Learning Computer Aided Design

Courtesy of Fashion-Incubator


Computer technology has invaded nearly every aspect of our lives. Surprisingly, computer aided drafting for apparel has existed in one form or another since the 1970’s. It has only been recently that computer technology has become affordable for the average person. Many new design entrepreneurs look to computers to relieve some of the work required to develop a new style. Even though computers have become more affordable, pattern making and grading software is still a very expensive investment for a new company. In part one of this article, we will review basic terminology, discuss required skills, and basic costs. In part two, we will review the most common and well known drafting programs.

Before we can begin our discussion about CAD systems and small DEs, we need to define a few terms. CAD is an acronym for computer aided design. Strictly speaking, CAD refers to any type of design work created by using a computer. This could include graphic design, animation, digital photography, drafting, etc. In this article, we will use the term CAD to refer to 2-D or flat pattern making done on a computer. There is such a thing as 3-D modeling/draping on a computer, but for now we will focus on the basics.

The next key terms to define are hard patterns versus soft patterns. A hard pattern is made from a pencil and paper (or tag board). It is very tangible - meaning you can cut and slash a pattern directly with physical scissors or draw a line with a pencil. A soft pattern is a digital version of a hard pattern. Nearly everything you can do with a hard pattern can be done to a soft pattern. The difference is the media and tools that are used. To simplify our discussion we will refer to a soft pattern simply as a pattern and a paper pattern as a hard pattern.

Other Important Terms

• Digitize - the process required to put a pattern into the computer from a hard pattern using a stylus and tablet.

• Digitizer or Puck -a mouselike input device with buttons (to input grade rules) and cross hairs for exact placement in digitizing hard patterns into a CAD system.

• Stylus - this is like a computer mouse but in the shape of a pen. Some pattern makers prefer this over a traditional mouse.

• Tablet - a flat electronic board (used with a stylus, puck or digitizer) that allows for digitizing hard patterns into the system.

• Plotter - a wide carriage printer. Plotters range in width of 24”, 36”, to 72” wide. They hold a large roll of paper and stand on legs. These plotters have ink pens or wells to print and knives (certain models) to cut the pieces out.

Is a CAD system appropriate for a small DE?

This is not an easy question to answer. So much depends on individual skill levels, desire, and need. A CAD system may or may not make your business run more efficiently. If you can justify the cost, have the basic skills, and desire to do things yourself, then go for it.

Many manufacturers even today, do not have CAD systems themselves. This is not to say they don’t need or don’t use CAD. These manufacturers outsource this function to companies that provide CAD services, most notably for grading and marking. While the majority of companies may not have CAD systems, the majority do use CAD for grading and marking.

There are some features to consider when deciding whether a CAD system is right for your venture. Once you’ve become proficient with a system, CAD drafting is much faster than hand drawing. If you are a mid size to large company you can see the obvious benefit here. If you are a small, one or two person company the time saved with even a basic system can be allotted to your gazillion other duties. Mundane tasks like truing seams, naming pieces, and adding seam allowances are much faster, not to mention the speed and precision of computer grading. Once your grading libraries are developed (which takes very little time) applying grading to a pattern takes minutes instead of the hours it can take if done manually. Full systems allow you to adjust a graded and marked pattern with a few clicks on the base size; and have the changes update through all sizes and the marker-another major time saver.

You’ll see a decrease in the need for hard patterns (less storage space needed) and you’ll save time costing your garments with computerized layouts and quick spec exporting to spreadsheet software for tabulating yardages and components. For companies working with overseas contractors, file (pattern) transfers can be sent over the Internet in minutes at very low cost saving time and money on expedited delivery of hard patterns.

You can realize faster speed to market depending on the package you choose. Some systems offer full integration with every aspect of your production. This can include design, story boards, fabric and print design, pattern making, fitting with virtual fit models, grading, costing, marking, cutting, tracking through production, accounting, and more.

Required Skills

It is true that you will likely receive training from whomever you purchase your system. The training does not include pattern making, grading or pattern making skills, except at a basic level. The training will help you set up your system to work most efficiently with your goals and product. You will likely receive an overview of the tools and how to use them. You must already possess basic pattern making skills to make the most use of a CAD system. Even though some CAD packages will draft patterns for you (through made-to-measure modules), you still need to fine tune and clean-up the patterns manually. Here is a simple break down of skills you should already possess:

  1. Pattern making and draping by hand. You must already know how to make patterns.

  2. Familiarity with grading and marker making.

  3. Computer literacy. You should know how to use a computer and do basic troubleshooting (or know someone who can). Most CAD providers have technical support, but it is at an additional cost. Also, protect your computer with the usual virus and spy ware protection software packages.

  4. Enjoy using a computer for long periods of time. CAD programs have made pattern making more efficient and easier, but it still takes time and patience.

  5. Sew. You have to plot out your patterns and test them in fabric.

  6. Attention to detail.

  7. Basic math skills.

General Description of Software Packages

A basic package consists of pattern drafting, grading and some marker capabilities. Training varies per company. Most will have you purchase training that includes initial on-your-site training for you or your pattern maker and maybe a yearly technical support contract. Some companies also offer CDs and/or on-line training. As your budget and needs allow, you can add features like advanced marker capabilities, 3D designing, made-to-measure, product data management, and textile design modules. Each of these modules can increase your work efficiency in various ways. Here is a brief description of optional modules available for additional cost.

3D design visualization modules allows the designer to preview a design on a virtual model to check fit, design and fabric behavior. Some systems will calibrate your virtual model with the identical shape and specs of your live fit model through the use of body scanning technology. 3D samples cut down the approval process of a design and save time and material allowing you to view a garment without cutting and sewing first. You can create libraries of scanned fabric swatches for your designs that can be applied to your 3D model so you can “sew up” a garment in the actual fabric. Prints and patterns can be scaled to reflect their actual size in a given garment. Some systems allow you to add animation to your model so that you can see the garment in action. Animated models accurately portray the garment in its intended use; you can observe points of stress, poor fit or unappealing style line placement, and make these primary corrections before the final test in fabric. Advanced systems simulate the actual fabric of the garment, from the softest chiffon to leather and denim. Another advantage of the 3D model is the ability to send snapshots or videos of the design to other members of the design/approval process, quickly over the Internet for immediate feedback.

Made to Measure functions work for both mass customization, like Lands End which offers on-line custom sized clothing, or for a smaller custom clothier. A bridal designer, for example, may offer custom sizing of static seasonal designs for a size varied clientele.

Product data management (PDM) software offers sophisticated tracking/planning systems for all stages of production with the ability to evaluate each operator’s efficiency and quality of work. The computerized work flow increases productivity and automates many labour/skill intensive functions systematically such as; generating work/cutting tickets, pre-planning of resources and line-allocation. PDM systems can store all necessary data for each style in one location, which can be disseminated to various contractors efficiently.

Some systems offer fabric related modules that allow you to design fabrics such as plaids, special weaves, knits and Jacquards. Print design modules for designing printed designs and patterns for your unique look. Some systems offer drawing features for producing story boards and catalogs with realistic texturing of fabrics. Some of these tasks can also be accomplished with graphic design software such as Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.

Packages designed for mid to large sized companies with in-house cutting facilities will include plotting and cutting abilities for manual or fully automated environments.

Workspace Requirements

You will need a dedicated work space for a CAD system. The amount of space actually required will vary on your system set-up. A basic system will require a desktop computer with the usual peripherals - printer, mouse (or stylus), and speakers. A 19” monitor is ideal, although you can use smaller. Most systems can be installed on any computer and operating system - you won’t necessarily need the latest or greatest computer. I used one CAD system installed on an inexpensive eMachine available from Wal-Mart. Some CAD providers will try to sell you a computer for thousands of dollars, but in reality those computers are not much different from inexpensive models available from other suppliers.

Your computer should be set-up close to a drafting table. Even though you will do most of your drafting on the computer, you will still need the space to accomplish many tasks. This includes digitizing a pattern, verifying pattern plots, checking measurements against a hard pattern, and many other uses. Many CAD systems have optional drafting tables, but feel free to shop around. Some systems can be configured around a drafting table instead of a traditional desk. The computer tower sits underneath and the monitor floats above the drafting table.

If you do not use a printing/plotting service, you will need space for a plotter and/or cutting machine. The most common plotter (a stand up plotter) does not take up much space and they are relatively inexpensive. Some plotters are equipped with a knife blade that will cut out your paper patterns for you. Another option is to cut sewing samples (in fabric) directly from your CAD system on a small cutting machine, a huge time saver. A cutting machine is an extremely expensive piece of equipment, so many DEs will not be able to purchase this right away.

A CAD system is most efficiently set-up near the same area where samples are sewn. This will allow a pattern maker to work closely with sample sewers and make quick modifications to a pattern.

The most important piece of your CAD system is a dongle or hardware key. This is a small device that is placed on the back of a computer onto a parallel port. A dongle unlocks your CAD system and allows you to use it. It would be a good idea to insure this piece of hardware, you will be stuck without it. A replacement dongle is the price of a new system. Only authorized individuals should be allowed to touch it. Don’t make the mistake of buying a used CAD system unless it includes the dongle. Without the dongle, the program cannot be used.

If you’ve never used a CAD program before, your initial investigations into the various systems might be a little overwhelming. First off, all of the major systems can accomplish the same things at their basic levels, but they each do it differently. Using any of them, you can draw a pattern from scratch using only specs and sketch or start from a pre-made block. They’ll all grade that pattern and produce a marker for it as well. The difference lays in how fast and how efficiently they go about it. This factor is what you’ll need to balance against the present needs and potential growth of your company to help you make the right choice for you.

Below are reviews of some of the major CAD systems to help you understand the differences between the products and to give you information based on experience and interviews. We’re covering Gerber, Lectra, PAD, TukaTech, Wild Ginger, Auto Cad and TurboCad. Yes, there are other systems–any that were not mentioned are not disqualified in any way. The names listed are within the scope of our collective experience, and also they do cover a nice cross-section of the price spectrum.

Gerber and Lectra

The “big daddies” of the apparel CAD software companies are Gerber and Lectra. The two companies are separate and distinct and yet their product offerings are nearly identical. These companies primarily serve mid to large manufacturing operations located more often in foreign countries. Gerber Technology is based in the United States and Lectra in Europe.

Both of these companies offer basic pattern making, grading, marker, product data management, 3-D modeling, textile design and more. Gerber and Lectra have products for the automotive, upholstery, and even shoe industries! They further offer some of the best spreading and cutting machines available. If you are ever able to view a demonstration of their products, you will be blown away by the technology that is available.

Systems set-up by either company are highly customized to you and your intended product. They will put together whatever modules you need and provide the training to use them. The modules vary in ease of use and complexity. Basic patternmaking and grading are fairly intuitive and automated. For example, if you wanted to add length, it is a simple matter of selecting a line and moving it a specified distance. To grade, you can select a point and specify the x-y changes or assign a grade rule stored in a grade library. If you create a style (a collection of related pieces), changes are automatically applied to pattern pieces and markers. Menu toolbars will be either text-based or icons depending on what system you choose.

Prices for a system vary and depend on what you need. I have heard quotes for systems starting at $10,000, although I think you can get bare bones set-ups for less. One system I worked on cost about $40,000 for the software (for more than one workstation), drafting table, digitizer, plotter, and computers. A low-end cutting machine is around $75,000. If you anticipate needing technical support, you will have to pay for a monthly support fee before they will talk to you. Don’t despair at these prices though. Both Gerber and Lectra offer financing and lease options. If you truly want one of their systems, they will make it possible. Used systems are incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to find and will not be less expensive.

The only difficulty for a small DE, aside from money, is getting either company to talk to you -no small feat. Both companies focus on large accounts and tend to ignore small businesses. If you are a small company with large sales figures, make sure to leave that info in a phone message or you will be ignored. In other words, you will have to sell yourself and company to them. The best way to find out more information and see demonstrations is to attend a trade show. I have seen sale’s reps for both companies at fabric trade shows. Both companies have extensive web sites loaded with product information but sketchy contact information.


PAD System offers a modular approach to its array of CAD/CAM solutions for students, pattern makers and manufacturers of all sizes to build the system appropriate to their needs.

Master Digit was originally designed for graders but over time has grown to include most of PAD’s pattern making functions. It is an entry level/student program to get you off the ground and is easily upgraded to the full system as needed. This module ranges in price from $1250.00 - $2500.00.

Master Pattern Design is a full pattern making and grading module. PAD has a unique 2 view layout which consists of Plan view; where your initial patterns are created and graded, and Pieces view, where the patterns are finished and seam allowances are added by single seam or globally. Plan view allows you to create pieces very quickly using methods that are already familiar to manual pattern drafters. The tool box has a streamlined set of multi-functional tools to create and edit any shape on screen that you can make by hand. This system is very easy to grasp with about a 2 week-to-1 month learning curve.

Patterns are graded primarily by developing grading rules in a library and then applying them to each piece. PAD also has an easy to use feature for pattern makers not accustomed to grading called Grading Arrows. This is a more visual approach, making use of directional “arrows” and increments to grade the pieces. Once a block is graded, any styles that are developed from it retain the grades; the grading also follows any pattern modifications to the style i.e., a plain bodice shape that is developed into princess line pieces, the grade is properly distributed across each piece.

Master Pattern is priced at $4500.00. Master Digit and Master Pattern are both stand alone modules which can easily be upgraded for greater functionality with the remaining modules below.

The Clone system automatically updates your production pieces as changes are made to the original by linking the two together. All related pieces (lining, self, fusibles facings etc.) are instantly updated as each change is made, saving many steps in the pattern modification stages.

The MTM (Made to Measure) module is useful for a variety of things. A developed pattern can be modified with a new set of measures by changing the dimensions on each frame; measurements from each piece can be generated and exported to Excel for specs; and you can import a set of specs and re size the pieces to reflect the fit of a client.

Master Marker is the basic, computerized manual marker making program with some automatic functionality. This module is suitable for quick material estimation and manufacturers that cut manually.

Opticut Auto Marker is a fully automated marker program, with many features such as plaid and stripe matching, some pattern modification while marking, a fabric simulation area for precise placement of patterns over complicated materials. PAD also offers a plug in program called Nester that is activated through Opitcut, which generates ultra tight markers for mass producers. It can generate hundreds of markers overnight or in the background while other work is going on. PAD’s Plot Network is used to order and manage plot files.

Haute Couture 3D is a garment simulator that allows the designer to “sew up” and check the fit, design and drape of her styles virtually, reducing the amount of time and material needed to make actual samples. PAD’s 3D model’s dimensions can be adjusted on screen for different sizing requirements. Colors, prints and textures can be added to the garment to simulate the look and feel of the finished product. The original pattern file and the 3D file are linked to allow automatic updating when the pattern file is modified.

PAD System is available in PC/MAC versions and comes with PDF manuals and pattern exercises on the CD for instructions and training. They also offer online and onsite training sessions. PAD is compatible with most hardware and can Import/Export AAMA/dxf, ANSI, or HPGL plot file formats. Imported data retains piece integrity, grading and internals.


Tuka Tech is a relative newcomer to the apparel CAD market, and yet they have a very strong product offering that is quickly being adopted by small design companies. They offer all of the same types of products as Gerber and Lectra, such as patternmaking (2D and 3D), grading, marker, and textile design. In addition, they offer a collection of dress forms that mimic natural skin. The products are competively priced; and aside from an outright purchase, parts of their system can be rented at student and professional rates on a monthly basis.

The foundation product,TUKAcad, is a pattern design, grading and marker making program. The design section makes use of many unique tools to draft patterns from scratch, or edit from blocks. Each of the tools have a built-in, contextual demonstration of its use when the cursor is hovered over it. This unique feature to the TUKA system speeds up the learning curve and provides easy access refresher courses to tools that you may not use as often as others. You can grade patterns by developing grading tables or importing specs and applying either to your patterns. One grading feature allows the grader to globally grade pieces, by applying an existing set of grade rules to similar patterns with the same amount of grade points, in a few actions, instead of one click for each grade point per piece. Grading can be manipulated at each point by simply entering in the desired X.Y changes.

Markers can be made by manually placing your patterns in the marker area or allowing the system to automatically generate the marker for you. You can adjust the efficiency of Automark by selecting more time to generate the marker.

Each design, marker, grading library and spec sheet can be reported in a pre-formatted Excel spreadsheet for a quick reference of product data, and dissemination to all necessary departments.

TUKAdesign, TUKAgrade and TUKAmark make up the basic part of the system. There are many more features and functions for this part of the package than can be described here, so please see this for more details.

The price for the basic program is $7500.00 which includes installation, the first year of upgrades, training (videos and at TUKA locations) and technical support. TUKA’s full system includes several other programs and services. For large operations the basic program can be expanded with the offerings below. Pricing is based on individual packages designed for each companies needs.

Smartmark is a much more sophisticated and powerful marker program than the basic TUKAmark. It is engineered for mass producers, utilizing automatic features and nesting algorithms to increase material efficiency and fabric utilization.

TUKAstudio is a comprehensive textile design suite for creating weaves (like plaids and patterned effects) knits and jacquard fabrics. You can also design prints/color ways and create storyboards using your created textile designs as the fill pattern for your imported, sketched silhouettes.

e-fit Simulator is a virtual fitting tool. After your patterns are drafted, the fit and drape can be tested on a digital replica of you company’s fit model. They are then rendered in fabrics that mimic the weight, color, texture/print and drape of the materials that the garments will ultimately be made from; providing realistic first samples quicker than the traditional cut and sew method. Animation can be added to the model so that the garment may be observed in the motions of its intended use. Still shots and video clips can be generated from the simulation and be sent via email to various contractors and design team members for faster approval of designs, and material/component requisition.

Custom fit forms, TUKAforms, are made from a full body scan of your company’s fit model. The same electronic data is used to make the actual form and the 3D model to insure “same fit” throughout the design and fitting stages of development. The forms are made from a solid base that serves as the skeleton and is then covered with a firm, yet pliable, rubbery material. This surface is available in several levels of firmness, including a very squishy type that replicates the weight, feel and qualities of human flesh for fitting bras, tight jeans and other form fitting clothing.

TUKAtrack compiles all of the information for your production operations along with historical data for each operator, and calculates in real time, forecasts for daily production schedules. The tracking is done through keypads on each work station. All the pads are connected to a central management system. The data collected is compiled into reports for instant tracking and assessment.

TUKAplan is a collection of all of the above applications, unified by a central database. It also includes PDM, MRP, ERP, sourcing, accounting and manufacturing controls. All of your styles, specs, grading libraries and markers are stored in one centralized location. When ever a change is made to your files, such as a marker or pattern, the spec sheet or marker information is automatically updated in the database. It provides seamless integration from product development to distribution.

TUKAweb is a service oriented web site. The site offers most of the services and outputs of its software by subscription. Whether or not your company owns any CAD system you can take advantage of services like data conversion, pattern making, grading, markers; textile design, virtual fitting and world wide plotting. TUKAcad offers data conversion to and from other CAD programs in AAMA/dxf, HPGL and other standard formats. The data is imported with all attributes like grading, drill holes, piece definition etc. TUKA is compatible with most hardware, and they also offer their own brand of plotters, spreaders and cutters.

Wild Ginger

A company geared toward home sewers, custom clothiers and start ups, Wild Ginger has a suite of modules for pattern making. While the company has several kinds of products, most of them are pattern printing programs designed for enthusiasts rather than pattern making programs.

Cameo is their suite of pattern making software consisting of 5 modules. Pattern Design; for creating your patterns from specs or modifying internal blocks. The grading module can be used in Coordinate Grading mode for experienced pattern graders, or Measurement Grading mode can be used by a person without grading skills with an existing size chart or one developed by the module once you input your base size. A set of company specs could also be used to grade patterns for clients. Cameo also offers a made to measure module; a manual, marker layout module and tech/drawing and specs module. Available also, are library modules of pre-drafted patterns for most categories of clothing that can edited into your own styles, so one does not always have to start from scratch for every new design. You can get into a system for under $4,000.

Wild Ginger offers free and unlimited technical support. Cameo ships with a full set of tutorials, movies, and projects that teach the customer how to use all parts of the program. The system is compatible with Windows printers and plotters, and has ASTM/DXF import/export capability.

AutoCAD & TurboCAD

Nearly all CAD programs use AutoCAD as a base for their software. AutoCAD pioneered a lot of the technology used in nearly all drafting programs available today. In fact apparel specific CAD programs will export drafts in an AutoCAD format making it possible to share information between different companies or to send plots to copy/print houses.

Desperate, budget-conscious DE’s may consider AutoCAD, or the budget TurboCAD, products for patternmaking. The price is certainly right if you need very basic drafting. In fact, there is a book available to teach you how to use AutoCAD for patternmaking titled AutoCAD for the Apparel Industry by Phyllis Bell Miller. The book is dated 1994, but it will give you an overview of what it would take to get set-up in AutoCAD. You can perform all basic drafting and marker making with AutoCAD. Grading is possible, but difficult.

TurboCAD is a budget drafting program available for about $100. It works in much the same way as AutoCAD, except the tool bars and icons may be a little different. You can find TurboCAD at office supply stores.

Before you rush out to try this software, there are a few things you should know. Apparel specific systems have automated a lot of steps into one. In AutoCAD, the process required to pick a point and move it or to draft a simple line will take four, five or more separate steps. In addition, concepts will be termed differently. If you want to add seam allowances you will have to use the offset-copy functions for each line followed by the close-corner function for each corner. In Gerber/Lectra, you select the add-seam tool and select the lines and it automatically adds the seams, perfecting the corners in one step. The drafting process will not be much faster than taking a pencil and paper and doing it manually.

One thing that should give DE’s some hope is AutoCAD is making a portion of their source code available as open source. Perhaps some enterprising individual will create an apparel specific CAD program available either for significantly less money or even free. The large apparel CAD software companies probably are not concerned about this, but they should be. Who knows what the future holds?