A cut above the rest - Three experts answer questions about fit and pattern design.

A cut above the rest - Three experts answer questions about fit and pattern design.

BÖNNIGHEIM (ri) A good fit is the second most important criterion after value for money when buying clothes - that's what 63.6% of those questioned in the "Outfit 6"* market survey reported. However, why this important quality feature is causing more and more problems for manufacturers, importers and retailers, and how they are resolving them, is something we wanted to find out from three experts in fit and pattern cutting at the Hohenstein Institute (Bönnigheim).

Why, despite all the data from the SizeGERMANY size survey that was recently carried out in Germany, do retailers and consumers still complain about problems with fit?

Stephanie Müller: Up-to-date tables of body dimensions and garment sizes are a first and important step towards achieving a good fit, but in themselves they are by no means a guarantee. Whether a garment is perceived by the wearer as fitting depends on how it looks and feels on their body. The design and the materials used, and their specific characteristics such as elasticity and draping, as well as their surface finish and weight, are further important factors.

But these factors can be taken into account and adjusted by manufacturers even at the product development stage.

Simone Morlock: Many companies here in Germany have a recruitment problem - they are finding it hard to replace their experienced cutting directors and specialist clothing technicians who have been working on quality control. A great deal of expertise is being lost, for example how fitting problems can be overcome by adjusting the cut and choosing suitable materials.

Beate Urban: We have certainly been noticing in recent years that small and medium-sized companies in particular are increasingly using external specialists like ourselves as an outsourced pattern-cutting department. According to our customers, in addition to the recruitment problem, there are also many good financial reasons for this. It can definitely make commercial sense for them to "buy in" the necessary expertise in pattern cutting for a limited time only or for specific projects.

And what is the situation like for international brands and retailers who source their products all around the world?

Beate Urban: Often the standard of training of the employees at non-European production sites is relatively poor so problems with fit are virtually inevitable. Even if the customer has the necessary know-how and provides good basic patterns and model designs, these can often not be translated into products of the required quality.

What help can you offer not only clothing manufacturers but also importers and retail companies in this situation?

Simone Morlock: Problems with fit can have their origins, or occur, during all phases of product development or during production itself. That's why it is important to make sure that quality control as far as fit is concerned is really an integral part of the complete process. In the light of this, in recent years we have run various research projects to develop specific tools to help companies. One of the most recent examples of this is a digital catalogue listing typical fitting problems and providing instructions for how these can be overcome by altering the cut and/or the material. This catalogue can at least partly compensate for lack of knowledge and experience when it comes to fit and pattern cutting. It also makes communication with external production sites easier. Often companies face the difficulty that their quality control experts have identified the fitting problems, but they don't know how to communicate the cut-related technical solution for overcoming the problem to their external partner in a way that they can understand.

But what happens if this "helping people to help themselves" is not enough to sort out the problems?

Stephanie Müller: Certainly it often happens that our experts are called in to act as trouble-shooters, to analyse and resolve a serious problem. What we do then is, first of all, use prototype versions of the basic pattern or model design to carry out fit testing. Since we work with volunteers in all age groups and all different sizes, we can give the customer a representative analysis of the fit in relation to their particular target group. Then we can also advise them on how the fit could be improved.

Beate Urban: Many customers also send us the actual products in which they have identified a problem themselves. In those cases we start with fault analysis straightaway. Often we ask to be sent the producer's pattern. That helps us to correct the fault faster and more effectively. The range of services we offer extends from adjusting and correcting individual model designs and basic patterns to providing detailed advice and employee training.

What does this more extensive advise service cover in terms of fit and pattern cutting?

Beate Urban: Depending on the customer's requirements, we can put together any number of services and tests - you could think of it as a tool-kit from which the customer can help themselves. For some companies, we might check and optimise all the basic and model-specific patterns and size charts, and do fit testing. For other companies it is important that we are able to use our inspection service to support the development and manufacturing process, from preparing the basic pattern to quality control of production, all around the globe (see the chart "From the initial idea to production").

Many manufacturers do their own fit testing using tailor's dummies or their own models. Don't these deliver the same results?

Stephanie Müller: When tailor's dummies are used to try on garments, the effect of movement and the subjective impressions of the wearer are lost – and both of those must be taken into account if you want to offer a really excellent fit. With in-house models we often find that companies are working with men or women who really don't match their target group, either in terms of age or build or garment size. Sometimes only the fit of certain sizes is tested. In the worst cases, the garments may fit a sporty person in their late 20s perfectly – but for a rather unsporty 40-year-old the shoulders are too narrow and the waist too tight for the same silhouette to be achieved.

Now you might say that that's not too serious, because the problem can be resolved if not with the next product at least with the next season's collection.

Beate Urban: Unfortunately that is normally not the case. Instead, that kind of discrepancy extends across several products and even several collections, because the basic pattern is based on false preconceptions. Unlike the manufacturers, consumers and retailers notice this relatively quickly, and both react accordingly: in the shops, sales suffer and consequently they are less willing to place future orders. For mail-order companies, there are more complaints and returns. That's why fit testing is always worthwhile!

For consumers, fit is an important criterion when buying. What do you recommend to companies that do try to meet particularly high standards?

Stephanie Müller: The same as always: "do things well and talk about it". But when it comes to the second part, often even those providers who are really committed to improving their fit, and pull out all the stops with their marketing in other ways, don't do so well. Fit is often regarded as a quality feature that needs to be right, but doesn't need to be mentioned to either retailers or consumers. But especially if it's a question of attracting new buyers or winning back ones who have been lost, actively pointing out that the fit has been improved can be a good way to get a foot inside the door. That's why garments that have been tested by Hohenstein can be endorsed with a special quality label that is very highly regarded among retailers and consumers. Normally, the more demanding a target group is, the more success you can achieve by approaching them with this kind of independent proof of good quality.

A propos target groups – nowadays many manufacturers no longer define these by age, but by lifestyle …

Stephanie Müller: From the point of view of fit, that's a mistake! Even if our measurements stay the same, our body proportions, posture and preferences change considerably over our lifetimes. These age-related changes should be taken into account in the fit. The style can remain the same, but not the cut!

Simone Morlock: That's why, in addition to the measuring data from the German size survey SizeGERMANY, in recent years we have been collecting data for specific target groups. These include, for example, women over the age of 60 or men and women who wear plus sizes. Measurements for foundation garments and ladies' trousers are also available. Manufacturers can significantly improve the fit for particular target groups and/or product groups by using these special body measurement and sizing tables. (see the chart "The perfect fit for every target group")