No, factories aren't just being greedy and falling into the fast fashion trap when they tell you their MOQ is 500-1000 pieces per style… per color. There is a real reason for this. And, today I am going to take you on A Look Behind The Seams of why finding a low MOQ clothing manufacturer can feel like finding a unicorn. BTW, MOQ stands for minimum order quantity. And, I am also going to share the hidden downsides (that no one is talking about) when working with these smaller manufacturers that specialize in startup production. Because, the reality is, working with a small batch manufacturer is often not the magic pill, dream solution that startup founders think they will be.
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Yes, The Industry Is Greedy, But, Not All The Time…
I was inspired to write this post because I have been seeing a lot of people complaining online about having trouble finding manufacturing partners with low minimum orders. And, they always jump to the conclusion. That if they can't get the small orders they need then the factory must be part of the fast-fashion problem. And, this is very, very false. First of all, 500 pieces is not a fast-fashion quantity, 500,000 pieces is.
So, to really understand why factories require higher MOQs than you might be comfortable with, you need to understand how the manufacturing process works. Here we go.
How Factories Work
The thing first you need to understand about working in apparel manufacturing is that everything is a chain reaction. And, when one part of the system has been affected all parts of the system are affected. For example, when your buttons are held up and late to be delivered, it’s not as simple as just sewing the whole shirt, and then putting the buttons on later. It all needs to be done inflow, together.
It drives factories crazy when newbie brands are like "well you have 95% of what you need can't you just start with that?"
No, Karen, no.
And, I'll tell you why. Working that way is extremely inefficient, and factories make their money by learning to be as efficient as possible.
And understanding this is the key to starting to understand why MOQ can be so high.
Learn To Think About The Hidden Work
Here is another very common startup question. "I can meet the MOQ of 500 pieces if you let me split it between 5 different colors. Can't we just make 100 pieces of each color? It's all the same pattern."
Well, let's look at the order of 5 different colors of all the same style from a factory micro level. In reality, it is like ordering 5 totally different styles. That is because the processes need to happen separately for each color. It's 5 dye formulas, 5 dye baths, 5 different lab tip approvals, 5 times through the dying and finishing machines. Basically, 5 times the time to produce!
And, here is just one more example (out of so many) where factories lose time just by making just one more color!
For each color, you want to make the factory needs to literally take out all of the sewing threads in the machines, and then put new ones in to match the next color. It might not sound like a lot of work, but I promise you it is.
Factories Become More Efficient With Time
The other reason factories like bigger orders are because they give them time to get good at what they are making. They can increase their productivity, and increase their margins.
If you give them an order for only 50 pieces, by the time the sewers really get into making it and start to get efficient and better with practice, the order is done. But, when they have an order of 1000 pieces it’s a little different. On the first day, their sewers might only be able to make 10 pieces. Them, maybe on day five 15, and towards the end of the order 20 per day.
Aside from efficiency, sewers actually like this type of work. It is less stressful for them when they can just tap into their muscle memory and don’t have to learn the little intricacies of a new design every few days.
And, It’s Also Kinda Personal
Now, from an efficiency standpoint, I think it’s pretty obvious why factories might not want to take on low MOQ orders. But, there is one more reason. And, it’s kind of personal. (Remember, it’s never my style to tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear).
When you approach a factory as a startup asking for super low MOQs, it means they will need to train you. And, training a new client takes time. Thanks to youtube and TikTok, we all are all kind of under the false illusion that we can learn to do anything online. But, right now we need to push our egos aside and listen to the factory’s perspective.
No matter how many youtube videos you watch, or books you read - there is nothing like real-world experience. The world of fashion is chaotic. That is part of the reason it’s so exciting to work in. Even after working in this business for over a decade I am still constantly learning new things.
Because things are going wrong what feels like all the time, factories want to mitigate their risks however they can. So, that often means passing up on those low MOQ startup orders.
Even if you have your tech pack, and think you look all professional and are ready to go - you’re not. This past week alone I spoke with 2 sourcing agents who have a strict policy on not working with startup brands. And they both said it was because startups waste their time. But… they have agreed to work with my LMCL students. That is because they know they have been well trained on how the industry works. And, they won't have to dedicate their time to teaching them the right way to do things.
Remember, When You Start Sampling, Even Though You Are Paying The Factory - They Are Basically Working For Free
Those sampling charges often barely cover the time and (wo)manpower it takes to create your samples. So, the more time they need to teach you how to be a good client, the more free work they are basically doing.
Factories (unless they are specifically set up to specialize in low MOQ orders), don't actually start to make money until you place your bulk order).
And, I want you to keep this in mind when chatting with your factory partner.
Think of all the little questions and all the little mistakes. They might not seem like a big deal from your perspective but are huge time, resources, and money wasters for the factory. A brand forgetting 1 seemingly small detail in a tech pack or pattern could add hours to a sewer's work.
What You Can Do If You Don’t Meet A Factory MOQ
Before you reach out to a factory. Take the time to learn how to do it the right way. And, please be careful of who you get advice from. Here is a tip, make sure they have actually worked in the industry.
The Rules Aren’t Set In Stone
Ok, here is something else that no one in this industry would ever actually say directly to a small startup. But, I will let you in on this little secret.
We bend the rules for people we like.
This is a lesson I learned while in fast fashion. I spent a lot of time overseas working with factories directly and building relationships. And, those relationships are what "made miracles happen". I was able to get things rushed when no one else could. Not, even the owner and president of the company. And, the only reason I was able to was because the factory reps liked me. And, wanted to help me - so my projects would get squeezed to the front of the line and prioritized.
I have lots of clients that don’t meet our formal MOQ’s but, I like them. I want to work with them and bend the rules.
Why do I like them?
To be succinct, because they are chill. They work hard. Don't have a lot of ego. Take the time to put together all their materials in a way that is easy for me and the factory to understand. And, in general, they are just very easy to work with.
As far as I see it, when a brand takes the time to learn this industry and is really trying - I want to help them, so bend the rules a little.
The best advice I can give you starting out when you have low MOQs is to be gracious of other people’s time.
As I just explained for most of this blog post - factories don’t make much money on sampling or these small MOQ orders. So, always remember to be constantly thanking your supply chain partners, and letting them know how much you appreciate them taking a chance on you.
Now, Let's Talk About The Low MOQ Clothing Manufacturer Niche
As more and more people start quitting their jobs to chase their dreams of starting their own companies (which by the way I support one thousand percent), I am seeing more small mini-factories pop up that cater to small MOQ orders.
While at first, this solution sounds like a dream, it does come with its own set of unique pros and cons. So, let’s dig in.
The Pros To Working With A Factory That Specializes in Startups
Well, low MOQs. Duh, lol.
These studios that allow small quantity orders are great for small brands who don't have huge budgets (yet) to commit to ordering large quantities of garments. We also call companies that specialize in this type of work custom clothing manufacturers.
But, while this sounds great, there is a major downside to custom clothing manufacturing.
The Con Of Working With A Low MOQ Clothing Manufacturer- Higher Prices
When you work with these small quantity clothing factories that specalize in the world of low MOQ clothing manufacturing you will find the pricing is really high. And, many small businesses don’t budget accordingly for that when they start to work on their clothing line.
Here is the truth, creating an affordable sustainable brand that only produces 10 of each style and retails at $50 is impossible - unless you want to lose money. Because, your cost might be $50 or, even more just to produce the garment!
So, if you are going to go the low MOQ route, what you must remember is you are going to need to increase your retail price point to turn a profit.
One Last Tip - Where To Find A Low MOQ Clothing Manufacturer
Look on the outskirts of manufacturing hubs. A great example of this is Hong Kong.
Today, there is not much mass garment manufacturing left on the island. There just isn't enough space for large factories. Not to mention the rents there are way too high to make it cost-effective. But, thanks to their proximity to China, Hong Kong is able to reap the benefits of China's highly organized supply chain systems, and create small sewing units (many tailored for tourists and small local businesses).
Other hubs to start your search are LA and NYC in the United States and Jaipur in India.
I hope this helped!
While building your fashion empire, there are going to be pros and cons to every decision you make. There is no right and wrong. Stop asking, what should I do to be a perfect brand? Instead, focus on education and learning each type of process. Then make the decision that is best for you and your brand. Let me know in the comments - do you plan to work with a low MOQ clothing manufacturer?