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A Sewing Contractor’s 10 Favorite Sources for Soft Goods Manufacturing

 

Mary Ruth Shields, sewing contractor, United Sewing and Design

As a sewing contractor, I spend a lot of time sourcing for customers. Fabrics, trims, interlining, snaps, buttons, etc., etc., etc. For example, it’s taken me hours of traveling, shopping, calling and surfing the web over the past few months to find a lightweight wool in just the right shade of purple for the Masonic Temple costumes we’ve been working on. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen the other costumes we’ve been creating for the Masons. All of the fabrics and trims in the photos came from the vendors listed below.

So, I thought, why not share some of my favorite sources with you to give you a leg up on your next soft goods manufacturing project?

For each vendor, I’ve listed the name, contact info, what they sell and some comments. Most of these suppliers will ship, some are local to CT where I work. Also, see this blog post on knowing your fabrics, this one on working with a sewing contractor, and this one on knowing your customer which will also help you grow your business.

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White Colonialism to the Rescue?

As a representative of white, middle class Liberalism in the United States, I have to come to terms with the fact that I have been raised in a certain way which affects my behavior. More specifically, I am a WASP, White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. I am not from Connecticut. I was born and raised in Virginia up to age 21 and then chose to live in the northern reaches of our country; for the last 20 years in Connecticut. Having lived on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line, I feel that I am constantly balancing the viewpoints of a southerner and a New Englander on a false assumption.

The assumption is that white, middle class, well educated folks know what’s best for our fellow citizens who happen to be brown or black. I maintain that the attitudes and thoughts which engendered the white colonialism that founded our country, that subjugated and enslaved humans from indigenous societies here and on the African continent, still exist, 200 years later, in the heads of well meaning, white, liberal, middle class business owners in our country today.

Coming to terms with my heritage and upbringing has caused me to examine my thought processes, conclusions and behaviors, as well as those of the people around me, in great detail, especially since President Obama was elected in 2008. (I hope that many of you are also engaging in the same examinations.) Since his election, many facets of race relations in our Country have become the point of much thought and action by white folks who want to make a difference. To take the best course of action to grow my social enterprise, I am thinking about the following questions during the process of scaling up.

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What Sewing Contractors Wish You Knew About Fabric

As a sewing contractor, individuals or companies who are designing products to be sewn, such as apparel, frequently contact me. It occurred to me that many of them have come from backgrounds that have little to nothing to do with the materials usually used for sewing such as fabric. Many people or organizations don’t take the time to learn about the materials they’ll be asking me to construct something from. This lack of understanding, impacts their ability to talk to me about what they really want. To help those customers who are intending to call me or another sewing contractor, I offer another excerpt from the Introduction to my book Industry Clothing Construction Methods.

 

This excerpt contains the most basic concepts about fabric. For more really useful info on the materials usually used for constructing products by sewing, I recommend the text that I used when teaching fashion design. It’s the same one that most college level programs use as well. There is no better, more comprehensive learning tool on the subject.

You can click here for an earlier blog post containing an excerpt from the Introduction to my book about a key concept for selling–satisfying your customer. Knowing the concepts in that post may also help you define what materials to use in your project. After reading that, click here for my list of 10 things sewing contractors wish you would figure out before contacting us to save you time and money.

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How Building Value for Employees Builds a More Valuable Business

All business owners know that the key to long term success is for businesses to deliver value to customers and investors. But, have you considered how essential it is to deliver value to your employees, what that value looks like to them and what the impact of that value will be on your business?

Fortunately, we don’t have to figure out how to deliver value to our employees. Zeynep Ton has already done that for us. In her Good Jobs Strategy, Ton laid out the steps we need to execute, discussed in my last blog post. Here’s a recap of her guidelines paraphrased.

1. Concentrate on fewer, higher quality products.
2. Standardize work requirements so that workers can have the freedom to work more efficiently.
3. Train workers in more than one task to reduce fluctuations in workloads.
4. Have more workers on hand instead of fewer, cross training them so that they can be employed full time on regular schedules.

 The point of these guidelines is to create value for employees. To them, a valuable job would have fair pay; a stable schedule; management that is respectful; engaging tasks that are aligned to the worker’s abilities (emotionally and physically) and intellect;, and, I would add, accessibility by reasonable transportation. Structuring a new business in this way or restructuring an existing one, results in a mindset for owners in which employees are viewed as assets instead of expenses. Here’s how these guidelines function when applied in my own business, United Sewing and Design.

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Why Successful Apparel Manufacturers Should Create “Good Jobs”

The Good Jobs Strategy by Zeynep TonA few years ago, I wrote a blog post on the concepts in Zeynep Ton’s insightful book, “The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits.” Here’s an updated version with links to more meaty info.

Frequently, the expenses associated with hiring in the United States (a fair wage, predictable hours, a respectful workplace) are given as reasons not to attempt apparel manufacturing in the U.S. How can we change this mentality?

Read, internalize, then apply “The Good Jobs Strategy.” Ton’s research and conclusions are sound.

In “The Good Jobs Strategy”, Ton details methods for becoming a company that uses a “virtuous” cycle instead of a “vicious” cycle as the heart of a business. As a graduate of the Sloan School of Management, and an adjunct associate professor in the Operations Management group at MIT Sloan School of Management, Ton researched companies with successful methods honed to perfection such as Trader Joe’s, and Costco.

She breaks down the virtuous strategy into four “operational choices,” proving that these “allow (industries) to deliver value to employees, customers and investors all at the same time.” Although her book primarily uses retail businesses as examples, these methods could easily be adapted to manufacturing. They are:

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Four Takeaways to Act On From Pagan Kennedy’s “Inventology”

"Inventology" by Pagan Kennedy is a great tool to help leverage your creativity as an entrepreneur.
“Inventology” by Pagan Kennedy is a great tool to help leverage your creativity as an entrepreneur.

In a previous post, I described the processes artists use to create and how you can use the same processes to help your business succeed. To achieve some insight into your creative process so that you can direct and apply it more effectively, devour Inventology: How We Can Dream Up Things That Change the World” by Pagan Kennedy. Through extensive research and consideration of evidence, Kennedy has managed to capture the essence of the creative impulses of invention that are often thought of as un-tameable, directionless, risky. Her book gives examples of designers, scientists and engineers who believed in their creative process and persevered when their inventions were ignored or discounted by MBA wielding management types who lacked the creativity to make room for new products and alternative solutions. I’m a big fan of buying a hard copy and having a pen handy for adding your own insights as you read. While you’re waiting for your copy to arrive (though it is available digitally), here are four concepts gleaned from her book that you can apply right now.

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Proof that Artists Can be Savvy Business People

As fashion designers, fabric is one of the mediums that Allie and I use to express our artistic vision.

Allie McConnell, the designer behind Manuma, and I got together earlier this week to view the “Abductions and Reconstructions” exhibit at Real Art Ways in Hartford. Curated by David Borawski, this show includes works by Meg Hitchcock, Ryan Sarah Murphy, and Liz Sweibel. All three of these artists work with re-purposed materials as do Allie and I. After the show, Allie and I sat down to trade insights on Facebook Live about the social impact of using re-purposed materials, the differences between art and craft, good workmanship vs intentionally being messy, and other topics between the worlds of art and commerce. Be sure to visit the artist’s websites while we discuss their boundary bending art work. Here’s the link to our discussion. I write frequently on the power and utility available in the intersection between art and business. For more, check out this blog post.

 

How You Can Change Your Bad Consuming Habits and Not End Up Naked

Shop at a Locally Owned Boutique
Photo by Clark Street Mercantile on Unsplash

If you’ve been paying attention to global trade issues lately, you’ve undoubtedly run across discussions about fair wages also known as a “living wage.” Simply put, a living wage is a close approximation of the amount of money it would cost to support a single person or family in the area in which they live. This well written article, by on racked.com about the apparel giant H&M, discusses why they probably aren’t paying their workers a living wage, what it means to make sure a labor force benefits from good pay and how you can make a difference. Please take the time to read it and visit the great links embedded in there. When the people you’ll read about who make the apparel you buy and wear live with their families on the other side of the world, it’s easy to put them out of your mind. However, your consumption of a $10 t-shirt or $20 pair of pants at H&M, Target, Uniqlo or other importer of apparel manufactured overseas impacts the wages of those workers. Your bad consumption habits are denying them a living wage.

The lack of a living wage and safe working conditions for the workers who manufacture over 90% of the apparel available for us to buy in the U.S. is nothing new. I’ve been covering this issue in my lectures, writing and social media for over a decade. So, let’s skip to the questions I know you’re going to ask, “Why should I care? I can’t change what’s in the store to buy. Isn’t it cheaper to live there anyway? I don’t set the prices. I’m just one person. How can I come up with the solution?” Here’s an answer you can use, with some simple steps you can adopt that aren’t too difficult or too expensive.

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Why Entrepreneurs Should Unleash Their Inner Artist

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Before we even start this bog post, let’s banish that voice in your head that tells you you’re no good at art.  I will remind you that you were good at making art when you were little therefore, you still are. Your artistic abilities are still there. Let’s quickly get past this negative assumption by considering what some may deem one of the least “artistic” lines of work–an accountant. As business owners, we rely on accountants to use a rigid set of rules and expectations to monitor, enumerate, and quantify. Creativity with the numbers is discouraged as is experimenting. But, all accountants will eventually run across an anomaly that must be explained then rectified. How could they deal with that? They might apply the same thinking processes that artists, including me, use to create a drawing, a piece of pottery, a weaving or sculpture, the thinking processes that you can easily apply to building then growing your business and effectively solving snags along the way that prevent success. Let’s discover how!

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United Sewing and Design: Report on Employment and Environmental Impact 2016-2017

Tote bags with phone pockets and zippered pouches handcrafted for White Horse Style from reclaimed vinyl banners.
Tote bags with phone pockets and zippered pouches handcrafted for White Horse Style from reclaimed vinyl banners.

As part of their compact with the communities they serve, social enterprises publish a report to document their impact in the areas they focus on. As a social enterprise, the two areas that United Sewing and Design focuses on are creating work opportunities for marginalized individuals facing barriers to achieving well paid employment and manufacturing products with materials removed from the waste stream for our line “White Horse Style.” (For a portfolio of White Horse Style products visit this page.) Currently, United Sewing and Design works with independent contractors to manufacture products for individual, corporate and non-profit clients. For a profile on Green Banana Paper Company, one of our clients whose company manufactures accessories from recycled banana fiber, click here. For more info, be sure to check out the helpful links at the bottom.

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