You need to start manufacturing yourself. Period.

A recent news story from Marketplace Money titled Double-digit unemployment? These firms can’t find workers bolsters my all too frequent lament that we are critically short on domestic production resources and with no improvement in sight. Here’s an excerpt:

When local fashion firm Pinup Girl Clothing tried to ramp up production of its vintage-inspired apparel recently it hit a snag: It couldn’t find anyone to do the work. The company spent a year trying to add 12 people to its 32-person manufacturing team in downtown Los Angeles. As the search dragged on, Pinup Girl fell two months back in its production schedule.

Do read the entry, call it confirmation bias but this is nothing new. I’ve been talking about critical labor shortages in US sewing factories for years. Years. I feel vindicated that someone in the media has finally heard but not enough have. For example, anyone who complains that sewing contractors don’t make it easy to find them, hasn’t been listening. It’s not a buyer’s market and hasn’t been for a very long time (they mostly don’t need for you to find them). Anyway, the media is hip to the worker shortage problem in the apparel industry so let’s hope new entrants to the business figure it out quickly too. As I’ve said more times than I can count, those who will succeed over the next ten years are those who will develop their own in house sewing operation. And I know well that statement will alienate a lot of people but it’s the truth. You don’t have to open a big honking facility; it’s amazing what one or two stitchers can put out.

In this vein, I was consulting last week with someone I’ll call Laura who is looking for another contractor.  She is confounded that she’s willing to place at least 6,000 units (value of approximately $80,000) with someone every month but nobody wants it. She can only find a back up contractor who said he’d take 2,000 but he doesn’t want to be her main supplier. She’s puzzled that she’s got money to burn and nobody wants it. Would you like to know what I told her? I thought you might, this is a partial summary:

You know that facilities have limited capacity but you reason that with a nice contract, the contractor could expand and grow their business so of course they’ll welcome you with open arms. Problem is, you’re thinking what you would do but you’re young while most of them (us) are closer to retirement age or past it.  Their capacity is tied to internal capitalization. This means cutting equipment, square footage, sewing machines and of course, the human capital to run it all.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s just talk about one problem, that of cutting fabric. If their cutting capacity is already stretched thin, your lot would push it to an unsustainable level. Meaning, they’d probably have to buy a CAM cutter and get some software. If someone is thinking “exit strategy” rather than “expansion”, they are not stupid or so crazy as to pull $125,000 out of what amounts to their retirement money (if they have it) to buy equipment that they won’t be able to sell in the short term. They sure won’t want to take a loan out on it because they won’t be able to get their money out of it. That’s because they don’t know anybody who wants to buy their business because nobody -not just you- wants to run a sewing factory. So they will limit investing in business expansion because there is nobody or not enough people who want to do the work. Oh, and the whole reason I mention the CAM system? It’s because they can’t find enough workers. You know, the whole thing we opened with. First, they can’t find the labor and being as busy as they are, can’t afford to invest in training.

That’s the synopsis of my conversation with Laura. While not the solution they were hoping for, I think she and her husband are very excited (albeit intimidated) by the prospect of opening their own shop. First they have to learn to sew themselves but it’s not insurmountable. DEs do it every day. The point is, we got into this mess because a lot of companies sent work overseas so all the local shops closed up (that’s also in the article). Those workers found other jobs.  Unfortunately, now that we need those workers again -because of rising costs offshore- we don’t have them anymore. Few young people want the work, they’ve been taught that factory work is beneath them. The only ones who do want it and who still have skills, are immigrants. [It is crazy that in this economy, with double digit unemployment, we need more immigration to solve a worker problem.] I don’t know anyone who is running with a full staff. I don’t know anyone who is satisfied with their staffing. Me, I’ve given up. I’ve become reconciled that I can never expand. Sure people want to work for me -so they can get training and then go out on their own or riffle my rolodex- but I don’t get a return on training.

So today, I was having a conversation with somebody else about why the contractor market has tightened up so much. -and it mostly has to do with the internet. Buyers these days don’t want to place orders for stuff to be delivered 6 months out, especially from a new company. They want immediates. This means 2-6 week turn around on an order. There is no way you can make those delivery time frames going off shore. And the reason why they want short term is because the internet has changed consumer expectations and buying habits. They see something on TV or the runway and they want to buy it right away. They don’t want to wait for that trend to trickle down six months from now. The long and short of it is, the bigger brands are trying to bring their production back too so they’re taking what production slots there are which leaves less for you. Before, a big brand’s 16 month lead time was okay because their selling proposition was based on branding and lower prices. Today, buyers want products quickly; it’s speed to market. You know, like Zara. I’ve written a lot about that too.

This is the redux:  the situation is not improving. It is useless to complain you can’t find contractors (especially if you’re not going about it the right way) so you’ll have to consider the implications of a longer term commitment than you’d planned on.

You really need to read the earlier entries in this series ( why you should start your own sewing factory pt.1 and pt.2), not just gloss over the hyperlinks. I think we should be discussing how to train sewing operators, pay rates, how to set up your factory, what are the parameters of determining the equipment you need etc -all of which I’ve also written of many many times before and it just seems nobody is listening. I’d leave the links again but would anyone follow them? I mean, anyone other than the parties who recycle my content into their own words to generate profits for themselves but leave scant (if any) clues as to where they got it? If you’d read them, they’re at the close of the factory posts, especially part two. Actually, looking over that one,  I apologize in advance that the factory pt.2 post  is so link intensive. If you lament at how long it will take you to read it all, just imagine how long it took me to write it.

So that’s where I think we should be going. I sense that we’re at a crossroads now. Sure there are tons of people who will continue to chase production and be forced to commit to larger production runs than they have sales to back it up with so they’ll be out, but long term? The people who make it are the ones who open up their own factories. And you should know something else too. The people who still know how to do that sort of thing aren’t common, accessible -or young. I think I have I spoiled you. Hardly anyone asks me about how to set up a production line. Nobody asks me questions about how to train sewing operators or how to set up a factory -they think I’m “just a pattern maker”. Somebody actually said that to me. I don’t know what’s more insulting, someone who thinks the latter or someone who uses all the resources I’ve provided so they can resell the content and siphon off a part of my market (in this case, the same person). Me and my friends won’t be around forever and some day it’ll be too late. Your sources of institutional knowledge will be gone.

Me, I’ve been waiting a long time for people to be interested in these things again. I do not understand how on one hand, we can lament the lack of access to production services but at the same time, be single-mindedly incurious about it. Tangentially related, we had a ribald debate on Facebook over what people presume is a business’ responsibility to train new workers yet from my experience, it is apparent that too few are interested in training for themselves -as in the paragraph above. Which was kind of my point. You can’t force people to learn in order to provide a service you want or get them to learn what you think they should learn. I mean, if I can’t get DEs interested in it (topics in the above paragraph), why do some of them presume contractors are deficient if they cannot find ways to compel new entrants to acquire training?

If you read the earlier entries on why you should start your own sewing factory, the comments -however disputatious- are also required reading.

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  1. Rocio says:

    This post has certainly validated a lot of things we’ve experienced over the last 3 years…

    In 22 years in the industry I’ve NEVER SEEN IT THIS BUSY!!!

    Now that there are so many “consultants” out there it’s imperative that business owners have at least enough knowledge to tell the difference between a “poser” and the real deal or risk being taken for a very expensive ride

    Ultimately it boils down to putting your money where your mouth is and those who choose to get into this business thinking it doesn’t require much preparation or it’s an “art form” are only setting themselves up for failure

  2. Kim says:

    Although I’m new to this type of business (currently in trade school). I can see a change with what types of jobs young people are willing to take immigrant or not. I’m fairly young and I would hate for our country to lose the knowledge and history of such an interesting field, and I am willing to do my part. Point me in the direction of any opportunities.

  3. Jessica says:

    A crossroads indeed and the solution is far from straightforward. Perhaps we should focus on generating more media attention about this serious problem; consciousness can create change. We have to promote the value in training young workers to work with their hands; the skilled trades will disappear if we don’t, along with a vital piece of our humanity.

  4. Re: voice crying in the wilderness

    Hey! Some of us are listening, and have been for quite some time (since you started this blog, and before, when we each bought your book).

    We are planning on producing our bra line. We’ve got to be sure we’ve got a salable product that holds up to field tests (that our mockup is actually a prototype) before we tackle the details of setting up a factory and doing the training for manufacturing them.

    We re-read your earlier posts on this, follow the links, and would be happy to hear more even though we’re not ready to use the info yet.

  5. Kate R says:

    As someone who has, for a number of years, wanted very much to work in garment production, I find some of these arguments (here and on Facebook) really frustrating. I wanted decent training but – as companies won’t take on unskilled staff – the only option I had was to go back to college. With the lack of specifically trade-oriented courses, my only option was to do an initial diploma, followed by a degree (which I admit is essentially pointless, but all of the job descriptions I saw required a degree). I did well in my degree, but finished up acutely aware that the level of training I had was still minimal, ie, I needed a great deal more experience before I’d have skills at the level I’d like.

    So what choice do I have here? Apparently, if I go and work for someone else for a few years in order to improve my skills, I’m somehow stealing their knowledge in return for nothing. But isn’t that the way jobs work? There’s a quid pro quo – most staff, in most fields, look to both learn things and progress, often by moving to other jobs. I really resent the implication that because I want to improve my skills, I’m ripping off my employer.

    I’m working at a different end of the industry, with a high skill level that requires years of experience. There is no other way to gain that experience other than by working for someone in the industry.

  6. Kate R says:

    I just wanted to add that I’m not alone in this – I know plenty of people who’d like to work at the production end of the garment industry, and have been to college (because that’s the only option), and have then found that companies laugh at the pathetically inadequate training that colleges provide and still won’t give them a job. From an entrant’s perspective, it’s an almost impossible industry to get into because there is no decent training on offer, anywhere.

  7. Quincunx says:

    Don’t forget the ex-factory stitchers from the Open tabs 5/4/11 comments. They’re the sort of ‘immigrants’ we need, and have, but they can’t ‘immigrate’ (read: “move to where the jobs are”) because of being tied to a house or a spouse’s job, and the fabric can’t telecommute. . .blood and bones, it really IS all about the logistics isn’t it.

    Why -are- the jobs surviving in the high-rent districts, anyway? Money can migrate easier than people or fabric and I am _assuming_ that the fabric isn’t stored in the high-rent districts. Are the jobs surviving close to the points of entry of imported fabric, such that there is little to no storage time and cost between its importation and use? Are the jobs surviving in the regions affluent enough to purchase Made in the USA premium prices, but regions too expensive to live in at those jobs’ wages?

    Jessica, two quick questions:
    1) Where are you, physically? Within the catchment area of those factories in the story that can’t hire enough workers?
    2) Is this site “media”? (You use the word “media” a lot and it isn’t overlapping with what I use the word “media” for. I use “media” as one-way communication: good for advertising that jobs are available, awful at hearing replies from jobseekers.)
    and if you really want to go off on a values tangent, ask me about the impact of a migratory existence on one’s humanity–and then stand back. :P

  8. RobinDenning says:

    Strictly speaking numbers – and a bit off topic – we have a serious problem with consumers unwilling to pay a fair price for clothing. As a home sewer by hobby, and accountant by training, I am shocked that the masses don’t blink at seeing garments selling for $10, $20, $60, or whatever. Then they are surprised when the fabric falls apart before it can be worn another season.

    If stitchers are paid fair wages, in the US, how can the price of the final product compete with those produced in counties with such different economic structures? It is a very tough predicament.

    Even though I preach to my own family, it falls on deaf ears. They can’t imagine paying $375 for a coat, but get real, that is probably a fair price – not this $129 crap! This is my particular button. I get so angry! Why can’t people realize they don’t need 20 pairs of jeans and 40 t-shirts. There is a reason closets were a lot smaller in the houses built 50 years ago. Consumers, why do you feel entitled to enormous walk-in closets filled to the brim?? OK, I will stop now.

  9. Ellen Guarini (Carolina Cut 'n Sew) says:

    I own a cut and sew operation here in the US and want to expand but the biggest problem that I face is the price that people want their products made for, ie overseas prices. Between paying a fair wage rate in the US plus all the additional taxes and insurances that I am required to pay there is no way that I can make a customer’s product at the same cost as it is overseas. We offer low minimums, quicker lead times (subject to fabric availability) and develop individual supply chains to meet the respective customer needs to offset the higher cost but in alot of cases that is not enough. I just lost a big program last month that would have increased employment at my factory as well as at the screenprinter due to being $0.50 higher per unit then overseas. Forget that the customer has to pay 50% upfront and 50% at the time of shipping plus wait 4-6 weeks to receive the goods. When we are willing to pay alittle more for a quality product and made in the US then the sewing industry will have a chance and we will help create more jobs and the younger workers will see a future once again in apparel manufacturing.

  10. Theresa says:

    When I left managing a sewing factory behind in 1994, it was becoming increasingly difficult to hire workers. The staff was getting older and retiring and there were very few people entering the industry. We still had a vocational school with a “Fashion Design” program that was closer to “Industrial Stitching” than actual fashion but we could usually pick up one or two students a year. Since then, the Fashion Design program has been closed and replaced with Graphic Arts and other computer related subjects. The salary was equivalent to working at WalMart so most people would rather work there instead of at a sewing machine.

    Before I left, most of our new workers came from a local community center for Vietnamese immigrants. We had hired one very hard working man from Vietnam. He used to run a sewing school in Vietnam before coming to the USA. Once we hired him, he started training friends at the community center and then bringing them to the factory for interviews. It was a lifesaver at the time because we would spend months trying to hire new stitchers until he came along. I would have loved to have been able to train new people on weekends but the owner wasn’t able to support the additional paid time and I was already working 60 – 80 hours a week sewing and managing the factory.

    I’ve moved over to the other side of the business but I still miss being in the factory. I don’t know that I’d want to own one but I would love to help others set them up.

  11. RobinDenning says:

    Interesting Theresa.
    My husband manages a manufacturing factory for electronic circuit boards, located in the US.

    His employees are mostly Vietnamese. One of the adaptations he made is to re-write training materials a la IKEA instructions. He inserted A LOT of images to help explain tasks. Hardly any of his employees speak English as their first language. One of the commonalities, my husband reports, is how grateful they are for good jobs. All of his staff are legal immigrants. They do get annoyed at how hard it was to come here legally, and then see how lots of illegal immigrants seem to have it “easier”.

    Of course, it’s not really easier when you are in fear of being deported. Anyway, I know this cannot be solved with laws. The economic imbalance around the world is creating major instability across the board. I wish the effing lawmakers would at least figure out how to make it legal for the people who are willing to do the work. {keep dreaming}

  12. Million says:

    Regarding the statement which closed the article you referenced

    Many designers now believe that the industry won’t be able to grow significantly unless immigration restrictions begin to loosen. “Who is going to do the work?” asks Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association. “The immigrant labor force has always been an integral part of manufacturing here in the U.S., and without them it will be tremendously difficult to get U.S. manufacturing going again”, she says

    I would like to point out that properly educating the people who already live in North America and are already citizens of either the United States, Canada, and Mexico is a good place to start. Many talented and hardworking people already desperately want to be a part of this industry, yet have been shut out in their own countries by the infrastructure of multinational business interests, which has led to schools cutting industrial sewing and pattern making programs leaving fashion curriculums which skim over manufacturing methods to instead focus on merchandizing.

    I’m a naturally friendly person, and I don’t mind learning some Chinese, Italian, or Spanish, in order to get along with my coworkers, but it’s a slap in the face to be excluded in my own nation simply because I don’t already, so maybe it would behoove everyone to try and consider what their assumptions and prejudices are before assuming the locals aren’t worth mingling with or worth hiring.

    I can sew without pins, I can learn how to use a new machine and master it within two days, and I am willing to get up at four am six days a week. When someone finally hires ME, I might change my mind.

  13. Kathleen says:

    Kate, I know you and I have discussed this in comments previously. Your points are well taken but again I clarify from the perspective of an employer. Context of which you wrote:

    Apparently, if I go and work for someone else for a few years in order to improve my skills, I’m somehow stealing their knowledge in return for nothing. But isn’t that the way jobs work? There’s a quid pro quo – most staff, in most fields, look to both learn things and progress, often by moving to other jobs. I really resent the implication that because I want to improve my skills, I’m ripping off my employer.

    As an employer, we’re not talking about “a few years”, we mean people who only work a few weeks or at best, a few months. You’re not like the people I described. I am not an unreasonable person. A worker comes in with the sum of what he or she has learned previously -that’s why we hire you. In a sense we’re free-riding on your earlier commitments and no rational person would expect you to withhold what you learned in our employ in the future. Again, provided you stayed for awhile. Again, I’m describing people that only stay for the training period (if that) but once work expectations begin, leave.

    And I’ve also said the following to you previously but will say it again: I don’t know that I’d hire you but I’d definitely take you as an intern. You would be a pet project for me, I would want to assess what you know and build onto it any and everything I could teach you. I’d want to see what you’d do with it, how you’d change and transmogrify your learning and make it your own. I would want you to move forward and make something of it. You know, “rip me off” but with my being complicit in the matter. Considering your formidable skills and intellect, I would want to give you opportunities I never had. I don’t want what I know to die with me; it’d live on in you. Fact is, if you didn’t “rip me off”, I’d be sorely disappointed that my investment in you didn’t pay off. And of course if you decided to stay, I’d probably be beside myself.

  14. I have had several people in the community ask for sewing line jobs, at my company (if they only knew that it’s a one man show here). I’m lucky to live in New Orleans, where there is a long history of costuming and garment production here….and it still exits. I have been working on patterns, and getting things prepared to take orders. I am excited for the day that I train anyone that is willing. Sewing is a dying art….proper sewing, anyway. Everyone wants to be a designer. They think it’s this glamourous job where everyone adores you and showers you with parties and champagne. That’s total BS! I am a designer, but I utterly enjoy constructing my own garments. There is no feeling like seeing your work finished, and being the one that finished it. I want to have my own, small production family…mostly because I want a community, but also because I am a control freak. I need to see that every garment is perfect. I have been planning and saving for the day to come, when I produce more than just samples.

  15. Eowyn says:

    My mother in law works at a local sewing company that is struggling to find contracts.

    The only problem I can see is that the factory is in rural Mississippi.

    I wonder how many other such shops exist, off the common radar.

  16. Kate R says:

    Ah, Kathleen, if only there weren’t 5,000 miles between us! But thanks – and I do entirely take your points. I just wanted to throw in the perspective that there ARE people who really, desperately want to acquire skills in this area but find it difficult to make inroads. Another example that springs to mind is CAD – Gerber CAD training is pretty much a prerequisite for any entry-level pattern cutting job here in the UK, but Gerber only provides training for manufacturers’ employees, in-house – it’s another catch-22 – you can’t get the job without the experience, and vice versa. I know this is common to many industries, but in an under-resourced one it’s a massive hindrance.

    Maybe companies like this need to run their own training courses that people pay to take – the benefit for the student being industry-recognised skills, which is something that you don’t get from a college education (which you also have to pay for).

  17. Sally says:

    If the job above was for 6,000pcs that pays $8k then that’s only $1.33 per unit. I don’t know what is being produced but it sounds difficult to make any apparel item for that amount of money.
    Maybe I’m missing something.

  18. Kathleen says:

    oops! How did I miss that? I deleted a zero on my second edit -because the comma was in the wrong place. The contract value should be @ $12 per unit. Will repair, thanks!

  19. Sally says:

    OK, that’s a fair amount to pay for cut and sew of a style that’s not too complex. Know some CA factories that make $7-$9 for knit tops, but with what I think are large minimums. You are helping us re-think manufacturing here in the US, thanks!

  20. Betsy says:

    It’s no secret that the cost of goods is going up and even in china the factory workers are demanding higher wages now that they have better opportunities available that will pay more. Eventually the bubble will burst and everyone will have to pay much more because it has been made for too cheap for too long. We are all very spoiled. I think before we even talk about setting up US production we need to find a way to convince the consumer to pay more realistic price to cover cost of goods and fair labor.

  21. Kathy says:

    I’m curious where these companies are looking for workers, and whether they are willing to take on older workers. Just checking Craigslist and other online listings in Chicago & San Francisco over the past few months (looking on behalf of friends who are out of work) I don’t recall seeing any sewing jobs other than ones looking for experienced alterations people. Or occasionally something where the person is to work at home.

    Given all the comments about younger people not wanting to take the work, what about older ones? I’ve got a dexterous friend in San Francisco who would love to get full-time work with regular hours– but he’s over 50, and he’d have to be trained.

  22. Xochil says:

    I may be in the minority, as many people in my age bracket are the ones who “frown upon” working in manufacturing. But if I had been able to get a sewing job out of college with my degree in fashion design, I would’ve gladly taken the opportunity. I had no idea where to find those jobs. I don’t know how every company recruits new hires, but I know I couldn’t find them. I doubt many of my fellow grads would’ve wanted to go that direction though either. However, I have noticed a shift in attitude during my recent visit to my alma mater: students who were about to graduate were actually interested in sewing, and enjoyed sewing. When I was in school, there were a small minority that were interested in sewing. Or even interested in pattern making. Most of them just wanted to draw, design, and make concept boards and croquis. So I hope this shift in attitude and interest presents an opportunity for those students to get into manufacturing, and even starting their own shops one day. Maybe I’m just being optimistic.

  23. Rocio says:


    I tried Craigslist a couple of times, but it turned out to be a big waste of resources…
    The younger people who apply just want to stick around long enough (a couple of months?) to have a template to model their own business after…
    There were no older applicants, but I think online searching for this kind of work is mainly appealing to a certain younger demographic (you can only lead a horse to water but can’t force it to drink, right?)

    What has worked wonderfully is having an internal referral system where our operators get a bonus for every referral we hire and then get a second “seniority” bonus if their friends stick around for a year…

    I have to admit that because of the specific type of account we service, we can offer an environment that other factories that work with “disposable clothing companies” can’t:
    -We can pay 2 times more than other factories (our EXPERIENCED operators average between $700.00 and $1000.00 per week)
    -Our sewing area is air conditioned and large tinted windows provide tons of NATURAL LIGHT
    -Private gated parking
    -We work a 4 day week
    -Our youngest operators are encouraged to introduce their older colleagues while older operators reciprocate by teaching sewing tricks to the younger ones in an environment where their knowledge is valued and financially compensated accordingly

    That said, our expectations are very high (but never unrealistic) and each one of our team members takes pride in their work and understands that being open to constant learning is a pre-requisite to secure a long term position with us

  24. Kathy says:


    My friend would be coming by to apply to work for you were anywhere near where he lives! However, while I don’t know if you are actually looking for workers, I see that your website doesn’t say anything about job opportunities.

    If one were looking for this kind of work, what should one do in order to find it?

    As an aside, the Internet has been around since the early 90’s, lots of older folks do use it to look for work and everything else. But it doesn’t surprise me that the LA demographic of craigslist users would be more heavily skewed toward younger people who are hoping to go into business one day….

  25. Gisela says:

    Wow, as a inspiring DE this all makes me a bit nervous. It scares me and i wonder sometimes if I should even start. I run my own online vintage shop on Etsy and the plan was to gradually start my own line doing most of it myself not the patterns but the sewing. I’m one of those folks who was laid off from a big fashion manufacturing company after working there for 3 years in design. I worked some freelance as a production manager and made the decision to make it a go to start my own small line this year. Looking back at one point in my studies I wanted to go into pattern making. Now that’s mostly allot of the ad’s i see for work! I do feel there is a majority of us that do forget about the other “jobs” in fashion. I do feel that the comment on schools selling merchandising more is true now a days!

    Also when i read the article on the link you provided I read in the comments about most public schools no longer have Home Economics….so sad if true! I actually learned to sew there in both 7th & 8th grade and just fell in love with it and was the reason i wanted to go to fashion design school. I did not even get in through any sketches in my portfolio but vintage garments I re-vamped and sewed. So thanks to Mrs. Hand who taught us to sew and how to make caramel popcorn balls..I’ll never forget.

  26. Beth Miller says:

    I’m in a very odd demographic, I believe. Slightly older (39) with a family. Educated in both the technical and design ends of production. I was unable to intern after graduation (2004) due to the financial need to make money, not get credit. I also relocated to Chicago for my husband’s work, so I lost all the connections I gained in school. I’ve mostly been working in theatre, but the jobs are becoming more scarce. I have just found 5 manufacturers in the Chicago area, I’d love to secure a production job, but don’t know how best to approach it. I have no problem starting at the bottom & working my way up.

    What’s the best way to approach these manufacturers? The info I have is slim, and I don’t want to misstep. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  27. Mike C says:

    We manufactured ourselves from 2003 until the middle of 2011. We even did an open house for Fashion Incubator DEs who were considering it.

    If I could go back in time, I would have chosen a different path and closed manufacturing about 5 years ago and outsourced.

  28. Jasonda says:

    I really feel that something is missing for domestic manufacturing to become a viable industry again. It has to start at the bottom, with the consumer. For them to be interested, a “Made in the USA” label may not be enough any more. The DEs who brag about “made local” and unapologetically charge higher prices and show pictures of things being made are the ones who are getting their attention. So many trends show that people are craving the local, the simple, the handmade touch. Right now it’s still hard for people to connect the dots between a DE sewing away on a cute vintage machine (aww, handmade!) and a modern apparel production facility (uh oh, “sweatshop”). Maybe the industry needs to be more open and accessible to consumers for that to happen, or perhaps there is something else that is a missing link. In any case, I think once consumers can embrace domestic manufacturing, businesses and prospective students will push the schools to provide the right programs, and hopefully this will be seen as a viable career choice once again.

  29. Kathleen says:

    I don’t think the issue is with consumers -the demand is already there, that’s the crunch. It’s being led by retailers who want immediates. It’s not altruism but mercantilism. On the producer side, the cost savings of overseas production aren’t what they once were. Even China is having a problem attracting workers.

  30. Judy Gross says:

    Kathleen, You have not gone unheard. While I am not in the clothing business (I make ultralight backpacking tents) I constantly think of your ‘lean manufacturing’ comments. While I did one run of tents off shore (China), I will not be sending work back there again. I hear it from my customers that they want “Made in USA”, and after running the numbers, by hiring someone to help with the sewing, the price of each tent is the same as the ones made in China. Expanding past one employee though will be more problematic – That’s when I will need more space, more machines, and most problematic is having to pay workman’s comp and other insurances. It may not be cost effective at that point. I’m at a point where my business is growing, and some fundamental shift needs to take place. I just haven’t figured out what or how that will be.

    I know I could pick up some sewing for other small Backpacking gear companies, but I don’t know if I could do it at a cost effective rate for them (haven’t run any numbers on that yet). There are stitchers available that I could hire, but I don’t know if I can really employ them consistently full time. So many questions, variables etc and I don’t know how to find the answers.

  31. Tabitha Abney says:

    I am new to this part of the industry and like Gisela…this scares the bonongnong out of me! I am a graduate of the Art Institute (I know…not really a reputable school, but I had to start somewhere), and I was really into just the designing aspect of the industry and although I learned to sew from our Filipina seamstress and my great aunt at the age of 8, I still knew that I needed to build more on my skills. At the current time, I work in the corporate call center (not sure if I can mention the company, but it is a HUGE international company with 5 brands under it’s umbrella), and the main calls that we get, aside from the “in store service complaints”, are how much the customers are not happy with the quality of the clothing since those brands have sent the manufacturing overseas. I hear it all day, how they would have no problem paying the expensive price tag…if the clothing simply made it through the first delicate wash cycle or trip to the dry cleaner, or if the stretch jeans didn’t overstretch after being worn for an hour.

    This has prompted me to want to learn more about the manufacturing part of the industry, because I want to produce a line that hits the nail on the head for what consumers are looking for.

    So by all means…I am here to learn from those who know way more than I do, please Elders, don’t give up on us youngsters…there are many of us who cherish the wisdom!

  32. Jessica says:

    Today I spoke at length with the owner of one of the top cut & sew apparel factories here in Colorado, and he echoed the same thing: the only reason they are turning away work and not taking on new clients is because they can’t find enough skilled labor. We have a decent sewing industry around Denver, but it’s predominately sewn products like tents, tarps, and seat covers – not a lot of apparel aside from some in house operations. Plus, it seems a lot of production pay rates are still pretty low (often in the $8-12 range), even with the high demand. The immigrant population is predominately the only ones willing and able to fill these jobs. Higher rates don’t seem to make a huge difference though; a guy down the road from me has been advertising $18-20/hr to sew tents but has been looking for months without filling the in house position. Granted, he’s in the mountains and the labor pool is mostly a 40 minute drive away in Denver. Still, something’s gotta give.

    I’ve been exploring ways to open my own DE contract sewing factory, but run into the same problem in trying find and hire sample sewers and small run production people. I can’t find many people who are skilled enough to take a garment from start to finish vs. just do a single operation, and even though I want to provide jobs and opportunities for young sewers to enter the industry, it’s a struggle for me to figure out how to factor in the training costs, not to mention all the investment that goes into a startup. It’s hard enough for a contractor to realize much profit margin in the first place after factoring in all the overhead. You really have to have efficient high quality stitchers to make the numbers work in order to get the DE clients in the first place, since so many people expect their piece rates to be far too cheap to sustain living wage domestic jobs. Nobody seems to want to own a factory today; I actually do, but lack the startup capital to buy an established factory or even commit to the financial risk of a lease and overhead if I can’t find enough employees. Quite the catch-22. Sometimes I wonder if I should just quit trying to come up with a solution for helping other DE’s and pursue the path of a designer like everybody else since I’m not scared of manufacturing my own line in house. Ultimately I just want to provide jobs and sustain domestic industry. What a conundrum.

    Rocio: I’d love to talk with you and learn more. Your factory sounds like a dream.

    Quincunx – in reply to your question about media: yes, this site qualifies as media, but it is niche industry media. I’m talking about raising awareness on a broader popular media scale that reaches people who don’t have a clue about what’s going on in the sewing manufacturing industry. Part of the issue is that young people aren’t educated or aware of the growing opportunities to pursue careers in the skilled trades that give them the opportunity to create and work with their hands, which can actually be a rewarding career path. I am hedging my bets on eventually being able to attract young workers to be my employees, but how am I going to lure them into the industry if they don’t even know the jobs exist?

    Sorry for going on and on; I’m pretty passionate about this issue.

  33. nat.laurel says:

    Kathleen, you sound so disappointed, so dismayed.. So I feel for you and wish I could cheer you up somehow..

    I’ve sent this link to someone young and vigorous, a gal who approached me recently asking for an internship opportunity. In the future she looks to establish what you call “an in house sewing operation” and she doesn’t seem to mind to be her own stitcher. At least for some while.

    I am at the information accumulation stage myself. Researching to see what else I need to learn, in order to make what I already know useful in this whole situation you’ve described. I am in my mid-thirties, the girl I mentioned above is in her early twenties. WE ARE HERE. And we are listening to you and not just to “resell the content…”

    And ah, one more thing. A couple of more things. We are immigrants. At some points of our lives we came to get our degrees and stayed on, or we followed our spouses, or etc.. So there is a lot of young energy (and some well-educated one too) looking for a chance to roll up our sleeves in order to integrate into the US process fully. Last, but not the least we’ve come from the Old World, where Wampen’s ideas are.. sort of in the air, they did not evaporate quite as fast as they did on this side of the pond. May be we are the new generation of “Schmatta” ;).. I hope I made you smile. At least.

  34. Million says:


    If your company still requires any staff after posting that exciting potential job offer yesterday, would you consider hiring a Canadian? I searched for you on the member forum but your name didn’t pop up in any of the results. Please email, as my personal website is under repair currently.

    I have no kids and few possessions. I left almost everything I owned in other than enough books to sprain my arms, and moved from Vancouver to Toronto. My hope is to survive the winter here and get a fulltime sewing job in the spring if it takes that long. I offered to work at my last post for several years, but they couldn’t afford to pay me so I ran out of subway tokens. I am extremely intelligent and I have a strong work ethic. I am willing to relocate again.


  35. Million,

    If you click on Rocio’s name above, it takes you to the website of Unlimited Design, her company. You can contact her there.

    Alternatively, you can contact her on the forum under the name unlimiteddesign.

  36. Dia in MA says:

    I’m on the outside of this looking in. I worked in a factory decades ago and saw the factors that killed it. Many of them still apply. 1) It was minimum wage work and most of my coworkers did not speak English. and 2) The place was paying 3-5 weeks late, consistently…which was why the shop head finally pulled a walkout strike (over the union’s objections). They got away with it because there were no other jobs available in that area for those people.

    Other side of the coin, I currently need a job. I saw a sewing job ad that I considered answering but the ad scared me off. The ad didn’t just ask for a stitcher, it wanted special skills. The job was for art clothing in china silk. Nice stuff but tricky to machine sew. I’m a moderately skilled home sewer who’s worked in a real shop, not a professional seamstress. And I know the difference. I didn’t feel up to doing that job. Yet I know I have more knowledge than most of the current crop of high school graduates. So, yeah, where are you going to get your workers?

  37. Carla says:

    Thank you Kathleen and Rocio esp. for this affirmation. I had small manufacturing of my own from 1996 – 2003 and since I closed it down, I have been chomping at the bit to get it started up again. Finally, I am taking the leap of relaunching a new, re-envisioned line and all the ducks seem to be lining up! I am in development, and to my astonishment (& all at once), I found several highly skilled and specialized seamstresses, (in- fact it worked out a bit like Rocio’s referral system!) which heartens me incredibly for going forward into real production. I am planning for high end and limited production so I suppose my business model is closer to Rocio’s and I feel that US manufacturing is going to regain it’s strength at the high end. We have amazing resources and ability here , and the flexibility making it here, provides is amazing. I am also firmly in Robin’s camp and completely disgusted with the waste (at all levels) that the fast fashion model has pushed on us all these years. I will not be adding it.

  38. Cary Pragdin says:

    Rocio, your company sounds amazing to work for! If I didn’t live halfway around the world I would come and beg you for a job! How do you only work a 4 day week? Do you have 2 shifts?

  39. Annie Rose says:

    Kathleen, I’m very interested in anything more you can share about manufacturing. I love the idea of running my own sewing factory but I’m not sure if I have what it takes. (Too young and inexperienced? I’m 23 and my only experience working in a real sewing factory is five months as an unpaid intern.) I have four industrial sewing machines so sometimes it seems like all I need is some decent cutting and pressing equipment and then I’d be good to go for a while. Other times I just feel like I’m insane for even thinking about this.

    The sewing factory I worked in also had problems finding skilled workers. When I was there they had only two full-time stitchers, and one of them didn’t speak any English. The owner of the shop was frustrated by the problems this caused but I don’t think he knew where to find anybody else to work for him. I would have loved to work as a stitcher in the factory, but the owner didn’t have time to train anybody new. They make custom wedding dresses and I don’t want to think about how long it would take me to get up to the skill level of his current stitchers.

    Time to go re-read the older manufacturing posts, thanks for all the information! If you write another book I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

  40. Kathleen says:

    Over the weekend I was reading an industry book published in 1960. Here’s one selection:

    In these days, with a shortage of suitable labor entering the industry, it is debatable if a manufacturer is in a position to turn down any type of person who is wiling to enter the firm.

    So our complaints are nothing new…

  41. JoAnne Hopkins says:

    I am a mid 30’s designer, been sewing since I was 6.. learned in 4-H, home ec, my high school had a fashion program, and I attended 2 fashion schools to acquire my training..and was doing factory work while I put myself through design school.. I love to sew..
    and the information provided here has validated what I have long suspected..
    Much appreciate goes out to you Kathleen for your honesty, ability to articulate, and navigate through the thickness that is this industry..
    I found your blog only a few weeks ago, but I am very excited every day to hop on the computer and read your words of wisdom with much appreciation..

  42. Shari says:

    Kathleen, I am reading this with great interest. I am considering opening my own manufacturing operation right here, very soon. I have opened the links and plan to read as soon as my daughter goes to bed. Thank you, again, for all the knowledge that you share within this community.

  43. Roy says:

    ‘To manufacture or not to manufacture, that is the question.’ Great Article Kathleen; it really all depends on what you want to do and where you want to take it. I started catering to a ‘tall’ niche market and a market who wants ‘made in the USA.’ outsourcing typically becomes an option for designers on their own. I am lucky to have a great mentor in the denim world named Robert (you had an article on his washing facility in El Paso and also with an advisor of mine, Frances Harder (owner/president of Fashion Business Inc.) Our aim will be working on creating a hub to design-manufacture and then wholesale/retail direct. The key is in training new people at entry level in all aspects of the industry, building interest in the manufacturing side, thus building a new industrial force in the USA for the coming decades. Much to discuss. My email is attached, I welcome you to contact us to talk more about our hub and potentially join forces. High Regards, Roy. p.s. Keep up the great work.

  44. Nakia says:

    Hi everyone. I currently make my own clothes and want to get them reproduced and manufactured, and patterned so I can start my own clothing line. I’m a good seamstress, but I would like my clothes to be professionally made. Let me know if anyone’s interested or could recommend someone. Thanks

  45. Kathleen says:

    Hi Nakia. First, you could follow and read some of the links in this post so you’d see why it has been difficult for you to find what you’re looking for. Looking for production before you have patterns made amounts to putting the cart before the horse. By way of example, here’s a quote -complete with a link- from the post above:

    … It is useless to complain you can’t find contractors (especially if you’re not going about it the right way)…

    Second, I suggest reading a book. Obviously I would recommend mine but many contractors and pattern makers these days are not taking clients who haven’t read it. Links to purchase are at the top of the page on the right.

    Third, you could join our forum to get a referral. We don’t post sources in public because it would alienate a lot of contractors who would then become upset that unprepared candidates who found their links here, would be contacting them.

    Many don’t understand how this works. I need good relations with my peers (which I keep by not posting their links) more than I need to win favor with people who are not customers (some site visitors). Sure, non-customers would be happy if I posted links but if I did that, they wouldn’t become customers because they have what they need. So if I can only keep one group happy, I’m going to please people who serve my customers because that makes my services more valuable.

  46. Hello, Kathleen
    I have really enjoyed your postings. I’ve been in business for 20 years just building.
    I design, create and produce my first samples. I decided to only push basic traditional clothing.
    I been researching for several years for contractors here in the state. The most response I have received is overseas. I just open my first locations.

    If you have a change to view our video from NBC Bay Area (under “Skylier WEar) it would be great.
    But I have over 30 companines from china, india, hong kong and bangladesh. small contracting companies that is willing to produce (right now) I’m slowly being push overseas.
    My demand small lots. between 200 pieces to 500 pieces only. My goal is to controlled my production and not get to caught up with the greed of the markets. I’m starting with my 5 piece basic color block collection. I spend 2,800 for my 11 piece career line all size ready for the cutting table and I produce a OEM Active Wear collection with my logo.

    I plans on just pushing the 3 collections as long as i can. I do not chase the trends anymore. Because everyone cannot afford the trends. Most people have a different outlook on what they purchase. i feel if I stick to basic staple goods and reuse my basic patterns my cost will be less. This will give me time to focus and research for the next 2 to 3 years.

    I’m in no hurry to get rich and as far as larger companies copying my designs it is not an issue. They are always looking for new trend. I realize long ago trend come so fast that people never get a chance to enjoy the new trends are able to purchase.

    I just came across your (Fashion Incubator). I’m going to hold on tight to my chest. Your site was exactly what the doctor order.
    I started with the Lilli Ann Corporation in 1992 as an order entry specialist when production apparel companies was folding. Esprit was ending her production company and others. But I learned the production process manually. There was no high tech computers. I truely believe this was a valuable asset to me. Producing a collection is more than just getting it into to stores.
    You must watch the cost before hand.

    You have to have your line sheets
    You have to have your fabric sourching ready for volume.
    you must have your legal, license, cpa, business plan, cash flow.
    I’ve been open for 1 year now and paperwork was just exhausting.

    Hiring people is not the same as it was back in the 90’s everyone want to be in Hollwood.
    But I happy to have made a life for myself. I rather build for something that I believe in than to not have anything at all. This is what keep me going. Plus fashion is so much fun. I love it today, just like it did when I first started.

    Sorry for the long winded conversation.
    But I’m so impress with your straight answers and knowledge about the fashion industry, you have just become my biggest fan.

    Thank you so much.

  47. Skylier, even though you already have years of business experience, consider buying Kathleen’s book (no, I don’t get a cut), as it give you access to her members forum. If you think her general blogs and resulting conversations are great, you’ll fall off your chair over what the professionals discuss.

    Or you could accomplish the same thing with a donation of the same value, but why not get the book as part of the deal?

  48. Nick says:

    Ive been following this website/forum for about a year now more as student/learner/spy than participator/advocator. I own a modern boutique garment house (9 Industrial machines and all essential production tools) in Costa Mesa, CA. We’ve been established for just 6 months and clients bang on our doors in excitement. Ive always believed in the “reawakening” of the Fashion & Apparel Industry in America and today its all about being the special resource to foster the next wave of fashion designers and small businesses. End-user consumer tastes in fashion & apparel products are constantly fast-changing and variably many in perpetuity, but Made in USA is back. The quality, knowledgable help is there. Young fresh formally-educated fashion & art students want to sew production jobs & gain business acumen from witnessing clients enter the office and contract w/ us. We dont emulate or promote the sweat-shop type working environment at our shop, because we are the furthest operation from that old-mentality. We are clean, creative, talented, inspired, thriving on a common goal to be living amd working as a production member of one of the best and strongest Industries on the globe. Our facility, of course it is first and always will be a work facility for a real business, feels like a warm living space, a creative workshop. The “re-shoring” boom that everyone makes out to be some sort of ‘sonic’ one doesnt exist in any industry, especially an old one like our clothing trade. The real “boom” — and its happening now — is slow, healthy, gradual, increasing and in perfect tune & tension with the markets for which it is a golden resource. We specialize in 50-1000pc, our MOQs are small and quite honestly I learn something NEW and valuable everyday working with clients because their projects/cases are specific and meticulous for the simple reason that they are NOT supplying or trying to deliver or sell to a mass market consumer. Therefore the dynamics work. Of course we service the simple sewing tickets, but we exist to serve the fashion & apparel businesses that are working hard. So many cool things are happening right now, its really fascinating to even be a part of it all.
    I love talking shop so if anyone out there wants to chat, I’ll definitely be clicking the Notify button.

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