Textile manufacturing

I apologize for writing an entry so basic for the average F-I visitor but I’ve been advised that it is necessary. It makes me wonder what else I haven’t written but should have.
In speaking with people who’ve floundered about on the web, looking for information on how to start a clothing business, I’ve discovered that they’re using the search phrase “textile manufacturing”. If you already have a history in the business, this may strike you as funny. It did me. Textile manufacturing is the business of manufacturing fabrics, not clothes. I think some people confuse this with the “textile industry”, another commonly misused search phrase for clothing manufacturing. Which brings to another topic, if you’re looking for a “clothing manufacturer” to sew clothes for you, you’ll look in vain. A clothing manufacturer is more likely to be someone who competes with you, not someone who provides a service. If you’re producing a line of clothing, you are the manufacturer regardless of whether you sew or even own a single sewing machine.

Welcome to the apparel industry. Being stubborn and anachronistic, the industry doesn’t care what you call things. ~sigh~ Like any club, niche or membership group, access to the inner circle is often controlled through language usage. Like most industries, we have our own words for things and if you don’t know the right names, you’re in for endless grief.

I realize that controlling access to the clothing and apparel industry seems counterproductive but it mostly works, especially these days (I know you don’t want to hear that). If you’re thinking that there’s this huge pool of people hungry to sew your products for you, think again. Because this is probably the lowest cost entry into business there is, there’s a lot more money chasing products and services than there are businesses to meet those demands. Except for consultants. We seem to have those in spades. So, if you’re of the (retail) mind set that people will bow and scrape to get your business -other than consultants- you have Another Thing Coming. These things are called despair, disillusionment and frustration. I kid, I kid. Kind of. The point is, it’s more common that suppliers and service providers choose their customers rather than the reverse.

The other reason language usage works as a gate keeper is because to get through, it means you’ve had to do some research and study because you wouldn’t have been able to find a business to sew your clothes without it. In other words, the system (such as it is) forces you to go through the wringer which makes you a better educated customer. And customers -no matter their background, design school education or what have you- are never educated enough. Education-wise, there’s always something else to heap on your plate. Ask anybody here. So, because no matter how prepared you are, you’ll be leaning on others to educate you -for which they’re mostly not compensated- they’ll want the person who’s the most prepared and takes the least amount of time to teach and work with. Between you and me, if you’re introducing yourself to somebody and have inordinate confidence in your business degree, don’t bang on about it. Some have misplaced confidence in their own abilities (manufacturing processes aren’t taught in business schools) and an MBA can shut a door rather than open it. One woman here said:

I graduated college a year ago after having spent a semester writing a business plan for a small apparel manufacturing company -a jean company specifically. An economics major, I spent 50 pages talking about employee compensation and incentive; about supply-chain management and benefits above cost; things an economics major would consider the forefront of Important Things in the creation of a company. Well, I was wrong. Instead of writing about conceptual matters, I should have been learning about practical ones.

This goes double for marketing majors. Yes, you must have marketing and business know how and a degree of any kind never hurts but manufacturing is a topic all its own and it’s not covered in studies of brand building or balance sheets. Oh, one other thing. By and large, the garment industry prides itself on being a blue collar industry, class divides abound. Degrees may impress a bank or investors but not your contractor. Lamentably, the garment industry has the lowest rates of education than any other class of manufacturing. Worse, they seem to be proud of it (if I read of another manufacturer bragging about being a ninth grade drop out, I will scream).

When coming into the wholesale trade, forget any of the amenities, marketing or gloss you’re accustomed to. Fashion is only glitzy and glamorous in magazines. I remember one person on the forum mentioned she didn’t have a lot of confidence in the factory she visited because the factory’s signage amounted to a scruffy, weather beaten hand lettered sign posted on the door. I guess she expected something snazzy, a crisp light up logo posted on all four corners of the building with maybe even nice parking lot signs. Maybe even signs marked “Visitor” right next to the door. Like that’ll happen. The rest of us in the forum thought it was funny. We told her that based on signage alone, we’d go with the company with a scrappy handwritten sign over anything snazzy any day. The reason is, the low brow sign -to us- means the company spends their money on priorities, keeping costs low. Forced to judge based on signs alone, that’d be the better factory. I mentioned that she was lucky there was even a sign. Many companies don’t have them (I don’t). Or if they do, it’s the sign of the business that was there before they were (my sign says something or other tea company). If it’s their own sign, you most likely won’t know what the business even does based on the name. It’s often called something enigmatic like XYZ Enterprises Ltd. The back end of the business just loves being scruffy. Akin to the shoemaker’s children having no shoes, they (okay, we) tend to be the opposite, perhaps intentionally, a form of protest to the image of glamor in fashion magazines.

In Review:
If you’re starting to get the idea that businesses are hiding from you, you get a gold star. Very few suppliers or service providers advertise. Of the ones that do, you’ll only find them in trade papers or a few trade web sites. As I’ve said over and over again, ad nauseum, it’s who you know, people who can open doors for you. If you don’t know anyone, you can buy a directory but even then, a proprietor is not likely to be hospitable unless you have the name of someone referring you. The business is very archaic. You have to find friends. There’s a saying in Spanish, “Díme con quien andas, y te diré quien eres” which means, “tell me who you hang around with and I’ll tell you who you are”. There isn’t a more apt description to navigating garment industry relations.

If you’re someone who happened to find this via a search on the web, you must know that people can be rude in this business. I’ll say this again and again but those are the people you want. It’s not so much that people are rude as they are abrupt. They’re busy. Avoid nice-nice people. Put it this way, have you ever met a rude used car salesman? You won’t. They’re always very nice. I’m not suggesting that all nice people are up to no good but scammers aren’t stupid. It’s not called a “confidence game” for nothing. If someone is abrupt with you, they’re not the ones who’ll take advantage of you if they’re obviously not trying to instill confidence or rapport. It’s the rude and abrupt people you can trust. Besides, they’ll be very nice once you get to know them. There’s just so many Dicks, Marys and Sallys out there draining their time with paranoia and game playing that what little social acumen they’ve got is quickly whittled away.

Get New Posts by Email


  1. I completely agree with you Kathleen. It took me years to get the wholesalers I have now, and no one would tell me where they were until I started to meet people, then one by one, my “industry friends” started to introduce me to more “industry friends” , and the factory we use now a days in NY, not only didn’t have a sign by the door, the “office” where we had our first meeting w/ the factory owner was a closet space with a metal folding chair and tons of boxes where we sat. And again, we found them through contacts we’ve made and people we have befriended in the industry. It really is WHO you know before it is WHAT you know in the garment industry.

  2. Clarisse says:

    Kathleen, So true, so true! And I learned the hard way by committing just about every “don’t” you mention above. Thanks for this gem of a post.

    Regarding the “shabby factory” scenario you describe, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about this article Style Showdown:$1,000 Sweater Faces $100 Rival that appears in today’s Wall Street Journal (free access).

  3. Kathleen says:

    I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about this article

    The primary message it sends me is that if you’re selling a thousand dollar sweater (or any luxury goods), half the value is in the spin. People love stories. They want to feel good about having purchased your product. They are looking for reasons to justify having spent that kind of money.

    Another intangible is transparency and provenance. The more open you can be about your process, the more reassured your consumer will be. Provenance matters. People want to know that much of the value of the product is implied to be of benefit to those who made it. For example, the meal plan. That’s common in many factories. It’s so commonplace as to not be worth mentioning. And nice meals too, I’ve had plenty of them (also breakfasts and end of the day hot snacks). Obviously this sweater maker knows enough to weave the story well, imbuing the value of it into his product.

    I think luxury goods sell for three key reasons. One is rarity. Second, consumers can feel exclusive, having the means to buy something others can’t. With provenance, they can feel superior to others if the product is implied to have greater social accounting.

    Perhaps germane (from the article):

    And 25% of the factory employees are devoted to quality control.

    This always impresses consumers but this is never a good thing. If you have one quarter of your staff working on quality control, it means your processes are so dicey that you need them. It means there’s a lot of slop in their manufacturing making me wonder how much of what I’ve paid is the cost of waste and inefficiency.

Leave a Reply

You have to agree to the comment policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.