Would you know a nice sewing factory if you saw one?

In the midst of continuing to set up shop, I was mentally comparing what I started with 15 years ago versus what I have today. Some things I’m proud of, some things are work in progress. I was thinking to myself that most anyone who would walk in here, wouldn’t have any idea what anything was (beyond the obvious) or the value of what it represented and might even think the place looked junky. It caused me to remember an old post on another site that I had commented on. The blogger said:

A large room was filled with Chinese women on sewing machines. There was plenty of natural light and an apparently friendly atmosphere. My friend is in start-up mode for her own fashion label… and she needed to check some of her production… I met the owner, an amiable Chinese man who apparently works seven days a week. The women sewing don’t speak English, apparently. The fourth-floor walk-up in the heart of San Francisco didn’t evoke for me the classic images of a manufacturing sweatshop, but it’s hard to think of another word for what I saw at the top of the stairs.

I can’t speak for you but I find this offensive. Here we have someone who has no idea what a factory floor is like, what working conditions are appropriate criteria but because there’s non-English speaking people in the room –with sewing machines!– it is by all accounts, a sweatshop. The reality is, if it had been one, they wouldn’t have let him in the door. He had no idea what he was looking at. It makes me sad because it was probably a nice shop, the owner was proud of providing a nice and congenial place to work. People were happy. He probably had nice equipment but how would this guy know?

Which brings me to my point, how would you know? Or, how could you know? Those of you who have experience, enlighten others with some things to look for, what is out of place? Most of the things that come to my mind are OSHA or code requirements but I’m thinking that is too obvious. What criteria would you suggest people use to determine the caliber of a place you walked into? 

For me, the first thing is whether the owner is proud of his place and is happy to show me around.

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20 comments

  1. Clara Rico says:

    Of course, those of us who don’t know what a good shop looks like, probably don’t know the specific OSHA requirements that would apply, so that might be a good place to start.

    An employer who cares about his/her employees would first of all make sure they were safe. If you are aware of what the basic requirements are then you could recognize those who go even beyond what is mandated by law. I think that would be a good sign of a good factory; that they care enough about people and details to meet and possibly even exceed safety standards. I would assume that they would show similar care in producing a good product. Also that the employees would feel cared for and take pride in doing their best work.

  2. LizPf says:

    The closest I’ve come to a sewing shop was when I shepherded a class of third graders through a cotton mill museum. But I think I could tell a sweatshop from a good shop.

    First, do the workers look happy? Are they allowed to talk a bit, stretch, personalize their workspaces (even just a single family photo)? Do they look like they want to work in this shop, or are just there to earn money to feed their kids?

    How do they react when the boss walks through? Do they quiet down, backs bent over their machines, afraid to meet Boss’ eyes? Or do they smile a “hello”? To me, this is the most important sign — sweatshop employees fear their boss.

    Check on the safety. You don’t need to know OSHA law to tell if the room is well lit, kept clean, and if there are enough emergency exit doors.

    I wonder about that blog writer … anyone who can’t tell that “plenty of natural light and an apparently friendly atmosphere” is probably not a sweat shop is not thinking well.

  3. Peter says:

    I’ve spent a number of years visiting garment factories throughout Southeast Asia, and can attest to the fact that while there are plenty of “sweat shops,” most factories are just trying to get the job done efficiently, maintain their work force, and make the customer happy.

    Because factories try to turn a profit, most try to keep expenses low…which means some equipment might not be state-of-the-art, the facilities might appear run down, and there is no air conditioning. When visitors unaccustomed to what a real factory looks like tour a factory, many think “sweat shop” when in reality, the factory pays a living wage, follows child labor laws, is socially compliant, and treats their workers well.

    In my opinion, the “sweat shop” label is thrown around too loosely by those who compare a real factory with their idealized image of what a factory “should” look like.

    I agree with Clara and Liz that safety measures are one way to gauge a “nice” factory. There needs to be a process of accounting for needles when they break; safety equipment like metal mesh gloves should be worn by the cutters, and evacuation routes need to be clearly marked.

    For me, a truly “nice” factory isn’t always the cleanest, most modern, largest, factory where all of the workers have matching polo shirts. A nice factory has long term experienced workers (low turnover = happy employees who know what they’re doing), long term customers (which means their product is good), and focuses on the type of garments that they do best.

    • Trish says:

      Peter, your reply is so useful. It is great to have experience talk. I would also like to add needle guards on the machines to protect the workers eyes (and the bottom line). Do you agree? I know you have so many years of experience, in fact five more than when you made this comment.

  4. Kathleen says:

    In the book, there’s a form to use to evaluate a contractor. There’s also guidelines to know whether someone is a contractor vs what I call a corner sewing shop. The difference being equipment and people on staff. Iow, if the table is 8 feet long, that doesn’t mean they’re a sweatshop but you don’t want to use them either.

    I think we could easily define a sweatshop by whether safety and wage laws and regulations are followed. I’m not familiar with the minutia of regulations just the biggies. I’m not very familiar with OSHA specifics either, information picked up ad hoc. If you’re a business owner, you’re educated by junk mail that other businesses send you about compliance. Most of the regulations I know are related to building code because building as I have or modifying the electrical and plumbing as I have, you have to follow those for safety reasons. I imagine someone wouldn’t know what those things might be if they never did those sorts of things or didn’t hire someone to do it.

    Where things get murky is when it comes to worker satisfaction. If workers aren’t jovial etc, it doesn’t mean it’s a sweatshop, it could be a sign of bad managers. Bad managers doesn’t mean the place is unsafe or that they don’t pay properly. Whether you want to send work to a place that isn’t nice to workers is another story. Let’s say you didn’t even care about the humanity of it, it’s a foregone conclusion that poorly managed shops are less profitable; unhappy workers won’t care about the quality of the work which costs you money.

    Something we have to admit is that some places may not be sweatshops even if they are not safe (up to code) or have the best equipment. That doesn’t mean you want to work there of course or that the owner isn’t exposed to liability on several levels but this category describes a lot of DE shops. I worked with one DE whose shop was terrible, there were no face masks or anything approaching decent ventilation in the fabric painting section. Extension cords snaked across the floor, terrible lighting but she was nice to workers and paid them properly. The scary thing about it is she was married to a safety engineer. I can only imagine she didn’t listen to him either, she certainly didn’t listen to me. But to date, everyone thinks she is/was great. She went broke a long time ago. Bad management. Couldn’t be bothered to test wash a yard of fabric before doing a production run.

    I’ve worked in places that were safe, where workers were paid properly and they even had decent equipment to work with but keeping employees happy wasn’t something they cared about and none of these places were sweatshops. This could easily describe any other kind of business like restaurants, call centers or retail. As you can see, this is a hard question to answer.

  5. Barb Taylorr says:

    If you are only invited to walk through you won’t be able to observe long enough to know anything about the employee breaks, chances to stretch etc. Also, it is probably the boss that is giving you the tour, so you won’t know if they behave differently when there is not an authority figure in their proximity. I would also like to point out that many stitchers (myself included, when I am engaged in that activity) may very well prefer to work in an envinronment where one can be uniterrupted and focused on the task at hand. Chatty shop floors can (but not always) be signs happy inefficient workers that don’t care all that much how fast or skilled their sewing is. So how do you know?

    If I wanted to know how the stitchers were treated I’d look at their body language, trying to see if it gives me a sense of confidence rather than nervousness or distraction. Are there floor mats, decent chairs, good lighting? What is the air quality? While AC may not be affordable, if it is very hot there should be fans in areas where there are not lightweight items that would blow around. If it worried me I’d ask if I could see the break room.

    If quality worried me I’d ask if I could look closely at some of the goods being worked on. (Do they direct me to a pre-arranged pile of samples, or pick up the nearest item to where we are standing? Are they proud or nervous when I ask that?) I would also look at how the place was organized. How do things move from the cutting area to each phase of the production. How clean the is the floor? If there is someone physically moving a batch to a new station is there any tense interaction going on? Again, body language can give big clues.

    On a side note I’d like to add that many of us may be too sensitive to the term “sweat shop”. I do not think it is always used to refer to rotten working conditions anymore. In our modern America, factories are no longer common. I am sure I have heard “sweat shop” used just to mean “assembly line work” with no negative or judgemental intentions. I had the sense from the article about “secret sweat shops” that the narator was simply fascinated to see a place where things were actually manufactured in a city he did not think that was still possible for such a bussiness to survive.

  6. Eric H says:

    I’m not sure the OSHA code is much to go on. First of all, very few people know what it says or how it applies, as evidenced by the comments so far. I have two OSHA compliance manuals in my office, and I refer to them from time to time; one is the 1910 (General Industry) and the other is the 1926 (Construction), and I have both because it’s not very clear where we fit. I think 1910 is going to be appropriate for sewing contractors, but almost all of it is irrelevant (although the law is available for free on the internet, I would encourage you to buy a copy). They go on at length about how many toilets you must have per worker; there are lots of discussions about stair and platform railings; egress (duh, Triangle Shirtwaist); ventilation (anyone here using non-ionizing radiation devices? No?! Then your ventilation is probably to code); hazardous materials (compressed gas? maybe, but dipping vats? explosives?); personal protective equipment (wear some sensible shoes and maybe get some of those kevlar gloves if you are going to be running a high speed knife); environmental controls (signs, lockout/tagout for electrical work); fire protection; machine guards; electrical safety; and diving operations. There isn’t much to it that’s going to be obvious upon inspection as “OSHA compliant”.

    Is there an emergency exit sign and an inspected fire extinguisher? That is probably going to cover about 85% of the applicable law, but I have found many otherwise responsibly run places that don’t have those. If you have the MSDS for every chemical you are using (including such things as hand soap), and you store them in a in a clearly marked Right-to-Know workstation, now you’re up to 95%. How many of you have even one MSDS and know where to find it? For, say, spray-on starch? That’s the law; if you use it and you have employees, you must communicate potential hazards to them.

    Given that exit signs, fire extinguishers, and an MSDS notebook are enough to get you through most inspections and might set you back at most $100 total, I would venture a guess that someone could feasibly maintain the outward appearance of OSHA compliance and still be mistreating their workers.

  7. Anyone who is not an artist or in the sewing/pattern making business that comes to my one person shop is pretty much appalled. I am currently in a house, being used for business only, so it really confuses the lay person. Seeing a room with a pattern table, patterns and sewing machines is not really “cute.” I see that when I tour people, they are completely unable to “get it.” So I don’t doubt it is hard to evaluate a sewing factory! I have worked in a few, they varied greatly. But in general the “cuteness,” pretty, factor ( and sometimes the clean bathroom factor) that seems to be the way most things are evaluated, was lacking. Where I am now, I also have a garden and large backyard where my dogs hang out while I work. Its nice!

  8. Dana says:

    I recently was in a saddle shop. In the back they make their hand tooled saddles. The gal
    saw me about breaking my neck to get a look at that back room. She said, “Feel free to
    look around!”. That’s all I needed. I was in heaven with the scent of leather and drooling
    over all the machinery (being a self-confessed equipment junkie). I knew this was a ‘nice
    sewing factory’ for three reasons: 1) The pride they put in to their work. 2) The quality of
    the product (used saddles sell in the thousands) and 3) The age of the equipment. Aside
    from some of the hand tools, the youngest piece of equipment was 40 years, the
    oldest 150 years. ALL in working condition! The gentleman that gave me an impromptu
    tour, lovingly described each piece, told me about it’s quirks and was so happy to have
    someone to share that with. It was like he was talking about his family. Which in essence
    it was. Pride, Joy, Enthusiasm and Quality are what, I think, makes a ‘nice sewing
    factory’.

  9. dosfashionistas says:

    I thought I would have a lot to say about this subject, but it has all been said here. I am left with nothing to express but nostalgia for the days when I saw the factory floor every time I looked up from my pattern table. Now I sell it rather than make it and it is all tagged “Made in Honduras”.

  10. Leslie says:

    You cant always tell by the smiles on the workers faces. I have a nice facility and
    some very happy employees, and a few that do nothing but complain that they are working their butts off and I should be paying them more…even though they are earning quite a bit more than industry standard. Sometimes you just can’t win!

  11. Kathleen, you know what I’m going to say — first, your book is a perfect guide to what a good factory should look like, so anyone who is in this discussion and hasn’t read it should buy it right away.

    In any factory, I look for cleanliness and openness. That means that aisles are clear, and there is not a lot of inventory stored between stations or on shelves around the facility. The workstations should be close together and operators may be standing up to work. There should be no bundles, and only a few pieces of buffer inventory between workstations. There will be no piles of stuff around machines or under workstations.

    The age of the equipment is not important, but it should be free from grease or old dirt. There will be some dust from materials, but it should only be today’s dust. There should be visual guides to standard work posted at workstations so operators will notice defects and anyone can see if the operator is trained and following the standard. There should be boards where team leaders post goals and progress against them.

    Safety should be a constant priority. People know when conditions are unsafe and won’t trust the manager who permits them to continue. It takes a leap of faith, but in most states OSHA has a process where they will come in and agree not to cite any violations but identify them and consult on ameliorating them. When you consider the cost of injury, worker’s comp, possible litigation, and fines, it is probably worth it. Your insurance company will probably offer the same thing.

    People will be working calmly, quickly, seriously, and attentively. If they are continuously trained and asked how to improve work, they will own it. If you see people working tensely and frantically, you know it’s not a good place. In a good factory, I do see people smile and they are encouraged to explain to visitors what they are doing.

    Whoever is conducting my tour should appear to have spent time regularly at the site and be greeting people by name.

  12. Trish says:

    This is not what to look for on the floor but my post says much about how the workers feel about their jobs and workplaces.

    Recently the El Paso Museum of History in conjunction with the University of Texas, El Paso presented another segment of Awakening Our Giants. The evening was a tribute to Farah Manufacturing. The evening was amazing and the workers who had spent 20 – 30 years working for the Farah family were the most amazing thing of all. They would go up to Jimmy Farah (son of Willie) and touch his face and hug him and tell him how much their workplace had meant to them.

    I saw the pride and the joy. It made me think of how many “worker’s rights” people have overlooked the true value of working in a great factory. I hope people wake up to this value and begin to respect “working” for a living!!

  13. Sarah B says:

    It IS hard to judge a book by it’s cover, and barring obvious safety violations… it is a really difficult call. Even the “demeanor and body language” of employees can sometimes be a poor indicator. Often shops are prepped for guest tours, and stjtchers are encouraged to pre-tidy workstations and put on their happiest faces. And, almost all shops have a few unhappy campers that could leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.

    A few good indicators, other than the obvious general repair/cleanliness and clear paths of egress within the building or room(s), could be as follows. Most of these things may not be “seen,” but must be researched.

    Is the wage fair?
    Are there benefits?
    What is the employee turn-over rate?
    Is there adequate lighting?
    What is the reputation of the shop within the industry?

  14. mary allen says:

    Obviously all of the previous posters have much more first hand knowledge than me, but here is my 2cents worth.
    I would look for a nice lunch or break room with comfortable seating, clean immaculate bathrooms, lockers for each employee, and a welcoming place they can call theirs. Next I would make sure all legal/ OSHA, and ergonomic rules are recognized and abided by. I would expect my employees to adhere to and be knowledgeable of these standards to aid in avoiding mistakes or employee health issues. I would look for excellent ventilation, heating and cooling and lighting. I would allow my employee to make his or her work station comfortable to their personal needs. All employees would know about the pay structure and ways to advance. There would be bi weekly meetings on the managers clock to handle complaints and improvements. The employees would be aware of the big picture, with established goals and share in the success and failures of the day’s productions.
    Happy employees make for better quality garments and pride in their work and the business for which they work. Sewers would be on a wait list for an opportunity to work at my shop/factory.
    Trish’s post on the Farah Family had me salivating for such a business.
    And this is just the beginning…I could post forever about my dream workshop.

  15. Rehanna says:

    Wow…I have to admit at first read of the blogger’s paragraph I immediately jumped the gun. I think Kathleen nailed it when she said the blogger had no idea what he was looking at. After reading all of your posts it has been enlightening to get some insight to make an informed decision.

  16. rito says:

    after graduating from the London college of fashion i worked for a London based designer( whom i cannot name) in India. he had a production house in new delhi and part of my task was to look after the sewing room and beading floors. I can however tell you this, there were garments worth 600 pounds sterling being beaded on frames everyday and shipments being made to the toniest stores in London like Selfridges and Browns. the beading floor was in the basement, there was no ventilation and sometimes comprised on 40/50 beaders huddled together in that room working 24/7 on less than 2 $ per day. the sewing floor was better but even then their work hours were something like 7 days a week. i also had a friend who worked for a production house owned by the UK high street store “primark” and you would faint if you saw the working conditions there

  17. Laura says:

    Having worked for several sewing manufacturers as a sewing machine operator, I have never seen a sweatshop atmosphere in such places. Not saying they were perfect, but the facilities were clean and comfortable. We worked piece-rate, which, I actually liked. Piece-rate gives the worker a sense of control over their pay. They can work harder and make a little extra. Piece-rate also improves a worker’s math skills and work skills. I was always mentally calculating my pay and making sure my work was excellent so that I didn’t have repairs to do that would disrupt my piece-rate. The only rules we had were simple, be on time to work, don’t work through lunch or breaks, clean your area at the end of your shift, call a mechanic if there’s a problem with your machine, you are responsible for repairing garments that you sew incorrectly.

  18. Kathleen says:

    At this late date, managed to stumble back here with the observation that those who have been in a lot of factories or even have one of their own, are glowing about the cleanliness and organization of mine. Those who haven’t been in a factory, don’t say a word. I’m guessing they think it looks junky. Context is everything!

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