Sourcing for Apparel Manufacturing Boot Camp

Alexis and Faith, clearly tired of cutting out cuffs.
Alexis and Faith, clearly tired of cutting out cuffs.

In the summary post, I’d placed Sourcing second but it should be first. Reason being, if you can’t find the fabric or materials for your product (and forget buying at retail), you may as well pack it in. Failing to source first is the biggest pain point and reason for cost over runs in start up enterprises. Most independent designers are so driven to make things happen that sourcing is often relegated to the back burner. It is only when fabric is needed for samples that these same designers realize their dream fabrics don’t exist in the quantities they need -because if you have enough money, anything can be made for you- and then they have to delay their launch because patterns need to be tweaked for fabrics they can get. Use the examples of what we went through to develop your own fabric sourcing strategy.

First, a list of stuff we needed to buy to produce the coats:

  • Shell fabric
  • Lining fabric -both quilted and for pocket bags.
  • Knit ribbing for cuffs and waistbands
  • Fusible -Komar
  • Care and size labels (sean and wunderlabel)
  • Thread, in two colorways.
  • Zippers: both separating and dress weight
  • Reflective trim
  • Equipment related items: Machines, magnetic seam guides, magnets, razor blades, thread lubricant, marker adhesive, sewing drawers (for the new machines), piping feet, cutting clamps, feed rail plugs, notcher dies etc.
  • Catered lunches for 4 days

Oh, before I forget, we did not beg for any discounts from our vendors in the name of charity. We paid full price for everything we purchased although we did get a few favors which I’ll explain as I go along. I do not ask vendors for discounts or donated goods because I know they are frequently asked for them and I don’t want to ruin years of relationship building for a short term gain. I think it works well for our attendees to pay a small fee to purchase goods to make the coats because they’re then committed to the endeavor. But I digress.

We bought the Made in USA shell fabric from Carr Textile. I like doing business with this mill and send a lot of customers to them. They have great continuity and ship promptly. They sell however many yards you want of an item but if you want less than a roll, will have to pay a $14 roll charge. This is to prevent people who try to take advantage of wholesale sources and want to order 5 yards of however many fabrics.

We bought the lining fabric from a jobber called Big Z. They also sell onsies and twosies to pretty much anyone on the web. I haven’t been buying from them very long but in my limited experience, their customer service is good. If you plan to buy from jobbers, this post is a must read.

Knit ribbing was purchased from Straus Knitting in Wisconsin. They have a $500 minimum which is low in the scheme of things but high if you only need it for a few items. Straus custom dyes and custom makes ribbing and sundry to your specifications. They also won’t have something ready to ship when you call because they only dye after receipt of order. I think that is a smart policy but expect the process to take about 4 weeks from inquiry to delivery.

I had the fusible in stock already but I get it from Komar Alliance. (their name throws me for a loop every time as I’m thinking of another Komarr Alliance). I also buy plotter paper and spreading tissue from them. Please do not call these people if you’re not prepared to buy full rolls (200 yards) of anything. I’m not at liberty to give you any prices but the fusible I bought is easily 1/5 the cost of a popular internet supplier and is also 60″ wide.

We had brand labels already but I needed size and care and content labels. I bought the size labels from Sean Labels. Their website is a bit overwhelming but persevere. The prices weren’t the lowest but they had everything I needed. Another reason I bought from them is that I had a disastrous first order from them last Spring. Sean Labels resolved the problem fairly quickly and well. Perhaps paradoxically, I believe that you don’t know how good a vendor is until you have a problem. I ordered the care and content labels from Wunderlabel because their website interface made label design, very easy. Again, I’m sure there are vendors with better pricing but price isn’t the only reason you buy; making the purchase simple and less time consuming is increasingly valuable.

I bought the thread from a company in Los Angeles. I love my thread vendor, a small company that makes their thread here in the USA, and could not bear if people did not listen and browbeat the fellow with unreasonable expectations. You must order at least 12 cones of one color. After that, 6 unit lots. In other words, 12, 18, or 24 cones etc. They have a thread sample book that you should buy (that is traditional). Their prices are excellent, about half the cost of another, better known wholesale thread supplier. Their thread is not as linty as other thread I’ve purchased and it doesn’t break mid-spool like their closest LA competitor. They don’t do much mail order because their English skills are limited (I think they are either Korean or Vietnamese) but if you are patient and kind, they may end up being a good source for you. They do mostly counter sales in LA.

An aside -never mislead people about your company and future plans. This thread vendor likes me but was a bit at odds that I only order from him twice a year and in small quantities (18-24 cones per color, 2 colors). I explained that my customers are small and don’t meet the minimums he has. I explained that I can only order from him for boot camp -and when I explained what that was (and sent links to pictures etc), he offered to give it to me. I declined because I said that attendees pay a fee to cover the costs. In sum, I love my thread vendor and would like for him to prosper but I do not want him to endure unreasonable expectations from people who are unaccustomed to the nuances of B2B relationships or who will be impatient with his limited English abilities. I list the company in the forum but will also tell you privately who they are if you can convince me that you’ll be nice. I thank you in advance.

I buy zippers from Zipper Stop. They sell zippers in any quantity so many enthusiasts buy from them. If you buy 100, you get excellent price breaks. They have also messed up an order but were quick and gracious to repair the oversight. In the end, I kept the overage (and paid for it) because the zippers were so inexpensive. $4 for an extra 40 zippers is nothing to get upset about. Zipper Stop also does me a nice favor in support of our mission; they haven’t charged me for custom length separating zippers. I also order at least 120-125 zippers but that is still a very small order so I appreciate it.

Sourcing the reflective trim was an abject nightmare. I can’t tell you how many hours this took me, well in excess of 40 hours. I would only send my worst enemy to them if I was certain that my enemy was going to be as persistently obnoxious and annoying as possible. The sad thing is that the company used to be owned by a very lovely man; the company he sold it to has ruined years of his reputation. The firm is SO BAD that I’m inspired to have the trim made for myself. I have to buy 1800 yards of it but you know what? It will still cost me less than if I have to invest another 40 hours of labor to source the trim again next boot camp. Long story short, does anybody want to buy some? It is beautiful stuff.

At this juncture, I’ve decided this post is entirely too long. Most people don’t want to read this much on a website these days. So, I’ll create a second post that details the rest of the stuff we bought. Mostly machines and those deserve a bit more explanation.

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8 comments

  1. Sue Rock says:

    Oh Kathleen, I am so sorry you feel that post was too long – it seemed exactly the right size and introduces powerful and important information. EVERYTHING has to be purchased and you have to realize what wholesaler’s parameters are.

    I appreciate the length of your descriptions because for me, it encourages me to create dialogue around what can be done regarding purchasing quantities and how to create business relationships in a fair and easy way.

    Wonderful post – please share more!

  2. Apryl Wynona Hall says:

    Kathleen I want to thank you for your narrative post. A DE needs all of the information available. Please continue to go into detail it coincides whith the information in your BOOK. Again, I can only tell you how much time your detailed writings have saved me. Another aspect of your posts that is invaluable is the way in which you script what can be said in communicating with veterans who are accustomed to a particular set of terms. I’m very excited about your next post regarding the camp. Its also refreshing to know that the objectives and goals were accomplished.

  3. Jay Arbetman says:

    I just want to add two comments to the excellent points made above.

    1. You can waste all kinds of time and money trying to find “the holy grail” of fabric. Sourcing fabric for domestic production is done in a closed set. You can’t make it up as you go along. Want custom colors? Custom dyeing that can work commercially starts at 300 yds. on knits and higher on woven fabric. You may obtain lower minimums but the prices will eliminate your chances for commercial success. Want your own print?? Custom printing works at about 500 yds for many fabrics though poly sub printing has much lower minimums. The real value starts at 1,000 yds on printing.

    Now the good news. New fabrics with quality, continuity and appropriate cost are being introduced and are being made available to “DE’s” on a pretty darn regular basis. Prints with continuity, quality and reasonable minimums are now available. The story gets better every day. Why? Simple. Suppliers see that they can make money off you!!

  4. Lisa Blank says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post and its logical, detailed presentation.

    I’d buy some reflective trim from you if you have it made, but you know me and know that I wouldn’t need all that much of it, so take that for what it’s worth to you.

  5. Martha Peterson says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed it! I don’t think it was too long! Be still my heart, I think I have an opportunity to get a label started, and this was excellent timing on this post. Thank you for all of your hard labor for us DEs.

  6. Judy Hanson says:

    Your post can’t never be too long. Thank you for taking the time to write it, it was very informative. I’m of course saving it to read it again and again.

  7. Thank you Kathleen for all your posts. I learn so much from you. The posts are never too long.

    I need to learn all I can before I start a business. I would like to not go bankrupt before the get the business I want up an running. I did try to do this quite a few years ago when I lived in Florida. I went around this the wrong way. I decided I needed to learn a lot more. I did read you book. I put all my stuff in storage an hit the road with DH for 4 yrs. In the meantime the storage unit flooded. I lost $600 worth of Pendleton wool an a lot of other fabric that I had bought. Also over half of my household goods.

    I did do things wrong an it cost me. It did not bankrupt me tho. This is good. It did hurt to loose everything I lost. Including professional kitchen aid. It cost me $149 to get my sewing machine up an going. This will be a slot process. I need to learn a lot more, before I try again.

    I am not even sure how to go about this. I really do not want to be a huge business. I am not looking to be Rag & Bone or Zara.

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