Apparel Technical Services, Albuquerque, N.M.
Today, Kathleen Fasanella is a successful business owner whose expertise in patternmaking, garment production and mindful management sets industry standards. Thirty years ago though, she was a high school dropout scared to death of taking her first class in Fashion Design at El Centro College.
“A friend’s mother who was a home ec teacher looked at a dress I’d sewn – in those days, if you sewed, you didn’t tell anybody,” she remembers. “She took one look at my dress and said that I should be a patternmaker. Instantly, I knew that was what I wanted to do, and I went down to El Centro the next day.
“I was a high school dropout because I’d had to go to work, and I didn’t have a plan; it was scary to go a college to enroll. To say my family was blue collar would have been a step up. I was very different from everyone else in my classes; I’d look around at the other students and feel that I wasn’t good enough and that I didn't belong there. Sometimes I’d go out in the hallway and just cry.
“But the thing that really helped me was that for the first time in my life, I was good at something. It was so weird: the teacher would do a demonstration and it was like I was remembering the skill although I’d never actually done it before. I could watch her do it once, help other students with the assignment, and since I'd done it three or four times, could do my own very quickly.
“Another part of the equation is that I have Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism. If there’s something I’m really focused on, nothing can keep me from it. I like the complexity of patternmaking with all of its variables, being able to juggle it all and manage it in my head. For a long time, I didn’t know that not everyone can put it all together like that in their heads.
“I didn’t finish my associate degree, because after a few months in the program I went to work full time. As a patternmaker, I kept getting more and more involved in production because I understood it, and I was asked to troubleshoot in plants all over the world. At one point, I was traveling so much that I didn’t even have an apartment – though I did have a kid and a dog – and I’d just go to one short job after another.”
Her Turning Point
“An experience with one customer was a turning point in my career. She was hand painting fabrics, and I told her that she needed to wash and test the fabric before making the garments, but she wouldn’t listen. She then had $10,000 worth of product returned because the fabric shrank. I was furious because she had eight stitchers from the Navajo reservation whose only source of income was that job. Winter was coming; how were those eight stitchers going to feed their kids and buy them shoes? They didn't have any other options; unemployment on the reservation runs 80 percent. I decided then that I only wanted to work with designers who could set their personal feelings aside to do what mattered in the interest of the company and its employees. A designer who thinks a patternmaker shouldn’t be telling her what to do isn’t going to survive, and it’s the stitchers, the ones with the least power and fewest resources, who will suffer.
“It’s the patternmaker’s role to execute the designer’s vision of quality within the confines of cost, to be their right-hand person. Many people don’t understand that patternmaking is the foundation for everything else in fashion design. The best way to find a good factory is through a patternmaker: we’re familiar with production and how things need to be done. For about the last decade, good contractors have been in short supply in the U.S. – and I only do domestic production.
“Once management decisions are made, the most important person in the factory is the patternmaker because it’s such a pivotal role over everything else that happens. It’s an archaic job title that doesn’t get a lot of respect. My husband, who’s an electrical engineer, once looked at a description of all that I do and said that a patternmaking is a hybrid of three types of engineering: product design, materials and industrial engineering. He said the only engineering he knew of that was more complex than sewn product manufacturing was high-speed photography.
“You know, I always got every job I applied for in patternmaking, even before they checked my references. The last salaried job I had, I once mentioned that to the designer and she volunteered, “You went to El Centro College. We’d hire anyone who went there.”
“It wasn’t until I was out in the workforce that I realized the quality of education I’d gotten at El Centro and saw such a huge difference between my and other people’s experiences. Because El Centro’s patternmaking was so intensive, we were much more prepared than colleagues from other schools.
“I don’t know what I’d be doing if it weren’t for the Fashion Design program at El Centro; I’d probably be a waitress or a clerk somewhere. I just feel so incredibly lucky, like I dodged the bullet of a life I might have had. I don’t take this for granted; I remain grateful that I found the one thing that I needed to be doing.”
Kathleen founded her own company, Apparel Technical Services, based in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1995. It provides consulting in manufacturing and product development, as well as industry training at the master’s level for entrepreneurs, pattern makers, employees of large companies and college professors.
Still involved in her first love of patternmaking, Kathleen has also started a retail pattern line based on industrial techniques and specifications, and designs advanced patterns for clients with difficult or unusual problems (she recently created body armor, including a motorcycle jacket with special reticulated elbows, for a military contractor). She’s also worked with a dozen Project Runway contestants before they made it to the show.
Fashion-Incubator.com, provides qualified industry advice through a private peer forum, and has become one of the best-known blogs on apparel manufacturing on the internet. “Personally, I think community colleges offer a tremendous value,” she blogs. ”In my case, I went to El Centro College in Dallas, Texas. While it’s not as prestigious as Parson’s or FIT to the average person, I’ve gotten any job I’ve ever applied for because the school has an unparalleled reputation with apparel manufacturers.”
She is the author of “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing”.