Adobe Illustrator is probably the most commonly used software by designers and creatives alike. I bet 98% of you reading this have the little orange “Ai” icon docked on your computer toolbar. With Illustrator being so widely used and accessible and traditional CAD patternmaking softwares being so cost and device prohibitive, you might be wondering if you can just make patterns in Illustrator. The short answer is, yes, you can. However, depending on your goals and how you will be using the patterns in your business, you might not want to.
Perhaps a more helpful question to start with is “what do I want to gain by making patterns digitally?”. There are advantages to working digitally. Working digitally can save time on edits and revisions as you can simply save the file as a new version number and make the edits without having to retrace a physical paper pattern. Working digitally can also save paper – though depending on your needs, you may need to print the digital files out to cut them once they’re finished. Grading sizes by hand on paper is time consuming, but grading digitally can be a big time-saver. Digital pattern files are also easier to send to someone else like a seamstress or factory. Email is way faster than mail no matter what shipping carrier you use!
Adobe Illustrator does have tools and features that help toward a number of these digital patternmaking goals like speed of edits and paper-savings. However, there is one more factor we need to consider – the resulting pattern format and file type. Just because it is on the computer, doesn’t mean it is in a digital format that is useful for your needs. Illustrator is a vector-based software. When you create patterns in illustrator, it sees all lines as equal. Seam lines, stitch lines, grainlines, notch lines, grading lines all look the same to Illustrator. They are just vector lines. Visually, you can format the pattern so the notations and markings make sense to the human eye, but the computer sees them all the same.
CAD patternmaking software like Optitex (what I use), Gerber, StyleCAD, TukaCAD, etc. store more information than just lines. These programs save and can distinguish markings differently. The computer can tell what is a seam line and what is a grainline – and it knows how to layout that pattern piece based on that grainline. It also knows what lines are the graded sizes for the same piece. Even more importantly, CAD patternmaking software can send this information to an automated cutter so the cutter knows what lines the knife needs to cut, what markings need to be punched, what lines are for layout, and what lines are purely annotations for a human to read. If you sent an Adobe Illustrator file to an automated cutter, it would cut every visible line in the file – leaving your pattern pieces without seam allowances, slashed up, and unusable. (You might even end up with cute, tiny cut out fabric letters of your piece names.) CAD patternmaking software also understands how grade rules work, so if your pattern is already graded and you make a change to the base size, all other sizes will update too! It’s one of my favorite things about digital patternmaking in CAD.
You can go from one format to another (paper to digital, Ai to CAD, digital back to paper, etc) if you need to. You can import a dxf file exported from Illustrator and retrace those lines into the more robust CAD software. Be aware that this takes some time, so if you know your end goal is to get to working in CAD, I’d recommend skipping the Illustrator step otherwise you’ll be spending extra money to essentially redo your patterns.
So, can you make digital patterns in Adobe Illustrator? It depends on how you are going to use the patterns in your business.
You can use Adobe Illustrator to make digital patterns if:
- You are making a pattern for home sewers who will print out the patterns on a home printer
- You are the one making the patterns for your brand and will be the one printing them out and sewing your products
- You intend to print out all your digital patterns and use them in production the same as if you just had paper patterns from the start
- You are okay re-grading each new pattern every time
- You don’t intend to work with a factory (or are okay paying to redo your patterns if you do)
You don’t want to use Adobe Illustrator to make digital patterns for your brand if:
- You work with a factory for production (or intend to)
- You need production markers to cut out many pieces at once
- You or your factory uses an automated cutter
- You don’t want to have to re-grade every new pattern you make
There are multiple ways you can go about making (or getting patterns made) for your brand. Whether you can use Adobe Illustrator, paper and pencil, or a CAD patternmaking program depends on what your development process looks like and how you intend to use the final patterns. Before you commit to developing patterns in a particular software or format, make sure you know how you and any other part of your production team will use the patterns and what format is the best fit for all.