The perils of D.I.Y.

I realize the barriers I described in yesterday’s post may be discouraging to DEs but don’t be dismayed, be advised! The topic of first order solutions such as work-arounds is incomplete when describing the unique challenges faced by designer-entrepreneurs (DEs), particularly those using the services of sewing contractors. There’s a lot of things going on both inside and outside of your shop and you don’t have the controls you’d like but you still have options. Other than the problems I mentioned (quite extensively) in the Entrepreneur’s Guide, there are still others.

First of all, realize that entrepreneurship is a double-edged sword. The key to your success is a can-do, do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude. Everybody knows this. Still, the can-do attitude is also a symptom of “heroism” which while we all admire it, contributes to institutionalizing short term fixes rather than long-term solutions. Still, I’m well aware that few of you have many choices; the work has to get done and there’s no one but you to do it. The problem with a heroic attitude is if your solutions become institutionalized into standard operating procedures.


Relying on first order processing of fast solutions and work-arounds can create an organizational environment of resolution via first process. It’s impossible to eliminate this as a strategy used by the help if that’s what you’re doing yourself. While I’m not saying you shouldn’t use work-arounds to “save” projects, I am saying you must open your process to review for analysis. The key is, you shouldn’t have the same problems repeatedly. If you’re analyzing your problems, you shouldn’t have the same problem twice.

Second, there’s the issue of priorities. As an entrepreneur, it seems you’re putting out one fire after another all day long and this is very taxing on the psyche. It’s exhausting. However, I don’t think you realize just why this is as taxing as it is. The reason it’s taxing is because most of the time, these are just free floating anxieties that you haven’t documented in any formal way. These are nebulous free-floating anxieties you haven’t inventoried. Once you write these down, you’ll find your anxieties will lessen appreciably. If you write them down, you’ll be very surprised to discover that you’ll find the time to solve them.

The first step to analysis is documentation. Write it down. I think it may be helpful to start keeping a work journal to detail problems you have daily. If it’s sewing problems, you should have a notebook handy where you write down things as you’re doing the work. You can also use the input control forms from the guide (pg 80). If you’re having pattern problems, you should be keeping a list on the back of the direction card. Oh wait, lemme guess. Most of you aren’t using direction cards, much less know what they are. You can find one on page 79. Every pattern needs one. In other words, moving towards second order processing just doesn’t require analysis, it requires documentation.

In general though, it seems most people have the same problems repeatedly and have minimized either the significance of the problem or they’ve minimized their contribution to the problem. For example, most DEs have bad patterns and they’re usually bad on several levels. First, they’re not using standard conventions and will minimize the significance of using conventions via denial strategies (it’s not that important). Or, the things just don’t sew up well and because they’ve managed to tweak it (first order resolution) they think everybody else should do it too. And it’s not that they can’t but you’ve effectively institutionalized a shoddy work around into a standard operating procedure. In general tho, very few -okay, none- of the designers I know bother with standard conventions. You must use real pattern paper. You must use correct color coding. There is no other way to reduce language or directional ambiguity if everyone is doing their own thing. And no, I do not care that you went to the absolute finest design school in the entire world and they didn’t do it that way. Successful companies do it this way. And I don’t care what your friends say. If your friends say it doesn’t matter then obviously my friends know more than your friends and trust me, you need my friends more than you need yours. Don’t institutionalize short cuts or work-arounds into SOP (standard operating procedures).

An example of this is that many DEs cut out their patterns by laying the pattern down and using a rotary cutter around the edges. I have yet to find a DE who will stop doing this when I explain why they shouldn’t. They have 10 reasons why their way is better. They obviously fail to realize that knicking off portions of the pattern edge while they’re cutting has a cumulative effect. The only thing worse is if they grow beyond a one person company and institutionalize this as a standard practice. Employees will be even less concerned about knicking off portions of the pattern and it’s only a matter of time before your pieces have become morphed beyond recognition (of course you have many sewing problems too). I’ve even folded over these pattern pieces to mirror them, showing the designer that neither side matches the other but it doesn’t slow them down. This first order process has become a standard operating procedure. I’m not saying you can’t use rotary cutters. I am saying you must trace the pattern out first, then cut it out. Don’t use the pattern edge as a guide for your rotary cutter. Period. Sooner or later -if you stay in business- you’ll end up doing it my way. Why invite problems in the meantime? Don’t let your temporary time-saving solutions become bad habits.

When you’re working with contractors, issues may become even more complex and for many reasons. First, you may not be aware you even have a problem and worse, your contractor may not know (owing to factors cited yesterday). Still worse, many contractors aren’t very professional themselves. I have seen many, many shops that are very unprofessional; they’ve institutionalized work arounds into standard procedures. You as an entrepreneur are just getting into the business so you don’t know what’s amiss. For example, I know of two contract shops in the Albuquerque area and I wouldn’t recommend either one of them unless they’ve changed substantively in the past 5 years. Both shops use home sewing patterns although you probably wouldn’t know that because they put the things on hardboard -but they still charge you for pattern making services. Second, many contractors are very defensive. I believe a defensive posture is due to insecurity. If they really knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be defensive about their process and they’d not only explain it but they’d let you watch your own products being constructed. Look at Toyota, they let any auto manufacturer tour the factory floor to see first hand how products are constructed. As an entrepreneurial start up, I agree a contractor may consider you to be arrogant if you presume to know more than they do but honestly, many of the kinds of shops that DEs are attracted to (small outfits-corner shops; they think small operators are less likely to be sweat shops but the reverse is true btw) just don’t know much. How would they? It’s not as though meaningful classes on manufacturing are any more available to them than they are to you. People in this business are cheap, nobody wants to pay for classes, tutors or consultants …or advice on websites like this one for that matter (donations are gratefully accepted). Education is an investment. You can’t expect people to teach you for free and contractors are no better at investing in education than are most designers.

When I’ve toured facilities and offered a handy tip or two, I’ve gotten 10 reasons (excuses) why the way they’re doing it now is better. For example, one shop in El Paso makes pillows. The lady who started the shop was a line stitcher in a plant where the workers never even saw a pattern piece. Since she didn’t even know what they looked like, she had her patterns cut by a cabinet maker with a band saw out of 1″ thick plexi-glass. Talk about a waste. These patterns couldn’t be hung but stacked which meant you’d always be fighting layers on top to find the one you needed. And there was no way to find them; they were all see through plastic so it’s not as though you could find the one you needed with all the competing writing from the whole stack of patterns. There were no direction cards and no notches. And the cost? For the cost of having one pattern made, she could have purchased an entire roll of pattern paper. Now, I could see doing it her way if they cut around the edges with a knife (as in leather cutting) for prototypes and they needed a hard edge but they were only using these to trace. This contractor was literally offended -offended!- that I offered her a free copy of my book (she really needed it). Absolutely amazing. Anyway, you can’t assume a contractor actually knows what they’re doing anymore than you can assume you do.

So what can you do? If it were me, I’d tour the place (as described in the guide). Little things such lighting and table height are a big deal. A very big deal. If they’ve taken short cuts on lighting, you think that’s the only short cut they’ve used? I know another plant with 30 stitchers so it’s not tiny but this lady only has a 4′ X 6′ desk for her pattern maker -and it’s not waist high. I was in pain watching the pattern maker at work, bending over like that. Her back must have killed her (and the owner wondered why she had a hard time keeping a pattern maker). Still worse, this lady manufactured coats; there is no way that desk was large enough to cut coat patterns. You need to be able to lay out all of the pieces in order to walk them and compare them. In touring places, you have to count heads. One of shops I mentioned in Albuquerque never has more than 2 people in the place at any time. Since that shop owner has 2 -20 foot long tables, that tells me she’s sending a lot of work out the back door and into people’s homes (as though I didn’t know it anyway). Not that home workers can’t do good work but how do you know these people are being paid properly? You don’t. You can’t. Do you think the contractor would admit to otherwise?

In a nutshell I leave you with 5 suggestions:
1. Document your problems by writing them down, then analyze them.
2. Do not institutionalize short term solutions into standard operating procedures.
3. Use standard conventional markings, paper, pattern conventions, practices and language.
4. Check your work. I do not care if you did exactly what a book, a teacher or I said; verify and proof your work.
5. Don’t be a hero.

Get New Posts by Email

4 comments

  1. Cinnamon says:

    Since most of my pieces for bags have been straight lines I just cut them out with a rotary cutter and a ruler on a self-healing cutting mat. Thankfully most of my items are also small.

    But now that I’m getting into some curved items I’m going to try the tailor chalk and then cutting method. Marking items on fabric seems like a huge hassle, but if it will keep me from having to remake paper patterns all the time I’ll give it a try.

    I’d considered using plexiglass to cut out patterns, but I was intending to cut around them with a rotary cutter. Storage was my main concern since I don’t have a lot of room.

    And your demonstration, many posts ago, about using paper jigs made me smack my forehead cause I feel like an idiot. I’ll be purchasing some stencil plastic for pocket placement marking and snap marking. Excellent, time-saving and worthwhile suggestions. Thank you for all of them.

  2. Vesta says:

    We have 4 products that are made in the US (the other two are traditional crafts, and therefore inappropriate for US manufacture). I currently work with 3 different sewing contractors, mostly because our production needs outstripped our original contractor. I have also briefly worked with 2 others.

    The difference between a contractor who will give you feedback on your patterns and ones who just make the product (albeit well) is like night and day. If you find a contractor who will talk to you about problems they’re having AND you respond appropriately – they’re like gold. The only place to go is up.

    I also encourage my contractors and my cutter to communicate directly. They’ve been able to eliminate some notches, add others, and basically work together to make the sewing proceed more smoothly and make our products higher quality. The contractors were initially hesitant and a little apologetic about this direct communication, as if I might be offended, but it’s just the opposite. Of course I want to sign off on any changes, but they’re the ones most affected by these details and I think they should have quite a bit of input.

    I’m not saying our setup is perfect. As I mentioned in another comment, we have some massive inefficiencies. But I guess what I’m saying is that fostering communication between all of the players, even when there are several different companies involved, goes a long way.

    One more thing: I am by nature not a “blamer”. So I always approach things from a “how can we solve this and move on” perspective. But it takes people a LONG time to get comfortable with this strategy and to really internalize it. Seriously, it usually takes about 6 months of working together before people believe my sincerity in not wanting to place blame and they respond by being more open about offering problem-solving suggestions and such. During the first 6 months, it is almost always their reaction to be defensive and/or guarded about mistakes and problems. The only way to pull them out of it is to be very clear and consistent about not laying blame on any one person, and actively seeking their input.

  3. christy fisher says:

    Please explain “traditional crafts” do you mean indigenous to another part of the world (as there are traditional crafts in America that are very possible to produce here)? I may take this to the discussion forum later.

  4. Dave says:

    I like Vesta’s approach to contractors. Open communication is very neccessary between client and contractor for many reasons.This is definitely something that should be moved into the discussion forum, as it is very rarely explained correctly , by either the designer or the contractor. To do so would take up far too much space on this page. As a contractor/supplier
    this is one area in which I feel needs to be addressed. If increased communication is possible between the two parties, things get done faster, cheaper, and more efficiently. Since we cut all fabric inhouse, we don’t have any communication problems that Vesta alludes to, although those that have their cutting done off premises can benefit if both sides are in touch. A skilled cutter can save you big $$$, and this can only occur if he talks to the client and patternmaker
    and spots an improvement.(definitely discussion forum material)
    Blame is something that makes factory life not pleasant.(to err is human, to blame someone else is more human) To understand blame in this industry, you have to understand how a factory works. When mistakes happen , we trace back the steps to where the problem occurred. Usually it is a result of information not being clearly, concisely, passed along to the appropriate people. Blame is most often pointed back to the client(or me). Production personel outside of the owners are petrified to have the blame shifted to them. I have stressed to everyone that mistakes happen. Let just get it corrected and make sure it doesn’t again. One the other side, design assistants and are also terrified if they make mistakes, and the finger pointing goes our way. And this is where open communication is key. It
    takes a great deal of effort to build a relationship with a client, and vice versa. Far too many think it is easier to search for new contractors, rather than working out any glitches and going forward. Those that think that way should remember, that they could be the cause of of these little breakdowns.
    Who wants to start this discussion ? Vesta, any thoughts ?

Leave a Reply

You have to agree to the comment policy.