This article provides an overview of the types of paper most commonly used for sewing patterns, from patterns made by hand, to patterns printed by large format office printers, to patterns printed by offset presses on jumbo tissue reels. Hopefully, this information which took weeks of research to compile will provide a head start for anyone seeking paper for a variety of sewing pattern applications.
For someone who needs paper for just a few patterns drawn by hand in pencil or ink, the most economical choice is to visit a local teachers' supply store and purchase wide paper (sold by the linear foot or centimeter) that is used for covering bulletin boards or art projects. This paper, sometimes called butcher paper, has no translucence and is heavier than would be ideal for pattern use, but the economical advantage is that it may be available locally and sold in small quantities, usually to the exact length you request. If you need an entire roll of paper, visit an office or drafting supply store and ask for the least expensive plotter paper in stock, or order a roll of plotter paper online in the lightest weight available. Translucent bond in a 20 lb. weight is a good choice if you can find it by the roll.
A more expensive and luxurious option for creating durable patterns that will be used repeatedly is Swedish Tracing Paper, a lightweight, translucent fabric that can be used both for drawing patterns and for sewing together as fitting samples. Kwik Trace is similar, only with a dotted surface to aid with drawing straight lines. These products are not usually available in stores, but an internet search will list dozens of retailers from which they may be ordered.
In apparel production environments, especially in older shops where patterns are still made exclusively by hand rather than with the aid of a computer, two types of paper, hard and soft, are used for patterns. Marker paper, commonly called soft paper, is printed with a grid of letters and numbers to aid in laying out pattern pieces and in drawing straight lines and angles. The alpha-numeric design of marker paper is most useful for alignment when drawing markers, which are layouts of pattern pieces in all sizes to be cut. When marker paper is used to create first patterns, it is sometimes flipped so that the less distracting blank side is up, especially for styles with more curves than straight lines. Once a soft paper pattern has been perfected, it is stapled to a manilla-colored tagboard that sometimes has a green backing (also known as hard paper or pattern paper) and then cut out to maintain a durable copy. Hard paper patterns are easy to trace and are therefore favored when making markers or when tracing an old pattern back onto soft paper in preparation for designing a new style. For storing, a large hole is punched in each hard paper pattern piece and all the pieces for a style are fastened onto a pattern hook that has a string and bar at the end. The pattern hooks with the patterns are then hung on a clothes rod. This system of patternmaking was standard through most of the 1900s, but now computerized patternmaking has almost completely replaced it. Only a few high-end, custom shops still work exclusively with paper patterns. Marker paper, pattern paper tagboard and blank plotter paper (mentioned below) may be purchased in bulk from Komar in North America or worldwide from other wholesalers that serve apparel cutting and design rooms.
Many manufacturers rely on a combination of paper and computerized patternmaking, in which case neither marker paper nor pattern tagboard is used. First patterns are created with the same white paper used in the pattern plotter, usually a heavyweight bond that may be printed with an old pattern as a starting point for the new design. When the first paper pattern is complete, it is then digitized into a computer and reprinted as needed. Other manufacturers drape patterns in muslin and digitize patterns into a computer from the muslin pieces. A few of the largest clothing manufacturers reduce development costs by insisting that patterns be created exclusively through computerized methods, and in those cases, even computerized markers can be transferred digitally to automated cutting machines so that paper copies of patterns are rarely printed. When clothing is the end product, rather than the printing of patterns themselves for sale, the quality of paper on which patterns and markers are printed is not as important, and a recycled newspaper product like Komar's Enviroplot is one of the least expensive options. Heavy, white plotter paper is still the most popular choice for design room plotters, however, largely because of its stiffness that makes it easier to handle compared to recycled newspaper.
Though the Fashion Belle website has started out as a modest clothing and sewing pattern resource directory, the primary purpose of the site is to host a new sewing pattern collection for women. Years of work and research have laid my personal foundation for becoming a sewing pattern manufacturer, including sewing experience, a university degree in apparel design and work as a patternmaker for six companies around the United States. Publishing patterns requires more than just knowledge of patternmaking, however, especially when equipment and supplies are chosen. I am grateful to many industry experts who have pointed me in the right direction, including several who helped educate me about printers and paper. The following is a summary of my findings regarding printing processes and paper that is most suited to small office pattern publishing for the home sewing market.
When I started to research the type of paper that would be best for printing sewing patterns, several decisions were already in place. I knew it would be impossible to trace patterns by hand and sell them with any volume or profit. McCall Pattern Company offers printing services to individual designers but requires minimum printings of 1,000 patterns at a time. I felt that with the number of different designs I intended to produce, I could achieve greater control over investment in stock if I owned equipment to enable me to print patterns one at a time, as they were ordered. This meant purchasing OptiTex pattern software, a used digitizer found on Craig's List and a large format printer to print patterns from my home office. The printer I selected was a 44" (1118 mm) wide HP Designjet Z3200 Photo Printer with water-resistant color inks. Different colors allow size lines to be more visible for cutting, and water-resistant inks resist smearing when steam irons are used to flatten the patterns.
Most established sewing pattern companies print on tissue, and I originally began looking for translucent paper to use in my printer to imitate that process. From experience, I know that when placing patterns on printed fabric for cutting or when flipping a pattern piece to the opposite side for cutting, it is important to be able to see through the pattern paper. This is balanced with the difficulty of handling tissue that is too thin. McCall, Simplicity and other pattern companies that print on tissue use offset printing presses that keep jumbo tissue paper reels under tension while printing. Even with offset printing, I have occasionally encountered commercial tissue patterns with large rips, so the process is not foolproof. So, I looked for tracing paper that had the beneficial translucence of commercial patterns yet a heavier weight that was rip-resistant and easier to handle. The problem with tracing paper for my application became apparent when I tested high-quality stock from a Wisconsin paper converter and found that even though it was thicker and stronger than the tissue paper used by major pattern companies, it was still too thin to withstand the printing motion of my HP Designjet. As a side note, two types of tissue on rolls similar to that used by commercial pattern printers are separating tissue and dye sublimation paper, available through Beaver Paper and other suppliers. Both are too lightweight to withstand the motion of a large format office printer.
When I realized that the lighter tracing paper weights would not work with my printer, I transitioned to the next level of weight with vellum and heavy tracing paper designed for use with plotters and photo printers. Vellum handles easily and offers excellent translucence, but it retains crease marks when folded and pin marks when punched, making it undesirable for use with sewing patterns. Both vellum and plotter tracing paper are very expensive, and I knew my market would not support that level of cost. A cheap alternative to vellum, often used by architects for printed drafts, is translucent bond. The lightest weight of translucent bond available, around 20 lb., is not that translucent, despite its name. When used for sewing patterns, translucent bond is thick enough to obscure fabric patterns when laid on top and to disguise pattern markings when flipped to the opposite side. Because the type of economical, strong, translucent paper I needed appeared to be rare, I began inquiring with international paper mills about shipping jumbo reels of specialty paper and with trucking companies and paper converters about processing and delivery. I learned that the greatest economy is to be found in ordering a minimum of one 20 foot container (around 18 metric tons) for overseas shipment that fills an entire truckload once landed at a port of entry. This volume is common for large, established publishers but not for companies just starting out like mine. Paper manufacturer Arjo Wiggins deserves thanks here for responding to my inquiries about shipping quantities smaller than a full container.
By chance one day, when I had almost decided it would be necessary to settle for non-translucent pattern paper, I saw a temporary posting by another pattern company referencing their paper supplier as Komar Alliance, a North American supplier to the sewn products and industrial packaging industries. I contacted Phil Glauben, the representative for my area, and found him to be extraordinarily helpful in answering my questions and sending samples for testing. Komar offers three weights of plotter paper, and the 30 lb. (or 30#) offered the perfect combination of translucence, strength and cost for my use. Komar calls its 30 lb. plotter paper a "bond," however my best guess is that it actually rated by the "offset, book, text" standard of basis weight, since the weight of Komar's 30 lb. is much lighter than the 20 lb. bond that is popular for use in copiers and desktop printers. The various rating systems for paper "weight," or thickness, can be complicated to compare when shopping for wholesale paper. The standard European way of expressing paper weight is in grams per meter squared (g/m2 or gsm). In the United States, a system called "basis weight" is more common, but with proper calculation, measurements can be converted from one system to another to facilitate price comparisons. Wikipedia offers an explanation of paper density ratings and a chart showing how 30 lb. offset is a lighter weight, and therefore more translucent, than 20 lb. bond.
Komar maintained stock of the weight of paper I needed, but the width I needed was not standard. I preferred 44" wide rolls to utilize all of my potential printing area. Printer and paper widths of 42" (1066 mm) are much more common, so I realized that I might need to settle for 42" paper rolls, since custom cut rolls are usually expensive. However, I wanted to exhaust all my possibilities for a 44" width before giving up. Those extra two inches would affect the styles that I could produce, since once grading is completed, not all sizes print comfortably on 42" wide paper. Eventually, Mr. Glauben put me in touch with staff at Komar's full-service paper converting facility in California, and I learned that they could cut 48" stock rolls down to my desired width of 44". They could also roll the paper to my specified diameter to fit on my printer's paper spindle so that I would not need to use a free-standing spindle to handle large diameter rolls. Another benefit of smaller rolls is that I could lift them myself (something I knew would never happen with the 72" wide printers that are more common than the 44" widths for pattern printing, back to my original decision on printer width). When Komar sent the final quote for a pallet quantity of paper, I realized the pricing was superior to anything else I had found, even though I was paying for the excess that was discarded from the 48" original rolls. I also ordered two rolls of muslin for draping patterns at an excellent price.
When I received the paper, I saw the label "Ioline bond" and investigated to find that Ioline, the emerging leader in plotter manufacturing for the apparel industry, also sources paper from Komar as do many other Ioline plotter users. This connection alone is a high recommendation for the value of Komar's paper, and the breadth of this user base led to labeling of the packaging specifically for Ioline.
Readers who live in regions outside of North America will surely be able to find suppliers similar to Komar that stock pattern paper suited to various patternmaking applications. Search the internet for suppliers to the sewn products industry in your country, and visit trade shows if possible. While Komar is, of course, one of many garment industry suppliers in North America, it is one that is open to working with all sizes of businesses, and this is an important consideration for companies starting small and seeking to build a relationship with suppliers. In the long run, finding a reliable supplier at a reasonable cost is better than switching orders around to multiple companies in constant search of slightly better pricing.
For me, Komar turned out to be my dream supplier. I was thrilled to obtained the perfect combination of roll width, diameter and cost, since weeks of prior research had led me to think this would be almost impossible. Sales manager Phil Glauben serves large accounts that order truckloads of products delivered to warehouses every week, yet he was just as happy to meet with me personally, send free samples and then ship a pallet order to my home office. The paper and muslin I received have been perfect for my needs, and the prices were better than anything else I had found. I look forward to being a long-term, growing customer. This concludes the story of my quest for the perfect pattern paper, and I hope this information will assist others who are looking for paper for similar applications.
(Sewing pattern paper samples photo © 2012 Fashion Belle)