nothing pithy here either

There was a great article n the NY Times -ostensibly- about lean manufacturing in the furniture business. I qualified that because I don’t think it’s possible for sewn products people to fully integrate into the concept; I don’t agree that the inherent nature of our input processes permit it. You can’t smelt out a blouse front like you can a metal rod. Anyway, you might like to read about American Leather, A made-in-USA start-up who took on importers and beat them with products that cost three times as much. Virginia Postrel explains people will pay more for your product due to selection and turn-around; American Leather is fast; they guarantee 30 day delivery but still ship some orders in 2 to 3 weeks.

This is what most impresses me about American Leather
It also built relations with retailers by providing sales tools and training….”The retailers love them,” Mr. Epperson, the analyst, said. Each quarter, the company brings 50 to 70 store owners and retail salespeople to Dallas for two days of training called American Leather University, begun in 1999…”There are so many manufacturers that don’t think about partnering as far as marketing education, and they do,” said Connie Stevenson…

Remember you heard that from a feed-store owner too. I wonder if they need a leather pattern maker. I think this is exciting. All of us know you can make products in the US and still turn a profit but a lot of people don’t. Since all boats float in a rising tide maybe our tide is turning. And yes, I read that the Chinese have lowered prices in the face of lowered tariffs. I don’t see how that can affect niche products or quality producers with low turn-around times.

Speaking of niche markets and products, I took a tour through the DE baby sling business (I saw 3 book buyers on the list; made me feel good). Wow, who knew? It seems the DE companies producing baby slings are actively helping each other in very direct ways. They’ve created their own community. They have a discussion list, they swap and test each other’s products and they even have free instructions and free patterns so people can make their own baby slings rather than buying them. I think that is pretty cool. I’ve been saying forever, DEs have got to stick together and these businesses are doing it. Obviously they learned that paranoia is a business death kiss. I wonder if they’ll form an association, that’d be cool too.

I got out some old issues of _the designer’s network newsletter_ formally published by yours truly. I wasn’t surprised to find it dated, I was surprised to find it funny, rough and randy. I was scrappier than a rabid badger in those days. I guess the last few years have kicked a lot of life out of me. Funny how people keep asking about it, I should reprint it, I could use the money. Btw -to my former subscribers- my aunt Tina is still alive and well in El Paso (“lunchbox kids”). She’s 80 something, totally blind and still on the go.

I haven’t been able to read, I have a new project and the pattern of it keeps hijacking my screen. I hate those kinds of pop-ups. Maybe you know what I mean. A shape jumps right in front of you, starts contorting, morphing itself with darts, shaping, then folding. It’s kind of fun to watch sometimes but I can’t do anything while it’s happening (this is called “stimming”). I probably lost 4 hours to a pair of rectangles on Monday (here’s a partial sketch from my notes; sew A to A, B to B, C to C and shape the collar to suit). Seems like a real waste of time unless you know it’s an on-grain cut but bias-oriented dress with near 98% utilization and will fit great! (I’ll stick a link in here once I make it up; this text will be gone when I do). Sometimes noises hijack my screen. If somebody touches my pattern scissors, I know it. I can’t contentrate on anything til I disengage whoever has -unfortunately- touched my most prized possession. And you thought you were weird about your scissors. I love cutting tools in general and scissors in particular. I have many kinds of scissors with 27 pairs at last count.

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  1. kathleen says:

    This is a compilation and crude importation of all the comments posted at the original site for this document. Feel free to add your comments.
    2/23/2005 10:03:06 PM Mike C said:
    As a US based manufacturer, I can say without a doubt that it is possible to be competitive. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be competing in a commodity market that is heavily based on price (e.g. anything that gets sold to a major big box like WalMart), but there are definitely nice niches out there.

    That said, we have no desire to be a manufacturer. Our business is designing, marketing, and selling our clothing to our target market. Production is just an ongoing pain that has to be put up with to make the rest of the business possible. Right now, we don’t have much choice but to do the manufacturing ourselves. However, as soon as volumes and our own technology infrastructure improve to the point where outsourcing becomes feasible, we’d be fools not to seriously explore it.

    As an aside, I will say that dealing with US vendors in our supply chain is by and large more annoying and painful than dealing with the foreign companies. (American & Efird being the exception). I think the foreign companies have realized that the US apparel manufacturing market has changed. It isn’t massive Levi’s plans in Texas anymore – its small brands making products for niche markets. Small companies and brands need fast turnarounds and low minimums. American companies (especially mills) don’t seem interested in that business.

  2. Dallas meeting June 25-26 2005

    Darien Wilson of Zolowear Inc advises me that she and her competitors (all producers of baby slings and the like) will be meeting in Dallas the last weekend of June 2005. No, you’re not invited. I’m not invited either but…

  3. I don’t know if youe realize how much of a misconception this is, but most non-sewers I’ve met think you CAN “smelt out a blouse front like you can a metal rod.” In fact they’re shocked, SHOCKED when I tell them that every walmart garment they buy was made by people sitting (or standing) in front of machines. When they hear “factory made,” they imagine some building void of human life (probably be better for the machines–less heat and humidity, right?)

  4. Vesta says:

    Kathleen, it was me who introduced the baby sling world to you. Although I have to admit that I was loathe to share you. (I know you know what I mean!) But yes, we actually had a meeting of about 10 DE baby sling companies meet in Dallas (my house!) in April. We’ve been mulling over forming a formal organization, although we haven’t been able to come up with a good reason to formalize it at this point. For now we meet in forums and share our 2nd Grade lessons. The rising tide in our industry is most certainly lifting all of our microscopic companies, and we celebrate each little success together.

    Two comments on this post:
    -I have absolutely come to believe that US manufacturers have something to offer our retailers. When the Port of Long Beach was clogged 12 tankers deep last winter, and retailers were canceling toy orders because they were late, I was thinking, “I wish I were a US toy manufacturer right now. I’d be cold-calling toy stores across the nation!”
    -Jinjer, we have run across the same “factory” misconception in the baby sling market. We have quite a following of babywearers who follow our most minute actions. Once any of our little DE companies contract out the sewing, rather than personally hand-sewing every item (I never did, shhhh!), our smaller competitors refer to their products as “hand-made versus factory-made”. HUH? Well, what they’re really saying is that their poor quality is a sign of a hand-made item. Bah. They’re targets, that’s all!

    BTW, I’m reading Kathleen’s book for the second time, and it’s a whole different book. The first time, I’d been manufacturing for about a year. It changed my company. We grew 300% in 2005. Here I am another year down the road, and there’s another book in there! I can’t thank you enough, Kathleen.

  5. christy fisher says:

    I love the American Leather concept and their marketing (university concept, etc.)
    I am an outspoken opponent to outsourcing to China for MANY reasons..most of them moral/social.
    1. I hear designers saying that they use China because of the quality of work- I think they are trying to convince themselves and excuse their guilt. Sure, China has some great craftspeople..but the reason most designers take their goods overseas is because they can get work done CHEAPLY. It’s about $$$- not about creativity and craftsmanship.
    If they were looking for great work done at fair wages to the workers, they would take their goods to Italy, or France, Spain,etc…not to a country were laborers are paid pennies a day and have to often live in hellish situations in factory owned slums. Sure- the FACTORIES may look clean, groovy and efficient ..but dig deeper and look at how the people are living after they get off work, how many hours they work, etc.
    See the movie “The High cost of Low Prices”..or- better still- go there and talk to people on the street (if you can find any who will talk- because most are too afraid they will lose what small amounts they have.. or worse yet – “disappear”)
    2. China.. wow..big huge new skysrapers and high tech factories..huge growth over the last 10 years.. AND A BIG YELLOW CLOUD OF SMOG THAT WILL NOT GO AWAY.
    If you go to Hong Kong or Bejing and stay there for a few days, you will find that when you brush your teeth, you spit BLACK soot into the sink. That is what these people breathe..because of the lack of regulated manufacturing practices.
    I won’t even begin to get into the chemical/toxic stuff that factories expell elsewhere…and that the workers are subject to.

    There IS a way to be profitable in the US..but you really have to be creative..and not be greedy or ego driven.

    What few American factories are left are having to re-tool which is very expensive. Most I have seen are still pretty much the way they were in the 40s. They do not make enough profit to invest in new equipment and our government does not believe enough in the American Textile industry to help it out enough (our government encourages outsourcing to China).

    The “niche markets” are where you will be able to flourish and prosper.
    You have the ability and the flexibility of staying small enough to keep the creativity in your designs and staying large enough to self-produce enough “just in time” inventory.

    You may not become a billionaire or the next Marc Jacobs, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are not contributing to the abuse of people..or of the planet.
    You can make ENOUGH…
    You will even make enough to help a few people.
    ..and eventualy, if there are enough small manufacturers doing this, it can make a big difference in “bringing the goods home”.

    I encourage designers to continually STUDY and pay attention to the BIG WORLD.. not just look at pictures in fashion magazines and groove on the trends.
    Pay attention to what is really happening to humanity and this planet.
    Pay attention to how GREED is so prevalent and abusive to others.
    Pay attention to how the BIG companies are REALLY run (That’s a whole ‘nother rant..but most of them are owned by booze companies or Saudi Arabian interests..I’m talking Gucci, Vuitton, etc.)

    Thank you Kathleen for staying clean and honest in this industry. It can be a snakepit at times. You are a shining light.

  6. Dave says:

    Christy makes some very relevant points, especially when referencing off shore production and the conditions that result from increased manufacturing. One thing that strikes me as funny,is that “we”, basically are the largest part of the problem.1) We need a basic polo shirt
    for everyday use, one that can be made every bit as good in North America, but strangely, “we” must have the polo shirt with the left chest logo popularized through everyday channels. You see my point. The mega brands can produce here, but as everyone knows , the bottom line is to maximize as much money from that sq. yd of fabric as humanly possible. Many companies make a huge issue out of compliancy and the industry workers plight, and “how they do everything possible to ensure a better quality of life” etc,… Well dont believe everything you are told. Once compliancy inspectors leave (or do they really visit?), the only thing important to them and the people who sign their cheques, is how much, when is it being delivered, and did we meet our target price ?. Corporate GREED is not the only mitigating factor. Our thirst for low cost apparel is driving this phenomena. And clothing companies respond.
    Clothing can be made in this country to the same exacting standards that Asia produces. It can be difficult at times, but still, it is very achievable.
    Domestic manufacturers must be extremely prudent in every move they make, and take steps to shorten their supply chains at every chance. Call it lean, kaizen, whatever you like, but it all boils down to a strong will to accomplish something within your field. There are untold companies producing in North America, and making a very handsome living doing so. I commend these people. They could quite have easily shifted production offshore, but they didn’t. They remain at home, and we should follow some of the principles they practice. Ask them sometime, and tell them you respect and support what they are doing. It can be highly contagious.
    One last important point. Don’t blame the yarn spinners, the mills, the producing factories. Sure they have made some mistakes. But the smart ones left, have learned and are coming back. They have learned the hard way, but we need their support and partnership. And we have to view everyone in the supply chain as business partners. It is not going to be easy, but small, creative, Design Entrepreneurs in my opinion, will be key important players in the apparel industry in this hemisphere for many years to come. When was the last time you walked into a Foot Locker and put down an item you fancied, because it was made in Bangladesh ?

  7. If they were looking for great work done at fair wages to the workers, they would take their goods to Italy, or France, Spain,etc…

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that China has uniformly bad factories, and europe uniformly good ones (ummm…”guest workers”…if you want a fictionalized account of the state of garment factory workers in France, watch “Dirty Pretty Things”)

    I think that if you do outsource to China, you’re doing it because of the prices, and your borrowing money from the future of your company, because prices in China are very likely to rise in the next decade. (Japan in the 70’s wasn’t too different from China today. Some of the worst pollution disasters in history happened in manufacturing towns in Japan–like whole towns dying of cadmium poisoning. But their very success made them susceptible to the pressure of other countries pushing for fair labor laws, and they’ve cleaned up their act pretty nicely). Anyway, I think it is possible to outsource to China ethically, and it does take more than a factory tour.

  8. christy fisher says:

    Jinjer: No country is perfect. (including the USA) but the Chinese government is notoriously horrible to their laborers (and citizens)…and the point that I am trying to make is that designers are not taking work over there because of the ABILITY of the workers (there are workers who can do ANY tyoe of job right here in the USA)..they are taking it over there because of the PRICE.
    When I use the word “greed”, I am not just talking the “big guys”.
    “Corporate greed” comes into play no matter how large or small the company is.
    If you are using other human beings as slaves in order to line your own pockets, then you are playing into the greed game.
    For a non fictionalized look at inside the fashion industry , read “the Fashion Conspiracy” . It was written before the open doors to China and it exposes a number of terrible things in various parts of the world.

    I am curious as to how you think it can ethically be done in China when they are not paying fair wages and they are polluting up the rest of the planet?

  9. Dave says:

    Why is everyone picking on China ? There are scores of other nations producing apparel for US companies, and they pay meager wages and pollute just as much as the Chinese do. I think you would see more “design entrepreneurs” move production
    offshore to China, were they able to meet the increased minimums, as this greed we speak of is present at all levels, not just the” big guys “.
    A large portion of apparel companies with a website, have a section or link to “who we support” or” charities of choice”. Is this neccessary for the customer to know, or is it a diversion to lead one to believe they are good corporate citizens ? Is this a method to help ease the guilt of having their products produced in countries where the minimum wage is 12 cents per hour ? Not all companies are hypocrites, and claim responsibilty to the environment and social justice etc… I know of at least mmmm, let me see,mmm , er, 3 !!!

  10. christy fisher says:

    Why is China at the forefront of this debate? Because it is the #1 place that manufacturers are currently sending their goods..and the minimums are NOT high.. I attended MAGIC and looked at some sourcing operations that were offered from China. Example: minimum 100 units of sweaters. Labor cost per unit: $1.50
    T-shirts: minimum 300 units..cost per unit 50 cents.
    Our government is making it EASY to deal with China.
    A local “handmade” furniture company in my little town of 450 people has just begun producing part of their FURNITURE line in China..even with shipping, it is more profitable for them.
    And Dave: just because a lot of people seem to be doing bad things and making a lot of money and getting away with it, does it make it right?
    Does it make others “foolish” because they choose not to support things that are unethical?
    I hear designers rave about how groovy it is to get their goods made in China because of $$$ and the quality is pretty good on what they are doing.
    In the same breath they say that the American manufacturers need to be supported and helped to heal and grow the textile industry HERE.. Well, they are talking out of both sides of their mouth at once.
    You cannot be taking your goods offshore and expecting the textile industry here to flourish because of it.
    The more goods you take offshore, the more American textile facilities close.
    I want someone to tell me how they expect the manufacturing industry HERE to make a “comeback” by taking production out of the country.
    And Dave:
    I do not shop at places like Foot Locker.
    When I shop, I look at the labels for “country of origin” and yes, I DO put back items because of where they were made.

    On greed:
    Our industry feeds on ego and greed.
    We PR the “bling”..we PR the “gotta have it” mentality..RARELY do I see apparel being sold on the quality and the design. We have become a celebrity driven wheel of gross consumerism where “more is better”.
    I am just doing my own protest in this industry.
    I know that I cannot singlehandly turn anything around, but I do hope that occasionally I make a young designer THINK about other things besides just making as much apparel as they can and shoving it down people’s throats with celebrity driven PR.

  11. I am curious as to how you think it can ethically be done in China when they are not paying fair wages and they are polluting up the rest of the planet?

    The point is, not every single factory in China is unethical. Even when fair wages are being paid, they’re still lower than they are here or in Europe, because most of China is still in the third world. A dollar does not mean the same thing to those worker than it does to us. “Fair” is a relative term by definition.

    So, what I’m saying is, IF you do your homework, IF you visit the town where your factory is located, IF you examine the factory conditions and the surrounding community AND you determine that the factory is playing fair and behaving responsibly, then you are supporting a business that becomes a positive example to other factories in a country that sorely needs positive examples. Going back to my Japan example: there were definitely companies that were not playing fair, and companies that were. Outside investors had a CHOICE, and they chose ethical companies, so those companies won out in the long term. My wish vis-a-vis China is not to prevent the use of Chinese companies in order to support the US industry (regardless of whether the US industry deserves support), it’s to promote ethical companies world over, and the best way to do that is to hire them.

    Not that I want to outsource to China: if I’m going to do all that homework, I’d rather put the effort into helping the US industry deserve my support. I.e. I’d rather find lean partners and grow leaner together!

  12. Donna says:

    Re people not realizing factory-made clothes are actually made by real humans. I grew up in a small town of 3 major clothing line men’s suit factories with, it seemed like, half the town working making them. Outsourcing dealt a real blow. Curious, though, now, as to the pattern maker(s); never heard about anybody like that.

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