Manufacturer vs. subcontractor

Behind the scenes, I’ve been dealing with a huge mess -at no pay (not a complaint) but I get a post out of it and we hope this experience will be of use to you. The problem is a conflict of expectations between a manufacturer and a hired subcontractor. As you’ll see, there’s problems and truths on both sides. The conflict is that the manufacturer (we’ll call her Debbie), a regional supplier of uniform sport coats (Shriners and Elks) charged back the subcontractor to cover repairs that they said were needed. The subcontractor (we’ll call him Richard) says this lot was produced exactly like the first three lots he did. While he says there are problems, he claims their root lies with Debbie’s company. A surprising contributing factor is communication between the two (trade language practices rears its ugly head). As you’ll see, there’s truth on both sides but there is one clear cut answer amid the muck. First profiles:

Richard is a small contractor specializing in men’s tailored garments. His primary experience is in one-offs but he’s worked hard to learn industrial practices. His background in patterns and construction is self taught. That said, Richard has some annoying vocabulary choices. He is known to use terms that are either unknown in manufacturing (culled from British bespoke tailors) or are considered to be elitist (a stick in the eye to the average manufacturer who prides themselves on their blue collar roots). While he is a motivated tailor, in manufacturing, many of these practices are akin to home sewing -well meaning but poorly applied- and similarly demeaned. If you’ve been brainwashed to believe it takes seven years to learn to make a suit, few can toss that investment of time and money aside.

Debbie’s company has been in business for 70 years. Their bio says they were the primary supplier to the police and fire departments; the uniform division was an extension of the family’s custom tailoring business. At its peak in the 1970s, Debbie employed 20 in-house employees in her 15,000 square foot shop. Over time, demand decreased and the company sold off its surplus equipment and changed its business model. Since the mid- to late-1980s, Debbie changed her production model, managing a network of mostly home-based sewing subcontractors. The subcontractors who work on site pay “booth rent” for the space and equipment they use. About 80% of the work is placed with outworkers who have varying degrees of skill and competency. As this case study will illustrate, Debbie’s current operation has endemic, systemic defects. I don’t know how she managed to stay in business seventy years.

The bid process
Just as DEs must submit a product to have it sewn by a contractor for pricing, as did Richard. As I’ve explained in the book, there are certain expectations. Standard practice dictates the contracting party (Debbie or a DE) must provide:

  • A finished sample or prototype
  • All fabrics, trims, linings etc
  • A completed production ready pattern
  • Placement guides (technically part of the pattern)
  • Seam and product specifications.

Debbie did not provide a finished sample, pieces were missing (she cut it beforehand, usually the contractor will do it), she did not provide a pattern, guides or seam and product specifications.

Now, between two business people like Debbie and Richard, there’s some wiggle room because of presumed tacit knowledge and practices shared between parties (and no, you don’t have that leeway -sorry!). If the missing pieces amounted to fusible but they gave you the goods, I’d frown but say nothing. Seam specs -assuming they were standard such as 3/8″ everywhere except 1/4″ on outside edges- could be communicated verbally. Having it written down in the event of a dispute remains optimal. Toward that end, Richard used a Statement of Work. In it, he details his standard work practices. A client is free to edit the conditions of the agreement to suit themselves.

Not having the pattern is another story if it’s a new client and you haven’t worked with them before. You need that pattern to clear up any ambiguities if there’s problems in sewing. You need to have it to calculate a work around if it’s needed or to troubleshoot the root of it. If you see it’s a cutting error (as opposed to a pattern error), you can recut the problematic piece to match. Still, from Richard’s perspective, he assumed the pattern and cutting would be good since Debbie’s company had been in business for seventy years. Famous last words. By the way, when I detail the problems with manufacturing in my book, most of these are things I saw in established firms, not new ones. If second and third generation manufacturers have these problems, there’s no reason to presume you’d be immune.

The expectation from the contractor providing the sample sewing bid, is that this person will detail any problems they had with the style. This way it can be corrected by the manufacturer. Richard did so, his notes follow:

I have few notes on the blazer. Each company has different standards and I am trying to reconcile your standards against those I’ve encountered elsewhere.

  • Incomplete bundle: The flaps and patch pockets for the fronts, including the lining were not part of the bundle. l bagged out the jacket; but left the hem and the arm seam open so the pockets/flaps can be made and attached.
  • The dart at the neckline was not marked on the cut jacket fronts. I measured a 3/4″ dart 4″ in length and transferred that to the cut jacket fronts.
  • The waistline darts were only marked on center. I measured 3/4″ dress darts on the sample and transferred those to the cut jacket fronts.
  • The undercollar was cut larger than the outer collar, which is not industry standard. I trimmed the undercollar to be the same size as the outer collar. It may be prudent to check the pattern to rule out a cutting error.
  • The interior pocket set down area in the right front lining side was not marked. I measured from the sample and transferred that to the cut lining fronts. The pocket is 9″ up from the hem and the opening is 6” wide.
  • Also, the lining is cut the same size as the shell, which does not offer enough wearing ease. Industry standards would allow for a pleat in the center back plus some additional length (which is eased in) over the bust area.
  • Missing notches:
    • A notch was missing from the under- and outer-collars where the shoulder seam line meets. I don’t remember seeing it on your pattern. This is an industry standard which makes sewing faster and less error prone.
    • In addition, the pattern should include marks where the lining and facing are joined and eased – these were not on the cut pieces.

Richard could have been a bit more diplomatic, omitting references to pieces failing to meet “industry standard”. I edited his notes to delete the worst of these notations. He can be a bit of a pill. While he may have been right and Debbie wrong, simply identifying the defect sans commentary would have been sufficient. Why do something that would potentially create defensiveness in the other party, particularly if they’re (presumably) the greater authority? Later on, Debbie expressed her defensiveness, became unnecessarily unkind and among other things, said he had an attitude problem. If this were a DE client who needed that guidance because they didn’t know, it’d be acceptable. If it had been me working with Debbie, I might have prefaced the defects by mentioning my disappointment or couch it in terms of whether she realized controls were not being employed in cutting. More likely, I would have walked the pieces, noted the deficit of notching and returned the bundle unsewn. Life is too short. If a sample bundle (presumably a testament of a company’s core cutting competency) was this bad, I would only think that subsequent lots would be worse. Note: unbidden, Richard compiled a three page company profile detailing Debbie’s operating deficiencies.

Anyway, after this sample was made, Debbie identified some problems which needed correction on Richard’s part, after which they came to an agreement that he’d be charging fifty-something dollars per unit. At that time, she gave him a lot of thirty some odd jackets to make. He returned these on time (when he said he would) and collected payment upon delivery. She gave him another lot of nearly thirty more jackets. Again, he returned these on time and collected payment at the time of delivery. Then she gave him a shorter run of six jackets which had to be done quickly. Again, he returned these when he said he would but this time, Debbie wasn’t there to pay him so he left an invoice. When Debbie sent him payment by mail, she charged back $20 per jacket, a short fall of $120. This is when things got ugly. It was at this point that Debbie claimed the jackets weren’t well made and had to be repaired in house. Here’s what she wrote (by the way, her caps key must be permanently locked, her emails are ONE LONG SHOUT):

Here’s the bottom line:
If you want to continue to work with us, you need to comply with our way of doing things.

We want a vocabulary that is standard in the industry–not esoteric terms that may be of use to you, but to no one else.

We do not appreciate your consulting with others about our product/s. There is confidentiality, respect, trust involved. If you feel you have to consult with others about our company, then perhaps we should be contracting with them instead of you. It’s not their business, and you should know enough that you are able to make a garment without having to ask 3 other people what to do.

You are working with us, not vice versa. You make the coats the way we want, not the way you want. This is what we pay for. If you have a question, you ask. We pay you according to what you say you need to charge which, by the way, is high. However, what we did was subtract all the work Gloria did–12 hours’ worth divided by 6 coats, not counting the cutting, fusing, etc. Finishing, etc.–from what you were supposed to have done for the price, and didn’t.

If your schedule is so tight that you can only accommodate us in small portions of time, and we have to get the garments out, we don’t always have time to wait until it’s convenient for you to work us in. We need someone whose schedule is flexible enough so that there is time to work with us when we have work, and can do other things when we don’t have a lot of work.

Frankly, it’s becoming a question as to whether you want to learn how to make a coat our way, or whether you just want sewing lessons. I don’t want to pay Gloria to teach you how to sew. I don’t mean this unkindly, but we’ll know soon enough.

If you feel you want to discuss your check further, we are happy to. But the price stands.

My concern is one of policy. We didn’t give our garments to you for one ups-manship, for outside consultation, for you to tell us that others have decided how to make our coats.

Richard compiled a two page, step by step list of how jackets are to be constructed at Debbie’s company. Some things I agree with, some I think are downright lunacy. In the list, he notes the following errors he made. Still, in my opinion, if these were a problem, they should have been caught with the first sample or at least the first lot he produced. This is what Debbie said was wrong:

  • No sticky tape on bottom hem

Debbie calls fusible interfacing “sticky tape”. So much for standard vocabulary :). Richard says he did fuse the hems, extending the full width of the hem and a half inch beyond the fold. Good thing he did, I would have skinned him alive if he hadn’t. This is a big deal, the most damning of Debbie’s claims.

  • Sleeve was tacked wrong

Richard says he tacked the sleeve lining at the elbow -a definite no-no. The sleeve lining should be tacked 2″ above the hem (how Debbie does it too). Also, Debbie’s standard is that a tack at shoulder is required. In my opinion, that’s an acceptable variation although I don’t do it. I prefer tacking at the bottom of the armhole. But again, Debbie’s standard is well within reason.

  • Tack collar

This is another variation that is or is not standard, varies by company. I tack the top collar and undercollar at the center back neckline.

  • Reset sleeve heads

This is the dopey thing that Debbie does. She sets hers the reverse of anyone else on the planet, layering it to the shoulder pad rather than the sleeve cap. Weird. Her way defeats the purpose so I don’t know why she does it.

Anecdotally, Richard was able to interview other stitchers Debbie works with. They’ve told him that she will only pay $32 a jacket, period, so he surmises her chargeback was a way of getting his price in range with her margins. Debbie’s other stitchers are desperate for whatever they can get (I’m not sure that “booth rental” arrangement is kosher) but Richard has more financial options and doesn’t depend on her to pay the bills.

In summary, although Richard can be a bit of a pill and aside for the chargebacks on the sleeve, collar, and sleevehead (whoever is paying is entitled to their weirdness), these costs don’t amount to twenty dollars worth of repair. As it is, he could have done them so we suspect she put them out as-is but charged him as though she did repair them. More importantly, if these were legitimate issues of concern, she should have caught them first in the sampling process or in the other two lots he did for her.

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