How to start a clothing line

This topic comes from a combination of my email and the forum. I wanted to share it with you because I think it’s a good example of simple, modest plans and good instincts. There are some features of her plan that I think are pivotal -and this is a basic outline of how I explained to start a clothing line in The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing (it’s rated #1 on Amazon for a reason). For some of you it may seem too simple but I really believe that some DEs (designer entrepreneurs) go overboard with complexity rather than having a good core focus. It’s the foundations of a plan that matter most at the outset. You shouldn’t use marketing to compensate for a weakness in your foundation and that’s what a lot of (mostly big) companies do. Here’s Tonya’s message:

I grew up sketching and later on taught myself to sew. I’ve wanted to launch my own plus-size clothing line for about 20 years now but the problem has always been lack of money. I work as an Analyst in IT. I’ve decided to take $10K out of my 401k and invest it in myself by starting a clothing line.

As a plus-size consumer who can never find the type of clothes that I like, I’m sure that there is a need for more diversity in the product offerings. I’ve also been researching the plus-size market for the last 10 years. For more info, I’ve been working at Lane Bryant part-time since October which has given me good insight into what women are buying.

Before I take out the money I want to have a clear business plan. My problem right now is deciding how best to market and produce the line. The 3 options I’m considering are:

Create samples for a small 5-piece collection and sell them to other plus-size specialty stores by direct mail look-book/flyer. I’ve been able to identify about 30 of these independent stores across the US. I would also show the line at the WWD Magic show to get orders as well. I would them contract with a factory to produce based on what I got orders for.
Concern–>Can I afford this with only $10K AND will I attract enough potential buyers at this huge trade show?

Start by producing 3 units per size, per style of the 5-piece collection and sell them over the internet. In addition, I would flesh out the online inventory with other designs made by local home sewers as needed.
Concern–>Can I afford this with only $10K

Don’t mass-produce anything. Produce all merchandise using local home sewers and sell online.
Concern–>Finding enough local people who can really sew!

Most of the people who contact me about starting a product line are not this together. Yeah, her plan needs some work but her instincts are excellent. I see all of the options as being viable although some more than others. I like option #1 the best but here are the things that I really really like about her plan that are featured in every option she’s listed:

She got a retail job -which cannot pay what her IT job does- at a place that serves her target market. I tell people to do this all the time but nobody listens to me.

Small product line. This is totally doable. It’s not overly ambitious. This means she’s patient, willing to invest in the long term from the outset and is not driven by ego. Not being in a hurry and growing too quickly is such an advantage.

She’s self-financing; she’s not borrowing money. I know that 10K isn’t a lot. For some people I’d say it wasn’t enough (based on the other factors above) but I think she can pull it off with room to spare because I’m assuming that she’ll spend these funds wisely.

The caveat is that she should sell to some stores before she ever went to market. She needs to merchandise and sell the line herself to small stores in her area. Once she’s taken some orders, filled them and -important- gotten some repeat orders, then she could take the next step of a mail order campaign with line sheets. Once she’d developed a relationship with some of her retailers, she could get a referral from one of her retailers -in the same way I mentioned in Made by Magpie. Once she’s got a rep, she could build on that relationship. Only then do I suggest jumping off into the abyss of showing her line at Magic.

As far as production goes, she can probably do a lot of the patterns and prototype making herself. If you find yourself in the same boat, maybe all you’d need would be somebody to consult with you for sewing process improvement. And then there’s the issue of machines. People don’t know what to buy but unfortunately -in spite of the plethora of sewing experts in home sewing- we have none in the apparel industry, so this site is the best place to find a sewing consultant. If Tonya could hire somebody to advise her, I don’t see why Tonya couldn’t combine the labor force (independent contractors) she lists in option #3, to produce small quantities.

Speaking of sewing consultants, Jenny wonders…

Do you have any resources to share for those interested in becoming a sewing contractor? I know there’s contractors for every niche out there, but I’d love to see you or someone else blog about what steps a talented home sewer could take toward sewing for DE’s.

…and I don’t know the whole answer to that but we’ve helped individuals become contractors in the forum. I don’t know why some of you couldn’t become contractors rather than DEs provided you had the interest and skills. I’d certainly tell people about your services, that’s for sure. To answer your question Jenny, I’d need to know what people needed to know before I could tell you anything. Now back to Tonya.

Her option #2 is also interesting but it’s tricky. This option is sewing some up and selling them off a website. Mike C and his wife have done this quite successfully so he’d have better advice for her than I ever would. Still, it’s tricky.

In the forum, Tonya says:

There are pros and cons to each of the three options and I can tell you that I’m leaning heavily towards option #3 which is Production-On-Demand [custom clothing] using local sewers. Because of my IT background I can handle the website development myself which will save me a lot of money. Plus there’s an intrinsic value in something handmade or one-of-a-kind.

Sherry (in the forum) brings up that Tonya still hasn’t formed the central focus of her business and I’d agree. I’m going to try to say this as lovingly as I can but I’m wondering if Tonya is swayed by option 3 because it seems most approachable to her; most doable and closest to her own experience. I wonder if she’s pulling her punches, it does feel less risky and getting into business can be such an intimidating thing. If you find yourself in the same boat, ask yourself which of the options would you really want if anything were possible? If Tonya really wanted to do it, she could do option #1 with maybe a combined possibility of option #2. Then again, Mike may say I’m all wet. He started with option #2 and moved into option #1 :)

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  1. Beverly says:

    I think you’ve hit on a very interesting off-shoot topic here…suggesting that DE “wannabes” consider becoming sewing contractors as an alternative to being a DE. Some of the DEs are very particular in their expectations,(and this is not always a bad thing), that they can’t always find a contractor to suit them. Why not do some local contract work to see if this is a viable new career opportunity? This could be a new breed of DE – the CE! (Contract Entrepreneur). Used machines (including really specialized “old faithfuls”) can be purchased for very little coin in the central garment districts. Personally, I love used machines; they just purr when you use them! I went to an auction recently and a 3 year old $20,000 computerized Juki went for $2800.

    And a word to Tonya, if you do use Option 3 using local home sewers, make sure they have machines and the personal sewing skills that are up to the task! Do they have the $99 domestic machine from Wal-mart, or industrial machines that can take the use and abuse of everyday sewing with little down time?

    As far as sewing skills go, I would have prospective sewists make a sample for me, if you can’t see a sample of their work beforehand, or find anyone who has used them before. You also want to do the “sniff test” while in their sewing area, to make sure the garments don’t come back smelling funny (for whatever reason). We’ve all heard the stories of the contractors who work in a musty basement.

  2. Els says:

    I would like to point out, that if Tonya wants to use local sewers it is very important that all the sewers are doing their job with the same uniform quality of sewing. So there must be one in charge to teach the local sewers how you want the plus size garments look like. For example hems can be sewed on so much different ways that it is wise to know on forehand how you want your hems to be sewed and that can vary on different fabrics you want to use. Hemming is just one example of so many things in construction. If local sewers do it their way, which does not imply home made than your plus line is more custom made than a clothing line.

  3. Gidget says:

    This is a very timely post. I have been using option #2 with just okay results and local advertising. Our market is the 65 and over females with health concerns.

    One of my customers recently suggested that we make up as many items as possible over the summer and fall and sell them at a kiosk during Christmas season at the local mall since many people are ‘hung up’ on what to get their ‘elderly’ moms at this time of year. lol. (His words) Feedback, hopefully critical, would be good too, I think.

    I use several home sewers to help out with production. Names abound at the local Hancocks and JoAnnes. Many have a good work ethic and are excited to learn better methods. They know they are being taken, but lack alternatives, much as I was pre-Kathleen. Thanks btw. lol.

    I was recently working out our budget for purchasing the industrial machines we need over the next year but was concerned how competent we could become to deal with another’s challenges, as Els brought up, the many ways to do things…

    We have the Sewell plant closings here and many of the local experts have gone onto other things. I’ll try advertising for them, but was wondering if, short of memorizing the standards for seams, what kinds of things should I be looking for? when any of you were starting out?

  4. Nanette says:

    Tonya may be interested in our experience, since it is pretty close to her own interests. In 1991, my sister Jennifer Davis (who is our designer) and I began Astarte/woman by design to create the kinds of sexy, feminine clothes WE could never find (being plus size ourselves, we had a pretty firm handle on what was available). We started out producing it ourselves and selling through a small local boutique. However, the owner wanted such a large cut, and we got an incredible offer to open our own small store (for a percentage of sales only in a beautifully appointed empty store in an upscale center), that we went on our own within a few months, later expanding to a larger store in the same center. My sister designed everything (no design training, no sketching, just a natural ability to engineer clothes for a fuller figure, based on her having experimented constantly as a teenager, and coming from a line line of talented home sewers), we cut the pieces together, and found local seamstresses with professional machines to do the sewing (we still did some ourselves). By the way, 15 years later,these same sewers still are a valuable part of our team. We’ve found other workers through Craigs List, and the quality does vary, but we test them out with samples and monitor quality all along. Our niche was that customers could order our designs in their measurements, which in the plus-size field, is a major bonus because as women get larger, the shapes vary widely. Our designs are made to skim the body, so it is important to know, otherwise you have a very undesirable too large or too tight. Around 1996, we started a website (, which saved us when we had to close the store because someone threw a brick through the window and stole ALL of our brand-new fall/holiday design samples (yes DEs do live pretty close to the chest — one season can wipe you out!). Thank goodness for the website — it is what kept us going, plus we would do occasional trunk shows in various areas throughout California. We are fortunate in having an extremely loyal customer base. Now we are in the position of WANTING to wholesale to small boutiques across the country, who have actually been begging for it, but we are cautious about the best way to price, buying requirements, etc. We’ve been learning a lot from this blog, and slowly getting up to this century in assigning style numbers (internally at this point; it’s a big task if you review our site and see ALL the designs we do). We would like to take our signature pieces (the best-selling jackets, tops, pants, and possibly dresses) to boutiques and maintain our limited edition and one-of-a-kind pieces ourselves. Currently we have a showroom that is open Saturdays for browsing, other days by appointment, and we do fashion shows the first Saturday of each month in our showroom to showcase the latest designs. If it seems like we’re trying to do it all, it’s true! We know we need to pick 3 to 5 designs to start with for wholesaling but it’s hard to narrow it down that much because there are so many options, but it’s what we working towards.

    For Tonya, I do understand how she would want to start with option 3, because we all tend to start in our comfort zone, and I’ll tell you, the website has been great for us! It gives the public immediate access to who you are and what you do in a way no other advertising channel can. We’re moving towards getting away from the individualized measurements so we can simplify order fulfillment, but we do not want to lose what makes Astarte designs far superior to other plus-size lines, and that is the FIT. It’s a tough road, no doubt, but the personal satisfaction we get in making women feel beautiful is a big factor in why we keep wanting to figure out a way to reach more. Any comments or suggestions would be much appreciated.

  5. Gidget says:

    Nanette or Tonya or anyone with customer measuing experience, I had some questions, so posted them in the forum. If you see this, would you please check for them there?

  6. Jan says:

    I’ve been told that the use of stitchers who work in their own homes is illegal and will subject the employer (if caught) to hefty fines from the Department of Labor.

  7. Mike C says:

    I’ve been told that the use of stitchers who work in their own homes is illegal and will subject the employer (if caught) to hefty fines from the Department of Labor.

    You have been misinformed. It is not illegal, however it is not necessarily straightforward either.

    There are some complexities dealing with the employer/employee relationship and whether you can call the employees “independent contractors” or not.

    If you can, things are a lot easier. If you cannot, then the gov’t will consider them to be employees and you will have payroll tax implications.

    You may also have some obligations with respect to state law, especially workman’s compensation , depending on where you live.

    I don’t even know where to begin to tell you to look as far as how to classify the workers and what regs you may have to follow.

  8. Erin says:

    I have dealt with these problems as a small time independently contracted designer/stitcher. I would suggest getting to know the legal issues of independent contracting through the Nolo series – a great line of for-the-layperson law books. Their website at is very helpful. The outdated copy that my local library has says that home sewing is specifically excluded from independent contracting, I suppose to protect from exploitation.

  9. Mike C says:

    The outdated copy that my local library has says that home sewing is specifically excluded from independent contracting, I suppose to protect from exploitation.


    Much more likely because the IRS has found low rates of tax compliance from independent contractors.

    The rules are laid out in IRS Publication 15-A. At-home sewing workers are considered “statutory workers” (which for all intents and purposes means “employee”) if the following describes them:

    1. An individual who works at home on materials or goods that you supply and that must be returned to you or to a person you name, if you also furnish specifications for the work to be done.

    and the following three conditions must be met:

    * The service contract states or implies that substantially all the services are to be performed personally by them.
    * They do not have a substantial investment in the equipment and property used to perform the services (other than an investment in transportation facilities).
    * The services are performed on a continuing basis for the same payer.

    Those regulations apply to worker’s that might otherwise pass the “independent contractor” test of:

    “The general rule is that an individual is an independent contractor if you, the person for whom the services are performed, have the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not the means and methods of accomplishing the result.”

    I know that back when we were messing with this, we definitely gave instruction on how the goods were to be produced, what machines were used, etc.

    The net is, that as far as I know, it is perfectly legal to use home-based workers to do your sewing. You probably will have to classify them as “employees” and deal with all the overhead associated with that though.

  10. Cinnamon says:

    This is exactly why I’ve been struggling to do all the work myself. I can’t find someone to help me consistently. My accountant said that Illinois forbids home-sewers due to the history of exploitation the industry has here. I can’t find a company that will work with my small orders and be willing to make bags. If I were using leather or canvas exclusively I could find a company to pay, but not for purses. I have a desire to do everything above board, but I’m close to just chucking that and paying home-workers under the table.

  11. Mike C says:

    I wouldn’t trust an accountants opinion on it without talking to someone in state government.

    Illinois should have a workforce commission that you can call and get an answer right from the horse’s mouth.

  12. michelle says:


  13. mimi says:

    I sort of do the 3rd, I guess but like the other poster, I sell out of my store. I just make patterns and cut 3 sizes of everything I design and take to home sewers to sew. I have done this for a year now and it works Ok but the toughest part is finding very good seamstresses and getting people to understand that a designer boutique is not going to be overstuffed with clothes like a traditional boutique. Otherwise, I love the flexibility, creativity, and self-direction of it. I cannot over-stress the importance of location,location, location especially for a designer concept boutique.

  14. Kim says:

    I’m about to approach some stay at home moms to help me sew my bags. How did you go about deciding on what to pay them?

  15. Analyzing business plans pt.2

    Based on the comments from visitors to part one of this series, I realize I should have I recommended that you read Factoring invoices: financing a fashion line and Financing fashion: 10 mistakes designers make as well as part one…

  16. Ed says:

    What are the steps needed to start with some T Shirts and go from there to more products?

    I want to subcontract everything out, like design, printing, marketing etc., with reputable companies and be able to compete.

  17. sue says:

    My concern is how to get my designs out there,even though i don’t know to sew.celebrities got their start and they don’t even know to sew.All i have is my sketches.I was thinking maybe i should have my clothes made by a tailor and try to put my clothes out there.Eather way their my designes.I just find it to be so fustrating learning how to sew.I’m 26yrs old!When i’m done learning how to sew, when will my stuff get out there?

  18. Kathleen says:

    My concern is how to get my designs out there,even though i don’t know to sew.celebrities got their start and they don’t even know to sew.All i have is my sketches.I was thinking maybe i should have my clothes made by a tailor and try to put my clothes out there.Eather way their my designes.I just find it to be so fustrating learning how to sew.I’m 26yrs old!When i’m done learning how to sew, when will my stuff get out there?

    First, celebritites PAY someone to do the work for them. Second, at least half of the designers getting into the business don’t sew either. They also must pay someone to do the work for them. Third, buy the book I wrote. That will tell you how to get your designs out there.

  19. khristen says:

    my name is khristen. i also wish to start my own clothing line. i have great sketches, but i get disouraged sometimes because i don’t know how to sew. for those of you who taught yourselves how to sew, please give me some advice or suggestions on how to do that. i live in pittsburgh, pa and there are virtually no sewing classes so i really need help.

  20. Rashon says:

    Hello there,
    I am in the process of starting my own junior plus clothing line. I cannot draw and I can not sew. But, I know I want to be made. Can you please guide me in the right direction? I have tried to read as many books as possible and I am still very lost!!!!

  21. kevin says:

    I am a stay home father and I was wondering what are some steps to start a hat line and go up from there,Im confused on the do’s and dont’s about starting a hat line

  22. Bailey says:

    Okay, I have a niche for ethnic clothes for kids, got a little money saved, want to have some samples made, 2-3 each, and show at some of the minority business fairs. Where to find someone to put my idea in a visible product? ( I am keeping my day job)

  23. Marcus Stockton says:

    I am interested in starting my own clothing line but I dont know the first steps to getting started. How would I go about getting the name of my clothing line copywritten? Please give me some instuctions on this.

  24. Carol Kimball says:

    At the risk of repeating the obvious:
    1. Scroll to the top of this page.
    2. Click on the “Buy Now” button under the cover of Kathleen’s book, left side of page.
    3. Read it.
    4. Read it again.
    5. Go back and read thoroughly the parts you skipped because you didn’t think they’d apply to your special case.
    6. Come here and ask your questions.

  25. marc says:

    ok…how about if you dont want to sew ur items, what would u suggest to do if sewing is not an option to get ur line out, my clothing line consist of jeans, ( which im in the search of finding the material) button downs, polos and etc. my problem is finding the material. i was wondering for tshirts can u just pick up any old plain white or black t and put ur design on it and sell it?

  26. Kelly says:

    I can draw pretty well and I just wanted to know how can I get myself out there without even knowing how to sew. When I show people my drawings they always tell me that im really good at it, and it’s something I’ve been wanting to do since I first picked up a crayon. I really want to become a big name in the fashion industry, I just need to know how.

  27. Lex says:

    I have an idea of something that would be hot right now depending on where fashion goes after this it may not be hot after. The style is more punk rock kinda style which is howitisnow for everyone of all races.Maybe not so much full punk rock but has a touch of it somewhere in the outfit. My question is how do i get these ideas out or even try doing my own as maybe next year who knows it may not be something anyone would wear but maybe it will but i know it will be good for right now. How much money would i need to start up something like that also?

  28. TriciA says:

    I have been very anxious about starting a jean line for tall women. I have no clue how to sew or draw but I do have some sketches that I did try on my own and I do know what styles I would like. I need advice as to where to start and what direction do I go in to find assistance. I would like to eventually expand to other items for the clothing line but I would like to start off small. Please help me!!!!!!!

  29. Elizabeth says:

    Your site is so informative…I’m going to buy the book and soak it in THEN I’ll ask you questions. Seems to bug you when folks ask the questions with the most OBVIOUS answers…

  30. Kathleen says:

    Hi Elizabeth
    A couple of things “bug” me. These also bug everyone else :) btw.

    1. People intend to generate an income, if not profit off of my advice. Why am I not entitled to the same? Let’s be real. If I didn’t generate revenue, the site wouldn’t exist and everyone would lose.

    2. It’s the sense of entitlement that bugs me most. People feel entitled to generate their profit but I’m not. Why are they more special than me when I’m the one doing them the favor, lol!

    3. Often, not saying you are, the people who want answers to the most basic questions are drive-bys, hit and run. Take what they can get and go. No commitment. They don’t want to do their homework, minimally searching the site for the answers. They want me to serve it up personally. I do not hesitate to help people, pointing them to salient entries if it is obvious they’ve looked already. Often, they just need the right search terms because industry terminology is different from what newcomers use. I help all of those people.

    4. Clutter. Many people here are ready to move beyond the basics. The entry level questions are asked over and over and over (see #3). If the basics are covered in the book, we can use this blog to grow beyond that.

    5. Successes are generated by a few individuals in key groups. This is one of them. This is where the best thinking takes place, people who are committed to each other (see the forum). It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Asking other people to commit to a hit and run or a drive-by dive bomber, cheapens the commitments of people who’ve availed themselves to others. They tire of it. I can’t tell you how many thank you letters I got from forum members, thanking me for closing it off to the general public.

    6. It is difficult to answer many questions in snap shots. There are too many related factors. One entry won’t cut it. The book provides a comprehensive step by step logical sequence, with check lists, detailed instructions and forms. I just don’t see how that could be done except in a whole series of posts (and then I’d still get emails from drive-bys who didn’t bother to search the site). Even something as simple as issuing style numbers is complex. I don’t know how many entries I’ve written on that. It looks easy if you’re on the outside looking in. Inside, it’s much more complex. Doable, but complex.

  31. Sabrina says:

    I would love to start my own clothing brand but I just don’t where to start.
    Your post was very helpfull. Unfortunatly, it’s out of my reality. I’m living in Portugal, and things are different here. But the Internet option seemed ok for a start.
    We just got to have money to get the fabrics and to pay the sewers initially to make some pieces.

  32. serina says:

    I want to start a clothing line and I can sew; but, I have no idea how to do pattern making. How do I make patterns and how do I make all pattern pieces coordinate and fit the size? How do I find fabrics?

  33. fredrick (NIGERIA) says:

    i am Fred from Nigeria. i am 21 yrs old and a student of civil engineering. i already run a clothing line and this has been for like close to a year plus but i have to deal with the problem of getting committed people to work with. i have a partner but he’s so much engaged in some other stuff that he hardly has the time for the co., pls, how do i go about this?

  34. Tiffany says:

    Hi Kathleen

    You mentioned in your first response to Tonya’s email that “She needs to merchandise and sell the line herself to small stores in her area (Andrea is working on a guest post on this topic). ”

    I wasn’t able to find this thread. Can you provide a link? I’d like to do research and see which specialty stores best fit my target market.

  35. emily says:

    I have a question. I am starting a t-shirt line and have been told that to sell to boutiques you first have to be recognized by the state which can cost upwards of $500….is this true. Also that boutiques will take around 20-30% of what they sell? So what is the freakin point then? Im better off selling them myself. Any advice?

  36. Alana says:

    Hi, I’ve just read all of the comments and suggestions and find all of it to be very interesting. I don’t know if this site is still up but am taking a chance. I am so interested in sewing and designing and am currently enrolled in a dressmaking and design class through penn-foster. It’s online but very informative. I’m taking this route to get more sewing experience before pursuing a dress line. I want badly to be apart of this profession because I love clothing and want to create something from me. I will get the book suggested and give this a try. Thank you for sharing such good information because before reading this, I didn’t have a clue. I will keep looking for more information from you.

  37. Kathleen says:

    If the site weren’t up, you couldn’t post to it :).

    Hit the “home” button at the top of the page and you’ll see the site was updated as recently as yesterday. Check the categories in the drop down box for a sampling of content published here over the past -almost- seven years now. If you prefer, you can subscribe to have entries emailed to you. There’s a lot of content here and hope you find it useful.

  38. Sarra Bess says:

    I’ve been going through the archives from the beginning, and it continually amazes me just how many people comment without the courtesy of doing a quick search through the site. Do they honestly expect a stranger to drop everything she’s doing and answer “how do I start a clothing line” when they very obviously haven’t even done the research of reading other posts on the blog they just commented on?

  39. Sharon says:

    Hello, I find these options to be viable from a beginner’s point of view. I too aspire to start my own line for voluptuous women and would try with options 1,2. Thanks for the advice.

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