Why you should start your own sewing factory

This is the post I had intended to write after the recalibration post rather than the slow fashion one. By way of reminder, in the former I’d said that 2010 would be all about recalibrating our expectations in terms of income, value, price but most of all -and the topic of this post- how we do business. Many businesses are not sustainable. The free flowing credit market (60% of entrepreneurs fund via credit cards) and over inflated home values (30% of entrepreneurs finance ventures with second mortgages) permitted people to outsource jobs they may have been better off to have considered developing internally. Yes, I mean conditions are such that you might think about developing your own sewing operation.

Sustainability is a word everyone loves to throw around. Buy organic, slap a green leaf or pretty bird icon (what is up with that, I’m so over it) and most people call it good. I’m talking about regionalism and making your supply chain sustainable. We always had regionalism (meaning manufacturing close to home) but got away from it. I think we’re headed back to it. Or rather, if you go back to it, the time is ripe to benefit from it. It is unavoidable, the more vertical you can be, the more profitable you are (see yesterday’s entry, what is vertical integration?). And yeah, everybody lauded vertical so we ended up with goosey definitions that included things like 16 month production time lines which was considered to be all good as long as you sold it yourself (GAP etc). I mean something else. I mean manufacturing your own stuff under your own auspices. You know, the way we used to do it. A return to tradition. Tradition is popular in a downturn. Old school ways can save money.

Deep down, I truly think people should set this as their goal. I just haven’t said that because I don’t want to offend the legions of people outsourcing services which by implication could mean I think their model can’t work. Too often, if one suggests changes, it can become misinterpreted as a test over values and it shouldn’t be. You should manufacture yourself because it makes sense in myriad ways but it does not hold that manufacturing by contract means you’re a bad person who exploits people or a bad business person.

This is the thing. Over time, many of you will end up producing your own products once you have the means. It’s the opposite of before (a lot of big brands have come back and are desperate to find contractors). Before, you made do in house until you had the scale to outsource abroad. Those days are truly gone at this time and at this level (which is not to say someone could take you there but that’s a minority). Transaction and energy costs being what they are, I believe one will be in a better position financially if they can produce for themselves, the sooner the better. This is sustainability, regionalism, producing as close to your points of sale as possible.

A lot of newbies get into the industry and think hiring a domestic contractor will be easy and cheap because people are hungry with the economy in the can. The conflicts with that expectation are two fold. First, once some businesses lose their foothold, those jobs aren’t ever coming back. Second, people who are good at something have more options. They’re likely to be good at other things too and will go onto other more stable work meaning you’re left with fewer qualified quality choices in domestic contract manufacturing. This is why I think developing in house production should be a greater priority. If highly skilled workers leave the industry, they’re not going to be available later on when you need them. The loss of skilled labor is a crisis; it represents the loss of institutional knowledge. The longer you wait to look for it, the less of it there will be.

If you produce for yourself, you can reduce a lot of uncertainty, you won’t be waiting (hoping) for someone else to make it happen for you and miss deadlines. I think it makes you a better business person. The costs of waste become much more tangible. A lot of waste is invisible to you if you’re using contractors. You’re not seeing all the fabric that goes in the trash. But most of all, your transaction costs are dramatically reduced so it’s easier to keep reign on your costs and the costs of your decisions. If the process is invisible to you, you really have no idea how fees for services can be inflated by less than optimal decisions.

I liken the process of cost monitoring to using kill-a-watt vs a household power usage monitor. The kill-a-watt is pretty cool. You plug it in an outlet, then plug an appliance into it, and it will tell you the amount of power it draws. That’d be like monitoring per unit sewing costs from your contractor for given styles. But a household power monitor (connects to the mains) tracks electrical usage for the whole house so you can compare energy use for different times of day and where it’s coming from. This is akin to producing everything in house because you’ve got the visuals, the workplace is all around you.

Other benefits beyond lower costs are flexibility. You can take reorders and not worry about meeting a contractor’s minimums. You can do very small lots. You don’t have to get tied into long time lines, deciding in March whether you’ll cut a style for August delivery because you can do immediates. You can also do more private label or special orders for given customers. Maybe they want an exclusive colorway, you can do that. Inventory is another thing. Tragically, most people (not retailers, that should say something right there) have no idea what their inventory is costing them. In accounting, inventory is considered an asset but in the contrary opinion of many, it’s a liability. Inventory ages, it’s worth less the longer it sits there and you don’t have the money to pay people to make the stuff that is selling. If you make your own stuff, you have no need to acquire inventory. Build it as the orders come in. Remember, deliveries made inside of four weeks are considered to be immediates.

Producing your own stuff is cool, you get to sit at the cool kid’s lunch table. People used to be embarrassed to admit it because they only did it because they had to. Now, it’s something to be proud of. In other industries, vertical integration is having a comeback. Considering transaction costs (which could in part be defined as the overhead that services have to charge you to stay in business themselves), costs may be lower than you think. You won’t have to be overnighting stuff or paying freight coming and going like you are now. Then your prices are lower which represents a better value to your customers.

I don’t pretend for an instant that it’s easy to set up a sewing shop but I also don’t think it’s as hard either. Equipment is very inexpensive these days. I bought a top of the line machine ten years ago that listed at $3,500. Two months ago, I bought an even better machine, new, for $2,200 including shipping. Since you’re breaking new ground, you won’t get stuck with old school mind sets that are bad in some ways. Before, we had roughly one operator per machine. Machines were pricey, people weren’t. Since the reverse is true now, have more machines than people. More machines with varying capabilities expands the range of construction possibilities.

I think the real problem is fear, stepping off into the abyss and seeing what’s really there. A lot of us don’t want to know. It’s easier to write a check and spare yourself the gory details. Then, you have to relinquish control, in a lot of ways you won’t (or shouldn’t) be the expert anymore. If you’re smart, you have to hire people who know more than you do, don’t hire at or below your skill level. That is a recipe for disaster. A lot of people only want to work for you so they can siphon off whatever you can teach them, rifle your rolodex and then go off to start their own enterprise.

I know this isn’t going to be an option for many of you wrestling with family responsibilities, other jobs or maybe the cost of living in your part of the world is scandalous. For some people though, those who live off the beaten path, this could be just dandy. With low expenses and wages, this could work. And I don’t mean to be a classicist or anti-classicist but I think that people in rural areas are better workers. My husband says he’d only hire farm boys if he could. They’re used to working harder, improvising on the fly and making it work one way or another. There’s a lot of advantages -infrastructure and connections mostly- to working in a commercial center but there’s lots of down sides too.

How to start:

Other than reading my book because you can’t wing this by reading blogs all day, even mine, this requires a whole new mindset. Don’t start something new just yet. Pick one thing you’re already doing and do it better. I recommend reading What to do when you don’t know what to do. Exclusive focus on one thing will free you to develop competency and give you the confidence and bravery to tackle the next one on the list.

Many people would be well served to stop doing things -a symptom of bigger problems. Like today, I went to visit a designer’s site. She’s jockeying for position with ambitious goals this year, intending to borrow more money to revamp her sizing, streamline her styles and reach into new sales territories. A better investment would be to shut off the music on her site that’s running customers away and it doesn’t cost a dime. Speaking of, music on a website is rapidly becoming a good litmus test of who is willing to listen and apply advice. If someone won’t shut it off, I’ll know this is more about the designer’s need of affirmation or validation. That’s a personality problem, it shouldn’t be a business one. This is why a lot of people won’t give you the time of day. They tell you something and you’ve got a whole laundry list of why you’re right and they’re wrong. Why would we spend the time telling you what you want to know if you won’t listen to what you need to know?

I think running your own production makes you into a much better business person. If you make it, it will bother you a whole lot less to listen to what people are telling you. You can see why they’re right in front of your eyes. If they’re wrong, you can prove it and it becomes a teaching moment (bonding, don’t you feel the love?). Your conflicts won’t consist of a contractor (rolling his eyes) over the phone, explaining problems that just aren’t real to you. Designers who run their own production are much better about getting rid of dogs, poor sellers that drag profitability down. Which do you love better? That dress that only you like or your best stitcher? Which one would you prefer to keep around over the long haul?

Get New Posts by Email


  1. Valerie says:

    Thank you so much for this post Kathleen! I really needed it to affirm some of my plans for the next coming weeks as I am meeting with some local stitcher this weekend. Is it more common to charge by piece or by the hour? And is it best to have them work from their hones if they have the setup or better to have them work out of my shop? Perhaps I should double check the forums for more info? Not sure what to do about patternmakers though-as there aren’t really any qualified ones (at least by the book’s standards). If regionalism is the goal but a component like a grader or pattern maker to help me check my patterns is not regionally available, what would you suggest? As for the music on the site bit- I am turning mine off tonight-scouts honor! Thanks again for the boost Kathleen- I’m excited but also a little uncertain, as this whole process is so new to me.

  2. Renee says:

    The best thing about producing in house for me has been the ability to make changes on the fly. You get five comments from different customers about one thing, you know it’s for real. Modify the pattern or change construction or fabrication, do some testing, cut a new batch and you’re off and running. Two weeks later, the new version is shipping.

  3. kristin says:

    This is right on the money and exactly what I am planning to do with my line. I am also interested in incorporating a job training component (pattern making, etc. . ) for those wanting and needing a new skill for job creation. Sustainability is key. Overall, we have GOT to bring manufacturing as a whole back to the US. Moreover, I know that President Obama was talking to China about having some of their production done in the US. Don’t know if that will ever happen but the thought is appreciated. But it’s good thinking for us to be the outsourced contractor.

  4. Grace says:

    From a customer’s POV, I like buying stuff that was produced locally. I wrote about my wonderful experience with a DE in my home town.

    It is a small shop. There are onsies and twosies of each style. You may not find your size in your preferred color, but most things can be made to your specifications, especially if Renko produced it. She carries other small independent American designers as well.

    Years ago, I admired a fantastic raincoat with a pleated collar/hood, but lamented that she didn’t have one in my size in my preferred color and style. She said that she could have one made for me in two weeks. They are made in a small factory in NYC and she orders from them weekly. The low waste approach to fashion, and supporting domestic industry appealed to me. I had no choice but to buy it.

  5. Million says:

    I like this one! I have been mulling over similar ideas for ages, but you have clarified so many variables which I hadn’t even considered.

  6. Donna S says:

    I think the real problem is fear, stepping off into the abyss and seeing what’s really there. A lot of us don’t want to know. It’s easier to write a check and spare yourself the gory details.

    I think the key to this article can be summed up with the above statements.

  7. Lloyd says:

    Kathleen, we have been doing our production in house since day one, the company is now 49 years old, I bought the company 22 years ago. The owner/seller had listed this as the top feature of the company and stressed to me never to loose sight of this.

  8. I guess I’ll play devil’s advocate here. I don’t want to run a shop. And I don’t think paying someone to do it means you’re spared the gory details (if you are, you may be headed for failure because you have your head in the sand).

    Having your own shop is a choice, but not a choice we all want to make. I’m currently producing in-house (I cut everything, I sew about half, give the other half to a stitcher who works at home). I want to produce styles that I’m not qualified to cut and sew to industrial standards, and so I’m going to have that part produced in Bali. Yes, some of my dollars are going overseas, but stitchers in Bali need work, too. I don’t mind. I’ve lived in a third world country, and I feel good about giving jobs to those countries. I’ve visited both factories I’m considering and I’m confident about conditions and quality as well as their need for work.

    I do agree with one point: hiring a domestic contractor is not easy nor cheap. I’ve tried.

    And, Kathleen, of course I’m not offended by your post. I read it with interest, and I think it’s the perfect model for many people. Each model has its own set of problems, and I completely agree with the advantages and disadvantages of this model. As is usually the case, I bet those advantages and disadvantages would turn around and be the disadvantages and advantages, respectively, of the outsourcing model.


    P.S. I also agree with what you said about this not being easy for people who have other jobs. If my husband could quit his job and run our shop, then I’d reconsider. I’m certain there are trained, unemployed stitchers here in Central PA.

  9. Great, provocative post! And I mean provocative as a compliment, of course. And funny timing for me, I met two NY designers last night (I know at least one is a visitor here) and one in fact mentioned wanting to eventually manufacture in-house (and she wasn’t joking when she said the cost of a $500,000 machine she’d need was reasonable; she’d make use of it by producing for others also).

    About six, seven years ago I worked for a Sydney company who manufactured some of their shirts in-house, in a shirt-factory that had run in the building for decades. It was also one of the last places I ever heard of where employees left at 2pm on Fridays; this apparently used to be standard in Sydney only 15 years ago. Anyhow, a large bulk of the in-house manufacture was made-to-measure, which was sold alongside off-the-rack in the shops. Sure, this wouldn’t work in every instance, but did there because the number of styles was limited, although there were lots of options regarding collars and cuffs. The cutter had a large set of pieces from which she (one of few female cutters I ever worked with, she taught me a lot) picked the ones she needed for each particular order. In-house was also used to cut and make ends-of-rolls i.e. small runs.

    The company is still going, after having gone into administration a couple of years ago. I had a look at the website and judging by the address, I’m guessing the factory is no longer part of the operations and I didn’t see any mention of made-to-measure services either. I hope the women in the factory are still employed if not retired (most were Greek immigrants from the 1960s); in fact, I hope the factory still exists. I’ve always felt lucky to have had the experience.

    On another note, I know of one professor who used to set a task to students of designing a logo for a sustainability initiative that was NOT allowed to include a sphere/globe, leaves or the color green. I’m so with you on that one.

    I guess the point I want to get across is that in-house allowed for the kind of flexibility outsourcing rarely/never affords.

  10. celeste says:

    I have always thought it would be better to produce in house, and if I had a design company, this would be my prefrence. Becuase it is so against the norm, I always thought I was crazy for thinking that, but glad to read thats not the case.
    That kind of model I feel gives you more control, and cost savings, faster production, but I also think it lends to better quality control. If some thing is not working it can quickly be fixed.

    But, this also doesn’t mean that you are the one (physically) producing everything yourself, you hire the stitchers and cutters, and whoever else you need.

  11. Dawn B says:

    I know from past experience that I STINK at managing people. Running a sewing shop would be a nightmare for me. I don’t disagree with you at all in terms of the potential advantages of producing in house, but some of us are just not personally suited to it.

  12. kristin says:

    I agree that manufacturing provides jobs in Third World Countries and helps deal with poverty on a global scale. but we also have quite a bit of poverty in the US that needs to be addressed. With unemployment on the rise, job creation (in addition to affordable health care) is a number one priority. Clothing manufacturing in the US would definitely contribute to a boost in our economy.

    Moreover, there are still manufacturers outsourcing to Third World countries that are not held accountable for unfair labor practices, still employ children to work 12 hour days, and workers living and working in deplorable conditions.

  13. vee says:

    After reading your articles on opening up your own sewing factory. You gave me great inspiration. My sewing factory was in my dining room when I was single. Now that I’m married and living in another place, it is in my basement. I cut, chalk and sew. I always hated cutting patterns pieces and fabric but I loved to sew. In order to get to the sewing I had to do the first steps. My grandmother sewn and knitted. My mother sewn and I would watch her and then I taught myself. In middle school I took a sewing class and got a low mark only because the sewing teacher was teaching us to make aprons and I was bored. I was more advance then that. That low mark didn’t not stop me from sewing. My father purchase a singers sewing handbook for me and I still have that hardback book.

  14. Not sure about US (yet) but the point Kristin raises about labor practices isn’t limited to Third World countries. At my first job after uni in Australia (with one of the most respected and well-known designers) I once saw a contractor pick up the cut work quite late at night, and drop off the made-up garments the next morning. Who sewed them through the night, I don’t know but it made my stomach turn. Still does.

  15. Kathleen says:

    Timo, I’ve said this till I’m blue in the face (it’s even a lecture in my book) that DEs often presume that the local corner sewing shop is on the up and up just because they can connect or establish rapport with the owner. The DE needs this relationship, is desperate for as close a connection as possible so they don’t look too closely or wave off any intuition they may have but I can tell you that is where some of the worst of abuses take place. It’s easier to hide if you’re small. I cannot fathom why everyone thinks it’s larger firms that are sweatshops, this is ridiculous! They’re big, they’re a target and easier to hit. Inspectors visit more frequently. Moreover, regulators have a greater financial incentive to do it. Fines are bigger with larger firms. Big does not necessarily mean bad. How long will it take for this to sink in? A little guy is only exploiting one or two people, that’s hardly worthy of a news story. Everyday, DEs hire sweatshops. Sometimes, I think they don’t want to know or wave off any misgivings by telling themselves it’s none of their business.

    Small shops send work out the back door every day. And I truly don’t believe malfeasance is intended at the outset, but it gets that way. It’s not just California that has illegal sweatshops holed up in apartments, they do it everywhere!

    This is how it happens. A family gets together (often immigrants, that’s not an insult) and tries to make a better life for themselves by stitching and living from the same space. It’s run on a shoe string. No one gets paid or if they do, it’s basically pocket money. The savings go into buying or renting a better location and equipment. Everyone pitches in to help, everyone gains, it’s familial cooperation and a very good thing. There is nothing illegal about this (except in CA, you’re not allowed to sew from anywhere but a commercial location) because everyone is in agreement. Money goes to benefit the family, they send some of the kids to college etc.

    Some of these operations are in danger of becoming sweatshops tho when they bring in other workers who are not family members. Their pay can be abysmal with resentment on both sides. The “owner” is resentful because the new worker, no matter how shabbily they are paid, is “making” more money than the owner. That’s true, they are making more money but the worker is not earning an interest in business ownership, their compensation is direct. So, the workers are belittled into accepting less than minimum wage because they are shamed into it and often, are bereft of other employment opportunities. Better to be abused by the devil you know and who speaks your language, than the devil you don’t know who doesn’t.

    The point is, smaller operations can hide from authorities easier than large ones can so DEs who look for small shops with the expressed impression they are preventing the abuse of workers are frequently mistaken.

  16. Anna Herman says:

    Jam on it .My company produces in house. It gives me flexibility and I don’t have some idiot telling how to run my company. I can teach someone how to sew and have in the past. I hate the way the garment industry is run full of sweatshops and chemical redden fabrics. Past time for change.
    Designer Anna Herman

  17. Austin says:

    I just love the buzz of an industrial overlock machine when you put your foot down. What other reason do you need :)

    I really cant imagine doing it any other way. Order changes, need a couple more, have one that needs repair, no problem. Ohh can’t forget my favorite the customer willing to shell out a little extra to get it ASAP.

    Its all on the up and up. Records are on hand, guaranty’s are kept beyond their requsite period. The FTC knows where to find me, altho I did neglect an update of my RN untill this week because of a postal address problem got the post office straight, the legal tech is on the job and should be fixed in short order. Here in the US Ive found the FTC one of the most accessable and easiest govt agencies to deal with, that is untill you do something to make yourself a target… injunctions, litigation, fines they can and do put companies under the microscope and make things pretty miserable when they’re deserving. Just have a look at the cases and actions on their site, falsly identifying country of origin carries some hefty penalties.

  18. Miracle says:

    Moreover, there are still manufacturers outsourcing to Third World countries that are not held accountable for unfair labor practices, still employ children to work 12 hour days, and workers living and working in deplorable conditions.

    When people paint this picture, and are allowed to do so freely, it hurts the industry as a whole. There are abuses and greedy owners everywhere, but you’d be surprised just how similar other countries are to ours: just trying to provide jobs and give people a way to make a living. Low wages and unfair labor conditions are sometimes the result of constant downward price pressure from those companies that import and want lower prices (so we are partially to blame) and also because in some countries, other things are just culturally common. Like bare feet.

    But back to my point, when an American points a high and might finger at the third world operator, three more are pointing back. We’re no saints, and to be honest, some of our excess consumption, greed, and overall cheapness is responsible for some of those labor conditions so we really should take a look in the mirror for admonishing the countries for doing whatever they have to do to get money coming in while still managing to produce t shirts that we can buy for a dollar.

    It does the industry as a whole no good to allow this kind of infighting and finger-pointing to go on because from the outside we are ALL guilty. You can point a finger at the third world countries for labor abuses and three will be pointing back at the domestic producing all american designer gouging the consumer for their ridiculously overpriced wares when there are people starving in those very same third world countries. Go figure.

  19. Eric H says:

    I agree with you, Miracle. This is a curious form of soft racism to say, in effect, “I am politically correct and racially sensitive enough to know that those swarthy furriners systematically mistreat their own but we don’t.” This is surely wrong. I think we have posted several times about abuses right here in the States. At the same time, there are developing countries (e.g. Cambodia, IIRC) with good labor conditions.

    Also, suppose that we pass a law, the (ill-advised) Sewing Contractor Repatriation And Protection (SCRAP) Act, that forces designers to use domestic labor. Do you suppose that they’re suddenly going to put labor and working conditions as the first priority? Or that customers are going to stop demanding the cheapest crap they can get?

  20. Sandra B says:

    Trying to ensure the work I contract out is done for a fair pay is enormously difficult. Here in Australia the designer/manufacturer is responsible for the conditions of the person who actually sews the garment. However, when employing a contractor, they will often swear black and blue that they are the one who is making it, although it’s always “my wife took them home to sew the buttons on while she watches the baby” when you show up. If the actual sewers are found by authorities, the designer, who was unable to find out if they even existed, is responsible for the fact that they are working in unfair conditions. I was finally able to manage the process in such a way that I found a solo operator who was very fast and I designed to her capabilities. We had a one week turnaround and produced about 80-100 garments a week. And she was undercharging us, although exploiting yourself isn’t illegal, just foolish. Just to keep the garments in the same price range as the company’s bought-in lines, I had to increase the margins so much it was like printing money. What a shame I was only an employee, and too naive/insecure to negotiate a far better wage for myself as well.
    It was certainly the easiest production management job I’ve ever had, and produced the best results.

  21. Ashley says:

    I run my own shop and feel like I’m drowning. I drape, draft, test fit, draft again, grade, screenprint, cut, sew, advertise, sell, ship, buy, account, and repeat. It’s daunting to say the least. I thought I needed to drastically overhaul how I do everything, but after reading your piece along with all the comments, I’m seeing the advantages a bit more clearly. No doubt I need help, but I’m no longer so concerned that I’m going about this in completely the wrong manner. I just have to keep going.

    On a related note, my goal is to have every aspect of SouthernSkirts be southern – I want the thread, the fabric, the printing, the buttons, the zippers, and the sewing to all be from this region of the country. I know it’s a tall order but I’m not giving up. Call me protectionist, tell me my head is in the sand, but I believe there are just too many people who can do the work right here, and until they’re utilized to the fullest of their potential, I don’t see how the U.S. can ever expect be sitting on a strong economic foundation again.

  22. Anna Herman says:

    I think thats really nice. Great prints. We also do alittle in house screening . I’ve talked to a few designers that are making a difference doing things in cottage domestic workshops. People would be surprized if they knew how much you can get done when you put your mind to it .We say its as if its run by magic. I just keep a large inventory so I don’t get stuck.I want to do some organic cotton grown in texas then milled in the US.I also have ties to the south , unfortunately the powers that be at the mills are telling me I have to meet redictulous miniums I don’t think they understand the changing market. I’ll keep at them. I wish they would put the mills back next to the cotton fields where they used to be.

  23. David S says:

    @Timo: just because they’re working at night doesn’t make it a sweatshop. (It might well be, of course; i don’ know.) A buddy of mine works for a local machine tool company, which runs its small batch and custom work on second shift. They do it so they can get an emergency order at the end of the business day, and have the parts waiting at the customer site at 8 am the next day. Operating a second shift lets you get more use out of machines and space, which reduces the amount of the fixed costs that have to be allocated to each unit of production, which can lower prices or increase margins. If you can take further advantage of that by offering a valuable service, like overnight delivery, you can raise your margins more.

  24. David, you raise a very good point. I think I always assumed the less favorable situation to be the case, due to a myriad of other slightly shady practices by that employer, and how everyone along the way (us employees included, as well as the nervous wreck of a production manager, at the time two years out of college…) got paid a pittance. But point well taken, and you’ve reminded me, I do know of examples like yours from other industries.

  25. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    I’d love to have a sewing factory. I’d probably have to hire a manager, though. I’ve been wanting to follow the model of make the samples, take the photos, sell the clothes thru that, THEN produce. I have a very small inventory of other stuff I’ve been sitting on for far too long. Other than that, I’ve been doing custom stuff for friends and family (not much since getting rear-ended in November, though). I started doing multiple vests for a male friend and a few for my husband, so I’ve gotten really good at it. Some formal shops sell the vests, but it seems you can’t really find nice vests for either gender very often. My husband always gets compliments when he wears them. I want to produce them on a larger scale. And some other types of clothes. I have room in my sewing room at my new house for more machines, but I don’t know if the current power is up to it. Are there industrial machines that run on house power?

  26. i def. feel ya Ashley! you’re right-just keep going. I’m in the same boat like yourself and i’m sure a good handful of other F-Iers are in as well. We wear every hat that our business can handle and at times it feels like you’re working more ON the business than you are IN the business. It’s tough but rewarding at the same time. It’s great to have F-I now to help navigate through some of the scarier, more daunting unchartered waters of this industry. Feel free to message me or drop me a line-keep and up the good work!

  27. Patton says:

    I started my handbag company about a year and a half ago. Since then, many many times i have thought “what was i thinking!!”. When I started the company I worked in sales and marketing and I knew NOTHING about design and production. A couple of years back I worked for an apparel designer where we had a sample maker in the back room. I always thought that was such an efficient way of sampling/designing.

    While getting my sample line together I have, of course, made some mistakes (my start-up was my education after all), but most of the trouble has come from contractors not meeting deadlines and not wanting to give me “the in” on sourcing contacts, production techniques, etc. Many times I have daydreamed about having my own factory. In the back of my mind it has always been my goal, and in the future if everything worked out – the factory could expand to produce other lines.

    I like the idea of everything being under the same roof and close to home. Talk about eliminating a DE’s waste and making my life a ton easier. At least the problem would be in front of me, and not being explained to me over the phone by a contractor who doesn’t share my workmanship values and style. There has also been a problem with language barriers. I have worked with three contractors in the last year and a half, all of which *sigh* far too often for me. I don’t enjoy my contractors making me feel like they are squeezing in a favor for me. They are not. I pay them to make the product. Enough with the deep sigh’s of frustration. It’s your job.

    With that said, is doing my own production even an option for me? I don’t know how to sew, I don’t know anything about the machines/supplies/types of workers I would need. And i live in Brooklyn where space can be scarce. I am asking because in my mind I feel like I could make decent production for myself with only one or two workers and I know that getting to that place would teach me a lot of what i need to learn anyway. What would I need to know to do this, and would it be worth it to me? I sort of cringe at the idea of “since you don’t know how to do it now, it’s too late to learn, and bringing in someone else to teach your workers is silly”. That is a quote from the back of my brain, no one has actually told me this. Any thoughts would be GREATLY appreciated. I am stuck in the mud with regards to production.

  28. Anna Herman says:

    Patton, I like what you are doing . I picked up some good deals on machines on ebay. Lucked out really didn’t know if it was the best for my needs . How hard could it be to make a purse you can do it . I didn’t pay attention to all those who thought I was nuts to try to produce in the US.
    Miracle we are not all guilty . I am Deeply ashamed of the bad choices other designers have made. I don’t support sweatshop labor.I see changes . I am part of the green movement . Fair trade & organic.

  29. Tom Lo says:

    Well…we did it this way: launched our own brand, and bought an existing sewing contracting business to bring in-house to support our brand. Well, we were slammed with work (in Socal) because of how we set up our business. We focused on smaller quantity, higher margins–which a lot of new DE’s are looking for. It was also a steep learning curve to do in-house work. But, we’ve got it handled now, so hindsight is roses and unicorns.

    So should you go in-house? Yes, if you’re a brand that has the capital, and are a glutton for the torture of in-house production, go for it. There is a LOT of advantages of producing in-house. You can make 4 garments if you need, and it won’t break your bank. And, flexibility and keeping costs down are an upside. The downside, and here’s where I think that creativity and attention to production details is a needed combo for someone wanting to do in-house, is IF you can’t handle the production details, try to manage it yourself instead of hiring a production manager, and don’t have the cash reserves to take on added payroll. Then that’s the downside. Big time.

    What Kathleen said is true, we’re in a shady business, this apparel business. We can’t point fingers overseas, when we demand a certain price point. We can’t demand 100% compliance with all labor laws, etc. and still expect to be competitive AND make 50%+ returns. There’s always a price to pay, so be sure you know what that is, and if you’re willing to pay it before you start an in-house production line.

    If it were me, knowing what I know, I still think in-house is worth it. If you want my further opinions (if you’re REALLY thinking about doing it), feel free to call me or check out my website to get a hold of me.

  30. Cynnie says:

    I stumbled across your website by accident. I was searching the internet to find a good value on a dress form and somehow hit a link to your site. I will be buying The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product with my next available $60. I relocated to Philadelphia 2 years ago and then retired from 30 years of working a government job six months ago. I now all I think of is starting my own garment business. Mostly because I have always enjoyed fitting and sewing my own garments, have a very specific vision of my ‘niche’ market, and finally have the time and freedom to develop my product ideas.

    Also the City of Philadelphia has an unbelievable number of empty factories. I can’t shake the thought that if manufacturing here was once so profitable, it is very possible it could be profitable in the near future.

    Just reading this blog has made me feel that my ideas are feasible.

  31. April Hoy says:

    Thanks Kathleen for this post. It’s very relevant to discussions taking place in our Denver design community right now. Very insightful and really helpful ways of looking at some of these issues. When you’ve got a one person shop like mine, you tend to think that the issues you have are specific only to you. It’s good to know that there are other like minds with similar ideas. Thanks again!

  32. Tonya says:

    Does anyone have a rough idea of how much it would cost to start a small mfg. operation?

    I live in Memphis, TN and we have a relatively low cost of living. We have the people + space + great distribution options. I’m thinking I could get some grant funding to start this as it would bring jobs here but I need some seasoned people who know how to run a lean manufacturing operation. I also need people who can train cutters & stitchers because this industry hasn’t been in our area in probably 100 yrs.

  33. Jen Rocket says:

    I am elated to see the subject of on shore manufacturing discussed in this way today because it is so relevant not only in today’s economy but in my daily life. I have been involved in local manufacturing since 2006. I now work part time with a company who is currently manufacturing a large percent of their product here, while working to open a factory in order to manufacture 100% here in Pittsburgh. The man who is running this floor is a veteran from the 80’s-90’s when Pittsburgh used to manufacture clothing. He assisted me in creating a sewing floor for a costume manufacturing company back in 2004, and is again working with me to start my own shop.
    He is an older gentleman and has trouble sewing for too long of a time, but I am there to assist whenever needed, his knowledge is being graciously passed onto me and I am forever in his debt. With his help and my dedication I know we will be successful. On a side note, I purchased Kathleen’s book in 2006, it changed my life and have only ever considered local manufacturing since.

  34. suejean lee says:

    thank you for this post. i felt the same way as you for a long time but was afraid because i thought that the way i saw things was archaic. but the alternative seemed so intimidating, mysterious, and hidden that it’s made me not even want to try. i’m really glad to hear people in this industry talking about saving and thinking of cutting down on waste. it’s given me great affirmation as others have also commented.

  35. Liesl Binx says:

    Thanks for this post! I am just starting up my plus size sportswear company and am doing everything from website design to sewing made-to-order myself. I hope to have my own in-house sewing operation someday and your posts have been helping me immensly! I feel really lucky to have access to all the wealth of knowledge you provide. Thanks

  36. Jamie Wilson says:

    Wonderful, wonderful post! Just came upon your blog as I’m set to purchase 2 industrial machines tomorrow(!) and was looking for some guidance as I’m really just a self-taught home sewer turned professional… what a fantastic resource this blog is! I’m currently expanding my business & moving out of my home & into a real, commercial studio space due to crazy demand/more orders than I can possibly fill (it’s custom quilting – no fashion or garments, but most of the same rules apply!) I have one assistant, but will now be hiring a couple sewists to work at my location, and even though this is all financed through my business’s own savings, and my current receivables already ensure a tidy profit, I am NERVOUS!!!! But I know I can keep a few people busy full time with just work that I already have, so here goes nothing!

  37. vee says:

    I am now ready to purchase my first industrial machine. Any names and suggestions on where, type, brand name to purchase. I do need some suggestions.

  38. Kristin says:

    @Miracle, who do you think is Is doing the outsourcing? wallmart, target, JcPenny’s, Gap, Northface, US companies to off-shore manufacturing. And those manufacturers are outsourcing to others that do not adhere to safety issues. After the fire in Bangladesh and a shoe factory that killed hundreds of workers, I was simply responding to those tragedies.

    It’s a very difficult situation as on the one hand it is the only source of income in impoverished communities (not just third world) and the other are deplorable ad unsafe working conditions they work in can potentially cost lives. what their choices?

    I think it is only right and fair to talk about this to help find solutions and stay abreast. There was/is a concerted PR effort to monitor overseas factories but are they really? my point is wouldn’t be s little easier if perhaps we had more factories in US that these companies can contract?

    I am up to my ears in production for first in-house orders for Fall and I have to tell you I have had a hell of time finding good workers. Retailers/boutiques aren’t expecting delivery until 8/31- early Sept. i didn’t find good sewers, honest, until recently. And she knows others looking for part-time work. it has been a hell of a summer and feelin burnt out. It truly is a learning curve.

  39. Avatar photo

    Well to a point Kristin, you weren’t responding to those particular tragedies since your comment was written about 3 years before those events transpired.

    To your second point, I agree. It would be awesome if we had more factories in the US -which brings me to your last paragraph- as you’ve learned personally, it is incredibly difficult to find qualified stitchers. My question is this: how is a factory to start up and hire qualified staff? Not so easy unless you’re expecting someone who knows less than you do, to do more than you have. Truly, this person would be superhuman considering how long and hard you’ve worked.

    Unfortunately, there is no easy, fast or satisfying answer. It takes time to build these enterprises. I (and Miracle) are doing our part to encourage demand for those factories by nurturing businesses like yours and also, providing guidance to entrepreneurs who are interested in developing cut and sew operations.

    What we really need is a magic wand so we can get people to do what we want. Problem is, they might be using their wand on you too. As I’ve said before, if it were possible to change other people, they would have changed you a long time ago :).

  40. Avatar photo

    Vee: sorry I neglected to respond to your comment.

    This question can’t be answered so easily. First, what are you making? Machines are specific to products. If you wanted to buy a transport conveyance, one would have to know what other possible features you would need -do you need a truck to haul firewood around? A van to carpool with? A moped for short run errands? You get the picture.

    Similarly, one would need to know where you live to refer vendors to you. I might know of a perfect car or truck for you but since I don’t know where you live and I doubt you’d travel 1,000+ miles to see it, it is best to drill it down so people aren’t wasting their time by giving you answers that will only frustrate you because the responses don’t reflect your needs.

    We help people sort this out in the forum one on one. You can also refer to pages 125-132 in my book to help you define your wants.

  41. Kristin says:

    So right, my error. Every since I had a baby, I can’t seem to remember much of anything. I didn’t want to have in house manufacturing until after I had my son in 2012. Wonder what I was referring to then if not the tragedy in Bangladesh.

    Anyway, a woman I know who moved her operation from Bangladesh to Philadelphia said how poor it was there and te working conditions were just horrible but the benefits were that you can always find the skillsets needed. Se told me this about 5 years ago. Maybe I was thinking of her at the time. Anyway, there was a good article I will have to find a link to.

  42. Miriam says:

    I just read your post Kathleen what an encouragement I dont have time to read all the comments but I am inspired and encouraged. Thats exactly what I did opened my own small factory. You know in the 4 years I am doing this you were the 2nd person telling me I am doing the right thing most poeple think I am crazy doing what I am doing. This was good to hear and I will surely try to get more time to read and study this site Thanks a lot

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

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