The Means of Production
Apr 18,2022 | Steven Fleming
Why I am Blogging.
March and April are slow times for me. Australians have stopped thinking of swimwear, and Americans haven't yet started. Rather than fretting, it seems productive to reflect on all I have learned through this venture, and in so doing, share my experience with others. It's something I can do to push the slow fashion movement along. We should all understand what lies behind a sustainable and ethical purchase, while those with a passion to start producing clothing on-shore, should have honest accounts, such as mine, to learn from.
I suspect the topic of this blog post, machinery, will be of little interest to the average reader, but of great interest to anyone reading because they too, dream of starting a clothes brand. For that reason, I will address it to anyone reading for that reason.
I am going to tell you how to ascertain what machinery you are going to need, to manufacture the particular garment you are planning to launch with. Based on my own experience, I will point you toward the people who will be most willing to help you.
In the process, I will mention one of the most important supplier relationships a clothes brand, that manufacturers for itself, will ever develop, and that is the one they will have with their mechanic. Not only will a friendly mechanic help when them when they bust a machine. Mechanics get brands connected. No one knows more members of a city's rag trade than that city's mechanic. Befriend a mechanic and boom: any brand will be an instant insider of their city's garment manufacturing cluster.
Don’t Buy Domestic Equipment
So, you dream of starting a fashion brand and know (thanks to my first post) that it’s better to manufacture yourself, than it is to go broke. But you’re probably like me when I started, and know nothing about industrial sewing.
My first big mistake, one I hope you will learn from, was confusing industrial and domestic sewing. I purchased a domestic overlocker and domestic cover stitch machine, from a retailer who failed to inform me that the warranties on both would be voidied, if I used them for the purpose I stated, and that is, making garments for sale.
Domestic sewing machines are designed to be carried back to the cupboard when not in use. To make them light enough for that, they have tiny motors, yes, that burn out. Worse, they have external bodies that are lighter than the moving parts inside them. The way they vibrate is not healthy or normal. It is the sound of them falling apart!
Even if you could accept the fact that they are throwaway items, you would likely find them incapable of giving your products certain specialised finishes that your competitors will be providing.
They also make very hard work of certain processes that industrials eat for their breakfast. Compare the way you will sew hems, using the proper machine, fitted with the proper attatchment, with ways home-sewing tutorials would have you attempt to sew hems, if you were using a toy:
You might want to make garments that would be best made, with something like a waist band attacher, but discover there are no used ones for sale in your region, or that they are outside of your budget.
Don't worry in that case. With your sewing machine mechanic, and growing network of contacts, you will find out what multi-purpose machine can provide the same finished results, albeit with some fiddly manoeuvres.
Just don't believe the commercials, claiming domestic machines can make clothes like you find in the stores.
You would have as much luck running a construction business with a swiss army knife, as you would selling clothing you had made with equipment sold for home crafting.
In the case of swimwear, I can tell you, domestic machines are a hindrance, not a help, when you are prototyping. They will have you falsely believing that you cannot sew. But in truth, it is physically impossible to make one quality swimming costume, without the right industrial gear.
Only something called a top metering device, coupled to an industrial overlocker, can meter rubber to seams, in accordance with design specifications. Here is a photo of mine:
And here is a video, with a little more explanation:
There are also junctions in quality swimsuits that require stitching through twelve layers of fabric and three layers of rubber, at the same time. Good luck doing that with a toy!
When purchased brand new, industrial sewing machines are many times more expensive than machines that are made for home use. Keep in mind though, that industrial machines are made to run hot, 24/7, basically indefinitely. Because of their endurance, there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying them second hand.
The machines in my studio are all second hand. They’re between 25 and 50 years old, are in perfect working order, and each cost me less than the domestic machines I foolishly bought to begin with.
How to find out what machines you will need.
If your goal is a fashion label that makes all kinds of garments, you will literally need hundreds of specialised machines. Scroll through the websites of some major suppliers, like Juki and Pegasus. Having the capacity to properly make everything under the sun, will mean owning their entire array. You will have a greater manufacturing capacity than my whole nation, but no business.
You need a very narrow focus to start with. Buy one item of clothing, as a product sample, and set yourself the task of learning what machines were used to make it. I bought a $300 one-piece swimming costume, that my wife wore, and that I took around to show people in the industry, who could tell me its various stitches.
When I say “industry”, I don’t mean people who do alterations or make dancewear or costumes. I mean people with connections to factories. My breakthrough came when I found a Lectra patternmaker who gave me some numbers to call.
Your own nearest connection to the world of real sewing, may be a wedding dress maker or tailor. So long as the product sample you bought, is not a wedding dress or a suit, it is likely they will be willing to help you. If not, and if it wasn’t due to you having bad manners, you can probably dismiss them as stupid. Anyone with any sense in this business, wants other sewing businesses in their city. The more sewing businesses we all have around us, the more mechanics and spare parts there will be, to support our machines.
There are two reasons for your visit to a dress maker or tailor. You want to ask them what machines were used to make the sample you’re holding, and get the phone number of their mechanic.
I bought all my machines through one mechanic, who had a warehouse full of second-hand machines, belonging to factories, that he sold on consignment. Of course, I did look online to be sure I was not overpaying, and I made inquiries to sellers of new machines, to make sure I wasn’t being sold more machines than I needed, but deep down I knew from the moment I met him, that I was dealing with a salt-of-the-earth type. In this first exchange, I wanted him to make a profit from me, knowing that, in the long term, I would most certainly profit from my association with him.
If the mechanic you meet isn’t selling machines, pay them to help you buy second hand ones elsewhere. $500 paid to a mechanic, could easily save you $5000.
The following link should show you what second hand industrial sewing machines are currently advertised for sale in Australia.
Any time I have looked, I have seen prices that vary dramatically, for machines that make the same stitches. For example, industrial overlockers can be advertised for between $2000 and $200. The one for $200 may be perfectly fine, but in a country town where no one from the city would travel. At the same time, the one for $2000 could have all sorts of problems, but be in the possesion of someone is happy to store it. They’re like old pianos, with their values depending on who happens to own them, as much as their working condition.
But you do want to know they work properly! That is why you will pay your mechanic to make pre-purchase inspections.
How much should you expect to spend, in total, on machines?
Swimwear, as I said in my first blog post, requires a plethora of machines. After buying an overlocker with a rubber metering device, a cylindrical hemming machine, another overlocker converted to make spaghetti straps, a binding machine (with a new binder), a zig zag machine and a bar tacker, and paying to have them transported, my capital investment, purely on machinery used for the sewing, was over ten thousand dollars.
I imagine some people reading this blog, will not be planning on manufacturing swimwear, but refined casual and resort wear, made using linen and hemp. If it is going to be made with French seams and bias binding, it will need no more than a straight stitch machine, for the entirety of the sewing. The price for a good second hand unit, may be as little as a few hundred dollars!
So what you will spend, really depends.
I also bought a new heat press, for neck labels, that cost me over two thousand. Don’t make the mistake I made first, with a cheap hat press I purchased on ebay; the one I bought in the end, cost over two-thousand. I also bought a new rotary cutter, for one thousand dollars, that I probably don't need, but it looks cool!
No Buyer’s Remorse
Once you have bought them, you can no more regret the purchase of second-hand industrial equipment, than the purchase of land. Even if this venture you are starting collapses, the machines you have bought can be sold. Let’s suppose you had taken the wide road, and paid another factory to provide you with the stock. If your fashion dream failed, you could not even give it away!
Once you have your machines, you can get started recreating the sample you purchased. It took me six months to achieve that. With help from this blog, I hope it will take you around three!