Advice to sewing contractors pt.1

This advice is targeted to two groups; those thinking of becoming sewing contractors and those who already are but had developed their businesses around a primary client/industry and don’t know what is standard or expected of service providers in the broader market. This first entry is the creation of a fact sheet to outline the capacity and experience of your operation. Subsequent posts could address developing a customer profile in order to manage divergent expectations. Another entry could detail how to refine or acquire more assets, network with other service providers etc. Still another post would deal with standard practices in the industry such as payment terms, NDAs, sewing contracts, customary fees, how your colleagues price services etc. As far as this entry is concerned, designers are free to add their two cents but it might be better to read this as a guide to know how to judge the veracity of varying contractor’s websites you may find on the web.

A Fact Sheet
itemizes your assets in terms of

  • equipment,
  • plant capacity and facility,
  • key personnel,
  • experience and skills
  • related businesses you’ve worked with that provide services you don’t

Equipment includes everything from CAD system, sewing machines, pressing equipment, cutting tools, tables, plotters, spreaders, digitizers, snap setters excluding hand tools like scissors etc. You need to be very specific with respect to equipment brand names. While some of your customers won’t have the first idea what the products are, other customers will and they’re looking for providers who have given kinds of equipment. The reason being that some customers own folders or attachments for given machines that they lend to the contractor for their production. This also goes for dies; it is not unusual for customers to own their snap or grommet setting dies so they need to know what kinds of equipment you have.

Using the example of sewing machines, use this format to itemize the equipment you have. Include brand name of the machine, its type and seam name (if applicable) and the total number of machines you have of that class. Here are some description examples:

  • Bad: multi-needle machine
  • Better: Brother double-needle lockstitch (brand+type+seam name)
  • Best: Brother LT2-B831-3 double-needle lockstitch (brand+model+type+seam name)
  • Bad: overlock machines
  • Better: Reliable 5-thread overlock (brand+type+seam name)
  • Best: Reliable 3316N 5-thread overlock safety stitch (brand+model+type+seam name)

Note that the best example descriptions include the model number and for all purposes are redundant. This is okay because you are targeting a variety of customers ranging from the greenest beginners to a production manager needing someone to handle their over flow. By example, some customers don’t know that a 5-thread is a safety stitch overlock (or even what an overlock is, they’ve only been told that’s what they need) so you’ll catch more interest regardless of your customer’s familiarity with machines.

Model number is useful for your most experienced customers because they can match up any folders, pullers etc (attachments) they have to your machine. And of course, some of those customers may pass because some of your equipment is dated or not optimal for their product but it’s best to know at the outset to save everyone’s time. Either that or they’ll know that they may need to provide an attachment because -having been around awhile- they know it doesn’t make financial sense for you to buy a puller for an aging piece of machinery for their small lot. Newer customers won’t know all that of course and unknowingly have unreasonable demands but the case must be made that more specificity is best. Minimally, customers can educate themselves about machines on the web to see what kinds of operations your machines will do.

Again, use the guidelines above to detail all of the equipment you have to include cutting, spreading, pressing, fusing etc.

Another critical item to list under equipment are the sizes and number of tables you have, particularly if you offer cutting services. Now, experienced contractors know this but the smaller corner sewing shops don’t so table size is often a way someone knows that an operation is embellishing their credentials. Namely, your description of services must be congruent with your stuff. If you only have an 8 foot table or a hodge podge of non-Philocraft tables, you’re a proto or sample shop at best and not a sewing contractor. Not that there is anything wrong with that (that’s what I do but even I have a 28 foot table). A list of expected amenities for even small shops and how to evaluate contractors on the basis of capacity can be found in my book on pages 133-141. Also provided is a handy contractor evaluation form.

Plant Capacity and Facility
In this section it is common to list features of your facility such as number of sewing operators and of your building to include power, total square footage, overhead feedrail, whether you have a shipping dock, climate control etc. Sure, experienced contractors could simply say they have industrial space but a lot of customers don’t understand the difference between commercial and industrial so you’ll need to spell out those amenities. I have a lot more to say about this -and have- but it’s best I link to four entries (at close) that will be useful for people who are organizing a working factory. It is also typical for larger operations to itemize their capacity in terms of units they can produce monthly but if the figures are large (6 figures), it doesn’t mean much to the smaller customer. If you only want larger orders, the latter could discourage calls from people who aren’t a match for your business.

Key Personnel
Listing individuals along with their job descriptions is another excellent way to itemize the kinds of services your facility has to offer. Since many contractors don’t offer prototyping (pattern services), it is helpful to mention you have a pattern maker or grader on staff if you do. If you don’t, that’s okay too. Reiterate your head count and particular strengths of your operators, supervisors and managers. If your operation works closely with other businesses that provide services complimentary to yours (again, say cutting or pattern services) be sure to mention that.

Experience, Skills and Services
At the risk of being a pest, I must reiterate that the most important thing is congruence. Your equipment, plant, experience and skills need to add up to match or compliment the services you offer. Specifically, this section is a summary of all that has come before it. By all means, repeat yourself because many people will skip down to this section or if it comes first, only spot check whatever follows it to see if the equipment and facility is congruent with the listed services. In this section you should list your full range of services to include CAD (or CAM if you have it) cutting, sewing, pressing, finishing, packaging, warehousing, order fulfillment etc. Be sure to list your particular CAD system so other service providers who are trying to place work don’t have to hunt around to find it.

About stuff you don’t have or services you don’t offer.
If somebody contacts you to ask if you have XYZ or whether you offer ABC services and you don’t, don’t be diffident or apologetic. These questions aren’t a thinly implied statement that you don’t measure up (or that you should have them) because the person is taking inventory (or, if someone is implying that, forget about it because you don’t want that customer). For example, I called a contractor the other day and asked if they had a CAD system and plotter. The (very nice) lady at this not for profit sewing operation launched into “no and I know we need one but we just don’t have the money etc etc” -but that wasn’t my question. The intent of my question was: “can you print a marker from a digital file I send you and if so, what files can your system read?” Perhaps my question could have been better phrased but cognitive shortcuts assuming a shared knowledge base among practitioners is more common than not. So you don’t have a CAD system, that’s not a problem because me or somebody else does. Your operation could be a good fit because services can be covered in other ways provided we know what’s needed.

Of course you will have inquiries from people who will be disappointed that you don’t provide whatever ancillary service they want because most in that category are looking for a full package soup to nuts operation (pt.2 is critical) but these kinds of issues can be covered in a future post on customer expectations. As a general rule, most of your work will come via referrals from other businesses that are related to yours, usually pattern makers and even other contractors. Most of the contractors I know only take work by referral but that’s a whole other topic and I’m getting ahead of myself. Need I suggest to read my book if you have a lot of blanks to fill in?

Plant organization
Plant organization pt.2
Plant organization pt.3
My shop: Plant organization pt.4
Commercial vs Industrial space

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  1. dosfashionistas says:

    What a great, substantial topic! I think it would be very pertinent to DEs as well as contractors-to-be. As an old patternmaker who always felt somewhat walled off from production, I am fascinated.

  2. Paula Hudson says:

    Now that I’m actually wrapping my brain about going down the DE highway, you’ve given me yet another invaluable well of information. I’ve printed this out, and all the related posts, as this is going to take serious time and attention to absob. I don’t have plans on becoming a sewing contractor; but if I ever get to the place where I need to employ one, I will do it from an informed position.

  3. Miracle says:

    Kathleen I want to add two others

    1- Freight elevator or some other way of making it known if your deliveries are going “upstairs” or to a ground floor location (chalk that up to things learned the hard way).
    2- if you regularly offer shipping services. By this I mean it can be difficult to work with a contractor that is used to pickup or trucking and is arranging the oddball UPS/FedEx shipment because they often do not have the proper packaging, or packaging knowledge to transport small shipments effectively.
    3- what kind of post-production services you offer such as bagging and tagging, folding hanging, etc. I know it seems like a no brainer until you work with a shop that doesn’t routinely do it because, again, most of their clients pick up and do that somewhere else.
    4- lastly, there are contractors with the capability of packing your stuff to the standard that it’s shippable to stores or third party fulfillment (which is really becoming increasingly important as companies are using standardized fulfillment operations with inbound shipping requirements). Not saying that they have EDI. but for example if you require case packs of 24 pcs per size 72 pcs per case into marked cartons, or interior bagging, or EAN barcodes on the inner packs or cartons, they can do that.

    Not to blog inside your blog comments, but some fulfillment centers (for example) will require one sku bundled together. So say you make dresses, each bagged dress needs a barcode and the pack, or case, needs a barcode (EAN is one of the warehousing standards). Now you can bring that in house, barcode it and send it to fulfillment, but then thats a lot of handling and trans-shipping (increasing the costs). I know a lot of DEs don’t use fulfillment centers, but many do, and many are starting to use services such as fulfillment by Amazon. And many brands, as they grow, are looking to their vendors to manage that, as opposed to shclepping things all over and having a product touched multiple times to get it ready for shipping.

    Even if a larger operation doesn’t offer those services, perhaps partnering with a local company that does, helps streamline the process.

    I know you mentioned finishing, but it’s such a broad term and I think a lot of places don’t pay enough attention to it.

  4. Jessica says:

    Excellent post! This topic is something I’ve been researching in depth lately as a sewing contractor who’s been working from home for a several years, primarily for a custom menswear company. The word has recently gotten around about my quality sewing services, and I’m now getting an overwhelming number of requests to take on sample sewing and small run manufacturing for some local designers. I’m in the middle of making plans to expand and move into an industrial space to handle this larger scope of work, but as I’ve never worked in a factory setting (my background is largely in costuming and fashion retail), I have plenty of questions regarding standard industry practices. This post is a great starting point to answering those questions, and I’m working on compiling my equipment and services offered to update my website. This will certainly save time in going over this information with prospective clients!

    Kathleen, I’ve read your book and spent countless hours reading through your blog archives in recent months. Thanks for making this wealth of information accessible! As the book I read was borrowed, I recognize the value of your intellectual property and plan on buying my own copy to gain access to forum discussions now that I’m developing a better understanding of this industry.

    Competitive pricing is something I’m still grasping to understand along with contracts, fees, and hourly rates with clients as well as my sub-contract sewers and future employees. Not surprising, but this sort of information can be difficult to find! I’m finding it tough to estimate costs on a project basis vs. charging by the hour. Same thing goes when estimating small run piece rates; I can time the various steps in sewing a sample, but how do I go from that to estimating the speed and efficiency gained in making multiples (though in dozens vs. hundreds) in a production line, as well as include time for organizing bundles, supervising, and time spent prepping the projects and interacting with clients? Also, while materials and trims are typically provided by clients, what about my in house thread offerings? How do I estimate costs of thread consumption and who typically pays for thread if the required colors are something I don’t currently have in stock?

    I don’t want to undervalue my time, which is increasingly precious in this labor intensive field, but I also want to make sure the prices I charge are comparable to other industry professionals and includes enough margin to cover the overhead of moving into an industrial space and supervising a number of employees.

    I’m looking forward to additional posts on this topic!

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