Made in China: Craft

I’d like to introduce you to a man who I know simply as “Master Chao”.

Master Chao is the person in the foreground; in the background is Joe Perrott, who you will see in many of the photos and videos I have from China. Joe is our excellent project engineer from PCH China Solutions. But I digress.

Why am I introducing you to Master Chao? Because I’m pretty sure you have used or seen something in your lifetime that was crafted by the Master. When I went to the sample room for this factory, I was shocked at how many items I saw on their shelf that I had myself purchased, used, or seen in a store in the US — top-tier consumer brands manufacture their stuff here — and to the best of my knowledge the factory has just one master pattern maker, and this is him. Indulge me with a moment of philosophy.

The advent of modern CAD tools have brought about a rather coarse attitude towards the arts and crafts. It used to be that the finest furniture was designed and built only with the intuition and skill of a master craftsman; now, we all go to Ikea and get our CAD-designed, supply chain managed, picture-book assembly furniture kits and despite all that it doesn’t look too shabby. As a result, the word “craft” has been relegated to describe some scrapbook or needlepoint kit you buy at Michaels and put together on a slow weekend. We’ve sort of forgotten that in an age before machines, “craft” was the only way that anything of any quality used to be built.

It turns out there are still things where Craft, and I use it with a capital “C” here, matters–it’s where CAD tools haven’t brought about the ability to simulate out our mistakes before we build them. The creation of a flat pattern for textile goods is a good example of a process that requires a Craftsman. A flat pattern is the set of 2-D shapes used to guide the cutting of fabrics. These 2-D shapes are cut, folded and sewn into a complex 3-D shape. Mapping the projection of an arbitrary 3-D shape onto a 2-D surface with minimal waste area between the pieces is hard enough; the fact that the material stretches and distorts, sometimes in an anisotropic fashion, and the fact that sewing requires ample tolerances for good yields makes it a difficult problem to automate. On the chumby, we add another level of complexity, because we sew a piece of leather onto a soft plastic frame. As you sew the leather on, the frame will distort slightly and stretch the leather out, creating a sewing bias dependent upon the direction and rate of sewing. This force is captured in the seams and contributes to the final shape of the device. I challenge someone to make a computer simulation tool that can accurately capture those forces and predict how a device will look at the end of the day.

Yet, somehow, Master Chao’s proficiency in the art of pattern making enables him to very quickly, and in very few iterations, create and tweak a pattern that compensates for all of this. It’s astounding how clever and how insightful the results can be. And really, the point of this particular post is to introduce you to a person whose old-world skills — absent computers, all done with cardboard, scissors and pencils — has likely played a role in the production of something that you have used or benefited from in the course of your life.

Not a single computer in this office, yet the products developed here wrap around a wide array of high-tech products.

24 Responses to “Made in China: Craft”

  1. Joe T says:


    If it’s not being done with CAD right now it’s because it’s simply not worth the money to try it. This is more of the same sort of “Inscrutable Orient” racist crap westerners have been saying about Asia for years, only it’s dressed up for 2007.

  2. Mitch says:

    The article doesn’t really emphasize the pattern maker’s ethnicity, Joe T.
    What it is saying is that this kind of patten making is a complex and intuitive
    process that is difficult to duplicate using software.

    It makes me appreciate the craft that goes into products I may buy.
    In no way does it imply that Asian people are inherently superior or
    inferior to Western people.

  3. k_d says:

    JoeT … so now we’re not even allowed to acknowledge a guy’s talent and skill if he’s Asian? Interesting twist on racism, that.

  4. Peter A says:

    We do this kind of thing in the inflatable biz all the time. Cut and sew then blow up, it all wants to go round. We design by hand and experience. Take and orange or anything round, flatten it and you will see the complex shapes that are involved when thinking in 2-D flat world. We call that reverse engineering. But go the other way and design a human face out of flat material and you will be challenged. They do have softwares on the market that can do this but you need 3 different ones to take you from design, to pattern 2-D layout to computer cutting, then assemble. Check out my site for some inflatable examples.

  5. lavardera says:

    Not to diminish what you do Peter, but shaping an inflatable is much more tolerant than tightly wrapping a solid, or getting a garment to lie flat at seams and drape well. There is definitely a different set of problems. That said the software that gets you from 3d shapes to flat patterns may be relevant none the less. People interested in this should look into various polygon modelers used for creating game content. There are several modeling tools which will take a polygon mesh and lay it out flat in 2d. There is a similar goal, although there is no intuition involved and the compromises are quite obvious.

  6. bob says:

    As an architect who sits at a CAD machine most days, and then goes into the field to verify that it got built right, I just have to say – No Duh.

    CAD is dumb, experience is smart. The experience you get from sitting at a CAD machine all day is how to better input data into CAD, not how to actually build stuff.

    And Joe T – does T stand for touchy?

  7. […] Some guy named Master Chao. [Bunnie’s Blog via BoingBoing]   […]

  8. chris says:

    Just wondering if you had pictures of a pattern and then final product. I think I know what your talking about but a picture would be awesome!

  9. I’m a (hand) pattern maker, have been for 27 years. I’ve been blogging about it for the past two and half years, in which time, I think I’ve successfully communicated the demand of the craft. And it is a craft. Pattern making is a complex hybrid of materials and industrial engineering. Not only must we design translating two into three dimensions encompassing the variation of fiber behaviors, our patterns must be designed for manufacturability. It serves no purpose if it can’t be sewn by the specific machine appropriate for the given operation.

    These days, the big push is in CAD pattern making. It’s not so much that CAD can’t be a useful tool, the problem is that manufacturers have tended to hire recent grades with CAD training but little drafting experience. Worse, they’re using templates that come preloaded in the system, they don’t have the skills to build from scratch. This would be like hiring someone to design your documents who was proficient with Word, and who’d use Word templates as the basis of your docs. Ack!

    Unfortunately, it is precisely the use of CAD that is the greatest impetus towards the degradation of garment fit. As I said, it’s not so much that CAD is bad per se, it’s the people hired to operate the systems. Unfortunately, it’s consumers paying the price

  10. Avarana says:

    Disgressing here with Joe Troll, I only see a skillful person who does a lot without automatic tools but his head.
    Is it worth the money? If it produces dependable results, yes. Does his experience compensates for variables only an expensive CAD tool can feature? yes.

    Yet, like chris, would like to see some patterns and/or finished products.

  11. Mark Richards says:

    “and despite all that it doesn’t look too shabby.”

    It does look shabby though. Every piece of furtniture in Ikea looks awful- the quality of the material is poor, the quality of the construction is poor- it’s just plain cheap (and I don’t mean inexpensive).

    Find a woodworker and go buy a piece of furniture from them- that’s something that will last 100 (or 200 or 300) years. Nothing from Ikea will ever last. It’s disposable.

    The same is true in a lot of areas- custom cars and motorocycles where people still know how to use a hammer and sandbag or an english wheel. Furniture makers and woodworkers. Craftsmanship may be dying- but it isn’t dead.

  12. […] bunnie’s blog » Blog Archive » Made in China: Craft Master Chao: Human AutoCAD (tags: manufacturing pattern design brain china visualization) […]

  13. Joe T says:

    Your right, I am really sorry I am a ass. I hope someday I won’t be such a piece of garbage and learn to shut my mouth the hell up. I am such a zenophobic piece of hidious distended rectum.

  14. lainey says:

    Er… what did this Master Chao actually produce? What are the “items I saw on their shelf that I had myself purchased, used, or seen”?

  15. Dan Chambers says:

    Hey – I thought, let’s not all jump on Joe T’s case and give him a hard time. It’s a good thing somebody’s willing to put forward the skeptical viewpoint, keep us all from sliding into credulity.
    Then I thought “nah, forget it. Yo homes, to Bel Air!”

  16. Bill says:

    Found your site in google, and it has a lot of usefull information. Thanx.

  17. Hi, I have been a patternmaker for 12 years, am self taught, and in that time have done masters for over £100,000,000 worth of products, mostly for the toy and collectible market, and advertising. Working to 0.01 of a millimetre by hand, or machine, whichever is faster. I can still beat the cad merchants on price, every single time, because it is a one off, and I get it right first time. I only use the computer to receive e-mails and pics from clients, and print out the pics. I have only ever spent £15 on advertising, yet have 3 years work on the books from just one of my clients. As for west versus east, remember that the industrial revolution happened in the UK, which is where I come from, and the Chinese can only beat us on price, we are equals on craft skill. If the economy was truly global and fair, ie if wages were equal, everybody would still be buying engineering from the UK, since we, as I am still, built things well, and made them to last. I have pics, such as a lorry cab, sitting on a pound coin, weght 4 grams, carved by hand. Even the chinese would be proud of that!! best wishes, Julian Saunders

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  21. Jane Moody says:

    The prevelance of chinese crafts and arts are intertwined into American society. Its really amazing we dont hear stories such as these more often.