Questions for a sewing contractor

I wrote two entries today, neither panned out. That happens all too often, I have well over 1,000 posts I’ve never published.

Next week I will be interviewing a clothing manufacturer sewing contractor. The company is huge, a vertical operation, the largest in her country. They (it’s her family’s business) do everything from thread spinning to knitting to dyeing, cutting and sewing. She likes start ups and will do 300 unit minimums for the occasional diamond in the rough but is at the end of her rope because 9 out of 10 callers are not ready to talk to her. She asked me why they aren’t coming to me first (she read my book ten years ago) and I said I don’t know why. Just for grins, I asked if she had a website. She said no and that she doesn’t ever plan to, that “things are bad enough”.

But I digress. Please post questions you would like me to ask her in next week’s interview. We would appreciate it.

Amended 6/30/10 From my interviewee:

Wow you didn’t waste any time mentioning the upcoming interview, how exciting!  I am looking forward to it.  I would like to clarify that I would consider myself an agent or some would refer to me as a broker. My role is connecting private label companies in both the USA and Europe with established knit manufacturers in Peru.  I don’t have any financial interest in the vertical manufacturers or sewing contractors I represent. As you know if I did it would be a conflict of interest. You may want to change your blog to say that you are interviewing a manufacturers agent from interviewing a sewing contractor.   I consider my company in Peru the oversight or quality control team that helps assist the factory get the goods out on time and as the quality approved.  My role as an agent is to help both sides, the factory and buyer.  We take an impartial role in the process to make sure everyone is happy.  I would consider myself a service company.  I have a fantastic team of highly qualified textile experts that assist the factory with every step of the production process.  We are sometimes called an insurance policy for the buyer.

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21 comments

  1. Lin says:

    Hi Kathleen, I’m new to your site and I would first like to say that I really appreciate all the great content you’ve shared. I’m going to order your book! I would like to know what information this sewing contractor would need for the 300 min. units for startups (besides the obvious patterns and tech sketches… do they offer a source for trimmings, buttons? If so, is there an information/sampling catalog?) I know it must depend on the level of difficulty the garments are to produce, but what are their typical price range for their services? Their company location would be helpful as well. Thanks so much!

  2. sav.vie says:

    As a fashion designer young in the business, and also a start up, I believe one of the reasons that 9 out of 10 callers are not ready to talk to her is because they are after all “start ups”. A minimum of 300 pieces can be steep and while they may want to use her business in the back of their minds they are looking for a company that will produce less pieces. my question for her is: Has your business ever done surveys or tried to accommodate designers with small orders with the agreement that when they have landed bigger projects that they would bring their business to you?

    sav.vie
    Dare To Be Yourself!

  3. dosfashionistas says:

    What type of garment to they specialize in? Sounds like knits, but what kind?
    Where would someone who used this company be importing from? What help can they give a newbe in handing import paperwork?
    Given the proper information, will they provide buttons and basic trim?
    Do they have a sampling service, since they are so vertically set up? How does one arrive at what the final product would be, going from the designer’s sample not made in house?
    Where do their garments normally sell?

    Why does she say that “9 out of 10” are not ready? What are they lacking?

    Actually this is a very interesting post. Very thought provoking.
    How are the hummers? My flock of doves is almost as large as last year again, even though I know the hawk got at least 3 and is still actively hunting this area. They love to rest in the Virginia creeper on top of the garage.

    Cheers, SarahH

  4. ClaireOKC says:

    Kathleen is there such thing as an advisor or consultant for these “start ups” to kind of walk them through a little tutorial – not how to manufacture or sew up the garment, but at least have some one who can take a look at some of their designs and so they at least know “what” to ask for. Like Lin said – I’m not sure they even know what to ask for much less that they can ask for certain things.

  5. Jennifer says:

    I totally agree that every start up should read Kathleen’s book, but I also know that’s not going to happen (though many will find it after they have gotten deeper into things). But, truly, I think it’s a trade-off – it you want to work with start-ups, be prepared to help them along and know that you will be answering basic questions and repeating yourself. If you don’t like that, don’t target your work to start-ups.

  6. Jay Arbetman says:

    OK, well I’m going to digress a little too.

    What almost no start ups understand is that we are not only NOT the center of the garment making universe, we aren’t even close. Go and try to buy metal buttons at a reasonable price in a quantity less than thirty or forty gross. Go and try to find 10 yards of a novelty lining (something with continuity) for sampling and not use a retailer to do it. Maybe these things are not impossible….but they are darn hard.

    (Now, step into the Fashion Incubator “way back” machine. Sherman, dial in 1971. Take us to Jefferson Street in Chicago)

    SSSHHHH, be quiet and listen to the conversation between a bedraggled women’s dress manufacturer and his associate (which as it turns out is his nephew)

    “Hey schmuck, go out and bring me some fancy buttons for this silk suit. Better yet, call four or five of the fifty button suppliers/manufacturers in town and have them come over”

    OK, fast forward to 2010. The bad news is there are no dress manufacturers in Chicago. There is something called a DE. The good news is you don’t have to hire your nephew.

    In other words, what a DE discovers is that their is no infrastructure. I doubt their is more than a couple of people west of New York and East of Los Angeles that know where to even start this process unless they happen to know the lovely and talented Ms. F-I. Basically, most of the people that I run into are to some degree or another out of touch with reality unless they’ve been well mentored and have read “the book”. For some reason, all of the “Art Institutes” and “International Academies” do not offer much insight into this process.

    300 piece minimum! That would get you absolutely not one start up in the middle of the country except maybe a few people making lab coats or scrubs….maybe culinary wear.

    the good news is that we have some dynamite DE’s in the middle of the country. Some are really doing extremely well. They have talent and guile and they’ve found their way to operating pretty smoothly. These paths to success seem to be quite individualized and what works for one, does not always work for another.

  7. Kathleen says:

    Over and over, I’m struck with three ideas:

    1. It is more important to have the right questions than the right answers. People seem to be focused on questions that arise once one is in the door (trims etc) rather than questions that will help someone get in the door in the first place.

    2. People assume they are a customer because they have some money to spend. Why does it not occur to people they are not the customer? You would never go to Wal-Mart and expect to find a chanel bag, the chanel bag shopper is not Wal-Mart’s customer. It is no different with services.

    3. Personal responsibility and unreasonable expectations. Again, people think that because they have money to spend they are absolved of responsibility to be prepared in the ways a service provider considers to be meaningful. Each believes the service provider is responsible for facilitating the entire relationship or transaction to their satisfaction. A service provider is responsible for a successful outcome after the customer comes in the door. It is the potential customer’s responsibility to get in the door in the first place. This is no different than a college education. It is your responsibility to meet the standards to become accepted. Once there, it is the college’s responsibility to educate you appropriately.

    Jennifer: Believe me, they aren’t targeting their work to start ups -because that is NOT their customer. They do no advertising at all. They would not be the size firm they are running 300 unit lots for start ups. No, they do the biggest brands in the business. Start ups find them, not vice versa.

  8. Kathleen says:

    Kathleen is there such thing as an advisor or consultant for these “start ups” to kind of walk them through a little tutorial – not how to manufacture or sew up the garment, but at least have some one who can take a look at some of their designs and so they at least know “what” to ask for. Like Lin said – I’m not sure they even know what to ask for much less that they can ask for certain things.

    Uh… yes. I’ve been doing it since 1992. Well, technically longer than that; my first job was in the early 80’s and for which I wasn’t qualified but they had no one else who spoke the language, who was comfortable with the culture (it was in Guatemala) and who knew enough about garment construction and fit attributes.

    [amended]
    Any qualified pattern maker can do this type of consulting, it’s one reason you go to one before you find a contractor because pattern makers get you ready for that relationship. If they can’t do that and refer you to a contractor, they aren’t as professional as they’ve led you to believe. If you are not ready, it is in part their responsibility. These days tho, a lot of people see the pattern maker as a roadblock in their path to what they really want -a contractor- rather than a facilitator on that path or they think the pattern maker’s function is superfluous. A lot of contractors don’t have pattern makers on staff, that is not their function, their typical customer doesn’t need that. Expecting them to add that function for the few callers who expect that, isn’t going to wash, it costs a lot of money.

    A CAD system with peripherals and training is $25,000 to $75,000 plus the same again in payroll costs. If a contractor only has space in their schedule to add one new customer a month and that customer expects pattern services to be rolled in AND the client wants a small run (here, people thought 300 is a lot) then it is not reasonable to expect a contractor to pay all this money for one 100 lot customer per month. Contractors aren’t crazy and they’re not stupid. If they’re not doing it, there’s a reason for it.

    In some ways it’s like going to a home builder and expecting them to build a completely custom home for you if you haven’t first gone to an architect to have the plans drawn up. Sure, some builders have architects on staff but just as many don’t. Likewise, if the architect can’t refer you to a builder, watch out. It means no builder likes their work. If you know a given builder is good and they don’t have an architect, they will refer you to some they like. It’s no different with a contractor. If they don’t have one on staff, they will refer you to one whose work they’ve used before.

  9. Jay Arbetman says:

    I have a ton of start ups that come through my door. I tell every single one of them about F-I.
    Now some of those people that I see have already found Kathleen and F-I. Others do hook up once they are shown the site and the book.

    HOWEVER, not all of them do! You know the story. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.

  10. When people come to me asking about working up patterns/prototypes for their projected line, one of the first things I ask them is if they’ve got Kathleen’s book. If not, I tell them that after they’ve gotten and read it, to call me back and we’ll go from there.

    If they think that’s too much of an investment of time or money, I know there’s not a prayer they’re ready to start a business.

  11. Brenda says:

    Does this manufacturer spin or twist yarn?
    What type of fiber do they use and what kinds of yarn do they spin/twist?
    What make of knitting machines do they have and what gauge or gauges do they have.?
    Do they sew or link the knitted pieces together.?
    Are they able to manufacture knitted trim?
    Where are they located?
    What is their contact information.

  12. sav.vie says:

    i am glad that i commented on this because i would have never known about the book………i would agree that it is an investment……start ups are constantly looking for info on product manufacturing. i for one became stagnant not knowing where to turn especially in a small country in the caribbean. so if there is a book that will help guide me towards sourcing the best manufacturer for my needs then thank you. i would most certainly pass along the info as well!!

  13. sav.vie,

    The link to get the book is toward the upper right of this page. Under the image of shears, under the Alvanon ad, under the pull-down menus for Archives and Categories… there’s the button to get Kathleen’s book.

  14. Rochelle says:

    What machines do you have that will give my garment(s) the highest quality finishing possible?
    Do you have extra machines in case of breakdown? Or do the machines run full steam for a full work day?
    Does your company work 24/7 shifts? When do they not work?
    What is your ideal lead time for finished garments once you receive all materials?
    Do you have a busy season when you do not want small unit orders (300)?
    Ideally, what months would you take small unit orders (300)?
    What fabrics will your equipment handle?
    Do you have vendors you like to do business with (thread, buttons, fabric etc.) that you would put a word in for me to purchase smaller quantity?
    Would you be willing to do larger orders as I grow? Ideally, how would you like to structure growing orders?
    How do you structure payment?
    Am I able to be there for the first production/prototype – in case of questions?
    What languages does the head production person speak?
    What is your price structure? How will I be able to get prices down as I increase quantity?
    Are your sewers/crew union?
    Are your sewers/crew paid well and work under good working conditions?
    Do you use green materials – if so how?
    How are the finished garments packed? Each in plastic bags? Hung on hangers? (For a dress)
    How long has your lead production person been with you? Your head cutter? Your head sewer?
    What do you look for in a small company – what are your requirements to take on a small company?
    What is your preferred mode of communication once you accept a contract? email? phone? text?
    When is the best time to contact you in the day? Note: I am not a hoverer – I need to know that she will do her job and I will stay out of her way. Communication is for heads-up info only i.e. buttons will be 2 days later than the vendor stated.
    What does your contract look like?
    How much deposit do you require? What is the payment structure you prefer?
    Do you have any suggestions to turn this specific pattern/construction into more efficient production pattern/construction?
    Do you have any vacations planned? Who is in charge when you are not there? How long has this person been with you? How well do they know your operation?
    Who steps in to cover for you should you need to take a leave of absence?
    How often are your machines maintained?
    Do you have phone/internet problems – do they go down much? If so, how often on average.
    Do you drop ship with your current clients?
    How soon can we get started? :)

  15. Marie-Christine says:

    I find it fascinating that she has such a strong reaction to having a website. Does she never go to shows and pass out literature to prospective clients? She has no business card, no brochure, no business forms for customers to fill out, no price list? So why would a website be different? In fact, I’d think a website that clearly said ‘these are the minimum standards in order to be accepted among our clients’ and ‘just forget it unless you have read Kathleen’s book’ would actually eliminate many stray calls from people who’ve sort of heard of them and have no idea what they’re doing. If the average size of orders was clear, nobody would come and ask for 50 of anything.

    I sort of understand this by country-to-country comparison. Here in France the idea that advertising is bad is very prevalent, with the consequence that many businesses are completely off doing their thing in a parallel world. Yes, so far if you’re a good plumber/baker you don’t need to advertise, you’ll always get some sort of work. But you’ll only get work with people who kind of know past customers, not necessarily with the kind of customers you’d like to attract. And I totally understand not wanting your business to grow very much for whatever reason, because it’s a huge administrative hassle to have employees and so on. But are people staying small because they really mean it, or more often because they miss out on seeing what opportunities might be out there? I see people grinding away without any hope of improvement simply because they’re afraid of talking to people they haven’t been formally introduced to. So 19th century..

    A bad website is not worth considering :-). A good one explains clearly what it is you do, gives some idea of scale and process, some idea of the range of services available and various options. A good site actually saves you from having to talk to oodles of unsuitable people, because most of them see that this is not the thing for them. You can also go a long way by, subtly or not, pointing people to resources for the kind of stuff they’re really looking for. They’ll be grateful, they’ll come back to you when they do want 50,000 something, and meanwhile they’ll be happy, and so will you. I think people are afraid that if they put out information about themselves then unsuitable cranks will pursue them for more. But are you really not getting phone calls from unsuitable cranks now? Why not give the means to the merely uninformed to redirect themselves in more appropriate directions, by giving them information, and better yet information that you only need to formulate once? Surely the ratio of uninformed to cranks still has to be quite good, unless I’m totally mistaken.

    I do get that people used to be afraid of The Internet, and of being visible. But in the last 20 years that’s proven again and again to be so wrong… There’s going to be information about you out there, don’t you want to at least have your side presented? Kathleen, I realize this site hasn’t been all that direct source of revenue that you’d hoped for when you started it, but do you bitterly regret having done it? Are you aghast at the people you’ve attracted around you by it? Did you get zero opportunity for stuff like NYTimes interviews (:-)) that’d have come your way anyway? Do you wish you were still operating with stamps only? Or did it change your life and your work in at least positive ways? Speak to this woman :-)…

  16. Kathleen says:

    I can always count on you for other ideas Marie-Christine, and I love that.

    I think many of your points are valid to given situations but maybe not so much to this one.

    I find it fascinating that she has such a strong reaction to having a website. Does she never go to shows and pass out literature to prospective clients? She has no business card, no brochure, no business forms for customers to fill out, no price list? So why would a website be different?

    This is no directed at you personally MC, just generally. It doesn’t seem to matter how many entries I write about it but the process of getting or placing work is totally different in the trade. It is a matter of referral or face to face meetings at the types of meet ups that people who are at this level, will be at. The dichotomy is that younger people coming in, think internet sourcing strategies are the way to go because that compliments their preferences. I get it. Problem is, that’s not what old school people are doing. They’re not hurting so they’re unlikely to change anytime soon. It serves no purpose to talk about how stupid it is because contractors aren’t hurting in the ways that everyone seems to think they are. [projection?]

    In theory, I totally agree with your suggestion that a website would be optimal as a way to lay out the criteria they use to accept work. Problem is, many (most?) don’t read it all. Trust me, I can’t tell you how much of my time is consumed with people who don’t read instructions. They scan at best. An appalling number of people think the rules do not apply to them, they are more special than everyone else -the idea that rules should be broken is now culturally endemic. This is totally new, it was never like this. Since Project Runway started, it has become a crisis.

    Yes, so far if you’re a good plumber/baker you don’t need to advertise, you’ll always get some sort of work. But you’ll only get work with people who kind of know past customers, not necessarily with the kind of customers you’d like to attract. And I totally understand not wanting your business to grow very much for whatever reason, because it’s a huge administrative hassle to have employees and so on. But are people staying small because they really mean it, or more often because they miss out on seeing what opportunities might be out there?

    Her firm is not small, they aren’t afraid of growth. They are the largest firm in her country. I would disagree that referrals aren’t the best way to get business. It’s not like consumer to consumer. In those kinds of referrals, one is lending trust to *the business*, trusting them to do well by their friend. In apparel, it’s not like that at all. In giving a referral, one is trusting their friend not to mess up their relationship with their contractor. This is why I don’t give referrals on the public pages of this site anymore. Believe me, I do not need another contractor calling me to yell at me, to tell me to “lose their number”. I’m not stupid, it only had to happen once. I only give referrals to people I think are ready and won’t make me look bad. I rely on suppliers. If I make too many bad referrals, I spoil it for everyone because the contractor won’t take anyone I send them. This means my value, the value of my relationships is low so why would anyone come to me? Then I’d go broke.

  17. Jay Arbetman says:

    And that is where you have to be explicitly clear when you are referring and when you
    are acting as a directory of sorts. When someone asks for organic twill tape or some kind of
    hardware that I do not have readily available, I try and be helpful. Usually people that end up on my doorstep do not have other choices so I try and be VERY clear about what I know and do not know about someone.

  18. Don says:

    Hello everyone,

    We manufacture bags within the baby industry. We are a start-up too but our next collection will be in the region of 300 pieces. Does anyone know of any skilled sewing company in Europe that would be able to help us? I say Europe because we are based in Europe and want to find a factory in the EU region.

    Any help greatly appreciated.
    Thank you for reading

    Don

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