones are better.

Which are better really depends on how good the patternmaker is that created each pattern. Contrary to what many people think, you can’t type in waist, hip, and length measurements into a CAD patternmaking software and have the computer spit out a pant pattern for you. A patternmaker still has to do the work of drafting a pattern; it is just in a digital environment instead of a physical one. Drafting a good digital CAD pattern requires the same skills as drafting a good paper pattern. Being paper or digital doesn’t inherently make a pattern better or worse. It totally depends on how good the pattern itself is. Think of it this way: a keyboard is not going to write a better book than a pencil would. Both are just tools that an author can use to create their work.

I do think there are advantages and disadvantages to both paper and digital patterns. For paper patterns, there is something to be said about being able to see each pattern piece take shape before you at full scale. You get to see the real-life shapes that will be sewn together to create your garment. If you have paper patterns, it is also easier to go straight to laying out your pieces to cut the fabric. You don’t have to wait to print out a digital pattern.

The disadvantage of paper patterns is that editing takes longer especially if you are tracing off pattern pieces before making changes to keep the previous version intact. Paper patterns also take up physical space and so you need a place to store them. The biggest disadvantage is that grading patterns manually on paper is very time consuming and thus expensive.

The advantage of digital patterns is there can be a high degree of precision with drafting and editing. You can match and measure seam lines to the 1/100th of an inch. Updating patterns digitally is faster than making changes on paper. By starting with digital patterns, you won’t have to digitize later on in the process. The patterns are ready to go for grading as soon as you are happy with the base size pattern. Grading is much more efficient digitally than on paper. Another advantage of digital patterns is that they are easy to email to your factory for production.

The disadvantage of digital patterns is that you have to print them out each time you want to cut a sample. Also, with digital patterns you have to think about file types as not all CAD software can read each file type. You have to coordinate with your factory and patternmaker to determine what file type will work best.

Whether paper or digital is better for you and your project depends on how you intend to use the final pattern. If you will be cutting small runs out of your own studio, paper patterns would work just fine for you. If you are working with a factory – especially one that uses an automated cutter, you will want your patterns created digitally or digitized from your finished paper pattern. You aren’t locked into one or the other if you find you need to switch later. Digitizing allows you to scan in paper patterns into CAD-ready patterns. If your patterns are digital already and you need paper, you can always plot them out on a wide format printer.

If you have a good patternmaker, the paper or digital format of your pattern doesn’t affect the pattern quality. A good patternmaker will make good patterns regardless of whether they are paper or digital.

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