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…
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.
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.
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.