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  • Writer's pictureEmily Gray

Shape, Style, Seams: Intricacies of Soft Goods Product Design

As product designers, we understand the nuanced and intricate balance involved in selecting what the product itself will be made from, as it's more than just a matter of materials—it's a fundamental aspect of the design process itself.

When designing products, we typically categorise products' aesthetic components into two categories: hard goods and soft goods. "Hard goods" refers to anything made of a rigid or semi-rigid material such as plastic, wood or metal. "Soft goods" refers to any component made from textiles such as cloth, foam or mesh. In many cases, a product has both hard and soft good components.

Often, hard good products — especially those made of plastic — are manufactured in large quantities using moulds created by specialised 3D modelling software. Plastics, or similar material, are heated to liquid or near-liquid consistency, then shaped using the moulds, and cured into a hardened shape. This allows for a lot of versatility when creating different form factors, organic flowing shapes and transitions in curvatures as the material will fill any shape your heart desires as long as there's a mould for it.

Soft goods present a unique design challenge for product design as the material often comes in thin flexible sheets that have to be shaped into organic forms. Think of creating hard goods similarly to building something with clay and soft goods as creating with a sheet of paper. It would be much easier to wrap a tennis ball in clay than with a single sheet of paper. While the clay can be reshaped into smooth flowing shapes, the paper creates creases and hard corners and would be nearly impossible to smoothly cover the tennis ball.

So, how are these soft goods created? To prevent the material from creasing, it has to be strategically cut and re-bonded to create smooth curves. This is why circular objects such as soccer balls or basketballs are constructed from so many different pieces. The form of an organic shape has to be reversed engineered into 2D shapes called pattern pieces. These pattern pieces will be translated to the textiles where the shapes are cut out and re-bonded to each other. Anywhere the material is re-bonded is referred to as a seam or seam line. A materials elasticity, flexibility, weight and the desired shape can influence where the seam lines lie and even small adjustments can greatly impact how the final piece looks.

The biggest factor to pattern creation is the desired form of the soft goods. When objects have changes in curves or size, this is often a good place to introduce seams. Take a jacket as an example. The seams usually lie along the shoulders, the transition from the shoulder to the sleeve and along the sides from the armpit to the bottom of the jacket. Since jackets are often made of a fairly dense, minimal elastic material most of the shape and fit is created from how these pattern pieces are cut. A more fitted jacket at the waist may have a significant curve on the pattern pieces that make up the chest and back, whereas a more relaxed fit may have a straighter pattern. Ill fitting clothing is often because the pattern was not created to fit a certain body type or for the wrong material. Stretchy materials are typically more forgiving than dense materials and require less dramatic changes in curvature. 

Since textiles don’t have the rigidity of hard goods, sometimes extra support such as plastic frames, foam or card stock is needed to hold a shape. This will require seams to keep in place, and for ease of assembly. If a softer material such as foam is used, the seams will dictate the shape of the foam. When using padding or frames it may be necessary to increase the size of the patterns to properly wrap around the depth of the support. This is referred to as adding “ease” to a pattern. Typically this is equivalent to the depth or half the depth of the support piece or padding.

Seams and seam lines may be added to help stylise a piece. Ribbing, quilting or changes in colour or textile can add depth and dynamic elements to a soft good piece. Often the sewing thread is colour matched to fabrics but sometimes contrasting thread is used, such as on pieces like seats in cars, to accentuate a seam. Other components such as zippers can also influence where the seams of a piece lie. The more pockets or zippers added, typically the more complex the patterns become and increase the number of pattern pieces, seams and labour needed to create a piece.

Finally, it is important to consider finishing practices with soft good products. When creating patterns a designer will add “seam allowances” anywhere where there is a seam. This means they offset the pattern edge by a predetermined amount, typically either 1/2” or 1/4”. This is because when the textiles are bonded that amount of fabric will be used to bond the fabrics. This seam allowance is noted and passed along to the manufacturer so they know how much allowance to leave when assembling. Anywhere with an exposed edge or an edge of fabric that is not being sewn to anything should be hemmed, which means to fold it over itself and then sew closed so there is never an unfinished edge visible. Whatever size the hem (fold) is should be added to the pattern along with seam allowance for this piece. High quality goods rarely have an unfinished edge visible, and is a large indicator in the quality of the work.

The unique process of developing soft goods has some key advantages. Due to the nature of sewing, most of these pieces can be prototyped much faster and inexpensively than materials like hard plastics. Unlike many hard good processes soft goods don’t require the same upfront tooling costs. Sewn pieces can easily be adjusted to make small tailoring adjustments with existing prototypes and see realtime changes. Since these textiles come in pre-made sheets swapping out colours can be much more cost efficient than hard goods. Soft good elements can be a great inexpensive way to alter colour ways while keeping plastics the same.

Choosing a great partner — for any kind of product with any kind of materials — who has been through the process goes a long way to help navigate the development landscape. You can always reach out to our team at at any point in your product development journey for hard or soft goods.


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