Like a puppy chasing a bus: Sourcing like big brands

puppy_unfortunately_not_chasing_a_busApologies for the title that a lot of people won’t like either. Titles aren’t my strong suit. But no mind, someone I’ll call Art writes:

I am trying to start up a small to medium sized clothing line and have been looking into manufacturers and sewing factories for men’s shirts. I am looking for the factory/supplier list for XXX, YYY and ZZZ. I was able to find the worldwide factory list for Levi’s but have been unsuccessful with other brands. Is there a way to find the supply chain or factory list for commercial brands and high end designer labels?

I told him that attempting to source from factories used by the biggest brands is like a puppy chasing a bus. Assuming you could catch one, what ever would you do with it? I also said that if one were prepared to enter into a relationship with prominent contractors, it would not be so difficult to locate them (when the student is ready, the teacher appears). The matter of being able to get their attention based on the small quantities a new brand is likely to want is another (situation-untenable) story altogether. Then Art responded, his comments evolve the conversation in ways that are useful to us. He said:

Thank you for the reply. I guess I really am a puppy chasing a bus. What I was trying to do was figure out where XXX gets their fabric sourced from and where do they get it sewn, and what is the actual final production cost of such a garment.

If you’ve had the same (reasonable) aspirations Art has, you need to know how the largest brands source. Many of them are closer to merchandisers or use what amounts to a buying office to get a package deal from a contractor who supplies the inputs and sewing, soup to nuts. The buyer (brand) stipulates the acceptable quality level (I think value is a better word) and garment specifications and the two negotiate minimums, costs and delivery time frames. If you are convinced this is the sort of relationship you want and on this scale, you must buy Birnbaum’s book. You also need to read up on sewing contracts and statement of work (aka SOW, also SOW pt.2). None of it light reading, none of it easy. There’s no big red easy button if you go this route. Art continues:

I examined the construction of my favourite shirts and I found XXX Shirts to have the best over all sewing and production, while the fabric itself is not very good. I was trying to understand how to achieve a prescribed level of garment quality by examining the products from most of the popular brands that I come across. I found that the mills where the fabric was sourced from played a huge factor in the overall quality of the product and the final cost.

Maybe, maybe not. I think many misunderstand this aspect . Again, the brand sources a package from a contract supplier and determines what trade offs they’re willing to make. It is not necessarily true that a given sewing contractor in X nation has great sewing but crappy fabric; it is more likely that the brand made a trade off of better construction versus better fabric -although one can certainly have both provided you’re willing to pay for it.

The matter of what constitutes “good” fabric is also open to debate.  For many consumers and young producers, “good” fabric is fabric that is popular. By way of example, popular and coveted features in denim are mostly defects. And buying it is perfectly fine if that appeals to your target customer, my point is that fabric quality is largely subjective and a given contractor may not be selling awful stuff, they may actually be selling better goods or at least, have other select goods the customer did not select because it didn’t work within costing targets. Art continues:

I would want to eventually mass market my shirts once I have finalized my prototypes, but after that if I do not have a proper supply chain to control my output quality and unit cost, etc I feel that I am going to encounter a very difficult time.

The other thing I mentioned to Art is that he’s putting the cart before the horse and he should read a good book, you know which one. He must first know where his controls lie and that isn’t in ferreting out sourcing supply chains of world class brands (he sent me many more details I excluded here).

The most important thing I wish to stress is that the quality or value produced by any given contractor doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Contractors fulfill the requirements of the job they are given. It is beyond annoying to read that China or India or wherever makes crap when the truth is closer to that the customer was more concerned about controlling costs at the expense of product attributes.

It is too simplistic to say Turkey has great sewing but crappy fabric or Pakistan has great fabric but crappy sewing because it is the responsibility of the manufacturer (that is you by the way) to specify the features and attributes of your product. Contractors in Country A don’t magically have great sewing at the expense of bad fabric and contractors in Country B have crappy sewing but great fabric. Which is not to say that every contractor has awesome fabric-y goodness so the choice is yours to import it from someplace like South Korea (where many of the best “French” and “Italian” fabrics come from) or whatever -and besides, how would you know once it’s landed here unless the supplying nation has a preferential trade agreement with respect to fabric? So much of the time the information is either fabricated, misleading or else it often says “imported”.

Buyers like you determine trade-offs. If you want the lowest cost deal, you go with whichever contractor gives you the best based on what is more important to you. If you want the best overall product and value, you may have to import goods from one country to your preferred contractor in another -like the world class brands do.

Art hasn’t read my book but says he plans to this summer when he has more time.

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  1. E.K. says:


    So “Italian” fabric means what? Fabric milled wherever that is 1) borrowing cache by adding the name “Italian”, 2) contracted production for Ital. companies, 3) the manufacturer thinks they saw another fabric just like it on the streets of Milan ten years ago and so it must be Italian?

    Is this like in food labeling where “product of country X” can really mean something grown or created in country Y that has been bottled, canned or otherwise processed in country X. (?)

    I’m not sure what this says about quality. I guess I think quality means a fabric behaves the way you want it to for a period of time you want it to. But I’d like to know to say, ” Sweet, sweet South Korea…” when I pass my hand over an especially luscious twill that is labeled “Italian.”

  2. Kathleen says:

    So “Italian” fabric means what? …I’m not sure what this says about quality.

    It is possible that it is an indication of Italian fabric representatives knowing the patria has cachet and marketing accordingly.

    In the trade, Korean fabric has an outstanding reputation; it is generally acknowledged as the best overall if something like that could be said (in consideration of value, fabric type etc). It is also not low cost…

  3. Paul says:

    Very enlightening. Your narrative fills in some of the gaps and provides more detail on what I have found as a ‘small-fry’. I was not looking for a sewing contractor, and was fortunate to find the fabric I wanted, but could not find the webbing and hardware that I wanted for my bag products. It’s pretty obvious to me that the big guys buy in volume that allows for custom design/runs of material workups/colors and hardware that I can not afford at this stage.

  4. Kathleen says:

    You will enjoy it, it’s a great book. Very funny too. He’s a laugh a minute.

    There are two things I don’t like about it. One is the font (sans serif, what was the publisher thinking?) and the shiny pages. It makes reading for long stretches difficult.

  5. Archnar says:

    Very interesting article, I had a hunch South Korea did a lot of the high end milling, it seems to also do a lot of cotton/polyester printing judging from the “printed in South Korea.” Denver fabrics/(AKA) fashion fabrics club also has a lot of supposedly milled in Italy fabrics.

    Do many of the home sewing retailers focusing on apparel fabrics just buy up unused fabrics from manufacturers and re-sell them? Browsing their sites it seems like a lot the fabrics look similar to stuff you find in mass produced clothing, or are they just sourced from the same mills?

  6. Quincunx says:

    This site’s entry on “jobbers” answers the second paragraph, Archnar, with “Yes”. It’s worth reading for us home sewists! Great to know that the ‘as used by designer X’ on the fabric retailers’ websites is verifiable and not marketing hype.

  7. Brina says:

    I know of at least one discount brick & mortar retail store that does–and advertizes the ‘designer’ fabrics they sell from high-end, RTW manufacturers.

  8. Archnar says:

    Thank you Quincunx and Brina, I found the glossary definition of jobbers and it’s definitely one of the sections I’ll be exploring next as many of the acronyms and names can stump me sometimes. Brina,that’s good to know, I’m sure someone told me about my area having some of these mill end retailers but they might have closed. I’m fairly new to sewing but I have picked up a lot, especially when I discovered this site; most of the fabrics I buy are intended for quilting as they are prints but work great with sewing colorful shirts.

    And yes, even if this site is intended for the industrial/business side of sewing it’s just as invaluable for hobbyists.

    My username should actually be Arachnar- a variation of arachnid but I left out the a, but I’ll be sure to spell it correctly for future comments.

  9. Paul Villforth says:

    New title ‘Sourcing like the big brands is like a puppy chasing a bus’. Since the article is about sourcing maybe that should come first?

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