Development: working with a sample maker

Developing new garments is an exciting process, but it's time consuming and can be very expensive. It's easy to get stuck in the sampling phase, continually making changes and never releasing the garment to the world. There are plenty of lessons we've learned about this process, mostly from just doing it and figuring out ways to make it better. Here are some:

Finding a sample maker

Finding the right sample maker is really hard. The reality is that most sample makers aren't great. They may not be technically bad, but you want someone with ingenuity who can act as a collaborator, not just a contractor. Your sample maker should know more than you and instead of saying yes or no to your ideas, he or she should work to make them happen and figure out how to get it done. This person should also have a sense of how production works and what makes garments expensive. If you have a sample maker who is a yes man and just makes things as nice as possible, although this might seem great since you're getting a nice sample, it will make production hell and overly expensive.

It's really important to strike a balance between hitting the level of quality you want and making a garment you spend a month creating stupidly expensive to create and sell. A good sample maker will suggest and implement ways to bring costs down while achieving the same aesthetic. Most of the time, your sketch or note has to do with the outward appearance as opposed to the technical way something is constructed, so there's often a better and cheaper way to do things. If your sample maker thinks they know everything and believes there is only one way to operate, find a new one.

A few thoughts on who this person or factory is

  • Sometimes your sample maker is the actual pattern maker, which is nice because there are no middle men and you can build a good relationship with the person physically making you're stuff. Try to find this.
  • Other times your sample maker is part of a sample factory and they have staff who you work with, and then the staff manages the relationship with the pattern maker. There is often a language barrier in this case between the you and the pattern maker. This is less preferable because middle men slow things down and create confusion.
  • Most of the time, you can sample in the same factory you plan to do production. This allows for an even smaller amount of people working on your stuff, which is great (more hands create bigger messes). If you're able to have the same person develop the garment and then manage the production, this is awesome because they know the garment inside and out. They will also be best equipped to help you develop it with production and costing in mind, so at least you understand why something is expensive if it has to be. This is the best option but very hard to find.

Cost

Before you start working with a sample maker you need to figure out how much their services cost. There are three main ways they will charge for their services. 1) A la carte, where a patterns, revisions and samples all have different prices and you pay for what you use; 2) packaged deals, where full development of a garment will be a set price, which usually includes multiple rounds of patterns, samples and adjustments; and 3) a combination of the first two with additional charges for your sample makers' time, sometimes by the hour. Avoid this final option at all costs. You will always get ripped off by people charging you by the hour for this work. Just don't even go down that road.

This leaves the first two options. Most of the time I would suggest opting for a la carte, since different projects demand different services. Sometimes you'll only need two rounds of sampling and it only makes sense to pay for it. But sometimes, when you're developing something like a jacket, a packaged deal will make sense. Let's say the original pattern costs $200. Then three rounds of pattern adjustments will be $100 each. And then three samples (first, second, final) will be $200 each. Sometimes a sample maker would do this as a package for $1000 all in, where as a la carte would be $1100 total. This would also make sense if you have to do another round of tweaks and maybe they would give you a discount if you committed in advance to the package. But always do the math on the package before you agree to it.

You should try to budget this process in advance. If you walk into sampling with a blank check, you're going to run your costs up and look back wondering how you spend $1500 developing a t shirt. Discipline here is really hard to come by but the sooner you learn it the more you'll benefit. This will inform your design process as well. Designing before you start sampling is the cheapest because ideas on paper don't cost anything. If you change your mind at this stage you can just redraw it. But once you start making major changes to your vision in sampling, your costs will skyrocket. It's normal for your design to change as it goes from idea to reality, as some things won't work and others will. But you should try to minimize drastic changes in this phase. Evolving the garment is different from starting all over when you're close to a final sample. You can avoid this by preparing in advance and never walking into development with a first draft of a sketch. It will not end well. Timeline

Development is time consuming. Both sample makers and factories have busy and slow seasons, and your products will take a long time to be developed if you try to work during the busy times. When you're small, your work won't be a priority and it could take weeks. Instead, try to work in the off season when work is drying up and they are able to give you a lot of attention.

A good sample maker will complete each part of the process in about a week. So the first pattern should take a week, then the first sample a few days, and then so on. The early part is the slowest since they have to create the first pattern from scratch. Sewing usually doesn't take too long, but your garment will spend more time sitting in line for sewing then it will being sewn. Then you'll have fittings in-between each round, where you put the garment on a fit model and then adjust from there. This fit model is your baseline for the garment (usually a size medium) and you need to have the same person for the entire process to provide an accurate foundation. Then the revisions and additional samples will take a few weeks. The final sample should be the template for production; a final sample should be a final sample.

You should be able to develop a style in 3-4 weeks if you have your stuff together and your sample maker isn't slammed with work. If someone says it will take 8 weeks to develop a t shirt it's not true and they are just slow and won't give you much attention. Time is money so keep an eye on how long things take and adjust accordingly.

Expectations

If your notes and fittings are specific and clear, this process will go rather smoothly. Your sample maker is only as good as you are. At the end of the day, it all comes back to you. Work as much as you can to build a good relationship with these people, spend a ton of time trying to find the right person, and make sure you keep the relationship on good terms. Finding the right person is very hard, but once you do you'll realize how valuable he or she is.