Industrial sewing instructions

Based on a conversation from comments, I thought to amuse myself by showing you typical industry sewing instructions. Seriously, this is it!

industrial_sewing_instructions industrial_sewing_instructions2sm

Or maybe I should say you’re lucky if you get this much. If you think there’s some vast repository of secret sewing instructions people are hiding from you, you may as well give it up.

Perhaps the better question is why there are so few instructions. I can think of several reasons.

First is chain of responsibility: the head of product development is in charge of getting this done. Not necessarily doing it but seeing that someone does it.  Most heads of PD are none other than designers but few have the background in production to know all the details because they’re doing well enough to get their own jobs done. It’s a heady bit of industrial engineering if you see the full chart below.


Designers aren’t trained for this so they pass it off to either pattern makers (technical designers) or whoever is in charge in production. The production head (presuming this is done in house) really doesn’t need instructions because they, the supervisors and the operators know what’s what. At best the production manager writes a list of operations (or copies and pastes from past products) to make piece work tickets for bundling.

In the case of outsourced production, there’s a few reasons instructions aren’t written. One, again the designer doesn’t know. Two, they expect the contractor to do it but again, why would a contractor do it if they already know how to do it? It’s a chicken and egg problem. The main reason instructions aren’t written is because nobody wants to pay for it. It is that simple.

Writing instructions, like patterns themselves, must be customized to each product. Instructions and patterns are one-offs. There’s no global default for any of this, no one way that people do things.

For example, if you look at a larger version of the product sketch, the hems of the sleeves and hem of the sweep appear to be identical but they are not. If you see the larger version of the chart above, the sleeve hems are done before the sleeves are even joined to the shirt body (that really annoys me, sorry if you like to do it that way) which is kind of odd. It is odd because the sweep isn’t hemmed until after the side seams are done. Those two elements should match (in my opinion). Plus, this is a better quality shirt. You can tell because the shoulders are taped and the collar band is closed before it is set into the neckline. So, with just those three elements, there are more than nine different finishing possibilities. See why I say sewing instructions must be customized? And consequently, aren’t written either.

Anyway, these are just a few reasons why there are no industrial sewing books (contrary to whatever some enterprising publishers or authors have claimed by virtue of the titling of their books).  Sewing processes are customized to individual products according to the line’s customary price points, costs and perceived value. In addition to no one wanting to pay for them, don’t forget that! So maybe I kid a little because some manufacturers probably would pay but an industrial sewing book would be long on charts and machine specifications (which can amount to gibberish for the uninitiated) and short on the sort of details that new entrants would most want and need. It’s a delicate balance to please both parties and to maintain any credibility. And for something to be very usable, manufacturers would want a lot of this stuff on disk (which invites a lot of other problems for author and publisher) so they could copy and paste the data into their spreadsheets for costing. My fantasy is that someone else will do it so I don’t have to because you’d need a separate book for every product type.

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  1. Frances says:

    I suppose knowing what choices to make from all of the possible combinations of construction methods involves knowing your materials and how they will behave, and then your intended level of quality (taped shoulders or not, etc.). When I sew, which is at home and probably pretty wonky when compared to professionals, I just blindly follow along with whatever the pattern says and sometimes it turns out ok and sometimes it turns out less ok. I really like your engineering approach to things and the reasoning behind the choices, which I lack at my current level of skill/understanding.

  2. Lisa Armstrong says:

    Haha I love it, “you’re lucky if you get this much” so true! The only thing I ever saw during all the years I worked on a production line was a piece rate ticket! There was never any kind of instructions! You were shown how to sew your part and that was it. I even moved from department to department at times and it was the same every time. They showed you what to do and you did it.

  3. Lisa Armstrong says:

    The ticket only had your specific job on it, nothing else. You had a bundle boy or girl that handed your finished product to the next operator.

  4. Theresa in Tucson says:

    As far as your fantasy that someone else will do it, not likely, Kathleen. You know we want you to write the book on industrial techniques. The only reason home sewers like me retain a copy of that infernal Rodale book on sewing secrets from the fashion industry is because it’s the only one out there that even addresses industrial construction methods. Having just read the linked comments, “Yet Another Sewing Book” sounds like a perfect title.

  5. I have been developing TSPs (Technical Specifications Packages) for many years and construction specifications are always a part of the TSP. I do not do operational breakdown and order, we expect contractors to take care of setting up appropriate production line. I include all construction details including structural (interlinings, stabilizing tapes, shldr pads etc.) all detailed descriptions of each seam type, hem height, stitch type etc.
    I will forward to Kathleen an example of the construction page.

    Also A&E website has great reference matrix for seams and stitches:

    I think specifying seams and stitches are more effective than type of machinery.

  6. Liz Pf says:

    What we enthusiasts need is not a book on “how the manufactures assemble garments” but rather, how we can use typical home equipment to work as efficiently as possible to achieve high quality results.

    If we wanted industry methods, *real* industry methods, we would get 6-8 machines and set each up for a single operation. But we don’t really want that (even if we had the space and money). What we want is assembly instructions that use home machines and work better than what we see in pattern instructions and home sewing books.

    Other advice we enthusiasts need, such as selecting the proper sewing techniques for different fabrics, alterations and fitting, pattern “tweaking” (change the neckline on pattern 1234), etc. have nothing to do with the sewing industry.

  7. As a Dressmaker and instructor I like the idea of simplified instructions, its neat, clean and efficient. If you don’t understand how to do a particular step….look it up, or ask for help. There are plenty of books out there with solid basic instructions. All to often detailed instructions are confusing or after figuring out what they are talking about, you decide to do it a different way anyway. You can waste a lot of time trying to figure out poor directions. I generally scan through my students sewing instructions and write notes as to what they should do instead. An order of go is generally what you need to help simplify the process. in addition all instructions assume you have some knowledge, but they don’t tell you what that knowledge is. As a beginner you don’t know what is assumed you are simply following the step by step. Its confusing and frustrating for them. For instance it will tell you to sew a seam but not to finish that seam. I think many people give up sewing because of this frustration. My observations here of course concern the home sewing market and not the commercial sewing industry, but Hot Patterns for instance is applying the industry model to their patterns. That seems to be working for them as their patterns seem to gaining in popularity.

  8. Barb Taylorr says:

    I agree with Rita. I think it is best for the designer & pattern-maker to just specify what kind of seam and stitch count of wanted, leaving the specific details such as order of assembly and machinery choice to someone on the factory floor. One of the places I worked had people who’s job was to sew test samples until they had devised the most efficient way with the machinary available. They could even take a sample back to the pattern-maker and suggest revisions (add or remove a notch, change to a different seam type) in order to get the best quality from the machines available and improve speed of assembly.
    Sometimes however, specifying the machine to use is just another way to call out the kind of seam wanted.

  9. Kathleen says:

    What we enthusiasts need …
    If we wanted industry methods, …
    Other advice we enthusiasts need, …

    Liz, the likelihood of me writing a book for enthusiasts is zero. Other than that I’m not qualified to do it -which would presume I know how enthusiasts sew when I can’t make heads or tails of it- strikes me as arrogant. I’d be no different than home sewers who write “industry” sewing books. At best, I would hope that enthusiasts could selectively edit an industrial book to suit their purposes. That techniques would vary according to materials and product class is why a separate book would be needed for each product type. And as you said, fitting and tweaking to suit would definitely be beyond the scope of it. There are some decent books on fitting already (I like Fitting and Pattern Alteration by Rasband et al) so I would be unlikely to duplicate those efforts except as it applies to topics I feel have not been well defined or addressed but I don’t think it is enough to merit a stand alone title.

  10. Frances says:

    What an interesting job Barb Taylorr described. I suppose I will have to just do dissections of thrift store garments to follow the trail of what stitching happened when. While the prospect of all that seam ripping is sort of daunting, the discovery process would be worth it, at least for me.

  11. Kathleen says:

    I forgot to post Rita’s sample sewing directions (pretty!), it’s a pdf.

    Re: Barb’s comment. In a good plant, this is exactly what should happen. But then I would agree since it’s exactly what I describe to do in my book. Again, I wish to make it clear that designers aren’t expected to know the names of all seam types and classes. It’s a dream come true if they do but it’s not part of their job duties. However, if they can’t communicate desired seam effects, they need to provide a visual or a sample even if that is a photo of a seam from another existing product. It remains very common for all concerned to describe some seams in colloquial terms such as “turn turn” (a narrow hem, 1/4″ first turn, 3/8″ the second).

    I also agree with Barb when she says that specifying machine is a way to describe a given seam. This tends to be affected by regional language differences too and is really generic. Ex: on the east coast, it is common to refer to an overlocked seam as a “merrow” seam in reference to the Merrow machine but of which there are today, innumerable machine types. Another example is the use of the term “reece” to describe a welt pocket (Reece invented the first welting machine).

    Frances: dissecting thrift store garments is a time honored reverse engineering strategy. It’s what we do. Why should we have all the fun? If you look on the tutorials page, there is a whole multi-part series on reverse engineering step by step as applied to shirt cuffs, plackets etc.

  12. Liz Pf says:

    Kathleen, I wouldn’t expect you to write that book! It is far outside your expertise.

    But there are sections of it that you could write, and publish. What you could write would be a book full of tutorials such as the welt pocket, zipper insertions, bagging linings, etc. You could write about seam classes, and why the 5/8″ seam allowance is awful. Even something as simple as marking for buttons and buttonholes … the current enthusiast books have crazy complicated methods that don’t work. Order of operations for basic garment types would be nice, but most patterns/books get this roughly correct.

    Those of us who sew for ourselves these days usually are smart enough to pick and choose from several books; we don’t need a single “expert” to guide us through everything. What is missing is a book of tutorials that work.

  13. Are there an International Standards for the machinery?
    I know there are ISO code standards for seams and stitches, which are listed on A &E matrix I posted earlier.
    If manufacturing is happening in Asia or somewhere else in the world will they understand what needs to be done?
    I can speak for Europe and Russia – they will be puzzled to say the list.

  14. Mary says:

    Liz Pf- the book does exist, is worth every penny and is now available here:

    I have taken this course and worked with this book and author as my instructor. The information and author/instructor are legitimate, clear and transferable. It produces 2- 4″ stuffed binders of technique samples if you work along with it. The author is available by phone if ever help is needed. She is not an advocate of “home sewing techniques”, stresses the engineering of the processes, and how straight forward they are, as opposed to the confusion created by the home sewing industry. Check it out. I’m sure you’ll like it. I find it a great compliment to Kathleen’s great book. Not a book to glance through and place on the shelf forever.

  15. Paul says:

    I have made detailed sewing/construction steps for myself in making my product, which is fairly complex with lots of pieces, but that’s mainly to keep myself out of trouble by forgetting something and having to rip it apart and do rework. It also helps me figure out if there are constructibility issues lurking in the seams. It has been incredibly helpful for me, and I plan on doing this for more of my products – but that’s me, I’m an engineer, and I find this useful.

    This might be kind of a stretch, but in the business of designing buildings and building infrastructure (i.e. everything that makes up a functional building: structure, architecture, roofing and waterproofing, interiors, electrical power systems, heating/cooling, plumbing, fire protection, security, communications, lighting, control systems, landscaping, etc. etc. – all built by different contractors in a hopefully coordinated effort) architects and engineer’s go to pains to avoid instructing the contractors how to actual build it.

    This is considered ‘means and methods’ – this is the contractor’s business and they know how to do it best to achieve the result that the designers articulate in the plans and specifications within the contract price and schedule. And the contractors don’t detail this out either other than with detailed schedules of what to do when (maybe). So if assembly instructions are never produced for something as complex as a building, which is also a ‘one-off’ unique building never to be reproduced again, then no surprise that none is produced for a t-shirt.

  16. Anna A says:

    To Rita: I worked with several factories in Asia and so far I haven’t found anyone who knows ISO stitches standard. If I say “use 301 or 406 stitch”, no one understands me. If I say “use lockstitch, or 3 thread coverstitch” – they understand. In the worst case scenario I send a photo of the stitch.
    The type of sewing machine used depends on a stitch type, material and operation. For example you can have coverstitch machine with flat platform or with “feed off the arm” platform. The type of stitch is the same, but sewing operation is different. Factory usually decides what machine they use for a sertain operation.
    BTW – I like your construction page!

  17. Lynn says:

    I actually have a book “Sewing Secrets from the Fashion Industry” which is edited by Susan Huxley (Laurel Hoffman is one of the authors and Mary may have linked to this book, but the link wasn’t working for me), which I refer to a lot when I come across a technique I haven’t used before or if I am unhappy with the way it’s explained in a pattern (which is most of the time). I’m curious if anyone else has this book and what they think of it. It seems to corroborate some of the info that Kathleen has mentioned. Having read this blog and Kathleen’s book, the instructions in this book do seem to make a genuine effort to adapt industrial methods for home sewers.

  18. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Lynn, Kathleen has commented on this book in the forum on more than one occasion and as an industry insider doesn’t think much of it. As industry outsiders, we don’t have anything better so we like it because something is better than nothing. If you read the list of contributors the publishers are beholden to, the home sewing industry is heavily represented (p vii). That’s why we’d like Kathleen to publish “Yet Another Sewing Book” as she calls it . She’s independent. I looked up Laurel Hoffman’s website and I’m intrigued enough to earmark it and put her books on my wish list. They are pricy and so far I have been unable to find any independent reviews but I may spring for a copy when she publishes her workroom techniques book.

  19. Kathleen says:

    I love Lauren! She is the greatest, a real hoot (and a doll).

    I pulled her book off the shelf to review next week. I love the illustrations. Thanks for the suggestion/reminder Lynn!

    Sent from my iPhone

  20. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Kathleen, if you think highly of her I definitely will put her books higher on my wish list. Can’t wait for the review and which book are you reviewing? Her workroom techniques book is listed at a whopping $125; the pant/skirt set at $145. I am a book fiend anyway but at that price they have got to be worth it!

  21. Edith Clary says:

    As Paul said:
    “I have made detailed sewing/construction steps for myself in making my product”

    This is what is best. I have worked as a PD head and I was in charge of writing the sequence of operations, but my background isn’t in design, it is in pattern making. I don’t believe that any book on industry secrets for home sewers could exist since there is no “secret”, just careful planning. I, like Anna, advise that the factory engeneers/PD team take care of this since, DE’s that are thousands of miles away (and travel is expensive), can’t know what machines the factory has. Simply because the factory may not have the machines you recommend, does’nt mean that same look can’t be achieved.

  22. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    We had to write sewing ops, as we called them, in school. They were annoying. I knew how to sew the darn thing already, why did I need to write the directions? But I guess they wanted to know if we knew. I can see needing stuff for complex garments.

    If there is going to be an “industrial sewing secrets” or “industrial sewing” book, it should be like the tutorials, like Liz said. Because Kathleen’s welt pocket instructions are spot on (but do a sample of each fabric you plan to use because sometimes the lips won’t line up the first time and if you’re using thick fabric, use thinner stuff for the lips) and her zipper methods are so professional-looking! So many books and magazines tell you how to do stuff like this but it’s harder than it has to be.

  23. Robyn Ramirez says:

    I love “Rita’s Sample Sewing Directions” I am going to make a sheet similar to it for my work. Its what I have been needing but I could not quite figure out how I wanted to make one.
    I took at look at Laurel Hoffman book and I am going to definitely invest as soon as I get the $$!

  24. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    @Liz Pf: “{snip}If we wanted industry methods, *real* industry methods, we would get 6-8 machines and set each up for a single operation. But we don’t really want that (even if we had the space and money). What we want is assembly instructions that use home machines and work better than what we see in pattern instructions and home sewing books.{/snip}

    If I had the space and ca$h, I would absolutely own more than the mere two industrial machines I own now, plus have an enormous host of attachments and feet for all the machines. For instance, if you want to make a keyhole buttonhole, there isn’t really a practical alternative to something like a Reece S-100, and bartacking beltloops can’t effectively be done with either a basic home machine or even an industrial zig-zag. (Or, *I* can’t do it; ramping up onto the beltloop always stops the feeding for me, and causes huge snarls of thread on the inside.) Even having a second single needle straight lockstitch machine would be wonderful; I could set one up for general seaming, and have the other set up just for special operations, like binding. And, heck, doing felled seams without a double needle machine and the right size folder is just a royal pain in the ass.

    As an aside, has anyone yet seen a double needle feed-off-the-arm *lockstitch* machine?

  25. Mary says:

    Just wanted to clarify that Laurel Hoffmann’s books “Design Room Techniques” and the set “Drafting Pants and Skirts” and “Sewing Pants and Skirts”, are self-published volumes by Contemporary Fashion Education, Laurel’s business. They do NOT have anything to do with the Rodale book edited by Huxley, in any way.

    Kathleen, thanks for reviewing Laurel’s pants books. As a student of the course, I can atest to their use and quality. Laurel is a lot like Kathleen; always willing to work with her readers and students. Her books are meant to be worked through, not just read.

  26. Quincunx says:

    Off-topic–there’s a measure of power used for sewing these seams, I can understand why, it’s electricity and it could power the machines and light the workspace. However there is also a measure of. . .air used? OK, a dip in the archives turns up mention of industrial machines requiring compressed air to run. I can’t visualize it. Another dip mentions a fusing machine running off of compressed air, and that I can visualize, but I don’t see anything else pertaining to fusing on this chart. What is the compressed air being used for?

  27. Paul says:

    There are industrial motors that use compressed air as the motive force to turn the motor instead of electricity. Simple examples that you have most certainly seen are impact wrenches in automotive repair shops to remove/install lug nuts on wheels, and dentist drills, but these have very broad industrial application. So the electric motor under the sewing table is replaced with an air-driven motor. As for fusing, it is most likely used to operate the press or run a motor that drives a belt, not for the heating portion.

  28. sfriedberg says:

    Quincunx, compressed air is used in lots of places where an electric solenoid would be too big. The most common applications on a sewing machine is automatic thread cutters and elastic/tape/binding cutters. Pattern sewing machines, which includes button sewers, buttonholers, welt machines, and blue-jeans back pocket sewers, often have air activated clamps. A fuser probably uses air to press a stack of fabric and interfacing against a platen. Air can also be used as a needle coolant, which can be essential in high-speed sewing especially with synthetic threads or fabrics.

    Generally the main motor of the machine is not air-powered, except for very special situations like Amish-run shops. (There is an entire specialty industry that converts conventional electric motor machinery to air power to serve Amish craftsmen.)

  29. Those who are planning to set up an industrial clothing production line especially for men´s jackets or men´s classical trousers should contact the german sewing machine company Dürkopp Adler.
    For decades, Dürkopp Adler has set up complete projects all over the world and uses an own software which calculates in a second how many machines of which type are needed to sew a certain quantity of jackets or trousers per day, depending on a couple of basic parameters based on industry expert knowledge of their consultants. All sewing operations are listed, alternatives are given, and a complete printout of the project is possible. On their homepage, you can find already some resources. For a men´s jacket for example, you may check
    The website of the US branch is

  30. Kathleen says:

    Hi Thomas, I’ve written of Adlers and their service lines frequently, suggesting these are good education and planning tools. In fact, this link will take you to every mention of Adlers on this site (36 so far). We also review the newest models when we attend tradeshows where Adler exhibits.

    I appreciate your comments because they re-introduce the topics we’ve covered in the past for those who may not have seen them but such pattern emerges that I would appreciate it if you be mindful of the advertising flavor of your comments. Fwiw, I own an Adler 271-140342 and while over 10 years old, think it is more elegant than some newer machines I own.

  31. RobinD. says:

    Haven’t had time to read all the comments, so, apologies if this question has been asked:
    What about pressing? How and when are garments pressed and what role does it play in garment production?
    many thanks

  32. Quincunx says:

    Re-reading this in light of the discussions about handling and how to quantify it, the min/max/actual makes sense now. It’s a measure of efficiency. Instead of being written as a percentage of time that a machine is in use, it’s written as how many virtual machines are running at 100% efficiency versus how many physical machines exist–only the virtual 100% efficient machines are labeled “actual”.

    Once that was done, and I realized that the .83 entry for the sleeve hemming machine translated to 83% efficiency in sewing time versus idle time, and how high that percentage was compared to all the other operations, and how much higher it was than the efficiency of hemming the body of the shirt, it was obvious why the sleeves were hemmed before they were set into the garment.

  33. Hi. I am reading this post kind of late in the game, but I wanted to mention three things.

    1. I could not link to Rita’s matrices for seams and stitches, but I found this gem and wanted to share it: There are several links on that page to really great information and references.

    2. As an Industrial Engineer, I was intrigued by this post. Before reading any sewing industry standards, I default to best practices in the manufacturing industry in general. And, being my super-type A personality, I do way more detailed instructions that even that would dictate. But, my process is simple: I use photos of my sewers making the garment in each phase and import that into a document (I use a simple Microsoft Publisher file) and insert the written instructions. I them post them on the wall. This helps not only myself and others working the cell to remember all the steps, but it makes training new people much easier. Each person who works in my cells needs to be versed in all of our key products because we do total one-piece flow (best for our small production lots). So, we can’t have one person sitting at one machine all day doing just one thing. We need well-trained sewers who can move from operation to operation. And, good instructions (with photos) help. Minimal verbiage yet lots of detail.

    3. I think the operator instructions need to be done by the manufacturing facility. Even in an engine plant, the Mechanical Engineers do the design (with drawings and specs), then the Industrial Engineers work with the plant floor personnel to create the best process. I guess I don’t see a cut and sew contracting facility as any different – it is their responsibility to produce the product efficiently and with good quality, in the best way they see fit. If most do not have Industrial Engineers (and it seems by the reading I’ve been doing that they don’t), then that is unfortunate, but the job will need to be done in-house, in my opinion.

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