Episode #3: How to Make a Dress: From Concept to Closet

Hello, and thank you for tuning into True Style, where I don’t tell you what to wear, but instead help you figure out what you want to wear and also, hopefully, educate you about what we wear and how it comes to be. My name is Lakyn Carlton and I will be your host today and for the foreseeable future.

Today’s fashion fact is a somber one. Or, at least, it is for me. According to Forbes, the average American woman owns about 30 unique outfits. In 1930, the number was only 9. The average woman in the UK owns 22 pieces of clothing she hasn’t even worn, and buys half her body weight in new garments every year. The average American or European, regardless of gender, purchases 68 new pieces of clothing per year. And all of those clothes get worn an average of 7 times before they’re thrown out.

Needless to say, we have a bit of a shopping problem. But even with debates about overconsumption and sustainable fashion finally making it to the forefront thanks to social media, there’s still not enough focus on what I personally believe is the most important factor in all of this: That is, the labor required to make a garment. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the average closet contains thousands of hours worth of real human labor, something that we take for granted. That’s why today’s very special two-part episode is all about how to make a dress. Or a shirt. Or a pair of pants. Next week’s episode will be about where those garments go after we’re done with them, so I hope you’ll join me then, as well, but, for now, let’s get into how it all begins.

I want you to keep in mind that this process is the mostly the same, save for a couple of steps that can be combined or skipped in order to save money, regardless of how big or small a brand is. If it’s mass produced, whether it’s in the hundreds or the thousands, every single garment that makes it to your closet makes the same journey, and that journey starts with…

Design! Duh! Whether it’s one person or a team, the average collection can start with hundreds of designs and multiple rounds of tweaks and elimination until it’s finalized. This is the easy part, this is the part anyone, including

celebrities, can do. They may not be good designs, or practical, but, it’s what puts everything into motion. Unfortunately, while this is technically the least labor intensive step, those who do it or oversee it are typically the highest paid at a brand.

Once a design is ready to be made, you’re going to need fabric. Typically, you’ll have fabrics that are used for multiple pieces in order to keep a cohesive collection. Some brands are what we call vertically integrated, and not only design their own fabrics but weave them as well. That said, the vast majority have to find suppliers to sell them what they need. Before starting production, you’ll order what’s called sample yardage, which is a small amount of the fabric used to make your first versions of the piece, or, the sample.

Higher quality brands, upon receiving fabric, will do what’s called pre- washing. This is exactly what it sounds like: you wash and dry the fabric to see how it behaves and if it shrinks. This is mostly a step for things that are meant to be laundered regularly, and for fabrics like cottons or linens as they tend to shrink quite a bit. Some knits will also change in stretch once dried, so brands want to take that into account. They’ll use the pre-washed fabric to make the garments, so that when you wash it, you won’t end up with a totally different piece of clothing. Mid to lower quality brands skip this step, and some will even mark garments as dry clean only in order to avoid complaints of shrinkage once it’s in the customer’s hands.

Now that fabric is prepped and ready to go, a pattern has to be made. A pattern is a paper template that you use to cut out the pieces you need to make a garment. The simplest shirt will have two or three pattern pieces: one for the front, one for the back, and one for both sleeves. The most complicated dress can have dozens. Proper fit begins with a pattern, as it’s essentially taking a 2-D design of a 3-D garment, turning it into it’s simplest shapes, and then using those flat shapes to make it into a real physical piece. Many formal wear and higher end garments actually begin with draping, that is, pinning and shaping fabric on an actual dress form, then taking that fabric and just tracing the pieces onto paper. But, either way, you’re gonna need a pattern to use for the initial sample.

The first sample is hardly ever perfect. It can look great on the mannequin, but be all wrong on the fit model. Usually, you’ll save the good fabric for the final sample, and use cheaper fabric such as a plain cotton called muslin—to make mock-ups. Once you have perfected the sample, however, it’s back to

the pattern maker to grade every pattern piece, which is the term for sizing up or down in order to create a full size range. It’s important to note here that every single size needs a different pattern, and every single pattern costs money. Sometimes different colors and washes in the same design can even require a new pattern, as dyeing processes can alter the way a textile behaves or stretches.

When a small brand is just starting out, the cost of a production pattern per size can easily creep into the hundreds, which is why many don’t debut with larger sizes out the gate. I’m not excusing it, but that is why it is so rare to find plus sizes, or even sizing beyond small, medium and large in more ethical brands, especially those that produce in countries with expensive labor like America.

Keep in mind, that no matter how much of a piece you sell, you still have to pay for all of this initial development up front. If fit is extremely important, you may even make multiple samples in different sizes in order to see them on a human body, and sample creation can easily cost thousands, especially if your larger sizes require a new pattern to be made, instead of just grading up the original, to account for proportional changes.

Another stress point financially for brands that launch with a larger size range can be pattern markers. This is basically a map of how to lay out the pattern on the fabric in order to maximize yardage and make as many pieces as possible. For the most part, a size range of, say, three or four sizes will require roughly the same amount of fabric, with a few inches difference here and there. As the gap between the smallest and largest size grows, however, there can be a drastic change in how much fabric you need and how you have to lay out the pattern. This can take two or even three different markers to be made, each of which, you guessed it, costs money.

Here is where there’s a split. There are full service manufacturers that will take care of all the previous steps, but, even in brands that do the initial work themselves, most of the following tasks are outsourced to factories, primarily in Asian countries.

Now, a bit of a disclaimer: just because a brand produces in China does not mean their garments are low quality or made in sweatshops. Not only does ethical labor exist in every country, just as unethical labor exists everywhere —including right here in downtown LA—garment manufacturing is a highly specialized and advanced industry in Asia, and in China specifically. They

have machines that can do things many stateside designers can only dream of, and we simply can’t afford to catch up. That said, the American dollar stretches much further there, than it does here, meaning that even above board, sweatshop-free manufacturing is much cheaper than it is in the US, especially considering our two major fashion hubs have a minimum wage of $15.

In a vertically integrated fashion business, or just a brand that produces in- house, these next steps are delegated to employees and directly overseen by whoever is managing the company. However, as I mentioned, most mid-to- large sized brands do outsource in order to save money. Regardless, the work must be done, so, moving on.

Before official production begins, somebody has to make what’s called a tech pack. This is basically a guide to how to create this garment. It features a technical sketch of the front and back of the garment with clear details of every seam, button, zipper, dart, etc, and details how much fabric is needed, how much trim or how many buttons, which pattern pieces are needed and how many of each, and any other pertinent information about construction and finishing.

Finally, we’re ready to sew.

If designing is the easiest part, sewing is the second easiest. Most mass produced clothes are made assembly line style. You’ll have multiple people doing one step on a stack of garments and passing them on. In the largest productions, you can have one person sewing sleeves, one person attaching them, one person sewing on buttons, one person sewing on zippers, one person doing hems and so on and so on. It’s fairly rare, actually, for one person to work on one garment from start to finish to the point that that can be a selling point with certain luxury goods.

Once a piece is sewn, the lowest end brands will pack it up and ship it. Maybe they’ll cut a few threads or iron out the wrinkles but, don’t count on it. Higher quality brands, however, will have an entire step dedicated to quality control, making sure hems are straight and even going so far as to measure each individual piece to make sure no extra centimeters were shaved off in the cutting or sewing process that can affect fit.

So, now, this beautiful garment has made it to the store floor, or, more likely, your favorite brand’s website. You see it, you buy it, you receive it, you love

it…for a few months. I mentioned earlier that, on average, we wear our clothing only about seven times before we throw it out. Some of us try to do the right thing and donate it. Unfortunately, the EPA estimates that an astounding 84% of those donations get sent to landfills anyway.

Next week, I’ll talk about just how much waste the fashion industry and our consumption habits produce. But today, for our Q&A, I have a little advice for the exact opposite problem of overconsumption. Alexis in Atlanta wants to know what to do when you don’t want to buy anything because you don’t know what your style is just yet.

Last week, I wrote a post on my Substack called 21 questions to find your style. I highly recommend checking it out, and I will be turning those questions into a short series on this podcast, to help you figure out what to do once you’ve answered them. My sub stack is Lakyn.Substack.Com that’s L-A-K-Y-N dot Substack dot com. That said, if you’re starting from scratch, you may not even know what your style goals are, let alone how to describe them. My first tip is to search for inspiration. If you’re on social media, or even watching TV or movies, take note, or save pictures of the outfits you see that you like. Pinterest is great for this, but so is just making a little photo album on your phone or folder on your computer. Just collect. It doesn’t matter who’s wearing it, what it costs, or where, save everything that makes you feel something.

Once you’ve gotten a good selection, maybe about 50-100 pictures, I want you to sit down and really look at what they have in common, or what sorts of things you seem to be moved by, and make a list of what individual pieces seem to pop up more than once.

As you look at your inspiration, you’ll start to see themes of what you like. There may be multiple themes, there may be one super strong one and a bunch of little ones, or you may realize you really only like things that fit into one category. Either way, that should get you started as far as understanding what you really want to wear.

That does it for this week’s episode! Thank you so much for listening. Be sure to also subscribe to and check out my Substack for those 21 questions to find your style. That’s Lakyn dot Substack dot com. Again, L-A-K-Y-N dot substack dot com. And I hope you’ll tune in next week for part two of this series all about fashion waste. Until then, bye!

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