Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.2

Yippee, here’s part two of Annie’s lessons learned in continuation of yesterday’s entry. Speaking of lessons learned, Annie was a bit chagrined that people were looking forward to learning what those were when she did mention some of them yesterday. She wrote me saying “This time I have pulled out in italics the lessons I learned — or at least some of them. That way it will be more obvious to people What I Wish I’d Known!” Without further ado, here’s Annie:

Chapter 2: Finding a Sewing Contractor (or, How I Nearly Went Broke Before I Even Got Started)

If you pay attention, people are willing to educate you. If you don’t listen, they will stop trying.

That is the lesson from Chapter 1. The more you pay attention, the more you will learn. The school of hard knocks will teach you as much as you are willing to learn, and oh, I had much more to learn.

I read the book. I read it over and over and over until it started to make sense. I took it to bed. I read it in the tub. I took it on vacation. At first it was almost incomprehensible to me, but I had the sense to know that it contained information I needed.

I have since realized that this sense of Slogging Through The Hard Stuff is probably one of those secrets to success everyone wants.

If it was easy, everyone would do it. The harder it is to accomplish, the rarer and sweeter success will be.

In those early days I placed sourcing phone calls with The Book in my lap, telling me exactly how and what to say, to ask for what kind of supplies without sounding like a total newbie. This makes me laugh a little now, but I did this for a long time!

I placed orders for the basic supplies of my product, with large sums of money required up front for long lead times to receive this fabric from overseas. It had to be made, then we had to wait for the boat and blah blah blah. Later I would be told my order had been short and I’d have to wait yet longer. I did some homework and found out I wasn’t shorted, but that my fabric was being diverted to a more preferred customer, called my source back and confronted him about this. He backpedaled and agreed to send me at least some of what I needed on time.

Be nice but don’t be a pushover.

I knew what had happened because I was making contacts in the niche I work and had witnessed someone magically able to get these supplies so quickly – and in the same quantity I had been told I couldn’t have!

The lesson here is to make friends in your niche. However –

This is hard to do, especially because it can be catty, competitive and most of all, time consuming. Honestly, most of the time I keep my head down, mind my own business and work. It could be a full time job to keep up with the relationships and ensuing drama of knowing Everyone and I just can’t do it. But, it’s always helpful to know people, and the more people you know, the more helpful it is. Just balance it with actually keeping your eyes on your work.

Also, watch your back. Don’t be paranoid but don’t be careless. Everyone has a motive. Make sure you know what everyone’s is.

I spent lots of time overwhelmed by the seemingly closed world of the rag trade, and my inability to find the needles in the haystacks I needed. I spent more than one afternoon reaching overload, filling the bathtub with water, climbing in, slipping down and and holding myself underwater, watching the air bubbles wiggle their way to the surface.

Find ways to cope with the stress.

I also took some bad streets. I found a local patternmaker, she called herself, who charged me a breathtaking fortune. She promised to make my pattern “professional,” find all the sources I needed, and get it all made for me! It sounded great!

Of course, she took forever, her “pattern” was a joke, her sewing was laughable and her sourcing was ridiculous. She found me online fabric sources that charged well over retail, not the much-needed wholesale prices I needed. I’d already done a better job sourcing than she.

She also came back from her top-secret sewing contractor contacts with breathtakingly high prices and wanted me to make my products through her without ever disclosing to me where they were actually being made. (Note: you are liable for where your products are made, whether or not you know where that is.) She also wanted me to sign a paper saying she was entitled to some ridiculous sum like 25% of all my future production profits.

This is not only laughable, it’s downright criminal. At the time, she was preying on my insecurities and my total lack of knowledge about the business, besides what I’d so far eked from Kathleen’s book.

The most amazing thing is that this swindler was shocked and outraged when I fired her. I should have sued her for the money I’d already given her. I did tell her she owed me a refund but I decided to move on, calling it an expensive lesson.

You can’t buy your way out of learning or work. And don’t let anyone stand between you and information.

I then found a local sewing contractor who told me he would make my stuff for me, and then strung me along until I finally got fed up and fired him and collected all my stuff. I was small fry and he kept bumping me for larger jobs. I have no idea why he couldn’t be honest with me and just tell me he didn’t have the time or desire to work with me, but I have since found out that he’s done this to other people too.

This business is very small and people talk. Your reputation will follow you around, so behave yourself.

All this time, the sum that had been invested in my company was dwindling, with nothing to show for it. I tried not to panic, but truthfully I very nearly ran out of money before I got started.

I shared what was going on with the mentor DE who had offered me the filing cabinet. She shared her sewing contractor with me. They were kind of expensive, but their sewing was amazing compared to all the other samples I’d received. Their story was a perfect fit. Made in the USA. Fairly paid US workers. Woman-owned business. A success story in their own right. And they wanted to sew for me.

So, I placed my first order, sent them all the supplies, and waited.

By the way, do not underestimate your responsibility to make all this happen. No one can sew your stuff if they don’t have all the materials. They are not magicians. Many contractors won’t even put you on their schedule until they have everything they need. I’m sure they have learned the hard way not to count on us flaky artistic types to make sure everything gets there on time.

Now that we are rolling out fabric on our own cutting tables, I am even more sympathetic to the need to have enough supplies on hand to complete the job. Just because a roll of fabric lasts forever in the corner of your closet as you make one-offs doesn’t mean it will when you are making 100 of something. Do the math, plan ahead, order in time. This applies whether you are sewing in house or out of house.

But, I digress.

So I waited. Then one beautiful day, UPS dropped a box on my porch.

When I opened that first box, music played, angelic choirs sang, and it was like the best Christmas ever. There, lined and stacked up, perfectly the same, as if made by Santa’s elves, was my product. It was bagged, tagged and ready to ship, and I’d gotten a full night’s sleep the night before! I’d found the promised land.

I took pictures, put them up online for sale, and the sales started rolling in. I started shipping orders.

Then I got an email from a customer with a photo of my product, not surviving its first trip through the washing machine. Then I got five more emails just like this.

I felt a sickening helpless dread, as my inbox chimed from a cascade of photo emails, all documenting the same product defect. I’d done so much legwork. So much work! And now a sewing error I would never have personally made was literally unraveling my dream and I felt stuck between my customer and the contractor who had made the mistake.

Fortunately I called my friend who had given me the contractor’s name who advised me to take back the products, make no announcements, make the contractor fix them all, apologize to the customers individually, and most of all, NOT TO PANIC. She said this kind of thing happens all the time and to r.e.l.a.x.

It’s not if crap happens, it’s when. Crap always happens. Learn how to manage problems.

Psychologists say that one of the most stressful things a person can endure is to be responsible for something over which they have no control. I would say that is the perfect description of using a sewing contractor and it’s the worst part. You think all your problems are solved, but you are just trading one set of problems for another, and this time you are in the passenger seat.

Your contractor ships late? Your customers don’t care about your excuses. They want their product. It’s YOUR fault. Your contractor does crappy work? Your customers will hold YOU accountable. And what can you do? The buck stops with you. It has to. You have to accept that you are responsible. I have spent more time growing ulcers and pacing the floor and applying pressure to my sewing contractor, and negotiating that relationship than I have done anything else.

Well that, and fixing products that they didn’t quite manage to make correctly.

The other thing about using a sewing contractor is that you are putting a huge layer of bodies between you and new creative efforts. I had a list a mile long of associated products I wanted to make as soon as I got my flagship product launched. They all went with the product, they all fit into my niche, they all worked in my brand. The problem is, I could barely make a tiny change in my pattern without a huge rigmarole. Everything took forever, and was days back and forth in sending new patterns, sketches, specs, samples. I threw up my hands. I have been able to introduce new products, but everything was an almost insurmountable chore, and literally took months. If you hate bureaucracy, sewing contractors will not liberate you. They will sink you.

The biggest problem I had with my sewing contractor, besides arguing over quality, was their inability to ship me enough product to meet demand. I know this sounds like the best problem ever, and it is, but yet, I helplessly watched as my product got knocked off as I could not make changes fast enough or stock my store fast enough. I deliberately did not attend any trade shows because I couldn’t even meet my online retail demand. How on earth would I ship large orders? Getting my contractor to take me seriously took a long time, and very seriously affected the health of my business. I am certain my story would be very different if I had set up shop in house from the beginning. I try not to dwell on it because there is not a thing I can do about it, except do it right the second time.

Going this route also created other problems for me: later I was able to get my sewing contractor to produce, but they would also ship more than I ordered and charge me for it. I’d hired someone to oversee the tedious task of managing production (keeping track of inputs, picking design details, cracking the whip over the sewing contractor, etc.) and she was motivated by her desire to bill hours of labor and keep production going, whether we needed it that week or not. My employees created a closed circle around themselves and started keeping me out of the loop, all in an effort to protect their own jobs during cycles of time when less production was needed and I was trying to reign in the spending. I had a bloated overpaid staff and a warehouse full of excess inventory I’d had to pay for, and my cash reserves were quickly draining away.

No one cares about your business more than you do, and no one is more qualified to run your business than you are.

Finally, it all boiled down to money. By using a sewing contractor, I was paying her overhead and mine, and I could no longer afford to do so. I needed to take back control of everything, and I needed to turn my business back into the small, nimble niche-serving boutique that had made me successful. The world had changed and I needed to adapt or die. We ran the numbers all kinds of ways, and I realized I needed to do what I should have done from the beginning: set up shop at home.

Lesson summary:

  • If you pay attention, people are willing to educate you. If you don’t listen, they will stop trying.
  • If it was easy, everyone would do it. The harder it is to accomplish, the rarer and sweeter success will be.
  • Be nice but don’t be a pushover.
  • The lesson here is to make friends in your niche. However –
  • Also, watch your back. Don’t be paranoid but don’t be careless. Everyone has a motive. Make sure you know what everyone’s is.
  • Find ways to cope with the stress.
  • You can’t buy your way out of learning or work. And don’t let anyone stand between you and information.
  • This business is very small and people talk. Your reputation will follow you around, so behave yourself.
  • It’s not if crap happens, it’s when. Crap always happens. Learn how to manage problems.
  • No one cares about your business more than you do, and no one is more qualified to run your business than you are.

Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.1
Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.2
Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.3
Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.4

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  1. Oh I’d forgotten about that pattern maker! What a mess that was and she was nervy beyond belief! We spent quite a bit of time by phone and email to iron out that mess.

    Re: Sourcing from the book. I have gotten more email on that chapter than any other. Nearly everyone says my instructions are an exact or near exact description of how suppliers manage the conversation. A prelude to this chapter for those who don’t have the book (I sold *1* book since yesterday so I don’t think Annie’s lesson on that hit home) is Weird Things that No One Ever Tells You. I’m still amazed that DEs have the belief that suppliers will act rationally according to their preconceived expectations. Btw, the table of contents with links to chapters you can read online is here.

  2. Dawn says:

    Very very interesting and instructive read. Thank you so much. Her experience so exactly applies to the market I’m in. So to me, all the adventure she describes is just par for the course, not out of the norm at all. If this sounds like hassle that goes way beyond what you’ve experienced…consider yourself lucky!

  3. sdBev says:

    Annie *whoever you are* thank you for sharing your experience. It makes me realize I was fortunate not to be able to go down the same road as you. Good luck. I believe that you have earned every bit of your success.

  4. Susan says:

    Double wowee! I’m so glad we’re doing our business, everything, in house! I’m funding the effort, and I want to know where every single dollar goes as we set forth on what we’re hoping will be a marvelous journey. Thanks so much for your posting!

  5. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Wonderful story, Annie What you went through applies to any number of start-up small businesses, and you are so right about people willing to educate you if you are willing to listen. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Anon. says:

    Thanks for the words of advice. It makes me feel better about where I am right now. I’m in month 3 of actually existing, after 2 years of wanting to do it, but thinking it crazy to be a DE, and one year of planning, I’ve have already had some similar experiences. And, thanks for the advice of taking more control–ultimately leading to your decision to take production in house.

    There’s efforts locally to start a lean sewing co-op, and even though it’s in its infancy and its founders are well meaning, I wonder ultimately if it will become a political hotbed–who gets their work done first and who gets their work done at all, and working so closely with people who may very well be your competitors and/or have influence with local media, etc.

    These 2 posts are also a reminder for me to focus on what’s important, when I’m getting barraged with email and social media posts about fashion week events locally and internationally thinking I must be missing out on something (though, honestly, I find these sorts of things uninteresting).

  7. Jo Ann in Georgia says:

    I just got the book but haven’t started reading it. This story answers so many questions I had. I am just trying to start up my sewing busines and needed to hear all the ‘crap” that goes on in the sewing business. All the small sewing groups in my area will have my ear so any resources available are noted. I just finished a chapter in another book “Making a 48 hour day” and it says that about 10 to 20% should be planning and paperwork and the rest of your time spent “working hard”. Where working hard is sewing your product. Is that a good rule of thumb? Thank you for any responses.

  8. Kathy Jo says:


    I feel like I could have written that until you come to the making money part, I am in the I am out of funds and have just fired my factory part. I swear I hired the same lady (not really, different industry) but I had a consultant that started out very helpful and ended up trying to triple her hourly rate from $50 to $150 but, for me she would keep the rate at $50 as long as I gave her 10% of my company. She also had the gall to be irate and hateful when I fired her, as if I was the one who took her for a ride. Thank you for sharing your story I have been really questioning if I was that naive or does this happen to other people. I am looking forward to your next installment I have already learned some of the lessons that you’ve pointed out and I wonder, is this the long windy road you have to take if you want to create your own designs? Thank you for taking the time to write this, for those of us working so hard to find a path, this is gold.

  9. Sarena says:

    Reading about your experience with that patternmaker made me feel like like I was reading my own words! The same exact thing happened to me. The samples I had sewn myself were far superior to hers. THough I had the urge to tear her samples to shreds, I kept them as reminders of where I started, how much I’ve learned and just in case I need them to sue her! I wonder if we got stuck with the same one?

  10. Nichelle says:

    Yes, I tried the contractor thing at first and I feel so much better now that I am managing the production in house. Less stress, less headache, and a beautifully crafted product. Great post guys!!

  11. Cindy D says:

    I had a consultant that started out very helpful and ended up trying to triple her hourly rate from $50 to $150 but, for me she would keep the rate at $50 as long as I gave her 10% of my company.


  12. Kathy Jo says:

    @ Cindy,

    I know, is this as shocking to you as it was to me? On the way to the bank for a big presentation I had set up she decides to unload this on me. Basically her tactic was to let me know that she is just sure I will be rich and famous and she wants in now. She apparantly was receiving many requests for her services from other designers (that’s what she said). She was going to charge them $150 but, don’t worry for me she will keep the current rate in exchange for 10% of my company because she just knows that 10% will be the better investment in her future. When I told her no, she gave me an ultimatum indicating that she has to worry about her future and she just can’t go on making a pitiful hourly rate, yes she really said that. She about had a heart attack when I sent her a formal “acceptance of your resignation letter.” She then threatened to call all her contacts at Nordstrom and Dillards and warn them not to buy my shoes. It’s hard to say if she was actually worth the $50 hourly in the first place, she did do some things but mostly she gave me bread crumbs that I followed. She was a character to say the least and very much larger than life, I think I got so caught up in thinking she was my door into the world of shoes I didn’t see some things until later. All I know is that when I let her go there was a huge weight lifted and a sense of peace. I am grateful to her either way, she taught me more than she realized and more importantly she was a great big warning to someone like me. I often wonder what she would’ve said to Nordstroms or Dillard’s.

  13. Cathy says:

    Thanks for your article. It really addresses all the things that can happen in this industry when putting your trust in particular contractors. I am curious at what volume you talk about sewing in house? Is it really possible to run an in house sewing department and manage the ebb and flow of units? And at what level of volume do you think this is realistic for? Is this just to cover boutiques and or larger retailers?

  14. Harmony says:

    Annie and Kathleen —
    Thank you! I live in the different (but related) world of textile design and manufacturing. 5 and 1/2 years into it and we are on our 3rd printer. I so agree with your advice. About once a week I get an email from someone who want to “do what I do” but like you I find very few actually listen to the answers. I wish a rotary print facility was something I could “bring in house”… until then I’ll stick with the people who do delivery late but at least return calls and email. My favorite from your list:
    It’s not if crap happens, it’s when. Crap always happens. Learn how to manage problems.
    Oh so true!

  15. Dia in MA says:

    Oh my, that part about the goods falling apart brings back memories. As a teen I worked at a sweat shop where there was a similar disaster. The stitchers weren’t told to lower the sewing tension on a knit fabric. It turned out the fibers were delicate and needed a much weaker tension than was their norm. The boss wasn’t happy because the company that sent us the job gave no warning about this. Every piece came back with runs along the seams.

    Its ancient history now, but obviously it still happens.

  16. Lesley says:

    Sounds so familiar and somewhat parallel to my experiences. I even had a sales rep that committed suicide mid-season and 2 bad patternmakers. Good for you, Annie, for forging your way through to success and for sharing your experiences. I could add: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “Being in business for yourself requires a strong stomache”

  17. Janay Joyce says:

    As horrible as this sounds, reading about your hardships has been very comforting. I’m currently going through a similar situation as well. I hired someone who strung me along. I finally get fed up and collected all my unfinished work and materials. The entire experience was insane & such a waste of time and money. But now I’m able to shake it off and joke about it. Glad to know that other people have been where I am and made it through.
    Since then, someone’s recommended a product development firm and sewing manufacturer. They seem to be amazing, but a little overwhelming at the same time. Maybe this is the route I should go. Hmmmm…..

  18. Leslie Hanes says:

    After the 3 years that have passed since this post it would be great to hear from those who have taken on their own manufacturing to hear successes and challenges. I’m just taking back the majority of my production in the past few months, and am still ironing out the wrinkles. My biggest challenge is finding stitchers who understand the need for speed. Should have them watch Top Gun…

  19. Marsha says:

    Please enlighten me on how did she ‘do [her] homework’ and find out whether the fabric order had been genuinely short, or whether the fabric was given to a preferred customer?

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