Why sewing is slow and expensive

blog_ssa-1Sewing itself is very fast so why does it take so long to get finished product out the door and why does it cost so much? As I mentioned in my book, you can have a much greater effect on reducing production sewing time and problems in the design phase than you can in production and today I’m going to show you how.

Sewing a seam is very inexpensive on the face of it but because sewing is measurable, that is how costs are calculated. People look at a seam and mentally put a price to it. Whether it is ten cents, a penny or tenths of a penny, it really doesn’t matter (no, it really doesn’t).

It is not sewing that costs –it’s handling. The problem with handling is that it is mostly invisible; it can’t be measured. If it can’t be measured, you’re not paying for it directly, only indirectly and in the worst ways with bad quality, delays, missing pieces, and dirtied goods. So the trick to reducing a lot of cost is to analyze your seam design to reduce handling points. It seems more effective to analyze seams for the number of handling steps and assign a value based on cost and complexity for each seam. Ideally, each seam would only be one point. More points are justified if the price points support it or the material or finish require it.

blog_ssa-1+pressingSo here we go, this sample at top right is marked #1 is your basic SSa-1 formed on a basic (lockstitch) machine. Total points for handling this seam is 1 point. Easy enough.

Let’s compare seam #2; it has 2 points for handling because it is first formed on a lockstitch and then moved over to the pressing station to be butterflied.

On the face of it, moving the work piece over to pressing doesn’t seem like a big deal but consider context; its complexity has doubled. The logistics of managing cut pieces and scheduling them for processing at another location has doubled. Likewise, there needs to be space at both ends for the bundles to be stored and of course, in moving pieces from place to place, it is possible that pieces are lost, dropped and dirtied or what have you. This is why it has been estimated that 60% of the time spent on a garment is handling it, moving it from place to place, and time is money.

blog_sample9I’ll grant you that it is quite reasonable to expect a 2 step seam to be done properly but what of an example like seam #9? This seam has a total of 4 or maybe 5 points depending. Points for each step of this seam’s formation are:

  1. a lockstitch
  2. one side overlocked, then the other
  3. pressing
  4. topstitching one side of the seam.


  1. one side overlocked
  2. other side overlocked
  3. lockstitch
  4. pressing
  5. top stitching one side of the seam.

This seam is an example of an operation that can create logistics and scheduling roadblocks on the floor, an order of magnitude really. If a seam is this complex, a contractor will probably opt for the 5 point process just to simplify the work flow even though its costs are actually higher.

A seam like this may be too expensive to be justified if you consider your price points. You may get some push back from your contractor if you’re trying to get your costs lower. He or she will think this seam is too costly with time, logistics and resources considering the price you want to pay and may be annoyed that they are supposed to subsidize an unwarranted or superfluous operation.

So let’s say this is a perfect world, your price points justify the costs and product design requires it. Keep in mind that you could have a quality problem because the handling (remember, 5 points, 5 stages of handling for one seam) is complex and requires a higher order of logistics above and beyond. Believe me, it is one thing to organize the work order, operators and machines (to include thread changeovers) to do a product in however many stages. It is quite another thing to apply 5 handling steps for one seam. The result could be that in spite of the best intentions, the seam won’t be finished like this, and one or more steps may be skipped. It may be overlocked rather than lock stitched and then top stitched (reduced to 2 points). You don’t know. What is certain is that results may be inconsistent from unit to unit. The best solution is to use seams with the lowest number of points, meaning they can be done all in one pass.

The best course is to consult with your pattern maker and or contractor with respect to seam specifications. It is possible to use sewn samples from the marketplace but you must be very wary (this  entry was inspired by a designer who was using seams she found in a $400 pair of jeans to use in her $40 jeans).  Sewing costs are usually but not always a litmus test. Generally, a contractor with the kind of equipment to do seams like this all in one pass may charge more but the quality will be more consistent. Or even, two contractors with equal pricing but one lacks the equipment, may not end up being as equal with the latter having cost overages and or product shortages. Who is to know?

The lesson to all of this is to choose your seams wisely. Understand that the fees you pay are based on seam formation but only because handling -getting stuff from one sewing machine or pressing station to another- is invisible, can’t be accounted for and so, can’t be billed for. That doesn’t mean it isn’t costing you anything. Keep in mind that the more complex a seam is, and the more handling steps it takes to form it, the more potential there is for it to be done poorly, not as you specified or for pieces to be lost or dirtied in transit. Ideally, each seam should only be one point.

For what its worth,  I “invented” this system of assigning handling points to seams which is not to say others haven’t thought of it only that it hasn’t (previously) been expressed in just this way. Meaning, don’t be dismayed if you search on the web and don’t find any material about it.

The full length version of this post that analyzes 11 types of seams with larger images can be found here.

How to sew faster pt.1
How to sew faster pt.2
How to sew faster pt.2b
How to sew faster pt.3
How to sew faster pt.4
Deconstructing a sewing class
Plant organization pt.3
Category: Lean Manufacturing

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  1. Rocio says:

    -“It is not sewing that costs -it’s handling. The problem with handling is that it is mostly invisible; it can’t be measured. If it can’t be measured, you’re not paying for it directly, only indirectly and in the worst ways with bad quality, delays, missing pieces, and dirtied goods”-


    My production manager has been going back and forth for the last 3 years trying to explain this in a way that makes sense
    Hands down, this is THE BEST EXPLANATION I’ve ever heard for the “unexplainable”

  2. Lesley says:

    Great post, Kathleen.

    I deal with this all the time when estimating my production costs. The point system may be the best way to quantify this – I love the simplicity. I usually count seams and double them if they are extra long or time consuming, such as zippers, merrowing or wider hems. This system may eliminate the redundancy of my efforts as I can add this to my sewing spec sheet. I must also add the added “handling” involved in turning shoulder straps and garments inside-out, pressing, and tagging -whew! I know I am not properly quantifying this.

  3. Kathleen says:

    In the future, I will start quantifying sewing by this point system. It would be very interesting to go through one of my tutorials and grade the points and then compare its score to sewing processes the way people have or had been doing it. I can’t imagine the point costs for sewing a zipper the home sewing way vs industrial.

    But yes, turning shoulder straps etc would get dinged a point for handling because the seam isn’t complete until the strap is turned. Depending on the operation too, the bundle is often carried (handling) to another area to where the tube turner station is located. The way to eliminate one ding would be to get a machine that inner sews the shoulder strap edges -but that’s assuming you had the scale to justify the machine’s cost. We saw a machine like this at Spesa last time.

  4. Theresa in Tucson says:

    I would hate to tot up the points for the jacket I just finished as I spent far too much time handling, but a lot of that was me. As a home sewer, the tactile fiddling with seams, and I am a putterer by nature, often wins out over productivity.

    My building contractor friend once bought into a door company that wasn’t making money. In evaluating their processes he discovered they had no idea of the shop costs per door to get a blank ready to go to a customer. Once they did that and could articulate the handling costs to the customer, the resulting prices increases and some shop efficiencies put the company into the black.

    This is a relevant post so thank you for taking the time to write it. Your point system makes such perfect sense that it will probably be highjacked and we will see it pop up on the web under someone else’s name.

  5. Bente says:

    Great post!
    Was wondering how many points a french seam would be and why they are “more” expensive.
    Are there machines that does this all in one? I love french seams (made my first when I was 11 years old) but avoided them for less expensive garments. They use less thread and are nicer than overlock in shirts and other open garments where inside shows.

  6. Kathleen says:

    A french seam is only one point because the operator flips the work over and sews the second line of stitching. The work piece doesn’t need to be moved to another work station.

    For some things, you really need a french seam, specifically, cut silk edges that are mostly true vertical or true horizontal. The fibers are so smooth, cylindrical and hard, they will roll off and away from just one SSa-1 seam so you need two seams to encapsulate the raw edge.

    I think there is a machine but it could be pricey.

  7. Kathleen says:

    There is no plot or conspiracy. Industry follows the money, just like any other business. Knits sold so that’s where they went.

    Just btwn you and me (and don’t you dare say I said so or I’ll deny it), I think knits are evil.

  8. Rondi Anderson says:

    It appears to me that sewing with knits may have an economic advantage over woven by having fewer handlings. The wave towards knits being driven then by economy of reducing steps.

    I’m rather tired of knits in general and cheap fabrics particularly and print blouses that are purposely botched.


  9. Kathleen says:

    Yes, I understood you the first time but I don’t agree that knits are a ploy designers have used to reduce handling time -most designers don’t know much about it (the point of this entry); manufacturers follow whatever styling their designers come up with. With a nod to your points, I left a link. The comments are educational.

    Cheap is relative. Speaking of links, here’s another one: The difference between crap and quality.

  10. Rondi Anderson says:

    Ok, I get it! I’m not their client. Thank you. I was having a wine moment. Sorry if I have offended anyone.

    Maybe I’ve spent too much time on Pinterest and my hope for new fashion is screaming, “Please, I beg, reach Kansas! I’m ready for something NEW!”

    P.S. Though I don’t think designers care, I do think accounts do and in some dark meeting room he has given his 2 cents of how the world goes around.

  11. Karen Chow says:

    Hi Kathleen. I just finished reading your book this morning, and I loved it! Thank you for writing it. It’s very helpful for getting a newbie like me oriented.

  12. Kathleen says:

    Rondi… why would you come to an apparel industry blog and say something like this? You say designers don’t care -are you serious? It would mean that the usual market forces are suspended when it comes to clothes. That makers in every other industry -except fashion- care about their customers, wish to please them so they can go on to sell stuff and make money. But not in fashion? It does not compute for me -if designers didn’t care about pleasing customers, how would they have jobs? If retail accounts do all the design work then why would we hire designers? And fwiw, women predominate the design profession by a wide margin, say on the order of 90:10.

    As a practical matter, I get that you’re not happy so here’s a secret for you: The apparel industry is populated by people who also weren’t happy so they did something about it by starting their own companies. Meaning, they put their money on the line. This is where my secret gets really good: you can do it too. Barring that, why aren’t you buying products you find on pinterest?

  13. Rondi Anderson says:

    Kathleen, I am not saying that designers don’t care.

    I am saying here in small town kansas where no one has much for money and accepts buying from Wally World aka Wal Mart as a part of life there is a problem with knits everywhere. That is fashion except for cowboy clothes during the 4th (which I actually very impressed with because people are trying to stand out/be themselves). And it makes sense to me that if they only have to size for s, m, l and can reduce handling to boot that that is where the lowest prices will be.

    Poor people buy what is cheap. I’m there myself, (we lost our home 2 years ago and paid cash for a filthy century old farm house that I can now say we are just over the hump regarding remodeling PTL!) I know of people with much less then we have. I’d rather upcycle. I’d rather sew it myself to save money. I’d like to say, I’d rather do with out, but well that’s not a good idea when it’s clothes is it. Maybe I’m tempted to be sour when I can’t just order what I want. I am very tired of remodeling….

    It is not my desire to offend anyone. If I have, I apologize.

    Your right. I am not please with much out there around here. I’d like to see more woven causal. I went on a clothe shopping spree today. $2.00 a yard at Wal Mart and it was actually really decent fabric! We’ll see where that goes.

    And it looks to be a time ripe for change.

    What can I do? I have Adobe Illustrator, photoshop and more. I use a Mac, am not terribly skill with them though am growing. I kinda feel like I am feeling around in a dark room. Any book suggests? Yes, yours is on my to buy list! I sew reproductions for the 1850-1870 outfits and find these pattern directions are dreadful. I’ve felt like I’ve done enough complaining and need a kick in the pants to rewrite some of them, but find myself fussing over should I apply myself to a higher purpose/better direction. I have inspirations for children’s clothes, western wear and live in a household of girls and other sewers with wild ideas. I know reproductions best though.

    What would you all do if you where in my place?

  14. Rondi Anderson says:

    Kathleen, Your site is awesome. It’s challenged my sewing and my thinking. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge, your ideas and your being straight forwardness.


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