5 reasons you can’t find a sewing contractor

[Note: this post was written before I opened my sewing factory] Between the phone, email and the forum, I’ve had six requests for finding a clothing manufacturer sewing contractor before 2:00 PM. I guess interest is a good sign. A bad sign was that none of them were prepared for this step. A crazy as it seems, one can tell inside of 30 seconds. In the interests of resolving this problem, I’ll reiterate specific advice on the most critical strategy you can use to find a clothing manufacturer sewing contractor. Sprinkled through out this entry are links to critical entries you must also read.

Cold calling or emailing somebody to get the name of manufacturer contractor is rarely going to work so it’s better to try another approach. The best way to find a clothing manufacturer sewing contractor is by doing things the way one is expected to go about doing things in the industry. It is only when you try to do things your own way or to take short cuts that you run into trouble.

Bar none, the best way to find a clothing manufacturer sewing contractor is through a pattern maker. You have to have patterns before you hire a manufacturer contractor so don’t put the cart before the horse. I know a lot of people are thinking they don’t need a pattern maker because the factory will do that, or they’re using a retail pattern or they made their own and think this is well enough.  It is possible you don’t need one but probably not. For what it’s worth, I’ve run into 2 designers in 33 years who didn’t need a pattern maker. You could be the third, who knows? Rather than belabor the point, continue reading to find out why your case may not be the exception.

Part of the value of a pattern maker is their relationships. In the trade, there is the expectation that pattern makers will refer you to the party downstream from them. If they don’t provide a referral, it can mean a few things but none of them are good (further down). Pattern makers are expected to make referrals because we are in the best position to know which manufacturers contractors are any good. If there’s a problem with our pattern, the pattern is returned for correction. Too many problems with our patterns and a manufacturer contractor won’t take our work. Likewise, if something isn’t sewn well and there are too many problems with a given provider, we have to find someone else. The point that cannot be minimally stated is that a pattern maker vouches for you with another party with whom you have no standing.

In short, calling or emailing for a referral should be the last resort because you only need to do that if you haven’t hired a pattern maker. If you are new and didn’t know you needed to do that, it is best to slow down before you make some expensive mistakes and read a good book- I recommend mine (obviously).  The reason you need a referral to find a good manufacturer contractor (also) is because if I send someone who is not ready to my manufacturer contractor colleague, he or she is going to start questioning my judgement. If I do that too many times, they won’t do any more work for my customers. Meaning, if I lose those relationships, no one will hire me because I won’t be able to give them referrals anymore. This is a roundabout explanation of why I need my manufacturer sewing contractor colleagues more than I need the goodwill of someone who is not a customer who has emailed or called me for a referral. Long story short, anyone who gets phone calls asking for names is immediately on guard. You’re having to call someone because you need to back up a few steps and shouldn’t be moving forward just yet.

Switching gears -the reasons a pattern maker can’t or won’t make a referral boil down to relationship or work problems. Being able to refer you is such a critical issue in the trade that you should discuss this before you hire anyone. Here are the main reasons a pattern maker may not be able to make referrals:

1. New pattern makers haven’t worked with any manufacturer contractors to have developed any relationships. This is okay as long as they tell you. On the forum we love helping new pattern makers to develop their careers.

2. A designer who also makes patterns is the most worrisome choice. Sure, I know that many have lovely samples and raving accolades on their web site but never hire a designer, that’s not their strong suit. They can’t make any referrals to any manufacturers contractors who will sew their patterns because they don’t really work in the industry. I can say that because industry designers will tell you they don’t make patterns. And sure, the party may have training and a bit of experience with other small companies like yours but their patterns are rarely production quality and that’s what you need to go into production.

3. Every city has local “experts” who may work at a fabric store or a tailoring or alterations shop. They’re often very good stitchers but their pattern work can be dicey if they don’t have solid factory experience. They can’t make referrals because they don’t know any manufacturer contractors. These people are an excellent resource to help you develop a concept but factor the costs of needing to have the patterns remade into your budget.

4. It is possible you have a great pattern maker but they don’t have relationships with manufacturer contractors who do the kind of work you need. The tacit expectation that pattern makers are supposed to make referrals is why a pattern maker will avoid certain kinds of pattern work if they can’t refer you when their part of the work is done. For example, until we opened our own factory, I didn’t make many knit patterns because I don’t have any stable knit cut and sews to send the work to.

5. The last problem is usually you. When you call a pattern maker to see if they can refer you after they do their portion of the work, they will often hedge (if they’re any good) or be ambiguous. They will hedge because they don’t have the low down until they’ve worked with you. Do you pay on time? Are you informed? Are you a pain in the patootie? Are your expectations rational? They will only refer you after they’ve worked with you. The point is, in the process of interviewing them, make sure they have relationships with colleagues who have and will sew their patterns.

A bit off topic but it bears mentioning that good pattern makers rarely if ever get a kick back or percentage of your job from the manufacturer contractor. We need to stay on their good side because we need this relationship. Not just for today or tomorrow but for years.

Relationships: We need our relationships with colleagues more than we need any given person who calls or writes us. Our value comes from providing quality referrals to our customers and colleagues over the long haul. You also need to develop relationships with colleagues.

Education: Hire a pattern maker first, then worry about a manufacturer contractor. [By the way, that “clothing manufacturer” is always struck out is a big hint and it matters a lot. This study finds that textile and apparel firms that misrepresent their identity, suffer financially. Companies that do represent themselves correctly hire more employees, have higher sales, more production space and a higher credit score.] Otherwise you’re in for a lot of grief and will get nothing but the run around. I strongly urge you to join the forum; there is nothing that comes close to it on the internet and we do lots of referrals and troubleshooting there.


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  1. Reader says:


    Have you heard of a reality program on the Sundance Channel called “All On The Line”?


    Each week, an executive at Elle Magazine analyzes the problems of a small design company that’s had success in the past but has fallen on hard times. In one episode, the designers choice of contractor was considered. The Elle exec, Joe Zee, thought that the choice of manufacturer, a company that works with top-level designers, was a mistake because of the cost.


    If you ever have a chance to watch the series, I’d love to read your take on it. I can’t tell if Zee knows what he’s talking about. He always talks a good game, but it seems to me like there’s a big difference between being a Creative Director at a magazine (who seems to have great contacts) and being a DE.

  2. Reader says:

    Zee took the DE, Dana-Maxx, to a kind of garment industry “connector,” who recommended a different, less expensive sewing contractor. But according to the DE’s blog (not that of the reality show), the change of contractor was a bad move.

  3. Tula says:

    I think the big disconnect may be that people new to the business expect it to work like other businesses, where when you need a service, you simply go find one on the internet or in the phone book. The concept of relationships and referrals is foreign to many people. It’s similar to trying to find wholesale suppliers, where you can’t get in contact with them without knowing they exist in the first place. There’s a whole generation used to being able to easily find what they want on the net or without a lot of mutual back-scratching with people. To them, they have something they want to produce and that simply means they need someone to produce it. The whole secret handshake wink wink, nudge nudge component is not something they expect or have any clue about unless they’ve read your book or have already worked with people in the industry.

    I don’t think they’re necessarily wrong in their thinking just because it’s not the way things have always been done. In fact, I often wonder why so many businesses don’t take advantage of the internet and related technologies to bring customers and providers together. I’m sure they have their reasons, but I find it curious. People won’t know how they’re “supposed” to do things if no one tells them about it. There seem to be so few sources for information out there on exactly how to go about doing this, and those in the know often seem to be so protective and paranoid about the information and who gets to join the club, so it’s no wonder people get frustrated and ask for assistance.

  4. Tula says:


    I know about the book. My point is that many people new to the business don’t even know they need a book to guide them through it, since the way things are done in this industry makes no sense to them given their frame of reference. And that doesn’t make them wrong, just uninformed.

    I’ve heard a lot about this from many newbies in a fashion group I used to belong to. They were all completely puzzled as to why they couldn’t find information about how to get their garments produced. The way the industry works seems backward to people who live with their smartphones in hand, tethered to the internet wherever they go. They’re used to having information at their fingertips and not having to jump through hoops to get it. Again, not wrong, just different.

  5. Tula,

    I had a feeling you knew about The Book. Just wanted to take the opportunity to plug it, since you provided such a beautiful segue that people who need The Book can recognize themselves in.

  6. it seems to me like there’s a big difference between being a Creative Director at a magazine (who seems to have great contacts) and being a DE.

    Reader: Two things come to mind. First, the most useless college degree (courtesy of daily beast, heh) is journalism -a fashion degree was rated fifth. Not saying I agree or disagree but in a manner of speaking, that says it all. The second thing that comes to mind is that apparently, anyone who wears clothes is a sizing expert. That a creative director at a magazine purports to be an authority on apparel manufacturing is another signal to the average person that it doesn’t take much brains to do it. Gee, thanks. It also indirectly affirms youngsters of their “entitlements”. Gee, thanks again. Speaking of entitlement:

    The concept of relationships and referrals is foreign to many people. It’s similar to trying to find wholesale suppliers, where you can’t get in contact with them without knowing they exist in the first place.

    Just what do they think manufacturing is? It’s wholesale.

    I know that many young people think we are obligated to make this easy for them but their belief doesn’t change anything. One can believe in fairies, trolls and vampires but no matter how fervently one believes in them does not make them real.

    Believing we are obligated presumes two things. One that it’s a buyer’s market, we need to go out there and get them. However, it’s not a buyer’s market so we don’t need to find them if our time is already consumed by paying customers. Why would we go look for more if we can’t serve them? How can it be our collective fault that people don’t understand supply and demand?

    The second presumption is that we’re obligated to educate them -which is what this blog does. Education is the individual’s responsibility (this site is here, I can’t force anyone to read it). If they wanted to start a restaurant, they’d need to educate themselves in order to be able to comply with regulations etc.

    They were all completely puzzled as to why they couldn’t find information about how to get their garments produced. The way the industry works seems backward to people who live with their smartphones in hand, tethered to the internet wherever they go. They’re used to having information at their fingertips and not having to jump through hoops to get it. Again, not wrong, just different.

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, only harder but expecting another result. I’m not saying their sourcing strategies are wrong, just ineffective. By comparison, wholesale business weeding strategies are very functional in that people who don’t step out of their comfort zone are eliminated from consideration. Searching via smartphone is great to find a restaurant or a pair of shoes but it takes a lot more effort and time than that to pull a line together. Presuming otherwise assumes it is our job to teach them how to do it and we just don’t have the time being too busy with paying customers.

    I don’t see the situation changing anytime soon. The site is an excellent example. There is no one else on the web putting out as much information as I do but that is still not enough for these people. They aren’t grateful; if anything they’re resentful because they think they deserve it and so much more. Keeping some things under wraps minimizes time wasted by people who feel entitled to more than they’re willing to pay for (hand holding, education etc). Like I said, this site has tons of free information but too many don’t want to read it; the only way they’re going to get someone to spoon feed them is if they pay for it -but again, they don’t want to pay, they want it free. If their order is tiny, where is the money to pay for the thousands of hours of time spent educating them and everybody else? We’d go out of business and not be available to take on any work. Therefore, it’s best for us and our paying wholesale customers that our industry remains -as you said- typical of wholesale businesses.

  7. Buying the/Kathleen’s book has long been on my mind though I am not sure it can help somebody outside the USA. I mean, I am sure it is packed with informations that could contibute to improve my sewing skills as a home sewer but do you think it could somebody who wants to develop as a DE ?
    This may be a silly question but still, I wonder how I did not came to my mind sooner. I can be very slow sometimes.

  8. H. says:

    Another amazing article! The way you break this down for us is so clear, Kathleen, I couldn’t ask for a more direct explanation!

    If only I had understood that “this how the world works” when I was a younger lass….. (hahaha)

    I do own Kathleen’s book, and it’s the only reason I feel I have *any* chance of creating and selling a line in the real world.

    I suppose it’s one of the disadvantages of the old fashioned “guild” system where industry knowledge is hidden amongst those who are in the business already, with very little room for newcomers to enter. Who wants to train their competition?

    These are some of the reasons why I am so impressed by Kathleen’s willingness to share her hard-earned wisdom!

    Thanks again Kathleen! :)

  9. Marie-Noëlle,

    Yes, The Book is specifically written for someone who wants to develop as a DE. It is less helpful to homesewers because homesewers have fewer tools and don’t have the same emphasis on (and support of) reproduciblilty.

    You may discover that there are some differences between the way business is conducted in France and in the US, but you can ask questions on the forum where there are (two) members from France. And the differences shouldn’t be huge, because the problems to be solved are found everywhere.

  10. Tula says:


    I agree with you 100% :-) There are a lot of people who are trying to find the shortcut approach to success in this business and they certainly aren’t worth your time since they’ll never succeed withthat approach anyway. One definitely has to research and become educated, whatever industry they’re in. But there are also many who would happily “pay their dues” if only they knew what the dues were. This site and your book are a great start for them.

    I think a big problem is that the way people are taught to approach starting a business nowadays doesn’t fit with the way this industry works, so a lot of people end up frustrated and resort to begging for information. Sure, they need to push harder and “step out of their comfort zone” but they still need a direction to go. Maybe that’s a failure in how they’re taught. Goodness knows there are certainly a lot of things being taught that are useless in the real world :-)

    I don’t think they all necessarily feel entitled or that anyone is obligated to help them (the ones I knew were not, but I’m not in a position to receive such enquiries, like many of you are), but I can understand the frustration of having a door slammed in their faces simply for asking a question. I think many of them are just lacking knowledge and don’t intend to insult those they approach, they just don’t know any better because no one has told them otherwise. One doesn’t learn anything without asking questions, after all. If they’re unwilling to figure out the right questions, then yes, they should be shown the door, but just being a newbie shouldn’t automatically disqualify them from even asking.

    I suppose those entitled, ungrateful sorts (of which there are far too many) have probably spoiled it for those who are truly eager to learn and succeed. TV shows like Project Runway certainly don’t help, since those people seem to get ahead more by being obnoxious than by playing by the rules and they make it look far too easy to succeed. I guess my main point is that there’s a big disconnect in how people are being taught and how things actually work. The fact that Kathleen’s book is such a necessity is proof of that. It’s too bad they don’t incorporate Kathleen’s book into fashion school (and business school) curriculums.

  11. Paula Hudson says:


    I just wanted to add that reading the book was enormously helpful to me in clarification in my own mind of what I want and the realities of being a DE. After reading it, I’m clear that at this time being a DE is not something I want, and the cost of the book and a few hours of my time just saved me a whole lot of money and stress. But this has opened a door for me I’ve been searching in the dark to find for a long time. The knowledge I gained and finding the forum has already been invaluable, and I’m an extremely new member. While I don’t want to be a DE in the technical sense, I do want to develop my referral-only business. I have an excellent skill set, but I now realize I don’t want to go in the DE direction. This is a long way of saying that this book and the forum can be invaluable to an enthusiast. I’m extremely grateful for the generosity of Kathleen and the forum members for being so embracing of those “not technically a DE.”

  12. Paula,

    Your comment is very much appreciated. You are right, I am “searching in the dark” too. Many thanks to Kathleen helping us approaching the problems from the right angle.

  13. samantha says:

    I find these comments are negative and discouraging I don’t know if the comments are intended to only promote this book every one is talking about. I don’t think looking for a manufacturer or contractor on the web is a bad thing you can even source them at trade shows. I know of some people who have both found manufacturers /contractors on the web and at trade shows and have had long lasting and good business relationships with them. It may take a little while to get a good manufacturer on the web because sometimes you have to weed out the scammers but I still think the above two options is a good way to attain a contactor or manufacturer.

  14. Kathleen says:

    I’m hearing a lot about Survivorship Bias lately, here’s a good quote (emphasis is mine):

    As best I can tell, here is the trick: When looking for advice, you should look for what not to do, for what is missing […] but don’t expect to find it among the quotes and biographical records of people whose signals rose above the noise. They may have no idea how or if they lucked up. What you can’t see, and what they can’t see, is that the successful tend to make it more probable that unlikely events will happen to them while trying to steer themselves into the positive side of randomness. They stick with it, remaining open to better opportunities that may require abandoning their current paths, and that’s something you can start doing right now without reading a single self-help proverb, maxim, or aphorism. Also, keep in mind that those who fail rarely get paid for advice on how not to fail, which is too bad because despite how it may seem, success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.

    So, if blame can be assigned to me for my habit of advising people on avoiding failure and telling them what not to do, I’m guilty and make no apologies for it.

  15. Samantha,

    I’m not sure where you’re coming from. Are you a retailer? (In which case, why would you be looking for sewing contractors in addition to manufacturers?) Or are you a manufacturer? (In which case, why are you looking for manufacturers in addition to sewing contractors?)

    I suggest you reread the last paragraph in the post, “Education.”

  16. Lannette says:

    Do I need a pattern maker if I want a seamstress to make everyday wear headbands for natural-haired African American women? The needs for this population in headbands as far as variety, fit, snaglessness and tension control, are very different than what’s currently offered in most hair accessory shops. Mines are simple with four different fit/closure devices for the best fit, and offers more than one way to wear them. I don’t know where to start and there is a huge market that coincides with the natural hair movement in the African American community. I sew a little and my daughter has an industrial sewing machine and sews well but she’s too busy, young and unreliable. I wondered if I needed a trademark/patent for the name and the original design? Thank you!!!

  17. nikki says:

    i paid a pattern maker. she couldnt help me. ive been trying for OVER A YEAR to find small production swimwear company. what a crock of $xxt all of this is. btw the article wasnt very helpful. ive done all of the things im supposed to do and still stuck.

  18. denise says:

    I am sorry but we used to be a country of problem solvers. The way things were always done does not mean it is right. I have a pattern for my items. I have been selling them for years now. I went thru the testing process and I have orders I can’t fill. But, I am told I need a pattern maker. That is like a doctor being sick and having to go to another doctor to get a referral to see a specialist. (now how out of touch does that seem?) Found out that there is less hoops to jump thru in another country. This may be one reason companies go outside of USA? How sad. We could really use the jobs!

  19. denise says:

    I forgot to mention if anyone wants of list of manufactures I have contacted and got no where with. I can send it to you. This way you wont waste your time calling them! got to love the internet!

  20. Kathleen says:

    Doctors go to other doctors for referrals all the time. They know enough to know they don’t know and prefer that a trusted colleague who does know, advises them. Patternmakers do it too; couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve sent customers to my colleagues because I don’t know it all.

    You need markers -and you get those from pattern makers (follow the links in this post). Another thing, as this post made a very clear point of, “manufactures” aren’t what you need. You need a sewing contractor, so yes, I can imagine that the list of “manufactures” that wouldn’t help you, is quite lengthy. Even if you did find sewing contractors, I’m not surprised they couldn’t help you because they need markers and if you don’t want to go that route, it’s not helping to blame others.

    For example, if you went to the dentist to have a tooth filled but refused to see the hygienist first or to pay for an x-ray, well, no competent dentist is going to help you. There are steps that must be taken. It’s great that you were able to make it for so long without doing so but if you want to up your game, your practices must evolve too.

  21. Kathy says:

    Granted, I am new to this, and am open to learning, buying the book, etc., but what if your product doesn’t need a pattern? I have a line of silk scarves – square and oblong, and I need a sewing contractor or 2 or 3. How do I get a referral? Do I still need a patternmaker? or do I need something other than a sewing contractor?

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