Chicago vs NY sewing contractor

Brooke writes:

What are the benefits of a full service factory over using a local contractor? I have both options open to me to produce my line of children’s clothing (10 pieces of higher end woven/knit separates). My original intention was to have it produced here in Chicago with a contractor. However, I have been increasingly frustrated with sourcing from here. Plus, the only contractor I have been the least bit impressed with — I don’t feel 100% that they will be able to produce when I need them to. Even though they seem to do good work, their business seems a bit shotty. They had a scrappy handwritten sign on the entrance to their business! While they were friendly enough, I’m just scared they won’t come through when I need them to. The full service factory is in NY and came recommended by a friend. They are highly polished and professional. I can’t help but be seduced by the fact that they will help source fabric, make my tags and so on. I like the idea of being able to oversee the work with the local contractor, but feel more secure with the full service.

I think it’s great you have options. I think your question about the benefits of a full service facility over a local contractor was largely rhetorical :). Perhaps a better way to phrase it is the downsides of using a local contractor -with whom you’d have to source your own goods- vs using an out of state contractor who would do your sourcing for you.

I think we all readily appreciate the reduction of stress and cognitive overload with an outfit that can help with sourcing but the downside is cost. For the most part, between the minimums you’d have to meet sourcing your own stuff with the local outfit vs buying exactly what you need from the NY contractor, and even considering the mark up they’d legitimately be adding to the cost of production, I can see something like that paying for itself provided the costs and mark up weren’t excessive.

It’s good you realize you can be seduced under the circumstances but you might want to consider over all costs and issues relating to proximity. Any contractor in NY is going to be pricey. I was talking to someone last week who said their NY contractor’s rent has just gone up -to $25,000 a month! Your local contractor may be a better bargain. There’s also the issue of shipping costs and lastly, travel there and back for you. Lastly, have you thought through what you’d do if there were a problem in NY that needed your immediate hands on attention? None of these are easy questions to answer and I’m sorry I can’t do that for you.

Regarding the “scrappy handwritten sign on the entrance to their business” of the local contractor, I urge you to look past this. I wouldn’t let this be the defining criteria of your decision. Keep in mind that these expectations are based on your experiences as a consumer in retail environments and don’t apply to this side of the business. Many contractors and manufacturers don’t even have a sign, much less a handwritten one. I don’t have a sign on my door and I never will. Having a listing in the phone book can be bad enough.

I think you should do what you can to keep your work as close to you as you can in spite of the seduction of easy sourcing. If there’s a crisis, it’ll be easier to manage and it’ll cost you less. I think you should stay focused and judge the merits of each contractor based on the quality and turnaround of their work.

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  1. Babette says:


    I don’t have direct experience at this but, a friend is production manager for a medium firm. They produce both locally and overseas.

    When testing the locals they start small and build up. They also share around the work to prevent key factory dependency. They do their own lines and pick up contacts for military and specialist outdoor wear like ski resorts so they have additional work from time to time and this is what they share around where possible. That way they keep a number of local contractors interested.

  2. Jan says:

    When making your list of costs to compare from one venue to another, don’t forget to add the opportunity cost of your time…if you have to spend a lot of time sourcing, that’s less time designing. Do you consider yourself a designer-manufacturer or just a designer?

    Also, just as there will be minimums you have to meet for various raw mats you source yourself (if you choose the local contractor), there will also be minimums with the NY firm with regard to production quantities. Which ‘minimum’ will be easier to meet in terms of how you’re building your business and what you can afford?

    I’ve toiled over these issues myself, but I feel much, much better with someone closer…who can work with me in whatever quantities I need (as long as their quality is comparable). The dazzle and seduction for me is knowing that my product is not getting lost in the fray of 100s of other designers’ work as well as the personal & immediate attention I receive when I have a concern. (Although I’m sure this can be true for larger outfits as well.)

    Good luck!!!

  3. cookie says:

    I am a production manager and I would suggest you ask both contractors to submit a price and samples of their work. I would also ask around and find out what other people think about their work.
    Based on your small quantity, you might get a better cost on a full package versus someone that you will have to source all the fabric and trim for because they may have alot of your trim and maybe the fabric in their inventory and would just be pulling from that instead of trying to meet minimum requirements from a mill or suppliers.
    I also agree that just because someone does not have a fancy sign on their door does not necessarily mean that their work might not be good. Judge the factory on their work, cleaniness in the factory and the equipment that is needed for your project and not on that sign.

  4. AB says:

    I agree with Jan. If someone does’t have a fancy sign does not always mean that their work might not be good.
    I would prefer to look at contractor’s references and samples of work….not their glamorous signs.

  5. Thomas Cuningham says:

    How important will you be to the NY factory — will they let your work lag behind that of bigger customers? Do they have experience making your product?

    Does the local factory have a Proven Ability to make your product and make it well? It’s great to source close to home, but being close to the factory doesn’t help if the factory can’t make your product.

  6. You might also think about some of the things related to lean manufacturing that Kathleen has discussed before and covered in her book.

    You may tend to believe that you have to guess at the demand for each of your styles and colors and produce that amount a long time ahead of getting it into stores. And then suffering from the lost opportunity of resupplying faster moving items and getting stuck with the slow movers.

    A contractor that can produce small lots with a short lead time – a couple of weeks at the most – without buying a lot of materials to keep in inventory, and then replenishing when needed would be a huge advantage to you.

    The message about lean manufacturing has not made it to enough companies, and I understand from previous posts that fabric manufacturers are unwilling to supply smaller amounts of materials, but it doesn’t hurt to learn more about the ideas and ask the contractors such questions. Maybe they’ll get the idea. If they could get on the road to lean, they’d have a huge competitive advantage.

  7. julia says:

    I had a similar question, (although I do not have a contractor in close proximity to where I live)I was pondering the question of whether it would be more beneficial for me to source certain components or to let the contractor supply them.( I am designing leather handbags) One of the advantages that I see is that if you let the contractor source for you they may have a lot of the items on hand and they will not have to wait for your items to be delivered and possibly hold up production. On the other hand as a designer, I usually do a fair amount of component “window shopping” in advance as it is part of my design process, and the contractor may not have everything that you want to use available at the shop. I have found that some of the smaller items are readily available and even though you would have to buy in bulk, the unit costs are fairly low. What I do not know is what kind of mark up is standard for the contractors to put on these items when they do the sourcing, and sometimes it is hard to get this info. from the contractor.When you go to final production will this mark up be a disadvantage to your unit cost? I do agree that sourcing is very time consuming and sometimes very frustrating, but once you have your sources it gets easier. Perhaps cookie knows the answer to some of these questions.

  8. SB says:

    If it’s just you running the show, you really have to weigh the time you spend sourcing. Coordinating shipments, cuts, labels, trim. It can be a huge load off to have someone else worrying about keeping up with the minutia. The contractors I’ve been the happiest with over the years have been the ones who took over ordering fabric and parts for me, at the very least. They know when they need the supplies, and how much they need. I find it’s best to hand over this level of coordination to the contractor.

  9. Big Irv says:

    I have always encouraged new designers to get involved in their own sourcing when first getting started. It gives you a good overall idea of cost and helps you understand and appreciate the supply chain.

    Of course doing a full package is going to cost more. If doing CMT, in many cases it is easier for us if we provide trims to the client. We know exactly what is needed and most importantly when it is needed. Delivery can be made horribly late if we need to wait on any components.

    As for a set markup on full packages, this something you need to negotiate item by item with the factory. There are many variables involved.

  10. “They had a scrappy handwritten sign on the entrance to their business!”

    Don’t judge a book by its cover…you never know until you try. First you should ask around with customers they have serviced in the past and ask about their work…no better way to judge their present work than by asking past customers…also its best to cut cost where you can…using an out of state manufacturer will add in the cost of shipping and also creates communication barriers bcuz it’s best to speak with a manufacturer in person from my experiences.

  11. Brooke, I wonder IF we are both visited the same place. I went to a place that sounds similar to the one you described.

    I would be interested in networking with you an share resources in regards to finding local or at least close production facilities here in Chicago.
    This area seems to be a underground society at this point. Not to mention anytime you ask someone they act like you just asked for the keys to their safe :).

    I think that business savvy designers know that most smaller designers often use the same production plants as their competitors unless they have their own. You can contact me via the link to my website. Thanks in advance.

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