Garment Samples - Do You Really Need 12 of Them?
Once you’ve designed your clothing line, created a tech pack, put together a garment spec sheet, and found a factory you want to use, you’re ready to start the garment sampling process. Garment samples are where your designs come to life. They are the factory’s physical interpretation of all your instructions and sketches.
Similar to your tech pack, samples are a work in progress designed to be refined, corrected, and adjusted until you have a garment you are happy to take to mass production.
There are 12 types of samples in the product development and production lifecycle. While they are necessary to get your production right and minimize financial loss on your bulk order, their cost can quickly add up.
Large brands have the luxury of big budgets that allow for tons of sampling to create perfectly designed garments. But, small brands often find themselves needing to bootstrap. And, that’s ok!
While you need some sample renditions, you won’t need all of them. As I walk you through the sampling process, I’ll show you exactly what you can skip and save money on.
BUT BEFORE WE START
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It's a form I have used for over 13 years at every job I have ever had. Literally everyone from brands to fabric suppliers, use it, but you can't find it anywhere publicly.
The best part? It can cut your sourcing time in half, and save you tons of money in product development! This is the kind of info consultants charge the big bucks for. And, I'm giving it away for free until the end of the month.
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WHAT YOU WILL LEARN
- What a garment sample is
- Why a garment sample is important
- Steps to making a garment sample
- Types of garment sampling
- Pre-development samples
- Digital sample
- Development samples
- Fit sample
- PP sample
- Size sample set
- Production samples
- Gold sample
- Shipment sample
- Press sample
- How many samples do you really need
- Additional resources
WHAT IS A GARMENT SAMPLE?
Let’s start with the basics. A garment sample is a physical prototype of the clothing design in your tech pack. There are garment samples for every stage of product development and production. And, they each play a role in ensuring you get what you ordered, and your customers get the best possible garment.
Think of a garment sample as the dress rehearsal for your design. It allows you to privately refine and and make changes, until it’s perfect. Your bulk order is like opening night, and a product of all the hard work (you definitely do not want to be making any mistakes here!).
There is no limit to how many samples you can develop. It all depends on your budget and timeframe. In some cases, sample production can start up to two years before bulk production begins. But, don’t let that scare you, the average sampling time is about 3 months.
WHY ARE GARMENT SAMPLES IMPORTANT?
The harsh reality of fashion is this: sometimes, designs that look amazing on paper just don’t translate into something wearable in real life.
And the sampling process is about learning what works off the page.
A quick word of warning. Samples CANNOT be skipped.
Brands often come to me and say they have already made a proto with a local sample room, so they are ready to dive into production.
No, they are not.
What that sample proves is that a local sample room can make it, not the factory. The thing is, it is the factory that will run your bulk production, not the sample room.
It would be like if someone bought a cookie from a world-famous bakery, gave it to you, and then said, ‘ok, make this exact cookie, and you only get one try.’ A totally unreasonable task. Everyone needs a little trial and error to get something perfect, even if they are just copying.
HOW DO YOU MAKE A GARMENT SAMPLE?
There are six steps to making one single sample - they are:
1. Design and design review
The design is created by the brand, and then analyzed by the factory team. Before any sample creation starts, all questions and clarifications are discussed.
2. Paper pattern
These paper pieces act as stencils for the garment.
3. Pattern cutting
The factory will trace the paper patterns on to the fabric and then cut the pieces out.
Next, the factory will sew all the pattern pieces together
5. A fit model will try on the garment
This helps the factory and brand get a better idea of how the garment will look on a person. Sometimes, especially with knits, garments can look very different from a hanger to a person. Someone at the factory might even try it on to see how it fits. Changes can then be made before the factory sends it (FYI, shipping costs add up, so you want to try and get as perfect a sample as possible before it’s sent).
6. Sample comments and approvals
The sample is sent to the brand, and they review it in real life. The brand will note any necessary changes to the sample, and the factory will try again. If the sample is perfect, it is approved and moves on to the next step!
TYPES OF GARMENT SAMPLES
There are four different categories of samples. They are:
- Factory samples
Pre-development samples are like the local sample room samples I mentioned earlier. They are everything you create before you pass the work on to your factory.
Development samples happen before the production phase. They are similar to pre-development samples, but they must be made at the factory that will be making your bulk order in production quality materials.
Production samples are made during production to help you ensure everything is going smoothly and are part of a good quality assurance plan. A lot of people think that sample development ends when the product development phase is over, but it doesn’t.
Factory samples are a second set of identical samples that the factory keeps. If there is an issue to fix, you and the factory can look at the garment together in real time, no matter where you are in the world.
Again, these samples come before anything is sent to the official factory.
DIGITAL GARMENT SAMPLE
Digital garment samples are a virtual representation of your design. You can even create models with digital fabrics to help you see how your design will look and move with different fabrications and on different body types.
Investing in 3D virtual sampling software is costly, but it could save you a lot of time in product development. Sampling can take months to tweak and edit, while digital garment samples take minutes.
The first time I saw this technology was in 2011. And, wow, has it come a long way since then? While the software is still in its infancy, I believe it’s only a matter of time before it becomes more widespread in the fashion industry as artificial intelligence tools continue to develop.
While it’s not essential to your garment sampling process, it allows brands to create lots of designs without having to make physical samples, so, it could be a helpful tool to utilize. I recommend SEDDI Textura if you want to look into this.
We call the first physical sample created a mockup. And, FYI, there are different types of mockups.
It could be a very simple physical prototype you make yourself out of cheap and easy-to-use fabrics like muslin. Or, you could hire a sample room to make it for you and have something really professional made.
The goal of a mockup is to physically communicate your ideas to a factory. It doesn’t have to be perfect, because it is really just a communication tool.
Afterward, you send your mockup along with your tech pack, and fabric swatches to the factory to begin working on the development samples.
Don’t worry if you don’t have the skills or the budget to make a mockup. Not all garments and designs need them, and not all factories work with them. But, they are a good tool to know about if it feels like there is miscommunication between you and your factory.
DEVELOPMENT GARMENT SAMPLES
These are samples that your actual factory makes BEFORE you place the bulk order.
This is the first sample you will get from your factory.
Manufacturers typically create a fit sample using cheap fabrics like muslin. You can think of them like a sketch, but IRL. The purpose of a fit sample is to see how your design looks off the page and get an idea of how it will fit a human body.
The fit sample stage is a great time to make big picture design changes. We aren’t trying to perfect each measurement with a fit sample. The goal is just to see the big picture, what is working, and what isn’t. That bell sleeve you envisioned? Maybe it needs to be smaller. Perhaps the total shirt length is too long? This is the time to make those alterations.
A common misconception about fit samples is that they have to be made in the middle of your size range. For example, if a brand’s size range was XS-XL, they would create a fit sample in size medium.
But, while this is good practical advice, it isn’t product development law.
Most startup brands make the fit sample in their own size so they can try it on themselves. This can save money because you don’t have to hire a fit model. It can also create a better product because no one cares as much as you do about your clothing line.
Just be careful if you DIY it.
Brands pay fit models to not fluctuate in size. During the pandemic, quite a few of my clients came back to me complaining that the factory made all their garments too small. It turned out they had put on a few pandemic pounds, and it wasn’t the clothes that had shrunk.
While this simple mistake seems almost comical, it really pissed off my factories. They did not appreciate being accused of making the designs incorrectly. And they did not enjoy the extra time they needed to take out of their already busy days to measure each original sample and each counter sample to prove they made them correctly.
So, if you do go the DIY fit model route, please keep all that in mind when evaluating fit samples so you can maintain a good relationship with your factory!
PROTO SAMPLE / MOCKUP
Once the brand approves the fit sample, they can move on to the proto sample. This is one of the most exciting samples to receive because it’s the moment your design really starts to come alive.
A proto sample or mock up is basically a sample that is using readily available materials that are really close to production quality components. For example, in a proto sample, your buttons might be silver instead of gold, and your fabric might not have its custom print. But, it’s as close to the real thing as possible, minus a few details.
The purpose of this sample is to give you a better idea of what your garment will look like, as cheaply as possible. It is somewhere between a fit sample and a PP sample (I’ll get to that in a minute). Basically, it’s more detailed than fit sample, but a lot cheaper to make than a PP.
Speaking of custom prints. During this time in the product development calendar, you should also get lab dips and strike-offs. FYI, lab dips are tools for solid color matching, and strike-offs make sure prints come out correctly.
The factory might also send you some additional fabric selections that could help make your product better, decrease the price, or quicken your production time.
PRODUCTION-QUALITY SAMPLE / PRE-PRODUCTION SAMPLE (PP SAMPLE)
Both you and the factory use this sample as a production test run. It is made with the exact fabric and trims you will use in production. I like to think of this sample as the dress rehearsal before your apparel goes to mass production, aka opening night.
If you take anything away from this blog post, please let it be this. If the PP sample is not perfect, you cannot move on to production. Period.
Now, you might be wondering, if this is the only sample that really matters, why can’t we just skip to this one, and forget about all the others? The thing is… Pre-production samples are the most expensive to produce. Printing tiny quantities of fabric or dying a few meters to match your exact color is pricey. So before investing all that money into a PP sample, we want to make sure we have basic things like fit, fabrication and color approvals done.
The nice thing about fit and proto samples is that they cheaply allow for mistakes. You can play around with the design at a much lower cost. Quick tip - as a small brand, keeping your bottom line in the black is all about utilizing your cash as efficiently as possible.
SIZE SET SAMPLE
Once you nail down and approve every little detail of your garment, a sample is created in each size. This is because, sometimes, when brands see what their XS or XL looks like in real life, they want to go back and tweak their size charts before production.
I urge the brands I work with to call their friends and try to find someone in every size sample to try on the full-size set. That way, you can make accurate revisions based on human wear.
SALESMAN SAMPLE (SMS)
Salesman samples are also known as marketing samples.
These extra sets of samples are given to sales agents who bring them to trade shows, display them in showrooms and use them in meetings with buyers. These samples are also used for photoshoots, runway shows, and other types of promotional material.
Fashion is a very visual and physical industry. Buyers prefer to buy based on samples rather than sketches on paper. They want to see and feel the garments in real life.
If you are creating performance garments like jackets, workout wear, or other technical products, you might want to invest in a garment performance test sample (GPT for short).
You can put this sample through a series of tests to see things like, whether the colors run, how the fabric copes with washing, how easily the garment tears and the strength of the seams.
If you want a full list of garment tests, you can check out the AATCC. But, remember, these tests are extremely expensive to run, costing between $300 to thousands!
Again, you MUST have a perfect pre-production sample before you move on to your bulk order - no exceptions, no “we’ll fix it in production”. It must be 100% correct.
SEALED SAMPLE / GOLD SAMPLE
Once you approve your pre-production samples, you will seal them to prevent loss or tampering. Sometimes we refer to these samples as gold samples. BTW, an unapproved sample is known as a red sample, and are literally marked with a red tag.
Gold-sealed samples act as the blueprint for mass-producing your garment. All garments in mass production should match exactly to the gold sample.
As a brand, this is your insurance policy. If your apparel production comes out looking wonky, you go back to the gold sample and have proof that whatever happened in production was not what you and the factory agreed to. This sample makes negotiating for chargebacks a whole lot easier.
TOP OF PRODUCTION (TOP SAMPLE)
The TOP sample is one last check in your production process. This is done to catch any last-minute problems.
Here is something you probably don’t know. A special room in a factory, called a sample room, is where factories make samples. In that room, they have different sewers and processes from the ones on the factory floor. The sewers here are usually the best in the factory.
Sometimes when a design goes from sampling to production, a few small changes need to be made to allow for ease of sewing on the actual production line. Getting a TOP sample is your way of finding out about those small changes before you receive your bulk order.
A TOP sample is also your chance to check the bulk fabric and trims and make sure all components are exactly what they should be.
Pro-tip. Remind your factory to check the TOP sample before cutting all of the bulk fabric. If you find there is a problem with the fabric in your top sample, but all the fabric has already been cut - guess what? You can’t return it to the fabric supplier. You are stuck with it.
After mass production is complete, it’s time for your garments to be shipped. Before that happens, the factory will send you some shipment samples for you to inspect. This is more of a quality control step than a sampling step. But, technically, yes, it’s still a sample on this list.
A shipment sample is a sample that is literally pulled from your production order straight out of the box that is waiting to be picked up by the freight forwarder. This is your chance to look at your production order one last time and make sure they are perfect. If there is a major issue, it allows you to have the factory fix it before spending thousands of dollars on shipping.
PHOTOSHOOT / PRESS SAMPLE
The photoshoot sample is a production sample that’s used to sell your garment.
It’s similar to the salesman sample, but this time, it comes directly from your production line. You can send these samples to models, editors, influencers, and anyone that you want to promote your designs.
HOW MANY GARMENT SAMPLES DO YOU REALLY NEED?
Here is where things are going to get interesting, and hopefully save you a lot of money. Back in the early days of fashion education, factories were putting out blog posts claiming that all brands needed ALL of the samples I mentioned above. But, here’s the thing, you don’t, and most of them were only saying this because it meant more expenses for brands, meaning more money in their pockets.
If you’re new here and don’t know me. I love to save people money. So let’s dive in.
PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT SAMPLES YOU CAN SKIP
For the brands I work with on a budget, here is where I (safely) cut corners.
- First, I combine the fit and proto into one sample. I try to use as close to production quality fabrics as possible. We skip right to the proto but also use it for fit notes.
- Never skip the pre-production sample. But, if you are a small brand and doing all the sales yourself, you can use your pre-production samples as SMS sales tools. And, you can even use them for testing after the sales period is over.
So, at minimum, you must have at least two different kinds of pre-production samples. A working proto, with maybe a few revisions and a PP sample.
One last tip, if you are going to make an SMS, make sure your pre-production samples are perfect first. You don’t want to end up with five sets of bad samples that need fixing.
PRODUCTION SAMPLES THAT YOU CAN SAVE TIME AND MONEY NOT MAKING
Here’s what we do with the small brands I work with.
- The PP sample becomes the gold sample - so that is free.
- For small brands, we skip the TOP sample because small orders (100 pieces or less) are usually samples made in the sample room. So, there aren’t going to be the issues that big brands face).
- Then I combine the shipment samples with the press samples. Not only does this save a step in the sampling process, but also in shipping fees.
- If the brand is using their SMS as press samples (which I recommend to save even more cash), they can skip the shipment samples altogether, and instead have a video call to approve the shipment samples. This will cut shipping costs, and save time.
So, in production, all you need are two samples - the gold sample, and the shipping sample. And, if you are low on cash, you can cut it down to 1, just the gold sample.
NEED MORE HELP? HERE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE RESOURCES
- Skip the product development process and go straight into production
- The ultimate guide to creating garment spec sheets
- Should I hire a sample maker to help develop my line?
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are you ready to start developing garment samples? Let me know in the comments!