There's a lot that goes into taking an idea and turning it into a tangible garment. Here's an outline of the process. I'll try to make this as detailed as possible but just about every step will likely be its own post at some point. Most of this is linear—this is one of the hardest things about manufacturing, since you're usually waiting on something at all times—but there can and should be some overlap. You should be thinking about every single step here before it's time to complete that step. So much changes, from your own tastes to the results or restrictions, and the more you've thought about possible solutions or changes the easier it is to work on the fly. Be proactive.
A garment starts as an idea. Sometimes this turns into a sketch or some reference images or some technical measurements. Usually it's a combination of all three.
Next comes fabric. You usually will pick fabric before you start the pattern since the fabric's properties need to be taken into account in the pattern. Fabrics all works differently (see this post) and it all needs to be considered. Once you pick your fabric you will order enough for sampling or enough for sampling and production. The latter is better because it guarantees you will have the fabric you want for production but not usually possible because it's expensive.
If you order PFD (prepared for dying) fabric, the next step is to die it. Dying fabric is a world of its own and there will be many posts to come on this. Expect this to take a lot of time, from testing swatches to getting the final dyed goods.
Then you will buy any trims needed for the sample, such as buttons, zippers and labels. It's good to have this stuff early on so the sample process doesn't get held up.
When you're ready for the pattern, you'll bring your fabric, trims and sketches to a pattern maker to start on the pattern (or you'll make it yourself). Specificity is key here, and details like measurements or reference garments are very helpful.
After the first pattern is complete, the factory will sew a first sample or prototype, which is made out of muslin (a canvas for prototyping) or your exact fabric. Muslin is used if the fabric is very expensive and can often mimic the properties of the final fabric as a stand in.
More patterns and samples
After the first sample is done, you'll make adjustments and then the pattern maker will go back to revise the pattern. Then they'll make a new sample. It usually takes three rounds of patterns and samples to get to a finished garment in my experience
Once all the changes are made the factory will make a final sample. This will then be the standard to make all future garments on.
If you're doing production in a different factory then where you sampled, an often occurrence, you'll want to make at least one more sample before the new factory starts production to ensure they meet your standards. This is called a pre-production sample. Sometimes you'll also make a top sample, which is a sample sewn from the cut fabric to make sure the cutting was correct and double check the sewing one more time. But on smaller production lots usually a pre production sample will do the trick.
Then your garment will go into production. Fabric will be cut, sewn, pressed and finished. You should be present for every step of this and check in often. Even though you made a sample with this factory there's plenty that can go wrong and the more you are present the better.
After the goods are finished, you'll want to do some thorough quality control (QC). This is a crucial step because it's your last chance to report and resolve any issues for production. Once the goods leave the factory, it's very hard to go back and fix things. I recommend having the factory put all the finished garments on hangars for QC, and then after approval they can pack them in poly bags or however you want. But you can't do QC if the garments are already folded and packed.
Things to look for
- Labels are in the right place, including care labels with your RN number, which you legally need in every garment you sell.
- All loose threads have been trimmed (it looks sloppy if they aren't).
- Sizing is correct.
- Fabric that needs to be pressed is pressed correctly and enough (i.e. collars and hems).
- Wrinkles are mostly gone.
- Size labels match the actual size of the garment.
- Garments are packed and finished correctly.
- The inside of the garment, which is mostly hidden, still looks as good as the outside.
- The finished pieces match the original sample the factory made.
- The number of garments per color and size is correct.
Delivery and Sell
After all the garments are approved and all balances have been cleared, you'll take the garments from the factory and deliver them to wherever you ship your goods from. Then you sell, get paid, and ship.
And then you do this all over again.