Psychologists say that one of the most stressful things a person can endure is to be responsible for something over which they have no control. I would say that is the perfect description of using a sewing contractor and it’s the worst part. You think all your problems are solved, but you are just trading one set of problems for another, and this time you are in the passenger seat.
Your contractor ships late? Your customers don’t care about your excuses. They want their product. It’s YOUR fault. Your contractor does crappy work? Your customers will hold YOU accountable. And what can you do? The buck stops with you. It has to. You have to accept that you are responsible. I have spent more time growing ulcers and pacing the floor and applying pressure to my sewing contractor, and negotiating that relationship than I have done anything else. Well that, and fixing products that they didn’t quite manage to make correctly.
The above is a quote I pulled from series written by an entrepreneur who has started her own sewing factory. She’s a single mom with four young children, one of them disabled. The first three entries explain how she went from using contractors to setting up her own in house sewing operation -and why. Part four is a list of things she did that I feel optimized her success.
I used to assess a line’s viability with the idea that sales were the weak link but not anymore. These days it’s production. Being that it’s a seller’s market on the services side and feeling as I do about developing domestic operations, I’ve only been working with people who either have their sewing (and are looking to improve it) or who are willing to develop their own sewing operation. The only long term sustainable way to grow a company will be to produce it oneself.
The situation is worse when you consider changes in retailing. Retailers are increasingly less willing to commit to long term purchase orders -which you need if using a contractor- they want immediates. Price is only one facet of the sales equation. They’ll pay a little more if they can buy smaller lots closer to season with the potential to reorder. You can only serve that up if you’re sewing it in your own place. The biggest increase in manufacturing interest I see is coming from retailers. Of course just as many discard the idea once they realize it’s not as simple as they thought but that they’ve thought of it should concern you.
For over five years, I’ve been saying that competition for contract sewing services is tightening. People who produce domestically will have marked advantages over everyone else; people who can sew themselves are selling the most at market. If it’s difficult to find a contractor now, the situation isn’t going to improve. It could be time to start your own sewing factory -before it’s too late.
And what do I mean by too late? Too late means that we will have still fewer qualified people needed to do the work. Pisano and Shih (HBS) argue that we are perilously close to losing the capacity to train the next generation which I mentioned in Consequences of the fashion school bubble. I don’t know any manufacturers or contractors who are satisfied with their staffing, everyone is short handed (by the way, industry salaries are up across the board). It’s pretty crazy considering the number of people out of work. Point is, if you start now, you can probably still find an old-timer (like me) who would enjoy working a few hours a week, training you to cut, bundle and organize production. Once they’re gone… it’s going to be you facing the shortest stack of fabric plies you are willing to risk and cut into them with a straight knife, on your own with no guidance or assistance from anyone, and terrified as all get out. People are doing that now.
Point of fact: contract sewing services are in short supply and are projected to get worse. Sure I know, you’ve heard that domestic apparel manufacturing is one of the top ten declining industries -but don’t believe it. There’s a resurgence in domestic manufacturing because sending work offshore isn’t as low cost as it once was; SC Digest says there’s a coming transportation tsunami and it’s predicted that oil prices will hit $300 a barrel by 2020. Chinese apparel factories are closing left and right (and it’s not just China) and have been since 2008. Articles about why people have left their Chinese factories have become practically commonplace, Fortune has been running a whole series on the return of American manufacturing. Domestic apparel manufacturing continues to increase; manufacturing is the only segment of the US economy that is improving. Did you know?
The biggest barrier to increasing domestic manufacturing that I see is the generational shift and expectations of people entering the market. Many think hiring a contractor is a buyer’s market; they’re placing the contract so they call the shots. It hasn’t been that way for quite awhile. For others who are young and have been marketed to since childhood, they don’t realize they’ve shifted from being a buyer to being a seller. The other problem is that the society in which they were socialized has equated manufacturing with brawn (or worse) rather than brain so few are attracted to it or respect it beyond lip service.
We don’t have the vibrant institutional infrastructure we once did. It used to be that a worker could switch jobs in one city to another plant fairly easily. These days, you often have to move to keep working in the field. At the same time, we’ve lost a lot of plants due to attrition; there was no one to take them on so all that knowledge disseminated and went nowhere. If fragmentation was always a characteristic of this business -and it was outside of first tier cities- it’s worse today.
But back to my original points which are:
- Domestic manufacturing is increasing and likely to show continuing improvement.
- Availability of contract sewing services is getting worse every day. Before you were competing with another designer for a slot. Now you’re competing with Norma Kamali, Ralph Lauren and who knows who all else.
- You need to seriously think about starting your own operation.
If you want to do something like this, we have a whole community of people who can help you with that. And if you want to start a contract sewing operation, I love you already and would be delighted to help with that too.
Is it a crazy idea to go straight overseas to make prototype?
Expert advice from a freeloading manufacturer
Trends and strategies in a tough economy
How the industry has changed forever
How the industry has changed forever pt.2
Kamali has moved production to the US
Who sells the most at market and why
Who sells the most at market and why pt.2
What is Reshoring -circuitously
Consequences of the fashion school bubble
Why you should start your own sewing factory
Recalibration, fast vs slow fashion, something to offend everyone
Slow vs Fast Fashion pt.1
Value Circularity: cotton, colanders & the specialty store market
Trends and strategies in a tough economy
History of apparel manufacturing
What to do when you don’t know what to do
Batch product development
Batch product development 2
Batch product development 3
How to start a homebased handmade sewing business
How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt2
How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt3