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A new edge for Chicago's fashion designers

Fashion designers can get hands-on training in the latest technology at a new educational center in the West Loop.

The Industrial Sewing Solutions center is stocked with the latest Gerber Technology machinery for pattern-making, grading and production. The equipment was donated by Stanley Paul in memory of his sister, the late Chicago fashion model and mentor Raelene Mittelman.

The technology is essential to fashion designers running successful businesses and can help them keep sourcing in America.

The center’s affordable access — the 12 classes vary in length and range from $120 to $480 — gives Chicago entrepreneurs an edge, because learning the computer skills can be costly and time-consuming.

The challenge: Any would-be apparel company owner must understand today’s technology-centric pattern-making to conquer the most important aspect of the industry, says Kathryn Millett, director of global product marketing at McDavid, a Woodridge manufacturer of knee pads, shoulder pads and other protective gear for athletes.

“I’ve met quite a few startup entrepreneurs in fashion, and their No. 1 problem is a lack of understanding that patterns are the most important component of their success,” says Millett, who previously worked in pattern systems at Columbia Sportswear, Eddie Bauer and Nike. “The No. 1 mistake is the technical part of the fit. Fit is everything. If you don’t have a product that fits well, you’ll never get a buyer to return.”

Today’s technology also gives entrepreneurs a way to operate efficiently and figure out the best pricing from a variety of factories.

“If you do everything by hand on paper, there is no way to be efficient,” Millett says. “With paper, there is a lot more room for error and the time triples or quadruples [compared with going digital].

“A software system quickly sends digital files to a factory, instantly shows the required measurements and can be used to ask manufacturers for their best prices on the fly,” she says.

Indeed, Millett recommends that any fashion-goods entrepreneur who is “green” hire an experienced contractor to help navigate the technical aspects of pattern-making.

Entrepreneurs also will have access to technology that creates patterns and develops prints and fabrics on the computer, says lead instructor Jeanne Ottenweller, a former college instructor and owner of J. Ottenweller Design, a technical design and product development specialty firm based in Riverside.

Though 3-D printing has become the rage in many industrial settings, Ottenweller says it will take some time for such printers to recreate the feel and touch of fabric.

Tech transition: The machinery and technology are part of a new training center inside 83-year-old custom-fabric printer and showroom Supreme Novelty Fabrics in the West Loop.

The company also fabricates curtains, pillows and specialty items on-site.

“Our goal is to grow our local production and design companies — more sales, more work, more business and more job creation and retention,” says Marsha Brenner, executive director of the Apparel Industry Board, which runs the new center.

Richard Schneider, the president and grandson of Supreme Novelty Fabrics founder Sam Schechter, hopes to see a return to the days when Chicago boasted skilled designers, fabric printers and garment-makers who can support a thriving industry.

“We’re trying to pass on knowledge for something that can create a lot of jobs for the city, eventually,” Schneider says, noting that Chicago is home to little-noticed manufacturers of linens, uniforms, mattress covers and special-event backdrops.

Photo by Michael Jarecki for Sun-Times Media