Created and written by Brandon Graham and Elizabeth Wilse of PinkyShears.com
Why I’m writing for NextInFashion:
Rarely do you see interviews with tech designers, so I think this would be helpful for students interested in the field. Tech designers don’t get as much notoriety as the people designing the look of the line, therefore people don’t really think about being a tech designer. This can be a rewarding career path and knowing the technical aspect of fashion can make for an easier entry into the fashion field.
Nina Banks at Andrew’s Coffee Shop in the Fashion District
Tech designers are detail-oriented, and interested in relationships- how the pieces of a garment fit together, and how people like patternmakers and designers can communicate effectively to make that happen. Nina Banks has used her eye for detail and drive to understand structures to work as a tech designer for companies like Anne Klein and Polo Ralph Lauren. Working in quality control for Leon Lemon, she was a liaison between patternmakers and factories, ensuring that garments were constructed properly and cost-effectively, and that the lines of communication stayed open.
Nina describes herself as “adamant about solving the problems” that confront her, making her constantly driven to examine the way things are put together, and seek the most efficient use of resources and communication possible, a trait that makes her very good at what she does.
Brandon Graham: How does a technical designer work with the designers and factory to get a garment made?
Nina Banks: The tech designer is the mediator between the factory, the company and the designer. Designers sometimes don’t understand that you’re working with a factory that has put a price on what they will produce. You put 20 stitches on the design, and the factory says you have to do it in 10. It’s because of the numbers the factory is dealing with to keep costs down. You have to talk to the company and get them past language that they’re not getting, because they just want to make a beautiful garment.
BG: Tech designers today are being trained to just make comments, to say what’s wrong, without trying to solve a problem. I used to work with a girl who had one or two patternmaker classes in college, and got hired as a tech designer. She brought a portfolio of illustrations and drawings to the interview, but her job became something totally different. I also knew a tech designer who was told he was being too technical by taking extra time to take things apart, pin them back together, see how they were working.
NB: (laughs) Oh, I experienced that so many times. I’ve been told I’m too technical, or that I’m taking too long to solve a problem, because sometimes designers or production people don’t see what I do. I like to be able to really get my hands on a garment, to understand how it fits together, and how it could be made better.
BG: In both your quality control work and as a tech designer, you’ve worked on fostering good communication between all parts of the fashion business. Can you explain how that plays out?
NB: You’re going to be working across cultures, and sometimes where there’s a language barrier. The patternmakers might be in China, for example, and they’ll need pictures. They want to see what you’re talking about. They don’t want you to regurgitate the same written information.
I had a unique experience when I spoke to a factory owner in China, who explained how they make patterns. It brought me to a different perspective with what I do. He told me that they don’t make patterns with a lot of shape. They try to make the pattern as close to a square as possible, and if you don’t give numbers, or you don’t provide extra information about how that changes, say, between the hip and the rise, how it needs different amounts of fabrics, that transition, you’re going to get different size boxes. They’re thinking in boxes, segments, rather than the vision the designer, say, assumes.
BG: I used to work with a lady in her late 50s who has a vast knowledge of garment construction and everything that goes with technical design. But if there’s ever a cutback, guess who’s going to go first? She obviously has experience and deserves money, but a business owner who needs to adjust his balance sheet is going to say she’s expensive, and someone else can do the same thing faster.
NB: The next person is almost going to do the same thing and is almost going to see the big picture. But can she do it faster than the experienced lady who puts a lot of care into what she’s doing, who works more slowly, conscientiously. I can do 17 comments in a day, if need be. Comments that are leading to production, though, are much more of a priority. A tech designer will have a lot of balance issues, and needs to juggle, with humility and grace, the amount of work and the questions you get asked. And you’re going to be asked to do a lot of things and oversee a lot of things that may not have to do with your job but you sort of have to juggle it all. It does take a long time to learn. I’m still learning.
BG: How do you work to fix communication breakdown?
NB: Let me give you an example. There was a shearling coat that came from production in China, twice. The coat kept coming in too big. I spec’ed it out. The coat was two inches too big. Now, two inches is an exact number. Everything was exactly two inches too big. The chest, the sweep, the armhole.
They didn’t try to meet the spec at all. They simply used the pattern as it was. So they gave it to me, and asked me to figure out what the problem was. I asked for the tracing that came from China as well as the actual pattern. I measured the pattern and then I of course go to the cutter’s must to find the seam allowance. Come to find out that the whole seam allowance is 5 eighths and 3 eighths, a flat felt seam according to the design sheet. You know, stitch and turn, so it’s supposed to have a clean finish inside, because it’s shearling and they don’t want any raw edges. When I look at the actual garment, it’s sewn with a split seam. They’ve top-stitched both sides, and so they’ve straddle-stitched on both sides.
Problem number 1, they’re not following the cutter’s must. Why can’t they follow the cutter’s must? There must be a reason they can’t follow the cutter’s must and get the numbers. Going back to the pattern, I see the patternmaker didn’t follow the instructions at all. The pattern was made here in New York. It was sewn in China. The pattern needed to be changed, to be 3/8 and 5/8 of an inch for the seams, flat felt seams which are going to be shaved off, that’s what they pay you for. But China made a half-inch seam allowance just as the pattern was made and that’s why it kept coming back two inches too big. Taking it apart in a detailed way was the only way I could see what was really going on.
BG: Who is looking at consumption and who would come to the tech designer and say these patterns need to be tighter? How does that relationship work?
NB: Production is the mother of the business. Sales controls the business: they’re the father. They say “they’re doing this in the industry and we want to be closer to this, what do we need to do to get there?” They look at numbers critically, and see how they can make it better, and ask the technical designer how to make the changes. Sales, being the father knows where the family needs to go, how to make a better “kid,” the garment, so to speak. Production brings it to the patternmaker and the tech designer to make the change.
BG: How do the details a tech designer tracks affect the bottom line and consumption?
NB: Because we’re working with production and sales as well as the designers, we’re going to see a big picture of how any design change you want to make will impact the costs, and the consumption of fabric, to affect the bottom line. The designer doesn’t look at the technical reality behind the design. If we’re using different fabric, different stitching, our costs are going to be different, affecting profit. The designer doesn’t always know how to peel apart those kinds of structural details. Seeing those technical details, that’s my job security, right there!
BG: I know tech design has become smaller and more specialized. Have you noticed any major ways it’s changed since you started?
NB: Well, the body, is the body, is the body. We’re creating shapes for bodies. Right now I’m having a great time because I work with designers who are older, who understand the body, and sewing and how to make a pattern. They’re experienced and academically trained and are about solution, rather than glamour and fluff. They want a great product that they want to resell every year and they want success with their company. I find younger designers don’t know what they’re doing and don’t care enough about making it right.
BG: Do you think that reflects the way clothes have been getting cheaper and more disposable?
NB: Customers love repetition. So if you have a blue hoodie this year, then you make a blue hoodie next year, with the same pattern. Change it with art, because people love love love repetition. A lot of designers know that. Unfortunately, young designers often start over from scratch with each line, instead of making a small modification to a design that sold well last year. Design advice: stick with what you love, and what the sales figures showed that the customer loved last year. If you’re going to make a change, make a small change to the wash, but keep most of last year’s design, because different doesn’t sell better, especially at a certain price point.
BG: How does what you’re trained to see as a tech designer change how you do ordinary things like buy your own clothes?
NB: It’s so painful to buy clothing (laughing) when you can see by how it’s made, how much it’s worth in terms of consumption. I don’t buy a lot of clothes, and neither do a lot of technical designers, because we know what’s done to them to get to that point, and we can see shortcuts or bad design.
BG: Is there any brand that impresses you?
NB: No, because I work so much I’m not out there and looking at stuff. I know better clothes are better quality across the board. I go to some stores, and I know I’m not going to have that garment next year, because of how it’s made or the fabric. If I do have that garment next year, it’d be a freaking miracle. When you buy better clothes, you get better results, things that last a long time, and are worth what you paid for it.
BG: On the subway I see guys who are proud to be in the suits they’re wearing, but I can see how badly they’re made. The lapel is draping, for example, it’s not crisp.
NB: So something they’re proud of wearing is sticking out awkwardly? You don’t see it laying across the chest like a marriage between the chest and the body?
BG: I’ve spoken to one of America’s top tailors, Leonard Logsdail, who looked at me and said your left shoulder is lower than your right. He just looked at me and broke me down. He says it’s hard for him to get a suit that’s right for how his body is, how irregular it is. Even with his years of experience he’s just now figured out how to fit it for himself, to see the details of the structure.
NB: I’ve talked to designers and they don’t know what a curtain is, they don’t know what smocking is, they don’t know what sponging is. They don’t know what pre-washing or enzyme washing does to a fabric or a garment. A lot of them know denim terminology, which I don’t know, but they don’t always think about what a fabric treatment will do to a garment, like the shrinkage level or how do you measure your shrinkage. I learned that in school early, so I knew how to calculate percentage of shrinkage. Compare a swatch that’s washed to a swatch that’s not washed and adjust the measurement. You need to know that as the designer, making garments for somebody else. I was talking to a designer who wants to design for herself and there are so many things you need to know to not get cheated when it comes to your fabric. And you still could get cheated. That’s why I don’t ever want to produce overseas so that I can always know what’s going on with the garment, so I can have a garment that’s just filled with integrity. I really want to have a garment that’s all about America and walks the walk and talks the talk.
BG: Do people today care about the quality, how a garment is made?
NB: They may not as a whole, but I believe strongly that there’s a customer out there in children’s wear and even in adult clothing, who cares about clothing, who cares what she puts on her back. And that customer might not buy a lot of clothing, but they’re going to care about quality and structure at a deeper level.
BG: You’ve said that integrity is really important to you as a designer, maintaining good relationships across the industry and companies, in a changing job market. What’s important for a tech designer coming into a new situation or leaving one behind?
NB: The garments that are a season before you, have to mean nothing to you. If you’re coming into fall, or into spring, spring has got to be more important to you than fall. Designers are ready to move on. You go look ahead into spring being all new. It’s like what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas. It’s time to look ahead. Spring is going to be my shining moment and I might not even be there to see spring come into the stores, to hear comments from vendors, because of the way the job market is, because my company is literally moving. But if I leave, I know what I’m leaving the next technical designer who might come after me. I try to be conscious of what I’m leaving somebody else.
After I joined another company, the next technical designer praised the specs that I had left behind, showing that I knew what I was doing. At times, management will blame someone who’s left for things that go wrong with a line, but she resisted having that happen. You never think that you’re going to be defended in a situation like that, but she really defended me to management. And you know what my mother always said, if two strangers tell you the same thing, then you know it’s gotta be the truth. I never met her. All I know is that I did the job I was paid to do. I see kids wearing the designs I made. So what I was doing was working, my technical ability is what it is, and I’m happy for it. I love what I do.
*PinkyShears is an online magazine dedicated to strengthening the community and communication of the professionals in the fashion industry.