A large-scale factory tour
These pics are from two different South American factories that have a 3000 piece per style MOQ (minimum order quantity). The set-up is vertical manufacturing. This means that everything is done in house from knitting and finishing the fabrics to bulk production cutting to sewing to quality control to packing and shipping. Not vertical would mean the fabric is purchased from a fabric mill and some other processes like cutting might be outsourced and then brought back into the sewing plant. I was moving through the factories to check out the production processes, so you'll see various different garments in various different stages here. This is bulk production only. It's the last section of steps after we've done the design work, sourcing, product development, technical design, pattern making, and production planning.
It all begins with fabric. Most new apparel brands starting out use stock fabrics. There are plenty of great ones available on the market that can be re-ordered so I generally advise to start there. Once you've got a big brand, or if you have the capital and want to go big right from the start, you can create your own custom fabric at a mill. Or, in this case, right at the factory that will make the clothing. Check out this tubular knitting machine. Do you have any tee shirts that don't have side seams? That's one example of a tubular knit. See all those white thread (yarn) spools up top? Those all feed down into the needles on the machine below that knit the yarns together into a tube of fabric which lands in the bottom of the machine. It can take a couple of days to set one of these machines up.
Here's a shot of the machine being opened after a day of knitting. Check out the cool custom stripe fabric below.
The fabric is put to rest for 24 hours when it's done to relax. After a good night's sleep, the fabric is going to get brushed to make it even more soft. Those big round scrubber looking brushes do just that. They roll over the surface of the fabric to gently break the fibers and fluff them up as the machine feeds it through.
There are many more steps in fabric finishing but for the sake of not making this post too long here is the end of the fabric line - steaming & setting. This machine shrinks and sets the fabric more to make it stable for cutting and sewing and handling and wearing. You can kind of see the steam below.
This fun thing with the maroon fabric is a spreading machine. It lays the fabric out smoothly on the cutting table, layer on top of layer. This can be done manually too. The machine makes things go more quickly and smoothly. Notice that every machine is human operated. Roughly 100 people will handle your clothing in one way or another before it gets to you or the end consumer.
Next comes the production marker laid on top. A production marker is all the pattern pieces used to make the garment fit together on a big page the same size as the cutting table and the width of the fabric being cut. This factory is so large that every pattern piece gets a barcode sticker to help track all the parts as they move through the production process.
The machine in the middle below is a ban saw for cutting through all the layers of fabric at once. It takes the same amount of time to cut 20 layers as it does 100.
Cut stacked layers of pieces of clothing are often called bundles. These get banded or tied together as they move to the next step, so nothing gets lost.
The cut bundles then go into sewing. Here are two different sewing rooms. You can see how easy it is to lose something in a place this big. This is why factories of this size do not want to produce 100-piece orders. They are not set up to work that way and it's not profitable for them.
After sewing, the finished garments end up at quality control (like the nearest table in the above pic - that's an end of line QC table). Then they go off to finishing (thread trimming and steaming), followed by folding, packing, and shipping. Or if the garments are garment dyed, they may move on to further treatments to get the desired finished look. In the pic below, you can peek inside a giant dye machine dyeing some things black.
There are a lot of moving parts and people involved in clothing production. Each style is unique and may have a slightly different process, but these are the general steps. We've seen it all in the past 20 years and can help make pre-production and production go much more smoothly for both new brands starting out and big business that need their procedures streamlined.
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