The best job you could ever get…

I don’t want to make prototypes for the patterns I make. I prefer the client does it. The main reason I don’t like doing it is because I don’t like cutting and getting it ready (fusing, marking and sorting). I wish I had a fairy. People who’ve watched me say I’m really good but they have no point of comparison. I had a boss who was fantastic at it. Anyone who has cut for any length of time can do it better than me.

If I were just out of school or looking for entry into the industry and I wanted to learn as much as I could with the idea of starting my own line or to become very excellent at my work, getting a job at a uniform factory would be my top choice -even though I feel sorry for people who work there. I feel sorry for them because as a group, they probably do the best manufacturing across the board of any sewn product class but they get no credit. People who work in uniform manufacturing are diffident that they’re not “fashion” lines. It’s not sexy to work there, it doesn’t impress your friends. Everybody wants to intern or work for hot young designers because that does impress your friends and besides, it’s hip and happening and everyone loves the energy. But if you wanted to be good, working for a young designer isn’t the best choice if you have the option of being hired by a uniform manufacturer.

A big reason I like uniform companies is because there are more of them that are doing cut and sew domestically. This means you also have the option of getting production experience.

The thing I like most about uniforms is that the product attributes are fixed, the sameness of the product lends itself to refinement. If your product attributes don’t vary much, any kind of problem that crops up is easier to define and fix. It’s also easier to refine the process especially if the product isn’t causing problems. Anytime there is a problem, you know it faster (if not immediately) and have a very good idea what caused it -namely, the one thing you did differently last time.

You don’t have the same degree of predictability with the typical apparel line because there are too many variables from one season to the next. If your fabrics and patterns change every season, you’re less likely to be able to know whether the problem is due to fabric, operator or pattern -or maybe even all three. With typical lines, you cannot get as comprehensive feedback as someone who has been making the same exact thing for years with the same fabric and the same patterns. With uniform manufacturing, it is much easier to know if a complaint is valid and if it is, how to fix it. By comparison, the average fashion company does not know what lies at the root of their problems. There are too many variables to nail it down without a lot of trial and error.

You probably think a uniform manufacturer wouldn’t have need for designers or pattern makers but they do. It’s how uniform companies get better. They bring in new blood who have worked somewhere else with experience that is intriguing to the company. New skills help them expand their product line or increase the quality and to do it all more cost effectively. Moreover, they are the best judges of the importance and value of the skills one offers; who could know better? In my biased opinion, you would be hard pressed to find a better learning opportunity than one at a uniform company.This is where the heart of institutional knowledge and skill sets are built.

If you can’t get a job at a uniform factory, the older the operation (if they sew in house), the better. If they’re older, their product line is characterized by continuity and their production is more uniform. They’re using blocks steadily and the spatial references of workers has been calibrated to the product and nobody even realizes it. Like the example of my boss that I opened with. It wasn’t a uniform company that we worked at but the output was so similar from one style to the next that it well could have been.

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  1. Kerryn says:

    My first job was working for a 50yr old corporate uniform manufacturer. Right out of fashion school it was by no means a dream job! but I took advice from my pattern-making tutor who pointed out that all the fashion lines I lusted after had beautiful technical details and the only way to get that good was to get your hands dirty and learn from the old hands. Most people had been working at this company for 20+ years and they really knew their work. I gained a background in pattern-making, manufacturing, cutting, fusing, finishing, sourcing, warehousing – you name it, they had me learn it.

    I have used what I learnt at that factory every single day in my career since. I don’t sew my own patterns in my day job, but for freelance work it’s still my favourite part. I think I get a better result putting my pattern through the test for ease of cutting, fusing, sewing and sampling – I modify the pattern as I work through the sample and feel confident I’m handing over my best work.

    I totally agree, if there’s a chance to work for an older manufacturer – particularly uniform manufacturers. Grab it! so few people in the industry have that experience now with the large amount of offshore manufacturing and it’s invaluable. Uniform suppliers usually work with a large size range too and learning to accommodate large groups of people efficiently through design and smart size ranges is hard experience to get.

  2. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Having spent a career “in uniform”, I agree. U.S. military clothing is supposed to be domestic manufacture. My husband has his father’s dress uniform, Korean War era, and the details and sewing are superb. I went through Basic in 1977. When I was fitted for my uniform skirt I was handed a 12+. I asked what the plus was for and was informed I had more of a fanny and that my skirt was built for that. I don’t think today’s dress uniforms are as well built but they are still very good. The work uniform has improved and the size range is huge. How would you like to size a 4’10 woman up to a 6’8 man in the typical camouflage duty uniform, have it look professional, be easy to maneuver in, and hold up under the stresses of combat. Quite a tall order.

  3. Now to find one that is willing to work with a new idea. I understand – even though I can’t sew – that there are just too many pieces to my jacket. (Cost rears it’s ugly head!) If I knew more, I would be able to simplify! A jacket is like a uniform: it should look great on everybody.

  4. kathleen says:

    EEK, I notice I missed mentioning one of my points (so I will have to update this entry).

    My point is, if you work at a uniform manufacturing plant, no matter where you go or what you make after that, you will become very good at troubleshooting. This will be invaluable. Because you’ve learned to recognize a range of problems and what they’re caused by, you’ve learned a pattern language. Once you have this, you’ll be better able to decide what the problems are even if the fabrics and patterns change constantly, as they do with a fashion line. Believe me, you will know where to use the reproducibility standards you used at the uniform company in a fashion line. You will know exactly where the controls lie and where the problem started.

    …Then you like everybody else on the planet, will run screaming into the pattern room at the first sign of trouble. Because honestly, that’s usually where it is… Or maybe I shouldn’t tell you that.

  5. * Whew * there was a time (a short time, a long time ago) when I wondered why a uniform manufacturer would need a full-time pattenmaker. I have worked at 3 (and am still working for the third one). I have also worked for fashion companies. The uniform world may have less style changes, we may spend more time in product development for new items or improving old ones but you are right, by far the most time intensive activity is trouble shooting. However many times the ‘trouble’ (problem to solve) is not pattern-related. I help solve them regardless.
    The first thing I do is pull out or plot the pattern (people do not seem to ‘trust’ the checking of patterns on a computer screen, though they call me the “elton john of the CAD keyboard”… they want a hard copy), draw the seams lines, get out a ruler or tape measure and …. either the pattern is correct, or it isn’t – in black/white (well, I usually use a red pen, with the sharpest point I can find at office supply stores).
    I’d say the pattern is correct at least 97% of the time (usually higher… patternmakers have to be precise, while being the first place a finger points. I met a patternmaker, over the phone, from Russia. Same story from her. The nature of the job). Of course I rely on feedback: 1. fabric characteristics (shrinkage for example) 2. seam allowances (we have a chart to which the sewing floor is supposed to use… they don’t always) 3. other things which escape me at 5am…. sometimes I receive incorrect info/feedback.
    So…. I spend time getting to know the operators, spending time with them, chatting with them while they sew while keeping a hawk-eye on what they are doing.
    I remember the first jacket I made with over 30 pieces, a police (motorcycle) jacket. That led to the 50+ piece garments. All the whistles and bells some turnout gear has.
    thanks, Kathleen, for letting me ramble. martin

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