Tips for Beginner Apparel Designers Part 1: Sourcing!

Posted by Penelope W on

Hi there! For my first ever blog post, I’ll be focusing on some aspects of apparel design that aren’t talked about very much. It will be a long read, but if you have any questions or comments please leave them below! I’ll outline the different topics here:

  • Where to source garment manufacturers & what to look for

  • Choosing a versatile supplier

  • Why won’t my favorite artist just tell me what manufacturer they use?

  • What if I don't want to use Alibaba?

  • What about custom garment manufacturing in the US?

  • More low-cost ways of making apparel

Where to source garment manufacturers & what to look for

The most common place that small brands and artists source their manufacturers is Alibaba. Alibaba is a huge network of hundreds of thousands of factories making anything you can imagine. Most of the manufacturers on Alibaba are based in China.

As an example, let’s go to Alibaba.com and search for “women’s dresses.” Instead of searching “All Products” I would recommend going to “Customization.” There are many factories that have their own designs or ready-to-ship stock that you can purchase if you are interested in wholesale, but most people will be searching for a company with the ability to create custom garments.

Right away there is a banner showing a company advertising “3 weeks for bulk production” “3 days for garment samples” and even “400,000 pieces monthly output.” Although this particular company is verified, has a couple of certifications, and has good customer ratings, there are a couple of red flags. At first glance, it may seem great that they make garments for well-known companies like Shein and FashionNova, however, the iffy sustainability and concerning environmental impact these brands are known to have is not a good association. This could mean that this factory is creating hundreds of thousands of garments a month for a shockingly low price.

Another flag about a company like this is they might be less helpful when working with a beginner. Ideally, you’ll want to find a factory that isn’t working at quite this scale. If they’re used to working with huge fashion conglomerates like Boohoo and Missguided, they truthfully may not have patience for smaller artists that don’t have complete tech packs and industry know-how.

The main thing you want to look for when sourcing a factory are certifications. Here is a list of all of the certifications that Alibaba manufacturers can have. You can filter by these while searching if you’d like. You will also want to select these:

Trade assurance is a service that Alibaba provides for buyer protection. If your order doesn’t get shipped on time, or the quality isn’t what was agreed upon, they will step in for you! Verified supplier indicates that the factory’s production capabilities, products and process controls have been inspected and proven to be reputable.

After filtering by Trade Assurance, Verified Supplier, ISO certification (International standard of environmental impact of an organization’s processes and products), and Exports to the US, there are about 185 results. Off the bat, there are some great results!

This company, “Natural Touch Fashion Co LTD” has many good signs looking through their pages. Firstly, they’ve been in the industry for 15 years, and on Alibaba for 8 years. They advertise a specialty in mid to high-end women’s clothing, and their garments pricing matches that. Looking through their current products, many of them are in the $30-$40 per piece range. This is a great indication that their workers are being paid fairly. They have banners talking about their utilization of cotton, silk & linen. They have a BSCI certification which is an initiative for companies committed to improving the working conditions in their supply chains. Their photos are also great, professional AND consistent. Of course, this is not an endorsement of this particular company as I’ve not used them before, but these are all excellent signs!

When you’re at the point that you’ve selected a reputable supplier, go ahead and send them a message! Make sure to include the following things in your message:

  • Potential quantity

  • Fabrics you’re interested in

  • Sizes you’d like to make

  • Where you’re located

  • A clear sketch or tech pack of your design (will go over this in more detail in a future post)

They should get back to you within a couple of days. They may need some more information before they can give you a quote for your design. There’s also the possibility that they can’t create a custom item with your specified quantity. Many factories will highly prefer to create at least 100-200 of something. Usually they will be okay with a mix of sizes within that quantity though!

Keep in mind that the majority of suppliers will charge for samples. It's important to be sure of what you want, and be as specific as possible, so your sample turns out great! It's also very important that you DO make a sample first, even if your particular manufacturer doesn't require it. If you're wanting to do a preorder for your item, having a sample in-hand that you can take photos of will be much better for sales as well.

Many companies will use a sample fee as a sort of down-payment. For example, even if you are quoted around $35 a piece for a garment, the sample might be $300+. This is because they have to create the pattern and get only a small amount of your chosen fabric, which is not very cost effective. Be prepared to pay for a sample out of pocket, knowing that it might not turn out exactly as you envisioned.

Choosing a versatile supplier

One of the most important things in my opinion, is finding a manufacturer that you can see yourself using for a long time. Think of other ideas you have that could be brought to life with the same factory. For example, our backpacks, side bags, fanny packs, and upcoming purses are all made by the same manufacturer that we have a great relationship with. Even if a company usually makes dresses, they can likely help you with creating other items like tops, skirts, or outerwear, so you don't need to worry about working with multiple different suppliers. Cultivating a good relationship with your factory is the one of the most important things, and the more projects you can work on together, the better.

Why won’t my favorite artist just tell me what manufacturer they use?

There are a lot of reasons for this, and it varies from person to person. Here are some common mindsets for not sharing factories and suppliers:

  1. Sourcing a manufacturer is a lot of work! Many artists are justifiably protective over the amount of time it takes to find the right company; sometimes days or weeks of searching. Many folks feel, for better or worse, that each artist should go through this work on their own.

  2. Sometimes artists will go with very small companies. There is a fear that the manufacturer could be overloaded with work if the source is shared publicly. It’s a possibility that lead times or prices could increase.

  3. You might not have the same experience with the manufacturer that they do. Every artist is different and will have a unique relationship with their suppliers. If you have a negative experience, it might look bad on them for recommending that supplier.

We personally do not talk about our specific suppliers publicly, but will sometimes share details with those who are very respectful and have a clear desire to create apparel. Many times we get emails from very young people who are not actually ready to delve into custom garment manufacturing, so sharing our factories does not really help them.

What if I don't want to use Alibaba?

Even though there are many wonderful suppliers on Alibaba, it's understandable that you wouldn't want to use it. It can be difficult to find exactly what you're looking for, and you might be hesitant to produce your designs in China, despite the certifications and otherwise that a factory might have. Here are some suppliers I've seen that are not on Alibaba.

A generally helpful document for sourcing manufacturers is from the Artist Alley Network International Facebook group. There are tabs for Apparel and MANY other types of merchandise. Here are some that I've personally used or intend to use in the future:

Noissue is now making water-based ink printed tote bags! They are 100% organic cotton, and you can order as few as 25 if you just want to test the water with a new design.

Threadbird offers multiple types of apparel printing on t-shirts, outerwear and accessories. Their discharge screen printing uses water-based inks, which I definitely recommend over plastisol printing. They also offer embroidery!

Artscow has tons of different products, including all-over printed skirts, leggings, pants, tops, dresses, bags and much more. I have not used them, but they are talked about often and seem to be a good starting point for beginners.

Printed Mint is similar to Artscow, offering dozens of types of shirts, blankets, totes, even mugs and home decor items. The appealing part of Printed Mint is the ability to link it to your storefront; customers can order your designs, Printed Mint prints them and ships them. Similar to a service like Redbubble, but in my opinion better quality.

Overall, companies like this are great ways to start out with apparel! Try making a few lower-cost/lower-risk products like this to test the waters and build an audience, before jumping into custom, from-scratch apparel.

What about custom garment manufacturing in the US?

Unfortunately, it can be very difficult for new designers to break into manufacturing in the US. Definitely not impossible, though! This Fashionista article does a good job of explaining the trials of manufacturing here.

"Your initial response might be, "Duh, it's cheaper to make things in poorer countries." However, companies' reasons for offshoring production are more varied and complicated than that. "The general assumption is that if you want a lower price you have to go overseas and if you want quality, you stay in the U.S. and that's not entirely true,"

Another good article from Glossy.co states:

"You cannot produce clothing in the United States, and that’s a problem,” said Amy Smilovic, founder of Tibi. “When I started in Hong Kong some years ago, my factory looked like IBM’s headquarters. It was clean, it was modern, every floor had a different stage of the production process, and it all looked amazing. I couldn’t believe when I moved back to New York and looked at manufacturing here. There’s no high-end manufacturing here like there is in China or Italy or Turkey."

In fact, only 2% of clothing is made in the US, and 85% of clothing factories in the US have had egregious labor violations. (Source) Very sadly, nearly all of the workers in these factories are paid per piece they sew, sometimes as low as 3 cents each.

In my personal experience attempting to get things manufactured in the US, they either were not taking new clients, or only did the cutting and sewing portions, with no help on the fabric sourcing or embellishing. Possibly in the future I will be able to make a post about this in more detail.

More low-cost ways of making apparel

One of the wonderful things about creating apparel is, you don't need a manufacturer at all! Instead of going through the trouble of using Alibaba or a print-on-demand service, try doing the work in-house. By investing in a beginner screen-printing or embroidery set-up, you could simply order blank t-shirts, tote bags, etc. and create them at home. This is how CLAMMY HEART started too!

I learned how to screen print in college, and it's easier than it looks. You can even make screens using stencils, or try block printing. Hand embroidery is another awesome option. As far as embroidery machines go, I'll be making a post on that in the future!

If you have sewing skills, consider the possibility of making slow fashion. If your audience is small, this could actually be the best option! Try creating pieces that are simple enough for you to sew yourself. You can even use your own custom-printed fabric from sites like Spoonflower. Some garments that are easy to sew include face masks, circle skirts, scrunchies, or bandanas. These require very little notions/hardware and can be made super cute with custom fabrics.

Wow, that was a lot of information! I hope it wasn't too overwhelming. As I said, if you have any questions or suggestions for what you'd like me to talk about next, let me know in the comments. Obviously, the fashion industry is far from perfect, and there is a LOT to consider before taking the plunge into making custom apparel. I really hope this was helpful!

Love, Penelope


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3 comments

  • Hi Penelope!! ♡
    Thank you so so much for sharing this!! You have been such a huge inspiration for me and this is wonderful information to start my own research!

    Cian Brown on
  • Thank you so much for this! I’ve been wondering for a long time how one even finds a manufacturer but I was too shy to ask. This was very informative and I look forward to hopefully reading more!

    Milly on
  • I’m still reading this but THANK YOU SO MUCH for sharing this info!! I feel like a lot of information like this is usually kept quiet or is just shared from person to person instead of more widely and I appreciate you taking the time to write and share this. Ok time to finish reading!

    me on

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