Life in the trenches from the real world of a technical designer

Edited July 1, 2012 the server this site is hosted on has been undergoing sustained hack attacks. Please disregard any unpleasantries, I’ll deal with it in an expedited fashion when I return on Tuesday. I appreciate your patience.

The alternative title of this entry is How to check the accuracy of graded patterns pt.4.

In part three I had mentioned I would publish an email from an esteemed colleague who wishes his company did sew samples in all sizes (if you need to catch up, see parts one, two and three). This email is very telling -it says much more than on the face of it. It is a very candid and telling portrait of what goes on in many larger offshore companies. If you read between the lines, it is a message of either hope or doom. It is hopeful if you’re a small company committed to staking a future in this business because there is definitely room for you if you’re doing things right; your time is coming so stick it out. It is also doom because the old (old as in from 1990-today) ways aren’t working so well anymore so if this is your model or the model you aspire to adopt, it is only a matter of time. It will become increasingly difficult to make headway with price being the only point of differentiation -ultimately a race to the bottom. Anyway, this email indirectly shows why I think the market is still ripe with opportunity for people who don’t fall into these traps.
Hi Kathleen, I just had to comment on your grading articles–they were so timely.

The company I work for has no technical background in their staffing. They have always left everything up to their vendors. In late August of last year they hired me -someone with almost 40 years in the industry as a designer, patternmaker, merchandiser, sourcing manager, Design Director and Sr. Technical Designer. I have worked with factories in almost every country in the world or have done trend research in the balance of the rest.

It has been a long and hard battle where I am working– to do things properly that will result in better quality goods. Management has been focused on getting new product into the stores every month. They have never checked the goods delivered from China. The goods were not checked at the factory nor were they checked in the DC [distribution center] upon arrival. I got them to hire an inspector for one of our bigger vendors in northern China/Shanghai area, but the work load has become too difficult for one person to do a 4.0 AQL on every style. He has no time to go back and recheck to make sure that they have corrected the callouts.

I have asked for a QC team to be put to work in our DC, but that would cost money–and you know management does not like to hear that word.

So now we are getting feedback from store managers about the fit and quality of production -it is not good. I and my assistant (newly hired three months ago) have been doing as best as we can to make sure that the samples we see are perfect in both fit and construction. But here is the catch -we get fit samples, pre-production samples and TOP samples in one size. And I know for a fact that all of these garments are made in a sample room. Our company has stopped us from getting full size runs because it is too many samples–so we have no way to check the fit of the other sizes. Also, we only have a 48 hour turn around time frame to measure, fit and write comments and then send them to the vendor. Sometimes a very daunting task when you received 30 fit sample each day. Plus have to create tech packs for another 50 styles that will be released for the next season

Of course, our designer now wants to do a Skype video call so she can see the fit samples on our Alvanon form -she is in another city. Which means we have to coordinate these fittings with her schedule.

Upper management has been telling us that our grade is incorrect. The customers do not like how garments fit. Nothing is consistent. People have to buy larger or smaller sizes. Buttons fall off–you know this drill.

As we have no in-house inspection team, I have said that I cannot comment on production–because all of our pp samples come in almost perfect–and in only one size, we do not see these issues. So, they agreed that we should inspect everything that comes into the warehouse. We can check 4 pieces in each color in different sizes. If we see issues, then we ask for more garments. The warehouse people said it would be easier for them if they just gave us a 15 piece pre-pack with mixed sizes. So we check these and if we need more then we request them. Today, I measured 60 garments (4 pre-packs one of each color) and found horrible results (not tiny little difference in a POM measurement but big ones like 1″-3″–all of our measurements are taken on the half, so that equates to 2-6″ in body girth)

I am sure you can imagine what our findings have been. I have put so many styles on hold–awaiting a decision from management on how they want to proceed with the distribution of these goods. It has opened people’s eyes. Now, the grade is really not the object, it is the sewing of the goods. I have tried to explain that these factories do not have in-line inspectors, no one is monitoring how much is overlocked off the seams. When I have traveled to these factories and walk down the line–I am appalled, the overlock operators are trimming not 1/8″ off the cut pieces as allowed by the pattern, but they are trimming off 3/8″-3/4″ and that means you are losing 3/4″ to 1 1/2″ per seam. Multiply that by 2 and you are losing 1 1/2″ to 3″ in girth measurements on a simple tee. The bigger problem comes in when you have several operators overlocking and some sizes will come in correctly and others will be way off the spec. Without this knowledge, the technical designer/patternmaker gets the blame because management thinks your pattern grading is wacko. When in reality it is not. The hard part now is trying to get a full graded set that matches the grade so we can show management how our garments should really fit.

Thus is life in the trenches from the real world of a technical designer.

How to check the accuracy of graded patterns
How to check the accuracy of graded patterns pt.2
How to check the accuracy of graded patterns pt.3.

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  1. Karen N. says:

    Come to think of it – no wonder I was encountering some strangely fitting garments when I went from approximately a 1X to a misses 14. Trying the small end of one size range and then the big end of another, and seeing all the interesting things that can happen with the grading.
    You’d think someone would check it, somewhere – even if just to slow down the complaints and returns from people who bought garments online.

  2. Nancy says:

    Excellent post!

    Reminds me of a book I just read:

    “The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage” by Alexandra Harney.
    This book is an eye-opening expose of what truly goes on in Chinese factories.

    Let’s hope there is a silver lining for all who wish to produce apparel the right way.

  3. And that’s what happens when you don’t allocate a budget for in-house handling of CAD Patterns and Grading…

    This year alone I’ve seen the number of companies who have called on us to come and “fix the mess” DOUBLE from last year….
    The main problem is that many times they’re not prepared to do what it takes to implement recommendations

    As if that wasn’t enough, the time it takes to put together a team is much longer because there just aren’t enough qualified people to go around and those in high demand can pretty much name their price…

    Kathleen has been warning us abut this impending shift in the industry, but over the last year it certainly has picked up speed and companies that are STILL clinging on to the idea of “how it used to be” are having an incredibly difficult time catching up with the speed of change

  4. Mrs. Nelson says:

    Wow! I am just starting to do some technical design for another line, no my own. Glad I read this I hope I don’t end up in your situation but if I do at least I will know I am not alone.

  5. Susan says:

    You might have not been get many comments – but this doesn’t mean someone like me isn’t reading. It just means I am not far enough along in my journey into this business to comment – or even ask a relevant question – yet. But all of this is still very helpful. As I come to each next step on the path I peruse the postings and forum on the topic at hand. I never fail to learn something critical!

  6. Carol says:

    This sounds like a story I know, but with the difference I had just graduated from college and had no experience. I was hired by a very tiny company to “make patterns”. This tiny company manufactures in Central America and “owns” the factory and already had a pattern maker. I was there for only three months (I was laid off), but I guess they got annoyed by my complaints of sizing and construction issues. What I really was doing there was checking garments against the specs and fixing the poorly made garments with a home sewing machine. They didn’t have a fit, had a ton of size charts copied from other brands, and invented the style numbers as they pleased (no consistency). What a problem to request for the specs for a style number! I could even see all this with the little to no experience I had! It was a good learning experience, specially “what not to do”.

  7. Colleen says:

    Three year’s ago, I returned to my career in NYC’s fashion industry and feel this post illustrates the “new normal”. Initially, I thought the mindset was specific to a particular company. Now, I agree that it’s a “race to the bottom”. I overhear colleagues discussing how to reduce costs to produce and increase margin. “Customer” and “Quality” are almost never mentioned.

    It comes full-circle when I shop and see the selection of over-priced, shoddy merchandise the stores offer. Depressing.

    On a positive note, companies such as Lands’ End, that focus on the customer and quality, will thrive.

  8. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Colleen, as a longtime customer of Land’s End their quality isn’t what it used to be back in the early 80s. They stumbled badly in the late 90s and had to regroup but they are still my retailer of choice when I want to do a tear down and copy for personal use. And you are so right, companies that pay attention to customers and quality will survive.

  9. Babette says:

    A few years back I had a bit to do with staff of an Australian hiking gear and active wear design company. They designed a lot of tents, sleeping bags, back packs and snow clothes through to performance cycle jerseys. They owned factories in Fiji, but as they grew, moved to China and used contracted factories. I knew both the pattern maker/tech specialist and the production manager.
    After finding a good factory in China, they discovered that everytime a new factory opened in the next province, half the staff would leave. Most staff lived in dorms behind the factory and would work for a couple of weeks before taking the train a long distance home for a couple of days off. If a factory opened closer to their home, they quit and got a job that involved less travel or the chance to live with their family.
    So each time the crew got practised and smooth (most started with little or no experience), there would be an exodus and training would have to start again. Even the little stuff, like in a factory you have to put in a fresh needle every morning rather than wait till it breaks.
    This has meant having the production manager on the ground in China for about one week out of six and more if they change factories or designs.
    Quality control has to take account of the rapidly changing environment and China is nothing if not rapidly changing.

  10. Penny says:

    Unfortunately your post is not an uncommon scnerio. Unless your vendor is really on top of the quality and checking what comes off production, chances are you may be in for disaster. You can usually tell by the first samples and how the communication is going as to how well things will turn out. There are lots of reputable vendors as well and they are fantastic to work with!

    Would not recommend doing production anywhere where you can’t have some sort of quality control measures in place. It’s too risky and not worth the business you will most definately lose when the customer receives poorly executed goods. There is a real need for quality control people overseas who know patternmaking, fit and tech design… and speak fluent English and Chinese. Communication is everything.

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