3 steps to bringing back production

With increasing costs offshore, many companies have determined it is becoming more cost effective to bring production back to the U.S.. Unfortunately, many find this is easier said than done and for several reasons.

The first problem for some operations is that manufacturing for themselves is something they’ve never done so they never had the needed skills in house. Others may have once manufactured domestically but once they went off shore, key people were let go and the firm lost its institutional knowledge base. Thus, while many firms are quite successful, they find themselves at odds. Where does one go? How does one start? How does one learn what they need to know? Since I’ve done a lot of this work and increasingly more lately, I have some ideas for the ground work of a successful initiative.

Once the decision to migrate back has been made, many companies pursuing this option are stymied by not being able to find what they want. Like many start ups, they’re surprised to discover that skilled workers and competent service providers are in short supply and the domestic supply of talent is too small to meet increasing demand. Human capital being the crux of the matter, here are 3 steps to developing competencies without going off the rails, keeping existing projects in gear and without alienating existing partners.

1. Break it off into small chunks by starting with product development.
While domestic manufacturing is the goal, competencies in product development such as patterns, sourcing and fitting will be the critical first step. As such, it will be critical to survey existing staffers for desirable skill sets as many employers have been chagrined to discover there is a mismatch between people they have on staff versus the demands of a new model. It will be important to gauge existing competencies against internal requirements (much of this is in my book). For example, while technical designers are critical in an offshore company, pattern makers will be more valuable in the new one and these days, many TDs can’t make patterns. Focus on skills, not data compilers.

2. Pick a project or product; start another label, brand or division.
In some respects, it is best to start over with a new label or brand and build a new product line from the ground up in much the same way a start up would. This is advantageous for at least three reasons. First is that the new product line needs its own image to capitalize on consumer sentiment towards domestic production. Second, there needs to be a somewhat cloistered environment in which new team members can gain competencies without any missteps perceived to be impinging on their performance. Perhaps most important is the third item; a new label is not likely to raise the ire of existing partners. A new brand amounts to expansion, not contraction. One isn’t pulling work from existing partners to get this going. Lastly, if worse comes to worse and the initiative lags, it won’t impact the standing of a company’s bread and butter brands.

3. Get help. The right help.
It will be tricky to find the competencies you need particularly if you’re using modern skill standards. It is more important to hire for core skills than peripheral ones. For example, it is better to hire the most experienced pattern maker you can find than it is to compromise by hiring someone less experienced but who has CAD experience. Unfortunately, most people with less than 20 years of experience haven’t had the opportunity to work in production and that is precisely what you need. [I understand the need of cost effectiveness but that isn’t where key efficiencies lie at the outset. Over the long term, it will be smarter to train key people on new technology than the reverse.] Getting the best pattern maker you can afford will make the pivotal difference as they are most knowledgeable about the responsibilities and duties of other hires you’ll need. Consultants or trainers will also be of use but again, you’re better off with someone with years of production experience, not someone who spent years branding or marketing behind a desk. You need people who can sew -plain and simple.

Don’t overlook hiring contractors you’re using to develop your new product line either; the advice they can offer will be invaluable. Others who can help are fabric and machine suppliers -they know everybody. One last option is outreach, look beyond the industry’s stable of preeminent consultants to find factory floor trainers. Time is of the essence; our most competent and knowledgeable workers are approaching retirement if they’re not there already.

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  1. Having gone through the product development and production process, I fail to see how it would be cheaper or easier for a new DE/start up to go overseas in the first place, even though I do see how it could possibly make sense for some bigger/more established companies. While the price per unit may be a fraction of “made in the USA” costs, the requirements for high minimums (typically in the 1,000s of units), the need to hire and maintain a production manager there for weeks at a time to oversee the process and make sure things aren’t messed up, as well as the high shipping and import costs more or less offset any savings. So it isn’t all that cheaper. As for easier, I think it is actually a ton harder the farther away you are from where your products are being made, and it means much more of a headache.

    One thing that the USA lacks (as discussed by Kathleen on this and previous posts) is enough skilled professionals, which makes it increasingly harder for any company that has a need to grow its production and wishes to stay domestic to do so. But for a new DE who is just starting out and typically has small production needs, it makes the most sense to stay domestically.

  2. Ellen says:

    Excellent advice. As contractor here in the US and one that worked overseas for many years I think Kathleen’s insight and ideas are great. We are more expensive in the US obviously but I feel that we can offer flexibility, shorter lead times and minimums and I think very important easy access for the customer to participate and watch their product through development and production of their product. The main drawbacks are skilled workers and something that was not mentioned is trained mechanics to keep the equipment running well.

  3. Lesley says:

    I finally took your advice to start my own “in house” workshop, Kathleen. I found that not a single American that applied had the skills necessary to sew even the simplest products that I make. Even at a per piece rate they are dragging me down. Unfortunately this is especially key to a small workroom, where you need fewer operators who are familiar with various machines and are able to construct a garment from start to finish rather than just doing a single application repeatedly day in and day out. I have been fortunate to locate a hispanic man with experience setting up and managing sewing operations of all sizes who has every skill imaginable (mechanic, electrician, cutter, trainer, efficiency expert, quality control) because without him there would be NO WAY I could have done this.

  4. Sarah_H. says:

    Very thought-provoking post. I am retired from a 40 year career in the garment business, and even someone like me has likely worked in a situation where they were separated from production more than one where they were intimately involved. I was trying to think back, and I do not think I had direct contact with production after about 1974. Up until then I worked IN a factory and was responsible for writing out the production flow chart for each garment. After that I was expected to confine myself more to the pattern room and production was planned by the production manager who knew what machines the various contractors had available. I was capable of sewing the garments myself, but I was sometimes ignorant of the detailed operation of special machines that were used. And it is the people like me who are supposed to be the repositories of knowledge about production?! You need a good patternmaker, yes, but what you reallly need to start up production is a good floor lady, the one who ran the factory floor and knew what machine did what and exactly how to thread and work each one. If you can find one of those, you can run a sewing room.

  5. linda mcginley says:

    This has been a long time in coming! In the early 70’s I did a few years stint sewing and then running knitting machines in a clothing factory in of all places, Minneapolis. I dropped out of the garment industry for a couple decades until the early 90’s. By then I was in CA and sewing out of my home, doing alterations full time. Since 2003 or so, locally here in northern CA, I have gotten more and more calls from people looking for someone who can do short runs manufacturing. It is like Christina Weber mentioned above, getting work done overseas is prohibitive to small companies who don’t want thousands of units made. Where to go for now for short runs?! It’s exciting to see this coming back to the States. We’re an innovative nation and I’m sure we’ll figure it out.

  6. Sounds like a good opportunity for overseas floor managers to start applying for work visas.

    Good luck with that. It is a paradox that even amid sustained unemployment, we can’t get all the workers we need. The only solution is for the political powers that be to loosen immigration restrictions but that won’t happen due to, again, high unemployment.

  7. Mrs. Nelson says:

    So glad you brought this up. Still I heard on the radio the other day about how people who have kids that were ready to go off to college were asked if they wanted their kids to go into manufacturing they all pretty much said no. There is still a big stigma about working in manufacturing of anything in this country, which is sad. It is great to bring it back but their needs to be an attitude change so that people will want to take those jobs.

  8. Brina says:

    In reference to Lesley’s comment, someone can be both Hispanic and American whether they are born here or immigrated here and naturalized.

    Anyway good information–would be wonderful if more people who are interested in this kind of work had more skills and were interested in gaining skills.

  9. Heather says:

    I am a small business who last year had baby hats manufactured in India. I found it expensive to ship samples back and forth, and not only that but the port fees and shipping was so expensive. I am currently on a mission to find a manufacturer here in the USA to manufacture some new hats for me, but have not had much luck locating any or getting any emails back. I am not large enough, and have smaller quantitys. I had 2500 hats done before, but now am looking the range of 500 hats to start off a new design. if anyone can point me in a direction , I would sure appreciate it. I really would love to support our country , but for lack of resources, is finding it difficult!

  10. AliceB says:

    Cooperative training programs for stitchers/mechanics/floor managers need to be developed. They should probably be available in a regional fashion based on projected manufacturing needs. Training groups would be taught basic sewing techniques, practice for speed and accuracy and rotate through a number of machines to become more highly coveted by companies setting up work rooms. I am talking about an intense program teaching skills over a relatively short time, weeks or months. An extension of the training process would also include encouraging a reasonable percentage of talented students to become floor managers who have a broad view of machine capabilities and higher level sewing skills to provide training inhouse for personal in their work room. This would allow skills needed to manufature garments to be taught and applied to the specific work room based on needs.

    I’m a special ed. teacher who everyday is faced with helping students focus on realistic educational and career goals for after high school. The majority of the kids I work with have either learning disabilities or are on the autism spectrum – aspergers syndrome. In my rust belt region, families believe their off spring are all headed for 4 year college degrees. However, reality is that some of these kids cannot be academically competitive in a college setting and will need to become trained in a service/manufacturing better suited to their strengths. Manufacturing is an honorable career which has supported many a family in past generations. I grieved the loss of manufacturing jobs years ago when it bacame clear those jobs would no longer be available to my students. The kids I work with are wonderful individuals who may square pegs for the current education system. However, when given the opportunity to use applied knowledge in hands on operations these kids shine with advanced spatial reasoning and visualization skills. My kids have tremendous applied skills when learning is combined with demonstration and hands on experience rather than the read about then write about it basis often taught in secondary schools. We have vocational programs available but enrollment is extremely limited and families often do not believe their children will benefit from such experiences – college entrance requirements take presidence even when Johnny consistently earns D or D- in Core classes and state requirements. We, as a culture, need to create an environment where all people are celebrated not just the “doctors, lawyers and indian chiefs.” Ok, I’ll get off my soap box. :)

  11. Paul says:

    It’s my goal to develop my own sewing factory in the next few years, so anyone out there who has an interest or contacts or any other resources please feel free to contact me directly. I’m up to the challenge.

  12. Trish says:

    Since I have been teaching some of these competencies for 30 years, I can tell you that it will be quite a task to pull it back together in the USA, but I still have hope. People who learned on the factory floor are very hard to find in this country. However, with the correct training program in place, I can see DEs being able to stay in the USA. It is worth it… but with the need for so much training, I can only hope it is feasible.

  13. Jessica says:

    Indeed, time is of the essence. This is why I have a growing sense of urgency to soak up as much institutional knowledge as I can from the old timers while they are still around, and am working towards setting up a factory where I can implement the processes I’m learning and provide an environment conducive to training and attracting the next generation domestic workforce. My company is currently hiring, and I can attest that it is rare to find people with strong sewing skills or at least a willingness to learn sample making and manufacturing. As Lesley mentioned, a small workroom requires a higher level of skill from workers who can take a garment from start to finish. It’s a big challenge to figure out how manage the costs of training new sewers, but it must be done if we are to revitalize domestic manufacturing.

  14. Paul says:

    When this thread started I immediately had this thought. When production went offshore skilled people from the US were sent to train the people offshore. Now, it might be the time to bring some of those people that were trained, back to the US to train the start-up/new brand, etc. Temporary working visas are what is recognized for just such a need. We trained them, now we can get them to train a new crop of people in the US. These foreigners have the experience that is needed. If they end up becoming permanent residents, so much the better for us. Why would we want to waste the skills passed from the US to the off-shore manufacturers when we can bring them back with the people that were trained. They could be assured it will be temporary and then the company will need to be responsible for caring for them while they are here helping in training new people or getting a new operation going.
    Seems like a “no-brainer” to me.

  15. Carrie says:

    Paul, that’s a really interesting thought. The main problem I’ve faced, though, is in finding workers with enough skill in material handling to make our product- this seems to be primarily dependant on time spent handling similar materials. I can hire consulants to come in and set things up and train managers, but short-term training doesn’t solve my main problem. I wonder if there’s a way to apply your idea to solve the problem of training workers to have the skills we need in a faster way?

    I have two entirely un-PC (and admittedly un-original) thoughts on this:

    1. Like Kathleen said, we need more open immigration. Period. You can’t jump-start manufacturing that requires skill without bringing in skilled workers, and since we haven’t been developing these skills in the US they have to come from overseas. What I wish I could communicate to those who think this will worsen US unemployment is the following: if I had access to skilled stitchers from other countries and could feel more confident in my ability to produce here, I would invest in more AMERICAN marketing and advertising and likely hire more AMERICAN workers for other roles (customer service, accounting, etc.).

    2. We need some way of attracting young people into this field, which is tough given the push toward college education (and the diluted value of low-end colleges, in my opinion). One thing that struck me recently is that we pay our stitchers $12/hour plus bonuses and we’re killing ourselves to find qualified workers. On the other hand, I had over 200 resumes submitted for a $10/hour customer service role, and fully half of the applicants had college degrees! I think the primary problem is that young people can envision a “career path” that starts with college and a $10/hour customer service role, but they see skilled jobs like sewing as a dead-end. It’s unfortunate that they don’t have more exposure to the field to see how stitchers can become floor managers, operations directors, etc. (it’s also unfortunate that they don’t seem to have exposure to basic economic principles like scarcity value!).

    My dream is that US apparel manufacturers band together to create an outreach program akin to what the US Armed Forces do: marketing to young (and young-ish) people the benefits of these kinds of jobs and the career trajectory they can have, doing some sort of skills assessment to identify who might be good at these kind of jobs, and creating some kind of “boot camp” to impart skills (we’re small, but even we would consider sponsoring this type of initiative to improve our labor pool).

  16. Brina says:


    While I am sure you intentions are good–one of the reasons that so many people devalue “working with one’s hands” or factory work or manufacturing work or such is because that’s what people do who can’t cut it during a four year college degree. A lot of people who get college degrees are no smarter or more skilled than the folks you are working with–it’s just that they have had a background that gave them experience writing or such. Even then…trust me, I’ve taught college and plenty of these people cannot write to save their lives. So I think it’s problematic send people off on tracks based on their so-called abilities or lack there of.

    It seems like the other responses here point to the fact that these jobs are skilled positions where people need to know a lot in order to be valuable. I hate it when this training and these jobs are positioned as where those who can’t do college go.

  17. Beth says:

    This thread is near and dear to my heart – I think we have all seen the price globalization has had on our countries (I am in Canada) and the loss of knowledge and skills will be hard to replace (perhaps some of the retiring “old timers” might consider becoming part time teachers). To actually “re boot” factories from zero not only needs skilled workers but a lot of bucks too. One thing I have thought about is forming a co-op of small designers to run a co-op factory. I know it seems impossible in many respects but I have seen it happen in my own community with wool. I live on a small island off the west coast of Canada (the gulf islands which are the northern part of the San Juan’s off of Washington state). It is fairly small (10.000 people) and has become home to all sorts of artists and crafts people – sort of like Santa Fe, NM. There are a lot of small farms (now doing boutique Farming) and many of the farms raise sheep. With all these sheep there was a lot of wool – and with so many crafts people there were a lot of people interested in their fiber. Eventually there was a critical mass of crafts people using wool and sheep (up to this point farmers gave the wool away or sold it very cheap) and while I am not sure of all the details -I know these craft people formed a co-op, found some equipment, found a place to locate the machinery for free – or close to it-(at our local Fair grounds)and then taught themselves to use it. Long story short, they are producing wonderful wool, which is being used by the co-op members and is sold to tourists in the summer. What I know about co-ops is that the founding members must have a big vision and the both the time and patience to develop that vision and turn it into something real. While it is a time consuming and “messy” way to bring something into being, it can be very rewarding and the cost factors are much lower (due to all the free labor that those founding members donate). I also think such a group could find both community and possibly government support for such an idea. I think it could be what Seth Godin describes as a “purple cow”. I think the chances of a large company coming to a small community to repatriate their factory work is very slim – but in the right town, with the right people, it could be a great grassroots success!

  18. Tula says:

    This topic has been a recurring theme in the business press of late. All sorts of manufacturers are trying to “reshore” some of their operations and nearly all of them have the same complaint about difficulty in finding skilled workers. It seems that once most manufacturing went offshore, the vocational schools stopped teaching a lot of the skills they used to offer. Add to that the push to send everyone off for a college degree and the general poor reputation applied to manufacturing work and there’s a distinct gap in the kind of work that needs to be done and the availability of skills (and training in those skills) to do the work.

    I don’t know what the best solution to this problem will be, but the options I see are thus:
    1) import the workers
    2) manufacturers train new workers
    3) some other independent entity offers training in these areas

    I don’t much like #1. I’d rather focus on things that will help people already here. #2 can be expensive, but I think it will be a necessary part of the solution. #3 is something I think needs to happen. Right now, the only training we see beyond high school is two or four-year college degrees. There are a few specialized trade schools, but a lot of these are for-profit diploma mills that don’t teach most of the necessary manufacturing skills. The ones that are effective are those with narrow focus, like aircraft mechanics or plumbing. What’s needed is some sort of trade training in various sorts of manufacturing equipment, along with someof the baseline skills that might be prerequisites for these – math and some basic computer skills perhaps.

    It’s too bad there aren’t any real reality shows that focus on people doing manufacturing instead of the “glamorous” side of things like fashion design or product invention/design. I think it would be fascinating to watch a product go from the “sketch on a napkin” to finished product, showing all the steps and trials along the way. Of course, I’m an engineer, so seeing how things get put together is interesting to geeks like me :-)

  19. Paul V says:

    We all may not like importing the workers, but they have the needed skills to get the manufacturing going again. Plus, if new people are trained, then the manufacturing business can expand. You have to start some where and we will have to swallow some misplaced pride to get it done. The manufacturers coming back need to realize they helped to create the problem and they are going to have to create the solution.

    What I was talking about doesn’t require immigration. We already have procedures in place for bringing in workers when needed and the skills don’t exist in the US or if the skills exist and the people will not relocate to wherever the manufacturing is being done, then you or the manufacturer has a case for temporary imported labor.

  20. guest says:

    I think this maybe even a time sensitive issue. Unfortunately the skilled labor force is an aging one. Fewer and fewer people will have the knowledge and skills because everyone wants to be a designer. We will be stuck with a generation of production specialists who think that grading is something that is done on excel spreadsheets.

    I have a friend who is in his 90’s and has been on the production side of the buisness for most of his life. He is the best resource there is. He wants to teach, but there is no one to teach. No one signs up for the classes.

  21. Kathleen says:

    The manufacturers coming back need to realize they helped to create the problem and they are going to have to create the solution.

    Interesting, also very true. It may take time for the realization to sink in because manufacturers haven’t had to train line stitchers for a very long time. That said, the problem is at the top. They don’t know how to do it themselves anymore so it’s so much blind leading the blind.

    As the lack of skills affects start ups, there is little free-riding as there once was. Having to train when one once largely didn’t need to, makes costs higher.

    Guest: agreed. This is an ongoing problem. If people are interested, see Consequences of the fashion school bubble.

  22. Carrie says:

    Paul V, what procedures/programs are you referring to? As far as I’ve been able to tell, stitchers don’t qualify for any of the temporary work visa catagories (H1B visas require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and “specialty occupation in math/tech/sciences, and the other programs are very narrowly defined and don’t seem to apply). If there is another program, I’d love to look into it.

    I found it amusing when I was looking into visas that there’s a special exception to the H1B education and occupation requirement for “fashion models of distinguished merit and ability.”. American models should be outraged! :) I can just imagine the politician who wrote that exception. . .

  23. Paul V says:

    I thought we were talking about Production Managers and Pattern Makers.
    It is a good question though because the porn industry doesn’t seem to have any problem getting visas for foreign workers in that industry and there are a number of other areas where you will be surprised people get visa to come and work in the USA. I knew about the modeling industry. Maybe you need to get into contact with your congressman or senator to help grease the wheels. Unfortunately, if this is to come to fruition, we are going to have to become politically active.

  24. Carrie says:

    Ah, I see. I suppose it’s possible to get visas for patternmakers or production managers, but it would be a tough sell for an H1B visa since they’re designed for science professionals (and the demand far outstrips the quotas/supply so all but a couple countries have long waiting lists). Then you run into the problem of logistics- you’d have to identify, interview, and offer a job to someone before they were allowed into this country, then wait for a visa to be awarded. This process works ok for large companies who are hiring a mix of US and ex-US professionals every year and can afford to have overseas interviews (I know pharma companies use this process well), but I can’t see how it’s viable for a small-medium sized business.

    I’ve had this conversation with a handful of senators (when I was slighly less politically cynical) and was told by each that there’s no “political appetite” for expanding H1B quotas or creating new categories. Sounds like it would take a pretty poweful lobby (i.e. a ton of money) to change that. My take-away from these conversations was primarily that “political appetite” follows money and voter sentiment. I figure I’m more likely to be able to influence the sentiment of a few voters before I’m able to buy off any senators. :)

  25. Lisa B2 says:

    Well, my 2 cents, FWIW…

    I do want my own sewing factory.

    For areas with certain immigrant populations, you can find people who can sew and possibly not just batch type. Portland, OR has Vietnamese, Thai, other Asian, Latin American, Russian, Ukrainian, and Romanian immigrants and that’s just off the top of my head. Someone I used to know used to hire some Vietnamese women to sew for her and was happy with the results. That’s not to say that non-immigrants can’t sew and I wasn’t implying that.

    And me, I sew garments start to finish all the time. :-) I just finished 2 skirts and a knit top and I’m working on a man’s suit jacket.

  26. Myrrhia says:

    Attracting capital to these endeavors is very difficult, in part because of the problem with scaling up a business.

    With limited capital, manufacturing start ups use primitive equipment and labor-intensive techniques. One must rely on the skill of workers to compensate for the poor equipment (but they are still training in the start up phase) so you spend more time training them while materials are being destroyed in the process. This path is extremely expensive and challenging, and seems to cost more in the long run. This is because low output, high waste, and lots of workers means high product prices, lower sales volume, and difficultly showing a lender or investor opportunity for profitability.

    With high-tech equipment for manufacturing, the whole operation looks less like an artisanal craft business (sweat-shop), and the workers feel more like engineers than garment-workers. You might even be able to get American youth excited about the equipment and be able to hire from one of the schools with a technical textile program (rather than seeking an industry person from overseas).

    But Angel investors don’t get very excited unless they can see a big scale of growth over 3 – 5 years (their big return on investment). Showing that the company can grow and grow will be key in that scenario. That is very difficult in this market segment.

    Despite Kathleen’s sage advice about ways to start up with low overhead, I am finding that it will probably take $300k and three years to show a profitable apparel business that would attract investors. Banks are not interested. Investors want to throw their money at software companies because of their ability to scale. Saving up that much money is not an option. So how do we get capital to do it here?

  27. Jessica says:

    Myrrhia – I can totally relate. As much as I want to scale up my business to handle small run production for independent designers, I am stuck with the expense of needing to commit to a lease on a larger space and setting aside time and resources to train new workers in order to expand my operation, sacrificing my own ability to generate as much income on development projects in the process. It’s a tough road, especially if your trying to bootstrap it and don’t want to go into significant debt or be beholden to investors (as you said, it’s not easy to get a loan or investors for this in the first place).

  28. Kathleen says:

    Other than that I take exception to equating artisanal craft businesses with sweat shops, you’ve brought up a few interesting points.

    Another matter; I understand what you’re saying, that sexing up equipment and technologies will excite younger workers -only it’s not true. There are many plants (in other industries) across the country with the latest and greatest who can’t attract enough workers. The factory employment crisis isn’t limited to our industry, it affects manufacturing plants across the board.

    I agree with the problem of Angel investors -there needs to be some sort of middle ground. I would argue there already is, there is just little way of tapping into it. A lot of everyday people are looking for investment opportunities but they either don’t know enough about the business or are not able to calculate risks and return. There are a lot of people sitting on wads of cash looking for a place to put it that will get them better than what banks (>1%) are offering. I’m telling you, a lot of people are willing to set aside a portion of their portfolios in higher risk ventures.

    I see a lot of business proposals but very few are interesting (to me) for what many designers might consider to be inconsequential reasons. That certain behaviors, decisions and or practices are indicative of existing and future problems, is what makes these ventures unattractive (to me). What I sometimes wish is that people would ask me point blank, would I invest in their business and why or why not. These conversations could be very uncomfortable all around. All I can say is that I have tried to invest previously but the individuals in question refused funding. It is their conservatism and pragmatism that makes them attractive investments yet it is also their conservatism and pragmatism that leads them to decline funding.

    We’ve tossed around what it would cost to start a solid enterprise in the past (I’m bereft of a link at the moment) but I wouldn’t disagree 3 years is off the mark. I also don’t know that 300K is too far off but the figure can be somewhat misleading for many reasons. I do know that one can start up for quite a bit less provided one has access to solid skill sets -and LISTENS and IMPLEMENTS targeted advice. In my experience I think many start ups have too much money judging from the ways they waste it.

  29. Bente says:

    Great post!
    Some of the factory workers are probably already here..
    it’s hard to live on around $1 a day even in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Some didn’t make it and went North to be able to support their families. I read about Amilcar in Kelsey Timmerman’s book “Where am I wearing”. BTW; his blog is fabulous. The book too. Great summer lecture for everyone interested in the people who MAKES our clothes..

  30. Garrett says:

    Sweet music to my ears. My company brought the business back from Asia. I started in textiles in the late 70’s as a line mechanic, then learned cutting room, patterns, prototype and design, economy of motion, etc. It is very surprising the absolute lack of a work ethic in the younger people, but there is a few who reconfirm my faith. I stuck with the industry but for one phrase my old employer used to use, “Everything your butt touches passes under a sewing machine first.” Sew on and Sew forth…

  31. Jen Rocket says:

    Great post, this is one of my favorite subjects. I have a once part time gig sewing products for a company. My schedule is very unpredictable but they’ll take any hours I can do any day of the week since it is so hard for them to find competent stitchers! Recently however they did find a girl who had some drive and knew a little about home sewing who turned out to be amazing! She took to the industrial machines like a duck to water and did operations at a decent speed with almost no flaws. Unfortunately she is beginning to get burned out. That’s the one problem with manufacturing for me too, sitting behind a machine for 8 hours at a time doing essentially the same operations over and over is hard. So I can see why is is difficult to get younger people interested in manufacturing. An upside is that you get a sense of accomplishment when you see what you have made!

  32. A few thoughts mostly based on watching metalworking and assembly industries, where this is the topic of a number of professional societies like the AWS (welding), FMA (fabricating metal), SME (manufacturing engineers), AME (manufacturing excellence/ lean manufacturing. The news across the country, as you know, is about these industries and skills. But the application of what works is important for you in the apparel industry.

    1. Where there is a vocational program in a school district or community college, they are desperate to know how the kids they train will get hired. If enough apparel manufacturers approach the school and interest them in the industry, they will usually do an excellent job training your beginners and future stars. Offer the instructors and district management people to tour your operations and get to know you and what you do. See number four below. If you follow that path, your operation will be amazing and impressive to them.

    2. The above is based on having several employers in the apparel industry in a reasonable geographic distance from each other and the schools. I know that’s not true everywhere, but if you’re looking to site a new operation, check that out.

    3. Formal consortia of companies, regardless of industry, are either available or possible in your region. They can give companies the leverage to connect with the local community, put their resources together and share training costs, costs of supplies and materials, and so on. If you need help, the AME is one organization interested in starting new consortia.

    4. Get Kathleen’s book (maybe this should be number one) and read it cover to cover, several times, and get everyone involved in managing your company to read it too. Read the sources she cites. Now you will have learned that lean manufacturing can benefit you in thousands of ways and remove all sorts of obstacles. Get on your lean journey. You’ll find yourself reading and hearing a whole lot about Toyota. Did you know they have sewing operations that they have applied all their automobile manufacturing learning to? Don’t dismiss the focus on Toyota just because you don’t make cars.

    5. When you have used lean for a while, you have stabilized some of your low- and mid-skilled jobs. You have standardized work and applied simple worksavers and error-proofing devices to operations. Check with your local training and development organization that works with people with disabilities. The work stations you have now will be easy for anyone to handle. People with disabilities yearn to have jobs, pay taxes, and contribute. People with learning disabilities will not get bored with a repetitive task.

    6. Recent immigrants are also grateful to have work, which they can do when you have simplified added clarity to tasks. An article I wrote a couple of years ago about a glove-making operation – with the help of Kathleen’s friend Len Egan – took this approach.

    7. Automate or buy “intelligent” equipment judiciously. You will have to get yourself to tradeshows or read industry magazines regularly. Learn about new techniques and equipment constantly. You will have a combination of well-chosen up-to-date equipment that can do tasks your lower-skilled workers can’t do, but avoid the idea that everything has to be automated.

    I could go on – you have an advantage just because you read Kathleen’s blog, but dig into the manufacturing knowledge base deeper whenever you can.

  33. Ruth says:

    I know this topic is almost a year old but just came across it and had to add. For those of you who are interested, there is a group of manufacturers in the Mpls/St. Paul area who has come together to form an organization called The Makers Coalition (www.themakerscoalition.org)
    The company I work for is part of this organization and my boss is on the board of directors. They have teamed up with a local private technical college to create a new certificate program called Sewing and Production Specialist, which started in January of this year. This 22 week course consists of 6 classes that teach and prepare individuals the basic skills needed to become industrial sewists. I have the honor to teach two of the classes and we are gettng ready to see the first class of 18 students obtain their certificates and get out in the work force. The second session began 3 weeks ago with 24 students and there is a waiting list for the September cycle. This is very exciting and the first steps to bringing the sewn products industry back to the US. We have had international coverage on this exciting venture…from a report on CBS Nightly News, CNN, New York Times, to having the French National Television (the “BBC” of France!!) filming in my class last week!… There are over 90 job openings in the twin cities area alone looking for skilled sewers. As a production manager for one of the companies, I am personally open to hiring as many sewers as I can get. Having lost 3 jobs in the sewn products industry over the past 15 years because operations were sent off shore, I can’t begin to express how I feel about this resurgence!

  34. April says:

    Great post and the comments thread is also exceptional. I have just recently opened a small run production facility in Denver due to the needs presented by our local and quickly growing industry here. We have a pool of skilled sewing labor in Denver, but finding them has been difficult. They seem to migrate into other job areas once the sewing jobs dry up and they don’t always want to come back. Still, there are a few and we are actively seeking to build up a pool of skilled labor to share with some of our partner companies here.

    We are a company that is starting small. I invested money earned from my little costume shop business of 10 years and a few product development clients and purchased all new equipment. We are quickly approaching maxed out phase in our scheduling for production runs and our tiny 900 square foot warehouse facility is overflowing. Within the next 6 months we will likely have to move into larger space and invest in more equipment and more skilled labor.

    I am not opposed to training less experienced stitchers, but I worry about retention. Training is expensive and I don’t want to lose competent people to other industries that seem more exciting to them. It is difficult to attract people to long days at a sewing machine or cutting table. Also, I have many people that are exceptionally skilled workers in this area that I have worked with for many years. But they have a pay expectation that I simply cannot afford as a startup. On the other side of that coin, if I hired them I would have in-house knowledge base of people that can move easily from the sewing machines to the pattern table to cutting and back again. So I am trying to weigh all the odds as this thing is growing. Would love any input from all you great people out here! Thanks!

  35. Kathleen says:

    Yes, training is expensive. This is a popular topic around here; here’s a partial list of blog posts dealing with training. We also discuss it on the forum.

    I haven’t had much [cost effective] luck with training people with limited experience. Other than my husband, everyone I’ve trained can already sew but there is a broad range of facility for the work. It has been more cost effective for me to use experienced stitchers (meaning, a lot of production sewing so they’re comfortable with the equipment and work rhythm) and training them on whole garment construction or whatever needs doing around here.

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