Vetting Factory Partners for Apparel Manufacturing


Emily Lane, Bret Schnitker


October 24, 2022


Emily Lane 00:09 

Welcome to Clothing Coulture. I'm Emily Lane. 

Bret Schnitker 00:12 

I'm Bret Schnitker. 

Emily Lane 00:13 

We speak with experts where we explore the global dynamics that shape trends in the fashion industry. 

Bret Schnitker 00:19 

Brought to you by Stars Design Group, a global production and design house with over 30 years of industry experience. 

Emily Lane 00:35 

Welcome back to another episode of Clothing Coulture. Today we're going to dive into how to vet factory partners. Bret, this is a really big world. And it is one that is full of 1000s of employees, actually billions of employees, we're looking at an industry that employs around 11 million people. We've got 349,000 factories approximately, globally, how do you even begin to navigate finding the right factory partners? 

Bret Schnitker 01:13 

Yeah, I mean, it's it's quite a task. And I think people in many cases over simplify it, they think I can go on. And this is no slack against Alibaba, but they think I can go on Alibaba, go order a piece in many cases, and yet, oh, no problem, things will show up, I would tell you that that's probably not the extent of sourcing as we know it, you know, I've been doing this for 30 years, I've traveled over 70 countries. I've been in 1000s of factories. And I think there are key key steps to vetting a factory properly. And I think that's always evolving. But I think there are definitely key steps. I mean, the first for me is making sure they have a skilled workforce, you'd be surprised, you'd think, you know, a factory that has a roof over its head a bunch of sewing machines, and you know, they're ready to do business means that, you know, they just naturally have a skilled workforce. And that's not necessarily true. It varies country, by country, there are certain countries that are well advanced in skilled sewing, and there are other countries that are sort of stepping into this business. Clothing manufacturers, as we've talked about in previous episodes, is kind of that first step toward industrialization. 

Emily Lane 02:23 


Bret Schnitker 02:23  

So there's this natural process to want to engage in the apparel business to begin with. And that just being the what it is, kind of sets you up for some challenge, because a lot of these people and certain countries might be moving from an agrarian economy to an industrial step, like apparel. And so those mindsets, the speed at which sewing is occurring, the amount, the amount of time and years that the sewers have been working at individual stations could vary dramatically. And I think, certainly understanding the sewing workforce is important, 

Emily Lane 03:02 

I would think that cultural dynamics would play a role as well, just because every culture has a different a set of values. And so having a clear understanding of those values, as you're looking at, you know, the the worker, the focus of the workers and the setup of things, I imagined that that you see a lot of variants there 

Bret Schnitker 03:26 

I think it's bigger than that, I think it's you know, it's even, you know, I'm an American, so there's that term ugly American around the world. And and there are these vast differences in country and culture, and being I've learned over the years to be a student of culture, understanding what different societies and countries, you know, deem polite, engaging, acceptable behavior and what they deem as not so polite or not so engaging. I think it's important at all levels of this business to really understand that because these are your partners overseas. 

Emily Lane 04:03 


Bret Schnitker 04:04 

It's not just the factory manager. It's not the factory owner. It's people that are sewing in the lines, it's people in the cutting tables, all these different there's, there's an amazing amount of steps that go through from concept to creation and production of a garment. And all of these people are really important and integral to achieving success. So definitely, being mindful of the culture is important. 

Emily Lane 04:29 

You know, you talk a lot about the people and we mentioned earlier how this industry employs over 11 million people is tell me about that. The human element of vetting factories. I'm thinking even beyond fairtrade here, I'm thinking, you know, just employee happiness. 

Bret Schnitker 04:50 

Yeah, I think at its base, that is a big conversation and I think a an important note of awareness. You know, we as Americans are pretty blessed, we have a certain level of, of, in many, many of us how we live and what we expect. And sort of setting that level of expectation across the world is probably not realistic. A lot of the countries that you go to, you know, this job keeps a roof over someone's head, it feeds them. So as you're looking at different factories, you know, I think gauging what that level of happiness is. It varies on a lot of cases. You know, I think for a worker in Bangladesh, happiness is definitely receiving income and keeping the family fed, it is a repetitive and sometimes tedious task. And I think that what we're seeing in the industry is evolutions of that kind of typical worker line mentality, where sewers can pick up different stations and different tasks, they're working on exercise classes, they're working on improved holistic health programs, some of them do it for marketing, sadly, you know, you'll step in and kind of see see through that being in the industry for a long time. And some people are really engaging that because they realize that, you know, long hours behind a sewing machine can lead to a lot of different issues long term. And so a bill, you know, having the ability to honestly engage with that workforce, give them a voice, give them opportunity for exercises, or, you know, different 

Emily Lane 06:36 


Bret Schnitker 06:37 

Things like that, growth for sure 

Emily Lane 06:38 

Learning other skill sets. 

Bret Schnitker 06:40 

Because, you know, when you sit down in to really speak to a lot of people in this industry, in many countries, and, and even at this, you know, certainly at the sewer level, these are people, the good ones, there are people a lot of integrity, they really want to do a good job they want. They're proud of their work. And I think really, you know, letting them know that you're aware of what they do is important, and ensuring that the factories that you're engaging with, also share that desire for the worker, you know, we've seen a lot of tragic situations happen around the world. And it comes with, you know, greed, carelessness, etc. And the world is too small, there's too much communication and rapid communication. And so I think that, you know, the culture overall, quickly, can weed out some of the worst situations that are occurring. 

Emily Lane 07:41 

Are you asking questions to learn about this culture? Or is this something that you're going and seeing firsthand? 

Bret Schnitker 07:48 

Earlier my career, I had some partners, when I engaged, we'd call them agents in the industry. And they are usually people that lived in the country that help you navigate the space and apparel today. You know, Stars, we have our own offices, we have our own employees, but a few years ago, maybe 30 or so these agents would act as our emissaries and so you could ask them a lot of questions. And when you're young and the young in the business, we tend to ask a lot more questions, you know, much like kids, you know, asking all the questions all the time. And I and I think for me, I've always had a very strong appetite, to understand culture. And, and I've always wanted to engage in culture. So those, those emissaries or agents really helped me step through that. Today, I think I do a lot of reading, understanding the culture. I think, being immersed in the culture, you know, a lot of the countries I've been to, I've been there for months, if not years. So having a desire, and willingness and thirst for knowledge in those cultures, I think provides a pretty good stepping stone to, you know, have some success in doing business in each one of these countries. 

Emily Lane 09:05 

In addition to the human element and cultural side of things, you know, there's actually getting inside the factory and looking at equipment and the the line and so forth. Can you dive into a little bit more about the things that you're looking for when you're walking through a factory to see if this is going to be a good fit? 

Bret Schnitker 09:27 

Sure. Yeah, no, I think in in speaking to a lot of different people, I am shocked at how few people have really traveled overseas extensively to really understand who their partners are, and really understand what goes on in a factory. And that's always been very important to me. And so I've kind of set up a process of how I walk through a factory and I think, you know, as we mentioned, really exploring the detail down to sewers efficiencies, exploring stitching, perfections and imperfections in the line. Look How many defects are coming out of the line making sure that the sewing equipment is clean, the needles are sharp, there's needle logs. So needles don't get lost in actual production, that they pull those off the machine, making sure that the oil is clean on the machines. You know, there's all these different steps that you look through in a factory, you look through how many supervisors are walking through the lines to ensure that the quality is good if there's quality stations posted, if the actual garment that you're producing, has a sample in the line, if there are spec sheets and tech packs for QC people to explore in the line and you know, I'll walk through the lines, I'll take a look at the garments manufactured at various steps when I'm kind of vetting a factory, I'll sit down, I'll have conversations with sewers about, you know, how they feel their experience has been, I'll sit down with QC people in the line, I'll pull a ton of samples random do an inspection. We, in our industry, there's such a thing AQL associated quality level, it's a bunch of tables kind of built by the military, they separate things between majors and minors, majors simply mean something that if if a if a garment went to a customer, and it's a defect strong enough to exhibit a return, that's kind of a major, and then there's miners and those are some things that could be better, but a consumer would never really see those as a defect. And then there's an additional step, which is critical. A critical typically means, like there's a needle that stuck in a garment, especially, you know, to be real clear, a needle stuck in a baby garment would be bad 

Emily Lane 11:37 

Oh really bad, yeah. 

Bret Schnitker 11:38 

So in a critical step, the entire shipment is rejected, it's resorted to reinspected. But, you know, there's so many things when you walk through a factory in a factory is fully vertical, knitting, dyeing, weaving there's a lot more steps to explore. But in a typical what we call CM factory, cotton make, those are some of the steps that I walk through, I will, you know, I'll pull a bunch of samples at the end of the line, look through these defects. I'll also pull out the measurement guides, I'll run and measure a number of garments. So I can see that whether or not the QC, QA is marketing, or whether they're really ensuring you can't really inspect in quality. So you've got to make sure that what's coming off the sewing line is achieving the standards that the customer is set through. But also there's this insight because some sellers can have bad days. So you want to be able to understand that 

Emily Lane 12:26 

Yeah, understanding that not, understanding that people have bad days, do you assess a factory over multiple days. 

Bret Schnitker 12:38 

I will assess the factory over multiple visits, probably sometimes that will be occur over a couple days, as I'm, you know, engaging with production that we've got going on. Or our teams, you know, at Stars, we have multiple teams that will sit in production lines, do daily inspections. But for me, a relationship isn't a one off, I don't go that a factory, run production and move on and just do business where we're visiting our, our factory partners multiple times over many, many years. And so that helps to reengage, because factories that perform excellently, a couple years later, financial issues are changing management, those things can change too. So it's a constant, you know, vigilance, if you will, to make sure that that, you know, this is business and the dollars that in many cases are being written in some of these production lines are large. So you want to be you know, you want to be sure that the factory is doing its job, and it's taking care of its employees and the the the results are good. 

Emily Lane 13:44 

When you were talking about taking a look at the equipment and making sure it's clean right away, I was thinking well, I bet you're also looking at just the entire factory itself to see if it's clean. 

Bret Schnitker 13:55 

Yeah. Boy, that's an interesting one. So different countries, again, in different cultures and countries determine whether cleanliness equals good production. And I can tell you in certain countries, cleanliness does not equal good production. 

Emily Lane 14:11 

Really? Right. 

Bret Schnitker 14:12 

We've had to go into some factories in preparation for customer visits, because you would assume that many, many other customers do. We've had to go in and clean factories up literally, to make them look nice. They do an excellent job of production. The machinery is clean. The sewers do a good job. There's an amazingly skilled lot, but you look at the factory itself. It can look difficult and rough and you and someone that doesn't have that experience could write the factory off because look, the paints not shiny, it's not new, you know, and, and therefore the factory, you know, probably does a sloppy mess because there are things in the factory that aren't really so neat. And I would tell you, it's interesting country, by country, when you walk through, there are countries that believe in that pretty wholeheartedly. And you'll see a lot of great shiny, clean factories with beautiful, you know, floors and everything else. And you'll see some in some countries that I can look like Mad Max and the thunder dome, sorta. 

Emily Lane 15:17 

How do they keep their garments clean? 

Bret Schnitker 15:20 

The production centers and the tables on which they're doing and adding trims and things usually are clean, you know, the care in which they take on the garments is clean. It's just what they perceive as important for the aesthetics of the facility. And our many cases our Western eyes would would be shocked by the aesthetics, you know, we think the aesthetic should carry through. 

Emily Lane 15:46 

That is absolutely fascinating. Okay, so beyond cleanliness, what are maybe some other factors that you're looking at maybe some typical problem areas. 

Bret Schnitker 15:57 

Yeah. In my career, I have seen all sorts of things. And red flags for me, I remember a number of times I would walk into, and there would be certain factory that's looking to do business with us and hit up, I would take eight hours on a train, go to the middle of nowhere walk into the factory, and it's completely empty. 

Emily Lane 16:20 


Bret Schnitker 16:21 


Emily Lane 16:22 

How is that possible? 

Bret Schnitker 16:23 

Well they just don't have any business. Sometimes that in some countries, again, there can be you know, holidays or whatever they would slow business down. But a warning side is that if you're walking into a factory initially, and it's empty, maybe a couple sewers walking around the person that's showing you around the factory doesn't know where the cutting room is, or the planning room is, those are, those are clear cut warning signs that that's a problem. I think there are more subtle things, there are some really experienced factory professionals that will tell you as they walked, they will tell you a good run factory, by sound instead of sight. So they always talk about the speed at which the machines are going, that creates a certain sound versus and it's a constant hum, versus a Chug, chug, chug. 

Emily Lane 17:13 


Bret Schnitker 17:14 

And they know, almost immediately that the productivity of factory is higher or lower based upon sound alone.  

Emily Lane 17:21 


Bret Schnitker 17:21 

So there are these kind of very glaring issues, and they're really subtle issues, I think we explore, we explore a number of things, as we look through warning signs, if they're not going to share your their employee logs, their IDs for the factory, that can be an issue, you know, underage workers are a big issue in different places. So understanding and being able to have visibility into into that is critical. I think I've walked through factories with a lot of exposed damaged parts, and you kind of see accidents waiting to happen, You know, all over. I've seen factories when I walked into a doors locked, and you're like, Oh, this looks more like a prison than it does the factory. So I mean, there are a number of things that that that are important to understand at factory levels and to walk through understanding that you know, where they're storing fabric is it comes in as the fabric or the fabric rolls, you know, stored and wrapped in plastic or they off the floor is the humidity of a particular factory and certain factories and countries are pretty tropical. 

Emily Lane 18:31 


Bret Schnitker 18:32 

And so you know, if they're not managing humidity levels at different things, you can sew a great garment, it can be wet or moist. That goes into a polybag many times desiccants, which are these little things that are drying agents should go in. But I've had situations that great factories, pass inspections, overseas, they get into a hot container, they sit in a hot container in a damp environment for 40 days. They show up on the side of the world and 

Emily Lane 19:00 


Bret Schnitker 19:00 

There's Mold. 

Emily Lane 19:01 

-completely different. Yeah. 

Bret Schnitker 19:02 

So. So I mean, there's just there's just so many different factors and looking at a factory and understanding key warning signs and things to control. 

Emily Lane 19:10 

Okay, speaking of key warning signs, what are some key warning signs that you're in production? You've got, you know, you've got a program underway, and you're maybe getting the feeling that it's not the right factory partner, 

Bret Schnitker 19:27 

They don't call you back. When you ask where my production is. That's probably the biggest key warning sign. You go to the factory site and the factory is not there. I've heard stories of that too. I think there are key warning signs of stuff that go into production. And and it's and it's happened to the industry. When we produce large volumes of of garments, the fabrics themselves all don't get dyed exactly at the same time there are different size tanks, 1000 KG Sclavos tanks and different dyeing tanks. So they can only fit so much fabric into them. And so you're going to have to dye multiple lots of fabric to achieve a full production. A really good factory separates those lots, sets the cutting tables and marks those lots. So your sleeve, your body, all those things have the same lot in the same color, because there are shading between lots. Sure, it's just indicative. So you know, one of the bigger issues that I've seen is that a factory won't properly mark and bundle we call a bundle all the components of particular garments that go into the sewing line, the sewers, in a lot of cases don't make those determinations about the shade lots all the time, their job is they get a bundle goes down the line, it gets sewn and thrown out the other end. If the cutting room, the cutting employees, and the bundling and market employees don't do their job, you start to see great sewn garments with bodies and sleeves that change color. So those those those are some of those things that were in production. If you see stitching, where there are large puncture holes in the garment, every time a sewing needle goes through, they haven't shifted out the sewing needles, and they're not sharp. So you know, there's just a number of these things that as you're looking down the line and taking a look at production, you can quickly see that and that's why I believe that it's really important to get top of production samples, especially on large runs. So on large runs, you know, it could take the factory, I don't know, 15/30, you know, 15 days, 30 days to go through an entire production, the first 1% of production, you can get what's called a top sample, top of production. And you can take a look at those details. And that should typically be done with a representative at the factory right as soon as production starting to go off, they can examine those and see if there's any issues. Sewers having a bad day, wavy sewing line, dull needles, mismatched body parts, etc. And stop the line and address those before so much damage is done. 

Emily Lane 22:11 

Oh right. 

Bret Schnitker 22:13 

So there are certainly steps to to make sure that those are under control also. 

Emily Lane 22:17 

Being proactive is 

Bret Schnitker 22:19 


Emily Lane 22:19 

-tremendously important. It's so interesting when you're talking about those various problems, like I completely understand, because I've seen garments, 

Bret Schnitker 22:26 

Sure, I think everyone does. 

Emily Lane 22:28 

the you know, the puncture holes, loose threads and so forth. 

Bret Schnitker 22:31 

The bad one when they have three arms or three legs, you know that's probably not a factory you want to go back to. 

Emily Lane 22:37 

It's really rough. Well, thank you so much for that insight. Are there any other parcels of information that you think should be shared in this conversation today? 

Bret Schnitker 22:46 

I could go on forever on factories. I mean, there's just so many complexities and issues. I think we'll reserve you know, looking and how do you determine good quality fabric for you know, other days, but I think we've kind of touched the surface on factory production. Just importantly, be aware, be involved and have good partners to make sure that you've vetted properly you know, production properly you understand who is making your garments, I can tell you a number of times people think certain factors are making their garments and they're not and it is a big world. 

Emily Lane 23:17 

Absolutely. Well future conversations we're going to be exploring how to speed up turn. That's one that is almost an everyday conversation and we're also getting going to go down the marketing and the apparel industry side of the 

Bret Schnitker 23:32 

And I'm gonna interview you 

Emily Lane 23:34 

Oh no! 

Bret Schnitker 23:35 

And that'll be a good turn-around. 

Emily Lane 23:37 

Well if you have any thoughts or questions, please reach out on our socials @ClothingCoulture or at @StarsDesignGroup. You can also reach us on our website at www.Stars 

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Vetting Factory Partners for Apparel Manufacturing