Muslin, “muslins” & protos

There is a disconnect between standards used in custom clothing and industrial practices which bears discussion. While laudable within a given context, many of the practices from custom clothing or design school aren’t cost effective or appropriate in a professional environment. Specifically, the problem is the difference between “muslins” and prototypes.

First, muslin is a basic woven undyed cotton fabric with sizing. Some muslin is described as pre-shrunk which means someone waved steam or a heat source in the general direction of the fabric probably from halfway across the room at some point in the process -judging from typical outcome. Usually, muslin is not used as a fashion fabric but used to test patterns. In factories, muslin is a rarity because other fabrics are used to test styles. Personally I don’t use it either. I find the quality and grain of muslin is too inconsistent to be used as an effective test medium -other than to test the engineering of a pattern.

In school, students are traditionally instructed to render their draped styles or drafted patterns using muslin fabric. These are test garments and are commonly referred to as “muslins”. Even dilettantes have adopted the practice of using muslin to cut test garments which is a step in the right direction because this means they’re being more critical, testing the pattern (usually store bought) to prove it before cutting their intended goods. Some people have moved one step beyond that by using a sample fabric that more closely resembles the characteristics of the final fabric; I’ve recommended this many times. Besides, muslin never looks good on anything other than the bolt.

To complicate matters, a sample test garment, not made in muslin but in a similar fabrication to the final intended design, is also called a “muslin”. In most companies though, the term “muslins” isn’t used. That’s just design school and sewing magazines talk. In industry, “muslins” are usually called dummies or mock ups. The point of all this is that if you’re ready to move up to another level, you should pony up to making prototypes rather than “muslins”.

Prototypes are pre-approval stage renditions of the style that use all of the componentry and final fabrication. Ideally, a prototype would become the sample if no changes are needed.

By way of the forum comes an example to explain the differences between “muslin” and prototypes. Jinjer writes:

[A] problem I’ve run into several times in my rather novice patternmaking attempts has been that the fashion fabric behaves so differently than the test fabric that it hangs, fits and well…looks totally different, and I end up doing major revisions AGAIN. (yeah, um, I often go through 4-6 revisions before I’m done with a dress.)

I’ve been pretty frustrated with this, and thought “there must be something I’m missing!” I was talking to my draping teacher , who said he used to work for a knitwear company, and that he would drape a seperate block for every new knit fabric, and sometimes different colors of the same knit because the fabrics behaved so differently. On the one hand, I can see how this would totally solve my problems, but on the other hand, if you use new fabrics every season, this seems like an awful lot of trouble. My question: has anyone else worked for a company that did this? What are your thoughts on the practice?

In answer to Jinjer’s question, I’d say I’ve only worked at companies that used the final fashion fabric to render test samples -aka prototypes or “protos”. The only exceptions to this were instances where I did not have the confidence in the pattern I’d made to the extent that I wanted a dummy to test the sewing or engineering of the concept but in no way was the test garment intended to mock up the performance of the intended style. This kind of “muslin”, dummy or mock up is intended to check the sewing and engineering process, not the fit or design translation. My friend Sally makes a lot of mock ups, all in muslin to check the pattern but checking the pattern and checking the hang, drape, fit or features of a style is totally different from that.

The thing that really grabbed my attention about Jinjer’s comment was “if you use new fabrics every season, this seems like an awful lot of trouble.” To which I’d respond, if you use new fabrics each season, you more than anyone else, should be testing fit in your fashion fabric. I realize this isn’t a cost that many of you can absorb at the outset but move towards this as a goal. In such case, you’d be making prototypes rather than “muslins”.

People always talk about “moving up another level” and by this, they usually refer to increased sales, greater esteem in the marketplace or greater distribution. To move up another level, you must move your product development practices up another level first. Jinjer’s draping teacher was absolutely correct when he said he’d drape a separate block for every new knit fabric, and sometimes different colors of the same knit because the fabrics behaved so differently. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had the same experience. If you don’t cut a prototype (prototype is defined as a sample in the fashion fabric) in all the colorways -even of the “same” fabric- you can find yourself in a peck of trouble when you’re least able to manage it.

For example, I have worked for plenty of companies that didn’t cut protos in all colorways. Plenty. It does seem like overkill and typically, we’re all very confident in what we’re doing because most of the time it comes out okay. But if your colorways are using fabrics you haven’t used before and consequently, you haven’t been able to gauge their performance, you should cut a proto. If not, the problem usually becomes apparent when making up salesmen’s samples which is when you can least deal with it. The reason is that you’ve already tested the pattern and approved it in your main colorway. Now, if in rendering it in other colorways just before you need to ship these things out before market, if the other fabric colorways fail to come out the same way, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board and recut the pattern for whichever colorway failed to meet spec. Let’s pretend you have the least expensive and fastest pattern maker and stitchers on the planet who can turn this around really quickly, it still creates a whole host of trickle down problems. If another colorway needs its own pattern, you’ll need a different style number for it which means that the line sheets, costing sheets, order forms, look books and all that other stuff, will need to have the numbering changes made to them as well. And chances are good that by this stage, all of those documents have already been drawn up and printed which means you’ll have to correct them all by hand.

Also, it is not that you must produce salesmen’s samples in all colorways (that’s not a decision I can make for you), just that you should produce prototypes (in house testing samples) of final fashion fabric in the other colorways if these are goods you have not worked with before. Obviously, this is a lot of bother and expense. This is one reason why designers will tend to focus and repeat certain fabrications as their lines mature.

One final caveat (this is important). You don’t want to gauge the fit of a style based on prototypes that have been cut in black, navy or dark colors if it can be avoided. That said, you must also cut protos in the dark colorways and test wash (or dry clean) them for performance. I know this sounds contradictory but dark colors (blacks) will often need their own patterns because they shrink so much as compared to the other colorways. I don’t know how I manage to do it but I do this wrong all the time! It’s so frustrating because I know better.

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