Manufacturing Futures: Pattern Project Develops New Tools for Custom Clothing

“There’s a great sense of achievement when you’ve made your own garment and worn it,” says Shruti Grover, co-founder of Pattern Project. “We’ve made it easy to sew something simple and timeless with quality materials.”

Shruti Grover and Simon Johnson at work in the Pattern Project studio.
Shruti Grover and Simon Johnson at work in the Pattern Project studio. Image: Pattern Project

Shruti and her co-founder Simon Johnson have spent more than a year bringing Pattern Project to life. Combining a unique digital design tool with local manufacturing and physical retail, it will allow customers to personalise a range of garment designs which will be cut into panels on instore cutting machines, then packaged with instructions and annotations to create customised ‘flat-pack fashion’ that people can sew at home themselves.

With a three-month extension to their Innovate UK-funded project to deal with obstacles caused by the pandemic, the duo have been busy with user testing for the first garment kits. Collecting feedback from users with different levels of sewing experience has allowed them to refine and improve their offering, from understanding the price point to gauging how complex a pattern should be.

User testing has also thrown up some surprising outcomes that have led to changes of direction. Shruti and Simon were developing different ways of communicating the instructions for sewing each piece, including augmented reality (AR) on a smartphone. But once the first trials were underway, it became clear the instructional design actually needed to be much simpler.

“Paper instructions were valuable across the board while videos were particularly helpful for novices, who wanted an expert guiding them through the process,” Shruti explains. “For most people, the AR was just too abstract to be useful. That’s valuable learning because we’ve now dropped AR to concentrate on what works best.”

Every new test offers insights that can be harnessed to realise Pattern Project’s vision. Demand is clearly strong, too – after Pattern Project was mentioned in the Guardian in February, the response to the sew-at-home concept was so positive that one kit completely sold out.

When Shruti tried to replace the fabric, it was so difficult to get shipments from her French supplier through customs that she eventually found an alternative in Ireland, a challenge which she says has drawn her attention to working with UK-based suppliers where possible. Nor were materials the only elements of the project subject to unexpected delays.

As the project timeline was complicated by the pandemic, Shruti and Simon made a head start on sourcing a manufacturing system that could handle the complexity of custom-made patterns while being small and affordable enough to work in a retail store – a head start that soon turned into a six-month delay due to travel restrictions.

With no time to wait, the duo came up with their own solution: a small-scale, desktop cutting machine with supporting software which enables custom-fit clothing to be made instore or on demand.

Panel of navy blue fabric seen from above being cut by a silver metallic box on a rail (the cutting machine)
The desktop cutting machine means custom clothing can be produced without investing in large costly equipment. Image: Pattern Project

Shruti says that as well as meeting Pattern Project’s specific needs, the machine could become a valuable addition to independent businesses across the UK, creating a business-to-business revenue stream that complements the direct-to-consumer model.

This wider potential across the industry has helped Pattern Project to earn a place on the shortlist for Fashion District’s Manufacturing Futures Innovation Challenge Prize.

“Most automatic cutting machines are large, heavy and expensive, requiring three-phase power which may also need to be installed. That’s a real barrier for small businesses looking to invest in equipment to expand their own capacity,” Shruti says.

“Our solution is more practical and potentially solves a lot of problems for UK manufacturing as a whole while being pressure-tested on our own custom clothing.”

Cutting the pattern to be sewn at home is a practical challenge, but the software that generates that pattern is equally complex. It relies on accurate measurement data and an understanding of how patterns are graded to fit different body types and sizes.

To that end, Pattern Project’s next phase is focused on what Shruti calls ‘responsive fit’ – using an algorithm to amend the pattern for each garment depending on the individual measurements. Current research is focusing on a skirt design to ensure tricky elements like waist to hip ratio and length are accounted for.

Model in a variety of poses wearing a creme-coloured calf-length skirt.
The skirt design is being used to train an algorithm to design custom kits with ‘responsive sizing’. Image: Pattern Project

“We tested the first blocks on our own quite rectangular bodies, then applied the same algorithm to a pear-shaped sewist and it was totally wrong,” explains Shruti. “We then worked with the sewist and now the second version of the algorithm adds an extra dart for people with higher waist to hip ratios. We can see that it’s getting smarter each time.”

The ‘responsive fit’ skirt will be central to the next Kickstarter campaign in September, when the team has been able to refine the algorithm.

In the meantime, the second range of Pattern Project clothing will launch in July – a set of collaborations with designers including a kimono jacket and dress as well as briefs and boxer shorts.

They will be sold as individual patterns and pre-sewn garments as well as the sew-at-home kits, another stage in the cycle of testing, feedback, validation and improvement.

“Engaging with customers has shown us that fit, size inclusivity and sustainability are all concerns for the next generation of sewers and we want to understand what they need,” Shruti says.

“The most exciting prospect for me right now is combining everything we’ve learned this year to make custom-made affordable garments and help people rebuild their relationships with their clothes.”