Manufacturer vs. subcontractor

Behind the scenes, I’ve been dealing with a huge mess -at no pay (not a complaint) but I get a post out of it and we hope this experience will be of use to you. The problem is a conflict of expectations between a manufacturer and a hired subcontractor. As you’ll see, there’s problems and truths on both sides. The conflict is that the manufacturer (we’ll call her Debbie), a regional supplier of uniform sport coats (Shriners and Elks) charged back the subcontractor to cover repairs that they said were needed. The subcontractor (we’ll call him Richard) says this lot was produced exactly like the first three lots he did. While he says there are problems, he claims their root lies with Debbie’s company. A surprising contributing factor is communication between the two (trade language practices rears its ugly head). As you’ll see, there’s truth on both sides but there is one clear cut answer amid the muck. First profiles:

Richard is a small contractor specializing in men’s tailored garments. His primary experience is in one-offs but he’s worked hard to learn industrial practices. His background in patterns and construction is self taught. That said, Richard has some annoying vocabulary choices. He is known to use terms that are either unknown in manufacturing (culled from British bespoke tailors) or are considered to be elitist (a stick in the eye to the average manufacturer who prides themselves on their blue collar roots). While he is a motivated tailor, in manufacturing, many of these practices are akin to home sewing -well meaning but poorly applied- and similarly demeaned. If you’ve been brainwashed to believe it takes seven years to learn to make a suit, few can toss that investment of time and money aside.

Debbie’s company has been in business for 70 years. Their bio says they were the primary supplier to the police and fire departments; the uniform division was an extension of the family’s custom tailoring business. At its peak in the 1970s, Debbie employed 20 in-house employees in her 15,000 square foot shop. Over time, demand decreased and the company sold off its surplus equipment and changed its business model. Since the mid- to late-1980s, Debbie changed her production model, managing a network of mostly home-based sewing subcontractors. The subcontractors who work on site pay “booth rent” for the space and equipment they use. About 80% of the work is placed with outworkers who have varying degrees of skill and competency. As this case study will illustrate, Debbie’s current operation has endemic, systemic defects. I don’t know how she managed to stay in business seventy years.

The bid process
Just as DEs must submit a product to have it sewn by a contractor for pricing, as did Richard. As I’ve explained in the book, there are certain expectations. Standard practice dictates the contracting party (Debbie or a DE) must provide:

  • A finished sample or prototype
  • All fabrics, trims, linings etc
  • A completed production ready pattern
  • Placement guides (technically part of the pattern)
  • Seam and product specifications.

Debbie did not provide a finished sample, pieces were missing (she cut it beforehand, usually the contractor will do it), she did not provide a pattern, guides or seam and product specifications.

Now, between two business people like Debbie and Richard, there’s some wiggle room because of presumed tacit knowledge and practices shared between parties (and no, you don’t have that leeway -sorry!). If the missing pieces amounted to fusible but they gave you the goods, I’d frown but say nothing. Seam specs -assuming they were standard such as 3/8″ everywhere except 1/4″ on outside edges- could be communicated verbally. Having it written down in the event of a dispute remains optimal. Toward that end, Richard used a Statement of Work. In it, he details his standard work practices. A client is free to edit the conditions of the agreement to suit themselves.

Not having the pattern is another story if it’s a new client and you haven’t worked with them before. You need that pattern to clear up any ambiguities if there’s problems in sewing. You need to have it to calculate a work around if it’s needed or to troubleshoot the root of it. If you see it’s a cutting error (as opposed to a pattern error), you can recut the problematic piece to match. Still, from Richard’s perspective, he assumed the pattern and cutting would be good since Debbie’s company had been in business for seventy years. Famous last words. By the way, when I detail the problems with manufacturing in my book, most of these are things I saw in established firms, not new ones. If second and third generation manufacturers have these problems, there’s no reason to presume you’d be immune.

The expectation from the contractor providing the sample sewing bid, is that this person will detail any problems they had with the style. This way it can be corrected by the manufacturer. Richard did so, his notes follow:

I have few notes on the blazer. Each company has different standards and I am trying to reconcile your standards against those I’ve encountered elsewhere.

  • Incomplete bundle: The flaps and patch pockets for the fronts, including the lining were not part of the bundle. l bagged out the jacket; but left the hem and the arm seam open so the pockets/flaps can be made and attached.
  • The dart at the neckline was not marked on the cut jacket fronts. I measured a 3/4″ dart 4″ in length and transferred that to the cut jacket fronts.
  • The waistline darts were only marked on center. I measured 3/4″ dress darts on the sample and transferred those to the cut jacket fronts.
  • The undercollar was cut larger than the outer collar, which is not industry standard. I trimmed the undercollar to be the same size as the outer collar. It may be prudent to check the pattern to rule out a cutting error.
  • The interior pocket set down area in the right front lining side was not marked. I measured from the sample and transferred that to the cut lining fronts. The pocket is 9″ up from the hem and the opening is 6” wide.
  • Also, the lining is cut the same size as the shell, which does not offer enough wearing ease. Industry standards would allow for a pleat in the center back plus some additional length (which is eased in) over the bust area.
  • Missing notches:
    • A notch was missing from the under- and outer-collars where the shoulder seam line meets. I don’t remember seeing it on your pattern. This is an industry standard which makes sewing faster and less error prone.
    • In addition, the pattern should include marks where the lining and facing are joined and eased – these were not on the cut pieces.

Richard could have been a bit more diplomatic, omitting references to pieces failing to meet “industry standard”. I edited his notes to delete the worst of these notations. He can be a bit of a pill. While he may have been right and Debbie wrong, simply identifying the defect sans commentary would have been sufficient. Why do something that would potentially create defensiveness in the other party, particularly if they’re (presumably) the greater authority? Later on, Debbie expressed her defensiveness, became unnecessarily unkind and among other things, said he had an attitude problem. If this were a DE client who needed that guidance because they didn’t know, it’d be acceptable. If it had been me working with Debbie, I might have prefaced the defects by mentioning my disappointment or couch it in terms of whether she realized controls were not being employed in cutting. More likely, I would have walked the pieces, noted the deficit of notching and returned the bundle unsewn. Life is too short. If a sample bundle (presumably a testament of a company’s core cutting competency) was this bad, I would only think that subsequent lots would be worse. Note: unbidden, Richard compiled a three page company profile detailing Debbie’s operating deficiencies.

Anyway, after this sample was made, Debbie identified some problems which needed correction on Richard’s part, after which they came to an agreement that he’d be charging fifty-something dollars per unit. At that time, she gave him a lot of thirty some odd jackets to make. He returned these on time (when he said he would) and collected payment upon delivery. She gave him another lot of nearly thirty more jackets. Again, he returned these on time and collected payment at the time of delivery. Then she gave him a shorter run of six jackets which had to be done quickly. Again, he returned these when he said he would but this time, Debbie wasn’t there to pay him so he left an invoice. When Debbie sent him payment by mail, she charged back $20 per jacket, a short fall of $120. This is when things got ugly. It was at this point that Debbie claimed the jackets weren’t well made and had to be repaired in house. Here’s what she wrote (by the way, her caps key must be permanently locked, her emails are ONE LONG SHOUT):

Here’s the bottom line:
If you want to continue to work with us, you need to comply with our way of doing things.

We want a vocabulary that is standard in the industry–not esoteric terms that may be of use to you, but to no one else.

We do not appreciate your consulting with others about our product/s. There is confidentiality, respect, trust involved. If you feel you have to consult with others about our company, then perhaps we should be contracting with them instead of you. It’s not their business, and you should know enough that you are able to make a garment without having to ask 3 other people what to do.

You are working with us, not vice versa. You make the coats the way we want, not the way you want. This is what we pay for. If you have a question, you ask. We pay you according to what you say you need to charge which, by the way, is high. However, what we did was subtract all the work Gloria did–12 hours’ worth divided by 6 coats, not counting the cutting, fusing, etc. Finishing, etc.–from what you were supposed to have done for the price, and didn’t.

If your schedule is so tight that you can only accommodate us in small portions of time, and we have to get the garments out, we don’t always have time to wait until it’s convenient for you to work us in. We need someone whose schedule is flexible enough so that there is time to work with us when we have work, and can do other things when we don’t have a lot of work.

Frankly, it’s becoming a question as to whether you want to learn how to make a coat our way, or whether you just want sewing lessons. I don’t want to pay Gloria to teach you how to sew. I don’t mean this unkindly, but we’ll know soon enough.

If you feel you want to discuss your check further, we are happy to. But the price stands.

My concern is one of policy. We didn’t give our garments to you for one ups-manship, for outside consultation, for you to tell us that others have decided how to make our coats.

Richard compiled a two page, step by step list of how jackets are to be constructed at Debbie’s company. Some things I agree with, some I think are downright lunacy. In the list, he notes the following errors he made. Still, in my opinion, if these were a problem, they should have been caught with the first sample or at least the first lot he produced. This is what Debbie said was wrong:

  • No sticky tape on bottom hem

Debbie calls fusible interfacing “sticky tape”. So much for standard vocabulary :). Richard says he did fuse the hems, extending the full width of the hem and a half inch beyond the fold. Good thing he did, I would have skinned him alive if he hadn’t. This is a big deal, the most damning of Debbie’s claims.

  • Sleeve was tacked wrong

Richard says he tacked the sleeve lining at the elbow -a definite no-no. The sleeve lining should be tacked 2″ above the hem (how Debbie does it too). Also, Debbie’s standard is that a tack at shoulder is required. In my opinion, that’s an acceptable variation although I don’t do it. I prefer tacking at the bottom of the armhole. But again, Debbie’s standard is well within reason.

  • Tack collar

This is another variation that is or is not standard, varies by company. I tack the top collar and undercollar at the center back neckline.

  • Reset sleeve heads

This is the dopey thing that Debbie does. She sets hers the reverse of anyone else on the planet, layering it to the shoulder pad rather than the sleeve cap. Weird. Her way defeats the purpose so I don’t know why she does it.

Anecdotally, Richard was able to interview other stitchers Debbie works with. They’ve told him that she will only pay $32 a jacket, period, so he surmises her chargeback was a way of getting his price in range with her margins. Debbie’s other stitchers are desperate for whatever they can get (I’m not sure that “booth rental” arrangement is kosher) but Richard has more financial options and doesn’t depend on her to pay the bills.

In summary, although Richard can be a bit of a pill and aside for the chargebacks on the sleeve, collar, and sleevehead (whoever is paying is entitled to their weirdness), these costs don’t amount to twenty dollars worth of repair. As it is, he could have done them so we suspect she put them out as-is but charged him as though she did repair them. More importantly, if these were legitimate issues of concern, she should have caught them first in the sampling process or in the other two lots he did for her.

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  1. Marie-Christine says:

    Sounds like these 2 sort of deserve each other – the arrogant pill vs the cheap slavedriver :-). Seriously, I agree with you that a bundle that bad should have been returned and the work just not embarked on at all. And Richard was most certainly undiplomatic in his feedback, never mind know-it-all in his attitude. But Debbie ought to comply with industry standards better also, and charging him so much for doing repairs that should have been addressed right in the sample is just plain wrong. Obviously she’s doing it because it’s not worth Richard’s time to sue her for breach of contract. But I’d guess one of the ways she goes out of business will be by the spreading of stories like this – nobody who isn’t desperate would take on work from her.

  2. nadine says:

    An excellent post on Turkey Day. Garmentos are garmentos wherever they live. It sounds like Debbie ‘s game survives on her having total control over the situation. Garmentos are by nature authoritarian with a “from the top down” attitude. They say jump, you say how high. That is how the relationship must work for them. They are old dinosaurs who are trained that unless they have the sewing contractor or worker in a total grip and that person solely relies on them for a living wage then problems will ensue. Unfortunately they are unable to function in the modern economy with the modern worker in modern worker arrangements. They do not collaborate they dictate. I’ve worked for a few and trust me they will always cut off their nose to spite their face if they feel they have to compromise. It goes against their nature and training that must always have the upper hand in the negotiation. The only time they back down is if they need you more than you need them or their shippable production is in your hands. Otherwise, just duck when they start throwing their attitude around.

    I worked for a boss like that and every day I was in fear I would make a mistake or do something wrong. It was my first job in fashion manufacturing. One day a couple of years later I realized I had learned a lot and I could trust my judgement. I didn’t feel afraid and that is when my boss turned very ugly. He immediately sensed he did not have the upper hand. Needless to say I don’t work there anymore. And the end of that chapter was 6 months later he had to close his business since I was running most of it and no suitable replacement ie: worked as hard as me and would put up with as much brutality was available.

    Too typical a story unfortunately.

    The only way to survive these people is to kill them with kindness. Let them have the upper hand and feel in charge, do what you need to do under the radar. As long as you challenge them directly in the relationship, the garmento reaction goes nuclear. Those old dogs do not learn new tricks.

  3. Big Irv says:

    Charging back any amount without consultation of any type with your contractor is not standard procedure and is frowned upon. I’m inclined to believe “Debbie” needed to get her margins back in the $32 range and this may have been a test for “Richard” to see how he would react.

    I too, believe she is trying to bully Richard and mold him into what they want.

    She should be happy she has someone with advanced skills working with her. She should try and develop a relationship, not be critical of a persons language choices or wanting to make a better constructed garment.

    I would have been ultra cautious as soon as I learned of booth and equipment rentals. That sounds so cheesy.

  4. Booth and equipment rentals are standard in some professions. Dentists and hairdressers, for instance. But in both those examples, the professional brings their own clientèle and some portion of their own equipment.

    Are Debbie’s operators professionals who sew for other manufacturers besides her in their rented booths? If that’s fine – if it’s ok for a group of operators to take on a contract and produce it out of Debbie’s shop – then the practice of renting the booth seems to be a really progressive win-win for everyone.

    I suspect that it isn’t ok though.

    I wish it were as simple as saying that if I were buying uniforms I would want to know about the labour practices in the shop I was buying from, but the fact is that I buy stuff all the time and have no way of knowing what conditions it was produced in. I could buy from local (Montreal) manufacturers – but I know that some (many?) are sleazy. I could buy only really expensive stuff on the assumption that anything cheap has margins too small to support fair labour practices – but the retail price of really expensive stuff isn’t funnelled primarily to the operator.

    I used to resolve this dilemma by sewing my own clothes or buying them from dressmakers, but I don’t have the private time any more and dressmakers move on. Besides, my job has shifted to slightly more casual clothing, so I’ve started to buy RTW. In any case I always bought my t-shirts and underwear and hiking clothes RTW.

    So what do consumers do – ignore the issue? Buy only major brand names with advertising campaigns promoting their fair labour practices?

  5. Andrea says:

    Richard sounds persnickety, but Debbie sounds like a nightmare. Her business practices seem shady all the way around and in my humble opinion, if the errors (or her percieved errors) weren’t caught in sampling…then it’s her dime all the way and the contractor shouldn’t be liable.

  6. Dana says:

    Boy people sure know how to complicate their lives by being arrogant. Even with the screwiness of these 2 it got nasy because they made it so with attitude.

    This isn’t the core of the post but one of things I don’t get is this “booth rental” concept. If the operators have to conform to Debbie’s techniques, hours, and work flow all that’s really going on is operators paying to use a machine. What do they get out of it? Why pay Debbie vs having another factory pay you as an employee?

  7. Richard says:

    I agree that arrogance certainly didn’t help this situation. Truthfully, you’re witnessing an excerpt of conversations. The attitude on both sides took root quickly and crescendo’d to the point the relationship soured. I’ll take ownership of being a pill. I know I am. Kathleen calls me on it. And, I make conscientious efforts.

    But, c’mon: “strip fusible” is only esoteric if you’ve never ordered it. I mean: read the invoice, lady. I can’t imagine what her suppliers think if she calls it “sticky tape”. Maybe they’ve just learned her code and it’s easier to get her off the phone.

    Note to self: One makes allowances for customers who pay their bills promptly.

    Looking back, the bone of contention was how I handled the booth rental situation. I delivered one lot of jackets and there were two minor errors that needed to be repaired. On one jacket, the sleeve tack pulled against the shell. And on the other, the toptitching was uneven over a 4” area. I pulled up a seat at an empty sewing machine and made the repairs – maybe 20 minutes, total.

    Two errors of this magnitude on a rush order lot of 12 jackets is not the end of the world. Personally, I don’t consider this to reflect poorly on workmanship. How the stitcher behaves, however, might. For example: if the stitcher refused to make the repairs, huffed and puffed about having to or let the repairs linger and delayed the shipment, those are *real* concerns for me. Debbie, on the other hand, feels any error reflects poorly and decided to let me know this as she walked by my station: “I thought you were a taaay-lerr”.

    Statement withheld: “Give me a break, lady! I just sewed 12 jackets in 3 days. And, I have a full-time day job, too. You try being ‘perfect’ at 2:AM while your eyes are burning. PS: your fabric selection sucks!”

    BTW: I think Kathleen mentioned, once, that a sample stitcher can sew about three fully-lined fused jackets in an 8-hour shift. That should give you an idea what 4 per day can do to a person. But, I persevere.

    To the question about “is it okay to do work other than Debbie’s at her machines?” The answer is “no”. While I was making repairs, I saw one stitcher altering the hem on a pair of jeans for herself. She was chastised for using the company’s equipment for personal work. Frankly, to me, this insinuated an Employer-Employee relationship. And, I’ve witnessed this situation many times over the years.

    When I was checking out, Debbie chastised me, again: “I thought you were a taaay-lerr” and then also told me she charges booth rent. She told me she would “forego the fee this time because she needed the jackets right away”. I explained that I have never paid booth rent in a factory and saw no reason to. That’s when she told me the internal staff were subcontractors and that the arrangement has worked fine for “many years”.

    With my cage sufficiently rattled, I made my vital mistake: “You mean, Gloria pays you rent for the machine she uses all day, every day?” “Yes.” “And you think it’s OK to yell at her for using her machine any way she sees fit?” “It’s not HER MACHINE.” “It is while she’s renting it!”

    Note to self: only take on a bully when you’re prepared to wrestle them to the ground.

    In my past experience, I could give a rat’s behind who uses my equipment (or, the equipment I’m responsible for) during downtime. Stitchers are paid piecework when they’re working on my projects. If they want to use their thread and my equipment to do up a quick project here-and-there, who am I to complain? “After production is done” is the only stipulation I have. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve had to say that. To find out this stitcher was renting the booth and was then chastised, I was hot! Of course, the fuel had already been provided in several doses, so I only needed a reason to let it ignite. This seemed as good a reason as any.

    What was learned for the cost of tuition?
    1. Early warning signs.
    2. Life is too short to worry about who’s more right.
    3. If the work isn’t ready to take in, refuse it.
    4. Let the customer ask why work is refused. If they don’t care enough, neither should you.
    5. As long as the customer pays the bill on-time, they’re a good customer.
    6. When a customer becomes too costly to maintain (e.g. slow payer, too much effort, everything is a crisis, etc.) it’s time to fire them.

  8. Kathleen says:

    Richard, you *do* make conscientious efforts, I can’t fault you for that ever. Secondly, you take criticism well. You might feel pin pricks but I’ve never seen you become retaliatory or passive aggressive about it.

    And Richard is right in that there was a LOT of material, conversations on both sides. I had to reduce it down as best as I could and maybe it was weighted a tad against Richard but I felt his position could handle the extra load (case against him) because I felt he had standing. Debbie did/said some really nasty, mean, hateful things, entirely unnecessary unkind things that I didn’t excerpt; she’s a real downer.

    Boy, I didn’t know about the booth rental thing and only being able to make her products on them. I’m surprised nobody’s ever called the department of labor. I’m sure it’s because her workers are desperate or who knows, maybe she threatens to call immigration if they complain. Even people who are legal fear immigration. They think if they complain, their papers will be revoked. I can’t stand people who feed on people’s fears (too much of what Nadine said is TRUE!). Vampires.

  9. Richard says:

    Funny how you picked up on that. Gloria is an “import”. She has the slightest Mexican accent and has been in the trade since she was 18. She tells me she’s been with Debbie’s company for 30 years.

    Something that didn’t don on me until now. Every time I’ve chatted with Gloria, it was just above a whisper. I just thought that was her volume level, which I try to meet, in kind. It’s a good thing I did – otherwise I might have drawn attention and invoked “the wrath”, sooner.

  10. Rocio says:


    This post has hit a nerve with me, because I turn away companies like Debbie’s all the time…

    I can see how Richard’s bluntness and use of “Traditional British Terminology” makes Debbie feel threatened (perhaps even quite ignorant) when she’s supposed to be the carrier of the family business legacy.

    The tactic of making someone feel ignorant (by questioning their use of terminology) worked brilliantly for me during my corporate years whenever I had to deal with people who tried to take credit for my work or who had a big ego problem :-)

    I can usually tell when someone suffers from an acute case of “old dog’s syndrome” within 3 minutes…
    Them most likely carriers tend to be individuals who have been in the business for a few years and think that in order to survive they have to find quick fixes and refuse to consider that perhaps their business model needs an update instead

    I have worked in numerous countries (US, Latin America, Europe, Asia) so I think I know something about the importance of communicating clearly across several languages….. In this case though, it was obviously more about trying to test Richard’s reaction.

    Just because Richard may not be as diplomatic as some people would like, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s doing…

    That said, I worked (many years ago) for a company where the owner was very abusive and was doing a lot of things that were clearly illegal…
    I finally built up the courage to sue her which then opened the floodgate of lawsuits from other former employees who had been wronged (and I mean really big things like getting seriously hurt on the job and not being sent to the doctor) … A couple of years after I won my settlement, they wen out of business and at the time they were dealing with 6 lawsuits.

    I can honestly say that they made me who I am today! :-)

  11. Richard says:

    I thought I’d provide an update on this situation:

    I filed with the local magistrate for non-payment and received a judgment earlier, this month. I have heard nothing from Debbie’s company since it has been served. It maybe holidays, it may be lack of attention. Who knows?

    Interesting thing, though. I received a phone call from one of Debbie’s former subcontractors, today. She’s looking for work to keep busy while snowed in. She and I commiserated a while and, lo’ and behold, I may be able to interpret one of these chargebacks.

    “No sticky tape on bottom hem” – at least, according to this source – should be interpreted as:
    reinforce the garment shell with strip fusing *and*
    reinforce the garment lining with strip fusing

    Apparently, Debbie’s company applies “sticky tape” to the hem of both the shell and lining of their jackets. This is what, in Debbie’s words, “keeps the lining from falling out”.

    This would be the first I’ve ever seen this practice. My personal opinion is that this is a waste of materials and would require two different weights of fusbile interfacing to execute properly.

    That aside, if I had held steadfast to requiring spec sheets, I would have known this company’s standards differed and could have discussed these matters before agreeing to take on the work.

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