Making physical things is hard. Plenty can and will go wrong, so it’s crucial to stay on top of as much as you can. Many parts of the process require a large amount of domain knowledge, which most design entrepreneurs don’t universally have and takes years of study to obtain. There are a handful of areas to focus on now when it comes to apparel production. Grasping these aspects will make the process easier and more fruitful.
Selecting Fabrics and Stretch/Shrinkage Issues
Different fabrics have different stretch and shrink properties. Most fabrics that start in their natural state, often called PFD (prepared for dying) will shrink after being laundered, died or washed. Different processes have different effects; an enzyme wash (which basically eats the fabric, making it thinner and deteriorating the color) will affect fabric differently than a normal dying process. There’s plenty of science and math behind shrinkage, which is worth learning about at some point.
Early on, it’s important to consider how different fabrics will shrink and stretch, especially if you are mixing two fabrics with different properties together. We made a piece with french terry (a relatively taught fabric) and cotton thermal (a very stretchy fabric). Getting the two to work together was very time-consuming, and increased the cost and duration of our sampling process. We eventually figured out that it was possible to combine the two. But if you’re going to work with two opposing fabrics, make sure you give yourself the time to figure it out. You’re going to have to do lots of testing to see how shrinkage and stretch affects both your pattern pieces, your fit, and even your sizing (enzyme washing large fabric could turn it into a medium). This is intimidating, even if you’ve done it before, but the better you plan and think through these issues early on, the easier the process will be when producing future collections.
Understanding Patterns and Markers
A pattern is a garment’s source code, which is made up of all the pieces needed to make a finished garment. It dictates where to sew pieces together, how much seam allowance to leave, and which direction the piece should be placed on the fabric. Fabric, like wood, has a grain or natural direction, and fabric can be cut on grain, cross grain, or diagonally–commonly known as a bias cut. A marker is a set of patterns or pattern pieces, since each size you make a garment has a different pattern. (Grading is the process of sizing patterns.) At first, patterns and markers will look like obscure puzzles, but they make more sense the more you study and work them.
The Cutting Process
The cutting process is intricately linked to making patterns and markers. The best way to learn about cutting is to watch it, and you should start watching during sampling. If you start to watch and understand the cutting process for each garment, it will better inform your design and ease your production problems.
Recently, we were working on a garment that used fabric that was rather skinny, which means the surface area to place pattern pieces wasn’t as wide as we would have liked. This meant there was less surface area to cut from. As a result, it took more fabric to make the garment than normal and every inch counted, since more fabric means more expensive garments. When we got to cutting for production, we realized that if we had made the sleeves an inch less wide (they were a bit chunky but that was part of the fit) we could have saved an immense amount of fabric and a lot of hassle later on. Since we were only looking at finished garments and left the pattern work to our sample maker, we found this out once it was too late to make the adjustment. But if we had been more hands on earlier, we could have adjusted accordingly.
Fabric yields tell you how much fabric a single garment will use. The goal is to use as little fabric as possible. You often won’t be able to get precise yields until you mark and grade your pattern, which means sampling is finished. But by then it might be too late, since you should be ordering your fabric as early as possible. So when you are sampling, pay ample attention to how much fabric your sample makers asks for and uses. When vendors cut your samples, they won’t try and arrange the pattern as economically as possible on the fabric, which is fine. Consider the yields you receive at this stage as a first draft; keep in mind that they improve.
The next step is to order fabric based off of this rough estimate. If the garment takes two yards of fabric, you’ll want to order between 10-20% more then needed. If you’re working with solids, you will be okay ordering closer to 10%. If you’re working with a patterned fabric, especially if it needs to match up (plaids), order closer to 20% more. Then, once you’ve made your marker you will get the exact yield for each size. Hopefully, if you’ve ordered more than you thought you needed, you will either have the right amount or a little extra, which might be useful for making some extra garments. This method is much better than scrambling to squeeze as many garments as possible out of too little fabric; get ahead of the process early on.
Quality control is your last buffer between your brand and the customer where you can ensure the product you are shipping has met your expectations. Things happen; from entire garments being sewn incorrectly to a missing tag, so this is your last chance to catch those mistakes before a customers sees them. Loose threads are also a big thing to look out for, since they are incredibly easy to cut off but can lead to a customer unwinding the garment if he or she decides to try themselves. Ideally, you should spend as much time in your factory as possible, simply because you will learn an immense amount about the process and you might catch something earlier than the QC stage.
Despite your effort and thorough inspection, some things will still manage to fall through the cracks. The best way to catch these is make sure you create a special QC step in your production process. When we first started producing, we told the factory to pack our finished goods directly into poly bags so that we could inspect the garments. But we soon realized this didn’t work because there was barely anything to inspect once the goods were folded and packed, and if we wanted to inspect further we would have to undo all the folding and packing. Now, we ask our factories to put everything on hangars after sewing so that we can inspect all parts of the garment. After the pieces have passed inspection, the factory will then pack them into their final state. This ensures we have the access to the clothing we need without making the factory do the same work twice. So make sure there’s a step for QC where you can look at and inspect the entirety of the garment.
Clothing production is extremely complicated, and, for better or worse, the best way to learn is to observe and learn from your mistakes. You need to be five times more involved in every part of the production process than you anticipated, and to stay on top of everything. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the finished garments at the end of the process—you just have to put in the work to get there.