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5 CAD Fashion Design Software Programs You Should Be Using as an Apparel Designer

Founder of KRSTN NDRSN

We expect our IT specialists and software engineers to do most–if not all of their work via computer, but did you know that fashion designers use MANY computer applications to do their jobs too?

Fashion isn't just a matter of sketching and sewing garments anymore. To stay competitive in the fashion world today, designers must master CAD (Computer Aided Design) programs to maximize efficiency and keep their processes sustainable.

CAD fashion design software can help designers become more efficient in their processes, saving them time, money, and energy to stay ahead of deadlines, become more sustainable, and better serve their clients.

So whether you're a fashion student, freelancer, apparel designer, or technical designer, these are some digital tools you need to know to give yourself an edge over other creatives.

Procreate sketch by Jasmine Stroud
Procreate sketch by Jasmine Stroud

1. Procreate/Sketchbook Pro

Procreate, and Sketchbook Pro are both digital illustration apps available for iPad. Typically these programs are used to draw garment sketches, prints + patterns, and occasionally tech flats. Digital apps like these are a great middle-ground for designers that want the flexibility of drawing digitally but still want the feel of pencil and paper.

Some pros of digital drawing apps are that you can easily edit lines and colors without starting over from scratch. You can also easily save and share files online if someone else is helping you with the design process. Procreate is also great because it has features similar to Adobe Illustrator (more on this later), like layers, brushes, reflect, copy/paste, and erase but for a fraction of the price; Procreate only costs $10.

With all the positives of digital drawing apps, there are a few negatives. One is that both Procreate and Sketchbook Pro have a learning curve, but you can find plenty of tutorials on YouTube to get you started. Another downside where Procreate falls short in comparison to Adobe Illustrator in scaleability. Procreate uses pixels to create artwork, whereas Adobe Illustrator uses vectors. When scaled up, pixels get blurry and distorted while vectors keep their readability. A workaround is to always start with and maintain a high resolution of 300px or higher. Keeping a high resolution from the start will minimize any blurriness.

PRO TIP: Download a few fashion croquis to use while sketching. You can import it into your workspace and trace over the top to ensure your designs stay proportionate.

Adobe Illustrator designs by Jasmine Stroud
Adobe Illustrator designs by Jasmine Stroud

2. Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator is a computer-based design application. Like Procreate, it is widely used for drawing. It is the most industry-recognized method for sketching. If you've seen tech flats, chances are they were created using Illustrator.

It's an ideal program for anyone without strong hand sketching skills because you can complete all your designs using your mouse. The program is an absolute powerhouse. The design use cases for AI are endless. You can draw tech flats, fill them with color & prints, assemble presentation boards, and even design hangtags, care labels, and marketing materials.

The tools and shortcuts of the program allow you to sketch and edit your designs quickly without having to erase and redraw them. You also save time by being able to only illustrate half of your style and reflect it. You can even create entire libraries of brushes and symbols to mimic the appearance of stitches and trims, giving your designs a real-life look.

But while the program is remarkable, it still has a few cons. First, there's a steep learning curve. With all tools and toolbars, learning the program can initially be very intimidating. But you can take advantage of Adobe's library of tutorials. Once you get the hang of AI, you can use many tools, shortcuts, and panels to streamline your workflow. The last downside is the price. Illustrator is available via a monthly subscription from Adobe starting at $20.99/month. While the price tag isn't cheap, it does include regular updates and improvements from Adobe.

PRO TIP: If you're a freelancer looking to create sketches for your clients or plan to do all the sketching for your brand, then Illustrator is well worth the price. Sign up for a subscription here.

Print designed by Kristen Anderson using Adobe Photoshop
Print designed by Kristen Anderson using Adobe Photoshop

3. Adobe Photoshop

Photoshop is the second most commonly used CAD program from Adobe for designers. While Illustrator is mainly used for sketching, Photoshop is used for photo enhancement, mood and trend boards, and print design. When used in tandem, there's really nothing you can't accomplish in terms of design.

Most apparel designers use Photoshop to create repeats of prints + patterns, re-color artwork, scan in and edit fabric swatches, and design embroidery + graphic layouts.

In addition to graphics, Photoshop is also commonly used to edit photographs (hence the name). So, if you wear many hats as a designer, you can also use the program to edit shots taken at your campaign photoshoot.

Tech pack created via PLM
Tech pack created via PLM

4. Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) is a computer software that integrates information about the entire lifecycle of products from concept through design, development, sourcing, and manufacturing. A designer mainly uses PLM software to create and maintain tech packs.

Many companies and solo designers may use Excel for their tech packs as a cost-saving when starting out. Still, once your collections have many styles and require more internal organization, you should switch to creating tech packs through PLM. Many companies have created their own version of PLM, including Gerber and Blue Cherry.

What's excellent about PLM is that it cuts out some of your back and forth. For example, you won't need to set up and formulate each page as you would in Excel. Instead, it syncs up all the information, which should be up-to-date and accurate through each page. In PLM, you can also keep libraries of color swatches, materials, and suppliers you commonly use so you can quickly add them to new tech packs.

The downside to PLM is that it can be tricky to navigate, expensive, and time-consuming to set up. In addition, you must rely on the users of the PLM system to ensure it's all up-to-date and accurate; otherwise, it's easy for information to fall through the cracks.

3D sampling bra and panty designs using Clo3D
3D sampling bra and panty designs using Clo3D

5. Clo3D

Clo3D is software apparel designers, and tech designers use for digital patternmaking, 3D sampling, and virtual fittings.

The program is relatively new and opens up a world of possibilities. For example, Clo enables designers to see what a flat pattern looks like on a 3D avatar long before the first sample is sewn. Why is this important? Brands can save time and money by cutting back on sample rounds. Not to mention wasted samples are drastically reduced, which is excellent for improving your sustainability. Another unique advantage is that you can create virtual showrooms and stores, animated runways, and customized avatars.

Similar to the Adobe programs, the two downsides to the program are cost and difficulty to learn. Clo is $25/month for students and $50/month for individuals. As far as learning the program is concerned, Clo offers tutorials, and many universities offer online courses and certifications.

Designers now have a variety of CAD fashion design software available to create amazing designs. From Illustrator and Photoshop for creating sketches or graphics, PLM for tech packs, and Clo3D for digital patternmaking and 3D sampling, these programs all offer different benefits for the various stages of design and development. Although each program has its own cost and learning curve, they can optimize your workflow and produce stunning results if used correctly. So go ahead and start exploring and up your innovation game!


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