Made-to-Order, Contract Sewers, and Self-Made Production

The world of apparel production is a complicated place. One of the most common frustrations for small fashion brands is: “How do I produce the goods I have designed, in quantities I can afford?! Is made-to-order the answer?”

There are several options on how to accomplish this, and they each have their own benefits and drawbacks. Let’s go over them together.

Production Methods

There are three main ways to get your product manufactured and out into the market if you are a small fashion brand. These are:

  • Made-to-Order
  • Contract Sewists
  • Self-Produced

Let’s start with how many entrepreneurs begin: self-produced.

Self-Produced Fashion

As you might imagine by the title, self-produced goods are made by the person with the idea. This includes Etsy shop makers and people who sell at craft fairs and farmers’ markets. It also includes fashion designers who sell on their own websites. This means that the designer is also the manufacturer, and is using their own hands to make the product. There are many benefits to this style of production, including:

  • Tight control on the quality of goods
  • Manageable, slow, organic growth
  • Deep understanding of customer needs

This style of production is wonderful if you want to keep your business as more of a side hustle, or you have a second income that allows you to grow your business slowly and intentionally. It is also ideal if you have no capital to invest in hiring people. 

While this method can be wonderful for some people, it also has some inherent challenges.

Self-Produced Challenges

  • Inability to cope with high demand/quick turnaround times
  • Requires a skilled artisan
  • Increased risk to personal finances
  • Susceptible to theft/loss
  • Inability to produce large quantities of product
  • Limited ability to increase profit margin by reducing time/cost to make goods
  • Requires owner to wear too many hats: inability to focus on building business
  • Logistics Issues
  • Inventory management issues
  • Inability to hit MOQs (minimum order quantities) for components –such as fabrics, findings, packaging, etc.– to receive price breaks

It is a real challenge to make a living from your goods if you are self-producing. It requires a realistic look at your skills, ability to schedule, plan, and merchandise appropriately, as well as a deep understanding of how much you can actually achieve.

A lot of new businesses try to use self-production because they feel they will save money, but find that the loss of time, lack of skill, and sheer volume of issues that arise with trying to do it all are not sustainable. Many businesses also fail because they are not spending the money where they need it to be spent: manufacturing.

Using Contract Sewers

Now let’s talk about contract sewers and the pluses and minuses of this style of production. 

Contract sewers work from home or have a small shop that is not affiliated with a large manufacturing facility. They do piecework, which means they will typically do 100 pieces or less of a product on a very tight timeline. They are skilled laborers and have their own machines. Plus, they know the faster they work, the faster they earn more money. You can find contract sewists through Craigslist, referrals, trade schools, and industry papers. 

Benefits and Drawbacks

The benefits of contract sewists are vast. 

  • Fast, efficient
  • Inexpensive
  • No MOQs 
  • Self-employed and therefore highly motivated
  • Often specialize in certain kinds of sewing:
    • Knits
    • Wovens
    • Kids
    • Outerwear
    • Lounge
    • Lingerie
    • Bags
  • Have their own machines
  • Work long hours
  • Locally produced
  • Transparency in wages for workers

They are a wonderful choice if you have a modest budget to pay for sewing and finishing costs, and have an extremely tight turnaround time. They will always say yes to every project. 

This optimism is also a drawback: they say yes to every project, which means there is room for errors such as:

  • Bad/rushed sewing
  • Your product may not be a priority. If they have a higher-paying gig, they will do that first
  • Special sewing instructions are not always followed. Example: using overlock instead of French seams
  • Sub-contracting of goods without your knowledge
  • Changing of the agreed price for production at the time of delivery (ALWAYS get a signed agreement)
  • May not have the appropriate machines to do the work, such as a coverstitch or buttonhole machine

These challenges are an inherent part of the apparel industry. At the same time, contract sewists are integral to the apparel industry and work in every country in the world. Without them, the industry would collapse.

They are incredibly hard-working and are an excellent choice if you are ready to build your business but cannot hit MOQs for a larger facility. 

Speaking of larger facilities: let’s talk made-to-order!

What About Made-to-Order?

A shift in Apparel Manufacturing has been slowly happening over the last decade, as Instagram and the rise of small brands have altered the way the American consumer purchases clothing. No longer do people want the same branded tee as their peers, ala the Gap baby tee of the early 2000s.

Instead, consumers want unique garments that fit well, cost less, and are on-trend. One of the ways this is being achieved is the rise in made-to-order brands. 

What exactly is made-to-order (or MTO)? MTO is a style of production where garments are not cut and sewn until an order is received from the consumer. This is how the tailors of the era prior to the industrialization of manufacturing did it: the customer picked the fabric, trims, and the silhouette, paid the tailor, and received the garment several weeks to months later when completed. 

Benefits of Made-to-Order

Made-to-order production in 2021 looks quite a bit different from the past. We have technology that makes MTO more practical, such as laser cutting, direct-to-garment printing, 3-D printing, digital body measurement tools, and more.

In addition, we have drop shipping to manage inventory. We also have web platforms that allow designers to pick and choose components and silhouettes with ease to make a unique garment. 

MTO can be a slow process, as it often utilizes more sustainable practices, such as not overproducing garments, using deadstock or handmade fabrics, hand painting and embellishment techniques, and more. It all depends on the aesthetic of the brand in question, and what they value: speed or individualism.

In addition, MTO no longer binds small brands to huge MOQs with long lead times required by most manufacturers. MTO manufacturers can do tiny runs, sometimes as small as one garment. The cost can vary wildly, depending on the garment being produced. 

Manufacturing with MTO has many advantages, as you can see. There are also some drawbacks to using this style of manufacturing. Let’s talk about those now. 

So, What’s the Problem With Made-to-Order?

  • Typically overseas
  • Lengthy production times
  • Lack of stock on hand
  • Lack of transparency around human rights violations/wages for factory workers
  • Inability to control quality
  • Inability to scale quickly
  • Higher cost of production

Manufacturing overseas has many problems associated with it, as the pandemic has illustrated. External factors like trade disputes between countries or a pandemic can lead to massive delays.

In addition, the delay in time from an order placed by the consumer to the time they receive the goods can be a massive disincentive. American customers are used to seeing, buying, and getting everything within a weeks’ time. If you have a lead time of three weeks or more from order to receipt of goods, you risk alienating your customers.

This can also cripple your revenue stream, preventing you from growing your business. Your cash flow with this style of manufacturing is dependent on orders being placed individually, so you do not have stock on hand to sell.

This method of production also costs more. It requires more human power to make since the processes cannot be replicated over and over again with great speed like in a traditional factory. 

Made-to-order production can be a wonderful asset if you are aware of the challenges and pitfalls, but it can also kill a small fashion business rapidly. Use this method wisely and intentionally. 

How Do I Choose?

This is a very personal choice and one that determines how a fashion business will grow. If you need slow growth with minimal cost and don’t mind doing everything: self-produce!

If you want speed and are ok with managing potential quality issues, go with contract sewists instead. 

And if you don’t care about having stock on hand, are fine with long lead times, and don’t need to produce locally, made-to-order might be a great option. 

Each has benefits as well as challenges. Just be clear on what you need and expect from your production method and be ready to face the challenges head-on.

 

Hannah Schnabel
Hannah Schnabel

Hannah Schnabel is the Founder and Designer for Belle Ampleur, providing fearless, aspirational, and dramatic garments made for the 64% of American women above a size 14. Hannah has over 20 years in retail, designing and developing apparel, accessories, and Halloween costumes. Hannah freelances doing apparel production management for Wildest Wilder in Los Angeles, as well as designing/developing apparel for independent apparel companies. She specializes in plus sizes and does consultation work for brands looking for technical expertise and creative solutions.

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