Printing Money: Manufacturing Basics for Products With Mass Appeal

[Above: the People for Urban Progress manufacturing setup in its Fountain Square headquarters. Read more about PUP in Pattern’s Fall issue, on newsstands and your doorstep this September! photo by Chris Whonsettler, Whon Photo

Apparel designers tend to be on the idealistic side, thinking about their products as being unique, mind-blowing, desirable, and so on, but we need to also consider the bottom line. If you’re in the one-off or custom market, then you can disregard this. For those of you who have businesses where you sell multiples of the same item, listen up.

First of all, it’s great to sell the same item over and over. If you’ve ever had anything mass produced, the research and development phase that happens before manufacture takes a long time and is expensive. If you happen to find an item that can sell repeatedly over a long period of time, you’ve hit gold. You can make minor changes (fabric, color) and bring this item back over multiple seasons, without investing in new R&D.

So the question is: How do you perfect that item? Is it the one that will carry your store for years to come? Often you will stumble on something (lets call it a Bobble) and then realize after making the product many more times than you expected, it’s time to streamline it for mass production. Let’s take it step by step.

Materials

First, look at how easy the fabric is to deal with. Maybe you chose something that requires a pattern to be matched (plaid, stripe) or something with a nap (velvet, suede). Consider choosing instead a print pattern that doesn’t require matching, or a fabric with no nap to save yourself time and materials.

Cutting down even slightly on the cost of your materials can have a nice effect on profit, especially when you make a lot of Bobbles.  Your first step is to source the materials that you chose originally for the Bobble and bought at retail and see if you can find it or something comparable from a wholesale source. How do you do that?

The easiest way is to have a look at the packaging and find out who the manufacturer or distributor is. Then, hunt down their phone number or website and contact them. Most wholesalers will have a minimum first order, and will require that you are set up for resale with a retail certificate. You’ll often need to fill out a credit application, send your TID number and approximate your purchasing volume before they allow you to make any purchases. Shop around. Many vendors carry the exact same products at widely differing prices, so always ask if they sell at wholesale and include their shipping costs when you’re figuring who has the best deal. If you’re not up to buying hundreds of yards, try a jobber. They may have the perfect thing, and their minimums are much lower. Just don’t expect them to have more when you need it later!

Since you know your Bobble has been selling, you can predict your future sales and invest in a larger amount of materials at a significantly reduced price. Even if you end up with more stock than will quickly sell, you’re saving money per unit and can put things on sale if you need to and still come out ahead. If you’re concerned about buying a lot of materials at once, try using the same materials across several products.

Patterns: Save Materials and Time

The first time you made Bobble, you probably just made something that you thought was neat and weren’t thinking too much about fabric usage or how fast it was to make the item. Now that you know it sells, go back and look at your patterns again. If you’ve not made a marker (pattern layout) for the item, do it now. You may realize that by tweaking the pattern just a little you can get more Bobbles out of every yard of goods. Keep a copy of your optimal marker so you know how to lay out your pattern pieces every time you cut.

You can also save yourself sewing time by making sure your Bobble pattern has been trued up correctly. All the edges that seam to each other should match without any unnecessary easing (should be the same length), seam allowances and hems should be included in the pattern, and your pattern pieces should be clearly marked. If you’re using 5/8” seam allowances because you’re used to domestic patterns, switch over to ¼” for knits or 3/8” seam allowances for wovens.

You’ll be using the patterns a lot, so make them out of cardstock, oaktag or something durable unless you have a way of printing out markers each time you need to cut.

Cutting

Cutting is a step where you can save yourself a lot of time by investing in the correct tools. Consider investing in an electric cutter so that you can cut many layers of fabric at once. An electric cutter can also save you materials because you can place pattern pieces right up against each other. You’ll need weights and a very smooth table surface to do accurate cutting. As you cut, separate the sizes into labeled bins so they don’t get mixed up during assembly.

Sewing

The sewing is where you can usually find ways to save time and still make a great product. Working assembly style, make sure that all of the steps using a certain technique, machine setup or thread color are done at the same time, so you’re not switching back and forth between setups. (This also means that your products will have a consistent look, which is nice.)

To streamline your sewing process, you’ll want to make one Bobble and take notes as you go. Record the best order of assembly, the thread color changes, machine changes, and so on. Keep track of the time for each step; you’ll be writing yourself instructions later. If you’re using a zigzag setting, or different stitch lengths for each step, record those as well.

Next, read over your notes and see which steps take the most time. Often, it’s finishing that takes the most time (hems, closures, hand work). Changes to the pattern, order of assembly, and sometimes even changes to materials can help you shave time. Try to avoid doing any hand finishing; most closures can be done by machine. Any trim application should happen towards the beginning of the assembly so that it can go on more easily by machine, rather than at the end when you might have to hand finish the ends.

Sometimes hems are easier to cover stitch while they are still flat, and easier usually means faster. If a process is difficult to do, it means there is a higher probability that you’ll do some of them badly…and unpicking/redoing a step takes a lot of time. Make sure each step is easy enough to do reliably over and over. Sometimes you’ll need to go back to the pattern and tweak something to make it go together easier.

Tools

Chances are, if there is a process that you need to do repetitively, there is a machine or tool to help you with that faster. Things like grommet setters, blindstitch machines, buttonhole machines, electric cutters, hem guides, specialized presser feet and pressing tools can make your life so much easier. You can even make your own tools. For instance, if you place a brand label on the outside of you Bobble, you can create a “jig” out of cardboard or plastic that helps you place the label in the same place every time. We even had a machine presser foot modified at a nearby tool and die shop to make the application of silicone elastic easier.

Finishing

In manufacturing, a product is generally not pressed until it is completely assembled. In any case, you can often save a bit of time by figuring out when is the best time to press a particular seam or hem—during the assembly or at the finish?  The same goes for trimming threads. Sometimes it’s faster to chain a whole bin of the same size products together as you sew, and trim threads as you get ready for the next step, or trim them as you get ready to finish them. However, don’t skip the pressing step, since a good press can mean the difference between a great looking item and a so-so looking item.

Any of these techniques to speed the production of your Bobble will help not only you but also anyone who later manufactures your item for you. The manufacturer may even have suggestions to make your product more streamlined—don’t hesitate to ask.

Best of luck to you in transitioning your own particular Bobble into the Next Big Thing!

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