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Process Diary: Tools That Serve You


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This site is no longer being updated so head over to Seamwork to get all the latest patterns, tutorials, video classes, and more.

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The nature of sewing fabric into garments is a hands-on, tactile process. So it’s interesting that one of the most vital tools for creating clothing patterns is a digital one: CAD software.

I mentioned before that I’ve come to see patternmaking as more akin to sculpture than anything else. Patternmaking is an art that requires human hands at every step. Lean too far toward digital tools, and you miss a lot of this, which means redoing and tweaking things over and over.

But digital tools have many benefits that can’t be ignored.

  • CAD greatly speeds up the drafting process. It’s much faster to work digitally than on paper.
  • The precision can’t be beaten. You can keep track of seam lengths and dart placement and grading with built-in tools, rather than checking and re-checking constantly.
  • You can keep track of revisions. And you can do it without keeping a bunch of physical patterns around.
  • You can even work in 3D. There are now tools that allow a patternmaker to model garments in 3D before they’re sewn.

But tools are just tools. They can increase your efficiency, they can improve your precision. But when it comes to a creative process, they are also there to help shape the way you think, to help you see things in new ways.

Tools vs. Process

Sometimes, I think that as creative people, we can mistake the tool or the technique for the process. The process is something else. It’s the way you interpret information, filter it through your own experience, and use it to make a mark.

It’s easy to see this for pursuits that are considered classically creative, like painting or music. But it’s just as valid for processes that are considered highly technical, like patternmaking or writing code. It’s about how you train yourself to see things and problem solve. The right tools just help you get there.

Tools and process go hand in hand, and together, they lead you to build skills. When I struggle with accomplishing something these days, I ask myself: Do I have the right tools? Do I have the right process? Chances are if one of those things is off, there’s an opportunity for more learning.

In this way, I think it’s just as important to consider how your tools shape you as how they shape the work you’re creating. Do they help you make your vision a reality? Do they help you to see things in a new way, so that you can solve problems and gain new skills? Do they open up possibilities you wouldn’t have without them?

Let me bring this back home, to our own changing processes here.

At Colette, we rely heavily on technology. We use CAD software, we take notes and photos on a tablet, we have lots of digital documentation and design tools. But in the end, the real work is in the hands and minds of the people using these tools.

It’s easy to think about tools and process in terms of efficiency, to ask questions like, what will get me the best result with less wasted effort?.

But I think this disguises another important piece of the puzzle, which is how your tools and process affect you and your own growth. Sometimes you need to ask a different question, which is, what will I learn from this, and how will this help me grow my skills?

My question to you is: Do you approach sewing this way? Do you think about your tools and processes for sewing in terms of what will make you a better sewist?

Sarai Mitnick   —   Founder

Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.

Comments 38

Lisa W

You can get many tools but if you don’t use them they sit. When you find the right tool and you use it you can’t imagine life without it. Understanding tools and how they work is the first step (education, training). Using the tool successfully is the next step (applying knowledge). Having the tool become an extension of your creativity, maybe even finding different ways to use the tool is when it becomes part of your process. I see new techniques, tools and my first thought is to take it farther, change it, not use it the way others do. I often lack training and need education (especially with software). I’m in a hurry to go to the next step. I have a long way to go to embrace some new tools. Working on patience and focusing is what I need to work on.


I tend to look at tools as a means to an end, and view the project itself and the skills I gain from it as making me a better sewist. I learn something from every new project. More of a “learn by doing” approach, I guess? I keep a very basic tool kit around and the only tool I really thought about was my fabric scissors, which I upgraded recently and was surprised to see how different they were compared to my older pair. So, perhaps the tools deserve a closer look and more thought! What I really want to do as far as tools go, is to learn to use CAD software to design fabric, adjust or create patterns and other design work. It can be tough finding a way to do that when there isn’t a lot of that type of education around my part of Ohio. Finding instruction online is probably my best bet, but I wish there was a classroom where I could go to learn that instead! Nothing quite replaces having a live teacher to answer questions or help with difficulties when you don’t quite understand something. Still, I think CAD might change a lot of things for me and how I work with patterns, so it’s on my list for 2017.


In my view, tools will only take you so far. They cannot supplant experience. CAD is a wonderful tool, but if you don’t know how to draft in the first place, it won’t get you a worthwhile end product. There’s no substitute for knowing how to draft by hand.

Same thing with tools for the person sewing at home. A high-end machine will not hold your hand and sew that princess seam for you. You have to have some knowledge to do it well no matter what tools you’re using.


For the most part, I think CAD just speeds things up. The principles are pretty much the same whether you’re using paper of a computer, as you say.

Patty S.

Sarai, I think this is a really good blog post. I think about using the “right tool for the right job” quite a bit with sewing. I have noticed over the years, especially with running a couple of very large sewing/quilting/machine embroidery chat lists, that there seems to be a (bad) trend to fear new tools. For example: Sewing machine feet. A lot of sewists, especially older sewists, won’t venture from about 5 various sewing machine feet. Making do, forcing a foot to do something it really isn’t well designed to do. I used to be in that category, I confess. But really, that fear will hold you back in developing better sewing skills, which translates to a better end product. Here’s a good example: I still see lots of blog posts about how to put in an invisible zipper with a regular foot, or a regular zipper foot. In reading a few of my list posts, about some of my list members using an invisible zipper foot, and raviing about the results, I finally broke down and bought one. OMG. What a huge, huge difference that foot made. It was a no-brainer putting in that invisible zipper. Then, I bought the clear version of the invisible zipper foot, which made the process even easier for me. That was a few years ago (like 10 or more, lol!), and that experience convinced me that the gain from using the correct tool far outweighed any fear or trepidation I might have about learning how to use a new tool. So now I am eager to try out new tools, especially those that have a good rep, or successful track record. Anything to make the process easier, more accurate, and give me a better finished product. My 2017 goal is like Trish’s – to learn how to use some sort of CAD-based pattern drafting software to adjust patterns, design fabric, etc. I would love to know what CAD software you all use. I’m sure it’s outside my software budget, but it’s nice to know what the pro’s, use! Going to work on becoming more proficient with Adobe Illustrator for sure, and then move on to pattern editing!


But I thin once you make that discovery of all the things specialized feet can do, they become quite addictive! At least that’s what I’ve found with my Bernina, which has many specialized feet available. It’s a real shift in thinking that I think many sewists go through at some point!

I do think there’s a point a lot of people reach where they stop being afraid to try something new or different. Some people take a little longer to get there, some jump in right away!

Nat Siddle

I love my clear invisible zipper foot – I’ve never tried using a regular foot for installing one, but I did have a go with the standard zipper foot and it was hit & miss.
I have a whole box full of machine feet, however I find when making basic clothes, I tend to use just a few: edgestitch, straight stitch, zizag, zipper feet and occasionally blind hem. I have a clear 1/4 foot that is great when stitching very small seams, but I don’t tend to use that in garment sewing.
My machine was 2nd hand, and although it had a zipper foot, the only other foot was a chunky blind hem foot (with the little metal fin that stops fabric from going underneath) so as you can imagine my first attempts at sewing just straight lines was difficult and a little deflating, until I realised I needed a standard foot…

I need more practice with the rolled hem feet, as I rather like the way that looks, and I’m still a bit preplxed by the pin tuck foot….


Hi guys, as someone who is interested in becoming a pattern maker, which software are you using to draft the pattern pieces? I’ve been reworking patterns by hand but am curious on the CAD applications you’re working with.


We use Optitex. Fashion Incubator has many good articles on getting started with CAD. It is a hefty investment and has a steep learning curve, and I think the major advantage is that it speeds things up tremendously by cutting out manual work, and also makes things a lot more precise. Optitex also has 3D capabilities.

Most apparel programs these days offer CAD classes, so that’s a good way to test the waters and learn the ropes, if you have a school with a fashion program nearby. Internships could be another good option. I would not recommend buying one without learning something about it first, because you may find that it isn’t right for you. It’s a BIG investment.


I had a job for a while repairing and restoring textiles and handmade rugs. At the time, I had very little hand sewing experience, but was given basic training and a basic tool set that was mine to use at work (and not shared). It consisted of a disc of wax, heavyweight linen thread, sharp thread snips, a set of sharp needles, a set of embroidery needles, and a few well-made jeweler’s pliers and tools. Having my own set allowed me to have ownership over the tools themselves and the processes for which I needed them, and was able to develop the skills needed to do the work. I haven’t done it in a while, but I could sew a whip stitch using pliers pretty well! I was also taught what to watch out for and the right questions to ask of my own work, and the tools I used to complete it.

Having the right tools for the job and using them correctly is important, too. Having been a fairly frugal person throughout my life, it is always tempting to pay less for a cheap tool or use one that’s not quite right instead (like Patty’s zipper feet above). In the end, I get so frustrated when a process is overly difficult or muddled because the tools are wrong (or break!). In a way, I suppose it’s also a similar concept to buying $5 fast fashion t-shirts at a big box store – which are never quite the right color or texture, are too thin, etc. – instead of making my own or purchasing a more expensive, better-quality t-shirt from a slow fashion company!


That’s a good observation, because both the temptation and the frustration of choosing cheap over quality is so similar! I cherish my best tools (Gingher shears, sharp thread snips, my trusty Bernina and all the feet) and take better care of them as well, just like the clothes I’ve spent time making, or the small designer garments I’ve occasionally saved up for.


No, this is one area of my life I don’t over think. I’m following the sewing journey of my teenage years in home ec. I saw a pattern I liked, always Vogue, and tackled it with help along the way. Made my prom dress from Quiana (spelling?), my graduation dress in eyelet, and a designer dress in wool crepe, etc.
The process never crossed my mind. I just did it. It probably helped that I lived in a major city with access to whatever I might need. And a mother with champagne fabric tastes.


I could see having a mother with great fabric taste being a real game changer!

SJ Kurtz

My mother sewed our clothes and was notoriously cheap about fabrics, because she was trying to get as much out of as little as possible.
When we stopped growing, this flipped. And I remember buying fabric for something and choosing the less nice one, and my mom stopped me and said, roughly: do you want to have to touch that with your hands to make it and with your body to wear it?
And that has pretty much stuck with me. If it feels bad, no. If I put the time in to really sew it well, I may have it for years. If I want to wear it and make it last, I get the better stuff and use it all as efficiently as I can.
The tools part is funny: all my good workshop tools are from my dad. All my cheap sewing stuff is from my mom.


That is exactly my journey from my youth. I had a new outfit every Saturday night. It’s interesting now to read/hear that “working with that fabric is so hard” or similar such comments. I must have been doing something wrong because I didn’t know it was supposed to be difficult and just got on with it. I think the young sewers today are frightened off from trying new fabrics or techniques because they’re told how difficult it is. As a well known brand of shoes urges: just do it.

Nat Siddle

I was told invisible zippers were pretty tricky by LOTS of online ‘sewing’ bloggers. Once I used the correct foot, it seemed no bother at all: the only difficulty I have ever had was recently with a very thick wool. Even stitching further back from the teeth, my poor little zipper struggled to get past the waistband seams, so I had to unpick it and install a lapped zipper instead (my first go at making one!) which looks much prettier, even if it is visible. Just don’t look at the INSIDE of the skirt, lol…

I think if anything requires a specialist foot, it can put people off too. I agree that fastenings are tricker as its not simply stitching seams together, but I wouldn’t avoid patterns that involve them as the instructions will be clear.

I find fitting more of a nightmare than the sewing, tbh. And I’m trying not to read too many blogs now as most of them are just people who are new to sewing, like myself, and will of course make mistakes (a common one being turning a straight skirt into an a-line skirt…by adding 2x weird triangles of fabrics to your side seams…) and I hope they all too will one day tackle zippers and then wonder what all the fuss was about :)


I’d like to see a follow up article about different types of CAD programs. I’m interested in purchasing one just to design clothes for myself. I know of Ginger software that is quite reasonably priced but would like to hear what the professionals use.


We use Optitex. It’s one of the more common CAD applications used in apparel, along with Gerber and Lectra. I can’t really speak to all the various programs, since we only use Optitex, but Fashion Incubator has an article here about various CAD apps, with a short discussion of Optitex in the comments as well.


Wild Ginger Software offers several affordably-priced software packages for clothing design.

Natasha Estrada

PADsystem now has a monthly payment option for their cloudshare software and a free trial for you to fool around with. But if your just making patterns for yourself CAD is really a waste of resources in terms of time and money.

If your not a strong pattern maker before learning CAD the software will just enable to make terrible mistakes at a slightly accelerated right. After a steep learning curve with the software of course.

CAD is great for digitizing and grading. But most CAD software is aimed at the needs of companies rather than individuals.

It’s not as fun as it seems. I’ve used PADsystem, Gerber Accumark, Lectra Modaris and am now learning iPM. They are just tools.

Donna Greene

I am 56 years old so when I first started writing it was either with a pen and paper or on a typewriter. When word processors came along they revolutionised the way I wrote. All of a sudden I could cut out whole sections of text and shift them around with ease. This changed the way I went about writing and it changed the end result, for the better I think.
Now I am a fledgling pattern maker, designer and seamstress. I love all the new tools I have acquired in the process but I still only have a bottom of the market sewing machine. I know a bad workman always blames his tools but I really do feel handicapped. I want to know how to sew in an invisable zipper, for example, so I watch a utube tutorial. The first thing they say is that you’ll need an invisable zipper foot. My machine didn’t even come with a visable zipper foot.
So I will continue on my path, buying more and more equipment and tools as I am able because I think, possibly, a bad workman is bad for a good reason, his tools.


The analogy to writing is really interesting. It’s also interesting that some writers still prefer to write longhand, even with the freedom that comes with writing on a computer, or even a typewriter. It seems to boil down to the individual’s creative process and finding the right vehicle for YOU.


I love these process posts. One of the things that I love most about sewing is that efficiency doesn’t drive my process. I spend lots of time in my professional life tinkering with my work practices with the aim of squeezing more out of myself, but when I’m sewing I often deliberately choose tools and techniques that are not strictly necessary and take longer (eg., hand sewing) because I enjoy making things in that way.

The point where this starts to go a bit awry for me is that I can get so focused on the process that I don’t think enough about the product. I occasionally end up sewing things that I know from the beginning I won’t really wear, but I just need to see how that intricate pattern comes together or I want to work with some fiddly chiffon. It’s frustrating that the things I wear most (eg., knits) are the ones I find least enjoyable to sew.


CAD is a fantastic tool, I use it everyday and can’t imagine life without it, unfortunately however it is only as good as the skills of the person using it. As our skills develop so does the quality of what we can achieve with our tools. Perhaps the team also needs some skill development and training with the softwear or problems like those with the armscye in a number of the larger sizes of the updated Rue bodice piece will keep happening and that would be disappointing.


This post is actually part of a whole series on process changes we’ve made, which has included extensive training over the last few months. This is an ongoing process, but it’s revolutionized the way we do things and the ability to build skills. One thing we’ve learned more than anything is the value of experienced outside perspectives… the next step for us is finding the right person to join us and permanently assume that mentor/training role as we prepare for the long term. That’s super exciting to me.

I think this is a great example of the relationship between tools and skills. As helpful as CAD is, as far as I’m concerned it’s icing compared to the foundational practices we’ve been working on with Sabrina. It’s almost like a pyramid, with the right mindset and priorities on the bottom, the practices in the middle, and the tools on top.


I really don’t understand what’s going on. You say very clearly that you have been having extensive training in the past few months, and are working on the foundations with Sabrina, which is very admirable I’m sure.

BUT – and it’s a big but, even bigger than my butt – you’ve already been in business making and selling patterns for six or seven years.

You seem, therefore, to be admitting that you’ve been doing so *while lacking* training in the very foundations of patternmaking skills. This is surely not an ethical business practice, but perhaps you are trying to say something else entirely?


Yes, I am saying something different. Let me try to explain my perspective as clearly as I can.

In the last couple years, we grew very quickly. Our staff quadrupled in size. Our processes were not equipped to handle this, which is a failure I take responsibility for. The processes I am talking about are “foundations” in some ways, but perhaps not the kind you are thinking. I am talking about things like clear divisions of roles to avoid “kitchen sink” approaches to patterns, I am talking about running fit sessions with a group of people, and I’m talking about clearly communicating and documenting what’s going on at all times. We’re also trying to improve in any other way we can, including refreshing our blocks and learning new techniques, which I’ve written about. I believe that these things need *constant* improvement, and we’re going to keep working on them, long term, forever.

I get where you’re coming from, I’m just inviting you to see this from some different angles. Yes, we can keep building skills, but that isn’t where the challenge begins and ends. The real challenge is evolving along with all the change, year after year.


From my perspective, and I don’t think I’m alone, this entire series of progress updates is a bit of a mess. It makes it sound like you guys don’t know what you’re doing – like you needed someone to teach you how to draft patterns, like you don’t know what good fit is, like you’ve been selling patterns for years without knowing how to make them. It makes it look like your brand has deep fundamental problems. It made me decide that I couldn’t in good conscience spend money on any more of your patterns. I have been seriously considering unsubscribing from your newsletter because I can’t continue to support a business that is so clearly incompetent. That is how these blog posts are coming across.

I think if these were just posts on a personal blog it would feel different, maybe it wouldn’t have the same “baggage”, but as progress updates from a company blog…suddenly everything is in a different light. There’s money involved, potentially my money. I’m looking at it through the lens of “will I be able to trust them with my money again”, not just “is this an interesting topic”. That sort of baggage is going to be hard to avoid right now, and I’m not sure you’re navigating it well.


I have to say I agree entirely with Josie here. The waters of Colette’s lake are very cloudy already – and these posts just seem to muddy them still further, at least from where I’m looking.



I think instead of wasting time with articles like this that are designed to awe with jargon and tech talk that will, no doubt impress your fan girls, why not spend that time working on how to draft a pattern properly, how to create and develop blocks with a pencil and paper. All this talk of CAD is well and good but CAD won’t fix things, it will only do what you tell it to.
Touting your products as “patterns that teach” is a bit rich, as far as I can tell your staff are unable to spot basic errors. Many of the Rue issues should have been spotted at thd drafting stage if not at thd testing stage. I don’t understand how you could released such a massively flawed pattern and then expect an article like this (which basically says nothing at all) to help fix the damage that pattern has done to your brand. It reeks of burying your head in the sand. You’ll have to do better if you want to stand a chance of winning back any of the customers you have lost

Virginia Shields

Hear hear DRP! We (the readers) could really use some solid, technical, this-is-how-we-are-improving posts. With specifics. Not just musings on what a process is. It’s like a politician’s speech – lots of words no concrete information. How is the new block development coming along? Do you have a new one yet? By the way, I’m a lost customer who would love a reason to come back :(


Hi Virginia. The only thing this post is intended to do is create a brief discussion on CAD as a tool (and only a tool). It’s something we get questions about occasionally, and I thought some people might be interested.

I’ve tried to be transparent about our process changes (blocks, fit session, specs, etc) in other posts, but it’s hard to know how many updates people really care about reading. It’s helpful to get specific questions like yours. To answer them, our block development is complete, and we’re currently working on the next pattern (developed from it) and implementing our new tech pack.

Virginia Shields

Thank you for answering my questions. I can’t speak for everyone, but that’s the kind of info I’m interested in. How are you going about creating this new block and ensuring it will be an improvement? When can we expect to see it used in patterns etc. Basically, what does all this mean to me and my wallet.


Totally agree with you. This post is tl;dr and it says nothing wrapped in Silicon Valley tech speak. I left a comment yesterday saying pretty much the same thing as you and it was deleted. I’m a former customer who is definitely not looking for a reason to come back, after making 4 Colette patterns that I paid full price for, and they all had major problems. I blamed myself, but now I know it wasn’t my fault.


Your comment was removed because it was extremely rude. Instead, I emailed you and invited you to have a conversation. You declined. I think we are done here.


Sarai and company, I love this article. Anyone who has any experience in either production, manufacturing, marketing, PR…well…really, anything, should appreciate this post. I read into it one of many solutions you’ve promised to learn from the…what shall we call it? The bad launch? As a person deeply entrenched in advertising and marketing, I see a lot of people buy all the great expensive tools to be successful, whether the latest Mac or Blue Yeti or what have you, and wonder why they’re failing. It’s not the tools, it’s the process. I’ve watched LEAN succeed and fail…it depended on the participants’ willingness and participation in the process. The person who commented above about hand drafting…that’s her process and she should not lose sight of that for CAD. Me, I learned CAD and can’t draw by hand…that’s MY process. All the pretty drawing paper in the world won’t work for me.

I think this is an exciting view into your growth. I see this as watching you strip everything back down to its core to rebuild properly for your new size. I see this as the way companies succeed. The sour apples will be sour apples, and they inhibit growth and learning. Don’t let them get to you. They’re in every office, in every field, and afraid of change. You’re doing great. So many people are afraid of failure, but failure is beautiful and necessary. We are human and not infallible. It’s refreshing to see a company embrace it, and its revolutionary to see a company share it.


PS….I’d hope your customers see Colette is NOT unique here, nor is this a symptom of Colette’s lack of pattern knowledge. This happens all the time. Samsung exploding phones, anyone? Firestone tires, if you’re old enough. Instant Pot recently had a bad run, and if you look at Amazon they’re 3-4 months out to order! Pfaff had a few years of lemons. Ditto Viking. Don’t even get me started on my time at Xerox.

What IS unique is the transparency here. The willingness to share the retuning of the manufacturing process to avoid another exploding phone, as it were. No one I’ve mentioned above would ever divulge anything close to what Colette is doing.

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