How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt3

In part three (see pt.1 and pt.2), I think I want to back up and explain a few things. The problem is, I think a lot of people read certain phrases and mentally say to themselves “I’m so small that doesn’t apply to me” and then they tune out. Or maybe their knee has jerked up so fast and hard they’ve whacked their foreheads and knocked themselves out. I can’t know all of the words that have negative connotations to small businesses so keep an open mind. Be sure to read through to the very end (!) where I explain why all small businesses should continue to use handmade production or gravitate to it if they are not. Tragically, many tiny enterprises want to become more “efficient” by switching to certain methods used by large manufacturers and it is a step backward. But I digress, on with semantics.

The M word:
The M word -judging from what you read in many forums on the web- is a really naughty word and maybe even NSFW. Yes, that word is manufacturing. I hate to break the news but if you make stuff and sell it, no matter how large or how small you are, you are a manufacturer -legally!- no matter how much you dislike it. I don’t mean this unkindly but it’s hypocritical to complain you can’t buy made in the USA products anymore because who would want to do it when everyone decries manufacturing as an awful horrible thing? I once stood next to a woman in a store who complained nothing was made in the USA and when I said I worked in US manufacturing, she sneered at me and said “sweatshop”. You can’t have it both ways. If manufacturing is a dirty word, we are never going to rebuild jobs here because no sane person wants to engage in reviled and insulted work. Manufacturing is just like any other business, you have good ones and bad ones. It is unkind to insult hard working people who are proud of doing a good job especially if they’re doing something you don’t want to.

Almost no one really knows what handmade means. The dictionary defines this as “made or prepared by hand rather than by machine” but that’s obviously not true in sewn products nor in pottery. It would be ridiculous to suggest a bowl made by a potter isn’t handmade because a wheel was used to form it. Rather, handmade is defined by the industry to which it applies. In rugmaking, it means the rug was hand knotted or hand-loomed. I can find tons of examples but I’ll drill it down to this: in sewn products, handmade means the item was made by one person start to finish. In other words, there is no contradiction between handmade and the M word, you are both. I’m not arguing with you for no reason. You must understand that handmade is the most efficient form of production the P word and ensures the highest level of quality. Really, it does. Too bad so many see the M and P words thrown around so they split before seeing how often I write about this to prove it. Everyone’s goal should be P-word of handmade products. If you’re already there, don’t change! That will become clearer later on.

The P word:
The P word is production. This means to make stuff. Seriously, that’s it. If you do handmade or one-offs, you are engaged in producing things or production. I think the P word is semantically linked to “mass” but seriously, what does “mass production” mean? I’ve looked everywhere, haven’t found it yet but I think I’ve devised a definition which is found under automation.

I think most people know what this means but it is often used interchangeably with handmade (made by one person). A couture gown may be a one-off (one of a kind) but it is not necessarily handmade because some jobs (beading, pleating etc) may be done by a separate person. Making one-offs -depending on their individual complexity- can be difficult to profit from. If you’re using the same pattern but only making one in each given fabric, you’ve got some reproducibility going so this can work for customers who like unique items. If you’re making a separate pattern and only using it once, well, you’re more like an artist and have to deal with those challenges.

This is another commonly misused word. Craft relates to skilled trades. More than anything, it refers to skill. I consider myself to be a craftsman, a tradesman. I am proud of this identity; craft is not talent or creativity. Craft is hard work and years of dedicated practice. Craft is a somber, serious and respectful word. I realize craft has come to mean everything from glued on appliques to puffy paint but I thought to bring it up because it is pivotal within the context of…

Craft Production:
P word and craft dispensed with, we can put the two together to talk about craft production. Again, this has an official meaning and is very frequently discussed in M word circles. Paradoxically, it is not always a good thing. Craft production often means building on the fly which can be a problem if you’re relying on the skill (or lack of) of one person. Standardization is kind of the opposite of craft production. An example would be using a pattern that isn’t 100% -it isn’t standard- you have to trim bits and pieces away to make things fit together. To attain the best result, you must have the best craft person possible (usually you). However, if you had a good pattern (standardized), you wouldn’t need a highly paid craftsperson to do basic work. That is not to say you want just anyone but even craftsman work best if pieces are cut to match. Otherwise, no two pieces will be alike. As a consumer, you don’t like things that are not standardized. Ex., you can buy five pairs of Levi’s 501s of the same size and they’ll all measure and fit differently because each factory makes their own pattern when that should be standardized. With craft production, you need a staff of (expensive) craftsman who may have varying skill levels and can only do one thing. If you’re standardized, anyone can be cross trained to do most any other job.

Automation is most closely associated with mass production but it means you use specially devised jigs, gadgets or tools in addition to your sewing machine. There’s two basic kinds of automation. One is semi-automated meaning you do something like using a folding template to make a welt pocket. The second kind of automation is a machine that does the operation start to finish, in one fell swoop. Automation isn’t bad per se, it can reproduce operations perfectly so you want to create homemade tools and use them effectively (this is why industrial sewing is usually higher quality). The problem is seduction. Automation makes things so simple that you’re seduced by simplicity to want everything to be so simple so you take short cuts where you shouldn’t. It’s short cuts -the afterbirth of automation- that are the problem. It’s kind of a paradox too. Good because things are exactly the same and bad because you’re seduced by simplicity to dumb it down too far. Don’t do this.

Single Needle:
Few people new to the business use this term and it’s too bad. It’s prestigious. It means the opposite of automation. When you say your products are single needle, it means you (or your stitchers) are such highly skilled crackerjacks they don’t need no stinkin’ automation. If I’m talking to someone in the trade, I rarely neglect to mention I specialize in patterns for single needle production. With patterns for automation, you can be off an 1/8th here or there and finagle the piece through a folder (automation) but not single needle. It must be perfect. Skill-wise among pattern makers, this is the top of the heap. Tailoring and coat making is characterized by single needle.

Batch production
I really hope you’ve stayed with me this far because this is really important, the most important part of this entry as future entries will show. Batch production means to batch jobs, like sewing all the straps at once, all the zippers at once etc. Batch production is the polar opposite of handmade. If I were to define mass production with one word, it would be batching. The paradox is that batching is the one thing that homebased sewing businesses want to do most. Eeek! Handmade=good (higher quality). Batching=bad (lower quality is unavoidable). I’ve written many entries on this and I know it sounds counterintuitive but it’s true. One of my designers has four employees (including the two owners) and they cut, sew and ship to customers (consumer direct, not wholesale) within 24 hours of getting the order. The customer has no idea the item they bought doesn’t even exist yet. All of their products are handmade, each item made by one sewing operator and nothing is batched. They were on target to break seven figures last year. Since they sew to order, they’re doing even better than someone else with the same sales figures because they have no money tied up in inventory and the cost of labor it took to sew it.

Many homebased sewing businesses are not doing batch production but they want to start doing it. Don’t. I don’t claim it’s easy but you should continue to use handmade production to customer order. Getting “efficient” by switching to a mass production concept like batching is a step backward.

Related entries:
Batch, UPS and Modular (Batch pt.1)
Batch, UPS and Modular (Batch pt.2)
Category: Lean Manufacturing

Get New Posts by Email


  1. Brenda says:

    Thanks for the wonderful post and clarification! I still cringe when people misuse the words “handmade” or “couture”. Thank you, thank you and thank you for the handmade definition, I hope more people think very carefully about how to appropriately describe what they produce. Thanks!

  2. Lisa B. in Portland says:

    So that’s what single needle means! I’ve seen that on my husband’s dress shirts. I’ll look for it now. :-)

    Kathleen, your “semi-automated” welt jig works fantastically! Thanks!

  3. Karen LePage says:

    I am thrilled to read this, Kathleen! I’m feeling much better now about the way I do things. I’ve resisted changing the way I sew because I’m so focused on making my garments COMFORTABLE for even the most sensitive children (having a child with sensory integration disorder and asperger syndrome, myself), and sometimes that means made-to-measure, adjusting my already tested (standard) patterns for fit and preference. I’ll stick with handmade with focus and intention from beginning to end. (using templates and jigs of course!)

    I am loving this series, and cannot wait to read what else you have to say about achieving the highest quality, and helping us understand exactly what that is.

  4. AmandaLeigh says:

    I’ve always wondered why there is such a negative perception around home-made. It can be better than (large) factory-made – it’s quality control and standards which are required.

  5. Julian Hill says:

    Great insight! This post really clarified so much for me. I’m one of those handmade production people that thought moving to batching was the next logical progression to being a “real” manufacturer. Thanks for setting me straight and helping me avoid a huge mistake.

  6. So, the problem with batching is that it adds more handling, and that’s hidden waste?

    My experience has been that limited batching in home manufacturing does work. Frex: washable bird puppets of three fabrics (shell, contrast, interior stay), six pattern pieces. All the same size. Runs of different color combinations. There were templates for placement or notches to match to confirm things were going together correctly.

    This was a decade before Kathleen’s book was available.

    The pattern pieces were traced around on doubled fabric, as it came from the bolt (!), all one pattern piece in turn (I’d used Escher-like fussing to get the pieces to fit with little waste), using a grid to tally so the right number of each piece was cut. Hand-cut (losing the lines!). I’d sew all the contrast feet, stuffing them as each was finished, and toss them in a box. With the same color on the machine, I’d applique the beaks on the head piece. Change thread. Sew and stuff the wings. This preset the pieces to make a finished bird. It was hand-stuffed and hand-finished.

    If I were still making puppets, with all I’ve learned in the interim, I’m not sure where or how to un-batch or otherwise make the manufacturing leaner. I’m honestly wanting to know.

    With single-needle construction, if I’m making belt loops, I’m better to use a long strip, do the seaming in several long passes, then cut it into sections, trimming the weird ends. I would never be able to get a clean, true piece doing each little section.

    I love The Machine That Changed the World and Lean Thinking. My copies are packed right now, but as I remember it, one machine and a skilled operator to recalibrate it is better than five machines each custom-set.

    The variables would be:
    1. How long does it take to reset the machine?
    2. Do the units need to be sorted out, processed, and rematched to their original set? Batching the collars on three sizes of garments cut from five different kinds of fabric would NOT be good.

    Back to the puppets. Eventually I had several women doing them as piece work. When they took work home, they always took complete sets and returned complete birds, which gave huge satisfaction. How they assembled them was up to them – one woman made each complete bird start to finish. It took her considerably longer. The others gravitated back to the method above because they could make more. They were responsible for the quality of their work, and fixed mistakes as they occurred, something that doesn’t happen when you do only one part and pass it along to another.

    My conclusion is that batching is sometimes appropriate. You have to consider the trade-offs, and the satisfaction of the operator has to be factored in.

  7. Mike C says:


    Lean manufacturing attempts to optimize the cost of production and efficiency at the expense of the capital cost of extra machines.

    If you are performing all operations on a single (or small set) of machines that require color changes or other maintenance in between operations, then you will have difficulty with lean.

    A lean operation would figure out the minimum set of machines required to allow construction of a full item from start to finish with no downtime between operations.

    When we moved from batch to lean, we had to more or less double the amount of machines we had. But, the tradeoff was that we got roughly a doubling of productivity from our sewers. So, for a one time capital cost, we got twice the production efficiency – forever.

    The quality level is typically higher on lean as well. Mistakes are caught almost immediately and fixed immediately. If a mistake is made in a batch, you may find that the entire batch has the same error that isn’t discovered until all of the pieces move to the next step of the process.

    As far as operator satisfaction, we passed along some of the efficiency our workers have under lean in the form of production bonuses. Their hourly rate went up between 15% if they work at a moderate pace. If we have enough work available and they are personally motivated, I’ve seen them earn 35% more than they used to.

    –Mike C

  8. Ragga Katla says:

    Hi Kathleen. Great post! Its been a while since I chimed in, but Im always reading.

    Very nice definition of handmade, but I have to disagree with one small point which is that even if something is made by one person from beginning to end it does not guarantee quality. The quality depends on the skill level of the person who made it by hand.

    I say this because here in L.A. there seems to have been a handmade trend going on for the past couple of years which in some cases seems to glorify amateur level craft. Nothing wrong with it when you’re giving your handmade from home items away but questionable when it is being sold in “boutiques”. A handmade cosmetics bag made by one of my clients comes to mind, very pretty fabric on the outside, on the inside 3/16″ SA and no finishing. No overlock, not even pinking. Ouch. I was given one of those, and it took about 2 days before it started ripping apart.

    Also on the issue of batching, I think you mean that batching is problematic when spread around between several sewers. Am I getting this right? Im not sure I agree that batching is always bad, I do it on the very rare occasions I have agreed to do small production, or when I do dupes. I am very confident that there is no difference in quality when I batch my dupes and it definitely speeds things up. Unfortunately because dupes are usually made in several colorways I dont get to do that very often.

    I think maybe sometimes there are other problems that are bundled together that makes batching look problematic. In other words, you do batching when the goal is to be very fast. Zippers f. ex. may look bad when bundling but perhaps the problem is that the sewer used only one zipper foot to save time. In my experience you need to use both, its very rare that anyone is so good that they can put a zipper in evenly with only a right (or left) foot. So the problem in that case is not bundling, its too much hurry. The more experience I get, the more convinced I am that slow is fast when it comes to sewing.

  9. Richard_C says:

    That factory per factory pattern making for Levi’s blows my mind. It kinda made sense for the old days. Now it doesn’t seem like there’s any excuse for HQ not to pipe line out uniform markers, format issues on either side be damned.

    And that 4 person company making 7 figures is terrifically inspiring.

    Thanks for these posts Kathleen, they couldn’t be more timely for my operation.

  10. DesignerElla says:

    I’m falling in LOVE with you for this post.

    I was told by a manufacturer – and by that I mean he is a part of a company that can mass produce handbags for designers, so manufacturing is what they do mainly – that I couldn’t do this. (I plan to write you to get a little advice about his exact comment.)

    First, thanks for clearing things up about definitions. No one is every clear on them. But before I gush further how is something not handmade if made by two hands and a sewing machine, basic non-electric tools by two people? Quality, standardization, and whatever aside, is it really not hand made? I do understand why handmade by two people wouldn’t be as favorable and quality, but not yet clear on why it is not handmade, unless this makes it cross over into batching or something similar.

    OK back to the gushing. You have just (or when you wrote this) vindicated and justified me (and my love, tehe – making my bags is one of my loves). I decided not to go with outside manufacturing (more than once) not because of costs but because I truly love this part but more so because I want total control over my vision and also standardization. I want my quilting to align perfectly in the center, etc. Also, I can do this. I am thrilled with my work and genius ideas. Also things like skill mean more if it’s mine. If I quilt a bag including underneath a pocket (it’s easier that way but looks more expensive) and if I quilt the outside of a pocket and then pleat that – it looks impressive but why do I care about impressive sewing if it’s not mine?! I could lose much skill and vision not being a part of the whole process. There’s learning with all the sewing (even cutting), in many different ways not just about sewing itself.

    But I had no idea this really was the best way, yet it does make sense! And I had previously gotten the idea this was completely NOT what you or your book thought, and I am very excited to purchase it (when the car surprise break-down issues allow us to buy it and not save it for emergencies – a lot is on hold, as we are also moving).

    Also, from Etsy I heard a lot about the speed of batching. I can NOT batch. Or rather I will not, I would hate to do the work and it would ruin the feel for me. I detest it! I might be able to cut a little extra for the follow up part to be sewn, but then I must move back to the part I cut and work with it, etc. I want to “grow” my bags from the beginning to the end. I am not positive yet how batching lowers quality but wahoo! I am not necessarily surprised, and I’ll need to think about it when I have some time to ponder, or perhaps in bed tonight.

    So yes back to my detest. I lose the love if I try to batch. There’s no joy, or that *organic* feeling, as I like to use that word a lot about abstract concepts, not just foods and fabrics, etc.

    I didn’t know it was better!

    I wrote some info for the upcoming website about my joy and how I am thrilled to work my fingers to the bone (ahh nearing 30) working. Could be happier from no other work but this and many parts of it.

  11. Sparkler says:

    “Batch production is the polar opposite of handmade.”

    I wonder if our definition of “batch production” differs, or if it could differ or be deemed more/less between different trades.

    To use your above examples of handmade items (home-sewn items and pottery), it should be clear that the latter of the two utilizes batch production. No potter I’ve ever met would fire one item at a time or glaze one item at a time. Further, some sewn items that are produced to order take considerably longer than one or two days start-to-finish. As a corsetiere, I do varied tasks such as cutting, filing and tipping steel bones. These steels then sit whilst the tipping fluid cures. Do I sit and do nothing whilst this is happening? Or do I maximise the time by tipping steels for other orders or moving onto another task?

    Should a one-woman bespoke historical dressmaker spend 100+ hours on embroidering a bodice, 9am – 5pm, day-after-day all in one go? Or would this be counter-productive in terms of maintaining a high level of quality, enthusiasm and energy (the key joys of buying hand-made)?

    To me, it would seem that I fit into your definition of batching tasks (as a means of managing workload) and that this would be “bad”. I am, however, a one-woman home-based business producing items to order. I am the only one responsible for the quality of my work, and I am the only one responsible for the production time (excepting the mail, of course!). Is it only when tasks are split between workers that it becomes “batching”. I have a small set-up for space and equipment and working on each item start-to-finish would involve spending a good deal of time packing and unpacking equipment for each small task, and another chunk of time just twiddling my thumbs.

    I merely point this out as I wonder if the aims and intentions, and the type of craft involved, alters the meaning of the term “batching” with regards to the definition “handmade”? It seems to me that not all home-based sewing businesses fit the ideal mold that you have described, nor should they.

  12. kathleen says:

    You bring up some good points “sparkler”. When discussing these sorts of topics, it becomes necessary to speak in more generic terms rather than specific ones because as you point out, one cannot possibly consider every singular example of the various types of processes. Similarly, I have gone to great lengths in entries that preceded this one, that discuss the matter of batching that is unavoidable -something I argue a great deal in the larger manufacturing community- and most recently, in the discussion of sub-assemblies. I’ve long said that for myriad reasons, you can’t pull coats or corn like you can cars or computers. Perhaps this piece I wrote that was featured on another lean manufacturing site explains it better:

    When my husband and I started exploring lean, we had vigorous discussions about what Lean “looked like” in different industries. It seems that Lean is mostly applied in industries with a high engineering component; the inputs and control processes of their products being highly quantifiable. However, in apparel, inputs are not so highly quantifiable and are much more variable. Similarly, I’ve argued that other industries such as agriculture and building are likewise dissimilar to what we commonly think of as a lean industry. Lumber -just like fabric- cannot be smelted to specific parameters to enhance waste reduction. Regarding pull, it will remain unlikely that a serving of corn can be produced at will upon demand. The idea that you can’t hire 9 women for one month and get a baby applies to our industries both literally and figuratively. You can’t pull corn like cars or computers and the inherent differences between quantifiable manufacturing and the comparative of industries closer to the dirt will compel variant differences in lean manufacturing.

    Industries relying on natural limitations cannot implement lean as currently dictated. There are some advantages and disadvantages to this. For example, the building trades will (largely) remain impervious to import pressures; it remains an impossibility to construct a home in China and import the thing here. In apparel, our advantage is cycle time; we are not constrained by long product development cycles. With an interchangeable block system, we can go from concept to approved prototype in two days. Production can process the lot in another two days. Which brings me to another concept; in many respects, batching will remain unavoidable in “dirt” industries.

    Lean doesn’t look the same in every industry. While you can’t pull corn or coats like cars, that doesn’t mean the same concepts can’t be brought to bear.

    If I haven’t bored you witless by now, perhaps my previous entries on lean manufacturing (be sure to click through to older entries) would be better explanations for the exceptions you cite. I have been writing on this topic for a very long time and in much greater specificity than this singular post would lead one to believe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.