When I began my career as a pattern cutter and grader forty years ago, it was the pattern cutter who undoubtedly held the senior of the two positions. And this was reflected in the salaries on offer. Today, while I believe the pattern cutter still has the more prestigious position, the two positions are more equal than used to be the case.
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STACK GRADING VS SINGLE PLY GRADING
In 1975 the height of sophistication in the grading world was stack grading. This involved manually cutting a number of different pattern sizes at the same time, with the aid of a pair of long handled short blade sheers. These sheers ensured that you had plenty of leverage to cut through many layers at once. Only the most experienced pattern graders used this method. It had the advantage of being much faster than single ply grading. The disadvantage with grading this way was that either all the sizes were right, or they were all wrong. If you grade each size individually you would check the grade by stacking them one on top of the other after they were cut, rather than as they were cut. Another alternative method was to Mark the base size and the biggest size on the same sheet of paper, then to strike through all the relevant points to automatically find the intervening sizes. Then to trace through each size using a tracing wheel. After grading, each graded pattern piece would be marked up with all the relevant information either using different coloured pens, or using a John Bull type printing set to stamp each pattern piece.
There was also a grading machine that a few clothing companies would use. Each individual pattern piece would be attached to an arm that would move vertically or horizontally. At each stage of movement part of the pattern would be marked with a pencil.
MANUAL GRADING VS DIGITAL GRADING
The computer has made pattern grading more of a “white collar” job and has made it far more efficient. But the job requires the purchase of quite expensive equipment and requires extra computer skills on top of the grading skills.
There are very few people today who continue to grade manually. Those that do are likely to be either manual pattern cutters like myself who will grade just a few sizes rather than send them elsewhere. Or they may be fabric cutters who put their hand to simple pattern cutting or grading.
A digital pattern grader generally does not have the hands on experience of a manual grader or pattern cutter. Consequently they may be more skilled as computer operators than as graders. Thats why it is important to supply the grader with a well worked out size spec. An experienced Pattern Cutter is often more skilled at understanding the correct proportions a pattern should be. A computer grading service will often insist on receiving a size spec before proceeding with the grading.
THE SIZE CHART
Supplying the Grader with a size chart ensures that the grader does not take easy short cuts. It also puts the designer in control of production rather than the factory. If the factory have been given a garment spec that details the measurements each size should be, they have no excuses if the garments do not measure up. If the factory supply the spec, then they can make the spec to fit the garment rather than visa versa. I often see cases where the factory have supplied their own size spec after the garments have been made. These specs can be all over the place. And there will often be massive problems, especially with the bigger sizes.
THE GRADING RULES
It is important to take some time to consider the grading rules beforehand. These are the most important part of the grading process. Because most grading services charge according to the amount of pattern pieces rather than time or difficulty involved, it is human nature to try to cut corners. If you were to ask a factory to grade a pattern up or down one size, they will often only adjust the side seam, rather than grade equally throughout the garment.
In determining the grading rules, even if I am just providing a size spec to the grader, I will often physically grade an outline of the smallest and largest sizes in order to check that the proportions are correct. This is especially important for childrenswear because of the extreme changes in size and stature.
I still offer manual grading as an extra service for my own patterns, but normally I will provide well thought out size charts for the digital graders to follow. If it is a complicated grade I will often manually grade the largest size just to test the grading. I also try as much as possible to stick to an even grade right through, instead of different increments for each size. This means that it is far easier for the small business to check the grading. If the smallest and biggest sizes are correct, then each size in between must also be correct. If you stack all of the pattern pieces on top of each other they should all follow the same pattern.
Grading is not an exact science – It is a compromise. This compromise works sufficiently well when only a few sizes are grade, but when there are a large number of sizes, the inaccuracy builds up and becomes obvious. The relationship between armhole and sleeve for instance means that the shoulder is graded too much and the bicep too little. This is because a jacket with a 40″chest is graded according to the 40″ chest rather than the round arm measurement of 48″. Both the armhole and biceps width is increased by 1.4 cms . But the bicep should really have extra ease in the sleeve head to allow for the extra biceps width that is not graded.
If your manufacturing is to be within the U.K. and on a small scale then manual pattern grades on card is the norm, although sometimes Computer patterns would be preferable. For bigger factories and Offshore production Computer files are usually preferable.
I am very experienced in grading every type of pattern for Menswear, Ladieswear and Childrenswear as well as for plus sizes. Most grading is very straightforward, with the majority of Clothing Companies sticking to a small range of standard sizes, but when grading beyond those standard sizes, or if grading for Childrenswear or certain specialised groups then the grading is more complex.
One of the first things to decide when determining the grading rules is whether you are grading as if for separate individuals of different sizes, or as if for one person who is getting bigger as they get older – The former gets taller as well as wider, whereas the latter remains the same height once maturity is reached. With the former they tend to get uniformly bigger in girth whereas the latter will get disproportionately bigger in some areas than others. In this respect, grading for Men and Women are very distinct. If a standard grade is used then any error on the grading system will increase with the increased sizes. When we grade vertically for the armhole depth or for the rise in trousers, we are not grading so much for height as for the additional fat that builds up in these areas as we get bigger. An extra height element would have to be added to the formula.
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