Starting An Apparel Brand – Part 3: Manufacturing

When you see the word “textiles” what do you think of? Perhaps a grungy 19th-century factory comes to mind, with dangerous working conditions and a whole lot of brick. Or perhaps you think “what in the world are textiles?” Well, if you are running a business in the clothing/apparel/garment/fashion industries, you’ll need to learn a thing or two about textiles (another word for cloth or fabric), how they get made, and how they get made into clothing.

But let’s back up for a second.

Manufacturing is hard. And expensive. And time-consuming. Basically, no matter what kind of business you are in, you are going to face some tough choices when deciding how to set up, change or expand your manufacturing. This is certainly true of apparel brands, who face a particular set of challenges in the garment industry, thanks to rapidly evolving technologies, and a history of less-than-admirable labor practices that you’ll want to keep a distance from, while doing everything possible to let your customers know that the distance is vast.

Depending on the kind of apparel company you want to be, your manufacturing process can involve one or more of several basic parts.

Let’s break it down.

Fabric

All clothing starts as fabric. Fabric itself is made from fibers of more basic materials like cotton or wool (or synthetics such as polyester), which are woven together into thin sheets, which can then be cut and sewn together to form garments. In all likelihood, no matter how you decide to do your manufacturing you will almost certainly be purchasing fabric, or at the very least need to be aware of what kinds of fabric you are using and where it is coming from. In general, you want your clothing fabric to be strong, soft, and high quality. If you start off with low-quality fabric, you will unavoidably end up with low-quality clothing.

Now when it comes to turning that fabric into clothing, that’s where things start to get interesting.

Learning to Sew

As with so many decisions that a business faces, making your clothing begins with this basic question: Do I do it myself, or pay someone else?

If you’ve never picked up a needle and thread or thought sewing machines existed in the same category as fax machines and horse-drawn carriages, then the idea that you could make your own clothing may seem totally insane. But it isn’t. People have been making their own clothing basically since there have been people.

If you are a small operation just getting started and you want to get yourself a sewing machine and churning out shirts and dresses in your basement, it will certainly take some learning and practice, and an investment in equipment and materials, but it is far from impossible.

That all may sound really difficult and time-consuming, but before you dismiss it out of hand consider that there are some significant advantages to going this route. For one, once you get past initial hurdles it is far less expensive to acquire bolts of cloth than it is to order fully formed articles of clothing, even when purchasing wholesale. It also might allow you to be way more efficient with your materials than an outside manufacturer might be, decreasing waste and therefore decreasing costs even more. Producing your own good also gives you a tremendous amount of control over the look and feel or your products.

While making your own apparel will likely result in a lower output than other manufacturing methods, there can be other added benefits. For instance, many handmade goods are sold as luxury items at high price points, as the emphasis is on the item’s quality and uniqueness as opposed to just price. And platforms like Etsy prove that there is a significant market for handmade goods both in-person and online.

Your Own Factory

Just because you decide not to slave away over a sewing machine and prefer to have a higher output and do less manual labor yourself, doesn’t mean you have to outsource your production. Instead, you can start your own factory.

Costs for starting your own in-house manufacturing operation can vary greatly depending on things your geographic location and your scale. A factory doesn’t have to mean a cavernous warehouse in the middle of nowhere. There are ways to start smaller, for a volume of output that makes sense for your business.

Rather than necessarily learning the ins and outs of the skill yourself (though a basic knowledge is always helpful) this approach is more about hiring the right people to make your clothes that way you want them made. While the costs of hiring people and acquiring additional space may be significant upfront, the savings from controlling your own manufacturing process can more than pay off in the long run. Controlling your own process means controlling efficiency and waste, controlling timeline, fewer delays and lower shipping costs.

Outsourcing

Potentially the easiest manufacturing route to go with, as well as the lowest cost to entry, is to completely outsource your manufacturing. If you are making more customized apparel, this will mean finding a factory that is willing and able to produce to your specifications, possibly even looking into manufacturing overseas.

While the upfront costs of outsourcing are lower, the per item costs could be much higher than producing in-house. You will also likely have to deal with minimum order sizes that your production facility has, meaning that short-run orders could become difficult.

WRAP and Made in the USA

As mentioned earlier, the history of the garment industry is fraught with stories of child labor, abusive labor practices, and sweatshops, especially in factories overseas. Some of this history is shockingly recent, and in all likelihood there are still factories in parts of the world guilty of some of the same practices that have alarmed people in the past.

The public is hyper-aware of these concerns, and so you should be too. If outsourcing your manufacturing to a company overseas, make sure you are aware of what working conditions are like and what kinds of policies they have. An independent, non-profit organization known as WRAP (World Responsible Accredited Production) gives out certifications to factories that comply with their rules and regulations for safe, lawful, humane and ethical work environments. Ask any garment manufacturer you are working with if they are WRAP certified, and if they are, make sure that information is available to your customers as well.

There is also a growing trend and push toward making clothing in the US. While manufacturing in the US is generally more expensive due to higher wages and more regulation, goods produced in the US can display that information proudly as a badge of honor, and customers are usually more than willing to pay a premium for American-made goods.

Screen Printing, Wholesale, and Drop Shipping

For many apparel companies, what makes their products unique is not necessarily the physical production of them, but rather what is printed on the clothing (such as t-shirt companies, for instance). In this case, part (or possibly all) of the manufacturing process is going to be about picking a wholesaler to work with and figuring out a screen printing process that makes sense.

Much of what is written above about manufacturing clothing could be said about screen printing as well. It is absolutely possible to do it yourself, in-house, and have more control over designs. However, the process will take some learning, time, and investment, and most people will be better off finding a professional screen printer to work with. Talk to screen printers to find out what they are capable of doing, what their pricing is like, whether or not they work with wholesalers directly or if you can/should provide wholesaled items to them for printing.

When working with wholesalers and printers, it is also a good idea to ask about drop shipping. In general terms, drop shipping means that the company will handle storage and fulfillment on their end. So, once you sell to a customer, rather than you having to store and ship out the product yourself, you send the order details to your drop shipping partner and they will ship it out to the appropriate address. This kind of setup is especially common for companies that are primarily operating in the e-commerce space.

Play To Your Strengths

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer for how any company should handle their manufacturing. Apparel brands are largely about image and messaging, so the most important thing will be to find a solution that fits with your brand’s image. The other important thing to keep in mind is what type of person you are and what your strengths are. If your strength is as a designer, then be a designer and don’t get bogged down in parts of the process that take you away from the work you are going to do to make your company unique, and able to stand out in the crowd.

Thanks for following our mini series. You can check out the first two parts on our website. Contact us today to learn more about manufacturing and apparel brand.