Better sewing quality with work instructions

Keeping in mind that quality means adherence to a specification, you can create work instructions for your people to follow. These are most effective if they are simple and directed to a particular job. Work instructions are also useful as a reminder if you create them for processes you don’t do often. As an example, you could sew step by step samples of one of the zipper tutorials you don’t know well and store the set for future use. Even I make work instructions to remind myself of the steps involved in techniques I don’t do often.

Today I’ll show you samples of a work instruction that is similar to one I made while at a customer’s plant. The customer was frustrated because their stitchers were not sewing boning strips to specification. In this case, the boning is sewn before the top and bottom of the corset is sewn so the boning needed to be 1/16th from the top and bottom seam line.  The specification (ideal) was to center the pre-cut boning strip so it laid  1/16th short of the seam line at both top and bottom which allowed for the piece to be turned smoothly once those seams had been sewn. A work instruction was needed because boning strips were sewn crossing the seam line on one end and falling too short of it on the other and there seemed to be a lot of confusion as to where the boning was supposed to be.  Below is a sample showing perfect execution (black bias tape is substituted for boning):


Before I forget, when you have a specification, you must also allow a tolerance for error. This means a workpiece can pass inspection even though it is not perfect provided you stipulate what tolerance is acceptable. This isn’t a green light to make junk; tolerance depends on so many things but in this case, tolerance was set at 1/16th of an inch. This means a boning strip could be a full 1/8″ short of the seam line on one end and be flush with the sewing line on the other and still pass inspection. The second sample below illustrates seaming that is not ideal but will pass inspection because it does not require a repair:


Unfortunately, this last sample below shows seaming that does not meet the tolerance described in the specification and must be repaired.


One thing to notice if you wonder why the stitchers couldn’t center the boning piece- one seam (the top) was 3/8″ but the bottom was 1/2″. The differing seam allowances was the source of confusion.

A bit off topic but the best way to have avoided this problem would have been to have matching seam allowances on both sides of the boning. Both ends were finished edges (turned seams) so most companies would have allotted 1/4″ and the strip of boning would have been more easily centered by eye. At worst, the allowed seam could have been 3/8″ on both ends. Regardless, there was no rational reason for different allowances on each end as the seams (top and bottom of the corset) were finished exactly the same. Unfortunately, this specification was set by the designer (who did not sew) and she could not be convinced to change it. Little wonder she went out of business.

Things to keep in mind about work instructions:
Work instructions belong where the job will be performed. If the work instruction is how to fill and operate the boiler iron, it should be hung by the iron. Work instructions do not belong on your desk (where this designer put it) or on a bulletin board for you to admire. They belong at the point of use. If these are needed at more than one station, make more sets. A work instruction is not a tool you use to catch someone doing something wrong. It is a tool to prevent someone from doing it incorrectly.

Work instructions should be short and sweet. Avoid theorizing or explanations; simply state the desired performance. If the work instruction is not optimal for whatever reason, your staff should tell you and you can then explain why it can’t be changed or alternatively, change your work instruction.

Work instructions should be visuals as much as is possible. Use illustrations for clarity rather than words.

Work instructions can be tactile; create sewn samples to illustrate desired outcome as I’ve shown in this post.
Do you have suggestions for work instructions that would be helpful? What sort of work instructions have you developed?

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  1. Dia in MA says:

    Your examples are excellent. From experience, I can say it is amazing what seemingly simple instructions can fail. When I worked as a marker, whomever did the job before me had no sense of how to lay down the marker. I was attempting to fix pocket problems by marking the buttons off line. This was often impossible since the pockets were as much as 30 degrees off position on each side due to bad marking. It cost the company a fortune. Hundreds of jackets that did not even qualify as seconds. Good PICTORIAL instructions can save a company. Do not assume your staff can or will read even if their English (or whatever the local language is) is perfect. In the rush to make quotas, they won’t read.

  2. Zabelle says:

    Really interesting. I’m self though for the most part and never tough of this. I will be making these from now on to help me during production.

  3. Claire H says:

    This is an interesting post for today. I am finishing up on a pattern development project that is moving to sampling. I always dread sending sample up to our PA facility because I am not there if they have questions or problems. The sample is a pair of compression tights. I had our sample sewers here in Baltimore sew up a mock up of the velcro fly/waistband construction. I have learned from past projects that a mock-up sew by example of the difficult aspects of a garment makes worlds of a difference. They are not only good in production but in sampling/development when you are hammering out construction details!
    It is also a good exercise for me to anticipate the problems that there may be and find a solution
    before they even arise.

  4. Doris Waldschmidt says:

    A single picture (or any type of visual) is always better than one thousand words. (I once made a cardboard mock-up of something I wanted a carpenter to make. It turned out exactly as I wanted.)

  5. Kate R says:

    We do a lot of samples from notes in our (theatrical) workroom – the idea being to get everyone doing things the same way. One thing I would say, though, is that I frequently re-write them with my own illustrations, because the notes use photos and it is often very difficult to see in photos things like which is the right side of the fabric, which way up the garment is etc etc. I find illustrations much easier to follow because you can make those things much clearer.

  6. Callum Lamb says:

    Kathleen: Could you tell us the purpose of the scoring (A+ vs C)? What is the benefit of gradations beyond pass/fail?

    If the stitchers have difficulty placing the strips, how about a template? A 7/16″ wide strip of tag could be used to measure the correct distance from the edge. To cumbersome?

  7. Kathleen says:

    I just used grades for this sample because I could type them in a photo. In real life, I used smiley faces. I could have done that for this but I couldn’t draw in the basic photo editing program I use for tutorials.

    For my customer, I put a smiley face on the good one. A face with a straight line for the mouth on the passable one, and the fail sample got a frowny face.

    Pass/Fail may be all that you need in many situations but having an optimal sample shows what is preferred for this one. Pass (a C grade) is merely tolerable in that it doesn’t require repair. It doesn’t mean it is the preferred outcome. It wouldn’t be for me anyway.

  8. rita says:

    I would say A+ means ‘excellent’ and C means ‘just good enough’. They show the acceptable range. I think diagrams/examples are far superior to written directions. Once, I was supposed to make a map to direct people to a destination. When I submitted it for approval, someone said, to my absolute surprise, “Please add written directions.” I should add that the map was true to scale, all important roads labelled, etc. I couldn’t believe that anyone would want ‘written’ when you could ‘see’. It takes all kinds, I guess.

  9. Dia in MA says:


    A template is not realistic in a production factory where time is money. The stitchers are going to eyeball it after one or two uses anyway. And that assumes there is no language barrier. There often is.

    As a marker, I used templates (usually called markers here) with cutouts I penciled, chalked, or (rarely) powdered through. The stitchers never used one. They got instructions on seams, tension, etc. just before the line went through. In the production line I was in, we generally did 1-5,000 of each item. Seams were usually standardized to avoid problems like Kathleen describes. When they weren’t standard, there was a ticket on the bundles that explained what was needed. Even with that, mistakes happened.

    The smiley face is a much better idea than the A, B, or C.

  10. Callum Lamb says:

    Dia: Thanks for your response. Of course, if they can eyeball it to meet spec, great!

    Kathleen: Agreed that the faces are easier to understand at a glance. But is there value to having the middle one? I would think the stitcher’s job is to sew as quickly as possible while meeting the spec. If a sticher produces 20% :) and 80% :|, all their work passes; mightn’t we as well say 100% :). If the 20/80 result is not acceptable, the spec should be revised.

  11. Kathleen says:

    I understand your point Callum, at 20/80, we have 100% passing. Maybe in a larger plant doing value sportswear the differences can be reduced to pass/fail but in smaller operations, higher value products and smaller lots… maybe not so much.

    Whatever job people do, they want to do it better. If you set it up P/F from the get go, the operator may not realize that offsetting just a tad more is better (that perfection is possible) even if they aren’t “graded” for it . In the absence of nuance, they develop a habit established with P/F which may be not optimal *especially* if they’re not doing the downstream process. With P/F, the operator isn’t given the opportunity to be their best and or and possibly earn a higher wage because of it or at least get better assignments or privileges because of their skill.

    Which operator do you want training other operators; one who scores A+/ smiley face 80% of the time or one who hits the mid range 80% of the time?

  12. Natasha E says:

    My husband is always amazed at how much of your site translates out to the warehouse and logistics. He’s in love with the TWI publications especially considering he currently works for a japanese company.

  13. Kathleen says:

    He might be interested in a TWI yahoo group. Dinero and those guys run it. If he’s never joined a yahoo group, he most definitely needs to browse the file section. The downloads are a treasure trove of goodies. Seriously.

  14. Keith Neufeld says:

    Having to center this between seams with different allowances seems like an anti- poka yoke. :-( I’m thinking your suggestion to use identical seam allowances would have made even more difference in success rate than the work instructions — if permitted to change it.

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