In Bewildered by pattern services?, I explained how the industry has traditionally used pattern services, and how technology and trends have created sourcing difficulties for new entrants today. Much of the same applies to sewing contract services too and I’ll explain that now. As an aside: a re-read of this topic before publishing dictates you must understand what “manufacturer” means or none of this is going to make sense. For the record, the party (usually you, AKA the DE or designer entrepreneur) who is responsible for creation of the product, is the manufacturer. Manufacturer and contractor are not interchangeable terms anymore than cyst and tumor are mix and match (more). Moving on…
In the olden days, most manufacturers did all of their own sewing under their own roofs. We did have sewing contractors too but their role was nothing like what it is today. The function of a sewing contractor was to handle the overflow from established manufacturers during peak times of production. Using contractors was the only way that manufacturers could avoid hiring people for the busy season, only to lay them off once production leveled off.
During the post war boom of 1950’s, land values increased and since cutting takes up so much square footage (100 foot long tables were and are, not unheard of), cutting services were the first spin off. This was most common in New York City; manufacturers there, moved cutting operations into New Jersey. Later on, these facilities became stand alone operations that did cutting for a variety of producers. The fabric was sent to NJ and then the cut pieces were trucked back to the city for sewing.
Some manufacturers were less keen on the idea and preferred to keep it all in house. These were the manufacturers who left the city and headed out for the wild west, establishing secondary manufacturing hubs in places like Dallas, Kansas City, Chicago, Atlanta and of course, Los Angeles. At the same time, many firms were established along the eastern seaboard; most of them textile production related. Manufacturing was much more regional then; company towns based on clothing manufacturing were common. There were plenty of operations dominating small towns in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Missouri. Even my home state hosted several large plants. New Mexico had 3 Hanes plants in and around Las Cruces. Albuquerque had 2 Levi’s plants among others (Levi’s didn’t close until the early 90’s). What should be clear is that outsourcing, if only within the US, had started in the post world war II era. Managing domestic outsourcing is what beget the competencies to manage production offshore 50 years later.
The climate was distinctly different from today, the community was larger and everybody knew everybody. If you wanted to branch off into another type of product, you poached employees skilled in it from another business. To be sure, new people were always coming in or splitting off from an existing enterprise but there was vast repertoire and richness of community knowledge.
But back to contractors; these businesses were a short term solution to avoid inflating the payroll during peak periods. Again, their customers were well versed in production, the arrangement being of B2B relationships. That a new entrant would start with a contractor as their primary means of production—like today—was unusual at best, weird at worst, and just not done.
Contrary to what most people think, offshore production started to gain traction in the 1970’s which is when companies slowly began to shed in house production sewing. Greater reliance, or rather, a change in emphasis with contractors began then because manufacturers always needed samples or more rapid replenishment for short runs. Off shore production didn’t become a grave concern domestically until the 80’s and of course, only became more pronounced then. It wasn’t until the early 80’s that contractors, having always been somewhat marginalized, the proverbial red-headed step-child, began to feel the pinch too. By the 90’s and certainly into 2000, contractors were in a world of hurt.
Consider: most contractors didn’t have the option of going offshore because their focus had always been domestic, feeding from the overflow of in-house manufacturers so when production went off shore, contractors had few new competencies to evolve quickly. By the early 90’s, a great many contractors had gone out of business and it was just as well for many, their kids when on to college and didn’t want to take over the family business.
In this way, the industry’s weak links (already fragmented) stretched and broke. Other than managers placing direct contracts, the direct link to contractors had always been through pattern makers since they were the most logical go between twixt design and production; they spoke the same language and understood each other when no one else did. Before, contractors never had to look for work; in this new era, they didn’t know how to find the customer much less, have been prepared to move forward with them if they did, making it difficult to develop competencies forward in the chain. The pattern makers always brought the work in, facilitating the hand off and making sure the customer was prepared. An obvious solution for a contractor would have been to hire a pattern maker (and some have today) but the expense—perhaps 10 times the cost of a stitcher plus all the requisites (CAD etc)—were enough to kill the idea for most people. At best, contractors had someone on staff who didn’t have any training, but had an eye for such things who could handle the small, occasional jobs. Without tutelage, these talents were rarely fully developed.
So, where this leaves us today is that new designers may be justified in expecting established service providers to change to address new needs in the marketplace but other than the above, there remain these barriers:
- Supply and demand
- Imploding workforce
- Expansion vs exit strategy
Supply and demand:
With a strong reduction in the number of available services, compounded by the increase of demand, this is not a buyer’s market. There are more designers than there are contractors to serve them. If the best contractors are too busy to handle all of the work that comes in the door, they’ll select the most prepared customer who doesn’t expect competencies and resources that we don’t have. It is for this reason that I’ve been saying for years, that the contractor situation is so tight that the people who stand the greatest chance of making it, are those who produce for themselves.
For many people, this is their first business venture and coming in from a consumer mindset, have the idea that finances permitting, they should be able to buy what they want (and call the shots). While this isn’t McDonald’s with first come, first served, nobody implies this is fair. However, since a contractor’s customers had traditionally been experienced, contractors will select for what they’ve always done and what they know. In this climate, they have more freedom than ever to do that.
Imploding work force:
Truly; the preceding is the wrong discussion to be having because our number one problem is labor. We can’t find enough people who are interested in sewing jobs. Without people to sit behind machines, we may as well pack it in and call it a day. On the other hand, if you produce for yourselves, it will be easier for you to recruit workers (who will need training of course) than it may be for a contractor to find workers, skilled or otherwise.
Expansion vs exit strategy
The last thing is that most contractors are older; our industry has been greying at an alarming rate; in sewing plants, the average age is easily 50 or more. As such, most contractors are thinking about exit strategy, not expansion. Any capital they put into the operation at this stage will be coming out of their retirement savings. So maybe you think they could sell the operation but who will buy it? You? Just as fewer workers are interested in factory work, few designers are interested in doing their own production, much less anyone else’s—and that’s assuming designers would welcome the challenge to learn it or even have the finances to buy a turn key factory.
You’ll have to be more prepared than you ever imagined. We know you’ve worked hard (setting up a website, kickstarter, writing a business plan, learning new software, trying to attract investors, etc) but everybody does that, those aren’t the competencies that matter to a contractor, and much of the former can amount to so much noise. You need to know operations inside out. Optimally, assume the duties that designers had traditionally done instead of trying to get a pattern or design service to do that. You can’t google or youtube your way through this forever.
I’m not suggesting that packaged all-in-one services aren’t valuable, but I think they’re not used well by most companies. If you go that route, it is best to use the experience to teach yourself how to do it rather than the situation being a long term solution. If you intend to learn to roll your own, be honest about it. Nobody worth hiring will hold it against you. In fact, my feeling is that if I do my job of walking the customer through the production process well, the customer won’t need me anymore. Which is really weird in hindsight. Twenty years ago, being a consultant was frowned up.
For a contractor, the best customer is the customer who gets the stuff there with no surprises, no drama and pays on time. In other words, as close to the traditional B2B, manufacturer to contractor, customer they always had. Not that everyone expects that today but get as close to that as you can.
Before I forget -and as an aside- this should be yet another reminder of why you don’t have to worry about contractors hijacking your concept to produce it for themselves. If they lack the wherewithal to provide services forward of their function, they also lack the means to establish relationships with buyers to wholesale it at retail.
PS. My next post will be about a field trip to the TexProcess tradeshow in Atlanta this May. It is only held once every two years so if you think you are interested in heading in the direction of in house production, TexProcess is the place to be. A bunch of us will be there. It will be fun. Come hang out with us as we walk the floor, looking at the pretty machines.