Bewildered by sewing factory services?

In Bewildered by pattern services?, I explained how the industry has traditionally used pattern services, and how technology and trends have created sourcing difficulties for new entrants today. Much of the same applies to sewing contract services too and I’ll explain that now.  As an aside: a re-read of this topic before publishing dictates you must understand what “manufacturer” means or none of this is going to make sense. For the record, the party (usually you, AKA the DE or designer entrepreneur) who is responsible for creation of the product, is the manufacturer. Manufacturer and contractor are not interchangeable terms anymore than cyst and tumor are mix and match (more). Moving on…

In the olden days, most manufacturers did all of their own sewing under their own roofs. We did have sewing contractors too but their role was nothing like what it is today. The function of a sewing contractor was to handle the overflow from established manufacturers during peak times of production. Using contractors was the only way that manufacturers could avoid hiring people for the busy season, only to lay them off once production leveled off.

During the post war boom of 1950’s, land values increased and since cutting takes up so much square footage (100 foot long tables were and are, not unheard of), cutting services were the first spin off. This was most common in New York City; manufacturers there, moved cutting operations into New Jersey. Later on, these facilities became stand alone operations that did cutting for a variety of producers. The fabric was sent to NJ and then the cut pieces were trucked back to the city for sewing.

Some manufacturers were less keen on the idea and preferred to keep it all in house. These were the manufacturers who left the city and headed out for the wild west, establishing secondary manufacturing hubs in places like  Dallas, Kansas City, Chicago, Atlanta and of course, Los Angeles. At the same time, many firms were established along the eastern seaboard; most of them textile production related. Manufacturing was much more regional then; company towns based on clothing manufacturing were common. There were plenty of operations dominating small towns in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Missouri. Even my home state hosted several large plants. New Mexico had 3 Hanes plants in and around Las Cruces. Albuquerque had 2 Levi’s plants among others (Levi’s didn’t close until the early 90’s). What should be clear is that outsourcing, if only within the US, had started in the post world war II era. Managing domestic outsourcing is what beget the competencies to manage production offshore 50 years later.

The climate was distinctly different from today,  the community was larger and everybody knew everybody. If you wanted to branch off into another type of product, you poached employees skilled in it from another business. To be sure, new people were always coming in or splitting off from an existing enterprise but there was vast repertoire and richness of community knowledge.

But back to contractors; these businesses were a short term solution to avoid inflating the payroll during peak periods. Again, their customers were well versed in production, the arrangement being of B2B relationships. That a new entrant would start with a contractor as their primary means of production—like today—was unusual at best, weird at worst, and just not done.

Contrary to what most people think, offshore production started to gain traction in the 1970’s which is when companies slowly began to shed in house production sewing. Greater reliance, or rather, a change in emphasis with contractors began then because manufacturers always needed samples or more rapid replenishment for short runs. Off shore production didn’t become a grave concern domestically until the 80’s and of course, only became more pronounced then. It wasn’t until the early 80’s that contractors, having always been somewhat marginalized, the proverbial red-headed step-child, began to feel the pinch too. By the 90’s and certainly into 2000, contractors were in a world of hurt.

Consider: most contractors didn’t have the option of going offshore because their focus had always been domestic, feeding from the overflow of in-house manufacturers so when production went off shore, contractors had few new competencies to evolve quickly. By the early 90’s, a great many contractors had gone out of business and it was just as well for many, their kids when on to college and didn’t want to take over the family business.

In this way, the industry’s weak links (already fragmented) stretched and broke. Other than managers placing direct contracts, the direct link to contractors had always been through pattern makers since they were the most logical go between twixt design and production; they spoke the same language and understood each other when no one else did. Before, contractors never had to look for work; in this new era, they didn’t know how to find the customer much less, have been prepared to move forward with them if they did, making it difficult to develop competencies forward in the chain. The pattern makers always brought the work in, facilitating the hand off and making sure the customer was prepared. An obvious solution for a contractor would have been to hire a pattern maker (and some have today) but the expense—perhaps 10 times the cost of a stitcher plus all the requisites (CAD etc)—were enough to kill the idea for most people. At best, contractors had someone on staff who didn’t have any training, but had an eye for such things who could handle the small, occasional jobs. Without tutelage, these talents were rarely fully developed.

So, where this leaves us today is that new designers may be justified in  expecting established service providers to change to address new needs in the marketplace but other than the above, there remain  these barriers:

  1. Supply and demand
  2. Imploding workforce
  3. Expansion vs exit strategy

Supply and demand:
With a strong reduction in the number of available services, compounded by the increase of demand, this is not a buyer’s market. There are more designers than there are contractors to serve them. If the best contractors are too busy to handle all of the work that comes in the door, they’ll select the most prepared customer who doesn’t expect competencies and resources that we don’t have. It is for this reason that I’ve been saying for years, that the contractor situation is so tight that the people who stand the greatest chance of making it, are those who produce for themselves.

For many people, this is their first business venture and coming in from a consumer mindset, have the idea that finances permitting, they should be able to buy what they want (and call the shots). While this isn’t McDonald’s with first come, first served, nobody implies this is fair. However, since a contractor’s customers had traditionally been experienced, contractors will select for what they’ve always done and what they know. In this climate, they have more freedom than ever to do that.

Imploding work force:
Truly; the preceding is the wrong discussion to be having because our number one problem is labor. We can’t find enough people who are interested in sewing jobs. Without people to sit behind machines, we may as well pack it in and call it a day. On the other hand, if you produce for yourselves, it will be easier for you to recruit workers (who will need training of course) than it may be for a contractor to find workers, skilled or otherwise.

Expansion vs exit strategy
The last thing is that most contractors are older; our industry has been greying at an alarming rate; in sewing plants, the average age is easily 50 or more. As such, most contractors are thinking about exit strategy, not expansion. Any capital they put into the operation at this stage will be coming out of their retirement savings. So maybe you think they could sell the operation but who will buy it? You? Just as fewer workers are interested in factory work, few designers are interested in doing their own production, much less anyone else’s—and that’s assuming designers would welcome the challenge to learn it or even have the finances to buy a turn key factory.

You’ll have to be more prepared than you ever imagined. We know you’ve worked hard (setting up a website, kickstarter, writing a business plan, learning new software, trying to attract investors, etc) but everybody does that, those aren’t the competencies that matter to a contractor, and much of the former can amount to so much noise. You need to know operations inside out. Optimally, assume the duties that designers had traditionally done instead of trying to get a pattern or design service to do that. You can’t google or youtube your way through this forever.

I’m not suggesting that packaged all-in-one services aren’t valuable, but I think they’re not used well by most companies. If you go that route, it is best to use the experience to teach yourself how to do it rather than the situation being a long term solution. If you intend to learn to roll your own, be honest about it. Nobody worth hiring will hold it against you. In fact, my feeling is that if I do my job of walking the customer through the production process well, the customer won’t need me anymore. Which is really weird in hindsight. Twenty years ago, being a consultant was frowned up.

For a contractor, the best customer is the customer who gets the stuff there with no surprises, no drama and pays on time. In other words, as close to the traditional B2B, manufacturer to contractor, customer they always had. Not that everyone expects that today but get as close to that as you can.

Before I forget -and as an aside- this should be yet another reminder of why you don’t have to worry about contractors hijacking your concept to produce it for themselves. If they lack the wherewithal to provide services forward of their function, they also lack the means to establish relationships with buyers to wholesale it at retail.

PS. My next post will be about a field trip to the TexProcess tradeshow in Atlanta this May. It is only held once every two years so if you think you are interested in heading in the direction of in house production, TexProcess is the place to be. A bunch of us will be there. It will be fun. Come hang out with us as we walk the floor, looking at the pretty machines.

Why you should start your own sewing factory
Why you should start your own sewing factory pt.2

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  1. New entrants to this industry simply don’t realize how much money goes into operating an ethical factory, let alone the difficulty added by not having enough people interested in “factory jobs”

    While I agree that there are very good reasons that make factory owners reluctant to invest too much in change, I also have to point out that those of us who are adapting to the transformation our industry is going through are already seeing a return on investment…

    For example, the average age at our company is 35 years old (the oldest is 45 and youngest 24) and most of our operators have at least a basic understanding of technology (smart phones and tablets) which (along with our in-house training program) enables them to try other positions within our company as we grow….

  2. Jen Zeman says:

    Great article – thanks so much. As always, I appreciate the honesty. I haven’t been around much on the forum lately because I’m at crossroads as to what to do with my business. Sales never took off and I wonder if pursuing a career in fashion/apparel is worth it (nevermind trying to push eco-friendly fabric and production [especially made in USA]). I’ve imposed a self-initiated hiatus to figure it all out. I believe my idea of 100% eco-friendly apparel made in the USA has merit, and my interest has sparked anew as of yesterday when the PR company I hired forwarded me a request from FFM to see my 2014 fall/winter lookbook for a possible feature. Of course I don’t have a lookbook because I felt the business was going nowhere. Needless to say, I felt like jumping off the roof of the tallest building I could find…

    Pity party being over, I need to decide something soon. Thanks again for all your guidance -it’s much appreciated.

  3. ” Manufacturer and contractor are not interchangeable terms anymore than cyst and tumor are mix and match”
    This has to win some kind of blog award for best comparison!! Now I don’t know what to tell the doctor which my problem is! When I educated as a pattern maker, by the end of my training in 2004, it seemed like the jobs had completely changed. Your articles have been very enlightening. Thank you.

  4. Vesta says:

    This made me laugh. In our consulting work, we’ve encountered both ends of these phenomena. Designers thinking they should be able to “shop” their work around for the best price/service in town (No, sorry; you’ll be lucky to find a contractor who will even take you on.), and service providers/contractors in their 60s who say “Yeah, we could grow this business a lot, but we don’t want to provide the service level/services these designers want. Why don’t you do that stuff, then bring us the work.”

    Consultants may have been frowned upon traditionally, but in our current climate, I see them as an incredibly useful tool for both designers and contractors. They teach designers the lay of the land, and they bring vetted clients to contractors who trust them (inhabiting the role that patternmakers used to, and often still do). Consultants will also likely work themselves out of a job with their designer clients, but they move designers down the road at a critical time in their development.

  5. Rocio says:

    The difficulty in finding people who are open to do “factory work” can’t be under estimated…
    We had to invest a lot of money creating an environment that new applicants find “in contrast to the outdated images of sweatshops that tend to make the news” in addition to an in house training programme..

    The results are that we have a relatively young work force (ranging in age from 24 to 45yo) and most of our operators are also comfortable enough with basic technology (smart phones and tablets) that lateral promotions are an option for any of them as we grow and more positions become available

    Many people come to us with grandiose ideas of how “ethical” they are only to balk at the price tag of operating in full compliance with state law and a strict code of ethics

  6. Susan Hardwick says:

    Kathaleen, do you see e-commerce changing the role of sewing contractors? For instance, I see a source of revenue for contractors to add pick and pack logistic services under their roofs for online companies?

  7. Kathleen says:

    Susan: I’m not sure this is the right question.

    Your idea is valid but the point I was trying to make is that contractors aren’t (easily) adding services. So while there may be need of pick & pack (fulfillment) due to changes in the marketplace, it may not tenable to expect it. Likewise, the presumption that contractors need additional revenue (which implies they’re hurting financially) so they are best served to evolve to provide additional services to address the needs of a new breed of customer, is a bit of a red herring. It’s not a buyer’s market. There is no need for contractors to expand their service offerings unless they want to (and some do). As Vesta said above (emphasis is mine):

    This made me laugh. In our consulting work, we’ve encountered both ends of these phenomena. Designers thinking they should be able to “shop” their work around for the best price/service in town (No, sorry; you’ll be lucky to find a contractor who will even take you on.), and service providers/contractors in their 60s who say “Yeah, we could grow this business a lot, but we don’t want to provide the service level/services these designers want. Why don’t you do that stuff, then bring us the work.”

  8. Bente says:

    Most of the brands I know from (North) Europe are only using contractors. The more commercial brands and designers will visit the factories/contractors, go through their “sample collection”, pick out and work from there as well as bring samples they bought in stores. They will change colors and materials and measurements, but some even purely copy each other.
    You have to have a really good communication and “relationship” to make your own pure designs successfully without too much frustration for both parts. I have seen and felt it! I agree with you all.
    I think it is very hard for a newbie to succeed by starting straight with a contractor unless you have a huge pile of money to try and fail. I don’t think you will meet an “angel” at the contractor’s office either!

  9. Vineca Gray says:

    When I sit in front of potential funding partners, it is the economic realities that they are interested in. As a ‘Made In Canada’ brand, I have no illusions about the operational challenges, you have succinctly bundled the most important factors that I must address. Thank you.

  10. Biff says:

    Rocio — if you’d bear with me for a moment….

    I’d actually like to go from sitting in front of a desk to sitting in front of a sewing machine. But, I find that being white, educated and expecting better than 7.25 an hour with no benefits put me on the shelf. I got this offer from a world famous company with American production. Their product (boots) easily sells for over 600 dollars a pair, though there are cheaper boots in their line up. Their best-selling boots are customs, which can be uh…. well, let’s say sky is the limit. I think that a job that requires 40 hours a week, a set of skills that isn’t easily replaced out to be worth more, but then, I happily buy clothing that costs 100 dollars, so I accept that I may be out of touch.

    I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what did you do to make your workplace appealing and competitive?

  11. Biff says:

    Er, reread that and I realize I needed to say more. Basically I assume most younger people assume the same thing — there is no future in minimum wage with no benefits. So I’m curious as to how you built a sewing business that is both competitive with other sewing businesses that are getting away with that (for whatever reason) and appealing to folks that might otherwise be married to desk jobs that pay a middle-american wage?

  12. Leslie Hanes says:

    We are doing roughly half of our production, and have a contractor sewing the balance. Can’t believe how lucky we are to have found a contractor who also does pick and pack. We accomodate him as much as possible by doing large cuts but letting him sew both as we need it, and as they can fit between other more pressing jobs. Works well for both of us.

  13. Rocio says:

    [quote]Biff: there is no future in minimum wage with no benefits.[/quote]
    I completely agree and wonder why you would assume that any of the positions within our company pay minimum wage (none do) and offer no benefits

    [quote]Biff: So I’m curious as to how you built a sewing business that is both competitive with other sewing businesses that are getting away with that (for whatever reason) and appealing to folks that might otherwise be married to desk jobs that pay a middle-american wage?[/quote]
    A) We are NOT trying to compete with other sewing businesses operating under a business model that doesn’t support living wages and the investment required to develop training programs and keeping our work force motivated
    Our clientele has been hand picked and we tend to turn away more companies that we decide to work with because many are NOT IN A POSITION to support the price points that an ethical factory in full compliance with California labour law commands

    B) We only hire people who (above all things) will be as loyal and invested in our well-being (as a company) as we will be loyal and invested in their well-being (as a person) and can demonstrate this during their trial period

  14. Vineca Gray says:

    Rocio – I am a sole proprietor and aspire to becoming a vertically integrated business. I really admire your vision, your business ethos and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that you are flourishing. Thank you for vindication!

  15. Kathleen says:

    Biff, because you got a job offer at minimum with no benefits doesn’t mean that is the standard. That’s like saying all cats are black because you’ve only ever seen one (black) cat. To me, it sounds like this firm was not interested in hiring you. You didn’t demonstrate skills or attributes that would compel them to offer more. That is not to say you wouldn’t be a good worker for them and end up being a good fit, only that they couldn’t see that.

    I can’t speak for Rocio, only myself. In looking for workers, I’m not searching amongst a pool of white collar knowledge workers. I would imagine they wouldn’t be satisfied. However, there are tons of people working in service jobs (housekeeping, fast food etc) who would be a good fit. Icing on the cake is someone with experience. I know one place locally that starts workers at $10+ an hour with excellent benefits (3 weeks paid vacation, all medical paid etc). I can’t offer such great benefits so I start people (with little experience) at $12. If someone out there is only paying minimum, it must be that the worker has few alternatives be it a language barrier, difficulty commuting etc. I don’t know anyone, anywhere who is paying minimum wage. I’m sure there are employers doing that, I just don’t know of them.

  16. Rocio says:


    You are right… Trying to recruit people who see themselves as “downgrading to factory work” (because of the type of “white collar” jobs they may have had in the past) is a waste of money that we are not prepared to indulge in…

    Our first priority is to invest in people who want to work in “a factory” and who don’t mind constantly adapting to new ways of doing things and helping us implement their siggestions for improvement…

    The most skilled worker in the world is not going to be a good fit for us if they see working with us as an “embarrassment”, resist change and don’t care enough about our collective well being to offer suggestions for improvement within their area of responsibility

  17. Lucia says:

    I´m working right now in my first clothing line for my own brand. Everything is going to be made offshore. I am located in Spain and the samples and production will be handled in the north of Portugal (nearby and there´s a lot of sewing and textile industry there). I have found a consultant: she has her own bussiness helping new designers to start up in the industry. She has her own pattern-maker, cutting-services and she sends the clothes to be sewn to various contractors, bigger or smaller, depending on the quantities. With the smaller workshops SHE is the manufacturer: this workshops are her contractors and she bills me directly, so she is my contractor. Should we need to go to a bigger workshop (from 300 pcs. per style), she´ll act as an agent, earning a commission, so I will be the manufacturer, with the worshop being the contractor. She also helps with looking for fabrics, components and any other required service (screen-printing, embroidery, etc.)

    On the other hand, i have decided to hire a pattern-maker located in my town; together we´ll work in developing the patterns and prototypes, which then will be sent to my consultant/contractor to to be cut and sewn.

    I´m very comfortable with the people i´m working with: the pattern-maker is a friend of mine, and she´s as excited as me with this new project. My consultant is also like a friend and she gives me the tour to all the fabric companies and workshops everytime i go down there to visit. She does a lot; that´s why i think she is more like a consultant than a mere contractor. I know she´ll help me develop my vision, which is to create a clothing line of pretty, wearable dresses at a good price point to sell to the customers that i already have (from my accessories brand that´s been around for 10 years). Nothing is copied or picked from a selection, this is all original designs made from scratch!

    But i´m not finding this so difficult so far, maybe it´s because i´ve succeded in surrounding myself with the right people, maybe because i´m no newbie to the industry (although this is far more complicated than handbags, that´s for sure!) or maybe because i´m not yet too far advanced in the project. We are starting with first patterns and protos.

    I will tell you how it turned out in a couple of months, when the collection is supposed to be ready. I hope i have it all figured out! (please Ms. Kathleen if you are seeing some weak link in my story do not hesitate to point it out to me, i´d be SO happy to hear your authorized input!)

  18. Lucia,

    I’m curious as to why you don’t manufacture in Spain…
    A few years ago I worked at Inditex and know that (as of 2009) Spain had a decent selection of factories with very low minimum order requirements as well as very experienced service providers

    Either way, nobody can really know what to expect until you take the whole team through production, but from what you say it sounds like you have put together a good team

  19. Lucia says:

    Rocio, so good you asked this. All those factories back in 2009 are now mostly gone. There are no workshops available anymore like it used to. Inditex is producing everything overseas of course, and these factories that worked for them could not survive for a long time, because there are not many new brands developing. What is left is expensive and inefficient. Even spanish textile companies are dying away.
    I still produce my leather handbags in Spain, there´s still plenty of industry in quality leather goods.

    It´s a shame, because we are in such deep crisis, and i´ve often heard that primary industries, like sewing, are the ones with the potential to pull a country out of economic depression. So i hope this will recover eventually.

    On the other hand, our fellow portuguese have a blossoming textile industry with many european brands producing in Portugal due to proximity and competitive prices. Portuguese are also very helpful and nice to work with.

    At least my pattern maker is spanish! :)

  20. Bente says:

    I have been working with Portuguese factories for decades. It is also a tough time there. I am glad you have found your partners and hope for you and the agent/workshops/contractors that it will be a good business. I miss working with Portugal (now in US), their commitment, dedication, the beautiful landscape, the food/wine..all of it! You might be working with people I know :-)
    And, I didn’t know that Spain are closing a lot of their workshops and factories. That is very sad! You still have some great textile mills though! Good luck Lucia

  21. Lucia says:

    Bente, it is indeed tough for Portugal, but i think they are in a good position now that a lot of brands have decided to relocate their production to Europe. They have the industry, they have the technology and they have the best disposition.
    What you say is true: people are so gentle, Portugal is beautiful, the food is amazing! I might indeed be working with someone you know, this woman has been running her own knitwear company in the north of Portugal for 10 years and she´s very well-known around there. I feel in very good hands with her.

    What is so possitive for them is that, you not only hire their services as agents/workshops/contractors you also purchase most of the fabrics there, they have great textile factories and they are close by to the workshops, so you cut down both on expenses and carbon footprint dramatically. I went to a small trade show back in February and i found all the fabrics i could have desired under one roof, all by portuguese companies. 90% of my fabric choices for this first collection is portuguese. They are really strong in knits.

    You say that we still have textile mills in Spain, but that´s not so much the case now! it was 5 years ago. The only textile trade show in Spain features mostly agents that bring imported fabrics from Italy, France… national producers are nowhere to be seem.

    But there are still amazing leather goods workshops here, there´s a blossoming shoe industry here, one of the best in the world for luxury brands. So there´s still hope.

    Thank you all for your kind comments!

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