Published: February 25, 2023 Updated: February 25, 2023 12 min read
Getting ready to visit a fashion factory? This is for you, because your first visit can be A LOT to process. The good news is, figuring out what the heck you just walked into and if everything you saw was “normal” is something almost every new fashion brand struggles with after they leave that first meeting. So, I’m here to help make your life a little easier. And explain all the inner workings of a factory with A Look Behind The Seams of one of my favorite Italian clothing manufacturers. Let's break down all that sewing factory chaos.
I mean, even just reading this table of contents, things sound totally chaotic. Let’s break it all down.
Here’s what usually happens.
Founders set up their first appointment to meet with their clothing manufacturing partner in person. They are all excited to go. But after the meeting, when I ask them how it went, they are left feeling beyond confused. That’s because they leave not fully understanding everything they just witnessed. Often, they even question whether the sewing factory is competent enough to produce their products or if they are ethical.
For example, a client of mine visited one of my favorite cut + sew factories in New York City and after they left, they told me they were uncomfortable working with them because the space was too cramped and messy. From the looks of it, they thought the sewing factory seemed unprofessional.
Darling. (Said in my best Meryl Streep Devil Wears Prada voice). If a factory is good enough for some of the biggest names in New York fashion week, I am sure it’s good enough for you.
So, to help you not freak out on your first fashion factory visit. I created this post.
I was lucky enough to tour Italy this summer thanks to Italian Artisans. And, visit some of their partner factories that do everything from knitwear, to wovens, to accessories, and more. Full disclosure. They didn’t pay me a cent. I funded the entire month myself because I wanted to be able to write honestly about my experience.
Anyway, my goal for the content I created during the trip was to give people a feel for what apparel manufacturing is all about. No sugar coating, no staged photo ops – just the reality of it all.
So, when the first thing Jacopo said to me was, “Oh my God, it’s so messy in here. We didn’t have time to clean up for you. We are desperately trying to get things out so they are in time for Milan fashion week,” I knew it would be a perfect teaching moment.
Because the truth is, sometimes (read, often) the messiest, craziest fashion factories are the best.
And the ones that look like they popped out of Pinterest . . . Well, truth gun (Cougar Town reference), they probably look that perfect because they don’t have actual clients and no one is doing any real work in them.
So, let me take you on a tour…
Fashion factories are experts in making the most of every inch of space they have. And that is because they have to to be profitable.
First, let’s talk about the razor-thin margins most factories need to operate on.
With a brand, if you buy something from a factory for $10, you will generally be able to sell it at wholesale for about $20, or direct to consumer for $40. That means your profit will be between $10-$30. So, if you order 1,000 shirts, you can make anywhere from $10,000-$30,000 on the order.
Factories, on the other hand, make a profit of about 5-20 percent, depending on the order. So, if the sewing factory sells you 1,000 shirts for $10 each, that means their entire profit will be anywhere between $500-$2,000 (even though the brand is paying them $10,000).
Now, if you were wondering why it’s so hard to find suppliers that want to take on small MOQs, it’s because the money the factory can make on tiny orders is measly compared to the money the brand can make. So, the next time you try to nickel and dime a sewing factory for better prices, please remember this insight into their margins.
BTW, For help finding low MOQ suppliers, you can check out this article.
Okay, now that you understand the tiny margins factories are working with, let’s talk about some of their overhead costs.
Historically, factories are near major fashion centers. There is the New York City Garment District and Downtown LA. In Delhi, the main factory area is Noida, and in Italy, many luxury Italian fashion houses are located around Como and Milan.
But over the years, these areas have become increasingly expensive, meaning the price of rent has gone up. In New York City, I have seen many factories downsize their spaces and move out of the garment district to places like Jersey City and Brooklyn, where they can find cheaper rents. However, many of the factories I know that moved further out of the city then lost customers because their customers did not want to make the schlep to another state or borough to meet with them. That’s the problem with packing up and moving to a cheaper space. Brands are lazy, and because they tend to be more profitable, most are still based where the action is.
Because of this, some factories then packed up again and moved back to the city, paying a premium on their rent, to be closer to their customers offices.
Because every single square foot cuts away from the factories bottom line (especially in places like New York City), out of necessity, factories need to make the most out of every single inch of space they have.
And that’s a big part of the reason things in factories tend to look pretty chaotic.
Now that you know why factories need to optimize their space, let’s go inside the fashion factory, and I will explain some of the methods behind their madness.
I can’t tell you how many times I have walked into a factory and had to step over a roll or two of fabric.
That is because, in small factories, there is only one door in and out. So when fabric is delivered, many factories leave the rolls that are going to be used first right there and move the rolls that aren’t for immediate product to storage areas.
So, when you step over a roll of fabric at the entrance, I can almost guarantee it won’t be there tomorrow because it is going to be used right away.
It takes a lot of table space to unroll fabrics, cut them, organize them, sew them into garments, check the garments for quality control issues, press and iron them, and then pack them up..
The other thing that often happens is that customers end up using factories as free storage. When they have leftover tags, labels, heck, even rolls of fabric, they often leave them at the factory for the next order. And all of this cuts into the factory’s limited space.
Because of this, factories are really good at using space vertically. There is almost always storage under every single table, and you will often see things stacked up to the ceilings. And paper patterns often hang on the walls.
Factories often have showrooms and archives, which serve as resources for small fashion brands. These garment samples are tools for clients to look at for inspiration and use as a reference for future designs. They also serve as examples of what the sewing factory has made in the past, and as examples of what type of quality a client can expect.
One of the first things you might notice when you walk into a factory are the scraps of paper literally everywhere. From scrap paper on the walls to scrap paper pinned onto garments.
Seriously, it looks like a crazy person with amnesia is working there. But it all actually makes a lot of sense.
One thing you might notice on a lot of the clothes in a garment factory is that there are post-its and tiny scraps of paper pinned and stapled all over garments.
These are notes for future alterations. So, there might be a scrap of paper stuck to a sleeve that says, “Reduce 2 inches.” And, another scrap of paper with a note that says, “Change the seam to a French seam.”
There might even be little pieces of fabric tacked onto the sample to show what colors or what types of fabrics go where in the next sample set.
Now, you might be wondering, aren’t all of these changes in the tech pack?
In a working sewing factory setting, a lot of people prefer notes over techpacks. That is because it makes it a lot easier for people to physically see what needs to be changed without having to look at an Excel spreadsheet.
Papers with sketches and CADs (computer aided designs - think sketches of the clothes made in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop) are usually all over the place. Attached to boards on the wall, in plastic sheet protectors, and pinned onto the physical samples.
These sketches serve two different purposes.
The sketches on the wall are a way to view the entire collection. There might even be notes next to these sketches letting everyone know if the sample was made, needs to be made, or if something is delaying the process (like if fabric is missing and when it can be expected to arrive at the factory). Basically, the sketches on the wall show everyone very clearly what styles are in works in the factory.
The sketches that are attached to the garment help the pattern makers and sewers ensure that the end garment looks the way it should. The truth is, many people who work in sewing factories (not in Italy, but in other parts of the world) are illiterate and don’t know how to read. But everyone can understand images, which is why as industry pros love them. Even if the sewers know how to read and write, using images tends to speed up their sewing and prevent mistakes.
Using images also help the sewing factory catch the brand's mistakes. Here’s an example of that.
Sometimes a tech pack will have the wrong measurements on it. Say you want to create a short sleeve; the measurements on the tech pack might accidentally measure for a long sleeve shirt. When the factory sees the sketch of the dress with short sleeves and realizes there is a discrepancy in the measurements, they will most likely call the brand and clarify exactly what the company wants instead of doing the wrong thing.
Did you know that patternmaking is basically math class? It’s like the least artistic part of the garment process, and generally, good patternmakers have above-average math (especially geometry) skills.
So, when you go over to the area of the factory where the patternmaker works, you will probably find tons of scraps of paper with really rough sketches with numbers and math equations on them.
In a lot of factories, you will find garbage bins filled with rolled-up papers. Like, literally overflowing. But this isn’t trash. These papers are cutting markers, and it would actually be horrible if they got thrown out.
Cutting markers are long sheets of paper with clothing patterns on them. They are laid over fabric that help guide the factory workers on how to cut the fabric to get the most pattern pieces possible using the least amount of fabric (read, helps brands save money by using less materials).
The trash bin is usually just a makeshift storage container for these papers.
One last random thing you might notice about a sewing factory is that there is so much thread. It’s everywhere.
I once got tangled in a snagged thread, and it all felt very No Doubt Walking In The Spider Webs - click here if you can’t get that song out of your head now…
But, there is a really specific reason for this. It is for a sewing instruction called DTM, or dyed to match.
Did you ever notice how seams in clothes almost always match the fabric? If the shirt is black, the thread is also black. On blue jeans, they use blue thread. And the thread almost exactly matches whatever specific shade of color the fabric is.
This is no accident. And it’s why factories save thread. Because the more colors they have on hand, the better chance they have of exactly matching your fabric.
Now, this is super helpful in the sample-making process – for just a few garments that need a quick turnaround or a mini order with an MOQ of 10 pieces. However, during bulk, you might need to order your own DTM threads.
It is not uncommon for a factory’s walls to put the library in Beauty and the Beast to shame (I don’t know why I’m throwing in all these pop culture references today, but I’m just in that kind of mood). This is because good factories will document, print, and save everything.
I already mentioned tech packs a few times. But this is something else worth knowing. A tech pack isn’t just something you make and then send out to the factory and forget about. It is a living document that is constantly changing with updates.
Every time a change gets made to the tech pack, it is recorded. It is basically the ledger of the entire life of the style. So, because of all the changes, new pages are constantly being printed out (and the old ones are always saved). By the end of a season, there might be 3, 4, or even 5 or more binders full of all these documents and revisions for 1 brand.
And, after the season is over, the factory saves all of this for years. That is because sampling from 2023, might not go into production until 2024.
Also, if there is ever a similar style being made in the future, they can go back into their records and save a ton of time and money on development.
During sampling and even bulk production, the sewing factory will take pictures of everything, print them out, and add them to the binder for a record of how everything looks.
This also protects the factory in case of damages during shipping.
I had this happen with one of my ex clients before. I sent all of their samples to them, and their warehouse damaged everything. They wanted me to refund them, saying I sent them damaged clothes. But I went back to my pre-shipment photos, and I was able to prove to them that the damage did not come from my side.
FYI, as a brand you also should always take photos of what you are sending to a factory. This way, if a factory sends something back with a stain or damage on it, you can show them a photo of what condition the garment was sent to them in.
Swatches of fabric are usually cut and stapled onto the papers. This allows whoever is using the binder to see exactly what type of fabric will be used. The type of fabric affects everything in the sewing factory, from the pattern, to the types of machines used to sew the garment.
Also, button, zipper, label, and even hang tag references are in the binders as well.
All of this stuff is bulky and takes up space in the binders really quickly. That is why so many binders might be needed for just one brand’s collection.
Remember how I said factories save everything? This is probably the coolest part about that.
Many factories will have their own fabric libraries where they save small cuttings of each fabric that has passed through the space. They sometimes even keep records of the suppliers the fabrics came from and how to contact them for more. (hello, fabric sourcing made easy).
And, just like the fabric library, there will sometimes be a trim library. The trim library will have samples of embellishments, labels, tags, and even embroidery.
And lastly, there is the design library for past samples.
This particular sewing factory in Italy had generations worth of samples. And let me tell you, I was in heaven. This is the kind of quality stuff that just can't find anymore. And, is hard to find in vintage stores that are all picked through.
If a factory has a design library, also known as a sample room, I urge you to spend as much time as possible exploring it.
The next time you visit your factory, are you going to look at what is going on in a whole new way? Let me know in the comments.
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I have spent over a decade living and working in fashion factories, seeing firsthand how clothing is made.
And now, I want to share with you everything I know. To help you navigate supply chains, and launch your own conscious clothing brand.
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