Behind the Scenes: How We Choose the Fabrics for Photo Garments

Behind the scenes: How the McCall Pattern Company chooses fabric for its photo garmentsChoosing the fabric for photo garments—industry speak for the finished pattern that is made up and then worn by a model on our pattern envelopes—is a team effort here at the McCall Pattern Company. We recently met first with McCall’s designer Jacqueline Polikoff, and then with fabric editor Penny Payne, so we could share with blog readers our fabric selection process.

Meg Carter: When you’re working on a pattern design, at what point do you think about which fabrics to use?

Jacqueline Polikoff: I’ve usually collected lots of fabric inspiration before I sit down to design a seasonal collection. I’ve got tearsheets from fashion magazines and catalogs, and often our merchandising team has examples of styles they think will work well as patterns. So I tend to already have something in mind when it comes to the fabrics I want for each pattern design.

Meg: What about the licensed designers, like Anne Klein or Rachel Comey? Do they give us fabric options for their patterns?

Jackie: No. When you see the model wearing a photo garment by a licensed designer, she is wearing the real thing—an actual designer garment that we acquired from the designer at their showroom. We don’t alter or change their design in any way, including the fabric that was used.

Meg: With so many fabric options out there, how do you even begin to choose something? I think many of us home sewers, myself included, spend way too much time obsessing about which fabric will be absolutely perfect for the pattern we want to sew.

Penny and Jackie reviewing fabric possibilities for Spring '17 McCall's.
Penny and Jackie reviewing fabric possibilities for Spring ’17 McCall’s.

Jackie: Choosing fabrics is about where I want to take the silhouette—or “body” as it’s known in the industry—and what’s the story I want to tell the consumer. Designers have their preferred fabrics, and I’m no exception. I love crepe de chine, poplin and chambray. But I also need to think about what’s going to really show the seaming and the lines of the pattern I’m designing.

Lighter colors tend to show this better than dark ones do, for example. Prints, and how a person responds to them, is an extremely personal thing. You can either love a print or hate it. And I also need to show fabrics that are readily available to home sewers. I can pick the most beautiful fabric for a photo garment, but if it’s something people won’t be able to find, I’m not helping our consumers.

Meg: What about the illustrations we show on our pattern envelopes? Do you choose fabric for those as well, even though those views aren’t being made up into photo garments?

Jackie: Yes, the illustrations are just as important as the photo garment. If a particular pattern’s photo garment doesn’t speak to you, then I have three other chances to reach you. I, and the other designers here, select fabric for each illustration and we provide our in-house illustrators with swatches. So even though those views are illustrations, you are seeing real fabric that we think would work well in a finished garment.

Penny (r) shows Jackie some of the newest fabrics added to the McCall Pattern Company fabric library.
Penny (r) shows Jackie some of the newest fabrics added to the McCall Pattern Company fabric library.

Meg: Now it’s Penny’s turn. Penny, tell us about how our pattern designers work with you and use the fabric library.

Penny: After they’ve completed their designs for each collection, I’ll meet with our designers and they’ll share their inspiration for each pattern with me and talk about what kind of fabrics they have in mind.

We’ll get into specifics: What kind of drape, quality, sheer vs. opaque, knit or woven, and so on. Together we’ll look through the fabric panels in the fabric library. This is where I organize, display and maintain swatches of the newest fabrics available from textile manufacturers and fabric stores. The fabric library serves as a resource for our designers and our entire company.

As Jackie said, it’s important to show our patterns in fabrics that are available to home sewers. Whether or not the fabrics, notions and trimmings we show can be found online is important, because many home sewers don’t live near brick-and-mortar fabric stores and shopping online is their only option.

People email us all the time asking where they can get the fabrics we used in our photo garments. I’ll source our fabrics from stores like Jo-Ann Fabrics, I’ll work directly with fabric manufacturers like Robert Kaufman and Telio. I’ll also shop for fabric locally in the New York garment district, and I rely on online fabric retailers too.

Meg: Wow, shopping for fabric as a profession?! That sounds like a dream job!

Penny: It is!

When someone asks if we want to go fabric shopping


  1. Do you think about laundering options when choosing fabric for a design? Do you launder fabrics before turning them into photo garments?

    One of my fabric shopping frustrations is how sketchy and often noncommittal sellers are about how to care for the fabrics they sell. It’s not uncommon for an online fabric merchant to not give the entire fabric content much less the per cent of each. At least one popular online shop “guesstimates” fabric content. I understand many of these companies are buying up fabrics that RTW has not taken or that are extra to orders. What is the home sewer to do? Thanks!

    1. Hi Mary! To answer your first question, no, we don’t usually pre-wash the fabric that is made into a photo garment, unless we’re going for a certain washed effect. No washer and dryer here at our office!

      Second, with regard to fabric content, what I do is cut a large swatch of my mystery fabric and then wash and dry that before I cut out my fabric. It helps!

  2. Thank you McCalls for sharing this information. When shopping with my students who are new to sewing, they are lead by the examples of fabric designs on the pattern envelope. It is great to know this thought is put into the designs, and pictures found on the patterns, as 9/10 they have chosen their pattern from what it looks like finished, then the fun begins, trying to source fabric similar to the pattern pictures.

  3. Thank you, that was informative. I often am lead by the picture on the pattern envelope as I get overwhelmed by the many options in the fabric store. It is nice to know the “behind the scene” story.

  4. Wow, fabric shopping as a profession–how cool!

  5. Would you have any more of that crepe Georette? It’s beautiful!

  6. What a fun read. I love to hear about your process and all the behind the scenes info, your jobs are so awesome! I am always so thrilled to see a new collection and you all do such a great job with them. Keep up the wonderful work! Also, I love that the designer garments are taken right from the designers collection, that motivates me even further to grab up those patterns!!

  7. Fascinating… I’ve been reading a blog of someone who designs for another pattern company and it appears she chooses and buys her fabric and makes up her garments and sends them to head office where they photograph them (and photoshop them sometimes) for the pattern envelopes.

    1. Hi Jen! Some of our designers work that way as well. But we don’t Photoshop the garments themselves because we don’t want to alter their appearance and make them different from what the actual pattern looks like.

  8. How apropos! I have searched everywhere for the fabrics used in M7319, the coordinating pale blue/white striped. Could you please give me some help with this? Thanks.

  9. Fun post – thank you!

  10. Oh my goodness! Dream job indeed! Thanks for sharing this information and interview!

  11. You two are blessed! what an awesome job. I enjoyed this so much. I know that I am late to the game here. I will look forward to the next posting. Thank you for a job well done.

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