I get that the garment manufacturing process is still a confusing mess of information for most people. And, many of you have given up on your dream of a clothing brand before ever really starting because you couldn't figure out how to have your product made. So, before you start lessons on product development and garment production, I think it's helpful to have a generalized overview of all the steps necessary in the clothing manufacturing process.
Think about it like this. For years I have been trying to learn the rules of football (the American kind) so I can follow along while my friends watch. What do you think has been more helpful to me - an article that lists all the players on the field and what they do or a deep dive into how a football is made? Obviously the first post with an overview of all the players.
Think of developing and producing your garments like me learning football. To start off you don't need to know every single little detail of a tech pack or how to comment on fit samples. In the beginning, you just need to know the players in the game, or in the case of the garment manufacturing process the steps to follow.
When you are ready, each of these steps has an in-depth break down that will make you a total pro.
Remember this while you read. It has taken me a decade to really learn all of this stuff. Give yourself a break while learning, and don't give up. Take your time, and follow this blueprint, and you will be just fine.
So, forget every other guide you have ever read. This is all you need to get you going. I even take you step by step through the entire flow chart process with an example garment.
In This Guide -
- Inspiration shopping
- Garment design
- Print + color design
- Source and order fabric + trim
- Tech packs
- Preliminary costing
- Pattern development
- Development sampling
- Pre-production process
- Grade patterns
- Production samples
- Quality control check
- Shipping and logistics
So, let's learn how to design a women's dress.
1. Inspiration Shopping
Your first assignment is to hit the stores and shop. This is the easiest way to start the design process. I read this thing recently about fashion design, that basically everything has already been designed already, and now all that the fashion industry has become is re-inventing what has already been done. And, it's kind of true.
I work with tons of brands that send me samples from H&M and Zara and just want to knock them off but with different types of prints, or in different fabrics. My personal advice is that if you are going to copy a garment exactly, and not make any changes, at least go for a vintage garment that hasn't been sold in stores for the past 20 years.
Check Out Vintage Stores
There are some amazing vintage accounts on Instagram to shop for inspiration. I would start with The Vintage Show. Not only do they have an amazingly curated Instagram feed, but they actually put on vintage clothing tradeshows in multiple countries throughout the year. They are a great place to start looking for design inspiration.
I found this 70s vintage scarf dress googling around online. I like a lot of aspects of it, but also want to make some changes to my new design.
2. Garment Design
Once you have your inspiration garments, if they are not too expensive I would recommend buying them. It will make the rest of this process a lot easier. If they are too expensive for your budget. Try to find something similar but cheaper you can use instead off of eBay, postmark, the Real Real, or another second hand used clothing website.
A lot of times clients will end up combining a few different styles together. They might like the bottom portion of one dress, the sleeves, on another, and the print and embellishments of the third. This works too!
In my example. I took the overall idea of the 70s dress, added more modern and trend-forward balloon sleeves. And changed the neck to a v-neck with an empire waist which I find much more flattering than the square neckline, personally.
I would recommend hiring a graphic artist to help draw out the ideas and Franken garments you are creating in your head. Amy who owns the ethically and sustainably produced brand Sea-Sage, helped me out with mine.
From my experience, some times you think something is going to look good, but, then when you see it sketched out, not so much.
3. Print + Color Design
Next, comes print and color design. Is your line going to be all about sold colors, or are you going to use different prints? Will you mix and match and do a little of both?
One of the best and cheapest ways to predict color and print trends is to just google it. Tons of websites give recaps of fashion shows and predictions for the upcoming season's trends.
For this dress, I tested out three different prints. A jungle print, a romantic, floral, and floral that was a little more 70's feeling.
My graphic artists (Amy) then popped the prints into the CAD of the garment she designed so I can visualize what the garment would look like with each print.
4. source and order fabric + trim
Once you know what your garment is going to look like then you can start sourcing fabrics and trim.
For some reason, new designers always think they should go fabric shopping first and then design garments. While that is the case from a product development standpoint - first we buy fabric then we cut it, then we sew it. From a design perspective, it's the opposite. choose fabrics to complement the design of the garment.
For this garment, I want something light and slowly. For example, a cotton poplin would be too stiff for the delicateness of the scarfs. Silk would be a great natural fiber. But, silk is super expensive. I don't want to use polyester because that always ends up feeling like a plastic bag in the heat. So, I think I am going to go for a modal satin. Modal is a sustainable closed-loop fiber, it has a very soft and slowly feel. And, when it is combined with a satin weave, it makes the fabric feel even more luxurious.
Once you have your fabric picked out, make sure to get an FDS. That is a Fabric Data Sheet. A fabric datasheet has all the important fabric details that a factory needs to make your garment.
A quick reminder - your FDS should contain all this info.
AKA, a quality number.
The percent of fiber types that make up the fabric
FABRIC WEAVE OR KNIT TYPE
Examples would be plain weave, or 3x1 twill for woven fabric, or jersey for knit fabrics
The size of the yarns
Yarns per inch (YPI) for wovens, or stitches per inch (SPI) for knits.
SAMPLE MINIMUM ORDER QUANTITY (MOQ)
What is the least amount of meters of fabric you can order in a sample order
SAMPLING PRICE AND VALIDITY DATE
What is the price, and how long that price is good for? Prices change as the market changes
SAMPLE LEAD TIME
How long it takes to get sample the fabric
BULK MINIMUM ORDER QUANTITY (MOQ)
How much fabric do you need to order for the bulk price
BULK PRICE AND VALIDITY DATE
How long it will take to make and ship your fabric when you place a bulk order
SPECIAL FINISHES OR TREATMENTS
Washes, waterproofing, softening, etc
5. Tech Packs
For more on tech packs, and even how to use techpacker, which is a super affordable platform ($29 per month) for creating tech packs, check out my tech pack guide.
A tech pack is basically a blueprint for your garment. It tells the factory everything from the type of fabric to use and the color to make it down to the type of thread to use in the sewing machines. It includes things like where to get labels and hang tags from, and even how to pack and ship the garment.
6. Preliminary Costing
Once you have your designs and tech pack ready, send it all over to your clothing manufacturers. If you need helping to find a sustainable apparel manufacturing - check out this guide.
Based on all of this info, your supplier should be able to give you a preliminary costing. This is an estimate of about, how much your production will cost. But, once a sample is done, only then will they be able to give you a final costing. Generally, the difference between the tech pack costing and costing after a proto sample is complete is about 10%.
If your costing is coming out too high from the tech pack, be honest with your supplier and ask them to help you cut costs. I help my clients with this all of the time. Sometimes the initial costing comes out too high so we work together to redesign the garment into the price they need.
Do not wait to get honest about costing with you supplier. Many new brands think they will just develop and then when it's time for production start the negotiations. This never turns out well for the brand, and usually damages the relationship with the supplier. Many suppliers will not work with brands who try to negotiate, or pull orders after sampling.
7. Pattern Development
Next, you are going to need a pattern that will be used to cut the fabric. Most factories today offer their own pattern making. But, some brands like to work with a more local sample maker that can make patterns and samples near to where they live.
Working with someone local can be helpful if you want to make a lot of changes, or if you are working off sketches and do not have a bought sample to base your design off of. Because I have this bought vintage sample as my base with alterations being made I feel comfortable having my factory do the pattern development.
Hiring a local pattern maker is extremely expensive. They charge about $300 per pattern, to give you a cost comparison in India it is around $30. So, if you are going to pay someone near where you live to make the pattern, make sure they are highly skilled and their patterns come out great. In my experience, I have seen clients pay $300 for bad patterns, and my factory remakes them perfectly for only $30. Proof that price does not always correlate with quality.
8. Development Sampling
Ok, it's time to sample. There are actually 5 main steps in the sampling process.
They are -
- lab dips + strike-offs
- fit sample
- final costing
8.1 Lab Dips + Strike-Offs
Lab dips often abbreviated l/d are little fabric swatches of solid dyed colors. They are used to determine if a color matches to the standard that you picked. Generally, brands will pick a Pantone color, and the factory will match to that.
Strike offs, abbreviated s/o, are small fabric cuttings of printed fabrics. The purpose of a strike-off is to check that the print is the right size, on register, not blurry, the correct colors, etc.
Lab dips and strike offs are used to approve the colors and prints before sample fabric is made. Always make sure to get a swatch, and approve it. This becomes your standard that the factory will match to. If you don't like the way your color or print looks, this is your moment to speak up. It is unprofessional to approve a lab dip or strike off and then tell a factory you want to change it further down the design process.
Make sure not to lose your approved swatches. They will become your gold standard that everything must match back to.
If you try to make changes after an approval, some factories will say no, or sometimes even drop you as a client. So make sure you like it before proceeding to the next steps!
8.2 Fit Sample
A fit sample is a sample made in an available similar fabric to yours. It is an opportunity to check the pattern, and how a garment is going to ultimately look and fit.
With a fit sample, there should always be a fitting session. Put the complete garment on someone and make sure everything looks good. Make sure all the measurements and how the garment fits are perfect. This is your chance to see how all of the changes you made to your original sample look IRL (in real life).
You can even take the sample and throw it on a fit model, to see how it looks on a person. And if that changes you made affected the overall fit.
And, when I say fit model, you don't have to go out and hire someone. You can be your own fit model, or use one of your friends.
Save that moolah.
Just like the lab dips and strike offs, this is your opportunity to speak up if something is wrong. Once you approve a fit sample, that is that. Again it is unprofessional to make changes after the approval.
Hold on to this sample, it will become your standard for measuring all other samples in your garment manufacturing process
8.3 Proto Samples
A proto sample is also known as a production-quality sample. It is a sample that is made with your fabric, printed or dyed with your approved print or colors, and made using your approved fit sample. In theory, it is exactly what your production will look like.
You can use this sample to take photos to make your line sheets and looks books or to put on your e-comm website. And also, to show to buyers at meetings or in trade shows.
But, don't give this sample away! You will need it to make sure it matches back to your production samples and production run. More on that later.
These samples you can give away. An SMS is a Sales Man Sample. Sometimes brands have more than one showroom or more than one sales team. Some brands need anywhere from 10-20 sets of SMS samples. This way, every sales team has them to show to potential customers.
If you do not have a sales team there is no reason to make SMS. You can use your 1 set of proto samples for everything.
8.5 Final Costing
Once your proto sample is ready your garment manufacturers can give you a final costing. Again, remember the final costing should be within about 10% of your pre-sample costing.
If a factory comes back to you with a much higher costing after sampling run the other way. This is a key indicator of two things. The first is more innocent, and that maybe they don't really know what they are doing, and totally miss calculated. I mean, not good, but not evil. But, in reality, what is more likely is that they are starting to price gouge you.
At this point, you have already invested a ton of time and money. You are basically pretty reliant on them. They see this dependence and investment as an opportunity to ask for more money. What is to prevent them from deciding to raise your prices, again, after all, your production is done and waiting to ship to your customers? Basically nothing.
If a supplier increases your prices drastically, it's time to break up. But, that's ok. Email me. I have a list of tons of ethical suppliers that are great to work with.
9. Pre-Production Process
Once you have your proto sample and final costing it is time to move onto production. Before production, a lot of brands take this time to get orders from retailers if the wholesale. Or, if they are direct to the consumer may even open up for pre-sale.
10. Grade Patterns
Up until now, your samples are only made in the sample size. Most brands make their sample size in a small or medium. But, if you are targeted to plus size, then you might want to make your sample size the size you sell the most of.
Once you go into production you need to grade your pattern. That means that the pattern increases and decreases into the different sizes you are going to sell.
10.1 Marker Making
After grading there is a behind the seams step that most brands don't realize. It is marker making. Marker making involves the factory figuring out the best way to puzzle piece all the pattern pieces together on the fabric in order to waste the least amount of fabric possible.
11. Production Samples
There are 4 main types of samples you need to check during the production process. They are -
- PP sample
- Sew by sample
- TOP sample (Top Of Production)
- Shipping samples
PP Sample Set
A PP sample set is your pre-production sample set. This is a graded sample set. It is your opportunity to check everything before you go into production.
I know I said earlier you should not change anything after you approve your lab dips, strike offs, fit sample, and proto sample. But, sometimes once you see everything all together in a proto some things still don't work.
Before the PP sample is made, communicate these changes. Maybe short sleeves become sleeveless or the hemline changes. Be very clear before the factory makes the final pp samples of any changes.
Inspect these samples thoroughly. Looks at stitches and sewing quality, and seams. Double-check the factory didn't pull any funny business and switch out fabric on you.
Whatever you approve, that becomes your production standard. So be supercritical.
Once you get the sample and approve them they become your sew by samples.
Sew By Sample
Sew by samples are the final approved samples before production. This should be an absolutely perfect sample that the factory will use to hold all of the production to.
Top Of Production
Top of production or a TOP sample, is the first sample made in your production run before the rest of our production goes through the cutting process.
Final Fabric Approval
Technically there is one more step right before this that many brands forget about. It's getting a final cutting of all your fabric, trims, etc. Before your production fabric leaves the mill to ship to the factory you should get a 1-yard cutting to make sure it matches back to your original sample lab dips and strike offs.
It is important to check the fabric before it ships from the mill to the factory. Because, if the fabric is wrong, you are wasting time and money shipping to a factory where it can not be used.
If you are not using a third party quality checker, the factory will pull a random group of samples for you and send them. This happens right before shipping. It is your last opportunity to make sure everything is perfect. Sometimes factories will make small changes in production. Like they will change the stitches per inch or a type of seam without telling you. Or, they will order lower quality trims or labels, thinking you will not notice. If you see something that does not match your sew by and TOP sample, say something. You could be entitled to a discount.
12. Quality Control Check
Before your bulk ships from the garment factories, you, or a third party should do a quality check. There are going to be a few pieces that have damages, after all, humans are making all of these garments, so there is bound to be some human error. There are a few layers of QC.
The first is the factory.
Technically, every single piece that leaves their factory should have QC done. But, factories can be a little lazy sometimes, so it's good to hire a third-party inspector. They can be expensive. Some companies pay for third party inspectors to go through every single garment in their production run, check each piece manually, and confirm that all are good. Some do random checks. They will pick up a random box, and take some random garments and check them.
My factory in India has over a 98% quality inspection rate. That means less than 2% of the goods leaving the factory and shipped to the customer have defects. The industry standard of tolerance is around 5%. 3% is a big difference when you are talking about 100,000 pieces or more! And, most of them are minor and still allow the garment to be sold in stores.
Once everything is approved your bulk order is packed. There are so many ways to pack garments. And, there are so many regulations on the type of boxes, to the types of hangers, to how many pieces can be in a box depending on who the final recipient of the box is.
I was just talking to someone who received a chargeback from a retailer because they used the wrong color tape for the season on their boxes, caused confusion in the warehouse, slowed down the workers, and ultimately because time is money had to pay penalty fees for not complying to the warehouse regulations.
Be extra careful in your contracts about how things are packed.
14. Shipping + Logistics
After your production leaves the factory, there is still work to be done. You need to make sure your garments get to where they are supposed to go. Part of that job is clearing and paying customs, then from customs making it to the warehouse, your house, store, wherever they are going.
There is a ton of legal things to consider when shipping like who is liable and responsible for the goods. What happens if the plane your garments are on crashes? Do you pay? The factory? The store you are selling them to? All of this should be pre-negotiated. All the terms and jargon can sound kind of confusing at first. But, don't worry I have a guide for that also!