Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Of cutters, designers, stylists and patternmakers…

There is a discussion going on in another part of the internet and a question was asked which someone felt I may be able to answer. I would rather not wade in to that mess of a discussion, but the question still deserves a bit of an answer. For serious clothing nerds only.

The question revolves around job titles in men’s tailored clothing, a business which is, in some respects, stuck in a bit of a time warp. I know a person who was deeply insulted by another colleague who called him a “patternmaker”, despite the fact that he does, in fact, make patterns. “Paper cutter” and “calzolaio” (shoemaker) are other, similarly pointed, epithets in the tailoring trade. To understand, we have to back up about 150 years.

Ready-made clothing (and for the purposes of this article I will use the archaic meaning of the term “clothing” to refer exclusively to men’s tailored clothing, as opposed to sportswear) was virtually non-existent until the American civil war. A man would get his clothing from his tailor if he could afford one, or it was made in the home. The only things one could buy ready-made was cheap work-wear, made principally for miners, sailors, and slaves. The civil war created a demand for mass-produced uniforms which happened to coincide with the second industrial revolution and an industry was born (more on that another time).
The person at the tailor shop who was responsible for interpreting a person’s measurements into cut pieces of fabric to be sewn together was, logically, the cutter. Scores of books had been written at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century on what was known as the art of cutting gentlemen’s clothing but what we would today refer to as patternmaking. The early ready-made industry employed cutters to cut clothing according to these new systems which would typically be sent out for sewing. In 1910, a trade organization then known as the National Association of Clothing Designers was incorporated in New York City. From a 1917 report by the U.S. department of trade-

“Very conservative styles of men’s clothing are worn in England; the models do not change from one season to another as they do in this country. High-salaried designers are employed by the larger clothing factories in the United States who are constantly introducing attractive styles…”
The “designer” was what we would now call both “stylist” and “head patternmaker”. His job was not only to develop new styles but also to determine what he though was a statistical representation of the average human body and to clothe that body. He might study the library of measurements that the government collected when making uniforms for the soldiers in the civil war, or, later, either of the two world wars, and establish that the average American male was of a certain stature and chest size (these days, we are studying vastly larger sets of data provided by body scanners to determine averages and sizing) . A person whose own measurements resembled those averages would be sought to serve as a fit model and the designer would create his styles to fit that person in the same manner as a cutter would in a bespoke house. A first draft of a pattern would be subjected to a number of different trials and fittings until a satisfactory base pattern was produced. Junior designers, or assistants, would be tasked with taking that base pattern and increasing or decreasing the proportions of it to create a set of different sizes in a system known as grading. Those graded pieces had to be traced off on hard paper and individually cut out. Those junior people were often known as “paper cutters”.

The job of designer was eventually split in to two different jobs in the nascent sportswear industry, specifically those of stylist and the patternmaker who would interpret the stylist’s creations, a split so complete that, these days, a good stylist may have little real understanding of patternmaking and a patternmaker may be a good engineer though completely lacking in taste and creativity. The tailored clothing industry still clings to the nomenclature and job description that existed a hundred years ago so a suit designer is still a patternmaker who may also in some cases work with a stylist, while that stylist would be known as the designer in all other parts of the garment industry. So to call a suit designer a “patternmaker” is to imply that he lacks the necessary taste to execute the job in its entirety. To call a suit designer a “stylist” implies that, despite their good taste, they lack the technical understanding of drafting and tailoring to be capable of actually designing a garment. And to call a tailor or designer a “calzolaio” which, in Italian, means shoemaker, is to imply that their sewing is so crude as to be only suitable for stitching leather and not fine woolens.
Which is all to say that people who make clothing can be temperamental divas sometimes.
But back to the question which concerned the difference between a bespoke cutter and a Ready-to-Wear designer (or patternmaker). The cutter is fitting one specific person while the designer is fitting a hypothetical set of people but will probably employ one real person as representative so the end result , in terms of fit, should ideally be the same. That said, as in the bespoke world where some fitters are better than others, some designers are better than others so ill-fitting ready-to-wear may be the result of either a consumer whose body is very different from the chosen “standard” or it may be that the designer did a lousy job of fitting that standard in the first place. In that respect, the jobs are almost identical. The main difference is that the cutter will leave a lot of adjusting to the tailor so his pattern can be much less precise, and generally is. The tailor may have to baste, adjust, trim, and re-baste a sleeve two, three, four, or more times before they get it into the armhole correctly but once it is in, it is forgotten; in fact, I have heard from a number of different people on and around Savile Row that it is common practice for tailors to have their own sleeve templates to reshape the sleeve caps that are sent to them by the cutter. In a factory setting, the sleeve has to go in correctly on the first try so the designer spends a lot more time perfecting his pattern before it goes anywhere near a cutting table, which is no guarantee of a good sleeve- there are plenty of atrocious sleeves on both ready-to-wear and bespoke garments.

A great bespoke cutter may be a fantastic fitter and produce a perfectly-fitting garment using a pattern which would be an absolute disaster in a factory setting, and a RTW patternmaker could make a pattern which flows beautifully through the shop but which fits nobody. Having some experience on both sides of that cutting table generally produces the best results.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating, thank you. I hope it won't be too hard to locate the debate you reference at the start of your post. :-)

Other ongoing definitional misunderstandings on the web drive me crazy: home sewers who think that "seamstress" is an elevated, romantic term, instead of a title for a low-level employee, and the notion that using a needle and thread renders something "couture." Oh, and everything is "bespoke," no one seems to know what it means anymore.

Jeffery Diduch said...

Tailleuse- it is here-

You have been warned- those are three hours of your life you will not get back.

Anonymous said...

You might find "Ready-Made Democracy: A History of Men's Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860" by Michael Zakim an interesting read. By the beginning of the Civil War most clothing, including good quality clothing, worn by American men was ready-made. The industrial innovations that made this possible were steam propulsion (which allowed clothing to be moved in large quantities cheaply) and the sewing machine, both well established by 1861.

neucarol said...

I didn't know that--the various tailoring positions, advent of RTW and the books available to the trade.
Many thanx for the history lesson.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. :-)


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