Setting up a small shop

We’ve been talking about the requirements for setting up a small shop in the forum. Vesta writes:

I’ve gleaned some information from Kathleen’s book and blog about how to go about setting up a shop, but I’d love to have some input in one place. I am especially interested to explore this topic with a focus on lean. I don’t sew, really. So I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who will not be able to apply first-hand best practices. I only know what I read or am told by the generous mentors in my life (I am truly blessed there).

So let’s start from square one. I have space. I have an industrial sewing machine that does the one thing that is needed for all of my products, at this point: single needle, straight stitch, light to medium-weight fabrics. I have professional, road-tested patterns. That’s it. No sewing machine operator. We have ongoing production in India, Guatemala, and Dallas. That will all continue. I’m thinking of doing some very simple products. They’re very simple, so I figure they’re perfect to cut our teeth on.

When I bring someone in to sew, I’m thinking of a sample maker-type person, with experience in a production setting. We would do very small production runs of, say, 30ish pieces. Pull production, from our current resellers. These quantities aren’t feasible with our current production partners. So it would be nice if we could launch untested products on our own, and move them to larger facilities if/when they take off.

Kathleen sent me an ad someone placed for work-for-hire: a sample maker in my area. I emailed them and am waiting to hear back. I have also found some really nice leads through the Texas Workforce Commission. So, what would y’all do next? Basically, what are the very first baby steps that y’all would do, if setting up a brand new shop. If you have a shop already, how did you start?

JC said:

As for setting up your shop, think about the products, the seam finishes, and the order of operations. This will guide you through the equipment/tools you will need to support the venture.

This is good advice. Review pp 129-132 in the book for guidelines on seam analysis. You should also peruse the official seam classification charts. From there, you largely have to hunt/peck to find the machines that do each sort of assembly or you can go to your handy dandy local machine place (or get a referral) to find what sorts of machines perform those operations.

Then Crystal reminds us of the ergonomic handbook (pdf) provided by our lovely neighbors to the north.

I’m finding this really interesting to help decide what to put on the potential shopping list – it’s a sewing machine operators ergonomic handbook from the Canada Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, Institute for Work & Health, and Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, Inc. It’s making me think of variations in lighting, chair purchases, flooring – pretty much everything.

The link to the ergonomic handbook has been in the left side bar forever. There’s a lot of resources there (under apparel sites I like) that I think people forget about. With Chrystal’s reminder (since I forget these things too) I re-read the handbook and came up with a few ideas with respect to prioritizing your efforts because when you’re first starting out, everything can look equally important and you don’t know where to focus your efforts. Other than what I said in the book and what appears in the ergonomic handbook (you’ll have to review that for the list below to make sense), here are prioritized things to consider when setting up a small shop:

  • Cutting tables (two, one for sorting) are often too low. Industrial cutting tables are adjustable so size the table to the operator. Commonly, pattern makers need their own table. These tables come in four foot sections and can be very pricey so I recommend buying them used. Amex Sewing Supply sells them so inexpensively (often at $25 a section) that it’s worth the drive to El Paso to get them. They don’t have any right now but they’d get them if they had orders. They also sell scads of other used things (also new); draw up a wish list, they’ll fill it.
  • Spreader, you don’t need a pricey one at the outset.
  • You need weights, clamps, staplers (tackers), large garbage cans and big push brooms.
  • Mats mats mats mats mats. There are never enough of these in smaller shops. They’re expensive. Anywhere anyone is standing for any length of time needs a mat. This includes up and down the length of the cutting tables, sorting areas, ironing stations, inspection, packaging etc. This is an item ideally bought at auction. If your floors are wooden, this isn’t a problem. Also, you *must* insist that workers wear good shoes, particularly if they’re working on concrete. NO OPEN TOED SHOES, EVER. When I worked on concrete (my floors are wooden now) I wore big clunky shoes that construction workers wear. In the mornings they’d feel heavy and not particularly comfortable but by the end of the day, my feet never hurt. Tennis shoes, even the expensive ones will NOT provide the same function.
  • The issue of chairs; often the seat pan is too deep for some (usually slender) workers. Chairs need to be individualized to the worker just as clothing is. One size does not fit all. The operator’s back often doesn’t rest against the back of the chair; these should be adjustable.
  • Sewing machines. Customize the treadle and knee lift (some need padding) to the operator. Newer machines are better in this regard; many don’t have knee lifts at all. In general, older machines are a great buy cost-wise but they’re not as ergonomic. Newer machines (you can get these used too) are much better and additionally, cost less to operate as the machine design (motors) have evolved. As a matter of fact, the discussion in the forum from which this all comes, has evolved into a discussion of power requirements. This may or may not be updated on the front page at some point.
  • Lighting lighting lighting. I can probably count on one hand (and still have fingers left over) the number of small shops I’ve seen that do have sufficient lighting. My current shop is poorly lit but then, I don’t have anyone working with me.
  • Side tables (for sewing machines). These hold bundles and WIP. Observe the person sewing. Their shoulders should not raise nor lower in height moving materials on and off the tables.
  • Work tables (inspection). Since inspection is done standing up (nearly always), these need to be sized to that job and these are nearly always too low. Again, the operators shoulders should not lower.
  • Laundry carts are useful and again, should be sized for the job. C&A had little cute ones. The ones I have are large, designed to hold coat bundles which are bulky. Ideally, operators shouldn’t have to bend over too far to get things out of the bottom of a basket.
  • Reduce repetitive motion. You can do this a couple of ways, through observation of the work in progress and work organization. Observation I can’t help you with because that’s as individualized as the dictates of your product. Strategy wise you can reduce bundle size (meaning, a single repeated operation). Second, switch out operations and vary the sewing operations that any one operator does. This is another benefit of “hand made” (single order processing by one operator; makes one item start to finish). Third, rotate duties as much as possible. A sewing operator should ideally be cross trained to cover floor girl duties, shipping, inspection etc.
  • Observe your pressing stations. Operators should not have to lift their shoulders to press, nor stoop or bend over to process work. Having catchers will reduce the degree of effort an operator needs to exert to keep the work piece in place. There are more problems than this of course but most newer irons are ergonomically designed. It’s great if the weight of irons can be buttressed with springs. Pressers also need mats.
  • Regarding final assembly stations, z-rack bars shouldn’t be too high; a worker shouldn’t need to lift their shoulder. Bars should be just high enough to clear the lower bar and any metal edges the garments may brush against in transit through the work place. If finished items are placed on rolling shelves, the shelves shouldn’t be too high or too low or if that is unavoidable, stools would be helpful to rest against.
  • If you have any hand sewing done, these require still other work tables with larger work surfaces. The item should not rest on the worker’s lap (causing the head to tilt forward and down, neck strain), the worker should not have to work to restrain or keep the item in place. It should rest independently of the operator.

Feel free to add your two cents worth. JC reminds me I have pictures of all this stuff from my shop. Do you all need to see this? Part of me hesitates because I think it’d be redundant since it’s all over the web but what do you think?

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  1. Vesta says:

    Show us, show us! And I promise I’ll post pics as our little shop develops (in the discussion thread).

    BTW, that person never emailed me back. So I’m off to query the Texas Workforce Commission for a sample maker . . . My sewing machine repair guy said that I am 25 years too late to find a big pool of skilled sewing machine operators. That was about when 4 large factories (Haggar, among them) shut down.

    Thanks for this discussion. It’s so useful to me. Once we get more serious, we’ll fly you out here to consult with us (any excuse, really).


  2. Big Irv says:

    I think fabric delivery/storage is a big issue with any size shop. Nobody likes hoisting heavy rolls of fabric too far, then haul them up onto the spreader. Usually a two person job, unless you have the Incredible Hulk doing your cutting chores.

    Fabric must be stored off the floor, preferably in a dry environment. You may want to store or hold it close to the tables too.
    We have docks in our plants. If you can get a space with dock access, this is good as most larger fabric orders are delivered on skids by 5 ton trucks or larger.

    If you cannot store fabric close to the tables, get yourself a nice flat bed trolley with steel post corners. They prevent the rolls from falling off and you can stack them up. You may even think about a hand pump that will allow you to use wooden skids easily.

    Make sure you create a good lunch area for the staff too. Never have people eat on the production floor area.

  3. J C Sprowls says:

    An overhead door or dock is critical, in my opinion. If you can unload the truck easily, you reduce freight costs, significantly. For example, to unload 1 industrial sewing machine (e.g. 200lbs) onto a loading dock saves $50-70. Multiply this over the 5 or 6 400-lb deliveries you will need to produce a run; and, you’re saving upwards of $1,000!

    In addition, threads and consumables (e.g. needles, clasps, buttons, etc) need to stored in a manner that’s easy to inventory. You should be able to glance at the storage area and know that it’s time to reorder or that shrinkage is evident.

    I also like to have a central place to store folders, attachments and parts. Both these and the consumables need to be in the sewing area, in plain sight of everyone for easy access and management.

    We also didn’t address the staging area for output. In other words, when garments have been finished (i.e. folded, bagged, whatever) and counted into inventory (i.e. SKU’d), where are they held until they’re counted into boxes for order fulfilment?

  4. Kathleen says:

    Okay, next week I’ll post photos of stuff I have. I’ll also see what photos I can track down of equipment Big Irv is describing in his comment.

    I’d also second getting a place with a loading dock if you can. I had that at the Brewhouse but not here and it’s a pain. If you have a forklift, you can pull a skid off the back of a truck without a dock but most of us don’t have those.

    JC, depending on the shop environment, I don’t know that I’d recommend keeping parts (folders etc) out in plain view. Stuff like that has a tendency to walk away. Not to suggest that anyone intentionally takes things elsewhere or off site but people tend to hide things from each other, to ensure their own supply if they’re coming from a work culture characterized by scarcity.

  5. Mike C says:

    I’d also second getting a place with a loading dock if you can. I had that at the Brewhouse but not here and it’s a pain. If you have a forklift, you can pull a skid off the back of a truck without a dock but most of us don’t have those.

    A loading dock can be helpful, but keep in mind that a dock in a small space can dramatically increase your heating and cooling costs. You may also find that its very difficult to keep the area near the dock at a comfortable temperature all year round.

    We’ve had this problem in both of our factory spaces. In our first space, we ended up installing our own auxiliary air conditioner as well as re-routing most of the air flow from the roof mounted HVAC from the finished office to the warehouse space. The result was that in the summer we could keep the ambient temperature inside between 80-85 degrees. On a cold day in the winter, we had trouble keeping things above 60.

    In addition to the air conditioner work, we had installed a drop ceiling and eventually just insulated over the loading dock door. On a 1400sq ft place, we were paying $600/month in electricity costs.

    In our current space, we’re having a similar problem. The front half of the space (3 offices) can be kept at a comfortable temperature all year round. The sewing area can be kept at a reasonable temperature, though its a bit warm in the summer and a bit cool in the winter. The cutting and storage area gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter and there’s nothing we can do about it.

    The dock is very handy for unloading goods, but make sure that the volume you foresee doing in the space justifies the downside of a dock.

  6. Babette says:

    Please consider pattern storage. I haven’t finished reading Kathleen’s book but I’m sure she covers it, given her speciality.

    Too many times, I’ve seen good work mangled by inappropriate storage. Good patterns represent lots of time and money and it will take lots more time and money to replace them. I’d even consider keeping hard copies off site if I didn’t have electronic storage.

  7. Sarahs says:

    I recently went into small time production with my partner of my menswear line, WOUND, and our tailor man. After struggles with production in LA (distance, unfamiliarity with the process, unkept promises) and brushes with our tailors’ genius and experience in the industry (many years running a factory floor of 250 employees), we were convinced that our little line could be produced here, in Detroit, by ourselves.

    Meanwhile, there is a burgeoning fashion community here that is starved for exposure and production. So we win and so does our local economy, anyone familiar with the big 3 of late…

    The area is “blessed” by the abundance of cheap rent. Our location in the Russell Industrial Center provides us with said low rent, freight elevators, personalized electrical layouts (we needed cords hanging from the ceiling for our cutters) and inspirational neighbors in supportive businesses (screenprinters, photographers, web designers, printers and soon a cookie factory, a deli would make it heaven).

    Our first project was the cutting table, tailor designed and built, which recently underwent a strengthening(?). It is 24’x6′. It is not adjustable:( Then we cleaned and moved in the machines. We obtained a lot of goods from ebay. Even receiving good tips from some purveyoors of other good resources and suppliers.

    When we outgrow this space, it’ll remain the cutting area, the table stays! And we’ll rent space down the hall for production.

    I ran my mouth a lot to find employees. As a waitress, I interact with so many people and they are fair game. You never know who you’re waiting on or vice-versa! People are turning up all over who will be trained over time for little pay, including students and family members. I’d like to see what the area offers in GRANTS for training, something to think about.

    For pictures of our progress:
    use the scissors to scroll down.

    CHAIRS???? Any suggestions? Economical, ergonomical?
    MATS? I’m going to talk to my employer to see if I can get any deals through their supplier we use them in the kitchen and dishroom.
    BREAKROOM? Where the brita is stacked on the coffee/teamaker is stacked on the microwave is stacked on the fridge, all donated or thrifted.
    FABRIC SPREADER? Tailorman crafted ours out of a workout bench and some brake rotors! Adjustable even.
    WEBSITE? Working on a simple one. Best marketing tool ever. Our mission is to be accessible for the small and independant designer. Get them up to industry standards. We could be asking for it…


  8. Jalinka says:

    Hi JC, just read your e-mail. I am a 30 + years sewer in Nassau, The Bahamas. I have my own dressmaking shop. I was searching the net looking for ways I can expand my sewing business. Would you be looking for persons where I am to do some contract sewing. I can send you some photo’s of work I have sewn. You can e-mail me at

  9. erin orea says:

    Does anyone happen to have a good resource for used spreading table sections in the northern florida/ Georgia/ South Carolina area? Or any used industrial supplies for that matter. I’m making baby steps towards a functional workshop. Thanks a million. :)

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