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Daniel DiSanto

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    Posted: 11 Nov 2019 at 1:29am
*reposted from the original interview posted ca 2014 via the internet wayback machine

Recently I had the great good fortune of meeting Daniel DiSanto at a local jeans manufacturer during his delivery and installation of some vintage sewing machines. After talking with Dan a bit, I was pleased to discover that he had worked at LVC designing some of their initial offerings in the mid 1990s, and later at RRL. The more we talked, the more I became fascinated by his long career in the garment business.
 I asked Dan if he would consent to an interview, and after a little cajoling, he agreed, and graciously invited me over to his home for dinner and a talk.
 Dan's home is on Alameda Island in the San Francisco bay, just offshore of West Oakland. Alameda is surprisingly quiet, green and lined with well kept Victorians, one of which is occupied by Dan and his husband Walt- a sewing shop/design room, a couple of cats, and a mind-blowing collection of antique glass oil lamps and clocks, the latter of which filled the audio tape of our interview with a myriad of clickings and whirrings and occasional chime crescendos which necessitated periodic pauses in our interview.

Dan outside of his home in Alameda

-When did you first find yourself interested in making or altering some form of clothing?

I was 6 years old when I started sewing. When we'd visit my Grandma's house, she had this neat old black Singer in the corner, and I was fascinated by it.  She would only let me run it by turning the wheel with my right hand- I was too young to use the electric pedal, she thought!  She also had this fantastic piece of pale rose colored napped Mohair to cover it.  It was so shear and had the most amazing wear marks on it plus the edges were pearl stitched. I still remember how it smelled.  I was fascinated by it too.  The second thing that got me really sewing the families clothes was that my Mom was developing an eye disease when I was about 7, and that prevented her from doing the mending easily, so I offered to help.  She had a black Singer too, and she let me use the electricity!  I remember clearly when I was 7 years old we made a big trip into downtown Cleveland to get a McCall's pattern and some pale blue shantung, and I made my Mom a dress.  I can still picture it and the time I spent making it.  That would have been in 1962.   I started my own patterns shortly afterward, and that added the thrill of sculpting a pattern to fit a human.  I remember early on quite a few Simplicity patterns I bought where there was not the right ease ratio between the sleeve cap and armscye, so I thought I would have at it and it was the patterning process that really hooked me. To make a 2-d shape in paper fit a 3-d moving body was, and still is, a big charge for me. Don't know why - just is.

When did you notice the imperfection in the Simplicity patterns? When the garments were finished and worn, or could you initially see it in the pattern itself?

It was when I was sewing the pieces. They just weren't going together properly. I could see that I wanted to reshape the pieces. Pretty quickly I did. Newspaper was too flimsy to use for paper patterns that needed to last more than one time, so I reused the simplicity pattens. I cut bigger pattern pieces down or taped new scraps on to pieces that were too small. I started making clothes for my family, and after people at my local fabric store started noticing, I got my first paying jobs, which led to me doing my first wedding when I was about 13.

Did anyone find this odd- that you possessed this kind of skill set when you were only 13?

Dan: Hmmmnn… No, actually, which I guess is kind of odd when you think about it. Maybe I was some sort of sewing prodigy? Not that I was a concert cellist or anything, but somehow I did just know how to sew and cut out patterns.

How did your professional sewing develop from that point?

Dan: I started getting more work through word of mouth, and eventually a fabric store hired me as their designer in residence, and that's when my custom career really took off. I kept getting more and more work, and so just kept raising my prices to see where it would go, and my clientele ended up being Cleveland Old Money- women whose husbands gave them $20,000 a month clothing allowance! I'd wear a jacket and tie and go to this fancy neighborhood of Cleveland called Shaker Heights with my tailor's bag. I started doing a lot of work there, making cotillion dresses and opera gowns. I paid my way through school and then college doing that.
 It was good. It was lucrative. And I learned to sew a whole bunch of different fabrics and met some nice people.
 There was a little bit of garment manufacturing still happening in Cleveland in the 1970s. Hugo Boss still manufactured his men's suits there, for instance. Eventually I met and started working for Phyllis Sydney, who manufactured plus size clothing for women. That was where I learned factory pattern making. Back then, it was all done by hand- the grading, marker making, and cutting. All of the tools and techniques had been around for a long time, centuries, except for xeroxing. There were giant revolving tables there where you would draw and cut each piece for each size in a run out by hand from oak tag [a heavy, two-sided card stock] and then grade up each size and cut all of those pieces too. There were hundreds and hundreds of pieces for a single size run. Then someone would manually lay out all of the pieces on photo paper and xerox the whole series for future use when the original pattern pieces had deteriorated.

A 1970s catalog from Phyllis Sydney.

Did you have one particular instructor in learning this craft?

Dan: Yes, a very stern German Master Pattern Maker who had a little Hitler mustache and always wore a starched white shirt. He was very strict and precise, and all of the rules had to be followed exactly. Pencils could only be sharpened with sandpaper, for instance, as pencil sharpeners didn't give you a fine enough point. And you had to stand at all times. The only people allowed to sit were women who were menstruating!

He sounds imposing…

Dan: Oh, yes, the Pattern Maker really ruled the roost in the factories back then. I remember that the NY Times did a series in the eighties where they found and interviewed keystone people in various professions, and they were rarely CEOs or managers. For the steel industry for example, the key person they interviewed was a smelter, and for the garment industry it was a pattern maker. Back then the pattern maker interacted with everyone: the designers came to them with their drawings, the fabric came to them, they sourced the thread and hardware and oversaw the production. They were the conduit between the design side and the finished product.
 Its all very different now of course- pattern makers use design software that can essentially make patterns from 2-D drawings and automatically grade all of the size run. It's mostly done off-shore in Asian factories that produce clothing for a lot of different companies, and the end result is very cookie-cutter, and usually doesn't fit.
 Although I have to say, some of the kids I work with now who do computer pattern making are just dying to know how to actually build something, how to sculpt. There seems to be a little bit of respect coming back for craftsmen who can draw, cut and sew patterns that will actually fit the human body. At least, I hope so…

Where did working at Phyllis Sydney's lead you?

Dan: Well, at the same time as I was working there, this would be the mid-'70s, I was also doing a lot of theater work- costuming for the Cleveland Playhouse, where my brother was active, and the Cleveland Ballet in 1976, so I made clothes for Dennis Nahat and Cynthia Gregory there. I also had a scholarship at this time and was briefly enrolled at Case Western Reserve in their pre-dental program, but organic chemistry ended that for me. I was also second flautist at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I also volunteered at the Western Reserve Historical Society and did garment restoration and conservation.

So you were just hanging around, not accomplishing anything, not pursuing any interests…

Dan (Laughing): Yeah, I was just a slacker! I did all of that at the same time, I don't know how.

Some of Dan's work for the Cleveland Playhouse.

Did you have a mentor aside from the German Pattern Maker? Someone to show you how to approach a technique or fabric you hadn't worked with before?

Dan: No, I just figured it out on my own. I never went to any kind of school or did an apprenticeship for any of this.
In fact, the first actual degree I got was a bachelor's in mathematics from Ursuline Catholic Girls College, in around '82 or 83.

Wait, what?

Dan: I was teaching there, pattern making, for their fashion design program, and in return I got to take any other classes there I wanted, so I studied Philosophy and Mathematics at the Ursuline Catholic Girls College! I enjoyed teaching, and was good at it, so I decided to get a masters in Textiles and teach that, and at the time the prime place to get your masters in Textiles was North Carolina State University. I got a Master of Science in Apparel Management and Textile Engineering. That's where I really learned the weaving, the knitting structures, yarns, the muscle of clothes design.


Dan: Ah- For me, the whole apparel design process consists of bone, muscle and skin, The bones are the pattern and shape, what I called, when I worked at Levi's, Jean Geometry. The muscle is the fabric, and the skin is the surface of a garment- all of the design details. I think Levi's may have copyrighted that terminology that I came up with actually…

Levi's Jean Geometry chart.

Dan: So, While I was at NCSU I really became interested in the geometries of pattern making. There was a German woman who came and lectured there named Gabriele Knecht, and she had a design shop in NY. I hit it off with her, and when I graduated I went to New York and worked with her for a year and a half. She was one of the first people to get a patent for apparel- for the geometry she put into her sleeve design. What we worked on was 3-D pattern making, which was a very new thing at that time. You would design on a computer generated 3-D model and then it would peel the pieces off perfectly. I had done a lot of research in this field at NCSU. Gabrielle had studied human anatomy, and ergonomic and anthropometric body measurements on the scientific end of it, so we collaborated for a while.
 After that ended, a college friend who was working in Delaware doing textile development research for Dupont called me up and asked me to come work with her. Dupont was coming up with new synthetic fabrics, and you can't just show a bale of Kevlar, Lycra, or Tyvek to designers or manufacturers. I was working with the textile developers and then small manufacturing houses to learn how to cut, sew, & work with these new materials and produce good-looking sample garments. Nurses uniforms, diapers, dresses, jackets, all different things.

What is Tyvek?

Dan: A synthetic cloth, very thin, strong, and wrinkly, and doesn't breathe. Oh, you know, Tyvek jackets? We made a bunch for MTV. We're talking mid-80s here. They use Tyvek for insulation now. It was awful! But Dupont was convinced it would be the fabric of the future.

Some of Dan's Tyvek jacket designs for MTV via Dupont.

 Dan: A plus of working at Dupont was that I had the freedom to do any kind of pattern making I wanted. For a while I did one piece patterns, which is actually a pattern making niche right now, and is a from of Zero Waste or Zero Fallout design, which is something I've become very interested in.

Wasn't there waste when the one piece was cut out?

Dan: No, the knitters were amazing, they actually just made the shape. If you cut it out there's no point, as you create waste.

Oh, they knit the fabric directly into the shape of the pattern? That's amazing! Kind of like an early 3-D printer.

Yes, I guess it was!  So, When Dupont ended I came out to California to work for O'neill making wetsuit patterns. It was crazy, and very challenging. We made custom wet-suits and uniform pieces for the Coast Guard- you'd have to put three coordinates on them to grade them, and then cut these huge serpentine shapes out of neoprene and put them together, almost like constructing a shoe, so I learned about gluing and taping heavy synthetic fabrics there.
 I did this until about 1991, when someone I knew at Levi's called me up and asked me to come work for them.
 I started there in the Red Tab division, doing trucker jackets and tops. I worked on some of their strange, but very cool, slouch jackets, and the pants that were hugely over-sized and skewed.
 I did that for quite a while. Eventually the opportunity came up to work on the launch of the Levi's Vintage Clothing subdivision under Geir Tandburg. I was picked, along with Monica Schmid, to research in the archive, pick models, and develop the patterns. Monica cut the patterns for the jackets, and I did the jeans and the sawtooth shirt.
 I spent a lot of time in the archives looking at scores of jeans. For some reason I seemed to be looking at them in increments of 11 years- I developed a notion of a 1922 jean, a 1933, a 1944, a 1955, a 1966…
 I remember wondering, after looking at so many pants and starting to take measurements of representative samples, why did some of them fit so differently, when their measurements were very similar. In all honesty, when we started this project I didn't know how exact of a replication Levi's wanted us to make. Monica and I really didn't know, we thought, maybe they just want a design which would merely suggest the original? But not at all! I remember at the first fitting we had with our samples, everyone was aghast at how horrible they were… because we were making them based entirely on the measurements we took in the archives. But the fits were all wrong, and didn't look anything like the originals. We went back to the drawing board and started looking more closely at the archived jeans, including constructing the negative spaces in the pattern. We took more measurements and measured in different ways, did stitch count and followed the warp and weft yarns orthogonally rather than measuring directly across areas. We developed different geometries and shaping strategies. After a lot of work we came up with new samples that actually looked a lot more like the originals.
 One interesting thing we had to contend with was the way denim shears. See this?
 [Dan frames a 4" x4" section of denim with his hands and gently moves his hands in opposite directions]
The amount of shear is how much you can manipulate the fabric like this before it buckles. Plain weaves hardly have that, but twills do. That's why denim will mold to your body, like a leotard, almost. We had to look at every inch of the archived jeans with an eye towards that property, and that helped us out immensely.
 The jackets, the Type I and II especially, were interesting to work with Monica on. They are cut almost entirely with straight lines- there's no curves anywhere in them.

Maybe they were into Zero Fallout patterns early on?

Dan [laughing]: well, they were! Or close to it. Very boxy, mostly squares and rectangles, very efficient to cut and not much wasted fabric.

Did Levi's not have original patterns for any of the years you were looking at to work with?

Dan: There were some, but remember, LVC wanted to wash a lot of these jeans to look like originals from their archive, so we didn't want a solely deadstock type-fit, but one that also resembled the worn archived pieces.
Speaking of the old patterns, though, something that was really sad was that when Levi's Valencia Street Factory was closed, all of those hard patterns were just tossed in the garbage. The guys who did that, they were old timers at the Valencia factory who had hand cut and graded a lot of patterns for decades at Levi's. Just walls of these beautiful hard patterns hanging on them- they were all tossed in the trash. Lynn Downey and I were like : Oh No! Can't we save some of these!!? We did grab some, basically we were dumpster diving.

How long did you work at LVC?

Dan: Until around 1999. After I left, Susan Smith and Issa Beilefeldt took over the pattern making.

Which jean models did you pattern at LVC? The first three offerings were the 1937, 1955, and 1963zxx, all of which you cut. What came after?

Dan: I did the 1890, the 1933, 1944, the 1944 was my last jean at LVC. I remember working on the artwork for the painted arcuate for the '44.

Detail of research material for the LVC 1901 jean.

What about the 1947?

Dan: Let me see… the 1947. Honesty, I can't remember, it was so long ago. Probably that was Susan and Issa.

Anything that you wished you could have worked on at LVC that you didn't get to?

Dan: Yes, quite a few things. A lot of the children's clothing, like the Kid's Koveralls, would have been fun. Also, I would have loved to have done tons of the '30s dude ranch era western shirts for men and women…

One thing that LVC is often noted for is their sizing disparities in tagged versus actual size. I have handled a lot of the early stuff, from when you were there, which doesn't seem to vary as much as later items, from the mid-2000s, some of which I have seen be 5 inches off of tagged size. Some have suggested some of the disparity is intentional, as vanity sizing. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Dan: I call the excess "garment ease" rather than "vanity sizing". Usually in most companies, the tagged or ticket size refers to the body size. For example if you buy a size 40 suit, the jacket chest is not 40 but more like 46.  Same with pants. A 34 waist refers to the waist measurement of the wearer and usually at the natural waist like high up where you'd wear tailored old man dress pants. You need a bitease, so a 34 waist ticket would have an actual garment measurement of maybe 34.5 or 35 just for ease around your waist for comfort.
Since jeans are worn low down by the high hip, the body is bigger so in jeans a 34 waist can measure about 1 1/2 inch over ticket. And that is not with a low rise, which means the jean would sit lower on the hip and need a bigger waist. I've made some jeans up to 2 1/2 inches larger than ticket.  At The North Face, who I'm doing work for now, for some of the ski pants I am making them 3 inches over ticket.
It also depends on the style. Some guys still wear their jeans around the low butt. But at that point just buy a larger size! I really don't like going any more than 2 inches over the ticket - just buy a larger size.

So you continued on with Levi's for a while after you left the LVC division?

Dan: Yes. After that I worked for a while with Rebecca Hawkins on Levi's effort to revitalize the 501 design, pulling together a lot of historic levis' shapes from decade to decade to create the perfect global 501. After that I did the pattern for the 527 and around 2005 I worked on the 514 and the 511.  Around this time Levi's changed their pattern systems- they changed to Gerber and took most of their manufacturing off-shore. I had my hands full with that transition for a while...

Pattern details from Dan's work for Levi's.

Dan:  After Levi's ended, my old friends Mary Bruno and Rebecca Hawkins, both former Levi's designers, were working for Ralph Lauren, and recommended me to work for RRL. I think they wanted someone "vintagey". I patterned a lot of their early jackets, a few shirts and shorts.

Any particular differences in the experiences of working at LVC vs. RRL you'd like to comment on?

Dan: Well, aside from the much higher budget at RRL, at RRL I wasn't trying to copy something historical exactly, I was trying to put a vintage look on something that was newly designed, and that was more like a little bit of freedom for me, since I had some background in how the old stuff was really made, they were asking me to put that old stuff into new sketches. I was working from designers concepts as originals, not actual garments as originals. I remember they asked me to design a double breasted denim trench-coat that was just a wonderful challenge. I had to design it so that when it received a heavy wash it developed a vintage looking character, which is much more difficult to do than it sounds.
 After RRL I worked with my friend Stefano Aldighieri at his consulting/design company on a number of freelance projects: Wrangler, Rohan Marley, Victoria Beckham, Ariat…

Wrangler patterns.

What were the Beckham garments like?

Dan: Pretty much like PRPS.

Ariat the Equestrian clothing company?

Dan: I worked with Ariat developing their denim line. It is one of my favorite projects that I've worked on. Ariat makes horse-riding clothing and footwear, and are always working on new designs and technology to improve performance. With their denim project, they had me interview a lot of working cowboys and rodeo riders about their jeans- how they liked the fit, what made different cuts work or not work for horse-riding, anything they thought might improve function or fit (which rodeo riders are surprisingly concerned with). I ended up developing several design features for their men's denim line after that research- lots of fine pattern changes and a few large ones, like making the back waist dip in the center, which prevents plumbers crack. I also gave them a leather reenforced back center belt loop, since rodeo riders often clip safety lines there, and a bigger coin pocket which can accommodate an iPhone.
 I think the men's Ariat M1 is the best fitting and most functional jean I've ever patterned.

What are you up to now?

D: I'm working with North Face, again in patterning and grading tops and jackets. Mostly on their extreme garments, made for risk-takers, that have high durability and insulation requirements and crazy features like built in GPS units in case the wearer is buried by an avalanche or falls off a cliff.
 One thing that the North Face is interested in, that ties in with a deep personal interest of mine, is zero fallout design, where the parts of a garment are patterned like a jigsaw puzzle, all fitting together so there is zero wasted fabric. I was doing things like that, just out of curiosity back at Dupont over 30 years ago. Now there is a growing interest in that practice, which ties in to the Fibershed movement, which I've also become deeply interested in.

Can you explain Fibershed?

D: Rebecca Burgess started this movement in Northern California, and now it's begun to spread, with a number of other Fibershed projects springing up in southern California and some of the New England states.
Fibershed is about reversing the whole apparel industry paradigm as it is. Now, marketing people travel the world observing street trends and then tell designers what to produce in what fabrics and colors and shapes. Designers come up with two-dimensional drawings that are sent off to Asia where they are patterned and graded in a computer and the fabrics and colors found to match. Then things come back as finished, cookie cutter assembled things. I hesitate to even call them "garments" in some cases.
 In Fibershed principles, you start with the Earth. Local growers tell you what they are going to produce, based on local weather and environment factors and seed availability. For instance, this year the Earth might produce green cotton from a new seed source, or it might be a particularly good year for linen, or wool. You look at the resources you have to dye, weave or knit the raw material, and that way you find out what fabrics you have to work with, in what colors, and this largely influences the types and cuts of garments that you can produce.
 [Dan rummages among some garments stacked on a shelf and pulls out a hoodie made from a soft, light brown heathered cotton. The back and underarms are complexly fitted in an unusual pattern, but when he puts this garment on, it fits snugly and neatly.]
 This hoodie is something I designed at North Face with Lydia Wendt, who is very active in Fibershed. The material is unbleached, undyed, organic brown cotton grown locally by Sally Fox.

Fabric used in the zero fallout sweatshirt Dan designed for The North Face, woven from cotton grown by Sally Fox.

Zero Fallout pattern for Dan's North Face sweatshirt.

Dan: Sally is a very interesting person herself- she raises sheep and produces wool, and also experiments with heirloom cotton species- aside from this brown cotton, I've seen naturally green cotton from her farm, and I think she's working on a blue. You really should interview her.

Thank you Dan! It was a pleasure interviewing you.

Dan [laughing]: Well, no problem at all- but... do you really think anyone will find all of this interesting?


Edited by mr randal - 11 Nov 2019 at 5:52pm
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Foxy View Drop Down


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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Foxy Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 Nov 2019 at 3:04am
That was very interesting, indeed!
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mr randal View Drop Down

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote mr randal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 Nov 2019 at 5:55pm
I just added the photos back in from the original interview- nothing is lost forever on the internet, apparently, if you're willing to search a little and apply a little elbow grease.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (4) Thanks(4)   Quote mary kehoe Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 Feb 2022 at 8:17pm
Please let Dan know that I am the girl that he made the wedding dress for when he was 13 years old. I was moving boxes this past week and found my dress with his dressmaker tag in it. I have been searching to find out what course his life took. The wedding was in January in Ohio in 1972. Instead of a train, he made the most beautiful coat of satin. His stitching and beading and lace was impeccable.   I was only 20 at the time and was a student nurse and had no parents to provide for the wedding. I owe him much much more than I was able to pay. He was truly gifted!   
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote hollows Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 Feb 2022 at 10:51pm
Wow, thank you for that addition, Mary. That adds such a great extra dimension to this. I hope the tale makes its way back to Dan!
I make things out of leather.
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