Garment Factories: How to Determine if They Fit?

Let’s face it: finding garment factories to start your clothing line with is tough. They’re hard to find and even harder to work with. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who come from a family of clothing manufacturers, getting your designs made is probably going to be one of the most challenging tasks when you’re just starting out.

How could you find a garment factory without knowing your own needs and making sure the factory had the capabilities to actually produce what you're looking for? Check out this list of factors to consider and download the free e-book to help you be more concise when articulating your needs and looking for the right partners to work with.

How could you find a garment factory without knowing your own needs and making sure the factory had the capabilities to actually produce what you’re looking for? Check out this list of factors to consider and download the free e-book to help you be more concise when articulating your needs and looking for the right partners to work with.

When I first started out I was frustrated because I couldn’t find any garment factories listed on Yelp, Google, or LinkedIn and if they had a presence then it was very sparse with little information.

What? You may ask yourself. Don’t they need the business?

Well, yes and no.

There are two main reasons why garment factories don’t like to work with young designers:

  • low order quantities may slow down their production process and make them  unprofitable customers
  • the lack of experience often causes confusion, backlogs, and inefficiencies

 

Thus, finding the right garment factories to work with gets even more challenging for young brands: even if you’ve found the “factory of your dreams” they may not agree to work with you.

So, if your factory relationship will be one of the deciding factors between your brand’s success and failure, how can you find a factory that fits your needs and convince them to work with you?

I asked myself the same question and that’s how I came up with a method that can help:

  • weed out the good from the bad factories
  • find garment factories that fit your needs
  • reach out and secure your first meeting
  • convince them to give you a shot at working with them

There are a lot of other factors at play so I can’t guarantee that this method will work for anyone in any case. What it does offer is a starting point in your pursuit to get your products made.

 

ASSESSING DIFFERENT GARMENT FACTORIES’ FIT

When you start out, it’s quite difficult to assess whether a factory fits your needs or not so I’ve compiled a list with the most important indicators and questions that every designer should ask themselves before they start looking for any factories at all.

First, create a list of your production needs and judge different garment factories against it. Click To Tweet

Without further ado, here is my list of indicators against which I judge whether a factory will fit my needs.

  1. CAPABILITIES
  2. PERSONALITY
  3. PRODUCT
  4. SERVICE
  5. LOCATION

 

 1) CAPABILITIES

This factor immediately eliminates a lot of garment factories from your list. If you design heavy leather accessories, there’s no need considering a lingerie or active wear factory. They simply don’t have the machinery or expertise on how to produce your product and they won’t be an option for you to work with. Ever.

 

2) PERSONALITY

Notice how the next factors on the list are honesty and reliability, even before quality, delivery time, and MOQs?

This might come as a surprise but the truth is, your relationship with the owner or production manager of your garment factories will make or break your working relationship: if he’s dishonest or unreliable, he will waste your time and money, and will drain your energy until you have nothing left to run your business.

If the owner is at least honest, everything can be worked out. They will fix quality issues free of charge and cooperate with you if something goes wrong (on their part).

If he or she doesn’t fulfill the first two points on the list, you might be dealing with ruined production lots for which you spent a lot of money by buying raw materials (fabrics, zipper, buttons, tags etc.) and getting the styles developed (pattern making, marking, grading, etc.) and which you can’t sell anymore, leading to a big loss.

You might be chasing (parts of) your money for the next six months only to find out you will never be refunded because they simply don’t have the money anymore.

Or you might loose large wholesale orders because the factory owner wasn’t reliable and thus they didn’t complete your production on time. This is a particularly big issue because retailers are quick to cancel orders if they don’t ship on time and they will remember any delays or issues and won’t work with you again in the future.

I’ve also been in the position where my production wasn’t finished on time a couple of times and here are two examples of what I experienced.

Case #1:

The week leading up to the shipping date for a big supplier I called ‘Factory A’ every single day.

The production manager ignored my calls and sent me cryptic text messages how they are “too busy to talk, will call back later”. After two days I decided to show up in person but I wasn’t allowed to enter because they had a “top secret customer” on site.

This is a big, red flag right there. My buyer cancelled his order nine days after the shipping date was due and we still hadn’t delivered the order. The company also never wanted to work with us again and never answered my emails again – that was now three years ago.

To save my production I canceled the order with this factory and took my cut pieces (they’re called bundles) elsewhere. The new garment factory completed my production completed within two weeks and delivered excellent quality. This shows that good garment factories are worth every penny. 

This was by far one of the worst, most stressful, and emotionally challenging times since founding my business and I came very close to giving it up all together because I felt like I didn’t have any energy left to run it.

Case #2:

I am now working with Factory B and my production is late eleven days because they are swamped with other orders. I’m worried because I have a big order that needs to be shipped out at the end of the week and it’s not done yet.

I walk into Factory B, sit down with the production manager, show her the order as well as the cutting ticket with the promised delivery date (your contract!).

She knows the production is late but she also wants me to sell and deliver the big order to the customer on time. Her offer: they will work overtime to finish the exact number of items needed to fulfill this order on time and I will give them more time to finish the remainder of the shipment later.

This shows, life is very different when you’re working with an honest and reliable factory. I firmly believe that everything, from quality to price can be solved. But if a factory doesn’t have your best interest in mind, it will cause many problems and consume your energy until you give up.

Trust me when I say it is disheartening to work with a “bad factory”. I know several people who gave up their clothing lines because they were sick and tired of dealing with production problems.

3) PRODUCT

You will never believe how bad the quality is that some contractors will deliver to you while insisting that everything is just fine. I know what I’m talking about because I did not believe it myself when I got started.

And because pictures will speak more than 1000 words, here are some photos of products that some “garment factories” have sent to me over the course of the last years.

The challenges of producing clothing Stitching quality varies widely from one garment factory to another Watch our for broken stitching, holes, and crooked binding.

If you look at those pictures and ask yourself “Who the heck sewed this?! Is this the first time they’re handling a sewing machine?!” then you’re reacting exactly the same way I did every time I received an item like this.

And the sad truth is: this might just be the case. If you’re a small company that places a small order, which is really anything below 500 pieces per style per color (!), then your order will not be important to many factory owners and they might just put someone on your order who has just started working for them and has no experience.

Or they might use your mini-order as a “gap filler” between large orders, squeezing individual sewing steps in wherever they find spare capacities. This causes several issues: on the one hand, the lack of consistency in sewing might mess up your sizing and fit or it might cause irregularities in the seams. On the other hand, “gap fillers” are often rushed, which means the overall quality of the sewing might be bad.

Besides the most obvious quality problems such as puckering seams, dirty fabrics, or wrong assembly, there are also other things to look out for:

The right photo shows the sample we gave the factory, the left one shows what the factory gave back to us. Besides the obvious problems on the center front strap (straight line turned into a drunk line…?) – do you notice the different colors? We never bought that kind of gray fabric, so what happened? And whose fabric is this?

Are all pieces in the correct fabric and color?

Are the straps the exact length?

Does it have hanger appeal?

Is the thread tension correct?

Trust me when I say, there are a million things that could and will go wrong, even with the best garment factories.

When starting a fashion business it's tough to anticipate the challenge of producing garments. Even if you hand in a perfect sample, it might still come out int the wrong color, wrong fabric, and terrible sewing quality.

Don’t ever assume you found the perfect factory and don’t ever trust them to get it 100% right without any kind of supervision or management: Language barriers between you and the factory owner or among the sewers, miscommunication, or lack of planning and preparation will inevitably cause frictions in your production process and the consequences might be fatal for your brand new company.

It’s true when they say, the devil is in the details and it’s your job as a company owner to minimize the risks and to devote your maximum effort into the search of finding trustworthy garment factories with truly skilled workers.

 

4) SERVICE

 Delivery times, minimum order quantities, and pricing are the remaining three factors you need to think about. You should absolutely try to answer the questions I mentioned above when visiting the garment factories, but more importantly, you should have a rough idea of what you want and don’t want even before you set out to talk to garment factories:

  • HOW MUCH product do I need to start out?
  • WHEN do I need it by?
  • And WHAT PRICE am I willing to pay for each item?

Generally speaking, pricing is the least of my concerns when it comes to picking a vendor. You will pretty quickly get an idea of how much something will cost by asking different clothing manufacturers for quotes. Be specific and ask them “How much does it cost to get 100 units made? How about 200, 300, and 500?”

Unless you’re producing bigger quantities, paying 10¢, 20¢, or 50¢ more isn’t going to hurt you because “it’s not adding up”. Think about it: 100 leggings x $12 = $1.200 vs. 100 leggings x $12.50 = $1.250. The difference is only $50 which s is not a very big difference. I will happily spend this money if I know I will have  the peace of mind.

As a rule of thumb I try not to accept any price discrepancies that will cost me more than $100 and if I really don’t feel good about the first factory, then I simply keep looking for even more options.

Okay, now we’ve talked about why price isn’t as important as other factors. Can we please talk about what it actually costs to produce your clothing?

This is a tough question to answer: “clothing” isn’t equal to “clothing” and its sewing cost depends on many different factors.

Asking the question “what does it cost to make ‘a garment’?” is equivalent to asking “how much does it cost to buy ‘food’?”: the question is not specific enough! What kind of food? Beef? Fruit? Oreo cookies? Wine? Toast?

Prices can vary greatly depending on what kind of food you’re buying and even if you’re fairly specific, let’s say you’re buying ‘fruit’, there are always more questions to ask: How much are you planning to buy? Could you get a bulk discount? Are you going to resell it? Where is it from? Does it grow right now? Is it organic?

Clothing is like fruit, even if you know you want to sew ‘a jacket’ or ‘a dress’, you can’t predict an item’s price unless you have a sample to look at. To give you some kind of guideline though, I summarized a list of factors that make sewing more or less expensive.

 

FACTORS THAT INCREASE THE PRICE

Difficult materials:

Very sensitive fabrics like silk, chiffon, or lace can rip, snag, or break easily and must be handled more carefully. Similarly, light-colored fabrics will get dirty very fast and require extra care. Very heavy fabrics, on the other hand, are also more expensive because they need special heavy duty equipment and not every sewer can work with it. If possible, try to go with easy-to-sew, medium-weight, dark fabrics. They’re cheaper and more forgiving.

 

Hardware:

The cost increases with everything that requires hand sewing or special machinery. Fancy buttons or invisible zippers are more expensive than your regular 4-hole button or a simple topstitched zipper. Every piece of hardware adds between $0.5 and $5 depending on how complicated and time-consuming it is to attach it. Keep this in mind for your labels as well!

 Complicated style lines:

Straight lines are cheaper to sew than curved lines, curved lines are much cheaper to sew than corners. Every corner adds $1-2 I’d say because it stops the flow and takes time to lower the foot at the precise location and turn the pieces. Moreover, the number of seams determines how many sewers you’ll need. Typically, one seam equals one sewer or one operational step. The more seams, the more steps, the more time, the more $$$.

 

Size and similarity of pattern pieces:

If your pattern consists of 200 pieces of a similar size and shape, you’re making your sewer’s life HELL. The smaller the piece the more prone they are to making mistakes and the longer it will take them to assemble your garment. Plus, the sewing price will include the additional time needed to sort out your patten pieces.

But I really, really need to know even a rough price range before I reach out to any garment factories…

Sigh… I can’t recount how many times I’ve heard this so I created this table with the roughest guesstimates of what it costs to produce something in California or New York (for a quantity of 100 units, single color, four sizes).

Now, repeat after me:

I AM FULLY AWARE THAT THE COST OF MY GARMENT COULD BE COMPLETELY OUTSIDE OF THE SUGGEST BRACKET. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO ACCURATELY PREDICT A PRICE WITHOUT SEEING THE SAMPLE

Okay, now that we are on the same page, you may take a look at this super secret costing cheat sheet.How much does it cost to produce a dress, a pair of pants, or a ball gown? This is an approximate price list for producing 100-300 pieces in US based sewing factories.

How much does it cost to produce a dress, a pair of pants, or a ball gown? This is an approximate price list for producing 100-300 pieces in US based sewing factories.

 

5) LOCATION

The final factor to consider before going out and looking for garment factories is its location. The garment factories located in the same city as you are ‘local’, while factories located in the same country (but not necessarily in the same city) are “domestic”.

Nowadays, most big brands produce “overseas”, either because of cheap labor or because of expert skills (ie. Italian shoe making).

DOMESTIC

Domestic production keeps the whole supply chain somewhere within your country, not necessarily within your city. It is less convenient than local production but it may be necessary if you are looking for very specialized niche skills.

Advantages of working with domestic garment factories

  • typically higher labor standards and quality
  • same time zones and easier communication
  • faster and cheaper shipping, no duties or tariffs
  • more payment and intellectual property rights protection*
  • important sales point for some customers (ie. Made in USA)

Disadvantages of working with domestic garment factories:

  • visiting a factory may still be costly
  • higher production costs
  • fewer garment factories means fewer partners to work with in general

LOCAL

Local production is a sub-category of domestic production. It means that your production facility and business are located in the same city. Generally speaking, I highly recommend to start out with local factories because their advantages clearly outweigh any disadvantages:

Advantages of working with local garment factories:

  • you can work directly with the manager and learn from him
  • it is a lot easier to prepare for your first production
  • quality control is easier because you can stop by any time
  • if there’s a problem you can head over immediately
  • producing locally also means building your local network
  • it can be a strong selling point for your direct customers
  • you can save by transporting materials/products yourself
  • all advantages from domestic production

Disadvantages of working with local garment factories:

  • it might be even more expensive than domestic production
  • your choices are more limited (unless you live in a fashion city)
  • you have to get raw materials from suppliers to the factory

OVERSEAS

Moving your production overseas is a big step. It is complicated to manage overseas production and mistakes can happen quickly. Unless you have help/experience, I would not recommend doing this for your first round(s) of production:

 Advantages of working with domestic garment factories:

  • lower manufacturing costs
  • greater number of manufacturers available
  • online directories make it relatively easy to find suppliers

Disadvantages of working with domestic garment factories:

  • lower manufacturing costs and labor standards
  • high maintenance process: customs, import tariffs, duties
  • communication is difficult due to time zone difference
  • cultural difference communication barriers
  • difficult/costly to visit, do quality control, or troubleshooting
  • long shipping times and high shipping costs
  • lower/no payment security
  • lower (perceived) quality and less value

CONCLUSION

In the first years you want to be very involved in the process which is easier with local factories. You will learn more, they are easier to manage, and if problems arise it is easier to fix them.

When does it make sense to go overseas? If your products are easy to make and you have a TRUSTWORTHY supplier who can produce low quantities. I also like that you will have an easier time costing your products. Many factories overseas can quote you with all costs, customs, transportation etc. included. In that case you are asking for the production cost from “door to door”.

If you’re done assessing your needs you should absolutely hop over to our other article about garment factories. You could continue with this guide about finding garment factories, move on to learn how to connect with them, or simply download the whole series here!

I’d also love to hear your opinions and experiences in production and how you find garment factories! Are you assessing your needs upfront? If no, how do you scout for factories? Let me know!

Virginia Ribeiro de Assis
[email protected]
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