How to Find a Manufacturer for your Product
Time to read: 18 minutes
I get asked this question all the time by new clients. Can I recommend a factory? The answer is never an easy yes or no! There are a lot of factors that determine suitability... here is my 101 on the subject.
In an effort not to overwhelm I have tried to break everything down as much as possible. The parts are in chronological order so you can re-read each section as you go.
Part 1: What to Prep Before you Start
We’ve written much about tech packs already (duh 😜) so I won’t repeat them here. A tech pack is the complete picture of your product in one document. A factory cannot give you a truly accurate quote unless they can see ALL of the product’s details upfront. Accurately compare like-for-like prices and quality of workmanship.
Roughly work out the total quantities you need to order in the first round of production. This will be one of the manufacturers first questions after they have seen your tech packs. Ideally you should have broken down each style by color and size, with a quantity for each. This is called your order ‘matrix’ or breakdown and is a standard part of your ‘purchase order’ (AKA PO form).
If your schedules are compatible is huge question you’ll need to answer right away. Let’s say speed to market is extremely important for your brand. It wouldn’t be practical to partner with a factory with long lead times. If speed to market isn’t a huge issue for you, then you might sacrifice some lead time for a lower price instead.
The first date you need to know is your launch. When are you launching? Work backwards from this. You’ll want to factor in time for:
Developing your samples if you’ve not already done so.
Refining your samples if the first ones aren’t perfect.
Ordering and delivery time for your materials and components. (If you are doing the sourcing yourself).
Each of these stages should have some buffer time built in. Plans are just plans and things can happen IRL to mess these up! Make sure you’ve padded out the deadlines and you won’t be mad if things arrive earlier rather than on time.
Before you can even calculate your target cost price there are some other numbers you’ll need to know.
Your retail price. (Go back to the drawing board and research your target audience if you don’t know your retail price)! Create a well thought out ‘customer profile’ or persona. What does this person spend typically on a product like yours?
Now start with your retail price and divide by 3.
This is your wholesale price. Divide this by 3 to get your max cost price.
It’s not unusual to share this last number with a manufacturer. You might feel like you are showing your hand, but to a sewing contractor you're a professional who has done the research. (IE someone they want to work with). It’s easier to come to a compromise if everyone knows what they are aiming for.
Top Tip: Negotiating
Later, you can specifically ask if there are ways to lower the cost of production. Your manufacturer will be an expert in efficiency and should have a few suggestions if you ask.
Part 2: Understanding the Different Types of Manufacturers & Prioritizing
Your first criteria should be if the factory can make the product you want. If you are making activewear or sweaters you will need a knit factory. If you are making bags then you may need a facility that can makes leather products. Look for contractors that specialize in the type of product you want to make. A manufacturer that *can* make your product, but don’t specialize in that category... may not be able to make the best quality product at the best possible price.
CMT (cut make trim) and FPP (full package production) are useful terms to know. FPP facilities will hold your hand through the whole production process from start to finish - at a cost. CMT factories focus on just production, often on a slightly bigger scale.
If you are sourcing in Asia, (especially on websites like Alibaba). Lots of listings that appear to be factories, may actually be importers or resellers. Who won’t be able to give you the best price! If they sell a wide variety of products rather than just focusing on a specific type, this is probably a clue.
The next consideration is minimums. How many items are you looking to produce and does this match up with the factory’s requirements. All production facilities will have set the minimum order quantities (MOQs) they require. If a factory has minimums listed at 1000 pieces, don't bother contacting them if you need a small batch of 50 pieces.
MOQs can be negotiated somewhat if you are clever. Ask your the factory what they would need to change to reduce the minimums slightly. Maybe the same fabric is reused across many styles? Or perhaps if you increase your cost per unit slightly they can afford to lower the MOQ? As long as your requests are reasonable there is no reason why you can’t ask.
Domestic or Overseas
Another huge consideration is the location of your factory. What sort of relationship do you want and are you happy to communicate remotely?
Overseas factories are located all over the word. The list of countries is endless and everybody has different ways of working. (Did I ever say it was simple?)
Higher manufacturing costs per unit
You may have to source materials yourself (doesn’t have to be a disadvantage, depends on your preference).
Percieved quality and marketing appeal of being made in the USA
(Often, not always) Higher quality and labor standards
Potentially more choice of low MOQ factories
No language barriers
Lower communication and cultural differences
Faster & cheaper shipping
Easier to verify manufacturers
On-site visits are much easier (potentially)
High intellectual property right protection
Better payment protection and recourse
Lower manufacturing costs per unit
More choice and variety of manufacturers in general
You might not have to worry about sourcing materials yourself
Lower perceived quality from customers
(Often, not always) lower quality and labor standards
(Often, not always) higher MOQs
Language barriers (even though lots of factories have English speaking staff available)
Communication and cultural differences
Longer & more costly shipping
Harder to verify manufacturers
On-site visits are much harder
Much lower intellectual property right protection
Less payment protection and recourse
Importation and customs requirements
Get your Priorities Straight
What is most important to you when it comes to selecting a manufacturer? Is quality your biggest issue? Do you need certain payment terms to make it work? Are you looking for a manufacturer that is flexible or versatile? Are they excellent communicators or is their location especially convenient? Perhaps their manufacturing history or prestige will be an asset to your brand?
There is no right or wrong here. Like everything else in manufacturing, it’s a complicated decision with many factors. Sit down and work out what your priorities are! Make a list and start creating boxes for you to tick in your search.
Certificates & Standards
If you have an eco friendly brand that has certain ethical or sustainability standards... you might want to look at the various standards and certifications for production. There are many official manufacturing bodies that have guidelines for specific standards. These include certifications for quality, working conditions, fair trade, non-toxic chemicals, circular supply chains, + organic and recycled materials.
Top Tip: See The Manufacturer's Point of View
The manufacturers who do advertise will be getting lots and lots of enquiries. A factory needs to produce at certain scale to be profitable… so a busy factory can only afford to answer those who are professional and concise!
Be mindful of the fact that it's not always easy to show samples. Other brands' contact details for references and old samples may be confidential. Different companies will have different confidentiality agreements set up.
Part 3: Where & How to Look for a Manufacturer
What’s the best way to find to find reliable people? Ask those you already know! Contact everyone in your network and see if they have any referrals. If you have hired any contractors so far. Technical designers, pattern cutters or sample makers, ask them. Most contractors in the industry have established relationships and networks.
If you are a new designer, trade shows are a great place to go to. This is definitely the second easiest route! Huge exhibitions halls are filled with contractors and industry professionals. If you are struggling to find a factory elsewhere, going to a show is a fail-safe option.
There is a great list of trade shows for fashion and accessories, here.
A Better Lemonade Stand - US Directory
California Garment Manufacturers Database
Canadian Apparel Federation
Garment Contractors Association for California
New York State Garment Manufacturers Database
Top Tip: Search Keywords
Typing a single phrase into Google might not get you many results. Think of synonyms and alternative words. If you are making bras, you can also search for ‘lingerie’, ‘intimates’ and ‘underwear’. Create a list of all the possible combinations of words that could work and conduct a search for each. You can replace the words manufacturer for ‘factory’ and ‘sewing contractor’ too. If you have a particular location in mind don’t forget the add this in as well.
Part 4: How to Start the Conversation with a Manufacturer
Make Initial Contact
The conversation should begin with the name of your brand and what you are looking to produce. You don’t need to bombard with people with vision boards, business plans or your Instagram strategy! If you want to get into more detail at this point, stick to what Part 1 of this article.
Set up a meeting if you can to go through your tech pack/s, quantities, timelines and prices. Before the meeting:
If this is a phone call give yourself ample time and a quiet space.
Make sure you are prepared with the materials from part 1.
Have a go to list of questions and take notes (see next section).
Follow up with the factory. Chase up anything that wasn’t answered initially and don’t forget to say thank you!
What Else to Discuss
The quality and the standards you want to produce at. What is their procedure for quality control?
How much samples cost and in what time frame can you expect them?
Go over the payment terms set by the factory. (Around 30% or so upfront is common).
What are the shipping terms, who is paying for shipping to where?
Ask about any disputes that may have come up from other clients and how were these resolved. Is there a formal dispute resolution process?
Top Tip: How Best to Communicate in General
Keep communication short and concise! Don’t confuse the message with irrelevant info.
Don’t use 2 words when 1 will do. You message may be be going through Google Translate. Any fluff words might confuse the reader.
Check for spelling errors, (it’s just professional obviously). It will help with correct translation. Proofread and if necessary, sleep on it before you send!
Keep language simple and at Grade 7 level (see above).
Structure your emails in numbered lists. List each point into no. 1, 2, 3, etc. This ensures nothing gets missed and makes it easy to reply to.
For longer emails structure your content with headings.
Share a folder on Dropbox (or any cloud based file sharing services) or use a PLM. Keep all relevant documentation in one central location. Make sure updates can be seen immediately by all parties. If anybody updates a file that is then emailed over, it’s much more difficult to all parties to track revisions!
Remember how much can get lost in translation (figuratively and literally). The person reading your email may never have met you. They probably aren't from a similar background/culture/upbringing to you. They might not have the same level of education either. Be patient and polite!
Don’t make decisions or agree to things in meetings or over the phone. Ask if you can confirm the next day over email. Keep the paper chain for everything.
Remember that results don’t happen overnight!
Part 5: How to Compare & Select a Manufacturer
Create a shortlist based on the types and priorities from section 4. Compare results and choose a few to take to the next stage.
Check references (some manufacturers might not do this due to client privacy concerns).
Get references from brands in your product category specifically.
Ask how long they’ve worked with this factory. Ask if deadlines have been met and what the quality and experience was like. Were there any issues and how were theses resolved?
Red flags to watch out for
Disorganized communication (if you show professional communication standards you should expect the same back).
Repeatedly ignoring specific and clear questions.
Visit the factory and look out for… How busy they are and what the working conditions are like.
You should have done your due diligence by now. Lots of negative reviews should be a warning light.
Get a first sample made from your tech pack, or, first ask if they can send any related product samples to reference quality. You could also ask for some fabric samples upfront if the manufacturer is doing the sourcing for you.
Sample quality should be the last, but definitely NOT the least important indicator. How well your product is made will hopefully be the deciding factor! To find out more about sampling (another whole topic in itself), read here.