All About Pattern Grading (Part 1 of 2)

Pattern grading is one of the most confusing aspects of apparel design and development. And yet, this is the one topic that needs to be understood in order to produce well-fitting garments! Let’s start with the basics of pattern grading. This way, you can be knowledgeable enough to speak with your technical designer or patternmaker and actually understand what they are telling you!

Pattern Grading Basics

So, what the heck is grading, anyway?! Pattern grading is essentially the rules that allow you to make your base pattern bigger and smaller. That’s it! Easy, right? Well, hold onto your hat, it is going to get complicated really quickly. 

There are a few things you need to know before we dive into the super tricky stuff. Let’s start with some vocabulary. 

Design Lines

These are any seam lines used to control the fabric in a way that adds “style” to the garment. This includes turning darts into seams, changing a dart into gathers, color blocking, etc.

Ease

Ease is the amount of extra fabric added to or removed from the block to create the silhouette you desire. 

  • Positive ease is any extra width added to the block
  • Negative ease is any extra width removed from the block: used for knits

Block

A block is a tight-to-the-body pattern that has no design lines or ease built into it. It is a plain pattern that is the starting point for all future patterns you make.

Your block for your company should be specific to your dream customer. Torrid would not use the same block as Forever 21. Blocks should be built with the proportions of your target customer in mind.

Woven blocks can have darts at the bust, waist, and shoulder seams. In addition, knit blocks do not have darts, though there are exceptions.

Block is often erroneously used to describe the base size pattern, which DOES include design lines and ease.

Base Size or Pattern

A pattern that includes your design lines, ease, and all components to create the garment: collars, cuffs, plackets, etc. This is the pattern you use to develop the garment, and you make all changes to the style based on this pattern. 

This pattern will have iterations, listed as P(rototype)1, P2, P3, etc. Once all changes have been to this pattern, and you love it, THEN you will grade it. 

Use the midpoint of your size range to develop this pattern. For example, your size range is XS-XL. In this case, your base pattern will be a size medium.

Size Range

The size range includes the sizes from smallest to largest in your line. For example, your size range might include XS-XL, 0-12, 14-32, etc. 

Grade Rule

The rate of change between sizes in circumference. There are standard grades used based on the type of company, if you are using knits or wovens, and your target demographic. Listed below are examples of grade rules for woven garments:

      • Kids/teens: typically 1”
      • Fast Fashion typically 1”
      • Sizes XS-XL typically 1” or 1.5”, or a blended grade across the range
      • 1XL-3XL typically 2” or 3”
      • 4XL-6XL typically 4”
      • 7XL+ typically 6″

These are general guidelines. Your company can decide to do your grading differently depending on your fabric consumption needs, budget, and target audience.

Graded Nest

A nest is a printout showing every single size after being graded, with each size aligned at the same point inside each other. A good way to think about this is like rings in the trunk of a tree. This allows you to quickly see any issues with grading, also ensuring that each size grows or shrinks in proportion.

You can also cut out each size and nest them manually. This is often done when your patternmaker doesn’t have access to a digitizer.

Digitizer

A digitizer is a tablet or table. Your pattern is affixed to this item. Then the grader will use a pointer to click on each grade point of the pattern, creating a digital pattern on their computer screen, from which your pattern will then be graded digitally, and will eventually create your marker for cutting.

Grade Point

Grade points are specific locations on your pattern that are like anchors. They have specific growth measurements that are tethered to them, and allow the pattern to change size while maintaining the shape and proportions of the garment across sizes.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what these words mean, it is time to put them into practice. 

Base Pattern Is Complete. Now What?

You have worked tirelessly with your patternmaker and sample maker to get your base pattern just right. It has ruffles in the right place, gathers, seams galore, and fits the model perfectly! Now it is time to make it in more sizes. How do you begin?

The actual process is pretty simple:

  • Approve the base size sample.
  • Send your base pattern to the grading service with:
    • Pattern card
    • Tech pack, which should include:
      • Grade Rules or Chart
      • Points of Measure for Base Size
  • Wait for the grading service to digitize the pattern. 
    • If using a pattern maker who doesn’t have a digitizer they will have to grade by hand, so you will get:
      • A master, which has the full-size set traced off on one piece of paper, nested
      • A set of paper patterns, each size individually traced off and cut out

If using a digital grading service, you’ll receive:

        • A printed master, nested
        • A rolled-up paper tube of your pattern, with every size printed out on one sheet of paper. Your sample maker will have to cut out each size themselves.
        • A digital copy of your DXF files-make sure you ask for this! If you need to switch to a new grading service later, you need your DXF files. (You will not be able to open this file type without specialized software)
        • A PDF of the master-this is essential for record-keeping purposes, as well as digital approval of the graded pattern.
  • Send your graded pattern to the cutting service and have them cut one of every size.
  • Send the cuts to your sample maker.
  • Try the graded sizes on fit models in every single size. 

Then, if all looks good, you can approve the samples to markers, and you are ready for production. So exciting!

It Can’t Be That Easy, Can It?

Technically, yes. It really can be! You don’t need to know the intricacies of grading to produce great garments that fit well. The main thing you really need to know is what your grade rule is, and how that works for your brand. We are going to explore grade rules, how to determine them, and how they work for you in my next article. I am also going to give you a little homework to do: start looking at the size charts of all your direct competitors. These are on their websites, and while they are not a full grade chart, they can tell you a whole lot about the grade rules they use.

Start looking at the circumference differences between sizes. Is the bust 2” bigger between sizes, or 1”? Is the waist getting bigger or smaller by 1.5”? This is essential information for you to know about your competitors, as it gives you context clues as to their grade rules, and who the customer is they are serving. 

Happy researching, and check back for more information on grading!

Hannah Schnabel
Hannah Schnabel

Hannah Schnabel is the Founder and Designer for Belle Ampleur, providing fearless, aspirational, and dramatic garments made for the 64% of American women above a size 14. Hannah has over 20 years in retail, designing and developing apparel, accessories, and Halloween costumes. Hannah freelances doing apparel production management for Wildest Wilder in Los Angeles, as well as designing/developing apparel for independent apparel companies. She specializes in plus sizes and does consultation work for brands looking for technical expertise and creative solutions.

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