This article was originally posted in Ssachs Magazine as "7 steps to ensure the best 1st prototype possible, which goes into the best practice when "tech packing" your design. This extended version goes further to discuss the future of prototyping in a modern society.
So close, but yet so far. . .
The design and development process is full of micro stages which need to be approved, just to get to the starting point of the development of a sample. Therefore the importance of communication of the approved design to factory is vital, as this is when all the theory, sketches and initial concept work come together to create the final proof of concept.
Whether you design by hand sketching or on computer, you are probably going to exaggerate body shapes, add styling nuances and pose your design in interesting ways, all to get sign off on your design. This can be a huge amount of work and can go through many iterations to get to the conclusion, so it is an amazing feeling when your design is approved.
Unfortunately, In the world of manufacturing, you are only half way there. The next and biggest step you will then have to undertake is to communicate what you think to the manufacturer of the product. So you will then have to go through every element, every construction and every trim to make sure you can produce what has been sold to your team.
So making sure that this communication is done to the highest level of detail is understandably a tough task to get right, as often there is a language barrier as the recipient of the tech pack might be in an another country. So to help make sure you are showing only the most important information to the factory, here are the 7 steps to follow to ensure you will get the best 1st prototype:
Step 1 - Clean it up
Probably the most important piece of advice that I can offer, is to clean up your drawings. Keep them simple, clean and in poses that can be easily understood. For example, drawing the garment on a flat 2D plain, where the arms are extended out to the side will help a factory understand how the armhole and styling intersect. Removing stylised marks that were there to show fabric movement or body form will help make clear what is, and what isn’t a seam-line. Finally the best and most impactful step to take is to make sure you use consistent line weights and line textures, so that factories can easily pick out what each feature or detail is. For example, in illustrator I always use specific lines for different functions:
Outlines and panel pieces = 1point with rounded line type ends
Major trims (Zips, pocket welts etc. . ) = 0.5 point with rounded line type ends
Small trims (Buttons, snaps, velcro etc . . ) = 0.25 with rounded line type ends
Single line stitching = 0.5 point with a 2 / 1 spacing and rounded line type ends
Bar-tacks & eyelets = 1 point with a brush texture of a tight compact zig-zag line
Other stitching types (Cover-seam, twin needle etc . . ) = 1 point with a relevant sample of the brush texture
I know there will be some of you who are rolling your eyes into the back of your heads at the nerdy detail I go into here, but honestly the more discipline you put into creating your technical manufacturing drawings, the easier it will be for you to communicate your design correctly and ultimately get a great 1st prototype.
The key here is to set your rules whilst making sure the factory and your colleagues understand what your rules are. This way you will never have any of your technical drawings put into question.
Step 2 - An image tells a thousand words
Once you have a good technical drawing and you are happy that all is clear, you will need to drop this into a technical file. This technical file will then need to be accompanied by some additional information for the factory to fully understand the elements of the garment.
Therefore you will probably add text (and arrows pointing to specific areas of the garment). This is both a great way to communicate but also can be a stumbling block for a factory, as they will translate every single word into their local language.
So therefore a less is more approach is definitely the way to go, where information is given out in a concise manner. Be careful not to ramble, waffle or over explain constructions or details as this can only increase the chance of confusion. Stay away from colloquial phrases and try to use industry standard terms for construction techniques, and you will further find that you will have less questions and better prototypes.
Step 3 - Keep it to scale
Drawing details to show construction can be one of the best ways to communicate your design, but if you look at the main technical drawing of the front or back view you probably won’t be able to see close enough to view all the precise details. Some details can be left to interpretation by the factory, but if you want to own a particular detail then you are going to need to communicate this in some way.
One way to get this across is to draw a “zoomed” in version of the area of detail. This could be a zip pocket opening, a collar detail or just a set of key panel dimensions that you value as important to the design.
If you are going to the trouble of drawing these elements, then why not draw them to scale? This will give you 2 main advantages:
You can print and cut out the details to see how well it works in reality. Is the size right? How does it look placed on a garment?
This can be referenced directly by the factory when integrating it into the pattern pieces.
Often these drawings are bigger than a traditional printer, so they are placed as a scale drawings in the technical file with a scale reference noted, so the factory know the actual size to scale your drawing too.
Step 4 - Cross section construction
When it comes to complicated or difficult constructions it can be useful to reference a product, either that the factory has made before or one which you have a physical sample of. This way, the guessing game of how a detail is constructed can be eliminated from the conversation.
In the absence of either of these things, a good cross section drawing of the construction can go a long way to helping with the creation of the pattern and make up of the garment. Think of these drawings as more of a system of help to aid with construction and order of make, rather than a beautiful illustration of the area of interest.
You want to get across the importance of why you want something made in a particular way, so that it can be more easily integrated into the 1st prototype.
Step 5 - Reality vs Virtual
Ultimately, the best way to get a great 1st prototype is to make the 1st prototype your self. For many this is an impossibility due to not having those facilities, but there are some brands that will make a first prototype in house, before shipping said prototype (along with the pattern) to the manufacturer. This will ensure that mistakes in the initial pattern can be easily eliminated and focus can be put onto the details and finishing.
In the absence of the facility to make full prototypes, the next best thing is to make up details or features that could be easily mis-interpreted. You may have already created a “zoom” or cross section drawing of a feature, so why not make a mock up of the detail to see how it works. Does it function as you expected? Are the measurements correct in reality? Does it look as expected?
All in all you can see a trend here. The more you can show, create and communicate, the better the chance of getting a great 1st prototype from the factory, which in turn will further enhance the chances of the garment working successfully.
Step 6 - Layer up your file
This step is again a dive into the tech pack discipline. I preface this step with the understanding that not all tech packs are created in the same way or even on the same software, so there may be a little bit of nuance to the application of this one.
I have worked on many different CAD systems. from Corel Draw, to Freehand and for the last 15 years Illustrator & In-design. All of these programmes are vector based and allow for layers to be implemented. Layers are a way to hide and show information within a file, which can be very useful for sharing tech pack internally as well as externally.
So when creating a tech pack it is good practice to lock certain “template” information into the background or first layer. This will stop lines and text being moved around when you are adding and editing other information.
Then it is good practice to split the main drawings and text information between 2 different layers. This is so images can be easily isolated from the text (and background / template), as often images are needed to uploaded in other systems and / or screen grabbed for other usage.
Essentially think about how the file you create may be used in the future. Either by colleagues, other systems or maybe by the factory. The more you can make a tech file “modular” the easier it will be for each person to do their part in the development process.
Step 7 - Trust is a 2-way street
Finally the last step is simply to trust your collaborators. The design and development process is full of specialist abilities and techniques, so it is rare for just one person to be able to do everything to create a working prototype.
So simply check with your colleagues that what you have produced is understandable and clear. Take advice from them and use their skills where you think they can offer an additional level of detail. If you have access to a product developer, pattern cutter or materials specialist then make sure you use their skills and input to further enhance the level of detail.
Finally, knowing your factory’s capabilities and speaking to them before you send over tech pack information can also help sway the way you create a tech pack. Maybe they do not have the machinery needed to construct a garment the way you have imagined it, or they might have examples of the constructions they have successfully used on previous garments. Either way having conversations before you drop a tech pack on them often yields interesting information, which can further save time later down the development timeline.
I’ve always followed these 7 steps and have found that once everyone is aware and involved in this process you will have an easier time developing design into prototypes. Then you can spend more time curating the details and refining the prototype to deliver the best version of your design, rather than spend thousands on additional prototypes just to get the fundamentals right.
Step 8 - Don’t make a prototype
So the counter to all of the above steps is to negate them all by not making a 1st prototype at all. . . . Do it digitally!
The rise in quality and accuracy of 3D prototyping software has been slow, but finally it is now very possible to create realistic, accurate and (most importantly) transferable 3D models of your designs.
These softwares are becoming better and better at mimicking the way a fabric drapes and moves across the body. The patterns that are created can be imported into pattern cutting systems, and best of all you can prove your design works technically as well as aesthetically, with minimal cost on the environment.
Through software like CLO3D we can make multiple prototypes even before a material is knitted or woven, or a pattern is cut or a sample is shipped from the factory. This saves time, effort, materials and most importantly energy, which feels a more realistic way to prototype, when looking at our impact on the environment.
I truly believe that to be a good designer you should always be learning. Design is not a static profession. It takes time, effort and energy to stay abreast of the new developments, the new technologies and the changing landscape of trends and fashion. So embracing virtual prototyping should be on every designer to do list, if they want to stay relevant.
In conclusion, I would love all 1st prototypes to become virtual, but I understand that for most companies they are not quite ready and the need for physical prototypes is still part of the traditional development plan. But wouldn’t it be great to have your first physical prototype realised with a near perfect pattern, seam-lines and details that encase the body in exactly the way you had imagined.
All you would have to do is refine and curate the details. All with less wasted energy and more confidence that your design is nearer to production ready.
This feels like a future i can believe in!