5 Ways to Use Reference Samples

Throughout product development and production, you’re going to be communicating with many different people from patternmakers, samplemakers, factories, and mills, to other designers on your team, and so on. Clothing is very physical and visual, so having reference samples to look at during these conversations will keep everyone on the same page. So, what exactly can you use reference samples for?

First off, let’s talk about where you get reference samples. Reference samples can be garments that you have in your closet, garments you bought at a store just for this purpose, or sometimes photos of other garments. Depending on what you are using the reference samples for, you may obtain your samples from different places. Sometimes you’ll need to cut up a reference sample or ship it to someone else, so you wouldn’t want to do that with a garment of yours that you love and still want to wear.


One way you can use reference samples is for color reference. You may find a garment that has the perfect shade of purple you want to use in your next collection. You can use the reference sample to match to the closest Pantone TCX color or even send a cutting of the sample to your mill or dye house to match. Sometimes it is hard to decide on the best shades based on a tiny color chip, so a full garment reference sample can make it easier to see how that color will look on different skin tones or with the other colors in your collection. 


A second way to use reference samples is for the fabric itself. If you are unfamiliar with the properties of different fibers and fabric constructions, referencing existing garments to find a fabric for your design can be particularly helpful. You can find out what the fiber content is by looking at the care and content label. The label doesn’t tell you the fabric construction, but you can use the reference sample to note the properties of the fabric – how it feels, what the surface is like, how stretchy it is in length and width, any visual differences between the face and inside of the fabric, etc. 

You can use this information to describe what you are looking for to suppliers and mill reps. It is common to send a supplier a swatch of fabric you like when sourcing fabrics with them. Most mills don’t have swatches of every fabric they can make available to send to you. Sending a swatch of something similar will make it much easier for them to help you find what you’re looking for.

Design Details

Reference samples can also be used to illustrate design details. You can use a reference sample or photos of other garments to communicate visual details such as the silhouette, fit, placement of trims or seams, and more. Taking photos of the reference sample on a body is ideal if you’re using the sample for fit reference as seeing the proportions on a body is much better than just a flat lay. If you like certain details, take measurements of the reference sample in addition to photos. Maybe you like the depth of the neckline, length of the hem, or width of a ruffle. Take a measurement or call those details out to your patternmaker so they can incorporate those measurements into your pattern.


On the technical side, you can use reference samples to describe the type of finishes and seams you want on your design. Photos or the actual garment are best for talking to your patternmaker about this. Point out any special stitch details you like (like the flatlocked coverstitch you find on leggings or the blind hem on a dress pant) as well as seam constructions (like how a cuff is sewn onto the sleeve or how the zipper is sewn). Which stitch and seam types are appropriate varies depending on the type of fabric, price point, and design, but having a reference sample for you and your patternmaker to look at together will facilitate that conversation and give you the best outcome for your design. 

Fit and Ease

If you are making patterns yourself for your brand, you can use reference samples to calculate how much ease you need for your style. Let’s say you are drafting a coat pattern, but you don’t have another coat pattern to start from. Find a coat of similar fabric that you like the fit and roominess of and measure it. How much bigger is it than the fit model or dress form that you had tried it on? This will give you a good starting point for how much ease to add to your pattern. 

Reference samples can be used in numerous ways to communicate fabric, fit, and design details from either a technical or visual standpoint. The purpose of reference samples is not to knock off or copy the garment, but rather to get clues from it and use pieces of it as examples to illustrate aspects of your original design.


Mary Ruppert-Stroescu

3:59 pm June 3, 2021

Great explanation of ways to use existing garments in a design studio. Nice to see ideas that involve higher level thinking!

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