Developing Styles With A Patternmaker Or A Factory – Which Is Right For You?

There are multiple ways you can develop custom apparel products for your brand. Two main options are working directly with a patternmaker (like myself) or working with a factory on development. Each has its advantages and drawbacks and which is right for you depends on how you like to work and what factors are the most important to you. To make an informed decision of which is best for your business, consider your preferences on the following.

Involvement in the process

Some designers like to be very involved in the development of their designs while others like to do the creative work and hand it off.

Working with a patternmaker often means more overall project management on your part. The patternmaker should be managing the actual patterns and fit, but you as the designer will most likely be the one ordering sample materials (quantities provided by the patternmaker) and coordinating with fit models, vendors, and, later on, your factory. Working this way, you get to build the relationships with each vendor and communicate directly with the people doing each step of the work. This way of working is great for designers that like to be involved and are good decision makers.

Working with a factory on development is less hands-on for the designer. You might send them some reference samples, a sketch, or photos of what you want, but the factory will probably be the one sourcing materials, tracking sample shipments, and communicating with their internal patternmaker and team. You’ll usually work with an account manager on their team instead of directly with the patternmaker and sample sewers. This can be an ideal scenario for designers who don’t have as much time to dedicate to their brand or who want to streamline communication through one go-to person. 

Control over fit and size consistency

The advantage of working directly with a patternmaker is that you can communicate your vision without it getting lost in translation through a middle person. This gives you greater control over the fit and sizing of your product even though you’re not the one making the pattern! Working directly with a patternmaker is like having them on your team. They will gain knowledge of your product, customer, and fit season after season and help you create a consistent fit that your customers love. You’ll be able to build a library of best-selling style patterns, spec sheets, and grade rules that you get to keep and use in your brand. Because your more involved in the process, you are more aware of the nuances of your product which can give you more confidence in answering customer questions.

When working with a factory on development, it might not always be the same patternmaker or team you are working with from one collection to another. You might be leaving it up to the factory to decide the fit and sizing of your design if you aren’t providing this information to them. It is great to get recommendations from your factory on certain things, but it is important to stay consistent with the other pieces in your collection too. 

You might not have access to tech packs and specs when working with a factory either. (I think you always have a right to spec sheets for your products, so do ask for those if you don’t have them.) The factory has what they need on their end to produce samples and then production, so it is easy to forget to get a copy of the technical info for yourself. 

Ownership of the pattern files

This is a huge deal and I’ve seen too many designers caught in heartbreaking situations that leave them without the pattern files that are the backbone of their products.

When you work with a patternmaker, you either hire them directly as an employee or hire them as a freelancer or contractor. Either way, if you’ve paid for the pattern and development work, then you own the rights to your patterns. Why is that important? When you own the patterns that were created for you, you have control over the technical foundation of your brand. They are your brand’s intellectual property and you can use them how you’d like. 

If you are working with your factory on development and NOT paying specifically for patternmaking and development (if they are sampling for free or lumping the development into a production price), then you don’t own the rights to your patterns. They are essentially private labeling the styles for you. 

If this is the case, the patterns aren’t necessarily exclusive to your brand. The factory could make the same or very similar styles for other brands too. You might not even be able to get a copy of the patterns and you’ll be locked into working with that factory for as long as you want to keep making that style. If you do decide to leave that factory, you’ve lost all that development and will have to start over from scratch to try to reverse engineer each of your designs.

Flexibility to counter-source or move factories

You never know what might affect your supply chain. A change in shipping rates, factory pricing or MOQs, (or a global pandemic) might prompt you to diversify or look at other options for production. It is common to counter-source a style at several factories to find the factory that is the best fit for your business needs in terms of product quality, price, communication, payment terms, etc. 

When you work with a patternmaker, you aren’t tied to a particular factory. You’ve worked with them to develop your product and you have all the pattern files and technical information you need to produce with whichever factory you decide!

Developing at a factory really only makes sense if you plan to produce at that factory as well. Some factories may take on just the development for a client, but most want to handle the production too. It is best to have a conversation about production MOQs, terms, and capabilities before committing to developing at a factory. That way you and the factory are on the same page about the direction and goals of the development project.

Switching factories after developing with a factory can get sticky. You might wish to shop around and look into other factories, but asking the factory for your pattern files and tech packs in order to do so might lead to difficult conversations if you aren’t ready to tell them you’re looking elsewhere. It will take some diplomacy to acquire your files while maintaining a good relationship with the factory. If you can’t get your pattern files, it makes the decision of which factory is the right fit (which is already a challenge) into one of whether it is worth leaving and starting completely over with someone else. That is never a quick or easy decision.

Transition to production

After patterns and development are complete, the next step is pre-production and then production. At this stage, the product is fit approved and materials are sourced and ready, but the factory needs to make a pre–production sample for them to test and you to review.

When working with a patternmaker, this is the first time the factory is really getting involved. You or your patternmaker will send the pattern files, tech pack, and sew-by sample for the factory to do a time study sample and provide a production cost. You’ll be able to review the factory’s sewing quality at this point. Sometimes machines may need to be adjusted or the pattern needs to be tweaked to optimize it for the factory’s workflow. This is normal, but does take some time to onboard your styles to the factory.

If you developed the styles with your factory, some of this pre-production work was done during development. You’ve already been able to see the quality of the factory’s work in the fit samples and they’ve been able to work with the pattern and materials to see how they handle and move through their machines. They can probably quote you the production cost based on the fit samples if the sample didn’t need many changes. You still do want a pre-production sample in the final fabrics and colors to approve and keep on hand as the standard for production. An advantage of developing with a factory is that this transition to production is pretty smooth since they’ve worked with the style from the start.

The decision to develop your styles directly with a patternmaker or with a factory is ultimately up to you, how you like to work, and the factors that are important to your business both now and long-term. Once you understand what the pros and cons of each option are, the choice is yours!

If you decide that working with a patternmaker on development is the right option for you and your business, I have a few openings for new clients for the rest of 2023 for summer/fall 2024 collections. If you’d like to talk about your project and goals and see if my services are a good fit for your business, you can schedule a call here.

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