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Apparel Manufacturing 101: Part 1

Small clothing manufacturer

When I started Dessous Loungewear almost two years ago, I really had no clue how clothing was manufactured, so I had to educate myself. It’s an interesting process with a surprising number of steps. I thought you might like to know how your clothes are made, so here’s an overview. 

1: Inspiration

Inspiration can come from just about anywhere. It can be as simple as, “I have this dress, but I really wish it were shorter and had cap sleeves instead of long, puffy sleeves” and as complicated as haute couture inspired by an insect’s exoskeleton. The difficult part is getting your ideas on paper with sketches and detailed descriptions so a sewer can take your abstract idea and create an actual product from it. 

2: Choosing fabrics

Choosing fabrics is usually the longest step in the process of creating a garment. Often you have to gather hundreds of fabric samples from a number of different companies–usually in different countries– before you find the fabric that’s the right fiber, weave or knit, weight, amount of stretch and color for your project. In my case, this task was made more difficult by my commitment to use sustainable fabrics.

When you’ve narrowed that down to a manageable number of options, you have to test the fabric swatches for strength, color-fastness, shrinkage, stretch, pilling, bleeding, fading, flame retardancy etc, etc., to make sure the fabric is fit for the purpose for which you plan to use it. 

3: Patternmaking

Patternmakers have an incredibly difficult job. They must take your notes and sketches and figure out the pieces of the puzzle that will be put together to create your garment. A complicated dress or suit jacket can require numerous pattern pieces and each piece must fit together perfectly. 

4: Sample making (and remaking!)

Once you have a draft pattern and your fabric, a sample maker takes the pattern pieces and your fabric and sews a sample of your garment. Receiving your first samples can either be really exciting or a total nightmare depending on the skills of your patternmaker and sample maker and how well you’ve communicated your ideas to them. This can be particularly tricky for new designers like me who don’t yet know what they don’t know. As an example, one of my first patterns was sewn inside out. I assumed the sample maker would know which was the “right” side of the fabric (to be fair, it was pretty obvious!), but I assumed wrong. Now I know to always send a swatch of fabric to my sewer indicating which side of the fabric should face the outside of the garment.

5: Fit Test

Once you have your first sample, it’s time for a fit test with a fit model in your sample size. Because Dessous’s clothing is meant to fit “real women” rather than impossibly tiny models, and because I am, conveniently, the average height for an American woman and wear a size 8-ish, I was able to be my own fit model. In my fit test, I noticed a few things that needed to be tweaked. For example, the pockets on one design were too low and I couldn’t reach the bottom of them. So, the pieces went back to the sample maker for revisions. Luckily, I only had to go through two rounds of revisions once I switched to a sample maker I was happy with. Samples start at a few hundred dollars each, so this process can get expensive very quickly.

6: Final Sample

Eventually, you get a perfect final sample! The clouds part and angels descend from the heavens to play celebratory tunes on their trumpets. This is a happy, happy day!

In my next blog post I will explain grading, marking, cutting, sewing and quality control. Stay tuned!

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