Why handmade is best

The alternative title to this is How to start a home based handmade sewing business pt4 but I didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle and besides, it applies to everyone. I want to address comments from yesterday’s entry (also see pt one and two) before going on because I know that what I said is highly controversial. Let’s start with a comment from Ragga:

Very nice definition of handmade, but I have to disagree with one small point which is that even if something is made by one person from beginning to end it does not guarantee quality. The quality depends on the skill level of the person who made it by hand. I say this because here in L.A. there seems to have been a handmade trend going on for the past couple of years which in some cases seems to glorify amateur level craft. Nothing wrong with it when you’re giving your handmade from home items away but questionable when it is being sold in “boutiques”.

I understand what you’re saying. First, yes, quality can -in part- be controlled by an operator (no operator can cure a mis-cut piece or a bad pattern). I’ve also seen caliber of work such that you describe, stuff so bad you can’t tear your eyes from it but some RTW is pretty bad too. The guy at the coop says these $20 train wrecks sell well. I can match the price and do a better job of it but the hassle of schlepping stuff around and collecting puts me over the top and out of the market. It depends on how hungry you are. It proves to me that there’s still a lot of opportunity in shopping bags. Ragga continues:

I think you mean that batching is problematic when spread around between several sewers. Am I getting this right? I’m not sure I agree that batching is always bad, I do it on the very rare occasions I have agreed to do small production, or when I do dupes. I am very confident that there is no difference in quality when I batch my dupes and it definitely speeds things up.

I am a reluctant convert to lean production -although not to lean processes such as cutting to order. Lean manufacturing doesn’t look the same in all industries -or even within the same industry. As Carol mentioned:

…if I’m making belt loops, I’m better to use a long strip, do the seaming in several long passes, than cut it into sections, trimming the weird ends. I would never be able to get a clean, true piece doing each little section.

Belt loops are an example of a sub-assembly. A sub-assembly is something that has to be sewn independently of the item before it can be added to it. A strap is another example. I argue with lean people all the time about sub-assemblies. I think it’s a case by case basis but agree belt loops should be batched like Carol says.

Returning to Ragga’s point of there being no difference in quality, I must reluctantly disagree. Vesta, one of our members, conducted a very interesting experiment. Having some time on her hands, she agreed to sew up 500 bags for her local farmer’s market association. She said:

OMG, OMG, OMG. I had to jump on and say I ran a little experiment for myself and Kathleen. I batched the first couple of hundred bags. Overlocked and stacked. Then later got on the lockstitch and hemmed, inserted the straps, trimmed, and flipped. Then I put the remaining couple of hundred bags through one-piece-flow. Cut pieces to finished bag. I had a U-shaped pod, with tables at the start and finish for cut fabric and finished bags. AND I was scooting around on a chair, rather than walking, which I’m convinced would have shaved a chunk of time off my average.

So? You ready? One-piece-flow was FASTER. It took me only about 86% of the time that it took to batch. And that’s not counting the time moving piles around in the batch phase: stack, move stacks periodically to a larger table, move them back later to the lockstitch machine…I’m floored. Totally. And I can’t tell you how much the quality improved when I stopped batching.

Anyway, I’m just writing up an internal summary of the project and couldn’t believe it when I averaged up my times. I thought I was going to be happy with a slightly longer time for the lean process, because of the quality difference alone. I don’t have to make any excuses for this one.

[“One-piece-flow” is manufacturing-speak for “handmade”.] People on the forum were suitably impressed and when asked for more detail about why the quality improved so much, Vesta said:

This paragraph from Kathleen’s post on how to prevent sewing defects is why the quality improved when I moved to lean:

Another way that lean saves you money is related to learning and the ability to self correct. For example, if an operator is only doing one step in the process as with bundling, the operator may not realize they’re doing an operation incorrectly. If they’re producing the entire garment, it will soon become evident further along in the process even if they don’t know to whom or what they can attribute the problem.

With all of the problems I encountered sewing, it was either me sewing a previous step less-than-optimally, or me working against the machine somehow. When I overlocked 200-odd pieces, I had to then deal with the shortcomings in every one of those pieces when I moved the batch over to the lockstitch (a week later). Then when I moved to the lean method, I realized I could be overlocking them in a way that would make my life easier at the lockstitch; and I perfected that as I completely sewed each bag.

I don’t expect anyone to believe that one piece flow (handmade) is faster and higher quality; it is something you have to experience for yourself to believe it. I think humans are hard-wired to prefer batching, it was the key to our survival as a species. Ron Pereira did a little video using the example of stuffing envelopes. The results were dramatic and controversial. Nobody enjoys having their sacred cows slaughtered.

Returning to what I said about lean production being different in each industry, Carol said

…as I remember it, one machine and a skilled operator to recalibrate it is better than five machines each custom-set. How long does it take to reset the machine?

In lean, single purpose machines are discouraged because they’re only good for one thing. This doesn’t really apply to sewn products because our machines, while they may be configured to do a certain operation, are infinitely adjustable to other operations that may be needed later on. Mike gave a great answer but I’d stress something that many homebased producers don’t quite understand (not Carol specifically).

Most people are used to the idea of one machine per person. In mass production, the ratio of sewing machines to operators is something like 1:1 because they do batching. There’s a few extras but that’s the rundown. In lean manufacturing, to prevent the waste of time spent switching out sewing feet or attachments, you have many more machines than operators. It is typical to have five or six machines per operator. And even that is misleading because operators share machines. In a pod like Mike has, there’s 11 or 12 machines and 2 sewing operators. Each operator uses each machine, they’re shared.

The problem with adapting this process to most home based producers is often space, they don’t have room for several machines and it could also be money although sewing machines can be very inexpensive. I think this is the biggest problem of small producers. You can’t sew faster without more machines but you can’t earn the money to rent space or buy equipment if you can’t sew faster. This is why I think homebased workers are attracted to batching, it gets them through a hump. However, from personal experience I know there are other ways to generate time savings that are not short cuts.

Speaking of short cuts, people think short cuts are the rule in the RTW industry. It is exactly the opposite. We take more time at the outset to do things in a certain way so that sewing takes much less time. We actually do more work, not less and in total, it takes less time to do it. For another thing (as Mike said) making things in one piece flow (handmade) means mistakes are caught and corrected immediately meaning you don’t waste time having to unsew something to fix it. How much time do you spend making corrections? At close, I’ve included links to entries that can help you understand ways you can sew faster.

Related entries:
How to sew faster pt.1
How to sew faster pt.2
How to sew faster pt.2b
How to sew faster pt.3

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  1. Mike C says:

    We actually do more work, not less and in total, it takes less time to do it. For another thing (as Mike said) making things in one piece flow (handmade) means mistakes are caught and corrected immediately meaning you don’t waste time having to unsew something to fix it. How much time do you spend making corrections?

    A good example occurred this week. We’re doing one of our existing styles in a new colorway, white. The particular piece calls for white binding trim, but the operator applied black binding trim in error (an easy mistake to make, many of our pieces are trimmed in black). As soon as the operators bumped (i.e. passed the garment between them), the other noticed and stopped the line to hunt me down. Had we been in batch mode, it would have been easy for the operator to bind all of the pieces in black and complete them before they had been caught.

    Even worse, under batch, I would have been making a much larger quantity, because it is much more difficult to do “just in time” sewing and we always had to maintain a much larger inventory than we do now.

    As Kathleen correctly notes, the two issues that make it difficult to adopt lean is the upfront cost of the equipment and the space requirements. When we installed our line a couple of years ago, we were the smallest apparel company to ever install a full system in the United States. If I had to do it all over again, I would have done it even sooner.

  2. katyrenee says:

    Wow. Thanks for the insights. I’m going to be making a bunch of vests this summer and probably would have tried the batch technique–even though Kathleen’s been talking about lean manufacturing over and over on this site. I suppose it has finally sunken in. Thank goodness!

  3. Rebekah says:

    Thank God for the last few postings about lean manufacturing!

    I’ve been working up the courage for the last few years to start my own line of bridal gowns after years of working in theater and custom. I’ve been paralyzed with fear about how I can possibly manufacture them myself (or with my legion of stitcher friends) without making hundreds at a time. Since I’m only going to be selling to a salon or two to test the market, and bridal is only made as the gowns are ordered, I’ve been having a fit trying to figure out how to maximize my yields, markers, and labor. At least now I have the confidence that with a few industrial machines and perfect patterns, the labor can be managed.

    Any other advice specific to bridal out there?

  4. Leslie Hanes says:

    I have very skilled stitchers who sew a jacket from start to finish, although mostly they don’t cut, even though each jacket is custom cut individually. I think Kathleen will agree that they end up being experts in the whole process, albeit they are uncomfortable moving out of the styles that they produce over and over again. When we have tried batching, everyone does speed up like speed demons, because they feel someone else is waiting for the batch, and we have mix-ups and errors. You also see the difference in technique between stitchers. I guess you could also see the difference in outcome of the whole garment between stitchers, but it gets closer all the time with practice.
    The only one who seems to be getting less skilled is me. I have to jump in once in a while when we are super busy and I can’t hardly remember what goes where, anymore.


  5. Thanks for the clarification (today and yesterday), Kathleen and Mike C.

    I’m relieved that some sub-assembly, like belt loops, is lean! One ergonomically-adjusted machine for each function, and people moving along them (ideally standing) is best.

    As I said yesterday, I don’t have access to my “Lean” books, but I’m sure there was a section that cautioned against overspecialized machines, like one that could only produce a 1987 Ford structural widget. In 1988 it would be obsolete. Better one with finely-machined tolerances that could be re-set.

    Is there some rough trade-off between number of steps / types of products / business net income that can help people decide when to invest in another machine?

  6. For those of you not convinced that batch is slower, think about this point Kathleen mentioned once (paraphrased): most of your sewing time is spent handling fabric. Once I had enough machines (only need 3) to take all garments from start to finish without stopping to rethread a machine for a second purpose, I considered the fabric handling aspect. It’s tempting to have a pile of cut pieces beside you and do all of one step, then move to another. We’re trained to think it’s faster. BUT stop and consider how much time you spend picking up the piece for the next step and finding where to start again (ie, fabric handling). It’s so much faster to just keep going with the same fabric in your hand. Also think about what it takes to restack into a pile for the second step in a batch. Do you throw them in a pile? No, probably not. You stop and fold it or somehow organize it to put it into the batch. More time waste.

    I also find it very satisfactory to cross items off an order form as I finish each piece.

    I keep a pile of cut pieces in a batch next to me–in order to pick the top piece off the top of the pile and sew it start to finish. Then I pick up the next piece and repeat the process.

    As Kathleen stated, machines can be inexpensive. If you have the space, I strongly suggest you have enough machines so you’re not stopping to change out threading or whatever. If you can’t do that, then you may be better off batching some parts. You’ll just have to experiment.

    And…I am eager to try sewing standing up. When I expand my studio, I’ll be moving things around and that will be a good time to reconfigure machines for this.


  7. Liz W. says:

    Thank you very much for this site and specifically for this series of articles.

    I work in the quality assurance department of a non-garment manufacturing plant and have been amazed at how the lean standards we emphasize at the plant have influenced my own production processes within my dressmaking business (much to customer and my benefit). Your articles have confirmed what I discovered and I will continue to implement my changes.


    Liz W.

  8. Barb Taylorr says:

    In regards to sewng standing up:
    I highly reccomend that anyone setting up a lean production factory consider having some machines configured for sitting and some standing. If the stitchers can work from a variety of positins it will be much healthier on their backs, which I expect would boost matabolism and reduce injury leave. I work in this way whenever possible and love the results – better comfort, less fatigue etc. Any chiropracters out there want to comment on this? Back pain is one of this country’s #1 reasons people miss work.

  9. Re: alternating sitting and standing

    Good idea, but only if your work force falls within a close range of body dimensions. I am quite short, and find a chair ergonomically set for someone 6-8″ taller worse than a backless stool.

    A set of plastic steps (remember step exercising?) that can easily be kicked along from (tall-standing-height) machine to machine works much better, but only if the machine can be run from a knee press or movable foot control.

    I once worked in a glass studio where the rest were guys 6’4″ to 6’6″. They considered the (dangerous) angles I had for the furnaces and glory hole to be my problem. I kicked along a concrete block.

  10. Barb Taylorr says:

    Yes, I agree that correct height is essential, for chairs as well as the tables. I was assuming that each stitcher would be using their own bank of machines and would set their stations to suit their needs. The knee pedal would also have to be set to the right height.
    The shop I worked in with standing machines used wooden platforms to accomodate varying height people (& rubber pads for all standing machines).

  11. Kathleen says:

    Batching can even be worse in other industries. On this other blog I read, Mark wrote this:

    I heard about this story this morning, this horrible tragedy where a 35-year old woman, Darrie Eason (pictured), from New York was told she had cancer and had a double mastectomy done on her, only to find out she really didn’t have cancer. The lab had switched two patient specimens. So the woman who really had cancer didn’t find out right away. The results were read properly by the pathologists, but they were mixed up due to what amounts to an administrative error. The MSNBC article mentioned the practice of “batching” specimens:
    “The state report said “the most likely source of the error” was the technician engaging in a practice called “batching,” which involves handling more than one specimen at a time.”

    Now, if you’re a manufacturing person, you recognize the term “batching.” It happens all the time in factories. When you implement Lean, you try to reduce your batch sizes to help improve flow. Batching interferes with flow. Batching also harms quality, in a number of ways.

    * The batch is moved and loaded into a “tissue processor.” Now this is inherently a batch process. Think of loading dishes into a dishwasher. Not a perfect analogy, but you don’t load one dish and hit “start.” Not if the dishwasher runs for 12 hours overnight.

    Now let’s stop and think about this for a minute. We see the exact same mentality in manufacturing. If you have a factory process that is batch oriented, we tend to use that same mindset and batch everywhere. With Lean in a factory, we move toward flowing up to the batch process and flowing after the batch process — for quality purposes and other reasons. The same thing can be done in a lab.

    * The tissue then goes through a few more operations. None of which is a batch process. It’s a lot of manual work. But, batching is still the primary mindset. We do a lot of work and let specimens accumulate in a tray until we move them, as a batch, to the next step.

    A CBLPath technician who handled Eason’s test admitted to his supervisors that he “occasionally cut corners by batching,” or handling more than one tissue specimen at a time,

    Unless the lab had implemented Lean methods, batching was the normal process. It’s not “cutting corners” if you are following the same normal process that everyone else is using. The normal process that sets people up to make errors. To a Lean thinker, the fact that you NEED inspection is a sign that your process is prone to errors.

    The state also claimed:
    “The state health department determined that CBLPath’s error was isolated and found “no systemic problems and no deficiencies” at the lab.”

    Sigh. Let’s just blame the person. Problem solved. Go back to trusting your health system… It’s called “human error” for a reason – we are human and we make mistakes. Smart system design recognizes that and makes it harder for errors to occur.

  12. Pingback: What is a batch?
  13. Mike C says:

    If the stitchers can work from a variety of positins it will be much healthier on their backs, which I expect would boost matabolism and reduce injury leave.

    I’ve never heard this before.

    Intuitively, as the body evolved for walking, I would expect that walking would be healthier than sitting in a chair. If there’s non-anecdotal evidence to the contrary, I’d love to see it.

    I do know that in the TSS pods I’ve seen, inserting sitting anywhere on the line would be a nightmare and would almost certainly increase the odds of injury rather than reduce it.

  14. Liron says:

    The nature of my work IS handmade, and whenever I make a few of the same item I always make them separately. It helps me to be more organized. Working with different piles of cut garments is confusing and I only did it once before realizing I wasn’t saving any time doing it.

  15. ClaireOKC says:

    I just love your blog and love reading it….I didn’t believe one-piece flow is faster than batching either, till I saw your video – what an eye-opener…how neat to tell my clients that not only are they getting a better product, but one that’s done quicker! I compete directly with a local retailer(the local bridal shop) and have always felt that I could turn my styles/fashion on a dime and that they were better quality, but never thought about it being quicker. Currently have client who is waiting for her RTW to be altered, while we’re moving along and will probably be done before her RTW is altered and done.

    I also agree with your commenters point that there is some handmade that is very shoddy. I’ve done repair work in the past after “mistakes”, but have started a new policy that I don’t take this on anymore, as the mistakes can go very deep (wrong cuts) and corrections that cause more problems than they cure.

    Great post.

  16. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    This explains a lot, really. I’ve thought for a long time that I could save *huge* amounts of time if I had another five or six machines (buttonholer, bartacker, 6 thread serger, and 2-3 more single-needle lockstitch machines) so I didn’t have to keep switching out feet, feed dogs, swapping thread, putting on/taking off a binder… For now I have to batch (when I make more than one of something) because it costs me more time to change my machine over to another operation, but I hope to someday have the space and machines to not need to.

  17. daniella says:

    I like the idea of home-sewing, but the problem is, I don’t have sewing skills and the attention-to-detail. What do you do if you can’t sew? Would it be better to out-source my clothing line (have it made in India) or have it made here by a local friend who could do it for a reasonable price…?

    I fear that I will go to a tradeshow and not be able to fill large orders if my local friend is making the clothes? At least overseas companies would be able to fill large orders…

  18. Avatar photo

    A lot of designers don’t sew, at least half of them fit that description so you’re not alone.

    I’m not wild on the two options you presented, those aren’t the only ones. You could do it professionally by having patterns made (by an industry pattern maker) and the sewing done by a professional contractor. That would cost less than your friend and with more consistent results. You also wouldn’t get saddled with large minimums that you’d have if using an offshore factory. And if you did need larger orders, a contractor here could also do that.

    I think your friend could be wonderful if she could help you rough out some mock ups to develop your concept. If this is a model you’re exploring, I suggest reading the book I wrote (in the right side bar) to help you develop a game plan and saving you a lot of money in having to backtrack to do things over.

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