Monday, December 6, 2010

Starting From Scratch - Part 5 - Creating your Product, Factory or Handmade?

This topic is one of the things I have been most looking forward to writing in this blog series. It is very close to home, and something I struggle with every day.

For the past two years I have been sewing and creating every online order, every wholesale order, every swing tag, every accessory, all by myself. I sew every day, I sew into the night, I sew early in the morning. I am reaching the point now where I know this is not sustainable, and I need to start thinking about outsourcing some of my production.

When I first started my business, handmade was something that was very important to me, and it still is. For many years I have been vehemently against factory-made, mass produced, throwaway products that contribute to land-fill and are slowly destroying our environment. I try not use synthetic materials for this reason, and the vast majority of my products are made from natural fibres such as silk and organic fabrics such as bamboo. I believe in quality and investment pieces. I would so much rather purchase a garment or item that has been constructed ethically that I know will last me many years, than a cheap factory made copy of something off a runway. (Which is what most chain stores are.)

Perhaps the most significant issue is the human rights aspect of our fashion industry, and how little we really know about where our clothes actually come from. I urge every one to read this book by Dana Thomas ‘How Luxury Lost its Lustre’, to learn some horrifying truths about this issue. This book was the reason I have been so adamantly against outsourcing my products for so long.

I have now reached a point where my small business is enjoying some successes, a lot of press and interest, and needs to start evolving and growing. Working 16 hour days 7 days a week is not what I want my life to be. As much as I do love everything about what I do, I have to start looking for some help. I am now faced with a number of choices about how to move ahead. There is the possibility of going to a nearby country such as Indonesia where the cost of living is much lower than here in Australia. Many small Australian boutique brands are getting things produced there and I may be able to get small runs produced to take some pressure off myself.

This is an issue all growing clothing brands are going to face, and the problem really is finding out how to grow without compromising your values.

I would love to hear from anyone who has been successful making everything by hand, or anyone who has faced this issue. I am still undecided as to what the best path ahead for me is, so I would love to hear about everyone’s feelings about the issue.


Justine Matson said...

I love reading your posts but you made a little error in this post. Bamboo fabric is not actually organic as there a large amounts of chemicals used in the processing.

rachel / Red Lips Vintage said...

Why not seek a ethical factory? Many indie designers in Portland outsource their production to the Portland Garment Factory. It's run by women and seems pretty legit. Perhaps there is something similar in Australia?

or hire an assistant?

Meaghan said...

I agree with the idea of an ethical factory and of finding something local. Melbourne used to be the hub of the rag trade and even though large scale manufacturing hasn't really been done here in years, I am sure there is still knowledge and resources floating around that would be of use to you.

I think that because part of your allure is that you offer gorgeous, ethical lingerie, efforts should be made not to taint that by outsourcing to developing nations where you can't actively monitor the process to ensure it meets your rigorous standards.

I remember when Pacific Brands moved a lot of their manufacturing overseas, people insisted that even though items were already reasonably priced in brands like Kayser, prices should now be reduced because they were being made in 'sweat shops' and they were only prepared to pay 'good' money for Australian-made products.

That's just some thoughts.

Isa- Noisette Illustration said...

Great post! I remember reading some time ago about a women running Little odd forest (I think that's the name), she makes bags and homewares with a Kawaii feel but what stuck out in my mind was when the work became to big for her to handle she set up a group of women to help her. They were homeless and unskilled. She sorted accommodation and trained them up. I think it was in another country Singapore or Philippines but the idea that a one woman business can expand to help disadvantaged women is amazing. The work is all still handmade and she was able to grow her business and help other women. Now I know Australia will be different as cost of living is higher(much higher in London!) but maybe you could get a team of seamstresses who work to your standard and need some extra cash. If you can't find them, train them. Maybe mums looking to work at home, or other people who are looking for an opportunity who don't get given a chance elsewhere. The idea could be adapted to suit you. You can start with one and grow from there. Sorry the details are sketchy I read about the lady a few years ago, I think she started out on Etsy!

CJ said...

There are issues with the Union and the Award in Australia with respect to using home based workers such as guaranteeing a minimum 20hrs per week pay over a period of time even if there is no work for them plus there are OH&S liabilities. You also need to be registered with the Board of Registration and submit quaterly reports to both the Board and the Union. There is a reason why so many go offshore unfortunately. Good luck!

gretchenmist said...

a tricky issue ~ kind of glad not to have to worry about it as i'd find it hard to decide what to do. hopefully you can make steps soon to lighten your load a little.

Catherine said...

ahh thanks CJ for clarifying, i was just about to make a comment in regards to perhaps getting in an intern but did'nt realise things were so different in Australia compared to New Zealand (where i am).

I too am in a position where i can't possibly keep up with orders on my own without running myself into the ground. If i dedicate myself to the manufacturing, communications slip and likewise the other way around. At present i have export orders i need to complete whilst simultaneously working through individual customer orders and the delays are longer than i'd like.

I have in the past twice dabbled in outsourcing production and have been burnt both times. The first instance one of my garments was reproduced in the hundreds by the manufacturer and sold under thier own brand (now defunct and liquidated) and the other instance i was asked to pay for the manufacturing before they would ship them back to me, when they arrived they were sewn so badly. off centre, horrible tensioning that would snap the threads within a couple of wears, wonky hems and so on. Needless to say, my clothing is an investment of myself, i take a huge amount of pride in it and less than superb is unnacceptable to me.

I have just hired a design student part time on a paid internship. Work experience for her and two extra hands to help in the studio. initially she will be doing basic tasks until i am confident she can sew to my standards but i have no doubt she has the potential to be great.

Gaby and Jane said...

First of all thank you everyone for taking the time to comment, I have really enjoyed reading them today :)

Justine - This is an interesting issue, and I do know that the process used to turn bamboo fibres into fabric is very similar to the way they create viscose, and does use a lot of chemicals and a very involved process. I guess I was thinking in terms of the fibres and the plants themselves - which are much better for the environment than say cotton, which uses a lot more water. You are probably right though - I do need to learn a lot more about the issue!

Rachel - That sounds amazing but I have no idea if anything like that exists in Australia! And boy would I love to hire an assistant, but I have to make enough to pay myself first!

Meaghan - Everything you have said are reasons why this decision is so hard - and I was ADAMANTLY against getting things made elsewhere for a long time. But the more I learn the more I realise that there are places where the cost of living is much lower than here in Australia, and setting up a small workshop in somewhere like Bali where I could moniter and train a very small handful of seamstresses might actually be an option. As long as my workers are treated fairly and paid a fair wage, then wouldn't I be supporting their economy too?

Isa - I really like this idea! But as CJ points out I think there would be a lot of red tape for me to get around. I enlist the help of friends occasionally when things get super super busy, but it would be great to have some sort of formal plan for it.

CJ - there is so much I don't know about business and all the legalities about employing workers, hence why I am approaching with great caution!

gretchenmist - thank you so much! I hope so too!

Catherine - The situation you describe is so familiar - it really feels like an impossible situation sometimes. The awful experience I had with outsourcing here in Melbourne put me off it for so long, but I just don't think there is any way around it. I have also thought about getting an intern - but as I work from home and its not really a glamorous job, I feel like I would be taking advantage.

Frances Cresswell said...

I am looking at setting up a company of my own.This has been an issue I have been thinking about all along. I would love to intern with you, if only i could get over from the UK!

Although maybe it is just a sacrifice that needs to be made for the moment - a percentage (maybe a fairly substantial one) of your pay so that the company has a better and bigger future, but can keep its core values

rachel / Red Lips Vintage said...

ps. I'll totally move to Australia to intern for you!

Jane said...

I've been a long time reader of your blog, it's wonderful by the way.

Anyway, on to the topic, I myself is trying to keep a job and trying to balance my own label as well, though I'm still in the beginning stages, I do know the feeling of having to want my stuff made here and by me and nothing offshore, and I would never want to in the future. Anyway, I'm currently working full time which doesn't give me much for myself, but this job does give me hope for having a label and keeping it Australian made, I work as a sewing machinist for them and it's definitely giving me a lot of experience of what I should expect for myself later in my path. I have yet to have time to talk to the designer on how she started and how she made it a success, and when I do I'll let you know if you want :)

But they did advertise something like an 'internship'/work experience with the label 1-2days a week, without pay.
It doesn't seem like a good idea at first, but you'll know who's really keen if they would work for free. I know it doesn't sound that great, because I understand we all need money, but even maybe 1 or 2 students from RMIT would help out, if they're really keen. I mean I would work for you for free just for the experience, but I'm from QLD, so it's a bit far, haha!

I'm not sure how you are with money, but even having a sewing machinist that works from home to help you out, I'm sure there's HEAPS in Melbourne, right?

Eep, sorry for the essay! I hope that sort of helps you out! Really love your designs and concepts! Keep it up! :)

OSIER said...

how about getting your fabric peices die cut? that would help in the short term, plus you make the set-up costs back fairly quickly, and it would work well for you as you only work with smallish sized peices of fabric.