Ed. Note—Today we kick off another series here on the W Blog: a year-long chronicle of the people who make your kit amazing, beginning at the very beginning, with the development and design of the actual pieces, all the way through the person who ships you your completed order. Today we start with Jay Prasuhn's piece about Susan Suarez, who develops the products that eventually end up in your hands.
by Jay Prasuhn
It’s the classic image of the seamstress; fabric tape measure draped over the neck, maybe a bobby pin pursed between the lips, and fabric samples strewn about. Today, technology has evolved the job of a pattern maker, but the job still requires a body, endless rolls of fabric, that row of bobby pins, and that tape measure. If you’ve ever wondered just how the Wattie Ink. kit you’ve got on fits so well, how the panel placement is selected, you can thank Susan Suarez for that. A veteran seamstress since she began sewing at age 9, it’s Susan’s duty to take feedback from athletes like Heather Jackson, Andy Potts, and everyday customers to make a Wattie Ink. jersey, bib short, or speedsuit fit and feel like a second skin.
To say Suarez’s background is impeccable is an understatement. Taking an interest in sewing as a little girl, she did it for fun right through college. While shopping at a fabric shop one day, she saw a flyer for a patternmaking class. It would be the start of what would become her career. “Patternmaking came easy to me,” Suarez says. She began working for a small boutique shop creating special occasional wear for women in Santa Cruz, Calif, working in silk and cotton. Even when the boutique’s business went south, Suarez stayed on and worked for free. The education was simply too valuable.
“I ended up working there for free for a year and a half,” Suarez says. “I was 22, a crepe cook at night and patternmaker during the day. But the experience of being an apprentice there was too valuable to pass up.” Moving south to San Diego, Suarez went from tiny boutique to big brand, drawing patterns in the 1980s for The Gap and Mervyns, along with serving as seamstress in the costume shop in a theatre. “Gap and Mervyns were big-time numbers, like 250,000 pieces—huge quantities.” When department stores began to suffer, she zagged yet again, this time teaching fashion design, pattern making, sewing and computer pattern-making classes. She was so good at it, the school named her Dean of Design and Director of Education. All the while, she kept her foot in brand design, working with Adidas and TaylorMade golf.
Then along came Wattie Ink.
“You know, I enjoyed what I was doing, but with the other brands, the seamstresses I was working with were off in Vietnam. So, If I sent a pattern, it would take two weeks to get there. And if something was wrong with the sample they sent two weeks later, it would end up being six weeks between start and a hopeful finish,” she says. “But having our fantastic seamstress team here in house, I could literally bring them a pattern, have it made that same day, and make any alterations all the same day. I get to know each of them personally and—to me—having that relationship between patternmaker and seamstress is so crucial—you see it in the results. And that’s so rewarding.”
The results have become quite evident. Only with the company for the last year, Suarez’s patterns have resulted in some of the best-fitting triathlon and cycling attire in the market. Experience counts. And she’s evolved with the times. While there’s no replacing the tape measure, a pair of scissors, and a model, computer-aided pattern making has made quicker and more efficient work of her job. Suarez is able to take patterns she cuts and replicate them down to the millimeter on the computer. While the patterns themselves look odd in two dimensions like jigsaw pieces, it’s only when they’re stitched together as panels that it takes for to become a tri short or a jersey.
“Making patterns—whether by hand or by computer—is an art,” Suarez says. “I think you have to have an artistry about what you do; you’re working with design and lines and how they fit the body. It’s great having the technology, but you have to understand it by hand first. Once you know that, you have to be able to translate that same feeling and artistry onto the computer.” Suarez said Wattie’s stylization in art is a perfect embodiment of that ethos. “People nowadays are painting by Photoshop, and Wattie has all these creative artists on staff, but unless you know how to use it, it’s just an expensive paintbrush,” Suarez says. “Our artists are special, and their artistry results in special pieces.”
Each panel has its own characteristics; a back panel may be designed for excellent ventilation, but it also must have certain stretch capabilities; lots of lateral stretch, but conversely lots of vertical stiffness, so the jersey doesn’t sag when the back pockets laden with your iPhone, jacket and energy bar. “Working with different fabrics has been second nature to me,” Suarez says. “I’ve done a lot of bathing suits and form-fit technical pieces, using laser cutting and printing. Working with fabrics with stretch, really on any sport garment that has to perform, I was good with it. The one thing I’m learning now from Wattie is the position athletes are in, making sure they fit well in that variety of positions. And to watch someone like Heather, the top American female in the country, use the product, it’s giving me a great education—that’s the fun part for me.”
Suarez has finally found that happy place: not too big, and not too small. And certainly, with all the business drive and friendship she could ever want. “You can see how passionate all the guys are about what they’re doing, and it results in what I think is the best product,” she says. “And really, with Wattie, with his experience and the environment he’s in, to be this involved, but all inked up, you’d think he was never in this line of work. But he’s just a big sweetheart!”