How are Clothes Really Made?

I recently enrolled in a fitting analysis course as part of a patternmaking certificate program. So far I have loved the two patternmaking classes that I have taken. I learned how to draft a basic bodice, a flared skirt, a blouse, and a pair of pants for starters. For each pattern, I had to create a sample, which was a tremendous amount of work.


Hand-drawing a spec design creates a new
appreciation for how clothing is made.

But these classes in no way prepared me for fitting analysis. Let me be up front from the beginning–I have no intention of ever working in the fashion industry, and especially not as a patternmaker. But I love learning all of these things, which I find very useful as the editor of a sewing magazine.

My classes are filled with diligent and talented people from the industry, for whom this work is as natural as breathing. I usually fall in the middle of the pack, but I can keep up.

That's until I walked into a technical design class that was filled with experts. Our first task was to create a technical sketch from a sample. Whoa! Everyone sat down at their computers and whipped up digitial reproductions faster than the blink of an eye. I was definitely way out of my league.. I got out my tracing paper and a mechanical pencil (all the better to erase with) and did my best to keep up.

The next class involved memorizing technical design abbreviations and taking a quiz. Apparently the abbreviations are an international language, like DNTS (double needle top stitch) or ZIP (you guessed it, zipper!). When you are sending a technical design halfway across the world, you want to make sure they understand exactly what you are asking, because do-overs cost big bucks.

Memorization? I just like making pretty outfits! But memorize I did. Next I had to memorize all the silhouettes, from leg-o'-mutton sleeve to trumpet skirt. And I was quizzed on that!

Then we learned how to spec out a sample that had returned from overseas. Before you iron, steam it, or put in on a dress form, you must lay it flat fresh out of the package and measure all the valid specs, and trust me, on any garment, there are many.

Apparently, technical designers make a good living. And I can understand why, because it is back-breaking, detailed work.

I thought I was going to be learning how to get  a good fit on a garment, but I entered a whole new world of the ready-to-wear industry. It boggles my mind to know what goes into making every garment that appears on the racks at the local department store. My appreciation of ready to wear is increased, and it also makes me so happy that I know how to sit down at a sewing machine and make my own clothes.

For lots of industry tips and techniques on making clothes, check out The Dressmaker's Handbook of Couture Sewing Techniques: Essential Step by Step Techniques for Professional Results in the Sew Daily Shop. 

Have you ever worked in the fashion industry? Do you know anything about how clothing is made? What did you learn? We would love to know!

Happy Stitching!


Other sewing topics you may enjoy:


Couture Sewing & Tailoring Techniques

About Amber

Amber Eden is the editor of Stitch and She LOVES sewing and editing Stitch and She also loves dance, yoga, iced decaf triple espressos, and her two golden retrievers. She divides her time between Boston and New York.

9 thoughts on “How are Clothes Really Made?

  1. I work in the industry as a technical designer in Juniors market. Yes, it is crazy what goes into a ready to wear garment. On average we fit a style 3 times before it goes into production and we fit on a live fit model. Of course knowing how clothes are made also make me very picky on what I buy. Would love to know where you took the class.

  2. I have never worked in the industry, but your classes sound fascinating! I’d love to take those classes myself just to watch the pros and see how they handle all those details, and handle them fast as well, I’m sure. Congrats on sticking with the classes and getting through them!

  3. I am taking the class at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. It really has opened my eyes to the industry and makes me happy I can make my own clothing! 🙂

  4. I have not worked in the fashion industry but I have a question which I don’t know if you have any knowledge about. I think most of our ready to wear clothing is made in countries where the people are slimmer than the people in the U.S. (on average). Does this make a difference in the sizing of the clothing being made to be sold here? I ask because it seems to me it has had an effect. Thanks for any comments.

  5. In our family its a traditionfor the women to design and make our own clothing. @ age eleven I was given my own sewing machine, which I kept in my room. It was commonplace for me to design patterns and make my own clothes. We made alterations to “off the rack” clothing to fit them to our specific body types.
    What amazed me about my mom was she could fit any garment to any body type!
    When I reached “that age” it was tradition for girls to be fitted for their first bras and girdles. So off to the lady’s apparal shop I went for my fittings.
    My mother worked their and often fitted women with “special needs” for larger sized bras and girdles.
    In those days (60’s) undergarments were still tailored to a womans’ body by women like my mom..
    Needless to say my Mother taught me every trick in the book when it comes to conceptulizing and designing a pattern, color theory, execution and how to make a pattern fit!

  6. I lived that life for over 20 years, then taught it for 6. I also considered writing a text book for tech design, but the technology changes happen rapidly & all could be out of date before it is published. Still, I use pattern-making skills nearly every day, whether I am making clothes or quilts.

  7. I worked in the industry before computers. We made our patterns on tagboard and hand graded each size. It is mind boggling what is happening in the industry today. It would be exciting and stimulating to take the classes you are. Enjoy!

  8. I was a patternmaker for 10 years beginning in the mid 80’s. The first thing I learned once out of FIDM and into the working world was that our deadlines were for real. After all the garments changes were made, fittings, notions, final details and grading was completed that pattern was out the door, pronto. The fashion world is full of mad rushes and anxious bosses. I was lucky to learn how to make patterns in the traditional way with paper, curved and straight rulers and pencils but in my first job we were trained in Computer aided Design. Within a year and a half we were fully on the CAD system for patterns and grading. Making the right curves on the computer was the tricky part and inputting coordinates meant brushing up on my math. I’m happily not working in the industry anymore. I have a habit of checking out the quality of mid to high cost clothes, to check out its worthiness.

  9. This was my MOST favorite column you’ve ever posted, I have never worked in the industry (but did you ever see the British show segment-6 episodes called Blood, Sweat and T-shirts? Mind Blowing!!! Anyway, thank you for sharing that with us and keep writing about that adventure. I am trying to order the book (presently my computer isn’t cooperating)